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“We just liked the matchup much better.”

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On October 19, 2009 @ 11:28 pm In Cliff Corcoran,Game Recap | Comments Disabled

Howie Kendrick scores the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game Three of the ALCS (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) [1]

Let’s cut to the chase here. After a 13-inning Game Two, the Yankees and Angels were tied in extra inning again in Game Three, this time 4-4 in the bottom of the 11th. In relief of starter Andy Pettitte–who allowed three runs in 6 1/3 innings on a solo homer by Howie Kendrick in the fifth and a two-out, two-run, game-tying shot by Vladimir Guerrero in the sixth–Joe Girardi had already used Joba Chamberlain (who allowed what was then the go-ahead run following a Kendrick triple in the seventh), Damaso Marte, Phil Coke, Phil Hughes, and Mariano Rivera.

Rivera came on in the bottom of the tenth following a lead-off double by backup catcher Jeff Mathis off Hughes. Erick Aybar greeted Rivera with a sac bunt that Rivera, attempting to get Mathis at third, bounced past Alex Rodriguez in a play that eerily recalled Rivera’s error in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series. Rivera’s throw hit the dirt because he made it while spinning and falling to the grass on the third-base side of the mound. The error would have won the game for the Angels had Johnny Damon not backed up the throw perfectly, holding Mathis at third. With the infield playing in, Chone Figgins hit a hard shot down the first base line that Mark Teixeira smothered, holding Mathis and forcing Figgins out at first for the first out. With runners on second and third and one out, Girardi had Rivera walk Bobby Abreu to set up a force at every base and sent Jerry Hairston Jr. out to left field to replace the weak-armed Damon in case he needed to make a potentially game-saving throw to the plate. Rivera got Torii Hunter to ground into a 3-2 force to Teixeira that erased Mathis at home, then got Vlad Guerrero to ground out to Teixeira’s right to end the inning.

The catch was that, when Girardi sent Hairston into the field, Hairston was already in the game as the designated hitter having pinch-hit for Brett Gardner, who pinch-ran for original DH Hideki Matsui, who walked to put the tying run on base in the eighth. Gardner was caught stealing two pitches before Jorge Posada hit a game-tying solo homer. Hairston hit for Gardner because Gardner’s spot in the order came due when the Angels’ lefty closer Brian Fuentes was on the mound (never mind that Hairston hit .242/.319/.422 against lefties during the regular season while Gardner hit .291/.381/.400 against them and had a reverse split in Triple-A in 2008 as well).

Moving Hairston into the field put Rivera in the batting order in Damon’s place, which was due up third in the following inning. Rivera used 17 pitches to get into and out of that jam in the tenth, and his spot came due with two outs and none on in the top of the 11th. Still, Girardi sent up third-catcher Francisco Cervelli to hit for Rivera, leaving just Jose Molina and Freddy Guzman on the bench (I assume Guzman can’t throw either, or he’d have been a much simpler defensive replacement for Damon). Facing Ervin Santana, Cervelli struck out, and Girardi went to David Robertson in the bottom of the 11th, leaving just Alfredo Aceves and Chad Gaudin in his bullpen.

Robertson, who pitched out of a jam in Game Two of the ALDS against the Twins in almost exactly the same manner that Rivera did in the tenth inning of this game, got Juan Rivera to ground out to short and Kendry Morales to fly out to left to start the 11th. Then Girardi popped out of the dugout to bring in Aceves to face Howie Kendrick.

Why?

That will be a question Joe Girardi will be asked until the Yankees win this series, and throughout the winter and possibly beyond if they don’t. Robertson looked good against his two batters, getting ahead 1-2 on Rivera and throwing strike one to Morales before running the count full and getting him to fly out. His postseason mettle had been tested in that jam against the Twins, and the Yankees had just two pitchers left in the pen in part because Chamberlain, Marte, and Coke each threw just one-third of a frame, and Rivera had been taken out after one due to loss of the DH.

Pressed for an answers after the game, pitching coach Dave Eiland said, “We just liked the matchup better.” I understand that to a certain degree. Robertson and Aceves are both right-handers, but Robertson is a power pitcher who challenges hitters with his low- to mid-90s fastball that seems faster due to his delivery and a hard-breaking curve, while Aceves is a kitchen-sink junkballer who changes speeds and keeps hitters off balance. Matchups aren’t always just about handedness or even the raw quality of a pitchers stuff. Sometimes they’re about style, and Girardi and Eiland clearly preferred Aceves’s junkballing against Kendrick, who is something of a right-handed Robinson Cano type, rather than Robertson’s power combo.

What I don’t get is why they felt they had to make a move with two out and none on. Yes, Kendrick had homered earlier in the game, but that was off the lefty Pettitte. Kendrick has just 12 homers in 963 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers in his major league career. If Kendrick got a hit, Girardi and Eiland could concern themselves about the best matchup against the typically weak-hitting Mathis (which very well may have been Aceves as well, but I suspect would have been Robertson).

As it was, Aceves fell behind Kendrick 2-0, then 3-1, and Kendrick hit the 3-1 pitch back up through the middle for a single. Aceves then threw ball one to Mathis after which Mathis crushed a shot to the left-field gap that scored Kendrick with the winning run, handing the Yankees their first loss of the postseason, 5-4 [2] in 11 innings.

The loss is a bitter one given the many questionable decisions that led to it, but it may ultimately proove moot. The Yankees still hold a 2-1 lead in the series and have CC Sabathia going Tuesday night in Game Four, giving them a good chance to go up 3-1. Of course, the Yankee offense will have to contribute as well. The Yankees’ four runs in this game came on a quartet of solo homers (by Derek Jeter leading off the game, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, and Jorge Posada), but they left ten other men on base, not counting Gardner, who was erased by a well-timed pitchout. The Yankees are 5-1 thus far this postseason, but they’ve scored exactly four runs in all but the first of those games and needed extra innings in two of them to get to that underwhelming total.

The Yankees need to turn the page quickly from this exhausting and dispiriting loss. They’re still in great shape in this series, but given their history in Anaheim, it’s easy to see how this loss could get into their heads. Yankee fans should be glad it’s not Chad Gaudin or Joba Chamberlain starting Game Four.


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[1] Image: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/101909-Kendrick-scores-the-winning-run.jpg

[2] 5-4: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/boxscore?gameId=291019103&teams=new-york-yankees-vs-los-angeles-angels

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