Mo’s troubles come down to command

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It usually only happens once a year. At some point, usually early in the season, Mariano Rivera will struggle for about a week. A few years ago it led to column after column wondering if this was the end of his superhuman run. Baseball writers have since learned, though, and we no longer see anything like that. We just accept that Mo will have a bad week and move on.

This year we’ve seen something a bit different. Mo experienced his annual rough week in May when he walked in a run and then served up a grand slam against the Twins, allowed two runs against Boston, and then had a shaky time saving a close game against the Mets. Before those three appearances he hadn’t allowed a run all season. He didn’t allow another run in his next 16 appearances. In other words, it looked like any other year. But since September 11 we’ve seen something quite different.

On September 10 the Yankees and Rangers were deadlocked at five heading into extra innings. Wanting to take the first game of a three-game set in Arlington, Joe Girardi went to Mo for the 10th. Even after the Yankees failed to score in their half of the 11th, Girardi went back to Mo. The appearance didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. Mo allowed one hit and struck out two in those two frames. But he cannot go three innings and the Yankees lost when Nelson Cruz homered off Chad Gaudin.

The next day the Yankees found themselves in a position to take the second game of the series. Up 6-5 heading into the bottom of the ninth, Girardi again turned to Mo. A few years ago that wouldn’t have raised a single eyebrow. But this year Mo is 40 going on 41, and he had just thrown two innings the previous day. He had used only 23 pitches to retire those six Rangers, so perhaps he was good for a rebound. It was not to be. The Rangers rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth while Mo recorded only one out. It was the first time in 2010 that he’d come into the game with a lead and allowed the walk-off hit.

Since then Mo has not at all been Mo. In the 5.2 innings since his two-inning appearance he has allowed six runs on nine hits and two walks, though the two walks did come during that game in Texas. Most strikingly, though, he has struck out just one batter. While he has saved three games in that span, he hasn’t looked particularly dominant in any of them. This certainly raises questions about how effective he will be in the playoffs.

The problem stems from his command. For a decade and a half we’ve seen Mo throw pitches right to the catcher’s glove. It’s part of the reason why he’s able to survive with just the cutter and the occasional fastball. This year we’ve seen more of the same. While it’s not the best measure of command, per se, Mo had thrown 67 percent of his pitches for strikes through September 10, which is right around where he’s been for most of his career. I’m not sure we can precisely measure command, but if Mo’s balls in play tendencies are any indicator then he’s doing just fine. Opponents are hitting fewer line drives and more weak fly balls, as evidenced by his meager 3.6 percent HR/FB ratio. He has also induced a swinging strike with 8.3 percent of his pitches, which is actually an increase over last year.

In his last six appearances Mo has thrown just 61 percent of his pitches for strikes, though most of that is due to the blown save in Texas, when he threw just nine of 21 pithes for strikes. That leaves a 65 percent strike rate in the following five appearances, but they haven’t all been good strikes. The 23 batter he has faced have a .300 BABIP, while Mo’s season mark is .235 and his career mark is .274. Maybe some of that is luck evening out, but most likely it’s Mo not having perfect command and serving up hittable pitches.

Given the way Mo has pitched since the two-inning appearance in Texas, it’s easy to point to that as the cause of his struggles. I used to launch into the correlation ? causation line here, but that itself is oversimplified. Maybe the strain of pitching an inning, sitting down, and then pitching another inning has affected Mo. It’s certainly possible, though I do think there is a better explanation. As Ben said last night, it’s been a long season and Mo is 40 going on 41. But in that way, I guess, it can be both. Maybe Mo’s body is no longer up to the task of pitching, then sitting down, then going out to pitch again. He did, after all, look quite fine when he retired his one batter in the eighth last night.

The good news is that Mo can get a breather this week. The Yanks are all but assured a playoff spot, so Girardi can cycle through his other, less effective relievers while he waits for the starting pitching and offense to deliver a win, or the White Sox to play the part of eliminator. I’d bank on no more than one more appearance for Mo, and that will be a tune-up. That’s nothing but good news for the Yanks, who will need their closer to again be superhuman in the playoffs.

Quick note: If Phil Cuzzi had an accurate notion of the strike zone we might not even be having this conversation right now. I’m not exactly blaming the ump; Mo still has to make his pitches. But if Bill Hall strikes out we’re looking at a completely different game, one that the Yanks might have won 2-1. Jon Papelbon, too, criticized Cuzzi, but his point was ultimately moot. If Cuzzi had given Papelbon those calls, well, he still wouldn’t have given him those calls because Pap wouldn’t have pitched in the first place. But this is just an end note, not something I think we should spend any real time discussing. Umps suck. We know this.

Fan Confidence Poll: September 27th, 2010

Record Last Week: 3-4 (36 RS, 46 RA)
Season Record: 93-63 (828 RS, 657 RA, 96-60 Pythag. record), 0.5 games back
Schedule This Week: @ Blue Jays (three games, Mon. to Weds.), Thurs. OFF, @ Red Sox (three games, Fri. to Sun.)

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Yanks win back-and-forth affair in walk-off fashion, reduce magic number to Juan

Biggest game of the year? I think it’s fair to say that Sunday’s ulcer inducing contest between the Yankees and Red Sox was the most important game of New York’s season. The Yanks had lost four in a row and needed to silence the doubters who questioned their ability to hang onto a playoff spot, especially since they didn’t have the benefit of another home game left on the schedule. After some intense play, the Yanks prevailed and got the win they so desperately needed.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Biggest Hit Walk Of The Year

Terry Francona seemed to almost pity the Yanks after the first nine innings of this one, turning to the shockingly ineffective Hideki Okajima in the bottom of the tenth inning instead of relief ace Dan Bard, who was warming up just two innings earlier. Yeah, two lefties were due up, but with your season effectively on the line, you have to go to your best arm in that spot. He didn’t, and he paid for it.

Curtis Granderson led the inning off with a single, then he moved to third on a Brett Gardner bunt that resulted in a Victor Martinez throwing error. You can’t even call it an error really, the throw hit either Gardner or Marco Scutaro at first and deflected into foul territory. I honestly couldn’t care about the specifics, I was glad the winning run was on third with no outs. Derek Jeter was intentionally walked to load the bases and create the force at any base, and it worked when Marcus Thames grounded to third baseman Adrian Beltre as the next batter, who got the force at home.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

That brought Juan Miranda to the plate, an inning after he replaced Ramiro Pena who pinch hit for Mark Teixeira in the ninth. Yeah, more on that movement later. A .233/.316/.384 hitter against southpaws in the minors this year, the Miranda-Okajima matchup appeared to favor the Red Sox and even the most positive of Yankee fans worried about the double play possibility. First pitch was a curveball away for a ball, the second a curve down for a swinging strike. Okajima brings plenty of soft stuff, and the problem with that is that it can drift out of the zone unwantedly. Third and fourth pitches were off the plate for balls, and when he needed to throw a strike, Okajima went to the changeup inside. It was too far inside, and Miranda took it for the game winning walk-off walk.

Was it an anti-climatic ending? Sure, but at this point who cares. The Yanks needed a win any way possible, and they got it from an unexpected source.  Oh happy day.

A Lead Gone

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Following Brett Gardner’s failed steal attempt in the eighth, the Yanks had the Red Sox right where they wanted them. Mariano Rivera was in the game, and the Sox were going to send up their six, seven and eight hitters. With Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia out, the bottom of the Sox order suffers, and the Yanks were just three outs away from a win.

The inning started out easily enough as Jed Lowrie lofted a fly ball to the warning track in right field, but then the trouble began. Ryan Kalish knocked a ground-ball single to center, and with Bill Hall up, the Red Sox went to the races. Kalish stole second as Jorge Posada‘s throw sailed to the third base side of the base, and then he took off for third. He was safe without a throw, and the Red Sox, with one out, needed just a fly ball to tie the game.

What happened during Hall’s at-bat was alarming. Mariano Rivera wasn’t paying much attention to the runner, and the Yanks’ infielders weren’t holding him on. Posada’s throw to second was a bad one, and the Red Sox were clearly in Mo’s head. To make matters worse, Phil Cuzzi, who had a terrible strike zone all night, apparently missed by the 0-1 and 1-2 strikes. Hall lived to single in the tying run as the ball hydroplaned past A-Rod.

With Hall on first, it was deja vu all over again. On the second pitch to Mike Lowell, he stole second uncontested, and two pitches later, he stole third as well. The throw to third by Jorge bounced before it reached A-Rod, and only a nice stop by the Yanks’ third baseman prevented it from being a run-scoring error. When Mike Lowell hid a fly ball to Curtis Granderson, the Red Sox had a 3-2 lead with but three outs to play.

For Rivera and Posada, this running game is a bit of a concern. The Yanks’ relievers aren’t great at holding runners on, and the team’s catchers don’t have the arms to overcome big jumps. Posada, in particular, has looked weak behind the plate on attempted steals. Hopefully, the Yanks’ bats can overcome the need to keep runners close, but tonight the Red Sox exploited a clear hole in the Yanks’ defense.

A Tie Regained

Mariano Rivera wasn’t the only closer not in top form tonight. Just 20 minutes after Rivera blew the Yanks’ save, Jonathan Papelbon returned the favor. To start the ninth, the Yanks had everything in order. The top of the lineup was due up, and Papelbon hasn’t been sharp of late. Two pitches into the inning, Derek Jeter had lined out, but then the fun began.

Nick Swisher started the rally with a 3-2 single to right field, and already, Papelbon was upset with Phil Cuzzi’s strike zone. While Cuzzi was consistent in his bad zone, Papelbon stared incredulously at a pitch or two during Swisher’s at-bat. Mark Teixeira followed Swisher’s hit with a single of his own, and then Eduardo Nunez, pinch running for Swisher, stole third. With A-Rod up, the Yanks just needed a fly ball to tie the game.

The Red Sox played it dangerously safe. They fed A-Rod breaking balls away and ended up walking him to bring up Robinson Cano, and — don’t you know? — Cano delivered. He hit a hard ground ball to right field, and Nunez trotted home easily. Had the Yankees not won the game, Rob Thomson’s decision to hold Ramiro Peña at third would have come under the microscope. At the time, though, it seemed wise. The Yanks had just one out, and Jorge Posada was due up next. There was no need to challenge Josh Reddick’s cannon in right field.

Jorge, though, had designs on the second half of a no-good, very-bad inning. During a five-pitch at-bat, he swung at two pitches out of the zone and struck out with the bases juiced. When Lance Berkman flew out to right field, the Yanks and Red Sox would take this nail-biter to the tenth, where Miranda worked his magic.

Worth Every Penny

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Is there anyone still out there who thinks A-Rod isn’t clutch? Dude’s got four homers in his last eight at-bats, all against the Yanks’ biggest rivals with a playoff spot on the line, and tonight’s meant more than any of them.

Daisuke Matsuzaka cruised right along for the first six innings, needing just 68 pitches to record those first 18 outs. For a guy known to nibble and beat himself with walks, that’s a minor miracle against a lineup like this. Swisher started the seventh inning by swinging at ball four and rolling over on a grounder to second, but Teixeira sort of made up for it by singling on a full count as the next batter. The Yankees had generated basically nothing offensively up to that point, but with Alex at the plate a runner is always in scoring position. With Tex on first, there was a chance to take the lead with one swing of the bat.

Dice-K had a clear plan for A-Rod all night, and really the entire Red Sox team does when these two clubs meet. They pound him inside with hard stuff early, then go away with soft stuff hoping for a grounder or a swing-and-a-miss. The first pitch was a fastball on the inner third for a strike, then Alex swung through the second fastball inside for strike two. The expectation changes now, you hope for a single or a ground ball with eyes, because with the wind blowing in and an 0-2 count, swinging hard and trying to muscle a ball out just isn’t smart for mere mortals. A-Rod, of course, is anything but a mere mortal. The 0-2 pitch was another fastball inside, but A-Rod pulled his hands in and got the barrel of the bat on the ball, sending it out to deep right-center. It was at least a double, but it ended up clearing the fence by no more than three feet. Tex scores, Alex scores, and the Yankees had their first lead in four games.

Hughes The Man

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Given the back-and-forth nature of the last two or three innings, it’s easy to forget how stellar Phil Hughes was for the first six-plus innings. The young righthander, who as of yesterday afternoon wasn’t even supposed to start this game, came out shoving the fastball and bending knees with the curve. The lone run he surrendered came after Swisher misplayed a fly ball into a double, a sac fly, and a single, but other than that he was masterful.

Phil gave the Yankees six innings on the nose, though he pitched to two batters in the seventh before handing the ball off to David Robertson with men on first and second. The Red Sox picked up just three hits off Hughes, and his typical foul ball problems didn’t surface until late in the outing when his pitch count crept up towards the century mark. The final line (6 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 4 K) doesn’t do justice to how good he was; Hughes gave the Yankees everything they could have asked for and then some.

As for Robertson, boy was he some kind of unsung hero in this one. He inherited that first and second, no outs situation and escaped the inning with no runs. Ryan Kalish, who made a monster diving catch in the outfield to rob Cano of a sure double one batter after A-Rod’s homer, bunted the runners over, but D-Rob got Bill Hall to ground to short on an 0-2 fastball. With the infield in, the runners had to stay at second and third. The inning ended when the next batter, Lars Anderson, struck out on a curveball at his feet. Can’t say enough about his inning of work, Robertson was simply huge in this game.

Leftovers

One of my tweets got mentioned on the YES postgame show, which you can see to the right. Here’s video of Bob Lorenz butchering my last name (it’s Ax-ee-sa, Bob). My 15 minutes are almost up, but I sure enjoyed them. (thanks to J_Yankees for the screen cap, woainidepigu for the video)

Kerry Wood allowed a hit while recording the first two outs in the eighth before being instructed to intentionally walk David Ortiz. Mo came on and got Adrian Beltre to end the threat. Also big ups to Joba Chamberlain and Boone Logan for getting three big outs in the tenth. The Yanks were headed to Sergio Mitre, Chad Gaudin territory after that, so thank goodness they scored and won.

Derek Jeter’s 14 game hit streak came to an end, but oh well. Tex had three hits, Cano a pair, and Gardner reached on a single and walk. Posada and Lance Berkman each went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts.

The Rays lost to the Mariners (hah!), so their lead in the division shrunk to one. The Yanks clinched at least a tie of the Wild Card with the win, so they have guaranteed that a Game 163 tiebreaker will be played if necessary. They’ll have to lose all of their remaining games while the Sox win all of theirs for that to happen, though.

WPA Graph & Box Score

That’s a whole lotta red lines, ain’t it? That means you almost had a heart attack. ESPN has the box, FanGraphs the nerd.

Up Next

The Yanks head up to Toronto, and as far as we know A.J. Burnett is still scheduled to start on Monday. Marc Rzepczynski will go for the Jays.

Game 156 Spillover Thread II

For luck. And venting.

Game 156 Spillover Thread

We need a new thread. The Yankees can’t seem to score with the old one.

Game 156: Win, dammit

Hey Derek, do something captainy. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Seriously, cut the crap and win a damn game already. Stop worrying about clinching a playoff spot and resting people and magic numbers and all that crap and just win. Just win, that’s it. Just a win. A good old W. Please, just freaking win. It’s the last home game of the season, give the fans a reason not to boo you off the field.

Here’s the lineup…

Jeter, SS
Swisher, RF
Teixeira, 1B
A-Rod, 3B
Cano, 2B
Posada, C
Berkman, DH
Granderson, CF
Gardner, LF

And on the mound, it’s Panic movehil Hughes.

Oh good, and ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game. Jon Miller, Joe Morgan, and Orel Hershiser, everyone’s favorite booth trio. Game starts a little after 8pm, and if you want to talk about tonight’s Jets game, we have a thread for that. Enjoy.

Change of plans: Hughes to start tonight

Per the various beat writers, the Yankees will start Phil Hughes instead of Dustin Moseley tonight. I guess they remembered that they haven’t clinched anything yet.