Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, and Bobby Abreu each hit late-inning home runs last night, but none of them came with men on base, and the three runs were not enough to dig the Yankees out of the early hole in which Chien-Ming Wang put them. Thus the Yankees’ plan of winning one game at a time to salvage their season came up two wins short, ending their thrilling season with the franchise’s third consecutive first-round playoff exit.
As much as I hate to see any one player take abuse for a team’s collective failings, Chein-Ming Wang has to be the goat of this series. After giving up eight runs in 4 2/3 innings and taking the loss in an ugly Game One, Wang put the Yankees in another early hole last night. Grady Sizemore homered on Wang’s third pitch to start things off, and singles by Travis Hafner and Jhonny Peralta made it 2-0 before the Yankees even got their first turn at bat. Still, Hafner’s single was a ground ball (albeit a hard hit one) that found a hole near third base with Alex Rodriguez playing the lefty slugger to pull, and the three outs Wang recorded in that inning also came on the ground, so it seemed as if he was settling down.
He wasn’t. The first two batters in the top of the second singled. Eric Wedge then signaled for Kelly Shoppach, his ninth-place hitter (and Paul Byrd’s personal catcher), to bunt, but Wang’s 1-0 pitch, which Jorge Posada wanted over the plate at the knee, sailed up and in sending Shoppach spinning to the ground. The ball appeared to ricochet of the barrel of Shoppach’s bat, but, after conferencing, the umpires agreed that it had grazed his right hand, thus loading the bases with no outs for Sizemore, who had already homered of Wang in this game.
Again operating with the quick hook with his team facing elimination, Joe Torre called original Game Four starter Mike Mussina out of the pen (the arguments and umpire conferencing over the hit-by-pitch gave Mussina enough extra time to get warm). Mussina did what Wang couldn’t by getting Sizemore to hit into a double play, trading a third Cleveland run for the two outs, but then gave up an RBI single to Asdrubal Cabrera and walked Hafner before getting out of the inning with the Yankees trailing 4-0.
The Yankees slow climb back into the game began in the bottom of the second when Derek Jeter beat out an infield single with the bases loaded and two outs to drive in the first Yankee run, but the Bombers would never reach the apex. Paul Byrd kept the Yanks off balance all night, stranding two men in the first, three in the second, and one each in the third, fourth, and fifth. Meanwhile, Mussina allowed two more runs in the fourth when Victor Martinez singled to plate Shoppach and Sizemore, who had started the inning with a ground-rule double and a walk. Before the night was over, every man in the Yankee lineup would leave at least one man on base, with each of the top eight hitters stranding at least two.
Robinson Cano’s home run, his second of the series, came leading off the sixth and drove Byrd from the game in favor of lefty Rafael Perez. After singles by pinch-hitter Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter hit into his third double play in the last two games to end the inning.
Rodriguez’s homer came off Perez with one out and none on in the seventh (Rodriguez had singled in his previous at-bat and hit .267 on the series after going 4 for 9 in the final two games). Hideki Matsui would draw a two-out walk later in the inning only to be stranded by a Cano groundout.
Trailing by three, the Yankees went down 1-2-3 against Rafael Betancourt in the eighth. That set up Jeter, Abreu, and Rodriguez for the ninth against Joe Borowski. Jeter, who hit .176 on the series, popped out on a 1-1 pitch. Abreu homered into the upper deck in right to make it 6-4. Rodriguez flied out to the warning track in right on a 1-2 pitch up and away. Posada, who hit .133 on the series, struck out on three pitches: a called high strike, a would-be home run that curved just a few feet foul down the right field line, and a slider in the dirt that he flailed at hopelessly to end the Yankees’ season.
The end of what, I don’t know. And right now I’m not going to speculate. I can tell you that Joe Torre’s post-game press conference saw him refer to the Yankees’ future and his 12 years with the team with a peaceful detachment that seemed very telling, though he amicably refused to answer any questions about his future with the team (as did Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte, some less amicably than others) and did suggest that he wasn’t ready to retire. About that I’ll only remind you all that his contract is up. Even if he doesn’t come back, he won’t have been fired. He’s a free agent.
As for the rest, I’ll do my usual player-by-player postmortems and suggestions and analysis of offseason moves and needs in the coming weeks. As for the just-completed series, here are my heroes and goats:
Chien-Ming Wang gave up 12 runs in less than six innings in two starts taking two of the team’s three loses and posting a 19.06 ERA. If any one player shoulders this loss, it’s Wang.
Roger Clemens repeatedly insisted that he would be ready to start Game Three, but he tweaked his hamstring in the second inning and didn’t make it out of the third, forcing Joe Torre to use Phil Hughes in Game Three, making him unavailable in Game Four, a game they lost by just two runs, which is exactly how many runs fellow goat Mike Mussina allowed in addition to the two inherited runners he allowed to score.
In his only appearance, Luiz Vizcaino came into Game Two in the eleventh inning and walked the first man he faced on four pitches. Five batters later the Indians were celebrating a win and Vizcaino was walking off the field having gotten just two outs, one of them on a sac bunt.
This is tough to do, but Joba Chamberlain did allow the tying run to score in the eighth inning of Game Two. Yes, he was the victim of the worst of the midge infestation, and, yes, the game probably should have been stopped at that point, but Fausto Carmona had to pitch through the midges as well and retired six of seven batters in the two innings sandwiching Joba’s meltdown. And that’s why Joba’s here, because it really was a meltdown. He walked Sizemore on four pitches to start the inning, moved him to second on a wild pitch and, after Sizemore was bunted to third, scored him on another wild pitch. Perhaps this judgment speaks to the unrealistic expectations that Chamberlain has created for himself. He was, after all, a 21-year-old rookie making his first postseason appearance in a 1-0 game after just 24 big league innings (which, incidentally, saw him uncork just one wild pitch) and doing so amid an insect infestation. Still, if Joba had given up that run via a couple of hits or even a homer, I might have understood, but the way it happened, I have no choice but to add him to this list.
That said, it seemed Joba was getting his fastball over for strikes, so Jorge Posada can share some of the blame for going to his slider too much during that inning despite the fact that Joba couldn’t control it (or for not resisting Joba’s insistence on throwing it). Really, though, Jorge’s on this list because he went 2 for 15 and didn’t drive in a single run, leaving 11 men on base. A disappointing end to an incredible season.
Derek Jeter went 3 for 17, all singles, didn’t draw a walk, didn’t score a run, hit into three double plays, and left eight men on base, driving in only one other via an infield single. He also made an error early in Game Three that was erroneously ruled a hit.
I’m hoping Andy Pettitte will pick up his player option for next year, but if he doesn’t and his final game as a Yankee was Game Two of this series, it will have been a fitting finale. Simply put, he was nails, stranding seven men on base, erasing a ninth via a double play, and picking off a tenth who was in scoring position to give the Yankees 6 1/3 scoreless innings following their loss in Game One. The bullpen blew the win, but Pettitte will forever be the Stopper.
Had the Yankees come back to win the series, Johnny Damon‘s three-run home run in Game Three to turn a 2-3 deficit into a 5-3 lead would have ranked among the biggest home runs in Yankee postseason history. Overall, Damon went 5 for 18 with a walk, two home runs, and five RBIs. The only Yankee with a better series was Robinson Cano, who went 5 for 15 with a double, two homers, and a walk.
Finally, Phil Hughes provided hope for the future by pitching 3 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of Roger Clemens to earn the only Yankee win of the series. In two relief apperances, Hughes pitched 5 2/3 innings allowing just one run on a Ryan Garko solo homer. He allowed just two other hits in those two appearances, walked none, and struck out six.