Since the first inning of last night’s Game 5 ALCS match-up, my status message on Gmail has said, “Unsurprised.” Nothing that happened during the game — from A.J.’s early troubles to Joe Girardi’s poor pen management to Nick Swisher’s pop out on a 3-2 meatball with the bases loaded in the ninth — was unsurprising. When the dust settled, the Yanks found themselves on the wrong end of a very close 7-6 game. Instead of a break until the World Series, the ALCS will return to the Bronx for a game, weather permitting, on Saturday night.
Instead of our normal chronological recap, I want to try something new tonight. I want to break this down by highlighting three turning points Remember: The Yanks still hold a 3-2 edge and are about to throw two lefties against the Angels in Yankee Stadium where the Bombers have won 61 games this year.
Turning Point 1: We start with two on and no one out in the top of the first. The Yankees were on the verge of breaking John Lackey and the Angels before A.J. Burnett even had a chance to step up onto the mound. Mark Teixeira was at the dish still looking for his first RBI of the ALCS.
Lackey’s first pitch to Teixiera was a ball. He followed that up with two strikes — one called in the zone and one a foul ball. Two more pitches out of the zone followed. The sixth pitch of the at bat was a good curveball, but it was low and away. Teixiera took it only to be rung up. Immediately, Fox showed their FoxTrax, and the ball was a good few inches outside. PITCHf/x agreed.
For Lackey, the call was a pick-me-up. He retired A-Rod and Hideki Matsui without allowing a run and sailed through six before running into trouble in the seventh. For the Yankees, the call, while not quite a punch in the gut, completely shifted the momentum. Instead of bases loaded, no one out with the red-hot A-Rod up, the Yanks had an out and two on. The entire complexion of the inning changed, and when Burnett gave up four in the first, the call stuck out.
Turning Point 2: Now, we skip ahead to the bottom of the seventh inning. After Burnett’s bad start, he had settled down to run through the Angels’ lineup. He didn’t have the K pitch working, but he held Anaheim at four. In the top of the 7th, the Yanks erupted for six runs and found themselves nine outs away from the World Series and with a very well-rested bullpen. They could have gone to David Robertson, Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera with a cameo by Damaso Marte. This was an all-hands-on-deck situation, and instead, Joe Girardi stuck with Burnett.
“We talked about it, but he was throwing the ball so well. He had put up five shutout innings and he had only thrown 80 pitches,” the Yankee skipper said.
Of course, this is the same manager who, just a few days ago, pulled Andy Pettitte in Minnesota with a lead and at 81 pitches. Why Burnett gets a longer leash, I do not know.
Burnett didn’t get the job done. He allowed a lead-off hit to Jeff Mathis, and still Girardi sat. He walked Erick Aybar, the number nine hitter, and then Girardi mercifully removed him, at least one batter two late and arguably two. Girardi later showed that he was willing to put Mariano Rivera into the game with one out in the eighth, but he was unwilling to go to the pen after coaxing six so-so innings out of Burnett.
Turning Point 3: After Marte retired Chone Figgins and Bobby Abreu, Phil Hughes entered the game with just one mission in mind: Get an out. He walked Torii Hunter and then moved ahead 1-2 on Vladimir Guerrero. Instead of burying a curveball in the dirt against the notoriously free swinging Vlad, Hughes shook off Posada and went with a fastball. Vlad knocked in the tying run. Hughes would later give up the lead and take the loss. He faced three batters and retired one of them.
Girardi made the right move here, but Hughes didn’t execute. After the game, the Yanks’ manager issued an odd comment. “He’s still making pitches,” he said. “He got to the count he wanted to with Vlad Guerrero and just missed his spot.” So was Hughes making his pitches or did he miss? It looked to me as though he missed.
The Yanks had the tying run 90 feet away in the ninth inning but with two outs. Nick Swisher popped up to end it, and that seventh inning — another bad job of managing the bullpen coupled with some bad execution — cost the Yanks a chance to put away the Angels.
In the end, I would have liked to see the Yankees wrap this up tonight. The emotions among a fanbase still scarred from 2004 are running high, and on a personal level, my plans for Saturday night are going to be seriously impacted by yet another baseball game. Still, part of me wants to see the Yanks win this thing at home. We’ll have a grand celebration in the Bronx this weekend when they do.