Riding the Octobercoaster, Part III

continued from Part II

Back to the Stadium on Thursday, with my Futility Infielder research assistant, Peter Quadrino in tow instead of my wife. Whereas Wednesday evening had brought unseasonably high temperatures prior to the rain, Thursday felt like a classically crisp October afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-50s as the game started. Paul O’Neill reprised his ceremonial first pitch to a half-empty stadium dotted with the wives and children of men too busy to get to the ballpark on time. Two rows in front of us was a woman with three-year-old twins, one boy and one girl, all of them bedecked in about $300 worth of Yankee Stadium store mersh: pink Yankees cap for the girl plus pink pinstriped Derek Jeter jersey atop a pink long-sleeve Yankees shirt; boy in Yankees cap and midnight blue jersey, mother in Yankee sweatshirt and beige 2000 commemorative World Championship cap. Dressed to the hometown nines, I suppose.

Despite pairing a rookie phenom and a 16-year veteran with a shot at Cooperstown, the starters of this game, Justin Verlander and Mike Mussina, had one thing in common: both hurlers had gotten off to strong starts before more or less limping to the finish line in Mike Mussina in Justin Verlander. Their ERAs by month:

      Mussina    Verlander
Apr 2.31 3.52
May 2.53 1.73
Jun 4.93 4.17
Jul 4.22 1.01
Aug 5.14 6.83
Sep 2.89 4.82

Mussina’s September ERA conceals four unearned runs, the most he allowed in any month, and to some extent his downward spiral began against the Tigers; on May 31, Moose notably waved manager Joe Torre back to the dugout so he could finish off his only complete game of the season. He managed just one quality start out of his next four, and the before-and-after split on his ERA was 2.42/4.28. Still, his overall 3.51 ERA was his lowest since 2003, and both his counting stats (innings, wins, K’s) and his rate stats (K/9, K/BB, HR/9) were easily his best since then.

Verlander was part of a bumper crop of rookie hurlers; as noted in the Hit List, 10 rookie hurlers managed VORP totals above 30.0, as many as in the previous three seasons combined. The 23-year-old Tiger righty was second only to Francisco Liriano at 46.2. Much was made early on of his strikeout rate, just 6.0 per nine innings on the year, but like the Yanks’ Chien-Ming Wang, the kid offers nasty stuff, including a fastball that tops out at 100 MPH, and the data suggests a strong situational pitching abilities. In mid-June, Nate Silver noted the following breakdown:

• Verlander records a strikeout 10% of the time with nobody on base;
• Verlander records a strikeout 21% of the time with runners on;
• Verlander records a strikeout 27% of the time with runners in scoring position!

Mussina came out of the gate in strong form, striking out the side in the top of the first, an inning marred only by a Derek Jeter throwing error on a grounder from #3 hitter Sean Casey. The crowd groused over first-base transplant Gary Sheffield’s inability to haul in the low throw, but as Pete astutely noted, it was Jeter’s failure to set his feet before throwing — a consistent problem — that was the root of the problem.

Another Jeter mistake helped a shaky Verlander get off the hook in the bottom of the first. After a leadoff single by Johnny Damon, Jeter — who’d gone 5-for-5 in Game One — tried to lay down a sacrifice bunt but popped up to catcher Ivan Rodriguez. The move stuck out like a sore thumb after Verlander walked both Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi to load the bases. He escaped by striking out Alex Rodriguez looking on a pitch that hit triple digits on the radar gun. The crowd, which had cheered A-Rod wildly as he came to the plate, hoping the embattled slugger could put this season’s love-hate relationship behind him to come through in the clutch, groaned loudly. Business as usual.

Here’s an understandably irate Joe Sheehan, dishing out the religion regarding Jeter’s bunt:

That guy who hadn’t made an out all series? The one who hit .343 this season, having the second-best year of his life? He decided — decided — to make an out, squaring to sacrifice and popping up to Ivan Rodriguez. He didn’t work the count, he didn’t go to the opposite field, he didn’t pull a ball into a hole. He tried to bunt. They hadn’t gotten him out yet, and he tried to bunt. The Yankees got two more runners on base in the inning and didn’t score, and if you want to blame the last hitter in the inning for that, you can, but at least he tried.

This has gotten out of control, and needs to stop. I know that any time a good player bunts we’re supposed to genuflect, but Derek Jeter does this far too often. Him laying down a sacrifice — and we can debate whether he was bunting for a hit or not, but it did not look quite like that, and he’s sacrificed in similar situations — is a gift for the opposition, an absolute gift. Any time a .340 hitter offers you an out, you take it and thank him profusely. Jeter does this all the time. I don’t think he’s doing it to burnish his reputation, I think he’s doing it because someone told him a long time ago that it was winning baseball, and no one’s told him otherwise since.

This isn’t Little League. This isn’t college. This isn’t 1905. Great hitters put runs on the board by swinging the bat, not by passing the baton to the next guy in the lineup. I know that Derek Jeter is the Teflon Shortstop, but he’s wrong in his persistence in sacrificing bunting, and he was egregiously wrong today. A sharp single to left might have helped the Yankees put the game away early.

The Tigers struck against Mussina in the second. Craig Monroe blooped a two-out double down the leftfield line, and Marcus Thames laced a single up the middle to bring him home immediately afterwards. Aloud, we wondered at the sequence of events which had brought Thames from the Bronx to the Tigers; I recalled an intermediate stop in Texas but couldn’t remember the how or why, and punched out a text message to a friend for further research (answer: it was a trade with the Rangers that brought back Ruben Sierra in June 2003).

Despite the lead, Verlander continued to struggle; a single by Hideki Matsui and a walk to Jorge Posada to start the second inning looked promising, but Robinson Cano hit a sharp shot to third baseman Brandon Inge right at the bag; he got the forceout and wriggled out of the jam unscathed. A sharp liner off the rightfield wall by Bobby Abreu to lead off the next inning went for naught as Sheffield grounded into a double play.

The Yanks finally broke through in the fourth. After a Rodriguez blooper nearly turned into a three-man pileup, another Matsui single and Posada walk put two men on. Cano flied out, but Johnny Damon cranked a three-run homer that brought the Stadium crowd to life. Jeter immediately ripped a double (yet another reminder about the stupidity of that bunt attempt), and manager Jim Leyland emerged from the dugout to try to calm his rookie hurler.

That might have been the turning of the game; up to that point, Verlander had faced 20 hitters, with 10 of them reaching base via four walks and six hits. He’d thrown 76 pitches, with first pitch strikes to just 11 out of the 20. Following that, he retired the next five hitters — throwing first-pitch strikes to four — before yielding a single to Posada. After drawing to a 1-1 count against Cano, Leyland pulled him mid-batter, giving him the proverbial slap on the ass and thanking him for a job well done. As the Tiger manager said later: “I just didn’t like the fastball before that. It was 92… I just said, ‘This is it. I’m going to make my move now. I know there’s a count on the hitter, but I’m going to make it right now.’ Just all of a sudden, your instincts take over and say, ‘Look, this is just not right.” Those instincts were correct. Leyland summoned southpaw Jamie Walker, who induced Cano to GIDP on his third pitch, ending the threat.

By that point, the TIgers had tied the game. Thames led off the fifth with a double down the leftfield line and advanced to third on a wild pitch; again, my man Pete correctly anticipated the play when Posada came to the mound on a 1-2 count, remarking that perhaps Moose was going to throw one way out of the strike zone. He did, and the ball nonetheless got away from Posada. Grrrr. Inge struck out, but Curtis Granderson plated the run on a sacrifice fly. Carlos Guillen knotted the game at 3-3 one inning later when he crushed a 2-0 pitch into the rightfield stands for a solo homer.

Despite having surrendered the lead, Mussina was still around to face the Tigers in the seventh; their free-swinging approach had kept his pitch count at 77 through six frames. Pitch 78 was a single to Thames, and he advanced to second on a passed ball by Posada. Inge sacrificed him to third, and then Granderson brought him home with a triple into the left-center gap, a shot that emphasized Hideki Matsui’s slow-footedness and the Tiger leadoff man’s speed. Detroit was poised to pad that lead when Placido Polanco ripped a shot down the third base line, but A-Rod nearly made a spectacular play, catching the liner and nearly doubling Granderson off the bag. Damon flagged down Casey’s long fly ball as the crowd breathed a sigh of relief.

After Walker retired Damon on a line drive to second base to start the bottom of the seventh, Leyland unveiled his bullpen’s pièce de résistance: rookie Joel Zumaya, a flamethrower who was one of the game’s 10 best relievers according to the advanced metrics at Baseball Prospectus. “Flamethrower” is understating things perhaps; Zumaya consistently hits triple digits on the radar gun. Pete and I both kept an eye on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, jotting down the speed of each pitch. Here’s the sequence, the reported velocity, and the results as compiled by Pete:

BOTTOM of 7th, 1 out
Jeter: Ball (100), Ball (99), Strike looking (100), Foul (101), Ball (97), K on foul tip (98)
Abreu: Foul (100; “the ugliest swing I’ve ever seen from Abreu in my life”), Strike looking (86), Ball (101), Foul (102), Groundout 4-3 (86, his first curveball)

BOTTOM of 8th
Sheffield: Line out to centerfield (98, the only solid contact made by the Yanks against Zumaya)
Giambi: Ball (99), Strike swinging (100), Strike swinging (100), Ball (102), K swinging (101)
Rodriguez: Ball (86), Strike looking (102), Strike looking (102), K swinging (101)

“He’s like Mariano in ’96,” marveled the man next to me. Later we were told ESPN’s telecast had him as high as 103 MPH, and that 15 of his 21 pitches had crossed the century threshold. It was a dazzling display, and even as a Yankee fan, I had to tip my cap to the performance. Zumaya? Zoom-By-Ya. Can I get a Kumbaya?

When Tiger closer Todd Jones emerged to start the ninth, the crowd breathed a welcome sigh of relief. The 38-year-old is arguably only the third-best reliever in the Tiger pen behind both Zumaya and Fernando Rodney, not that that’s an argument against his being the closer; given what we know about proper bullpen deployment, the Tigers’ use of Zumaya (83.2 innings) and Rodney (71.2), often for more than an inning at a time, is sound baseball strategy.

The Yanks looked to be summoning some patented October magic when Matsui greeted Jones with a sharp single up the middle and yielded to pinch-runner Melky Cabrera. But with Pudge behind the plate, the maneuver was moot; Melky was never a threat to go anywhere, and even from out in leftfield, we could see his leadoffs were shorter than usual. Jones buckled down and got Posada to strike out looking; only on an 0-2 foul ball did he take the bat off his shoulder. Cano quickly fell behind 0-2 as well but fouled off six straight pitches before succumbing to a fly out. Damon, the sole Yankee hero of the day, became the third hitter in a row to start in an 0-2 hole, and though he drew the count to 2-2, he could only manage a fly ball to centerfield as well. Game to the Tigers, 4-3, and a tie in a series where some had predicted a sweep.

• • •

I’m not really qualified to offer a full analysis of Friday’s Game Three of the Yankees-Tigers series, which took place in Detroit. With close friends from England in town for the weekend, I started my evening with drinks on the roof of the Metroplitan Musuem of Art at sunset, traveled from there to a cocktail party in honor of my friend Nick’s engagement (congrats, Nick and Atoussa!) to a late dinner in an East Village Italian restaurant to a nightcap at a bar that was converted from a laundromat. I didn’t even get home until nearly 2 AM, but determinedly fired up the TiVO and watched the equivalent of a condensed version of the game, fast-forwarding to the payoff pitches, the activity of my thumb all that stood between me and my slumber.

But from what I saw, 41-year-old Kenny Rogers pitched the game of his life. The Gambler — “the consumate October choke-artiste,” to quote Alex Belth — came into the game with a lifetime postseason record of 0-3 with an 8.85 ERA in five starts and nine total appearances. All of those save for a brief relief stint in 2003 came with New York teams; with the Yankees he was bombed in three 1996 starts, most notably departing in the third inning of Game Four of the World Series, having yielded five runs; it took Jim Leyritz’s three-run homer in the eighth to tie the game and Wade Boggs’ bases-loaded walk in the 10th to give the Yanks a lead, enabling them to knot the series at 2-2. With the Mets in 1999, it was Rogers who surrendered the series ending-run in the 11th inning of Game Six, walking Andruw Jones with the bases loaded. Good times.

Add to that the fact that Rogers had never enjoyed much success against the Yanks. He hadn’t beaten them since 1993, and as the New York Times noted, since then he’d gone 0-7 with a 9.21 ERA and a 24/33 K/BB ratio in 56.2 innings — more than a decade of futility. Couple that with Randy Johnson’s herniated disc, and you had a storyline that recalled the famous Warren Brown line, “I can’t conceive of either team winning.” (The quote, written by Brown at the outset of the war-torn 1945 Cubs-Tigers World Series, is actually “I can’t conceive of either team winning a single game.”)

Rogers had his curveball mojo working, and his eight strikeouts fired up a hometown crowd that hadn’t seen a playoff game in nearly two decades. The Yanks were helpless against him; they managed three doubles among their five hits, but only once — in the seventh — did they advance a runner. Bernie Williams, in the lineup instead of Gary Sheffield due to a 12-for-34 (.353) career record against Rogers (Shef was just 3-for-17, though with two homers) had two of those strikeouts, one immediately following a Hideki Matsui leadoff double in the fifth, the other stranding that lone advanced runner, Jorge Posada, to end the seventh.

By then the damage was done. The Tigers rolled up three runs on Johnson in the second inning via three straight singles, a botched double play, a steal and another single. They tacked on two more in the fifth when Carlos Guillen reached on a two-out infield single, a hot smash off the glove of Derek Jeter, and Pudge Rodriguez and Sean Casey followed with doubles; the latter ended the Big Eunich’s night and possibly his season. The Tigers stretched the lead to 6-0 when Curtis Granderson homered in the sixth, so by the time Williams struck out to close the seventh, the Yanks were merely looking for window dressing. And at that, I was looking for my pillow, flooring the fast-forward button to stop only for Joel Zumaya’s rematch against A-Rod (a flyout to end the eighth following Rogers’ triumphant departure).

Long story short, the Yanks now trail the series 2-1 and face elimination at Comerica Park as I put the finishing touches on this blog entry. The Octobercoaster may be crashing early, bringing new meaning to the phrase Bronx Bombers.

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