Over the past few weeks, we’ve written about the biggest hits and the biggest pitching performances of the 2009 regular season. It was only a matter of time before we got to the postseason. This time, though, I wanted to do it a bit differently. WIth the two previous posts we subjectively ranked the performances. It’s a bit different in the postseason, when every big hit seems like the biggest ever. Plus, Rebecca already ranked them subjectively.
This time around, we’ll look at big hits in terms of WPA. For the uninitiated, that’s win probability added, a stat that shows us a team’s chance of winning a game at any given moment. Our list consists of the 10 biggest swings in WPA. What hits gave the Yankees the best chance to win the game? These are the top 10 such hits.
10. ALCS Game 5: Teixeira doubles, .192 (video)
After a 10-1 drubbing of the Angels in Game 4, the Yankees had to wait a day to finish off the Angels. On the mound was A.J. Burnett, who pitched well in Game 2. He had, in fact, pitched will in both of his playoff starts, instilling us with a sense of confidence. After a season of watching Bad A.J. show up after a few Good A.J. starts, it seemed like he put all that behind him. He seemed to be, dare I say it, stepping up in the playoffs.
The feeling wouldn’t last too much longer. It was as if Bad A.J. shoved Good A.J. aside, beat his chest, and said, “My turn!” After walking Chone Figgins to start the game, Burnett surrendered hits to the next four batters, alternating doubles and singles. Before he had recorded even one out, Burnett put the Yankees in a 4-0 hole. John Lackey then went to work, holding down the Yankees over the next five innings, after getting out of a first and second, none out jam in the first.
Finally, in the top of the seventh, the Yankees started a rally. Melky Cabrera started with a ground ball double to right, which Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter followed with walks to load the bases. Johnny Damon couldn’t get in the run, leaving Lackey with a bases loaded, two outs situation. Except Mike Scioscia didn’t want to leave it in Lackey’s hands, opting to substitute lefty Darren Oliver. It seemed an odd decision. Lackey had pitched pretty well all game and was just one out away from ending the frame. With the switch hitting Teixeira coming to the plate, the substitution didn’t make much sense.
Teixeira wasted no time in making Scioscia regret it, as he slammed a ball in the left-center gap, bringing around all three base runners and putting the Yankees within one. Hideki Matsui tied the game two batters later, and Robinson Cano put the Yankees ahead after him, smoking a triple into the right-center gap. The Yankees would blow the game the very next inning, making it all the more frustrating. But that doesn’t render Teixeira’s hit any less important. That was a huge turning point in the game, and almost won the series.
Credit: AP Photo/Chris Carlson
9. ALDS Game 3: Posada pops one, .204 (video)
After taking down the Twins in the first two games of the ALDS, the Yankees seemed poised to break their streak of first-round exits. After beating up the Twins pretty well in Game 1 they mounted a huge comeback off Joe Nathan in Game 2, and all the momentum seemed on their side. Yet, as in Game 2, the offense couldn’t get going in Game 3. The crew didn’t score a run through the first six innings. In the bottom of the inning the Twins, until then scoreless, manufactured a run, putting the Yanks behind.
Carl Pavano had pitched very well to that point, as it seemed he did every time out against the Yankees in 2009. He allowed just three hits through six innings, one of those erased by a double play. Still under 100 pitches, Pavano came back out for the seventh and got Mark Teixeira to weakly ground out. His run would end right there, though, as Alex Rodriguez, for the second straight game, tied it up with a home run. Two batters later, Pavano faced Jorge Posada.
Posada, batting lefty against the righty Pavano, popped one the opposite way, over the left field wall and into the seats for the go-ahead run. In terms of emotional reaction, the A-Rod homer was bigger. For the most part, at least for me, the tying run comes as a bigger relief than the go-ahead one. But in terms of the Yankees chances to win the game, Posada’s homer was the one. They’d tack on a pair in the ninth, but it wasn’t necessary. The Yankees had locked down the series.
Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
8. World Series Game 3: Damon doubles, .212 (video)
After a big win in Game 2 of the World Series, the Yankees got off to a rough start in their first trip to Philadelphia. Pettitte did shake off a leadoff single to Jimmy Rollins, but he wouldn’t be so lucky in the second. Jason Werth hit a no-doubt home run, and then Pettitte loaded up the bases — double, walk, single — with just one out. He then walked in a run, very un-Andy-like, and then allowed another to score on a sac fly. The feeling of being down three runs in Philly was not an inviting one.
Cole Hamels, shaky at best to that point in the playoffs, appeared to be on his game. His changeup worked through the first three innings, keeping the Yankees off-balance. Alex Rodriguez brought the Yanks to within one, homering off a right field camera in the fourth. With the bottom of the order, including the pitcher, due up in the fifth, it looked like the Yanks might have to wait an inning to mount their comeback.
Championship teams, though, get those big moments from the bottoms of their lineups. Nick Swisher, benched just a game before, started the rally with a double. Andy Pettitte helped his own cause two batter later, taking advantage of a curveball right over the plate, slapping it up the middle to tie the game. Two batters after that, Johnny Damon doubled into the gap, putting the Yankees up two. It was a huge swing, and the yankees found themselves with a 21 percent better chance of winning the game.
As in the case of ALDS Game 3, the tying run brought a greater sense of relief here. But the go-ahead double, plating two runs, proved the decisive moment in this game. The Yankees would continue to tack on en route to a 2-1 series lead.
Credit: AP Photo/Eric Gay
7. ALCS Game 3: Jorge juices another one, .236 (video)
Early in Game 3, it seemed like the Yankees would take a 3-0 lead for their second consecutive ALCS. Derek Jeter led off the game with a home run, and Alex Rodriguez followed that in the fourth with a leadoff home run of his own. After Johnny Damon added one of his own, and with Andy Pettitte pitching so well, it seemed like the Yankees were unbeatable.
A Howie Kendrick home run brought the Angels a bit closer, but they found themselves in a tough spot in the sixth, with a runner on first and two outs with Vlad Guerrero up. Vlad hadn’t hit too well in the series, and other than a game-winning flair in the LDS, he hadn’t done much in the playoffs. That was about to change.
After Pettitte retired Torii Hunter for the second out, Joe Girardi visited the mound, presumably to go over strategy for Guerrero. Either it didn’t work, or Pettitte didn’t execute, because Vlad sent a moon shot over the left field wall, tying the game. An inning later Joba Chamberlain would allow a triple and a sac fly, putting the Angels in a position to win.
An inning after that, however, Jorge Posada made his statement. He originally had a man on, but Brett Gardner, pinch running for Hideki Matsui, got caught stealing on a pitch-out. One has to wonder whether Jorge would have still homered had Gardner reached safely. If he had, the course of the playoffs would have changed. But the blast to center was a solo shot, tying the game. The team would eventually lose, heartbreakingly, in extra innings. But they wouldn’t have even had a shot if not for Posada’s homer.
Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
6. ALCS Game 2: Capitalizing on a mistake, .283 (video)
Extra innings playoff games are the height of baseball tension, and Game 2 of the ALCS was the Yankees second foray into free baseball. They almost lost it in the 11th, a hit we’ll visit in a few moments, but they held the Angels in check over the next two innings, once again giving themselves a chance to walk off with a win. They’d have to do it with a middle of the order weakened by substitutions.
Jerry Hairston started the inning, pinch-hitting for pinch runner Freddy Guzman, by singling. Gardner sacrificed him over, but the Angels put the double play back on by walking Robinson Cano. That left the team’s fate in the hands of Melky Cabrera. Average as he was in 2009, he rose to the occasion a number of times, delivering clutch hits.
Off the bat, it seemed like he had delivered, hitting the ball in the hole between first and second. Maicer Izturis has some range, though, and he got to the ball while running to his left. But instead of throwing to first for the second out, he turned around and tried for the double play. Why he did this I do not know. Even if he got Cano going to second, there was no possible way the Angels could have turned two.
The throw went past Erick Aybar and into left field, allowing Hairston to take the extra base. He got all the credit, and the pie, probably because when a game ends on an error it’s tough to figure out who to congratulate (as the Yankees showed after the Luis Castillo dropped pop up). I still credit Melky here. That ball was damn nearly the game-winning hit. Perhaps if Kendrick were in the game at the time it would have been a clean hit.
Credit: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
5. ALCS Game 5: Cano triples, .306 (video)
Once again, we see a situation where the go-ahead run is worth the most. As described above, Mark Teixeira smashed a bases loaded double to bring the Yankees within one, after spending most of the game down 4-0. That was a nearly 20 percent swing in win probability. But the Yankees were still down. That is, until Hideki Matsui singled i the tying run, an 18 point swing. That wasn’t the biggest of them, though.
A batter after Matsui tied the game, Robinson Cano, facing Kevin Jepsen, brought home Matsui and A-Rod with a triple. In the span of just one inning, all the run-scoring hits coming with two outs, the Yankees went from down 4-0 to up 6-4. Mystique and aura, it appeared, were vacationing in Orange County.
This was an even bigger hit for Cano because of his poor performance with runners in scoring position. This wasn’t the biggest spot — the Yankees had already tied the game and had to be feeling good after overcoming a big, early deficit — but the swing in the probability of the Yankees winning the game was huge. In that sense, it’s understandable why go-ahead runs do more for WPA than tying ones. You can’t win the game if it’s just tied.
Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
4. World Series Game 4: A-Rod puts them ahead, .336 (video)
After the Yankees won Game 4, Alex Rodriguez called his ninth inning double the biggest hit of his career. True, it put the Yankees back on top an inning after Joba Chamberlain blew the lead. It gave them a 3-1 series lead instead of a 2-2 tie. In every imaginable way it was a huge hit. Yet it wasn’t the biggest of A-Rod’s postseason, at least in terms of win probability swing.
During the regular season the Yankees came from behind against Brad Lidge. That contributed to Lidge’s poor and injury shortened season, but in the playoffs he more resembled his old self, the one that helped the Phillies win a World Series the year before. True to that form, Lidge retired the first two batters he faced, inducing a weak pop from pinch hitter Matsui and striking out Derek Jeter.
Johnny Damon then executed a signature at-bat, fouling off everything he couldn’t hit. The sequence went on for nine pitches, the last of which Johnny slapped to left for a single. Then came the most famous moment of the 2009 playoffs, Johnny’s first-pitch steal of second and subsequent dash to third base where no one covered the bag. The commentators pointed out that Lidge might lose his slider, for fear that he’d throw one in the dirt and hand the Yankees the go-ahead run.
Lidge played right into that, delivering Alex Rodriguez two fastballs. The second one went out to deep left, allowing Johnny to walk home. Mo would clean up, and the Yankees would take the 3-1 series lead. Huge hit for sure. But not the hugest.
Credit: AP Photo/Eric Gay
3. ALDS Game 2: Tex walks off, .350 (video)
The big hit had come two innings earlier. I’ll spare the description, because it’s the No. 1 WPA swing of the postseason. The Yankees appeared out, but found themselves tied heading to the bottom of the 11th, with the heart of the order due up. The Twins’ closer, Joe Nathan, was already out of the game, as was their setup man, so the Yankees would face the back end of the bullpen. But, since they also had the back end of their own bullpen up next, the 11th would be a critical inning.
Leading off and batting righty against lefty Jose Mijares, Mark Teixeira worked the count to 2-1. Mijares delivered and Teixeira jumped on the pitch, hitting it as hard as I’d seen him hit one all year. It traveled in a seemingly straight line, from bat to left field wall in what felt like under a second. I remember jumping out of my seat, not knowing how to react. That is, until the ball bounced a row back in the seats.
The home run capped a crazy game, marked by offensive futility and an improbable hit off an improbable closer. In many ways, it set the tone for the postseason. The Yankees would find themselves down, but even late in games they presented the comeback threat, as they had all season. Teixeira got the ball rolling in just the second game of the postseason.
Credit: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
2. ALCS Game 2: A-Rod keeps them alive, .429 (video)
Over the weekend the New York BBWAA named Alex Rodriguez the postseason MVP. As you can see by the top two WPA swings, he earned it. Alex had a number of huge postseason hits, including some that didn’t come in clutch situations, but he did have three particularly notable ones: the World Series double discussed above, the ALDS homer discussed below, and the ALCS homer that kept them alive in Game 2.
After a convincing Game 1 win, the Yankees jumped out to an early Game 2 lead. The Angels tied the game at two in the fifth, but from there on out both teams struggled to generate offense. Through nine they remained tied at two, and finished their first extra frame without changing the score. It seemed we were in for a long night.
In the 11th, however, the Angels mustered a run off Al Aceves. He walked Gary Matthews Jr. to start the inning, a mortal sin for the light-hitting, overpaid fourth outfielder. Erick Aybar sacrificed him, and then Chone Figgins delivered his first hit of the series, a single to left that scored Matthews. Aceves induced a double play two batters later to cut the inning short, but the damage had been done. With a lack of offense hindering the Yankees all game, and with Freddy Guzman due up second the next inning, it looked like the Angels would head home with the series tied.
Things looked worse when Brian Fuentes got ahead of A-Rod 0-2. With Guzman — or at best Jerry Hairston — due up next, Fuentes had plenty of wiggle room with Rodriguez. He could afford to throw a couple of breaking pitches in the dirt. But he didn’t. Instead he threw a waist-high fastball a little off the plate outside. Angels fans will probably continue asking why for years to come. I don’t blame them. There’s no excuse for throwing the best hitter remaining in the playoffs a high outside fastball in an 0-2 count with a AAA hitter on deck. It’s even more egregious when said best remaining hitter demolishes that exact pitch type.
Credit: AP Photo/Elise Amendola
1. ALDS Game 2: To be the best, you have to beat the best, .448 (video)
As Joe Nathan warmed up in the top of the eighth, TV cameras moved from the field to the bullpen. Over the image of Nathan throwing to the bullpen catcher, TBS overlaid an interesting statistic. While Joe Nathan is one of the best closers in the game, perhaps second to Mariano over the past five years, the three hitters due up for the Yankees had some success against him. I moaned when they showed the stats for Teixeira, Rodriguez, and Matsui, figuring it was a jinx.
Teixeira fulfilled his prophecy, though, leading off with a single to right. It wasn’t hit particularly hard, but it got the job done. The tying run then came to the plate. Unfortunately, thought many Yankees fans, that tying run had a penchant for choking in big spots. A-Rod did get a hit with a runner in scoring position the game prior, but I’m sure that didn’t calm any unrealistically pessimistic fans. To them, he was still a choker.
Only, A-Rod did the opposite of choke. Looking for his pitch with a 3-1 count, he got it. Why Nathan threw that fastball I’m not sure. It sped right into A-Rod’s wheelhouse, and he crushed it to right-center to tie the game. In the capsule two above, I said that Teixeira got the ball rolling with the late-inning postseason comebacks. I guess that’s not entirely true. A-Rod, it appears, got it rolling two innings earlier.
Given his failures in postseasons 2005 through 2007, and given the harsh fan reaction, I think this represents the biggest hit of A-Rod’s career. It didn’t come in the World Series, but it certainly helped the Yankees get there. It also shut up many of his detractors. How can you boo a guy who hit a game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth against perhaps the best non-Mo closer in the game?
On second thought, don’t answer that.
Credit: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson