Three pitchers debut in the desert

AzFL Phoenix Desert Dogs (10-4 win over Mesa)
Ronnie Mustelier, 3B: 1 for 2 – left the game after four innings for some unknown reason
Chase Whitley, RHP: 1.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 HBP, 2-0 GB/FB – 20 of 33 pitches were strikes (60.6%)
Dan Burawa, RHP: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 16 of 23 pitches were strikes (69.6%)
Preston Claiborne, RHP: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1-0 GB/FB – ten of 17 pitches were strikes (58.8%)

David Phelps is the only player out there yet to make his debut, but he will soon. Maybe even tomorrow.

Open Thread: “We are the casino”

We’re a little late to the party on this, but the ALDS schedule hasn’t been kind the last few days. The video above is a Yankees-centric spoof on the Moneyball trailer, a solid two minutes of laughs. I first saw it at Amazin’ Avenue, but it’s since popped up on Big League Stew, NoMaas, CBS Sports, the Twitterverse … basically everywhere but here. Better late than never though, right?

Anyway, here’s your open thread for the night. I posted this an hour earlier than usual because the Phillies and Cardinals game starts at 6:07pm ET (Jackson vs. Oswalt on TBS). If the Phillies win, they move on to the NLCS. Cardinals win, they’ll play a Game Five. The Brewers and Diamondbacks (Wolf vs. Saunders) starts a little later (9:37pm ET on TBS). Milwaukee leads that series 2-1. Use this thread to talk about those games, or anything else you want. Go nuts.

How Cano Went From Good To Great

Someone's got a secret. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Just before the playoffs began, the Yankees took what seemed to be the inevitable step of installing Robinson Cano as their new number three hitter. Mark Teixeira just wasn’t cutting it against right-handed hitters, and Cano was one of the team’s top two offensive players for the second straight season. The move was made and it paid immediate dividends in Game One of the ALDS. Robbie had two doubles and a grand slam in the rout of Detroit, but the funny thing is that Cano never projected to be this type of hitter when he was in the minors.

In an Insider-only piece for ESPN today, Kevin Goldstein wrote about Cano and his transformation from a good prospect to a great big leaguer (if you have a Baseball Prospectus subscription, you can read the article here). The Yankees signed Cano out of the Dominican Republic way back in January of 2001, giving him just a $100k bonus. That’s less than half what they gave Dioner Navarro one year earlier, and Yanks VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman explained that not even the Yankees expected Robbie to be this good.

“He wasn’t the highest-profile player by any stretch of the imagination,” said Newman to Goldstein. “He was a shortstop, but he couldn’t run; he was even a 40 (on a grading scale of 40-80) back then, so there was just nothing flashy about him. But we liked his bat, especially his hands, and so he had the one tool that trumps all others.”

Cano never cracked Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list, and it wasn’t until he was on the cusp of big leagues that he even garnered a top two spot in the Yankees farm system (I thought he was the team’s best prospect before 2005, but no one asked me). Cano hit .301/.356/.497 in half a season at Double-A in 2004 before a second half promotion to Triple-A, and he was hitting .333/.368/.574 in 24 games with Columbus before being called up to replace the oh so terrible Tony Womack in 2005. He showed the same skills he shows now (insane amounts of contact, few walks, gap power to all fields), just not as refined.

Goldstein asked Newman and various anonymous scouts about what helped Cano take that next step. “I’d love to point to some obvious change in his swing or approach, but when you ask me how he [turned] into the player today, it’s just hard work,” said one scout. Newman backed that up, adding that his upbringing may have also played a role in his development. Cano’s father Jose played in the big leagues, albeit briefly, and we heard all about their relationship during the Homerun Derby. Robbie and Jose still work out together in the offseason, so you can only imagine what they did before Cano established himself as one of the game’s best.

A few weeks ago I said I would like to see the Yankees sign Cano long-term this offseason, something like five years with an option even though they hold club options for his services through 2013. Regardless of whether they do that or not, Robinson has clearly gone from prospect afterthought to homegrown superstar, and is now the central focus of the team’s lineup. Talent is obviously part of it, but hard work also helped Cano take that step, a step that has sure been fun to watch.

The Game Changer

Hurts so good. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

Last night’s Game Four win was all about A.J. Burnett‘s surprisingly effective start and a late-inning offensive relay, where everyone in the lineup just kept passing baton to the next guy. The final score (10-1) doesn’t really tell the whole story story though, because it was just 4-1 heading into the eighth. Baseball is a team game, but one man really stood on his head a bit and contributed to that 4-1 lead. That would be Curtis Granderson, the club’s MVP.

I don’t want to say that we’re overlooking what Granderson did last night, I don’t think that’s case at all, but it’s worth taking a step back to appreciate his efforts again during the off day. The defensive stats may not like him to varying degrees this year – DRS hates him (-15 runs), UZR doesn’t like him much (-5.3), and dWAR says he’s basically average (-0.2) – but even if you don’t like Granderson’s defense, you can’t deny the two plays he made last night. That first inning lunging catch (video) completely changed the dynamic of that game. If it gets by him, that ball has inside-the-park grand slam potential. At the very least, it’s three runs for the Tigers. Instead they got zero, then Burnett settled down and kept it that way. Six innings later, he made another thrilling catch on a Jhonny Peralta fly ball (video), laying out to save a run, keep the tying run from coming to the plate, and ending the inning.

On the offensive side of the ball, which is really what Granderson is known for, he doubled in the team’s third run of the game, which also helped setup the fourth run later in the inning. He also tripled in Derek Jeter in the first inning of Game Three and whacked a solo homer in Game Two as the Yankees tried (and failed) to make a comeback. Everyone’s spent so much time focusing on how poorly Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher have hit over the last two postseasons that they haven’t bothered to notice what Curtis has done with the bat, namely hit .318/.464 (!)/.614 in the playoffs as a Yankee. Remember the came tying triple off Francisco Liriano in Game One of last year’s ALDS? Another feature in his cap.

Granderson had a weak September (.205/.300/.375 in exactly 100 PA), no denying it, but he still had an MVP caliber year. We’re talking a .262/.364/.552 batting with 41 homers, and he’s shaken off that slow September to again become a force in the ALDS. He was a two-way threat last night, creating runs with the bat and certainly saving runs with the glove. Granderson impacted the game as much as any player on the field, which is something he’s been doing all year.

The Yanks and ALDS Game Five: A Brief History

The current playoff format has been in effect since 1995, and the Yankees have made the postseason more than any other team during the wildcard era. They’ll play a winner-take-all Game Five against the Tigers tomorrow night after keeping their season alive last night, their sixth decisive Game Five since the current format was put in place. How did the Yankees fare in the previous five Game Fives? Let’s look back…

(MLB.com)

1995 vs. Mariners: Seattle wins 6-5 in 12 innings (box) (WPA)
This one will always and forever be the heart-breaker. I was just 13 years old at the time, about three weeks away from my 14th birthday. The Yankees had just made the postseason for the first time in my life, the first ever club to win a wildcard spot. New York won Game One thanks to five late-inning runs, then took Game Two in 15 innings thanks to Jim Leyritz’s two-run walk-off dinger. Up two games to zip in the best-of-five, I remember feeling pretty awesome about how things were going. We all know what happened next.

The Mariners scored six runs in the fifth and sixth innings of Game Three to extend their season, then evened up the series thanks to five eighth inning runs in Game Four. David Cone and Andy Benes squared off in Game Five, and the Yankees had a 4-2 lead going into the bottom of the eighth. Ken Griffey Jr. hit a solo homer, and Cone unraveled. Tino Martinez walked, Jay Buhner singled, and Alex Diaz walked to load the bases. Buck Showalter stuck with Cone at 141 pitches, who then walked Doug Strange to force in the tying run. The score remained tied until Randy Velarde singled in a run off Randy Johnson in the top of the 12th, but Jack McDowell could not make the run stand up. Joey Cora led off the bottom of the 12th inning with a bunt single, then Griffey singled on a ground ball back up the middle. Edgar Martinez, who went 12-for-21 with six walks in the series, doubled into left, scoring both runs for the series clinching walk-off win. It was my first taste of brutal, gut-wrenching defeat.

1997 vs. Indians: Cleveland wins 4-3 (box) (WPA)
A back-and-forth series, the Yankees and Indians alternated wins and losses for the first four games of the series before coming together in Cleveland for matchup of young hurlers in Game Five: Andy Pettitte and Jaret Wright. The Tribe jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the third inning thanks to a Manny Ramirez double and a Matt Williams single, and they tacked on another run in the fourth. The Yankees did rally back to make it 4-2 in fifth courtesy of a Bernie Williams single and a Manny error, then Wade Boggs made it 4-3 with a single in the sixth. The score would remain unchanged for the rest of the game though, which ended when Bernie flew out to deep center with the tying run on second against Jose Mesa.

2000 vs. Athletics: Yankees win 7-5 (box) (WPA)
Clearly the worse team of the late-90’s dynasty, the Yankees dropped the opener before winning the next two games. Oakland completely wrecked the Yankees in Game Four to force Game Five, another Pettitte start. Gil Heredia was on the bump for the A’s, and this one was over before it started. New York scored four runs before making an out in the first inning, and ended the frame up 6-0. The Athletics chipped away with solo homers and sac flies, but ultimately it was just too big of a hole to climb out of. Eric Chavez, representing the tying run, popped out in foul territory against Mariano Rivera to end the game and the A’s season. For the first time in the wildcard era, the Yankees had won a deciding Game Five in the ALDS.

(MLB.com)

2001 vs. Athletics: Yankees win 5-3 (box) (WPA)
Seven years after the Mariners made that huge comeback, it was time for the Yankees to make a comeback of their own. The A’s took the first game on the strength of solo homers from Jason Giambi and Terrence Long against Sterling Hitchcock. Tim Hudson completely stifled the Yankees in Game Two, and Oakland had a commanding two games to none series lead.

The comeback started in Game Three, a thrilling 1-0 win that featured Derek Jeter‘s famous flip play and seven shutout innings from Mike Mussina. The Yankees blew the doors off Game Four early, forcing a Game Five with a 9-2 win. The A’s did not go quietly in the deciding game, far from it. They scored a run in the first and a run in the second off Roger Clemens, but Alfonso Soriano knotted things up with a two-run single in the bottom of the second. Scott Brosius drove in a run on error the next inning, then Jeter tacked on another run with a sac fly the next inning. David Justice tacked on a homer off Hudson in relief, and the Yankees cruised to a 5-3 thanks to 4.2 scoreless, two-hit innings from their bullpen.

2005 vs. Angels: Anaheim wins 5-3 (box) (WPA)
This one was just painful. Not rip your heart out painful like 1995, just ugly. Ugly to watch. Mussina outdueled Bartolo Colon in a Game One win, but the Halos rebounded with a win behind John Lackey in Game Two. The Randy Johnson-Paul Byrd matchup in Game Three did not go planned, with the Angels winning a wild, 11-7 contest. Shawn Chacon (Shawn Chacon!) stood on his head with 6.1 shutout innings in Game Four to force the deciding game. Game Five was just awful. Moose didn’t get out of the third, outfielders were running into each other … just an unwatchable game. Francisco Rodriguez closed the game out, getting Hideki Matsui to ground out to first with the tying run on base.

* * *

So that’s five Game Fives in 16 postseasons, with two losses and three wins. The two wins came in back-to-back years against the Athletics, and of course the Yankees haven’t won an ALDS against a non-Twins team since that 2001 series against Oakland. Scary stat, but it’s meaningless. Different team, different manager, different opponents, yadda yadda yadda. What happened six years ago doesn’t matter now. Tomorrow’s game will have it’s own script, one that will be dictated by Ivan Nova and Doug Fister.

The Biggest Game of the Season

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Two Octobers ago, A.J. Burnett outdueled Pedro Martinez in Game Two of the World Series one night after Cliff Lee thoroughly manhandled the Yankees in Game One. I called it the most important game of the season a few days later, and as Burnett has struggled terribly over the last two seasons, we’ve always been able to look back at that Game Two start as his redeeming quality. Help the Yankees win a World Series, especially as a starting pitcher, and you’ll be welcome in this town forever.

As we’ve gotten further and further away from the 2009 World Series though, the less we’ve been able to use that Game Two start as a crutch. Yes, it happened and Burnett was amazing, but one game doesn’t make a five-year contract. A.J. continued to pitch terribly with no end in sight, but the team gave him the opportunity to wash his hands of the last two years last night. It wasn’t by design, some poor weather forced them to give him that opportunity, but they gave it to him nonetheless. Last night, in Game Four of the ALDS, he delivered and added another big game to his Yankees resume. Sounds weird, but it’s true.

You know the situation. It was an elimination game on the road against a team that has a really good offense and was still riding the high of Justin Verlander’s dominance in Game Three. Burnett had nothing going for him before the start, just the support of his teammates and manager, and the forced support from us fans. We didn’t have faith in him, you all know this, but we were all in his corner because of the uniform he wore. In a way, A.J. had nothing to lose. No one expected much from him, so it would have been really tough for him to disappointment. Anything productive would be a pleasant surprise.

Although I still consider that Game Two start to be Burnett’s “signature moment” in pinstripes, remember the context. That wasn’t an elimination game, it was a “lose and you’re down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series heading to Philadelphia for three games” game. Certainly a crummy situation, but not lose or go home. His actual performance was worse last night, but I think his performance relative to expectations was far great than it was that late-October night against Pedro. That’s what makes it’s so amazing.

Burnett won’t get a pass on his performance during this last few years because of a pair of well-timed gems, but it certainly softens the blow a bit. And remember, the biggest game of the season is not exactly a fixed event. Last night’s game was only the biggest game of the season until the Yankees won. Now the biggest game of the season is Thursday night, Game Five. That one will be in the hands of Ivan Nova and basically all of his teammates other than Burnett. A.J. won’t be available after pitching last night, but he earned the day off anyway.