07 October 2004

Who Wants a Blow-Out Anyway?

What a great, close couple of games we've had, at least in the Yankees-Twins series.

Tuesday night the Yankees had to face Johan Santana, easily the best pitcher in baseball for the last four months and probably the 2004 AL Cy Young winner. If he's not, they ought to stop giving the award. His streak of 21 consecutive quality starts (6+ innings 3 or fewer earned runs) was snapped not by the Yankees, but by his own manager, Ron Gardenhire, who yanked him to save him for the playoffs. Gardenhire for some reason felt it necessary to remove Santana from a game last week in which he had thrown only 71 pitches in five innings, allowing only four baserunners and one run, despite the facts that the Twins were up by only two runs with four innings left to play. The Yanks made them pay, coming back against what really is a strong Minnesota bullpen, to win a game that helped solidify the Yankees' homefield advantage in the playoffs.

But anyway, that was last week. Tuesday night, Santana was not removed after five innings, but threw seven strong in beating New York in game one of the ALDS. In the process, however, the Yanks made him do something he hadn't done since May 23rd: allow more than nine baserunners in a game. They somehow got nine hits, a walk and a hit-batter out of Santana's Golden Arm, and had baserunners in six of the seven innings he pitched, but couldn't bring any of them home. Alas, it took an unprecedented-in-the-playoffs five double-plays to keep the Yankees from scoring that night. Twin-killings, indeed.

Wednesday night was different for a number of reasons. For one thing, they started the damn game at 7PM instead of 8PM. There, now was that so terrible? Is it too much to ask to start a game so that a reasonable person who has to get up at 7AM the next day could watch the end of a nine-inning contest and still hit the pillow by 11:00? I don't think so. Of course, the game didn't end until 11:30 last night, but we got three free innings of playoff baseball out of the deal! A fair trade if ever I've heard one. And I got to watch it! Had it occurred at 12:30, I probably would not have gotten to see the Yankees come back not once, not twice, but three times in one game.

The 2004 Yankees had more come-from-behind wins (61) than any team in history this year, which is probably more an indictment of the quality of their starting pitching than some indicator of the team's 'moxy' but it's still a lot of wins. I wonder which team had the most come-from-behind, come-from-behind, come-from-behind wins?

On a different note, I saw some pretty questionable bullpen moves last night. First of all, Jon Leiber (not Leiberman as Joe Morgan kept referring to him on last night's broadcast) had been innefective in the first couple of innings, but apparently something had clicked in the third and the Twins hadn't done much since. Leiber had not only four and two-thirds straight scoreless innings under his belt with a man on second base in the seventh, he'd only thrown 78 pitches! He hadn't thrown so few since June 23rd, and of course you'd get yanked with a low pitch count too if you were down 7-0 after three innings and change. But he was pitching well last night in the seventh, and had one of the best ground-ball/fly ball ratios in the American League this year, and therefore (in my mind) had as good a chance as anyone in the bullpen at inducing an inning-ending grounder from pinch-hitter Jose Offerman. Offerman hadn't played much this year, but his 2001-03 seasons saw him hit only .238 against ground-ball pitchers. At 35 years old, he's just not the speed-demon he used to be. I suppose it's still possible that a grounder could have gotten through the infield, but the infield defense hasn't been nearly as bad this year as in the past, and since the light-hitting Offerman doesn't strike out very often, it seems silly to bring in a strikeout-pitcher like Flash Gordon to retire him.

Regardless of Joe Torre's intent, it worked, though just barely. Offerman lined out, and Gordon pitched well until he didn't. Or at least he pitched well until Torre made him stop. He struck out Jacques Jones on a curve in the dirt that Posada couldn't hold onto, and then gave up a single to Torii Hunter with one out in the eighth.

Again, almost inexplicably, Torre summonned help from the bullpen. A grounder to anywhere in the infield would likely have ended the inning. Gordon had held lefties (like upcoming rookie cleanup hitter and Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Justin Morneau) to a miniscule .185 average this year, had only thrown 17 pitches and had an off-day coming to boot. Mariano Rivera was summoned, apparently before he'd had enought time to warm up, for the proverbial "tough-save" with the tying run in scoring position and needing to get five outs to hold onto the win. Rivera promptly surrendered a single to Morneau, loading the bases, and an automatic (not ground-rule) double to Corey Koskie, which scored the tying run. Thankfully, Mo struck out clearly-overmatched rookie Jason Kubel (0-for-6, 2 K's, 5 Left On Base; Please, Ron, keep starting him!) and got Christian Guzman on a grounder to escape the eighth. Mo was sharp in the ninth, retiring the side on ten pitches.

Amazingly, and for essentially a lack of any better option, Tanyon Sturtze pitched reasonably well in the tenth and eleventh innings, though he did give up a go-ahead run in the 12th before Paul Quantrill stopped the bleeding. That run ended a whopping 13-consecutive scoreless innings for Sturtze, but I'm not yet convinced that seven appearances and thirteen innings say more about him than the previous 180 games and almots 700 innings, in which he has an ERA over 5.25. Hopefully he starts another streak tomorrow.

The real stories, or at least the ones on which the mainstream media are focusing, are Yankees 3B Alex Rodriguez getting a few clutch hits and Twins closer Joe Nathan being left in too long. Both of these I think have been a bit over-blown, but I'll comment on them nonetheless.

Regarding A-Rod: Clutch This!
The A-Rod thing deserves the least discussion. The man hit .301/.384/.525 with runners on base, .357/.432/.679 with a runner on 3rd base and fewer than two out, and a completely reasonable .273/.360/.416 in "Close and Late" situations. He hit 36 homers, drove in 106 and even stole almost 30 bases to make himself more of an asset to the club. He had a rough month or so, which happened to coincide with the Red Sox unbelieveable 20-2 run, during which the Yankees relinquished a lot of ground despite winning more often than they lost. It was almost entirely a creation of the media, whose main business is to find something to harp on, whether or not there's anything actually wrong, just like the Democrats. Sorry, did I say that out loud?

Regarding Closers and Pitch Counts: Bad Call
Joe Nathan threw 53 pitches last night, and even if you discount the last four as not really "pitches", an intentional walk to Gary Sheffield, that was about 20 more than he'd thrown all season. For that matter, it's more than he'd ever thrown in the two-plus seasons since returning from a two-year rehab stint after arm surgery and being made into a full-time relief pitcher.

In his own defense, Gardenhire said that he asked Nathan and Nathan said he was OK, to which I respond, "Duh! WHat did you think he was going to say?!" In a culture in which men are men and women (supposedly) laugh at men when they cry, you can't really believe that. The manager's job is to take what the pitcher says into consideration, and then do whatever he wants anyway. He's a kid, you're his boss, do your job!

Gardenhire also said that his velocity was fine, but again, that's not the only indicator of a pitcher's health/effectiveness. As a pitcher tires, his arm and body mechanics suffer, and sometimes he has to alter them to get the giddy-up on his heater or the snap on his breaking ball - that's when injuries happen. Being able to hit 95mph on the gun (106 on the FOX gun) is not such a good thing if he's straining more than normal to do so. Especially given the fact that Nathan was having a LOT of trouble finding the plate, missing badly on several pitches, and that you're going to need him for the rest of the series, I think the manager has to do his job and manage that guy out of the game when it's clear to the other 60,000 people in the stadium and a few million watching on TV that he's lost his control.

A lot of research, such as that done by Baseball Prospectus, has been done on the effects of high pitch counts on starting pitchers, but I doubt that anyone has looked as intently at the effects of relatively high numbers of pitches for relievers, especially relievers who've had arm problems in the past. On the other hand, if Nathan's arm doesn't bounce back well, it may help the Yanks win the series, so ultimately I can't complain too much. Yet.

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