"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Of All the Gin Joints In All the World…

…Why’d it have to be the Twins?

First of all, I’m going to be very careful not to get too jinxy here – ahem, Mayor Bloomberg, what the hell?!  – because of course it’s entirely possible that the Twins will come back; they’re plenty good enough to win three games in a row. (Not that I actually believe in jinxes, of course. I would never walk all the way down five flights and two blocks over to find a tree so I could knock on wood because there was none in my platic-metal-glass office, for example. Nope, never done anything like that, certainly not during the 2005 postseason, not that it worked anyway).

That said, it’s not looking good for the Twinkies right now, and although of course I want to see the Yanks move on, I wish it could be any other team. Minnesota’s been my second-favorite AL club for a long time now: I like how they’ve managed to succeed with a small market and a relatively small payroll; I loved reading about them on Bat-Girl back in the day; I have issues with some of his strategic movies but I find Ron Gardenhire to be a likeable and twinkly little baseball gnome; I am in awe of Joe Mauer even though there’s no way he’s actually that wholesome and one day I’m sure they’ll find a bunch of heads in his freezer or something. I liked Joe Nathan, I like Orlando Hudson, because I am a red-blooded American I of course adore Jim Thome, and then I always root for my guy Denard Span, the only other Span I’ve ever come across outside of immediate family.

The presence of useless wretch Carl Pavano helps, of course, but even he can’t make the Twins unlikeable all by his lonesome.

Back in August, I went to Minnesota for a college friend’s wedding on a bison farm outside of Rochester (not a typo). My traveling companion and I figured, how the hell often are we gonna be in Minnesota? So we flew in a day early, got standing-room tickets, and drove our rental car the 90 miles up to the Twin Cities. The park itself is lovely (only complaint: they need to get something better than a few dull-looking trees out there in center field), but I was more impressed by how psyched the fans were – for outdoor baseball, for their first-place club, for Jim Thome.

Also, the cheese curds. Mmmm… cheese curds.

Their fans were enthusiastic and engaged without being quite so rabid as I’m used to here in New York – which has both advantages and drawbacks, I suppose (I grew up surrounded by rabid fanbases, and a game watched without surrounding spittle and bile doesn’t quite seem like a game to me). Almost everyone at the ballpark seemed to have some kind of Twins gear, and even though Carl Pavano got crushed by the White Sox, the crowd never turned sour or hostile. (They did boo A.J. Pierzynski every time he came up, but that’s both understandable and praiseworthy). It was just a nice atmosphere, and while I’m generally used to shrugging it off and enjoying myself when the Yankees crush small-market competitors, I feel no bloodlust for the Twins. I hope they lose tomorrow, but I want the best for them.

If they do come back and beat the Yanks somehow, then as soon as I get past a brief mourning period, they’ll have my support all the way. And if they don’t… well, I hope they run into somebody else next year.

[Photo via 1) http://www.gephartelectric.com and 2) stolen from my traveling companion without even asking]

Game 2: Idle Threat?

Alyssa Milano might be the only other entity that regrets a four-year relationship with Carl Pavano more than the Yankees. Granted, the beloved Middle School crush of my age group wasn’t with the man George King of the Post dubbed the “American Idle” as long as the Yankees, but neither relationship was successful for the parties on Pavano’s arm. For Yankee haters, the thought of Pavano dominating the Yankees after he stole $39.99 million from the team from 2005-2008, spreading 26 starts, pitching 145 2/3 innings and amassing a 9-8 record and more ridiculous excuses for landing on the DL, is sublime. For the rest of us, well, the nausea hasn’t subsided.

Somewhere down South, a grinning Pat Jordan is polishing off a gun for Alex.

The Yankees’ saving grace, as it has been in seemingly every Game 2 of every playoff series in which he’s appeared as a Yankee since 2003, is Andy Pettitte. Pettitte won Game 2 of every series in ’03. He won the clinching game in every series of last year’s World Series run. He represents the championships, reliability, leadership, and stability in the rotation.

But he also represents the age of this Yankee team. At 38, Pettitte has not shown the ageless superhuman qualities of his bullpen colleague Mariano Rivera. Thursday night will mark only Pettitte’s fourth start since coming off the disabled list. Pettitte admitted his success in Baltimore in his return was based on adrenaline. His next two starts — both against Boston — didn’t feature the command he displayed in that first outing. Will the adrenaline of the postseason, the knowledge of what it takes to win in these circumstances, especially now that he’s been bolstered to a 1-0 lead, be enough to get by?

With all due respect to Banter colleague Hank Waddles, Pavano’s presence on the mound for the Twins has nothing to do with audacity. In fact, there’s precedent for the possibility of him dominating the Yankees Thursday night. Pavano allowed four runs and held the Yankees to a .224 BAA in his two starts against them during the ’09 regular season. In four career postseason appearances (three against the Yankees), Pavano has an 8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a 0.95 WHIP, and has allowed just 22 hits in 26 1/3 IP. Pavano started Game 4 of the ’03 World Series — the infamous “Jeff Weaver Game” — and held the Yankees to one run in eight innings of the pivotal contest. Last year, Pavano and Pettitte engaged in a great duel last year in Game 3 of the ALDS; what proved to be the final game ever played at the Metrodome. Pavano made two bad pitches in his seven innings of work. They resulted in solo home runs by Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada in the seventh inning. Pettitte, meanwhile, also pitched into the seventh, holding the Twins to just three hits in 6 1/3 innings, and he struck out seven. Pavano was a hard-luck loser. A step up from the first-class loser he was as a Yankee.

Spin forward to Thursday’s Game 2, given the current state of affairs with the two starting pitchers, the edge goes to Minnesota (Pavano’s 4.85 ERA since August 1 notwithstanding). Groin injuries can get reaggravated very easily. If there’s a Burnett or Meat Tray sighting within the first four innings, you can almost guarantee a loss for the Yankees.

A quality start from Pettitte will go a long way toward answering not only the questions posed above, but the broader questions regarding the viability of the Yankees’ playoff rotation behind CC Sabathia. I have to see it to believe it, though.

Prediction: Twins 5, Yankees 2

And Now, For My Next Trick

How do you follow-up a no-hitter?

The Yanks and Twins begin their series in the shadow of Roy Halladay’s great feat. So be it.

We’ll be rooting! (Enjoy the comments section and be mindful of our house rules–feel free to curse, just don’t curse at each other.)

This is what we’ve been waiting for. Never mind the fancy introductions…

Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

[Picture by Bags]

The Other Guys

I’m going to enjoy watching the Rays and Rangers series. Consider this a game thread.

Speaking of Texas, here’s a long piece on Nolan Ryan and the Rangers by Jonathan Mahler for the New York Times Magazine:

In our conversations, Ryan lamented the fate of the modern pitcher, who has had to contend not only with performance-enhanced hitters but with certain changes to the rules of the game. During his playing days, Ryan relied heavily on intimidation; he is particularly annoyed by the empowering of umpires to eject pitchers from games for throwing at batters. “You take an aggressiveness out of the pitchers and put it into the hitters,” he told me in his office, where a pair of large oil paintings of cowboys on the Texas frontier hang above his desk.

Initially drafted in 1965 by the Mets, Ryan won his only World Series ring with New York but still couldn’t wait to leave. After a stint with the Angels, he became a free agent in 1979 and promptly returned home to Texas, pitching nine years in Houston before finishing out his career with the Rangers.

Ryan retired as one of the greatest pitchers ever, but the subsequent ascendance of statistical analysis in baseball has not been especially kind to his legend: the growing appreciation for walks as an offensive weapon has knocked him down more than a few pegs in the pitching pantheon. What remains remarkable about Ryan, though, is not simply his longevity — even in his 40s, his fastball approached 100 miles an hour — but his durability. At age 42, he once threw 166 pitches in a single game.

Ryan was never known as a student of the art of pitching. He was a power pitcher, blessed with an absurdly strong, seemingly indestructible arm. But he now has firmly held convictions about how to handle pitchers, and they stand in direct opposition to baseball’s prevailing orthodoxy — what he calls “the babying” of modern-day pitchers. “Pitch counts drive me nuts,” Ryan said. “You gonna put Steve Carlton or Tom Seaver or Bob Gibson on a pitch limit?”

Finally Got A Piece Of The Pie

Mark Teixeira celebrates his game-winning home run as he rounds first (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)I don’t even know where to start. The Yankees beat the Twins 4-3 in 11 innings in Game Two of the ALDS on Friday night in the Bronx in what might have been the most exciting Yankee postseason win since the Aaron Boone game in 2003.

Starting pitchers A.J. Burnett and Nick Blackburn matched zeros for five innings. Blackburn allowed only a walk to Hideki Matsui before Robinson Cano, who along with Mark Teixeira was one of just two Yankee starters who went hitless in Game One, singled with two outs in the fifth. Burnett put runners on in every inning, but stranded them in the first five.

The first big play of the game came in the top of the fourth. After getting two quick outs, Burnett hit Delmon Young in the back and Carlos Gomez in the hand to put runners on first and second. Matt Tolbert then lined a clean single to shallow right center for what looked like the first RBI hit of the game, but Gomez took a wide turn around second then slipped. With Derek Jeter standing on second screaming for the ball, Nick Swisher fired to second to catch Gomez off the bag just moments before Young was able to cross home, ending the inning without a run scoring.

The Twins finally broke the scoreless tie in the top of the sixth after Young drew a one-out walk and stole second as Gomez struck out. Tolbert was due up, but had come down with a strained oblique, forcing Twins manager Ron Gardenhire to pinch-hit with Brendan Harris. Harris, who hit .238/.289/.340 against right-handers on the season, took to 3-1, then launched a bomb to the left-field gap. Johnny Damon did his jump-and-fall-down routine in a hopeless attempt to catch the ball, and the ball ricocheted off the wall and got past Melky Cabrera giving Harris an RBI triple. Burnett stranded Harris by getting Nick Punto to ground out on what proved to be his last pitch of the night. Then the Yankees answered back.

With Burnett out of the game, Joe Girardi sent Jorge Posada up to hit for Jose Molina. Posada flew out, but Derek Jeter crushed a ground-rule double to right center, and two batters later the new Alex Rodriguez delivered yet another two-out RBI single to tie the game.

Joba Chamberlain and Phil Coke split a scoreless seventh. John Rauch answered with a 1-2-3 inning of his own. That passed the ball to Phil Hughes in the eighth. Taking his cue from Burnett, Hughes got two quick outs and had the crowd roaring “Huuuughes” with the count 1-2 on Gomez, but then issued three straight balls to put Gomez on base. That man Harris followed with a single that sent Gomez to third (and nearly to home). That brought up Nick Punto, the Twins gritty, gutty, scrappy, crappy ninth hitter. Punto took to 2-2, fouled off a pitch, then singled through the middle scoring Gomez with the go-ahead run.


Joe Girardi then brought in Mariano Rivera who, as the TBS announcers reported, had allowed just 3 hits in 50 at-bats with men in scoring position in his postseason career. That became 4-for-51 as Denard Span singled Harris home to give the Twinks a 3-1 lead. Watching Rivera give up an insurance run, the Yankee Stadium crowd fell dead silent.

Twins set-up ace Matt Guerrier and Rivera exchanged scoreless innings, handing that 3-1 lead to Joe Nathan in the ninth. The first time these two teams met this season, the Yankees opened the series with a trio of walk-off wins at Yankee Stadium. In the first of those, Joe Nathan was handed a two-run lead in the ninth only to cough up both the lead and the game, one of just two losses Nathan suffered on the season.

Perhaps I had that game in the back of my mind, because looking at the Yankee batters due up–Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Hideki Matsui–I was convinced the Yankees would get a bloop from Teixeira and a blast from Rodriguez to tie the game.

Guess what?

Teixeira hit a 1-1 rope into right field for a lead-off single, and Alex Rodriguez, after taking to 3-1, crushed a fastball to the back wall of the Yankee bullpen in right for a game-tying home run.


A.J.’s Turn

Game One of this ALDS couldn’t have gone much better for the Yankees. CC Sabathia was sharp, every starter but Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano got a hit, including Alex Rodriguez who had a pair of RBI singles, the key end-game relievers (Phil Coke, Phil Hughes, Mariano Rivera, and the re-purposed Joba Chamberlain) got their postseason spikes dirty with a big lead and a day off to follow, and, most importantly, the Bombers extended their regular season dominance of Minnesota with a 7-2 victory. Yesterday, however, gave the exhausted Twins, who in the 25 hours before the first pitch of Game One had played 12 innings to save their season then flown half way across the country, a much-needed day of rest, and Game Two brings another Yankee starting pitcher with a lot to prove.

I was an outspoken opponent of the five-year, $82.5 million contract the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett to in December. With one of those five regular seasons in the books, Burnett has exceeded my expectations in just one way: he stayed healthy and took every one of his turns throughout the season. That’s no small thing, but the net result of Burnett’s 33 starts wasn’t quite what you’d expect from a $16.5 million pitcher, and there are still four more years in which Burnett could well validate my concerns about his injury history.

The contract doesn’t matter tonight. All that matters is how well Burnett pitches in his first postseason start, which is why Joe Girardi has opted to start Jose Molina behind the plate despite the huge drop in production he represents at the plate compared to Jorge Posada. Opposing batters have hit just .221/.307/.352 against Burnett with Molina behind the plate compared to .270/.353/.421 with Posada receiving him. Supposedly the difference is due in part to Burnett’s lack of confidence in Posada’s ability to block his sharp curve in the dirt, which results in Burnett failing to break the pitch off properly when throwing to Posada. Burnett led the league in wild pitches, and one would assumes a certain percentage of those were pitches Burnett thought Posada should have blocked.

Burnett’s breaking point seemed to come in his August 12 start, when, with Posada catching, he uncorked three wild pitches then refused to talk about the issue after the game, saying bruskly, “I’d rather not talk about the wild pitches.” Up to that game, Posada caught 13 of Burnett’s starts while Molina, Francisco Cervelli, and Kevin Cash caught the other ten, five of them coming when Posada was on the disabled list. After that August 12 start, Posada caught just three more of Burnett’s starts, while Molina caught seven. Burnett didn’t thrown another wild pitch after August 12, but two of the three times he pitched to Posada he was rocked, giving up nine runs in five innings to the Red Sox on August 22, and six runs in 5 1/3 innings to the lowly Orioles on September 1. Those were the last two Burnett starts caught by Posada.

That’s why Joe Girardi is sitting a .285/.363/.522 hitter in a playoff game in favor of a man who has hit .217/.273/.298 in 406 at-bats over the last two seasons. I believe Posada himself said it best when he said, in reaction to the news that Molina would be starting, “I just hope we win that game.” Burnett’s need for Molina behind the plate only adds to the pressure he’ll be feeling tonight in his first career postseason start (he was out following Tommy John surgery when his Marlins beat the Yankees in the 2003 World Series). The contract may not matter tonight, but Burnett will by trying to live up to it.

As for how he did in the regular season, Burnett’s aggregate line was actually no better than the no-name Twins sophomore he’ll face tonight:

A.J. Burnett: 4.04 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 2.01 K/BB, 33 GS, 21 QS
Nick Blackburn: 4.03 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 2.39 K/BB, 33 GS, 19 QS

Those lines are damn similar, with Blackburn holding the edge in the three key rate stats, which just goes to show how overrated Burnett really is. As for the 27-year-old Blackburn, his final 2009 line is almost an exact match for his 2008 rookie campaign, which means the Twins can now expect this sort of production from him. Blackburn’s WHIP is high because he led the league in hits allowed. Burnett’s is high because he led the league in walks with a career-high 97. That is also why A.J.’s K/BB is so low (because of all those walks, Burnett’s WHIP and K/BB this year were his worst since 2003, when he made just four starts).

Of course, Burnett and Blackburn are far from similar pitchers, as their strikeout and walk rates reveal:

Burnett: 8.5 K/9, 4.2 BB/9
Blackburn: 4.3 K/9, 1.8 BB/9

Better all those walks and strikeouts than all those hits, but you’d rather see a pitcher keep his opponents off the bases altogether.

Both pitchers finished the regular seaosn strong. In his last four starts (all with Molina catching), Burnett posted a 1.88 ERA, struck out 28 men in 24 innings, and allowed just one home run. In his last four starts, Blackburn posted a 1.65 ERA and walked just one man in 27 1/3 innings.

Blackburn last faced the Yankees on May 16. He took a 4-3 lead into the eighth inning of that game only to let the Yankees tie it up in that inning (and ultimately win it in extras). Burnett faced the Twins twice this year, both times allowing just two runs in six-plus innings, but walking ten in those 13 frames.

The Twins have made one tweak to their lineup tonight. Jason Kubel is DHing, Denard Span is in right, and Carlos Gomez is in centerfield and batting in place of the team’s no-name DH platoon. Alex suggests this is because the Twins want to run on Burnett, but while A.J. allowed 23 steals on the year, he and his catchers caught 34 percent of attempting basestealers, that compared to a 25 percent league average and Jose Molina and Jorge Posada’s matching (yes, matching) 28 percent throw-out rates.


feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver