The A.J. Factor

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

I take the term “must win” quite literally, as in win or go home. It’s the engineer in me. If a loss won’t send you home for the season, then it’s not a must win because you have a chance to comeback in the future. Simple, right? Some games are obviously more important than others, like tonight’s game, which is more important that yesterday’s. The Yankees have three chances to win two games, and you want to win with CC Sabathia on the mound tonight to make life easier tomorrow, when A.J. Burnett starts.

We all know what Burnett has done for the last two years. He’s been awful and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. We’re talking 377 innings with a 5.20 ERA (80th out of 83 qualified starters) and a 4.80 FIP (also 80th). It’s bad, unfathomably bad. Because Burnett’s been so bad the last two years, it’s pretty natural to feel like tonight’s game is a must win because tomorrow’s game is an auto-loss. It’s not thought, we know that. Burnett might be terrible, but there’s no such thing as an automatic loss in this game. That’s part of the reason why I refuse to see tonight as a must win, and the other part is Rick Porcello.

Younger and definitely in possession of higher long-term potential than Burnett, Porcello has been pretty awful over the last two years as well. In seven fewer starts than A.J. since the beginning of last season, the New Jersey native has a 4.83 ERA (79th out of those same 83 qualifiers) and a 4.18 FIP (66th). If you’re a believer in xFIP, the two are basically equal (4.17 vs. 4.13). Sure Porcello finished the season strong (3.50 ERA in seven starts), but he faced six different teams in those seven starts, and all six were non-contenders (a combined 100 games under .500). Factor in ballparks, divisions, yadda yadda yadda, and the two have performed just as awfully over the last two years. Tigers fans are dreading Porcello’s start the same way we’re dreading Burnett’s.

Now, all that said, obviously it’s tough to trust Burnett to throw even a respectable start tomorrow, which increases the importance of tonight’s game. You don’t want the team’s season to be in his hands, really I don’t want it in anyone’s hands but Sabathia’s. Sabathia to Mariano Rivera, that’s how my ideal win or go home game plays out. Game Four is not an auto-loss though, just like his last start wasn’t a loss even though everyone expected one against those oh so might Red Sox. Game Three tonight is very important, but Burnett looming in Game Four is just one reason why.

The Most Important Game

The playoffs are such a different dynamic than the regular season. The regular season is this long marathon where you’ve got to think about the long-term, keeping people fresh for August and September and knowing when to take your foot off today’s gas for tomorrow’s commute. The playoffs are not like that though, everything has to focus on right here, right now because you don’t know what will happen next game, next inning, next batter.

“Tomorrow is big,” said Alex Rodriguez after Game Two. “Going back to when I first got here, we always thought that Game Three was the biggest. It’s almost like hitting; the 0-0 pitch is the most important, then the 1-1 pitch becomes the most important. Same goes for a series.”

When Joe Torre was managing, I remember hearing him say that he felt Game Two was the most important game of the series, which is why he always tried to line Andy Pettitte up for that start. The idea was that if you were down in the series, you could even it up. If you were up, you had a chance to really put your foot on the other team’s throat. Either way, A-Rod‘s theory and Torre’s theory are both wrong. The most important game is today’s game, regardless of what number game it is in the best-of-X series.

No one has any idea what will happen tomorrow or the next day. You might think you know based on the pitching matchups and whatnot, but you don’t. I promise you, you don’t. And I don’t either. No one does. That’s why planning and managing for tomorrow in a short series rather than focus on what’s happening at the moment can be a season killer. Saving your top bench bat for a ninth-inning pinch-hitting appearance rather than using him in the seventh, limiting your top reliever to three outs instead of five or six today so you have him again tomorrow … all prime examples of what not to do in the postseason. It’s all about right now, which is why October is so different than April through September.

Joe Girardi went with Luis Ayala in the ninth inning yesterday for that reason, because he was basically saving his top relievers for today (and tomorrow). I didn’t like it, but what’s done is done, and the Yankees are now in a real nice position going into Game Three. Rafael Soriano and David Robertson are very well rested, to the point where asking each guy to get six outs tonight would not be insane. Mariano Rivera, despite Saturday’s three-pitch appearance, is well rested as well, and I don’t see why he couldn’t get four or five outs if needed. Of course that luxury is born out of a poor process, which is bringing in Ayala yesterday. Girardi can’t control results, he can’t make guys execute pitches or hit line drives to the gaps, all he can do is put his players and his team in a position to succeed. He didn’t do that with Ayala yesterday, but the trickle down effect is that it (theoretically) helps the team today, in the most important game.

Division series loss an unfamiliar feeling

Yesterday the Yankees experienced something that hadn’t happened since 2007: they lost a game in the divisional round of the playoffs. The previous loss ended their season and drove the them to seek new management. This loss brings neither consequence. In fact, this loss could have been seen as inevitable, since the Tigers are not the Twins and therefore will not lay down in the ALDS. Make no mistake, though: despite what you might hear, the Yankees are still in prime position to advance.

If you’re the type that pays attention to what the traditional media writes, you might think the Yankees are in poor position now. After all, there are just three games left, and Detroit plays two of them at home. Detroit also starts their ace and presumptive AL Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander, in the first of this fresh three-game set. Combine that with closer Jose Valverde’s prediction, that the Tigers would take the next two games, and you have a recipe for Yankees defeat.

That is, you’d have a recipe for defeat if the above paragraph wasn’t filled with tripe. Valverde’s statement means nothing. He’s teetered on the edge of defeat all season without actually experiencing it, and he could easily cause his team to lose one of those next two games. As for home field advantage, we’ve seen so many postseason instances where it has meant nothing. Yes, the home team does generally win more games than the away team. But when we narrow the field to the best four teams in the league, and we set the standard to a mere five-game series, that goes out the window. There’s no sense in quoting the odds for that type of sample.

(In fact, only two World Series participants in the last five years have swept the LDS: the Yankees in 2009 and the Rockies in 2007.)

In Justin Verlander the Yankees face one of their toughest challenges of the year. There is no doubt that Verlander will win — has already won — the 2011 AL Cy Young Award. His numbers stood out in every way, from his gaudy innings total to his minuscule ERA. But if we dig just a little deeper, we can see that his opponent tonight, CC Sabathia, hasn’t lagged far behind. So while the Yankees will face a tough challenge, so will the Tigers.

Verlander threw more innings, struck out more per nine, walked fewer per nine, and allowed fewer runs than CC Sabathia. Those surface numbers certainly make his Cy Young case. Sabathia did perform better than Verlander in one aspect: suppressing home runs. He allowed just 17, while Verlander allowed 24. Sabathia’s home run total is even more impressive when we look at that one game against the Rays, in which he allowed five solo shots. We can’t remove them from his record, since they did happen. But we can put that in perspective and note that he allowed just 12 homers in his other 32 starts.

Still, that isn’t the greatest difference between Sabathia and Verlander. That difference occurs when we examine the quality of opponents each faced. Sabathia faced the ninth most difficult hitters in the AL this season. That is, only nine pitchers in the AL faced tougher hitters than he did, as measured by overall opponents’ OPS. Unsurprisingly, seven of the eight pitchers ahead of him pitch in the AL East. Ivan Nova ranks 13th on that list, Bartolo Colon 14th, and A.J. Burnett 17th. Verlander’s name doesn’t appear until No. 39. His opponents combined for a 2011 OPS of .739, to CC’s .760. Verlander might have performed better, but CC turned in his impressive performance while facing tougher hitters.

The feeling that followed yesterday was a strange one, indeed. The last time Yankees fans felt it, the pain of a playoff series went with it. This is not the case this time around. In fact, the Yankees are still positioned to win this. Detroit’s greatest weapon goes tonight, but his greatest foil goes opposite him. Even if Detroit does squeak out Game 3, they’ll throw two hittable pitchers in Games 4 and 5. It might feel odd, this losing in the LDS thing, but it’s far from the end. It might even be the beginning.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 3rd, 2011

Regular Season Record Last Week: 0-3 (12 RS, 22 RA)
Regular Season Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East
Playoff Record Last Week: ,,1-1 (12 RS, 8, RA)
Schedule This Week: ALDS Game Three @ Tigers (Mon.), ALDS Game Four @ Tigers (Tues.), Weds. OFF, ALDS Game Five vs. Tigers (Thurs., if necessary)

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Scherzer shuts Yanks down to even up ALDS

The best-of-five is now a best-of-three, and the Tigers have homefield advantage. The Yankees late rally came up short in Game Two on Sunday, but that’s better than going down without a fight (O’Neill Theory!). The 5-3 loss sends these two teams to Detroit with the series tied at one.

(Chris Trotman/Getty Images)mmm

The Ninth Inning

We’ll start at the end of the game, because that’s really the only part of the game that got Yankees fans off their feet. Down 5-1 to start the frame, Nick Swisher hit a solo homer on Jose Valverde’s very first pitch. Pretty good start. Jorge Posada worked the count full then hit a triple (!!!) to almost dead center. It was a legit triple too, over the head of Austin Jackson and off the wall. No one fell down, nothing like that. The Yankees had one run in with a man on third with no outs already, so they were definitely in business.

Russell Martin came to the plate, and his at-bat really defined the Yankees brand of offense. Martin saw eight pitches total, including a) two fouls on tough fastballs just off the outside corner, and b) a take of a similar pitch for a ball to put men on the corners with none out after the walk. You can point to his batting average all you want, but at-bats like that are part of makes him so valuable. Martin stood his ground and fought off tough pitcher’s pitchers until he got something to hit. When he didn’t get something to hit, he took his base and brought the tying run to the plate. Just a monster at-bat, I can’t say enough about it.

That brought Andruw Jones to the plate, who took over in left after Eric Chavez pinch-hit for Brett Gardner earlier in the game. We’ll talk more about that decision later on, don’t worry. A fastball hitter against a fastball pitcher, Andrew ripped a line drove to right that Don Kelly caught for the first out. Very hard hit ball, just not in the right spot. Posada scored to make it a 5-3 game, but there was one out. The second out came one batter later, when Jeter swung through an inside fastball for strike three. The Cap’n also ended the fifth and seventh innings, both times with two men on base.

The Yankees were down to two outs, but they had the right guy at the plate. Curtis Granderson crushes fastballs and hit the second most homers in all of baseball this year, and one swing of the bat could have tied the game. He got ahead in the count 2-0, but fouled the third pitch back. Alex Avila should have made the catch near the Tigers dugout, but he slipped on the Yankees logo in the on-deck circle and the ball fell harmlessly. It was a huge break, giving the Yankees more life when they had no business having it. Three pitches later, Granderson was on first base via a walk, representing the tying run. That brought Robinson Cano to the plate, who is exactly who we all wanted to see up in that spot.

Already 29 pitches into what was supposed to be an easy outing, Valverde was one mistake away from losing the game. He went after Cano with the hard stuff, and Robinson was pretty late on a few of them. The first pitch was a called strike and it might have been his best one to hit, the next three fouled off. With the rain starting to come down, Valverde went to the splitter and got Cano to ground out weakly to second. Inning over, game over. The Yankees fought hard to put themselves in a position to win, but it wasn’t meant to be. On the bright side, Valverde had to throw 34 high stress pitches, which could have an impact in the next game or even the one after that.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Freddy Sez: Why Am I Pitching To Miggy?

Freddy Garcia’s afternoon didn’t start all that well, but there’s really no shame in giving up a two-run homer to Miguel Cabrera. He’s one of the best hitters in the world, and it was a bit of a Yankee Stadium special to boot. Bad job letting Magglio Ordonez (3-for-3 in the game, really?) be on base when Miggy did his thing. It was a bad start, but that’s all it was. Garcia retired 13 of the next 14 men he faced, taking the ball into the sixth inning without breaking a sweat. Okay, that last part probably isn’t true. I’m sure Sweaty Freddy was sweating.

Anyway, things unraveled in that sixth inning, all thanks to an error by Jeter. Austin Jackson hit a grounder to short, but the throw was in the dirt and Mark Teixeira was unable to make the scoop. The leadoff man was on and the heart of the order was looming, but the bullpen was not yet doing anything. Ordonez picked up his third hit after that, putting men on the corners with none out. Now it was a real mess, but in stayed Garcia. It was the right move for at least one batter, because Delmon Young struck out to setup a potential rally-ending double play. The problem? Cabrera was due up.

Why Garcia was allowed to pitch to him, I’ll never quite understand. The Walk Bonds Chart says to not walk him in that spot, but if they didn’t want to intentionally load the bases, that’s at least a spot for a strikeout reliever. Instead, Miggy hooked a hanging changeup back up the middle, scoring Jackson from third to increase his team’s lead to three-zip. Still in there, Garcia then allowed a single to Victor Martinez to make it four-zip. That ended his day, and Boone Logan managed to escape the inning with two strikeouts.

In between the first inning homer and the sixth inning, error-induced rally, Freddy pitched really well. Four runs in 5.1 IP doesn’t really do his performance justice; he walked zero and whiffed six guys, getting nine of his remaining eleven outs on the ground. It’s the postseason, I think Joe Girardi should have been a little more liberal with the bullpen in that spot. Freddy gets some applause from me, he gave the Yankees a chance to win.

(Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Where’s The Offense?

Freddy gave the Yankees a chance to win, but the offense definitely did not. Max Scherzer, he of the 5.23 ERA on the road this season, took a no-hitter into the sixth inning before Cano broke it up with a bloop single to left with one out. It tied the longest no-hit bid against the Yankees in playoff history, matching the 5.1 IP that Paul Abbot and Norm Charlton held New York hitless in Game Four of the 2001 ALDS. They were late on Scherzer’s fastball and behind on his offspeed pitches, which is why they hit basically nothing hard.

Granderson got them on the board with a solo homer to leadoff the eighth, but it wasn’t until that ninth inning that the Yankees mustered any kind of quality rally. Everything else seemed to die before it even got going. Scherzer was very good (just two hits and four walks in six innings), but the offense didn’t exactly put up much of a fight. After throwing 27 pitches in the first inning, the Tigers’ right-hander needed just 36 over the next three innings.

Girardi’s Decisions

(AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek)

Lots of talk about two moves made by Girardi in this one. First, he pinch-hit Chavez for Gardner in that seventh inning, only to watch Joaquin Benoit strike him out on three pitches. I liked the move, but apparently I’m in the extreme minority. The Yankees hadn’t put a damn thing together all game, so I figured the change of pace was worth a shot with the most powerless hitter on the team at the plate. I didn’t expect a homer, just something more than Gardner looking at some fastballs down the middle before rolling over for a ground out. Yes, I know Benoit has good numbers against lefties because of his changeup and all that, but we’re talking about one at-bat. The past X number of lefties not getting hits does not make it less likely that Player Y will get a hit next time up.

The second decision was using Luis Ayala in the ninth, which is completely indefensible. I don’t like to talk in absolutes, but this was clearly the wrong move as soon as he jogged out of the bullpen. Ayala was completely ineffective in Game One and also in the final game of the regular season, and sure enough he allowed a run that seems pretty big considering how the ninth inning played out. Girardi talked about being able to use his top relievers for three days in a row before the game, well where were they? He managed that inning like it was some meaningless regular season game, not the playoffs.

No good vibes from Andy's first pitch, unfortunately. (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)


It’s pretty obvious that Alex Rodriguez can’t bat cleanup tomorrow. He went 0-for-3 with a walk in this game and is 0-for-8 in the series, and he just hasn’t been right since the knee and thumb problems. Bat Teixeira cleanup, move A-Rod to fifth, that’s it. Otherwise Detroit will pitch around Cano all series and not pay for it. Also, you gotta love the boos coming back. Alex is such an easy target, everyone just piles on and uses him as an outlet for their frustration. Jeter (-.206 WPA, by far the worst in the game) plays a major role in the death of three rallies and commits an error that leads to a multi-run inning, but hey, let’s boo A-Rod!

Ayala was pretty awful, but Logan did his job to escape that sixth inning. He did balk the two runners over before getting his two strikeouts though, a gentle little reminder that it’s never easy with Boone. Cory Wade threw 37 pitches across two scoreless innings to kinda keep things in order. You can argue that someone better, Rafael Soriano or David Robertson maybe, should have been pitching those innings, but I don’t have the energy to argue it anymore.

Granderson, Cano, Swisher, and Posada were the only Yankees with hits. You know what the first three did already, and Jorge added a single back up to the middle to his ninth inning triple. Granderson, Cano, A-Rod, Swisher, Posada, and Martin all drew walks as well, and Russ even took a pitch to the hands to reach base. Jeter, Teixeira, and the Gardner/Chavez/Jones spot did not reach base. Unlike Game One, Cano came to the plate just once with men on base, and that was the game-ending at-bat. In fairness, Granderson did hit a homerun in front of him in one of the four baserunner-less at-bats.

Gardner slid head first into first base (again), so naturally he was out. That’s an epidemic with this team, it goes back to Melky Cabrera, but no one seems to care. The entire organization seems to think that it actually helps you get to the base faster. One of these days someone will break a wrist, maybe even someone important like Martin, and I guess that’s what it’ll take wake everyone up, or least someone with some pull in the organization.

Box Score & WPA Graph has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs some other stuff.

Up Next

Like I said, it’s a best-of-three series now, and both teams have their ace going on Monday. CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander will each make their second start of the series following the Game One rain suspension,  and although it’s not a true “must win” for either team, it sure is a game neither can afford to lose with A.J. Burnett and Rick Porcello lined up for Game Four.