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.

Burnett comes up big, Yanks force Game Five

If you’re going to win a championship, you’re going to need to get unexpected contributions from unexpected players, and that’s exactly what the Yankees got on Tuesday night. Facing elimination, the Yankees played an almost flawless game to extend the ALDS to a winner take all Game Five.

Huge. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

I Believed In A.J.

Okay, no I didn’t, and I don’t think many of you did either. I don’t blame you, A.J. Burnett has been decidedly awful for two years now, and nothing about having him start a win or go home game sounds appetizing. But then … this. Five-plus innings, one run. That’s all the Tigers got off him. Best case scenario? Absolutely the best case scenario. Funny thing is, it started rather ominously.

I’m going to talk more about this in a bit, but Curtis Granderson saved Burnett’s bacon with a great catch in the very first inning. A.J. walked the bases loaded (one was intentional) and gave up a rocket, but his center fielder bailed him out with a great catch. Like I said, this had to be a total team effort. Bad A.J. was in the building, but the TBS cameras showed Burnett and Larry Rothschild chatting on their way to clubhouse after the inning. Whatever they talked about, it worked. A.J. came out throwing grenades in a perfect, ten-pitch second inning, then tacked on a scoreless third inning on 13 pitches.

Victor Martinez led off the fourth inning with a homer, then two batters later Jhonny Peralta doubled. The bullpen was working, just like it was in the first inning, but Burnett got former Yankee Wilson Betemit to swing over top of a curveball at his shoes for strike three to end the inning. A scoreless seven-pitch fifth inning followed, then A.J. came out for the sixth. He got two quick outs before Don Kelly singled, and that was the end of his night. We spent all day talking about the need for a quick hook, and Joe Girardi obliged. After 81 effective pitches, Burnett’s day was done.

Like it always seems to be, the key to the game was A.J.’s curve. Nineteen of the 30 curves he threw went for strikes, four for swing-and-misses. Thirteen of his 14 non-strikeout outs came on the ground, so he had some movement on his fastball and kept the ball down. You can’t say enough about the job Burnett did in this game, facing elimination. He proved basically everyone wrong, keeping a very good lineup in check for far longer than anyone expected. Give that man a round of applause.

Safe. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

The Cap’n Capitalizes

While everyone focuses on the futility of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher, Derek Jeter went a very quiet 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in his last four at-bats with men on base in the series, stranding a total of eleven ducks on the pond. With Jorge Posada on first (hit-by-pitch) and Russell Martin on second (single), Jeter came to the plate with one out in the third after one of the dumbest sacrifice bunt attempts I can remember. Brett Gardner couldn’t get the thing down, not that he should have tried to in the first place (playing for two runs with Burnett on the bump? nope), fell behind in the count, then made an out without even advancing the runners. That brought Jeter to the plate with a chance for redemption.

Rick Porcello was getting the high strike all game long, so I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to go upstairs with the sinker to Derek, but that’s where it went. The Cap’n drove the 1-0 offering basically over Austin Jackson’s head in center for a double, scoring both Jorge and Martin. Russ had to slide around the tag at the plate, showing off some of his sneaky good baserunning skills. The Yankees were up two-zip in the third, but I think we all knew that the score was going to change at some point, and by a whole lot. At +.179 WPA, Jeter’s double was the biggest play of the game.

MVP. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Everything Clicks (Part One)

The Yankees held that 2-0 lead until V-Mart’s solo shot in the fourth, but they responded a half-inning later. Martin led the inning off with a single, then Gardner went the other way for a single. Another stupid bunt attempt followed, except this time Jeter bunted it back to the pitcher who got the force at third. It was truly awful, I have no idea why this team plays for one or two runs with a pair of ~5.00 ERA guys on the mound. And you know Derek did that on his own, he does that all the frickin’ time.

Anyway, up come the super amazing Curtis Granderson, who we’re going to talk about in the next section. Porcello jumped ahead of him 0-2, but the former Tiger hooked one of those upstairs sinkers into the right field corner for a run scoring double. Robinson Cano was intentionally walked to loaded the bases, and all the Yankees needed from A-Rod was a fly ball. He gave them that fly ball, another 0-2 pitch, deep enough to center to score another run and increase the lead to 4-1. That was much more comfortable than 2-1, but the game was hardly over.

Un. Be. Lievable. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

Flyin’ Curtis

As I said a minute ago, Burnett does not last long enough to pitch as well as he did with some help from his defense. After loading the bases on those three walks in the first, Kelly smoked a fastball to dead center that appeared headed for some unoccupied piece of outfield. Granderson seemed to misread the ball hit right at him, first taking a step in before breaking back. Grandy ran for a few steps then lunged, snaring the line drive while in a full extension. He crashed to the ground with the ball in his glove, ending the threat and the inning. Remember how I said that 13 of the 14 non-strikeout outs Burnett record were on the ground? This was the one exception.

Five innings later, Granderson did it again. Burnett was out of the game at this point, having just given way to Rafael Soriano with a man on first and two outs in the sixth. Peralta, who doubled last time up, jumped all over a first pitch cutter and drove it out to left-center. It was ticketed for the gap and would have definitely scored Kelly from first with two outs, but Granderson was on his horse and ran the ball down. He dove, another full extension, and grabbed the ball about a foot off the ground. He seemed to knock the wind out of himself, but the catch was made and the inning was over. The combined WPA of the two catches is +.097 (.071 + .026), but they were far, far bigger in reality.

Everything Clicks (Part Two)

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The score remained 4-1 into the eighth inning, when something weird happened. The 3-4-5 hitters started hitting. Crazy, I know. A-Rod opened the inning with a line drive single to second. Teixeira followed that up with a dinky little infield hit that hugged the third base line, but hey, I’m not complaining. Sometimes a little thing that like that can a guy going. Swisher loaded the bases with no outs on a ground ball single through the left side. Tex and Swish were taking their first right-handed at-bats of the series (off former Yankee Phil Coke), so perhaps that helped them out. Both guys are considerably better against lefty pitching.

Posada’s been the team’s most consistent hitter all postseason, but with the bases loaded and a lefty on the mound, Girardi went to the bench and called on Jesus Montero. Jim Leyland countered with the right-hander Al Alburquerque, but since Montero is the backup catcher, Eric Chavez did not replace him to get the platoon advantage. It didn’t matter though; Alburquerque balked in a run (Jesus works in mysterious ways) before Montero singled through the left side for another run. That made him the third youngest player in Yankees history to pick up a postseason hit, behind only a pair of guys named Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. That’s pretty awesome.

Martin reloaded the bases with a walk, then Gardner singled in a run and loaded the bases yet again. Jeter and Granderson struck out, but Cano and A-Rod took care of business with a pair of run-scoring singles. It was Alex’s second hit of the inning, two more than he had the entire series up to that point. A 4-1 game was suddenly a 10-1 game, and pretty much all the pressure was gone. It was a comfortable lead, and we all (cautiously) starting making plans for Game Five on Thursday night.

I was smiling too after this one. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Leftovers

Big ups to the bullpen. Soriano recorded four outs on just nine pitches (one thanks to Granderson’s diving catch), Phil Hughes came in throwing darts in the eighth (very 2009-esque, no hyperbole), and Boone Logan wrapped things up by striking out the side in the ninth. Ten up, ten down, and six strikeouts. Great job by these three, especially Soriano, who didn’t have the safety net of a huge league.

A-Rod looked pretty good at the plate, and it wasn’t just the two late singles. He hit three moderate-to-deep fly balls in his first three trips to the plate, so his timing seems to be coming back a bit. Any positive signs, we have to take them. Everyone in the starting lineup had a hit except for Posada, who reached on the hit-by-pitch. A-Rod, Martin, and Gardner all had two hits, as did Montero off the bench. He’s just that damn good. Jeter, Cano, and Martin added walks. The entire team combined to go 6-for-14 with men in scoring position (.429), with most of the damage coming in that six-run eighth inning.

John Smoltz has been very anti-Yankees in this series, though I don’t know if it’s his Detroit roots or just some leftover bitterness from 1996 and 1999. Anyway, during that big eighth inning, he tried to play this game off as a “good loss” for the Tigers, because it allowed them to get ready and focus on Game Five. Yeah, it’s definitely a “good loss” when you put yourself on the brink of elimination. Give me a break.

Play-by-play guy Brian Anderson redeemed Smoltz a bit by talking about the Yankees’ catching depth during Montero’s first at-bat. He obviously mentioned Montero and Austin Romine, but he also dropped Gary Sanchez‘s name in there. That was pretty cool.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Those last two stress-free innings were big, my blood pressure needed that. MLB.com has the box score and video, FanGraphs some other neat stuff.

Up Next

Good pitching, good hitting, and good defense, so now the Yankees will play a Game Five. These two clubs have Wednesday off, then will regroup at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night for the right to play the Rangers in the ALDS. That game was supposed to start at 8:37pm ET, but apparently it’s been bumped up to regular old 8pm ET now that the other ALDS has been decided.