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.

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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.

A Nostalgic subway ride to the ALCS

With another round of playoff games set for the Bronx this week, New York City Transit announced that it will run the Nostalgia Train from Grand Central to Yankee Stadium for each of the ALCS games. Trains leave approximately an hour before first pitch and arrive at the stadium well before the game is set to begin. For more on these special — and fun — trips in vintage subway cars, check out my coverage on Second Ave. Sagas.

The history of the Yankees and Cliff Lee

Tonight Cliff Lee will face the Yankees for the 15th, and perhaps final, time in his career. This presents the Yankees with their toughest challenge to date in the 2010 postseason. They’ve faced quality lefties in Francisco Liriano and C.J. Wilson previously, but neither of them quite matches Lee. Yet, despite what the hyperbole might suggest, the Yankees have had success against Lee in the past — one of the instances being an elimination game in the World Series. In the spirit of this match-up, let’s take a look at how the two have fared against each other during Lee’s career.

Before Grand Transformation

Yep, that's Melky. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

In 2002 the Montreal Expos were in a state of limbo. There was talk of contracting two teams, and the Expos would surely be one. The team’s owner, Jeffrey Loria, had already bought the Florida Marlins, leaving the team to MLB control. Still, on June 26 the team found itself in the midst of the playoff hunt. They were seven games back of Atlanta in the NL East and six behind the Diamondbacks for the Wild Card. A day later GM Omar Minaya traded his Nos. 1 and 3 prospects, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore, plus a left-handed pitcher named Cliff Lee for Bartolo Colon. While the trade flopped for Montreal — they finished 19 games back in the division and 13 games back of the Wild Card — it changed the course of the Indians.

Lee made his major league debut in 2002 and was ranked the Indians’ No. 3 prospect, behind Phillips and Victor Martinez, in 2003. He followed that up with an excellent season in the minors, which earned him a full-time spot in the 2004 rotation. That didn’t go so well, but the next year was his breakout. In 2005 Lee went 18-5 with a 3.79 ERA and FIP. He followed that up with a decent year, but he struck out far fewer batters and allowed quite a few more hits, leading to a 4.40 ERA and 4.73 FIP. That trouble grew in 2007. After three straight July starts in which he allowed seven earned runs, the Indians demoted him to AAA. They recalled him in September to pitch out of the bullpen, but they did not include him on the postseason roster.

From his debut through his demotion the Yankees faced Lee six times. During that span he pitched 34 innings and allowed 28 runs (25 earned). He clearly wasn’t the same pitcher as he is today: he walked 13 men in those games. The worst of the outings came on September 2, 2004, when he allowed six runs in just 1.2 innings. That was part of Lee’s second half collapse, in which he posted a 7.91 ERA in 15 starts. In 2005 he allowed five runs in six innings during one start. In 2006 they again lit him up, scoring seven runs (four earned) in six innings. They did not face him during his terrible 2007.

After the transformation

(Seth Wenig/AP)

In 2008, fresh off the Indian’s Game 7 loss to the Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS, Lee returned with a vengeance. Through April he had a 0.96 ERA and had walked just two men. He would have appeared to be the perfect complement to the 2007 AL Cy Young Award winner CC Sabathia, but Sabathia got off to a horrible start. Once he started to come around in May, the Indians were already out of the race. But that didn’t deter Lee. He faced the Yankees on May 7 of that year and spun seven shutout innings, striking out seven and walking none. (Rich Lederer of Baseball Analysts has a great story about meeting Lee on the subway before the game.) After a slight rough patch he cruised through the rest of the season, ending 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA and the Cy Young Award.

Had something changed during Lee’s time in the minors? Or was this just a fluke season? It might have been tempting to say fluke, but the man displayed pinpoint control on nearly every pitch he threw. He ended the season leading the league in both walk rate and home run rate, so it was reasonable to think that while he might not have a 2.54 ERA again in 2009, that his success was for real. But his Opening Day start, in which he allowed seven runs in five innings, cast some doubt on the situation.

After another so-so start Lee picked right back up where he left off in 2008. From April 16 through July 26 he started 20 games and posted a 2.66 ERA, striking out 97 to 29 walks. After that July 26 start the Indians, knowing they wouldn’t contend in 2010 and would lose Lee after the season, traded him to the Phillies. In th emiddle of that run Lee spun six innings against the Yankees, allowing three runs on nine hits and two walks. While they were surely glad to have him out of the AL, he’d come back to haunt them in the postseason that year.

This year it appeared as though the Yankees would face Lee only once. He pitched a complete game on June 29, and while he allowed four runs (three earned) in that game, it doesn’t tell the entire story. He was completely dominant sans for appearances against Nick Swisher, plus a mini 9th-inning rally. He was set to face them again in the beginning of July, but it came out before his scheduled Friday night start that the Mariners intended to trade him prior to it. The rumored target was the Yankees, but that fell through and he ended up going to Texas. That hurt not only because the Yankees didn’t get their man, but that they’d have to face Lee twice more, whereas they were done with Seattle after that July series. The Yanks beat him the first time, scoring four runs in 6.1 innings before finishing the comeback against the bullpen. In the second instance only Derek Jeter could figure him out, and despite Dustin Moseley’s best efforts the Yanks dropped the game.


(David J. Phillip/AP)

Lee’s postseason success against the Yankees typically get exaggerated, because he won both times he faced them in the 2009 World Series and was absolutely brilliant in Game 1. But he was beatable in Game 5, and the Yanks nearly did mount a comeback in that one despite A.J. Burnett‘s horrible performance.

In Game 1 Lee was undeniably dominant. He pitched all nine innings and struck out 10 Yankees while walking none. The six hits he allowed were scattered, as he didn’t allow more than one base runner per inning until the ninth. Even then it was a matter of just two singles to lead off the inning. Lee got what appeared to be a ground ball double play from Mark Teixeira, but Jimmy Rollins threw away the ball. That allowed Jeter to score. Lee, apparently perturbed that his fielder ruined his shut out, struck out A-Rod and Posada to end the game.

The Yankees ended up turning things around in Game 5. A-Rod got them off to a 1-0 lead with a double to right, but A.J. Burnett gave it back when he allowed a three run homer in his half. Burnett then got knocked around in the third inning and had to exit the game. David Robertson allowed an inherited runner to score, leaving Burnett with six runs in just two innings. The Yankees chipped away, scoring four more runs off Lee (and Chan Ho Park). But thanks to a Phil Coke implosion they were still down three. They nearly brought it all home against Ryan Madson, as they had the tying run at the plate with none out. But Jeter grounded into a double play to lessen the threat.

Which Cliff Lee will we see tonight? Certainly we won’t see the Lee that faced the Yankees before his grand transformation. That guy is long gone. The new Lee has had his ups and downs against the Yankees. If he looks more like Game 5 Lee than Game 1 Lee, the Yanks have as good a shot as they’ve had against all the other postseason aces they’ve faced.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 18th, 2010

Record Last Week: 1-1 (8 RS, 12 RA) tied at one with the Rangers in best-of-seven ALCS
Season Record: 95-67 (859 RS, 693 RA, 98-64 Pythag. record), finished one game back in AL East, won Wild Card
Schedule This Week: ALCS Game Three (Mon. vs. Rangers), ALCS Game Four (Tues. vs. Rangers), ALCS Game Five (Weds. vs. Rangers), ALCS Game Six (Fri. @ Rangers, if necessary), ALCS Game Seven (Sat. @ Rangers, if necessary)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.


Winning the division in a roundabout way

Red Gatorade? The Cubs can have him! (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

As the Yankees stumbled through the final month of the season, going 13-17 with a .333 team wOBA and 4.56 team FIP, a division lead that once stood at four games vanished. Joe Girardi took perhaps more criticism than any manager of a playoff team in recent history, as fans and media alike chastised him for what they perceived to be mixed signals. Girardi claimed that he and his team still had their sights set on the division, but the actions often didn’t agree. Whether it was rest for regulars or yet another Chad Gaudin appearance, it just didn’t appear that winning the division was the priority.

In the end the Rays beat the Yanks out for the division, capturing the AL East by just one game on the final day of the season. Some were upset that New York failed to win the division for the second time in three years, others had accepted what seemed like an inevitable fate by then. Instead of starting the playoffs from the comfort of home against the Twins, they were forced to travel to Minnesota and start on the road. The Rays enjoyed some home cooking and had their opponent come to them.

Two weeks after the end of the regular of the season, none of that matters anymore. The Yankees crushed the Twins in the ALDS like the fat kid at the party eating the last piece of birthday cake, and the Rangers pushed the Rays to the limit before defeating them in five games, winning all three games at Tropicana Field. Winning the AL East didn’t hurt the Yanks any more than it helped the Rays. The first two games in the ALCS were then played in Texas, with the Yanks and Rangers winning one each.

So now here we are. After all the criticism and stress of September (and early October), the Yankees in the exact same position they would have been in if they’d won the division in the first place. They’re about to start a best-of-five series against the Rangers with home field advantage in their favor. The only difference is that the first team to win three games goes to the World Series rather than the ALCS. This is it, this is what everyone was rooting for when they wanted the Yanks to go all out to win the division. Everyone upset over settling for the Wild Card got what they wanted anyway, they just had to wait another week.

For a team like the Yankees, one that competes for the World Championship year after year, division titles are nothing more than window dressing. It’s nice in a “hey look at us” kind of way, but it’s just step one of the process. Instead of focusing on that goal, Girardi set his team up to be in the best possible position for the postseason, and so far it’s worked. They’ve won four of five playoff games despite playing just once at home, and everyone is as healthy and able to contribute as can be. For all the flack he took, there’s no arguing now that his moves last month were the right ones, Wild Card team or not.

No one remembers division titles, but they all remember World Championships.