The importance of clinching this weekend

Last night, for what seems like the first time in a while, the Yankees’ magic number did not budge. It remains at a Ruthian three, and with Boston taking the night off it can only move down one tonight. It might not seem like a bit deal either way; there will be three more Yankees’ wins or Red Sox losses this season. But a win tonight does give the team an advantage heading into the final 10 days of the season. It means that just one win this weekend seals the playoff spot.

Winning the AL East does hold some significance. It means not only facing a theoretically weaker opponent in the ALDS, but it also means home field advantage in the first two rounds. Girardi has gone on record saying they want to win the East. As well they should. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of the big postseason picture. While home field advantage is nice, it’s not as nice as having a well rested crew.

Once the team clinches a playoff spot, Girardi can ease off his relievers for a bit. The top guys have been pressed into duty frequently in the past few weeks and have often been unavailable. Once they clinch up Girardi can throw them a couple of times to keep them sharp, but can generally give them a breather heading into what promises to be an intense month. The same goes for the starters. Clinching over the weekend means that they can rearrange the rotation to fit the playoff schematic. It also means that the playoff starters can go a short five in their final starts.

On offense, the assurance of a playoff spot means that banged up players can take a quick breather. This isn’t to say that the starters should sit regularly, but rather that they could get a day or two where they wouldn’t otherwise. The 29th in Toronto presents an opportunity, since there’s an off-day the next day. Sitting Swisher, Teixeira, and Posada that day makes sense, since it essentially gives them two straight days off. They’ll then have a three-game tune-up in Boston to get back into the swing of things before the ALDS begins.

Before they can think of any of this, they need to get that magic number from three to zero. With a series against Boston this weekend that moment should come soon enough. But a win tonight will go a long way. It means that just one win puts the playoff spot in the bag and allows the Yanks to maneuver as they see best fit in the season’s final week. That seems like a perfect interval. It’s not too long, but it’s still ample time to let some wounds heal and line up the rotation. That might cost the team the East, but at this point I’d far rather the Yanks head into the playoffs a healthy and rested team without home field than an exhausted one that gets an extra home game per series.

Yanks fall to Tampa after lengthy rain delay

After two somewhat tense but otherwise gratifying wins in the first two games of the series, Wednesday’s game against the Rays was a complete let down in pretty much every way. Tampa jumped out to an early lead, then a two hour and 11 minute rain delay interrupted the bottom of the third inning. Once the game resumed the Yanks just couldn’t seem to dig themselves out of a hole the bullpen kept digging, and the end result was just their second loss in the last six games.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Back-To-Back And There Goes The Ballgame

More than anything else, the most annoying part of this game was that every time the Yanks scored, the bullpen immediately gave back the runs if not more. Chad Gaudin came into the game for reasons unknown in the seventh inning after the Yanks closed the gap to 3-2, and he actually managed to get two quick ground outs from John Jaso and Ben Zobrist. Three pitches later, the Rays had two more runs thanks to back-to-back solo homers from Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria. Ho hum, as if we should have expected otherwise.

Crawford’s homer was the biggest WPA swing of the game for Tampa at +.139.

Fat Elvis Has Left The Building

About the only bright spot for the Yanks in this game was Lance Berkman getting his first homerun in pinstripes. Jeremy Hellickson left a 1-2 changeup up a bit, Berkman put a good swing on it and hit it out to right-center. It wasn’t a total cheapie, a few rows back, but it’s certainly not a ball that would have left all 30 parks. Anyway, I’m glad Lance got that out of the way. Hopefully a few more start to follow.

Garbage Pitchers In Non-Garbage Time

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

I understand that when the weather causes a delay, especially early in the game, it can be rather tough to navigate all those innings with the bullpen. That’s true even in September when there’s plenty of extra arms around. Joe Girardi turned to the southpaw Royce Ring after the delay because a bunch of lefties were due up, and he chipped in five rather uneventful outs before walking John Jaso. Not bad for a guy making his first big league appearance since August 1st, 2008.

Dustin Moseley relieved Ring and naturally got smacked around, his first action in ten days. Five of the first six men he faced picked up a hit (Ring’s inherited runner scored), and the only reason he escaped the sixth inning with just one run crossing the plate is because Mark Teixeira put on a nice little clinic at first. He threw a runner out at the plate on the groundout before turning a nifty 3-6-3 double play to end the inning.

Gaudin replaced Moseley, pitching for the sixth time in the last twelve games, and he of course gave up those two homers. His line in those six games: 5.2 IP, 9 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 4 BB, 4 K, 3 HR. He doesn’t deserve to be on the postseason roster, but I bet you he is anyway. Jon Albaladejo relieved Gaudin and immediately walked the first two men he faced, the second of which he forced in a run. He then allowed another run in the ninth. I’m guessing the ten days’ worth of rust was an issue.

It’s not so much that they pitched poorly as a group (aside from Ring, really), you have to expect that with these guys, it’s that this game was still very winnable. It was 1-0 coming out of the rain delay and still just a one run game when Gaudin entered in the seventh. It just makes Girardi seem hypocritical to go with the garbage time relievers in a close game after he said “Our goal is to win the division” that afternoon. I have no trouble with him resting guys before the postseason, none at all, but the walk and the talk don’t match right now.

Leftovers

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

A.J. Burnett was generally okay in his three innings of work before the rain. The first inning run scored on a ground ball single between Robbie Cano and Mark Teixeira, a walk to move the runner into scoring position, a ground out to move the runner to third, and then a sac fly. He allowed a single in the second (another grounder) and a walk in the third, but that’s pretty much it. A.J. threw 51 pitches total, 33 for strikes. It was his second rain shortened outing in his last three starts and at least his third this season.

Aside from Berkman’s homer, the offense did a whole bunch of nothing. Alex Rodriguez drove in the other run with a bloop single to left and Derek Jeter extended his hitting streak to 11 games with a 2-for-4 effort. Tex took yet another 0-fer and is now seven for his last 57 (.129) with 14 strikeouts. I get that he’s nursing a broken toe and bruised hand (and he got hit by pitch in the back of the leg in this game), but there’s been way, way too many cold streaks from him this year. Hopefully he finishes strong and mashes in the playoffs.

The Red Sox managed to beat the Orioles, so the magic number to clinch the division remains at three. The division lead shrunk to one-and-a-half games with the loss.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Look at that thing, the game was so close until frickin’ Gaudin showed up. Sigh. Anyway, MLB.com has the box score, FanGraphs some other stuff.

Up Next

Series finale tomorrow night is a rematch of last week’s pitching duel. CC Sabathia takes on David Price at 7pm ET, except this time the Yanks’ bullpen is rested and ready to go. I think.

Robertson out with back spasms after MRI

When Chad Gaudin came in for the 7th inning against the top of the 7th inning, I assumed the Yanks were either not going to try to hard to win tonight or someone was hurt. The true story seems to be a combination of both. According to Bryan Hoch, David Robertson was unavailable tonight with back spasms. The Yanks’ key set-up man had gone for an MRI earlier in the day, but the results showed no structural damage. He is considered day-to-day.

Robertson, who had a late-season MRI on his throwing elbow in 2009, has made 59 appearances this year, but lately, Girardi had been leaning heavily on the right-hander. He made seven appearances over 11 games from Sept. 8-Sept. 20 and had warmed up a few times before pitching. Hopefully, the Yanks have enough time to rest Robertson and get him ready for the playoffs, but with ten games left in the regular season, time’s a-wastin’.

Game 152: Twisting the knife

Credit: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

No matter what happens tonight and tomorrow, the Tampa Bay Rays will leave the Bronx in second place. By winning the first two games, the Yankees assured that, in the even of a series split, they’ll have a 0.5-game lead in the AL East. Based on their remaining schedules, a split would probably give the division edge to the Rays, and that’s not good enough for the Yankees. “Our goal,” manager Joe Girardi said this afternoon, “is to win the division.”

To put some distance between them and the Rays, the Yanks are going to have to win one, if not both, of the remaining contests this week, and tonight, the Yanks will turn the ball over to A.J. Burnett. After struggling through a terrible summer, Burnett has been better but still mediocre of late. He isn’t Bad A.J., but he’s not Good A.J. either. During his last four outings spanning 24 innings, he’s allowed 23 hits and 10 walks for an ERA Of 4.50. After striking out just 113 in his first 150 innings, he has K’d 24 batters over his last 24 innings pitched.

Countering A.J. will be one of the Rays’ better pitchers. While Tampa Bay’s rotation is in shambles, Wade Davis hasn’t lost a start since June 27 against the Diamondbacks. His 3.62 ERA over a span of 69.2 innings seems impressive, but he’ll still give up his fair share of home runs — 10 — while his K rate remains low — 6.07 per 9 IP. His FIP is a less impressive 4.47. The Yanks beat Davis on April 10 and lost on May 19 and July 30. For what it’s worth, only Brett Cecil and Felix Hernandez have beaten the Yanks three times this season.

Game time’s 7:05 p.m.

Brett Gardner LF
Derek Jeter SS
Mark Teixeira 1B – Having a terrible September. Girardi said Teixeira will rest his broken toe after the Yanks clinch.
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Robinson Cano 2B
Nick Swisher RF
Lance Berkman DH
Curtis Granderson CF
Francisco Cervelli C

A.J. Burnett P

Interestingly, Tampa Bay is going with a different lineup tonight too. Joe Maddon said he wanted to give Carlos Peña the rest of the series off to “clear his head.” That a tough lefty is going tomorrow night makes that move easier. Check out the Rays’ starting nine:

John Jaso DH
Ben Zobrist CF
Carl Crawford LF
Evan Longoria 3B
Dan Johnson 1B
Matt Joyce RF
Jason Bartlett SS
Reid Brignac 2B
Dioner Navarro C

Update (9:55 p.m.): The Yankees have announced that the game will resume at approximately 10:05 p.m. It’s the bottom of the third, and the Yankees are down 1-0. Both Wade Davis and A.J. Burnett will not be returning to the mound. Royce Ring is warming up for the Yankees, and Jeremy Hellickson will come in to pitch for Tampa Bay.

On the Pinstriped Podcast with Craig Mahoney

If you haven’t checked out Craig Mahoney’s Pinstriped Podcast, well, now is the week to start. I’m his guest this week, and we run down a number of issues, both serious and light-hearted, from the past few weeks. We’re on the Steinbrenner monument, Burnett’s black eye, Ivan Nova, plus some Jeter and some Mo. As Craig says, the podcast may contain naughty language and ribald humor, so I wouldn’t recommend letting the young’uns listen to this one. But if that’s up your alley, check out this week’s edition of the Pinstriped Podcast.

A Lesson In Trust: Hughes vs. Nova

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

There’s no question that the first few innings of Phil Hughes‘ outing last night were rocky. He put at least one man on base in each of the first four innings, averaging almost exactly 20 pitches per frame. He escaped a bases loaded jam in the fourth one inning after getting out of a first and second situation. The young righty clearly was having trouble throwing consistent, quality strikes, and after getting out of that fourth inning unscathed most thought that was the end of his night.

But no, Girardi sent Phil back out for the fifth and he responded with his strongest inning yet, retiring the Rays’ 3-4-5 hitters with a strikeout sandwiched around a pair of ground outs. With 97 pitches thrown and five innings in the bank, it seemed like a natural spot to summon someone from the bullpen. Again, Girardi fooled everyone by sending Hughes back out for the sixth, which ended up being his second consecutive 1-2-3 inning, this time on just eight pitches. Surely that was it after 105 pitches, right? Wrong, there was Hughes back out for the seventh. He threw six more pitches and allowed a single before recording an out to end his night. A case could be made that Girardi should have removed Phil two or three innings earlier, but he stuck with his 24-year-old righty.

Rewind to Monday. Rookie righthander Ivan Nova started the game for the Yanks, and he cruised right into the fifth inning on just 56 pitches, having allowed just a first inning single and a third inning walk along the way. That crucial fifth inning could not have gone any smoother, as Nova retired all three batters on just four pitches total. He was on autopilot, pounding the zone with fastballs and getting Tampa’s hitters to chase the curveball down and off the plate.

After the Yanks pushed a pair of runs across in the bottom of that fifth inning, Nova went back to work in the sixth and promptly allowed a leadoff single to Jason Bartlett. John Jaso followed that up with a five pitch walk, and then Ben Zobrist singled to load the bases with no outs and the Yanks up by four. Carl Crawford reached on a catcher’s interference, and after Evan Longoria plated a run on a double play to cut the lead to two, Girardi was out of the dugout to lift Nova after just 79 pitches.

What’s remarkable about both outings is how differently Girardi handled each pitcher. Hughes was left in until he had emptied the tank despite the stressful early innings while Nova wasn’t allowed to escape his own jam even though the Yanks were still up by two with two outs in the inning. Girardi surely had last week’s series in Tampa in mind, which included not only Nova’s fifth inning meltdown, but Dan Johnson’s go-ahead two run homer off Hughes after he sent him out for that proverbial “one more inning.” Even though both are relatively new to this big league starter thing, Girardi clearly gives Phil more rope right now.

Joel Sherman’s column today confirms what we already know, that Hughes is all but guaranteed a rotation spot in the postseason. Nova, despite what some other scribes want you to believe, is fighting for a spot on the playoff roster, nevermind a starting assignment. Oh sure, the bullpen situation certainly played a part in Girardi’s decisions the last two days, but this is nothing new. Nova’s been subjected to the quick hook all season (longest start: 91 pitches, only one other time over 79) while Hughes has been given a nice long leash (shortest start: 84 pitches, just nine under 100 pitches) all year long.  It’s appears to be a matter of getting what you can out of one guy while giving the other every opportunity to succeed and develop.

Trust is probably the wrong word to use in the title of this post, I think it’s more about development. Nova’s a fine pitcher and the Yankees seem to like him, but it’s undeniable that they adore Hughes and have gone to great lengths to help him reach his ceiling. In some cases that involves putting the big picture over a single game, something they have yet to come close to doing with Nova. The way they’ve handled both pitchers this season is pretty telling about what they think of each both right now, and down the road.

Rumor du Jour: Girardi’s unlikely replacements

As the Yanks sit upon the precipice of a playoff spot, it’s highly unlikely that Joe Girardi, despite a rough patch in early September, will be dismissed as the Yankee manager. The Yanks’ Front Office supports him, and the younger generation of Steinbrenners doesn’t seem so prone to rash personnel moves. Still, if Girardi himself chooses to take another job — say the opening in Chicago’s North Side — the Yanks will have to find a new manager. To that end, Jon Heyman, ever the rumormongerer, says that Bobby Valentine “likely would be one candidate to replace him in the Bronx.” Joe Torre’s name too has been bandied about by columnists looking for a narrative.

I say no way, no how on either candidate. Steve S. at TYU dispatches Torre while Rob Iracane at Walkoff walk seems to think that anyone advocating for Valentine’s return to the bench is delusional. The hand-wringing over Girardi’s contract is simply that. With the Yanks holding a secure playoff, the narrative of Girardi is one story to watch after the Word Series, but he’ll be back.