Baseball’s other three division series ended before the Yankees came to bat last night, and, in the early going, it looked as though the Yankees would go down as meekly as the Cubs, Phillies, and Angels. Roger Clemens got two ground balls to start the game, but Derek Jeter threw the second past Jason Giambi for what was absurdly ruled an infield single by Asdrubal Cabrera. Clemens then fell behind Travis Hafner 3-0, eventually walking him, and, after a Victor Martinez fly out, gave up an RBI single to Ryan Garko.
Thus the Yankees came to bat already behind 1-0 in a game in which they faced elimination. Johnny Damon singled to start things off, but Jeter, fresh off his non-error, bunted foul then ground into a double play. The pattern repeated itself in the second when Trot Nixon, whom Eric Wedge devilishly started in right field against Clemens, homered to make it 2-0 Cleveland, and Jorge Posada ground into a double play to erase a leadoff single by Alex Rodriguez (yes, Alex Rodriguez, what of it?).
The key event of the second inning, however, came on the second pitch to Kenny Lofton, who was leading off the inning. Lofton bunted a ball foul down the third base line and, in breaking off the mound, Clemens felt his tender left hamstring grab on him. When Casey Blake ground out to second after Nixon’s homer, Clemens made a move to his left and the leg, in Clemens’ words, “locked up” on him. Following the inning, Clemens went back into the clubhouse to have the leg tightly wrapped, but he was unable to finish his pitches and started the third by walking Hafner again and going full on Martinez before getting him swinging on a lame 92-mile-per-hour fastball right over the plate. With that, Joe Torre and trainer Gene Monahan made their second visit to the mound of the inning and called on Phil Hughes. Roger Clemens, for the night, and possibly for his career, was done.
Hughes’ bounced his second pitch past Posada to move Hafner to second, then gave up a bloop double to right by Jhonny Peralta that ran the score to 3-0, but got out of the inning without allowing Peralta to score. Whatever damage Clemens’ leg was going to inflict on the Yankees’ hopes of keeping their season alive had been limited by Joe Torre’s quick hook.
In the bottom of the inning, Hideki Matsui led off by beating out a bouncing ball hit toward second base for an infield single and moved to second on a Robinson Cano groundout. Melky Cabrera then hit a ball straight into the dirt in front of home that rolled fair. Martinez pounced on the ball and threw to third as Matsui attempted to advance, but Matsui got to the bag just ahead of the throw, aided by an excellent hook slide to the outfield side of the bag. Despite having his knee drained a week ago, Matsui was running with the abandon of a man who refused to accept defeat. Johnny Damon followed by singling Matsui home for the first Yankee run of the series not scored on a home run. Jeter then hit into another double play to kill the rally, but the Yankees had life.
Things got even brighter when Hughes turned in a 1-2-3 fourth inning, striking out Nixon (fastball up and away, swinging) and Grady Sizemore (fastball at the knees, inside corner, looking) and pitched around a one-out single by Hafner in the fifth, striking out Garko (fastball inside, looking) to end that frame.
Jason Giambi struck out to start the bottom of the fifth, but Matsui again got things going by going the other way with a Westbrook pitch for a single to left. Robinson Cano followed suit, slicing a double into the left field corner to push Matsui to third, and Melky Cabrera did the same with an opposite-field single that plated Matsui to bring the Yankees within one. Johnny Damon then took a pitch in the dirt and another just low before launching the 2-0 pitch from Westbrook into the old Yankee bullpen in right for a game-changing three-run home run. It was like an instant replay of his back-breaking grand slam in the deciding game of the 2004 ALCS, except this time for the home team. It was a season-saving shot, and the Stadium absolutely exploded when it cleared the fence. Damon came out to take a full, Reggie-style curtain call and, though their lead was a slim two-runs, it suddenly felt like the Yankees were out of harm’s way.
After another scoreless frame by Hughes in the sixth, the Yankee bats piled on Westbrook and reliever Aaron Fultz for three more runs. The inning started with an infield single by Alex Rodriguez, which chased Westbrook. Posada then singled off Fultz. Doug Mientkiewicz hit for Giambi and bunted the runners over, prompting the Tribe to walk Matsui. Robinson Cano followed with a single to right that, delightfully, Trot Nixon failed to scoop, allowing it to roll to the wall as the bases emptied and Cano raced around to third.
Joba Chamberlain came on in the seventh to retire the top three batters in the Cleveland order on 16 pitches, striking out Sizemore on a wicked slider and Asdrubal Cabrera on three pitches, a 99-mile-per-hour fastball, a 79-mile-per-hour curve that dropped into the zone, and an 87-mile-per-hour slider that dive bombed out of it.
Joba stumbled a bit in his second inning of work. He got the first two outs on seven pitches when a Garko double play erased a leadoff single by Maritnez, but he then walked Peralta and gave up a single to Lofton and an RBI double to Nixon before getting Casey Blake to fly out a little too deep to right field for comfort’s sake. All totalled, he threw 38 pitches in his two innings, his major league high.
With a still-comfortable four-run lead, Mariano Rivera worked a ten-pitch ninth, striking out Cabrera (high heat swinging) and Hafner (fastball away looking) on a total of seven pitches to seal the Yankees’ 8-4 victory and send them to a now-necessary Game Four.
Chien-Ming Wang will be the Yankee starter in Game Four, starting on three-days rest for the first time in his major league career. That’s the right call. Wang is significantly better at home than on the road. What’s more, sinkerballers tend to suffer when they’re too strong, leaving the ball up. Being slightly less fresh usually works to their advantage as they get more natural sink on their pitch. Beyond that, with Hughes having been burned last night, starting Wang tonight allows the Yankees to reserve Mike Mussina for long relief duty, and would also allow Andy Pettitte to start a possible Game Five on normal rest. Not that anyone’s looking beyond tonight, of course.
Chamberlain, unlike Hughes, will be available tonight, though he did seem to tire in the eighth last night (the three hits he allowed in that inning, as well as the scary flyout by Blake, were all on fastballs up in the zone that were clocked in the mid-90s, rather than his usual high-90s). It could be that Joba will only be available for one inning, or even just a portion thereof if he’s needed to come in and kill a Cleveland rally, but Rivera, who threw just ten pitches last night, should be able to pick up the slack.
The Indians will stick with Paul Byrd as their starter tonght, perhaps hoping for a win that will allow them to reserve C.C. Sabathia for Game One of the ALDS. The Yankees aren’t looking ahead. They’ll stick with trying to win today.