Due to some technical difficulties (I’m breaking in a new laptop to increase my ability to post on the go, but it always seems you have to take one step backwards to get two steps forward when these new-fangled fire-boxes are concerned), I was unable to get a series preview post up yesterday, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t write one. Here’s how what I wrote yesterday afternoon kicked off:
The Yankees enter this weekend’s four-game series with the Angels having gone 5-2 on their current roadtrip and 8-3 to start the punishingly difficult portion of their schedule. Considering that fantastic level of play (for the month, the Yankees are winning at an even 75 percent clip: 12-4), it seems like sour grapes to complain about some of Joe Torre’s bullpen decisions, as I (among countless others) did following Tuesday night’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers. Still, having done so then, I feel I must follow up by pointing out that using both Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera with a four-run lead in last night’s 8-4 win is exactly the sort of thing that lead to letting Wayne Franklin pitch against the heart of the Texas line-up in the eighth inning with a one-run lead the night before.
Sure, watching Gordon and especially Rivera blow away Rangers hitters with a comfortable lead inspires tremendous confidence on the part of the team and its fans, but on a night that Aaron Small made his first major league start in seven years and held the Rangers to just three runs in 5 1/3 innings, it was worth a shot to see if Scott Proctor and the re-purposed Alex Graman could take care of business, saving Gordon and Rivera for a game such as Tuesday’s in which they were desperately needed. With a four-run lead, there was enough margin for error that Gordon and Rivera could have been brought in should either of those lesser pitchers faltered, but by going to those lesser pitchers first, one creates the opportunity for them to succeed thus rendering Gordon and Rivera unnecessary.
Well, last night, Joe Torre took my unpublished advice and turned to Scott Proctor in the seventh inning with a three run lead. Even better, he did so with the bottom of the order coming up, as per my assertion following Tuesday’s loss that with weaker hitters due up a manager can get away with using his less dominant pitchers.
Proctor threw nine pitches to pinch-hitter Jeff DaVanon, five were fouled off, four others were taken for balls resulting in a lead-off walk. That brought ninth-place hitter Macier Izturis to the plate.
And Joe Torre out of the dugout. Astonishingly, with a three-run lead, Joe didn’t even give Proctor a second batter. It wasn’t as if Proctor had walked DaVanon on four pitches or given up a hard-hit ball anywhere in fair territory. With a three run lead the worst that could have happened had Torre left Proctor in would have been a two-run Izturis homer that would have reduced the Yankee lead to one run, but left the bases empty for Proctor’s replacement.
Instead, Torre turned to neglected LOOGY Buddy Groom. Admittedly, the difference between Izturis batting lefty and Izturis batting righty is extreme (.278 GPA batting left, .156 GPA batting right), so turning him around with a lefty on the mound should have been a high percentage move on Torre’s part. Still, we’re talking about Macier Izturis, and a .278 GPA is fine, but not something to be afraid of, particularly when the tying run is still stuck in the on-deck circle.
The issue, as it so often is with Joe Torre is trust. Torre didn’t trust Proctor to fix his own mistake despite having enough of a lead to give him that opportunity, so instead he played the match-up. On it’s face, it wasn’t the worst decision, but again, trust rears its head. Joe Torre hasn’t trusted Buddy Groom since the Saxons invaded Britain. Prior to last night, Groom had pitched just once in the Yankees last eleven games and that one appearance came with his team trailing the Red Sox 13-1 last Saturday.
This is the flipside of Torre’s overuse of his Big Three. The Little Four often go so long without pitching that they loose whatever effectiveness they once had. Torre said as much when the Yankees DFAed Paul Quantrill, admitting that Quantrill didn’t get into enough games to stay sharp. Not that he felt the need to do anything about it as the sole individual who controls playing opportunities for his team. Last night, Torre’s burying of Groom came back to bite him, as it always does, as Groom promptly surrendered a single to the hopeless right-handed version of Macier Izturis that put runners on first and third and brought the top of the order up with no outs and a chance to tie the game. Two pitches later, he surrendered another single to Chone Figgins to load the bases.
Now, if Proctor was yanked after issuing a nine-pitch full-count walk to his only batter, you would think Groom would be sent to the showers after giving up two singles on five pitches, the second putting the tying run on first with no outs.
Ah, but you’d be wrong. With the lefty Darin Erstad due up following the switch-hitting Izturis and Figgins, Torre stuck with Groom and the lefty-lefty match-up (Erstad vs. lefties: .208 GPA, vs. righties .268 GPA). To Groom’s credit, he struck Erstad out on five pitches. Then Torre turned to Tom Gordon to pitch to Vladimir Guerrero, who represented the go-ahead run.
Which is exactly what he should have done in that situation. He used one of his two bullpen aces to pitch to the best hitter in the Angels’ line-up in the tightest spot in the game. Perfect.
Of course it would have been better had Gordon not thrown 26 pitches with a four-run lead the night before, but I’m sure that had nothing to do with the fact that Guerrero golfed what proved to be a game-winning grand slam off of Gordon (whom, I seem to remember the YES broadcasters saying, might not have gotten a full warmup in the pen because of the suddenness with which the inning got out of hand). Right?
Much as you might expect me to, I can’t blame last night’s loss on Torre’s in-game strategy. The bullpen blew it pretty well without his help. Despite the unnecessarily short leash he had on Proctor, Torre went to his lesser pitchers for the lesser batters with a multi-run lead, used his match-ups well and turned to his best when the opponents’ best was at the plate. Maybe in a perfect world he would have gone to Rivera instead of Gordon to face Guerrero, but that’s so far removed from the reality of modern day baseball, that I’m forced to give him a pass there (though Goose Gossage may not be so kind).
So, for the third time in their last four losses, the Yankees were trailing by one in the ninth thanks to the runs surrendered by their bullpen, and, as with the previous two times, they put together a rally that quite literally fell just short.
Leading off against the Angels’ best, the cartoonish Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, Alex Rodriguez quickly fell into a 0-2 hole by taking a strike and fouling off the next two pitches. Those fouls must have locked Alex into what Francisco was doing, because he then creamed the fourth pitch to the warning track in left center.
Alex’s easy-going power stroke has taken some getting used to (especially coming as it does behind the brutal swing of Gary “The Punisher” Sheffield in the Yankee order), but when Alex lit into that Francisco Rodriguez pitch, I was convinced he had tied the game. Instead, he wound up with a lead off double. He was then promptly moved to third by a Hideki Matsui sac fly to deep center that, in part due to the strong arm of Steve Finley, few Yankees other than Rodriguez (likely only Jeter, Womack and Bubba) could have advanced on.
That brought up Jason Giambi with the tying run on third and one out.
Sigh. Look, I’m actually quite fond of Joe Torre. Despite all of my bitching about his use of the bullpen, I’ve refused to join the calls for his head that appear in the comments here because I don’t think anyone short of Earl Weaver or Casey Stengel could do a job so significantly better that it would be worth losing the other things that Torre does do well to make a switch, but the situation with Giambi at the plate brings me back to another of my pet peeves about Joe (though, again, it’s something that can be said of most of baseball): he never uses the squeeze bunt.
A squeeze bunt in the top of the eleventh would have won Game 4 of the 2003 World Series, and the absence of one, far more than the use of Jeff Weaver, was what cost the Yankees that game, and possibly that series. Last night, a squeeze bunt would have tied the game. Not that I think Giambi should have laid one down, because I’m pretty sure he can’t. Twice this season he’s taken advantage of the shift by bunting to third, but in those cases he was just directing the ball to an area where there was not a fielder. There was no need to deaden the ball, no need for perfect placement. With the tying run on third last night, the Angels infield was playing more or less straight away and in. There’s no way that Giambi could have placed a bunt well enough to avoid getting Rodriguez thrown out, or worse yet, a game-ending double play.
But just because Giambi doesn’t know how to lay down a good squeeze, doesn’t mean he can’t learn. Cripes, by “working in the cage with Donnie” he’s turned himself from a powerless statue at the plate, unable to catch up to a 90 mile-per-hour fastball, to the best hitter in the major leagues in July (.400/.538/1.080 on the month, that’s a .512 GPA, with two more homers last night for ten on the month). If he could learn to rotate his hips faster and shorten his swing (which is supposedly how he and Mattingly fixed his swing), certainly he could learn to catch the ball with the bat and get the runner home from third.
Even with the game’s most dangerous hitter at the plate, I would advocate a squeeze bunt if the run being scored was the tying or go-ahead run. That said, I’m sure there are a lot of people who would rather that hitter swing away, particularly when down by one as the potential exists for him to do more than simply tie the game. Well, swing away, Giambi did. Once. After taking five pitches to load the count, Giambi took a mighty cut that couldn’t find a nearly perfect pitch from one of the game’s best relievers. Them’s the breaks folks.
Jorge Posada followed by pinch-hitting for Bubba Crosby (who, in a sad bit of irony, probably could have bunted Rodriguez home). Jorge took three pitches to get ahead 2-1, the laced what looked like a clean game-tying single in the hole between first and second only to look up and realize that Chone Figgins had him played perfectly. Posada out 4-3. Game over.
Tonight the Yankees try to make up for it by sending the miracle man, Al Leiter back to the hill. While the Yankees strong performance in July thus far is primarily attributable to their offense, it certainly hasn’t hurt that they finally received a pair of useful spot starts.
Prior to Al Leiter’s cavalry ride on Sunday in Boston, the Yankees spot starters (Tanyon Sturtze, Darrell May, Tim Redding and Sean Henn) had compiled the following line:
6 GS, 0-5, 13.72 ERA, 20 1/3 IP, 33 H, 31 ER, 7 HR, 18 BB, 9 K
Indeed, the only Yankee loss during this “punishingly difficult” stretch that wasn’t directly attributable to the bullpen was the 17-1 beating in Boston that was jump-started by spot-starter Tim Redding.
Then came Leiter: 6 1/3 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 0 HR, 3 BB, 8 K
and Aaron Small: 5 1/3 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 1 HR, 4 BB, 3 K
Small will likely not make another start as his turn comes due on Monday’s off-day and Carl Pavano should be ready to pitch in the turn after that a week from tomorrow against the Angels at home on FOX’s Game of the Week, but Leiter, according to Joe Torre, has already earned a permanent spot in the rotation (which is a nice way of saying, he’s the best option the Yankees expect to have the rest of the way, short of Chien-Ming Wang making a miraculous recovery, and then there’s always the chance that someone else will be hurt).
Since we’re on the topic of Small, here’s the remainder of what should have been my series-preview post yesterday afternoon:
Compared to the 0.50 K/BB and 2.51 WHIP (not counting HBP!), and 13.72 ERA compiled by the other spot starters, Small’s performance on Wednesday–which resulted in a 0.75 K/BB ratio, 1.69 WHIP, and 5.06 ERA–was downright inspiring, and, with the help of the offense, put the Yankees in position to go home happy if with a mere split in Anaheim.
Speaking of which . . .
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
2005 Pythagorean Record:
Manager: Mike Scioscia
General Manager: Bill Stoneman
Ballpark (2004 park factors): Angel Stadium (99/99)
Who’s replaced whom?
Adam Kennedy (DL) replaces Dallas McPherson (DL)
Bengie Molina (DL) replaces Lou Merloni (DL)
Zach Sorenson replaces Rob Quinlan (DL)
Ervin Santana replaces Kelvim Escobar (DL)
Jeol Peralta replaces Jake Woods (minors)
1B – Darin Erstad
2B – Adam Kennedy
SS – Orlando Cabrera
3B – Chone Figgins
C – Bengie Molina
RF – Vladimir Guerrero
CF – Steve Finley
LF – Garret Anderson
DH – Jeff DaVanon
R – Juan Rivera (OF)
S – Maicer Izturis (IF)
S – Zach Sorensen (UT)
R – Jose Molina (C)
R – Josh Paul (C)
R – Bartolo Colon
R – John Lackey
R – Ervin Santana
L – Jarrod Washburn
R – Paul Byrd
R – Francisco Rodriguez
R – Scot Shields
R – Brendan Donnelly
R – Esteban Yan
R – Joel Peralta
R – Kevin Gregg
R – Kelvim Escobar
L – Dallas McPherson (3B)
R – Robb Quinlan (IF)
R – Lou Merloni (IF) (60-day)
R – Bret Prinz (60-day)
R – Matt Hensley (60-day)
R – Tim Salmon (OF) (60-day)
S – Chone Figgins (3B)
L – Darin Erstad (1B)
R – Vladimir Guerrero (RF)
L – Garret Anderson (LF)
L – Steve Finley (CF)
R – Bengie Molina (C)
S – Jeff DaVanon (DH)
R – Orlando Cabrera (SS)
L – Adam Kennedy (2B)
As they enter tonight’s game with the second-best record in the American League and a commanding 6.5-game lead in the American League West, it’s a bit surprising to recall that the Angels have had a couple of significant stumbles in the past few weeks. Having been swept at home by the lowly Mariners in a four-game series two weeks ago and having dropped the final two games of a three-game series at home against the surging A’s over the past two nights, the Angels are just 9-8 on the month of July.
As the Yankees learned back in late May–when they defeated tonight’s starter Bartolo Colon 12-4 behind Alex Rodriguez’s 3-homer, 10-RBI performance, then managed just two more runs as they lost the final two games of the series to Jarrod Washburn and John Lackey–-as the Angels’ pitching goes, so go the Angels. Though in the middle-of the pack in runs scored, the Angels are fourth in the majors in pitching (behind the Cardinals, White Sox and Twins). As usual, dominating short-relief has a lot to do with that (Francisco Rodriguez: 1.96 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 12.76 K/9; Scot Sheilds: 2.33 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 10.40 K/9; Brendan Donnelly: 3.32 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 7.52 ERA), but unlike last year’s AL West Champions, this year the starters have been keeping up.
The only member of the Angels’ rotation with an ERA over 4.00 is rookie Ervin Santana (whom the Yankees, thankfully, get to face on Saturday), and he’s only made nine starts thus far due to the injury to last year’s ace Kelvim Escobar (3.54 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 10.18 K/9 in seven starts when healthy this year). Washburn, whose primary contribution last year was giving up the David Ortiz homer that ended the Angels’ season, leads the team with a 3.27 ERA despite having he rotation’s worst peripheral numbers. The oft-injured Paul Byrd has avoided the disabled list and posted a rotation-leading 1.11 WHIP. John Lackey, best remembered for starting Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie, leads the current starting staff with a 9.00 K/9, helping the Angels as a team to the third-best strikeout rate in the majors (behind the unsurprising Cubs and Astros).
That leaves [last night's] starter, Bartolo Colon. The man whom the Yankees slapped around back on April 26. I wouldn’t expect that to happen again tonight. Colon leads the Angels in the oft-derided win column (11-6), but a quick look at his peripheral numbers shows that there’s a very good reason for that.