Before we even get started, let me tell you one thing. I’m not going to complain about the Yankees’ lack of hitting with runners in scoring position, mainly because that’s like complaining that the sun is rising in the East. Even without that issue, there’s plenty to discuss here, and several issues to chew on, so let’s get at it…
Things couldn’t have started out better. Derek Jeter quieted the raucous Baltimore crowd with a line drive single to right center off rookie Wei-Yin Chen to lead off the game, and the suddenly dynamic Ichiro followed by reaching on a questionable error to set the Yankees up with two men on, no one out, and the heart of the lineup due.
The papers will be awash this morning with doomsday headlines about Alex Rodríguez and damning statistics on the ineptitude of the offense, but A-Rod came to bat in the first inning and laced an absolute seed just a few feet to the right of second base. The infield defense was pulled around to the left as it usually is for A-Rod, but even positioned close to the bag, second baseman Robert Andino only had time for a quick step and a dive. He snared the line drive, then flipped to second to double off Jeter. Had that ball been just two or three inches to the left, a run would’ve been in and a rally would’ve been rolling with the hottest hitter on the planet due up next.
As it was, there were suddenly two outs and a man on first, A-Rod was still a dog, and the Yankees still couldn’t hit when it counted. It’s a game of inches, you know. But then Robinson Canó dug in and ripped a laser of his own off the base of the wall in right field. Always one to push the edge of the envelope, third base coach Robby Thompson windmilled Ichiro around third, but the relay throw from Andino appeared to have him dead to rights. But as Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters took the throw and lunged to make the tag, Ichiro took a right turn. He avoided the tag, but missed the plate by several feet, skittered counter clockwise around the dish, then leapt in the air like a cat to avoid Wieters’s second attempt before finally tagging the first base side of home plate. It was so much work it probably should’ve been worth two runs, but the score was only 1-0. Even so, it was a start.
This was Game 2, so naturally Andy Pettitte was on the mound for the Yankees, and naturally he was dominant early on. How good was he? He retired the first eight batters like this: fly out, ground out, backwards K, pop out, ground out, strikeout, fly out, ground out. He made a tough pitch to the ninth hitter, but it was too tough, as Andino broke his bat and lofted a base hit over second base. Then things got sticky.
Nate McLouth knocked a clean single to center, then J.J. Hardy walked on four pitches to load the bases for Chris Davis, a left-hander who had struggled against Pettitte in his career. After taking ball one, Davis poked a single to right to score two, and the Orioles suddenly had a 2-1 lead, just as they did in the third inning of Game 1. (An interesting note here: Nick Swisher actually came up with a good throw to third, one that Jeter could’ve cut off but chose instead to let go. He couldn’t have known this, but Hardy had rounded second a bit too aggressively, and had Jeter cut off that throw where he stood atop second base and then looked for the tag, Hardy would’ve been out before McLouth would’ve been able to score with the second run. No shortstop in his right mind would’ve cut that ball off, but it’s the type of play we’ve come to expect from Jeter in October. Not this time.)
And so the inning continued. Adam Jones bounced a grounder deep into the hole at short, forcing Jeter to range far to his right. Jeter and A-Rod, as well as Hardy running from second, probably all realized the only play would be at third. As a result, Hardy was digging hard for the bag and didn’t notice when the ball rolled just under Jeter’s glove. A-Rod was giving his best decoy at third, waiting for a throw that would never come, so Hardy also didn’t notice his third base coach furiously waving him in. He pulled up at third, much to Jeter’s amusement. Wieters popped up the first pitch he saw, and Hardy never scored. The inning was over.
The Yankee hitters, meanwhile, weren’t scoring, but they were making Chen work hard. It looked like that strategy might pay dividends in the top of the fourth when they loaded the bases with one out after Mark Teixeira singled, Russell Martin walked, and Curtis Granderson singled.
(Speaking of Granderson, TBS showed a revealing statistic during his first at bat. (And speaking of TBS, their coverage is bordering on unwatchable. Cal Ripken and John Smoltz have fallen into the trap that awaits most postseason announcers: they make a point and then react as if they’ve discovered penicillin. I watched large chunks of Game 1 with the mute button engaged. During Game 2, Ripken even tried to tell me that switch hitters used to regularly bat left-handed against Pettitte to counteract his power cutter, even though I’m fairly certain this never happened. That was Mo.) But back to Granderson. Peep this: When he puts one of the first two pitches in play, his batting average is .405, slugging percentage .767. After that the numbers drop to .190/.425. Ouch.)
But we were discussing the fourth inning, and the bases loaded buffet awaiting Eduardo Nuñez. He came to the plate needing just a quality out to tie the game, but imagine what a simple base hit would do. With his pitch count mounting, every fan in the park on edge, his entire home nation of Taiwan having called in sick to watch their countryman’s first playoff appearance, this was clearly a critical moment for Chen. A base hit would likely give the Yankees the lead and fill Chen’s head with doubt as the lineup turned over and Jeter, Ichiro, and A-Rod readied for their turns at bat. The game would open up, and the series would close.
But that’s not how it happened. Nuñez popped out, Jeter grounded to third, and the inning was over. Late Monday night Curt Schilling and John Kruk gushed about Chen’s game plan and execution, but I kept wondering if they had watched the same game I did, and I think Jeter’s reaction might’ve been similar. When he was asked about Chen after the game, the Captain was clearly suppressing a grin as he generously allowed, “He was hitting his spots.” It reminded me of an interview Kobe Bryant gave after the Lakers lost a tough playoff game to the Phoenix Suns. When asked if Raja Bell had given him some trouble, Kobe simply laughed. “Raja Bell? Raja Bell?” More laughter. “No.” Jeter was more diplomatic, but the message was the same.
What can’t be denied, however, was that Chen made it into the seventh inning, which is probably more than the Orioles had hoped for. Now trailing 3-1, the Yankees mounted a rally as Nuñez poked a ball into short right center and hustled it into a double, then came home on a Jeter single to cut the lead back to one at 3-2. After Ichiro forced Jeter at second and Darren O’Day came in to strike out A-Rod for the second day in a row, Buck Showalter chose to bring in Brian Matusz to walk the HHOTP and face Swisher with two outs and the tying run on second. I’m guessing Showalter wasn’t worried. Swisher entered that at bat with a 1 for 33 career postseason mark with runners in scoring position, and a career 1 for 19 against Matusz. Predictably, he popped out to left.
And then came the eighth inning, perhaps the most frustrating frame of the night for me. Teixeira led off with a rocket that looked ticketed for the left field corner and a sure double. But McLouth hustled over to cut it off, and the hobbling Teixeira was forced to stay at first. Here’s how the rest of the inning should’ve played out: Brett Gardner pinch runs for Teixeira and remains in the game in left field; Ichiro moves to right field; Swisher comes in to play first. Gardner steals second (because if he doesn’t, why exactly is he on the post season roster?), then Martin can either bunt him over or take a shot to right field. Assuming this works, Granderson needs only produce a fly ball to tie the game.
But Joe Girardi wasn’t interested in any of that, so he let Teixeira sit at first base as Martin and Granderson struck out and Nuñez popped out. The game wasn’t over, but it certainly felt like it. Baltimore closer Jim Johnson worked the ninth inning and smartly set down Jeter, Ichiro, and A-Rod in order, leaving Canó in the on-deck circle.
You have to admit, it was a nice way for 2012′s final game at Camden Yards to end. Orioles 3, Yankees 2.
[Photo Credits: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images (1); Patrick Semansky/AP Photo (2&3); Nick Wass/AP Photo (4)]