When Johnny comes running home again

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Because of the way FOX produces baseball games, when Johnny Damon slid safely into second, popped up and then started heading for third, my heart dropped. “What are you doing?” I thought. How could Damon, already in scoring position for Mark Teixeira, dream of taking third when Pedro Feliz was covering second and had the ball?

It was then that I realized Pedro Feliz, the Phillies’ third baseman, had the ball. If he had the ball, well, then no one was covering third. And why was no one covering third? Because Mark Teixeira was up from the left side, and all year teams have put a drastic shift on for lefty Teixeira.

So when Feliz fielded the ball in front of the base, Damon raced him to third. Says Jayson Stark:

Damon admitted afterward he had never done this before. And, in fact, it wasn’t immediately clear the last time anyone did this. But Damon said he’d been talking about it and thinking about it all year, since it became clear The Shift was going to be a regular feature of Teixeira’s left-handed at-bats.

Damon had to be safe. He had to know he would be safe because with Phil Coke, and not Mariano Rivera, warming up for a tie game, the Yankees couldn’t afford to take chances. After the game, Damon chuckled disbelievingly at the play. “If it was Chone Figgins,” he said, “that might have been tough. I just went off of instinct. And fortunately, it worked out.”

Once on third base, Damon was firmly inside the heads of Brad Lidge and Carlos Ruiz, the Phillies’ battery. Lidge hit Mark Teixeira with the next pitch and refused to throw Alex Rodriguez a slider for fear that a wild pitch would give the Yanks the lead. A-Rod and Jorge Posada made that slider a moot point, and before the dust had settled, the Yanks were sitting pretty on a 7-4 lead.

While thinking about the play as the post-game show unfolded last night, I remembered 2003 and so did Derek Jeter. On Opening Day, the Yankees were in Toronto, and Jeter had a lead off first base. Jason Giambi hit a bouncer to Roy Halladay, and Doc threw to Carlos Delgado at first. Jeter knew that, with the Giambi shift on, third base was unoccupied, and he didn’t stop. Delgado threw across the diamond as Ken Huckaby, Toronto’s catcher, raced up the line. Huckaby caught the ball and crashed into Jeter. Derek’s shoulder was dislocated, and he would not play again until May 13.

Last night, there was no Ken Huckaby, no Carlos Ruiz, no Brad Lidge awaiting Johnny Damon at third base. The Yanks’ left fielder caught everyone off guard, and as the Yankee bench, millions of fans, and Carlos Ruiz watched the play unfold, Damon beat Feliz in a dash to third. It was a race for ages.

“You know how people always tell you that they’ve been in baseball for 40 years, 50 years, and things happen every game that they never saw?” Yankees bench coach Tony Pena said last night. “Well, I’ve never seen that before. I never saw that before in my life.”

Burnett’s history of pitching on three days’ rest

Tonight, in the first elimination game of the 2009 World Series, the Yankees will send A.J. Burnett to the mound on just three day’s rest. The tactic makes sense. The alternative is Chad Gaudin, who hasn’t started a game since late September and who has a well-documented deficiency when facing left-handed hitters. With such a significant drop-off between the Yankees third best starter, Andy Pettitte, and their fourth, Gaudin, the choice was not a difficult one.

Burnett has experience starting on three days’ rest, and most of it came in the 2008 season with Toronto. His performance in those games might have helped influence Joe Girardi‘s decision, so let’s take a look at exactly what happened when Burnett took the mound a day earlier than normally scheduled.

July 4, 2004

Burnett underwent Tommy John surgery in early 2003 and made his return in June, 2004. He had a few blips, including a 4.1-inning, eight-run outing against Cleveland, but generally pitched well in his first month back. Unfortunately, the Marlins could not pick him up, losing each of Burnett’s six starts that month. This included back to back starts in which Burnett allowed just two runs over seven and eight innings.

On July 4, the Marlins called on Burnett to start on three days’ rest against the Tampa Bay Rays, against whom he had thrown the aforementioned eight-inning game. He didn’t pitch quite as well, allowing three runs over 7.2 innings, but it was enough to earn his first win of the season. He struck out six Devil Rays that day, including Carl Crawford to lead off the game. Atypical of Burnett, he also didn’t issue any walks — though Tampa Bay drew the fifth fewest walks of any MLB team that season.

It might seem strange for Burnett to start on three days’ rest so shortly after recovering from elbow surgery. That seems like the kind of move that could lead to a relapse. Burnett, however, had thrown just 30 pitches on June 30, leaving the game two batters into the second inning after allowing five hits and walking two. That light workload made the short-rest start make a bit more sense.

July 13, 2008

Burnett started off July 2008 with two horrible starts. In seven innings against the Angels on Independence Day, Burnett allowed eight runs, six earned, on 12 hits over seven innings. The next time out he allowed seven runs on seven hits and three walks over 5.1 innings to the Orioles. Why, then, would the Blue Jays bring back Burnet on there days’ rest to face the Yankees on July 13?

I’m not quite sure. It was the last game before the All-Star Break, so perhaps Cito Gaston didn’t want Burnett to have such a long layoff. Whatever the reason, it worked. Burnett took a shutout into the ninth inning, though Jason Giambi ruined it with a solo home run. B.J. Ryan came on after a Jorge Posada single to record the final two outs. Still, Burnett was magnificent, and it’s one of the reasons that the players lobbied the team to sign him over the off-season.

September 13, 2008

At the end of August, Burnett found him with quite the challenge. On the ledger for his final three starts of the month: the Yankees twice, with Boston in the middle. While the Blue Jays were out of the race, it was still an audition for both teams. He killed the Yankees, but faltered a bit against the Red Sox. He’d get his chance for redemption against them, though, as Gaston named him the starter on September, just three days after his seven-inning, one-run performance against the White Sox.

It wasn’t an easy six innings for Burnett, as he used 102 pitches, walking three. But at the end of the sixth he had allowed just one unearned run. The Blue Jays went to town, scoring eight runs in support of their free-agent-to-be, helping him pick up his 18th win of the season.

The phantom three days’ rest start — April 16, 2008

When looking up Burnett’s short-rest starts, I first went to his Baseball Reference splits page, where it says he has started four games on three days’ rest. Yet I found only three such games. It comes down to a nitpick: does a start count as being on three days’ rest when the previous appearance was in relief?

On April 16, 2008, then-Blue Jays manager John Gibbons called on Burnett to come into the 14th inning of a game at home against the Rangers. It was tied 5-5, and the Blue Jays needed some more innings out of a dwindling pen. He had last pitched on April 13, also against Texas, and didn’t pitch particularly well in that start, allowing four runs over 5.2 innings. It seemed curious that Gibbons would call on Burnett two days later, but he did and paid for it. Burnett allowed two runs on three hits and a walk in the 14th, leading to a 7-5 Blue Jays loss.

Then, three days later, Burnett came out to start against the Tigers. It was six days after his last start, but just three days after his last appearance. He allowed three runs over five innings, walking six in the game. It was easily his worst start on three days’ rest, yet the Blue Jays offense put him in line for the win, his second of the season (the first was against the Yankees in his first start of the season).

In a way, I don’t want to count it because the start on three days’ rest did not follow another start, but a relief appearance. Then again, Burnett did throw 24 pitches in that span, six short of the 30 he threw on June 30, 2004, which he followed with a start on three days’ rest. Is there much of a difference there? I thought so at first, but I’m not so sure after thinking it over some more.

None of this guarantees Burnett anything tonight. It proves that he’s physically capable of throwing on three days’ rest and succeeding, but that’s about it. Knowing his track record is a bit reassuring, at least.

2009 World Series Chat

The rise of Damaso Marte

Damaso Marte in Game FourWhen the playoffs started, the question wasn’t whether Damaso Marte would be the first or second lefty reliever out of the bullpen, it was will he even be on the playoff roster? Three-plus weeks later, he’s morphed from an “only in an emergency” option to a bonafide weapon out of Joe Girardi‘s bullpen.

It’s no secret that Marte’s Yankee career started off in inauspicious fashion. After being acquired along with Xavier Nady at the 2008 trade deadline, Marte put 24 men on base in just 18.1 IP to close out the year, though his 3.02 FIP and 3.71 tRA disagreed with his 5.40 ERA. Then, in a somewhat surprising move, the Yankees declined Marte’s $6M option for 2009 only to re-sign him to a three-year, $12MM deal a week later. It was surprising because the team took on much more risk, rather than being able to walk away after a year if things didn’t go as planned. And they didn’t go as planned, at least as first.

Marte returned from the World Baseball Classic with shoulder inflammation, and then proceeded to serve up three homers and allow nine runs in his first seven outings of the season, covering just 5.1 IP. His velocity was down, and he ended up on the DL in early May with a sore shoulder. With CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, Mark Teixeira, and Nick Swisher performing so well, Marte certainly looked like the token dud offseason move.

After getting cleared by Dr. Andrews, Marte’s rehab experience started way down with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees. He ultimately made 13 rehab appearances, 11 with Triple-A Scranton, which is an unusually high number. It seemed like the team was in no rush to get him back up to the big leagues, and sure enough when he did return in late August, he was used sparingly in low-leverage spots. His season numbers were pretty awful (9.45 ERA, 5.65 FIP, 5.30 tRA), but he held lefties to a .120-.214-.280 batting line and got his postseason spot because of the presence of Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel in the middle of Minnesota’s lineup.

Since the playoffs started, not only has Marte usurped Phil Coke as the primary lefthander out of the bullpen, he’s also jumped ahead of several righthanders in the setup crew pecking order. After allowing a pair of singles to Mauer and Kubel to start his 2009 postseason, Marte has retired the last 10 batters he’s faced, three on strikeouts thanks to a ridiculous 79.4% strike rate (yes, I know it’s in a small sample). He’s completely neutralized NLCS MVP Ryan Howard (0-for-3 with a strikeout in the World Series, 0-for-3 with three strikeouts career coming into the series), and pretty much everyone else that stood in the box.

Yankee fans crushed Marte all season long, saying he couldn’t handle the pressure of playing in New York, the usual shtick like that. A few of us stood by him, noting that his long and impressive track record indicated that he’s not just a good reliever, but one of the better and more consistent relievers of the century. Judging players on small sample sizes, especially when they were dealing with an injury, is never a good idea, and now Marte is rewarding Girardi’s faith by getting crucial outs in the late innings of October November. Remember, he’s the only reliever in the bullpen aside from Mariano Rivera with World Series experience.

Considering how recent postseason performance can inflate salaries on the open market, the Yankees may have actually saved themselves some money by re-signing Marte semi-long-term last offseason instead of just picking up his option and letting him hit the market again this winter. Funny how these things work out.

Photo Credit: Nick Laham, Getty Images

Fan Confidence Poll: November 2nd, 2009

Record Last Week: 3-1 (19 RS, 16 RA)
Season Record: 103-59 (915 RS, 753 RA), won AL East by 8 games, finished with the best record in MLB by 6 games
Schedule This Week: World Series Game Five @ Philadelphia (Monday), Game Six at home (Wednesday, if necessary), Game Seven at home (Thursday, if necessary)

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On the 26th out, a game-saving three-run rally

Yanks hang three on Lidge in the 9th for 7-4 Game 4 win

Revised (1:49 a.m.) with an update on the injured Melky Cabrera: The Bridge to Mariano just needs to stay together for one more victory. As it stands now, that bridge is on shaky, shaky footing, and yet, the Yanks made it work tonight. In a game that resembled a roller coaster of emotions — looking something like this — the Yanks brought us up early, down late and then bashed around Brad Lidge for a key 7-4 win in Game 4. They are but one win away from their 27th World Series title.

Without a clock looming over play, baseball teams get 27 outs to figure out a way to outscore their opponents. Tonight, the Yankees needed all but one of them to top the Phillies. After 26 outs, the Yanks were facing a tie game on the road. They had no one on, and Phil Coke warming up in the bullpen. But then Mystique and Aura arrived after getting stuck in traffic on the Benjamin Franklin bridge.

The rally started with Johnny Damon, playing perhaps his final few games as a Yankee. Ball 1. Strike 1. Strike 2. The 1-2 pitch was huge as Damon nicked a foul tip into the dirt and Carlos Ruiz could not hold on to it. Ball 2. Ball 3. Foul. Foul. And then, life! On the 9th pitch, Damon singled into left, and Brad Lidge’s armor showed a chink. “The key to that inning to me was the tenacious at-bat by Johnny Damon,” Alex Rodriguez, the eventual hero, said to both Mark Grace and Michael Kay after the game.

With Mark Teixeira batting, Damon hit the bases. He stole second on a pitch in the dirt and then noticed that, because Pedro Feliz was covering second due to the Mark Teixeira shift, third base was wide open. Damon won the race and found himself just 90 feet away from giving the Yanks a lead with Mariano Rivera looming.

For those of us watching at home, we had little idea what was happening. It first seemed as though Damon had thought the ball was behind Feliz, but then it dawned on all of us: Third base was unoccupied. Joba Chamberlain, though, summed up the fan reaction to this unique play. “I had a heart attack, a little one,” he said after the game. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Damon did, though, and it paid off. The Yanks would plate Damon and more though. Teixeira was hit by a Brad Lidge fastball, and then A-Rod, with just one hit all World Series, lined an 0-1 double into the left field. Jorge Posada then lined a 2-2 pitch into the left-center field gap. Although Posada would be tagged out at second, Teixeira and Rodriguez scored.

The Yanks had a three-run lead with Mo in, and eight pitches later — one fewer than Johnny Damon’s entire AB against Lidge — the game was over. Matt Stairs grounded out to first; Jimmy Rollins popped out to first; and Shane Victorino grounded out to Mark Teixeira for the ball game. Over the last two days, Mariano Rivera has faced five batters. He has retired all five of them and has used just 13 pitches — thirteen! — to get those five outs. This is vintage Mariano for you. Appreciate it now because, as we saw just one inning earlier, that ability to control a game from the bullpen is rare indeed.

The Yanks, of course, almost didn’t need Mariano. Starting on three days’ rest, CC Sabathia wasn’t as sharp as he had been against the Angels, but he made it work. After 6.2 innings and 107 pitches, Sabathia would leave with a 4-3 lead. He allowed seven hits and three walks on six strike outs, but he wasn’t too sharp. He threw first-pitch strikes to just 17 of 30 batters faced and managed just two 1-2-3 innings.

Again, though, the real CC killer was Phillies’ second baseman Chase Utley. After homering twice against Sabathia in Game 1, Utley went 2-for-3 with a double and a home run. He drove in two games and drove CC from the game. On the series, Utley is 4 for 6 with 3 home runs and 4 RBI against Sabathia while the rest of the Phillies are just 7 for 45 with one run batted in.

With Sabathia out, Damaso Marte, enjoying a mid-contract Yankee revival, did the job. Pumping 94-mph fastballs past Ryan Howard, Marte got the Phillies’ feared first baseman to fly out to Damon. Enjoying a slim one-run lead, the Yanks handed the ball over to a new 8th Inning guy.

With Phil Hughes in the doghouse following some very rough outings, the Yanks gave Joba Chamberlain a chance to reclaim his old job, and it seemed as though Joba would deliver. He struck out Jayson Werth on a 97-mph fastball and blew away Raul Ibañez with another 97-mph fastball. But then, disaster! Ahead of Pedro Feliz 1-2, Chamberlain fell behind 3-2 and let a pitch stray. It was supposed to be a fastball on the outside corner. Instead, it was a 97-mph pitch on the fat part of the plate, and Feliz deposited it over the left field wall.

“He put on a good swing. There’s nothing you can say about it. He did what he had to do,” Chamberlain said after the game. On the mound and in the dugout, he was clearly distraught. Even after Carlos Ruiz struck out on a nasty 88-mph slider, the damage had been done, and the fans were momentarily heartbroken.

But the Comeback Kids rebounded. They scored their runs; they won the game; they stand but 27 outs away from a World Series title. The team, at least on camera, isn’t letting the weight of the moment get to them, and they know that Cliff Lee looms large on Monday night. “It’s important for us to stay focused,” A-Rod said in a post-game interview with Mark Grace.

Damon, though, the YES Network’s Chevy Player of the Game, spoke some calming words. “We’re going to try to win,” he said. Here’s to hoping.

Melky Cabrera unlikely for Game 5
Lost in the brouhaha over the Yanks’ victory was the news about Melky Cabrera. While trying to run out a ground ball in the sixth inning last night, the Yanks’ center fielder strained his left hamstring. The Yankees are calling it a minor strain, but as Mark Feinsand reported, the team does not expect Cabrera to play in Game 5. I would guess that he won’t be available for Games 6 or 7 either.

At this point, the Yankees have a few choices. They can put Brett Gardner in center field, but Joe Girardi said after the game that Jerry Hairston, Jr., remains a distinct option for the start. Girardi prefers to deploy Gardner as a late-inning pinch running. If Melky is truly hurt, I believe the Yanks can activate another player — probably either Freddy Guzman or Francisco Cervelli. For the Series, Melky was just 2 for 13 before leaving with the injury but had played a solid center field throughout the playoffs.