Now turning 99, the public announcer, Bob Sheppard, now turning 99

It’s been a while since we’ve heard any news from Bob Sheppard. Although the Yanks’ nonagenarian public address announcer in April denied reports that he was retiring, Yankee Stadium was Sheppard-less throughout its first season, and Sheppard had not been at a Yankee game since late 2007 before he fell ill with a bad bout of pneumonia. Today, is Sheppard’s birthday, and the long-time Voice of the Yankees is turning 99. The Queens native had a great run in the Bronx, and millions of us associate him with the Yankees. So wherever he is and however he is feeling, I tip my cap to the man born before World War I.

Yanks turning to Sabathia for Game 1

Had the Twins won last night to force a Game 4 in the ALDS, CC Sabathia would have been on the mound this evening in an effort to bring the Yanks to the League Championship Series. Instead, Andy Pettitte and the Yanks’ bats wrapped up the series in Minnesota, and the Yankees have a week off in which they can set their rotation.

Although the Yanks have not made an announcement yet, it is all but official that CC Sabathia will start Game 1 of the ALCS. The big lefty will take the ball against the Angels on Friday, nine days after facing the Twins in Game 1 of the division series. The long layoff may mean that Sabathia is too fresh, but that’s a risk I’m happy to take.

Last week, Sabathia had a pretty good ALDS start. His final line — 6.2 IP, 8 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 8 K — earned him a postseason win, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. For the first three innings, Sabathia labored. He needed a Jobaian 64 pitches to record nine outs and did not have his best fastball. Rather, he and Jorge Posada came up with a game plan that relied on change-ups and sliders instead. It worked as he needed just 49 pitches to record the last 12 outs.

In a sense, Sabathia is the perfect pitcher to face the Angels. Most important for a series against the Angels is the fact that Sabathia simply doesn’t issue many walks. To win against the Angels, it is important to avoid giving them free bases. As the team demonstrated against the Red Sox this week, they will capitalize against pitchers who give them walks. Although the Twins did not score much against A.J. Burnett and the Yanks during a Game 2 that featured no 1-2-3 innings, the Angels will not let the Yanks off the hook that easily.

Furthermore, as a lefty, Sabathia can cut down on the Angels’ running game. Not as sneaky with the pick-off move as Andy Pettitte is, Sabathia can try to keep Bobby Abreu and Chone Figgins, Anaheim’s two biggest base-stealing threats, closer to first.

With the advantages, Sabathia is primed to face the Angels at least twice and maybe three times. If the Yankees opt to take advantage of the extra day off during the season to go with three starters, Sabathia could pitch Game 1 on Friday, Game 4 on three days’ rest and Game 7 on full rest. Who needs a fourth starter?

Yet, despite this profile, the Angels, a right-hand hitting team, have given Sabathia trouble this year. He allowed four earned runs in 6.2 innings on May 2nd and five earned runs in 6.2 innings on July 12. In fact, the Angels were one of only two teams to beat CC twice this season. Still, there is no one I would rather see on the mound come Friday. With the K pitch working, Sabathia can neutralize the Angels. As Joe wrote earlier today, the Yanks’ good pitching will determine the extent of their October success. In the ALCS, as CC goes, so go the Yankees.

2009 ALDS Review/ALCS Preview Chat

Yanks show that the difference is pitching

After last night’s Game 3 victory over the Twins, the Yankees were quick to talk about their pitching. “Our pitching is the reason why we’re here,” said Derek Jeter. “CC started it, A.J. followed, and Andy finished. That’s how you have to win in the playoffs.” Mariano Rivera agreed. “Everything was pitching.”

Poor pitching has doomed so many previous postseason teams. In the 2005 ALDS the Yankees gave up five or more runs in three games, including an 11-run Angels assault in Game 3. In 2006 they surrendered six and eight runs to the Tigers in Games 3 and 4. Things were a bit better in 2007, but two poor pitching performances led to 12- and six-run Indians surges that buried the Yanks. No matter how powerful their offense, their pitching shortcomings were exposed in October.

The 2009 ALDS was different. The Yankees got the pitching performances they needed, holding the Twins to just six runs in the three games. Any more and they might not be in this position right now. The offense didn’t disappear, but the team didn’t hit at the level of the regular season. That tends to happen at times in the playoffs, and the only way to keep it from killing your team is to pitch well.

While there was no shortage of power, the Yankees offense generally hit poorly in the series, going 23 for 102 with six walks, three doubles, and six homers, for a slash line of .225/.288/.431. During the regular season, the team hit .283/.362/.478, so there was a noticeable decline in almost every offensive aspect. The only exception was pure power: the team had a .194 Iso in the regular season and .206 in the first round.

That meant the pitching had to take over. The Twins had more base runners than the Yankees, but that’s about it. They hit .257/.311/.301 in the series. They had more hits, 29, and walks, nine, than the Yankees, but scored eight fewer runs. That’s because of the Yankees pitchers. For starters, as you can see in the SLG, they kept the ball in the park. Just four of Minnesota’s 29 hits were for extra bases, so even when they put men on they had a hard time bringing them all the way around.

The other crucial aspect for the Yanks pitchers was holding down the Twins with runners in scoring position. The Twins came to bat 28 times with at least a runner on second, and picked up eight hits for a respectable .285 average. The difference, however, was that each of those hits with RISP was a single. The Twins couldn’t pick up that big hit in critical situations. Some of that is attributable to luck, but the Yankees pitching certainly did its part to limit the damage.

A powerhouse offense can carry a team through the regular season, but as the Yankees have proven over the past five years, it’s difficult to advance in the postseason without solid pitching. The Yanks got that this series. Their offense was decent, not great as it was during the season, but added enough power to keep the Yanks in every game. The pitching did the rest. That’s the difference in 2009.

Where have you gone, Johnny Damon?

Through the first five months of the season, Johnny Damon was sitting pretty. Playing out the last year of his Yankee contract, Damon was putting up a career year, and on Sept. 2, he was hitting .293/.373/.524. He had tied his career high in home runs with 24 and seemed destined to reach the quarter century mark.

Since then, though, it’s been one long slump for Johnny Damon. He ended the regular season on a 17-for 79 slide and hit just .215/.319/.278 over his last 92 plate appearances. He struck out 17 times, knocked out just five extra-base hits and never reached 25 home runs.

This poor offensive play has continued into the playoffs. Against the Twins, Johnny Damon seemed lost at the plate. He went 1 for 12 and struck out four times against Carl Pavano and the Twins’ pen last night. By his fourth at-bat, some Yankee fans were wondering if Brett Gardner deserves a start. Of course, Damon has more power potential than Gardner, but during the regular season, Damon’s play would probably earn him a mental health day off.

Generally, I wouldn’t be too worried about a 100-plate appearance slump. Damon is in one now, and it’s probably just a matter of time before he breaks out in a big way. But two aspects to Johnny Damon — his contract status and his willingness to play through injuries — makes me wonder if we should put some more stock into this slump.

As much as it is a cliché, Johnny Damon is a gritty player. He hates to sit, and he doesn’t share injuries with everyone. He’ll play through sore legs, a sore back, sore anything. Usually, we can tell when Damon is hurt because it impacts his performance, and he plays as he has been lately. His swings are late; he flails in the field; his game just isn’t on.

Meanwhile, Damon is also playing for a contract. He turns 36 in a few weeks, and Damon has seen the market for 36-year-old outfielders. He saw Bobby Abreu settle for a deal significantly lower than he expected, and he knows that he’ll be up against Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and Abreu on the free agent market this winter. He needs to play, and he needs to perform to prove his worth.

Finally, we arrive too at the Yankees’ specific aspect of this story. Although the Yankees’ players are focused on beating the Angels to reach the World Series, the Yankees’ Front Office knows that, shortly after the World Series ends, the free agent frenzy begins. The team will have to decide whether or not to re-sign their own free agents, and the Yankee brass may be gearing up to make a choice between Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. Do they put stock into Matsui’s late-season surge and Damon’s late-season swoon? Do they look to get younger in left while retaining Matsui as a DH? Do they jettison the creaky-kneed Hideki while keeping Damon, the guy who has expressed a keen desire to stay in the Bronx?

Damon’s poor play of late isn’t making this decision any easier than it was, and it must gnaw at him to know that everyone is watching and evaluating and determining his future for him. For now, I hope last night’s Golden Sombrero is the end of his struggles. The Yankees will need his power at the plate and his speed on the bases for their ALCS match-up against the Angels.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 12th, 2009

Record Last Week: 3-0 (15 RS, 6 RA) swept the Twins in the ALDS
Season Record: 103-59 (915 RS, 753 RA), won AL East by 8 games, finished with the best record in MLB by 6 games
Opponents This Week: The Yanks will face the Angels in the best-of-seven ALCS starting Friday.

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Yanks come on late, complete sweep of Twins

Game 3 is often the most critical one in a five-game series. In any of the three possible scenarios, a win is important. When up 2-0, winning the third game gives the team the ability to line up their Game 1 starter to start Game 1 of the ALCS. When down 2-0, the season is on the line. When tied 1-1, a win gives the team a decided advantage heading into Game 4. The Yankees went with Andy Pettitte in Game 3 this time, hoping that his strong second half would carry over to the postseason.

The Yanks got everything they could have expected from Pettitte, and might have even left some in the tank. He threw 81 pitches over 6.1 innings, striking out seven and walking just one and limiting the Twins to just one run. That lone run came in the sixth after a bases empty, two outs situation. It was all the Twins would get all night. He exited after striking out Jason Kubel to lead off the seventh, though with his low pitch count and superb results on the night, perhaps he could have finished the inning.

Joba Chamberlain made that a moot point. He made a mistake to the first batter, Delmon Young, who drove one into the gap for a one-out double. But Chamberlain beared down, inducing a soft grounder from Matt Tolbert before striking out Jose Morales to end the inning. It set up the bullpen for Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera in the eighth and ninth.

The Twins threatened in the eighth, and if not for a baserunning blunder would have been in position to tie the game. Nick Punto, who hit over .400 in the series, hit a 2-2 pitch between Melky Cabrera and Johnny Damon for a leadoff double. The next batter, Denard Span, slapped one up the middle, but Jeter cut it off before it could leave the infield. Seeing Punto take a wide turn around third, Jeter fired home. Punto had slipped on his way back, giving Jorge Posada enough time to throw him out at third.

A first and third, no outs situation turned into a runner on first, one out situation, and it seemingly deflated the Twins. Orlando Cabrera flied out to center for the second out. That brought Joe Mauer to the plate, and Girardi did not mess around. He went to Mariano Rivera to get the AL batting champ and presumptive MVP, and the at-bat followed the script. Mauer swung at the second pitch, a cutter in on the hands, breaking his bat and grounding weakly to first. Teixeira fielded, ending the minor threat.

Mo finished off the game in typical fashion, allowing just one hit while retiring the final three batters he faced. He hit his stride after allowing a leadoff single, striking out the next two hitters before inducing a grounder to end the game.

In his first season post-Yankees, Carl Pavano fared well against his former team in the regular season. He faced them twice, pitching 13.1 innings and allowing just four runs, splitting the match-ups. He started off Game 3 even better, striking out eight and allowing just three hits through six innings. It looked like he had control of the game, and when the Twins rallied for a run in the sixth it looked like the Yankees would have a tough road ahead.

The game changed in the seventh. After going down 0-2, Alex Rodriguez took three straight pitches outside the zone to work the count full. After fouling off a pitch, he got a fastball up and on the outside edge. It’s a pitch Alex handles well, and this time was no exception. He went with it, driving it high over the baggie in right for a game-tying home run. It was Rodriguez’s second home run and sixth RBI of the series, and the second time he tied the game with a homer.

With two outs and the bases empty, Jorge Posada stepped up. He took the first pitch, a changeup, well outside for ball one. Pavano then threw a good pitch, a sinker low and away, but Jorge timed it perfectly. Delmon Young gave the ball a chase, but it was just beyond his reach, in the stands for the go-ahead run. Fitting that the Yankees, who led the majors in homers (and homers on the road) this season took the lead on a pair of homers.

Even with Mariano Rivera to pitch the ninth, the Yankees knew insurance runs wouldn’t hurt. They picked up a few of those in the ninth. Ron Gardenhire used four pitchers in the inning, and none did the job satisfactorily. Ron Mahay recorded a strikeout and then walked Teixeira. Jon Rauch walked A-Rod. Jose Mijares walked Hideki Matsui. Joe Nathan then came on to face Jorge Posda, and surrendered and RBI single. Robinson Cano then blooped in a second insurance run.

Andy Pettitte’s contribution should not be understated. Over the past three postseasons, the Yankees couldn’t overcome their pitching problems. They rebuilt the rotation this season, and it’s a big reason why they had the best record in the regular season and then swept their way through the ALDS. Andy used two variations of what he calls his cutter — one a faster pitch that more resembles a fastball, and a slower one that more resembles a slider. That, mixed with his fastball, kept the Twins off-balance. Before their rally started with two outs in the sixth, Pettitte retired 17 of the first 18 batters he faced.

Both the Yankees and Angels will enjoy a four-day vacation before squaring off in Game 1 of the ALCS Friday in the Bronx. Both teams will realign their rotations, meaning we’ll get the best possible match-ups. We’ll have plenty to say over the next few days, but for now I’m just going to enjoy this one. It sure does feel good to have the Yanks past the first round of the playoffs.