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.