A minuscule entry this morning, as I blearily catch up on various deadlines, to congratulate the Yankees on their 40th trip to the World Series.
Thus far 2009 has been a been a year rich in dramatic storylines for the team — a new Stadium’s opening and christening; the arrival of the Big Man, ALCS Most Valuable Player CC “Must-See” Sabathia; the Mark Teixeira show at first base; Derek Jeter breaking Lou Gehrig’s all-time Yankee hits record; Swisher Mohawks; Burnett pie; clubhouse music; ’round-the-clock Joba, Alex Rodriguez finally showing why he’s one of the greatest players in baseball history; Andy Pettitte showing yet again why he’s one of the greatest starting pitchers in Yankee history; Mariano Rivera showing yet again why he’s indisputably the greatest reliever in baseball history, Phil Hughes’ regular season emergence as a deciding force in the bullpen; Joe Girardi’s brilliant crafting and handling of that ‘pen — and occasionally baffling use of it in the postseason; Girardi’s sometimes brilliant, occasionally baffling in-game calls from the bench . . . .
And a whole bunch plot threads I’ve undoubtedly missed here, plus more to come as we launch into the World Series this week.
The disappearance of reliever David Robertson in the ALCS is a question we’ll likely have answered soon, and we can only hope it’s unrelated to the arm problems that sidelined him toward the end of the regular season. Girardi’s use of Joba Chamberlain over Hughes in the seventh inning of the series’ Game 6 — and the warming of Damaso Marte over Phil Coke for a possible lefty-lefty matchup — create questions as to where his trust now extends as he reaches into the ‘pen. And we’ll see have to see whether his itchy, unpredictable finger on the pinch-runner/mound buzzer switch gets him in trouble or, well, stops itching quite as much or erratically as we’ve seen in the first two rounds of postseason play.
Meanwhile, two teams Major League baseball teams are still standing this week, and the Yankees are one of them. It’s been six years.
The team and its fans have reason to celebrate this bright late October morning.
For two days before Thursday’s ALCS Game Five in Anaheim, I strongly discounted the media drumbeat that a Yankees failure to close out the series that night would evoke the leering specter of 2004’s collapse against the Red Sox in the minds of Yankees fans.
My feelings stemmed from the key differences between this season’s Yankees squad and the one that historically blew a 3-0 lead over its opposition. I was never comfortable with that lead in ’04. Even as the Yankees headed into Boston for three games after taking a 2-0 series advantage, and then pounded the Sox into their shower room in a 19-8 laugher, I worried about the pitching matchups in potential Games 6 and 7 at Yankee Stadium.
The Sox had Curt Schilling and Derek Lowe in line to start those games. The Yankees had Jon Lieber, followed by basically nobody. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez was a candidate for a possible all-or-nothing seventh game, but a very iffy one, as he’d been struggling to recover from a late-season injury. It seemed doubtful that Javier Vázquez, who’d been a huge disappointment in his first and only year with the team, would get the ball. That left the Yankees’ alleged ace going into the season, Kevin Brown, as manager Joe Torre’s likeliest option if the series was extended to its limit.
No Yankees fan in the universe would have chosen to entrust his or her team’s fate with the injury plagued, surly, selfish and ineffective Brown. Most never believed the series would come down to it. The Yankees, after all, had three cracks at putting away the Sox before they reached that critical juncture.
As I said, I was jittery over the prospect all along. For one thing, overconfidence is not one of my personal failings. For another, I had always felt the Yankees’ unwise failure to re-sign Andy Pettitte after the 2003 season had birthed a big, vicious dog that would sink its teeth into them where and when it hurt the most.
I believed then, and still believe, that the Yankees would have never had their 2004 championship aspirations murdered by the Red Sox if Pettitte had been on the team. If they’d held onto Pettitte, I think there’s a good chance they would have won their fifth World Series title in less than a decade.
It’s poetic to me that Pettitte, with his hawkish stare and Texas-sized heart, a Yankee to the marrow rightfully back in the place where he belongs, will be taking the ball for the Yankees in a vital Game 6 of the 2009 ALCS in hopes of staving off yet another apocalyptic Game 7.
But six years have passed since Pettitte threw what would prove to be the last pitch as a Yankee for far too long in the 2003 World Series. He is not the same pitcher now as he was back then, and Yankee Stadium is not the same place as it was back then. His cut fastball has lost several miles of velocity, and he relies more on off-speed pitches and precision accuracy than he used to. The cutter remains his best weapon, the one gets him his groundball outs. If it isn’t sharp, though, it can lead to hard-hit fly balls. And in Yankee Stadium, now, fly balls can travel great distances. This is probably the major reason Pettitte’s 2009 record on the road was better than it was at home.
There’s still reason to be confident–not overconfident–that Pettitte can do his part to send the Angels flying home on droopy wings Saturday night. That the Yankees will close out the series behind him, pop their champagne corks and go on to tackle the Phillies in the World Series. He was excellent overall throughout the regular season, and found renewed success at Yankee Stadium back around June or July, very uncoincidentally when he rediscovered his feel for the cutter.
But even if he pitches well, Pettitte is going to need help. If 2009 is not to resemble 2004 in its outcome — albeit with the current opposition wearing a more garish shade of red than the Boston team — it would be helpful for Phil Hughes to pitch with the courage and confidence we saw from him all season rather than look like Tom Gordon reincarnated on the mound.
It’s okay for Hughes to tell the media, as he did after Thursday night’s loss, that he was “too fine” with his pitches when he entered the game with two outs in the seventh inning, surrendering two runs after the Yankees staged what could have been a comeback for the ages. I wouldn’t have expected him to say Anaheim’s thunder sticks and Rally Monkey overwhelmed him, as the entire postseason seems to have done thus far. But “too fine” is latter day coach-speak, a positive way to say a pitcher isn’t throwing strikes because he’s shying away from contact, which is itself a polite way of saying Hughes is looking scared right now. That has to stop, and at once, or the tomorrows for the Yankees may be numbered. Coach-speak doesn’t win series. Sometimes I think all does is provide a player with a psychological cushion when a hard jolt of reality would serve him better.
While Hughes may have taken the loss, there were goats aplenty in the pitching staff. The guy one New York Times reporter calls “the pitcher who used to be Joba Chamberlain” was ineffective in the eighth inning, giving up a leadoff double and a single, putting men on first and third with one out, leaving it to the great Mariano Rivera to enter in a non-save situation and hold the Yankees to a one-run deficit. Starter A.J. Burnett would wear the biggest set of horns, first putting the Yankees in a four-run hole before we’d even carried our chips and soda in from the kitchen, and then putting two men on base in the home half of seventh after the Yankees’ breathtaking rally at the top of the inning, the one we all thought would start the corks popping in California.
Offensively, it’s unfortunate the Nick Swisher succumbed to his bête noire, the hyper-adrenalized dark beast of impatience that undermines his natural talent for identifying the strike zone in tight spots. YES postgame analyst Ken Singleton pointed out that Swisher would have been well advised to take a cue from former Yankee Bernie Williams in his bases loaded, ninth inning at-bat, and repeatedly step out of the box to throw off the timing of the Angels’ shaky closer Brian Fuentes. Fuentes was self-destructing, and Swisher had run up a full count on him. A little psychological gamesmanship might have led to ball four, a tie game, and a very different final result.
As fans await Saturday night’s penultimate game of the series, it should be comforting to know that Pettitte will be on the mound. It is an equal comfort that CC Sabathia, the anti-Kevin Brown, will follow him should things come down to a Game 7.
The 2009 Yankees aren’t the 2004 Yankees. I think they will pull this one off.
But I would be lying if I denied that the malevolent specter of the ’04 debacle didn’t reach its cold, ragged-clawed fingers into my heart last night. After insisting all day that the press was summoning up a false demon to sell newspapers papers and keep radio listeners near the dial, I realized I was wrong and they were right. Burnett spoke of leaving it all on the field after his losing effort. That’s all fine and dandy. But I now realize I’m no different than countless other Yankees fans who left something the field at the Old Lady Across the Street after Game 7 of 2004’s ALCS. Burnett didn’t do anything Thursday night to help us reclaim it. And as I went to bed, I couldn’t shake the image of Hughes looking like Gordon on
the mound amid a roaring sea of red.
In my mind’s eye, there was something very scary and dangerous hovering over him.
You thought he’d probably do it. His manager and teammates thought he’d probably do it. And, in his heart, Andy Pettitte probably believed he was on his way to throwing a perfect game too.
“After the fifth inning, I kinda started thinking about it a little bit,” Pettitte would say with the characteristic understatement that’s one of his most endearing qualities.
This past July, the White Sox’s Mark Buehrle went the distance to throw the 18th perfect game in Major League baseball history. As Pettitte notched his first 20 outs over seven and a third innings, many of us felt a gaining sense that he was on his way to earning Number Nineteen.
Over the course of a baseball season, there are generally several bids at perfect games that are broken up late. Not all have the same inexorable feel that Pettitte’s did through most of Monday night in Baltimore. Maybe it was subjective — we root our hearts out for Andy Pettitte because he’s embodied the best of what it is to be Yankee for so long. Maybe it was also because Jerry Hairston Jr.’s excellent barehanded play on a slow-rolling groundball in the sixth inning made us think that was the one that could have set things awry.
Unfortunately it didn’t happen for Pettitte. With two outs in the seventh inning, Hairston, who’d made that great play just one inning earlier, bobbled a groundball to third and ended his bid at perfection.
Pettitte’s handling of the situation may tell more about him than we might have learned had he succeeded. After the Hairston error, he gave up a single to Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis, then gathered himself and went on to close out the frame with a groundout to short, preserving the Yankees’ 5-0 lead. An inning later, no longer focused on preserving his no-hitter, he surrendered a leadoff homer to Melvin Mora, but went on to elicit two strikeouts and a groundout, ending his night with eight innings of one-run ball. Final score, 5-1 Yanks.
Pettitte never took his mind off what was most important, never let the game get away from him. And in the clubhouse afterward, he noticed Hairston walking with his “head down” and consoled him — joking, as Hairston would reveal, “that he didn’t want to have to throw nine innings anyway.”
In a way the almost perfect game is emblematic of Pettitte’s career. A homegrown mainstay of four World Championship Yankee teams — and Joe Torre’s perennial stopper — the humble Pettitte has long lived in the shadow of pitchers with more out-front personalities or gaudier career numbers. In 2003, after a 21-win season in which he threw to a 4.02 ERA and went on to a tremendous postseason, the Yankees botched their contract negotiations with the left-hander and let him slip away to the Houston Astros for three years. Pettitte earned $31.5 million from the Astros. What’s often forgotten is that the Red Sox were prepared to pay him more for a longer-term contract — some reports had the sum exceeding $50 million. Pettitte canceled out on a scheduled tour of Fenway Park and Boston, however, eschewing the Sox’s overtures because he knew he could never pitch for the Yanks’ archrival.
Last season, Pettitte played through a shoulder injury because he and Mike Mussina were the last men standing in a decimated Yankee rotation. Even as the team’s playoff chances completely evaporated in August and September, he continued to pitch rather than be put on the disabled list. Coming off that gritty second half, Pettitte was finally made a belated take-it-or-leave-it offer that paid him $5.5 million in guaranteed money and an additional $6.5 in performance incentives. This was down from the $16 million guaranteed salary he earned in 2008. The rationale was that he was a dispensable fifth starter in a rotation that would include CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain.
Pettitte accepted the deal because he wanted to go on pitching and could not see himself as anything but a Yankee. Now well on his way to earning his incentives, he has become the second-best pitcher in the Yankees’ rotation after Sabathia, the team’s ace, with Wang a nonfactor in the season. If the Yankees reach the playoffs this year, and merit alone predicated the order of the postseason rotation, Pettitte would start Game Two of the ALDS. But because Joe Girardi may want to break up his two left-handed hurlers, and more so because Pettitte will likely again be considered the stopper, we can expect him to start a pivotal Game Three.
In his fifteenth season as a Major League player — a season when he was signed, if not quite as an afterthought, then as a nonessential component — Andy Pettitte is once more finding himself absolutely essential to the Yankees postseason aspirations.
Pettitte isn’t the greatest pitcher ever to wear pinstripes. There’s barely a chance he will have a plaque in Cooperstown. But in imperfection, he is the perfect pitcher to capture the lasting respect and affection of Yankee fans.
As of Monday night, Derek Jeter’s 2009 batting average is .334 with an .880 OPS (on-base and slugging percentages). He has hit 17 home runs and stolen 23 bases. His improved fielding has been written about extensively, as is the fact that he is primed to surpass Lou Gehrig’s all-time Yankee hit record (2,721).
And he is increasingly becoming a prime candidate for season’s American League MVP.
Before this season, though, we were mostly reading analysis and commentary speculating about how the Yankees were going to deal with a fading Jeter. Should they re-sign him after his current contract expires? Trade him preemptively? Or perhaps move him to the outfield — or somewhere else. Anywhere but the shortstop position. Jeter was a defensive liability, we read. And his days as an offensive force were over. What was left, according to various statistical breakdowns and keen scouting observations, was a substandard defensive shortstop and Punch-and-Judy singles hitter.
The New York Post‘s Joel Sherman was far from alone in raising that cry, but he did it with the singular bombastic cruelty that’s become his career trademark.
In his February 6, 2009 column for the Post (Jeter’s Next Contract Will Be Mother of All Yankee Flaps), Sherman argued that “kowtowing to Jeter’s legacy by paying him lavishly and keeping him at short means tying yourself to a late-30s icon well beyond his expiration date.”
Sherman went on to type this:
“Jeter’s offense already is trending the wrong way. Over the last three seasons, his OPS has gone from .900 to .840 to .771; his homers from 14 to 12 to 11; his steals from 34 to 15 to 11. What do you think his offense will look like in two years?
And how about his defense? Every statistical evaluation shows Jeter’s range to consistently be among the Majors’ worst, and the scouting community pretty much confirms that.
By 2011, the Yanks could have either Jeter or just his future plaque at Monument Park play short; they will have about the same range.”
The above is an example of how little the analysts, commentators and stat geeks know about baseball, and why we need to keep level heads, remain patient, and be careful about who we consider reliable experts.
I believe that when Jeter’s contra
ct is up he will re-sign with the Yankees for the remainder of his career. To paraphrase Girardi, he will remain shortstop as long as he is willing and able to play the position. And when he is no longer able, Jeter and the Yankees will decide what is best for the team.
Jeter has always handled every facet of his professional life in exemplary fashion. There is nothing to indicate he won’t handle its waning days, whenever they may come, with equal style.
I’ve said nothing here about the latest contortion of the Joba Rules because there’s really very little worth saying. The Yankees long ago committed to making Chamberlain a starting pitcher. In the interests of protecting his arm from injury, they determined that would not throw more than a certain number of innings — said to be 160 — this season. And they have stuck to their plan.
The penultimate (so far) version of the rules, which provided extra days’ rest between starts, clearly wasn’t working for Chamberlain. His rhythm was off, his performances were mediocre. So the Yanks’ modified their plan — and deserve credit for that.
I don’t know if Chamberlain pitching a truncated number of innings every five days will work any better than having him pitch on a staggered schedule with long layoffs between starts. The truth is nobody knows, including the Yankees, who are attempting something one else has done in my mind — that is, trying, at nearly all cost, to protect the career longevity of a prized young player while keeping him integral to a pennant race and possible run for the World Championship.
Enough Joba blabber, folks. The Yanks are doing what they feel they must do with him. We can praise or pillory them come November after we’ve seen how things shake out.