Hoping that Hunter can help wake up the offense

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Last night’s Game Three loss wasn’t just an ass-whoppin’, it was a historical ass-whoppin’. It was the worst shutout loss in Yankee postseason history, and the three baserunners were the fewest they’ve ever had in a playoff game. Cliff Lee was already one of just five pitchers to strike out ten-plus Yankees in a playoff game (the other four are or will be in the Hall of Fame), but yesterday he became the first man to do it twice. There’s no shame in losing to a pitcher of Lee’s caliber, but it’s not as if the Yankee offense set the world on fire in the first two games of the series either. Therein lies the real problem.

Brett Gardner‘s second half crash back to Earth (.232 AVG since the All Star break despite a .311 BABIP) has predictably continued into the postseason, except now he can’t rely on mediocre pitchers to walk him once every six trips to the plate to remain productive. He also seems to have resorted to the desperate act of sliding into first now, even though it’s been scientifically proven to slow you down. Derek Jeter has struck out in five of his last six plate appearances, including three straight on swings-and-misses at fastballs up in the zone yesterday. Mark Teixeira … I don’t even want to talk about him. His second straight terrible postseason is again propped up by one big homer against the Twins, par for the course during the worse non-rookie season of his career. Nick Swisher, Alex Rodriguez, and Jorge Posada are a combined 5-for-34 with three walks in the series. Outside of Robbie Cano and Curtis Granderson, the offense simply isn’t getting it done this postseason.

The good news is that if there’s one pitcher on the Rangers’ staff that can help ignite an offense, it’s Tommy Hunter. The burly righthander pitches to contact (his 5.8% swinging strike rate ranked 133rd out of 146 pitchers with at least 100 IP this year) and gives up lots of homers (1.48 HR/9, ranking 136th), two things the Yankees need a little help with right now. They’ve faced Hunter a few times in the past but just once this season, getting to him for two runs in five innings of work. They’ll need more than that tonight, I can assure you.

Tonight’s Game Four isn’t a must win, but the Yanks have to play with that kind of sense of urgency just to get themselves out of this funk. Perhaps the lineup changes – Lance Berkman in at DH, Curtis Granderson up to the two-spot – that come with facing a righty will help, but those changes are really nothing more than cosmetic. The starting nine they trot out there on a given day is more than enough to win, but right now very few are playing up to their abilities. Several players just look straight up old to be quite honest, and that’s a bad thing, because reversing age-related decline is pretty much impossible.

Cliff Lee was brilliant last night, let’s not take anything away from him, but the Yankees haven’t hit at all in this series save for one inning in Game One. If they lose tonight, A.J. Burnett will almost undoubtedly be the goat, but if the offense can’t muster anything off Tommy Hunter, then I’m not sure they deserve to win anyway. They Yanks are set up for a breakout offensive game, and championship caliber clubs have to find ways to win pitching matchups like this, especially at home.

Sometimes, you gotta go to Mo

The Yankees entered the ninth inning of Game 3 of the tied American League Championship Series at home down 2-0, and Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

Joe Girardi gave the ball to Boone Logan because a lefty was leading off the inning, and Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

It wasn’t just any lefty though; it was Josh Hamilton, the potential AL MVP, and Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

After Hamilton laced a double into the gap and the Rangers had a huge third run 180 feet from home, Joe Girardi went to the mound, and Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

David Robertson and Sergio Mitre put this game away for Texas, and Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

* * *

You see where I’m going with this. The Yankees had a deficit that they had to maintain late in the game. They weren’t going to enjoy a save situation, and they have the best postseason reliever in the history of the game in the bullpen. Yet, Joe Girardi did what he always does: He went with the match-ups. It was a decision with which I did not agree then and do not agree in hindsight.

To me, the idea is a simple one. In high leverage situations, the ideal way to manage involves bringing in the best. To keep the game at 2-0, a large but not insurmountable deficit with Cliff Lee on the mound, Joe Girardi needed his bullpen to be perfect. It was, as we saw, far from it. David Robertson didn’t have his best stuff, and the Rangers kept finding holes. They went first-to-third a few times, knocked out a few big hits and suddenly found themselves with a blowout on their hands. It all went wrong in a hurry.

In reality though, it went wrong when the inning started with Boone Logan on the mound. Going with Logan to face Hamilton isn’t an indefensible move. After all, Logan was death on lefties this year, and Hamilton OPS’d over .300 points lower against southpaws than he did right-handers. That Hamilton’s only hits of the ALCS have come against lefties is just one of those flukes of the postseason.

Still, as I watched the ninth unfold, I had a nagging suspicion that it should have been Mariano’s inning. It was absolutely incumbent upon the Yankees to keep the game at 2-0, and that’s the job for Mariano. Yesterday afternoon, I praised Joe Girardi for making the right decisions, but I think this one was the wrong one.

It’s interesting to me to watch Girardi manage a postseason series in which the Yankees are simply getting outplayed. They’re being out-pitched, out-hit and even out-managed. They haven’t mounted a rally since the eighth inning of Game 1, and they’ve trailed in 25 of 27 innings so far. It’s been a lesson in total domination.

Yet, I see hesitancy from Girardi that is at least worth questioning. This ALCS is the first time in the postseason that Girardi has had to coax results from the team, and he hasn’t pressed the right buttons. He let Phil Hughes throw into the fifth on Saturday and allowed him to surrender seven runs in a playoff game. He didn’t go to Mo last night. During the regular season, those moves might work out, but they don’t fit in a short series.

As Hughes’ disastrous outing unfolded, I kept thinking back to Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Granted, Game 7 has a bit more urgency than Game 2, but there, Joe Torre cut his losses quickly. When Roger Clemens threatened to bury the Yankees with his poor pitching, in came Mike Mussina with runners on first and third and no one out. The Yankees couldn’t afford to slip further behind, and it was time for a stopper. A starting pitcher can’t be allowed to dig a big hole in do-or-die situations.

Over the years, Joe Torre’s bugaboo became his unwillingness to use Mariano in a non-save situation on the road. In the 2003 World Series, he went with Jeff Weaver while Mo waited for a save situation that never came. Last night, the circumstances were different because the save situation wasn’t ever going to come, but still the Yanks’ future Hall of Fame closer just sat there. Mariano Rivera did not pitch.

Lee holds down Yanks, gives Rangers series edge

That's all it took (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Nine times the Yankees came to the plate needing at least two runs. Nine times they failed to produced even one. Josh Hamilton’s first-inning home run held up through the next eight and a half, and the Rangers took Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. They now lead the series two games to one.

Andy Pettitte did his part to keep the game close. After the Hamilton home run Pettitte pitched 6.2 scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and walking none. He left with the score 2-0. So did Kerry Wood. David Robertson did not. He let the game get out of hand in the ninth, removing any chance for a mystique and aura guided comeback.

It felt as though the Yanks were slowly making progress against Cliff Lee. Very slowly. But progress nonetheless. By the fourth they had earned a walk. In the fifth it was a hit. In the sixth they put a runner into scoring position — to third, even. But that was as far as they’d get. Lee cruised through the order one last time, concluding his night with his 13th strikeout. It was his third straight postseason start in which he recorded at least 10 strikeouts, and his fifth in his last six.

I wish this were a mid-June start rather than a postseason one. Not because the loss would have been essentially meaningless to the Yankees, though that does help. But because I wanted to more fully appreciate Lee’s performance. He worked into a few un-Cliff-Lee-like deep counts, but only one time did he lose a hitter. Some of that has to be attributable to the Yanks’ offense, but that doesn’t really matter. The mythical Cliff Lee showed up. You have to score a runner from second with none out if you want even the remotest shot of besting mythical Cliff Lee.

The Yanks can only hope now that mythical A.J. Burnett follows mythical Cliff Lee’s act. The Yanks are down 2-1 and need the win to ensure the return trip to Texas. Right now it doesn’t matter how comfortable anyone is with Burnett pitching Game 4. It’s all in his, and the offense’s, hands.

ALCS Game Three: Rangers @ Yankees

Sometimes you just have take a detour. Sure, everyone’s going to lead with the same story tonight — and dang it, they all should. This is the most anticipated game of the ALCS. People have been talking about it for a week. How can you not lead with the one aspect that has captured everyone’s attention?

Like this.

(And they told me I couldn’t lead the game thread without mentioning Cliff Lee.)

We all know what Cliff Lee can do tonight. We also know what the Yankees offense can do. And we know that Andy Pettitte can capably keep the game under control. Worst case, the Yanks are down 2-1 with two more home games before going back to Texas. Best case they’ve defeated the opponent’s best pitcher with their worst coming tomorrow.

Sorry the thread’s not more elaborate. It feels like we’ve talked this game to death.


1. Derek Jeter, SS
2. Nick Swisher, RF
3. Mark Teixeira, 1B
4. Alex Rodriguez, 3B
5. Robinson Cano, 2B
6. Marcus Thames, DH
7. Jorge Posada, C
8. Curtis Granderson, CF
9. Brett Gardner, LF

Andy Pettitte (11-3, 3.28 ERA)


1. Elvis Andrus, SS
2. Michael Young, 3B
3. Josh Hamilton, CF
4. Vladimir Guerrero, DH
5. Nelson Cruz, LF
6. Ian Kinsler, 2B
7. Jeff Francoeur, RF
8. Bengie Molina, C
9. Mitch Moreland, 1B

Cliff Lee (12-9, 3.18 ERA)

Living with the right decisions

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

For the past two months, as the Yankees stumbled their way through the end of the regular season and then seemingly turned it back on for the playoffs, no one has seem his decisions questioned more than Joe Girardi. At first, his insistence on resting regulars and not pushing the team to unnecessarily win the division came under fire. Now, his ALCS rotation moves went under the microscope. Yet it’s his looming decision — that of his managerial future — that will have the biggest impact on the Yankee future, and it’s the one decision that Girardi will have to make from his heart and not his hand.

By now, with Game 3 of the ALCS set to start at Yankee Stadium later tonight, it’s clear that Girardi’s approach to September was the right one. Despite faltering in Game 2 on Saturday, the Yankees are a well-rested team, and many of the questions surrounding the club’s health were put to bed as the regular season wore down. As Mike explored last night, the Yankees are right where they’d be had they won the division: with home-field advantage and facing Texas in a best-of-five series. The Doubting Thomases aren’t harping on that critique any longer.

Yet, this being New York City and the tabloids being what they are, most of Girardi’s headline-making decisions have their fair share of detractors. Take, for instance, the Yanks’ decision to start Phil Hughes and not Andy Pettitte in Game 2. Even though Hughes’ splits show an extreme preference for road games and Hughes had been dynamite in Arlington, various columnists wondered why Girardi messed with a good thing. It worked in the ALDS. Why shouldn’t it work in the ALCS?

Of course, it’s not that simple; it never is. The Yanks had to line up their rotation with an eye toward the rest of the series, and the club would rather not have Pettitte and Hughes go on three days’ rest. They also want Pettitte ready for a potential Game 7, and they know that Pettitte is better at Yankee Stadium than Hughes. It makes sense. (They didn’t second-guess the decision to keep Hughes in the game long enough to give up seven earned runs, but that’s a point for another column.)

Once the Hughes/Pettitte debate became moot, the next crisis involved A.J. Burnett. Many do not want to see Burnett take the ball in Game 4 and would rather the Yanks turn their pitching duties over to CC Sabathia. The rotation would then feature Phil Hughes on three days’ rest, Andy Pettitte on the same and, if necessary, Sabathia again on short rest. The Yanks, though, recognize that Hughes has shot past his career high in innings pitched and that Andy Pettitte is still just four outings removed from a groin injury that kept him out for two months. Thus, they want their pitchers on full rest, and as Joel Sherman wrote today, “Burnett is starting against Tommy Hunter, not Walter Johnson. How is this for a concept: If you want to be a champion then figure out how to win a Hunter-Burnett matchup at home.”

The final decision that Joe Girardi must make this month or early next will involve his own future, but it of course implicates the Yankees. As Buster Olney wrote over the weekend, the Cubs just won’t give up on Joe Girardi. While other managerial dominoes are falling, the South Siders are waiting to see what Girardi wants to do. They want him badly enough that they’ll let other potential managers land with other teams, and Gordon Wittenmyer in The Sun-Times notes that Girardi has not closed the door on the opening in Chicago.

Joe Girardi hasn’t been a perfect manager for the Yankees, but he’s been very successful. He’s won 287 games and holds a 15-5 postseason record. His choice to let Phil Hughes pitch into the 5th on Saturday shows he’s still learning the difference between postseason and regular season strategies, but his team has won every playoff series it has faced so far. He doesn’t have a comfortable relationship with the New York media, and he’s been second-guessed at literally every turn this year. If he’s sick of that attitude, he might just make the biggest decison of the year, and if he does, the Yanks will be scrambling to find a replacement.

The other 24 Texas Rangers

Almost all of the attention before tonight’s Game Three has been paid to Cliff Lee, and rightfully so. The guy is arguably the best pitcher in baseball and has impeccable postseason credentials, so he’s earned it all of the recognition and then some. But Lee is just one guy, one of 25 Rangers the Yankees will have to beat tonight, and as we’ve already seen they’re a very capable club.

Lee isn’t the Yanks’ only problem tonight, but he is the biggest. Here’s some of the stuff the Yanks really need to tighten up…

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Elvis Andrus

The leadoff guy is the one that sets it all up for everyone else in the lineup, and so far Andrus has done a bang up job doing exactly that. He’s reached base five times in the two games, and in fact he’s reached base to lead off both games and come around to score each time. The Yanks simply can’t allow a singles hitter (.036 ISO this year … .036!!!) like Andrus to keep beating them like this.

Bottom Of The Order

Before the series I wrote that the bottom of Texas’ lineup was a bit of a soft spot that the Yanks could potentially take advantage of, but of course the 7-8-9 hitters have killed them. The mash-up crew has featured Jeff Francoeur, David Murphy, Matt Treanor, Bengie Molina, Julio Borbon, Mitch Moreland, and Jorge Cantu, and they’ve combined to go 7-for-22 (.318) with a pair of walks in the two games, complicating things with the lineup about to turn over.

Seriously, get these guys out. They hit .261/.316/.409 in 1,680 plate appearances as a group this year, and even that is inflated by Murphy’s strong season. This cast of characters should not be making life this difficult for the Yankees at the bottom of the order.

Keeping Josh Hamilton Down

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

This is one of the few things the Yankee pitching staff has been doing right so far. Hamilton, the likely American League MVP, came back from rib issues late in the year and did next to nothing in ALDS (two singles, two walks, six strikeouts), but of course he hit a three-run homer in an 0-2 count in his first plate appearance of the ALCS. The Yanks have taken him right out of the equation since then however, and have done so by simply refusing to pitch to him. Hamilton’s hitless since the homer but has walked five times, twice intentionally, and hasn’t come around to score once.

Six of his ten plate appearances in the series have come against righthanders, partly due to CC Sabathia‘s early exit in Game One, but he figures to see plenty of southpaws from here on out. That’s good news, because he was merely very good against lefties this season (.346 wOBA) compared to otherworldly against righties (.490 (!!!) wOBA). Hamilton’s the one guy in the lineup you don’t want to beat you, and so far they’ve done a good job of that. It’s everyone else that’s giving them trouble.

* * *

Chances are Cliff Lee will give the Yanks hell tonight. It’s what he does, and it’s basically unavoidable. The Yanks can’t fall into the trap of focusing solely on him though, because the other 24 guys on the Rangers’ roster have shown that they will take advantage if given the opportunity to hurt you. Andy Pettitte and the bullpen have to do their parts on the mound, and that’s the one aspect of the game Lee won’t be able to control.