Yanks offense goes from powerhouse to porous in ALCS

We’ve all seen this before: Yankees offense scores 900 runs in the regular season, goes to sleep in the playoffs. The difference this year is that some guys are still hitting. That, and the superb pitching allowed even a porous offense to come out ahead in the first five postseason contests. But, as we saw yesterday, the holes in the lineup can be killers. The Yanks could have scored eight, 10 runs yesterday if they hit with runners in scoring position. Instead, they relied on the solo homer. That won’t always work.

That the bottom of the order isn’t hitting is one thing. That Mark Teixeira isn’t hitting is another. He’s had a pretty bad playoffs overall, notching just two hits in the ALDS. Of course, those two hits were as big as they get: a single prior to a game-tying homer, and a walk-off shot in the same game. Since then, in four games, Teixeira has just one hit. He is 1 for 13 in the ALDS with a lone single, walking three times to five strikeouts. It hurts so much more because he’s batting in the three hole.

It’s April all over again for Tex. It appears the long breaks have disrupted his rhythm. That’s anecdotal, of course, but it matches with what we’ve heard about Teixeira from day one. He starts slow every year because he needs to get into a rhythm from both sides of the plate. Joe Morgan (of all people) explained it on a Sunday Night Baseball broadcast, noting that while most hitters transfer their weight from their back foot to their front, Teixeira stays on his back foot for his whole swing. I wonder how much Tex would benefit from having a non-roster pitcher, like Brian Bruney, throw him live BP, at game speeds.

Robinson Cano came to the plate twice yesterday with runners on first and second with none out, and twice bounced into a fielder’s choice. In fact, he doesn’t have a hit with runners in scoring position all series. His only RBI came on a triple with a man on first. He’s just 3 for 13 in the series with a GIDP. The Yankees certainly need the guy who hit .320 this season.

Batting after Cano is Nick Swisher, who has been equally as bad if not worse. After going 1 for 12 in the ALDS, Swisher is 2 for 10 in the ALCS with five strikeouts. A few of those have been costly, coming with a runner on third and less than two outs. Swisher’s woes at the plate are amplified when A.J. Burnett starts. Because Jose Molina bats ninth and Jorge Posada is out of the lineup, Swisher hits sixth. Unless he does something tonight, putting him in that spot isn’t the best idea.

Rounding out the order is Melky Cabrera who, after a good Game 1, has slowed down considerably. He went 1 for 2 with two walks in the opening match, but since has gone 2 for 11 with no walks and four strikeouts. He’s the No. 9 hitter, so it’s tough to expect the world from him. Still, Melky has stumbled in the playoffs. He’s just 5 for 25 this postseason, which is bad even for the last hitter in the lineup.

So far the Yankees have gotten by with timely (i.e., late) hitting and solid pitching. But the home runs won’t come against everyone. The Yankees have to start taking advantage of their opportunities earlier in the game, and that means Teixeira, Cano, Swisher, and Melky have to produce. After yesterday’s loss, the Yankees could use it tonight more than ever.

Rethinking Girardi’s ALCS bullpen approach

For 162 games this year, Joe Girardi had a fairly consistent bullpen approach. While the generally theory is to get the ball to Phil Hughes in the 8th and Mariano Rivera in the 9th, Joe had, through a series of mid-season auditions, figured out the best approach to the three or four outs in between the time when he removed his starting pitcher and when he brought in Hughes, and by the time early August rolled around, David Robertson had assumed the role.

Now, Robertson wasn’t given the role. He had to earn it. Early on in the season, Brian Bruney had that spot after losing the 8th to Phil Hughes, but Bruney couldn’t hold it down. After Bruney, the role was Alfredo Aceves‘ to lose, and after a shaky July brought about by some shoulder pain, Aceves lost it. It was then that David Robertson earned that position of trust, and he quickly emerged as the Yanks’ third best reliever.

On the season, Robertson had some pretty impressive numbers. He struck out 63 of the 191 batters he faced, good for a K/9 IP of 13.0. Although he walked 4.7 per 9 innings, by year’s end, he had reduced that walk rate. In the 7th, he was just as good. He faced 30 batters in the 7th inning — a small sample size for sure — but struck out 12 of them and allowed just two 7th inning runs. By most accounts, he was the Yanks’ third best reliever in 2009.

And then we have Joba Chamberlain. As we know, on the year, Joba was less than consistent and not as effective as we hoped. Sporting a lower velocity that many believe came about after his August 2008 shoulder injury and less control than we had seen in the past, Joba threw 157.1 to mixed results. He had a 4.75 ERA and a K/9 IP of just 7.6. His walk rate was up, and opponents hit .274/.363/.439 against him. By season’s end, no one really trusted him.

No one, that is, except Joe Girardi. When the playoffs rolled around, the Yanks announced that Joba would be in the bullpen, and we waited to see how Girardi would deploy Chamberlain. After watching the last few games, now we know: Joba Chamberlain will pitch before Phil Hughes in a spot customarily reserved for the team’s third best reliever.

Needless to say, Joba has disappointed. He has faced 12 batters this postseason and five of them have hits. His fastball still is topping out at around 95 and his control, as we saw yesterday, is non-existent. Robertson, meanwhile, has faced 14 batters this season and just two of them have hits. He has allowed two others to reach, but those were on intentional walks. He pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out situation against the Twins in the ALDS and was invaluable against the Angels during the Game 2 marathon on Saturday night.

As Girardi has gotten too cute with his pitching changes, as, in the words of Mike, he makes the game of baseball look harder than it actually is, it’s time to go back to what worked. The Bridge to Mariano should remain David Robertson in the 7th — Phil Coke is a lefty pops up — and then Phil Hughes. That approach worked during the regular season and probably would have given the Yanks a 3-0 lead yesterday. Joba hasn’t earned anyone’s trust, and should not be pitching in key situations in a close ALCS.

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As a postscript to Girardi’s approach last night: I know a lot of fans have bought the excuse that David Robertson did not match up well with Howie Kendrick. (For instance, see this defense of Girardi.) He still managed to overmanage though. If Robertson doesn’t match up well with Kendrick, then have D-Rob walk Kendrick to face Jeff Mathis, a batter who cannot handle a fastball for his life. Instead, in a tie game on the road, Girardi burned his best available reliever after all of 11 pitches. If Mathis still hits that game-winning blast, then fine. At least the Yanks go down with their best on the mound and not their 7th pitcher in 4.1 innings.

Kennedy hit around in Surprise loss

AZFL Surprise (7-3 loss to Scottsdale)
Brandon Laird: 0 for 4 – AVG plummets to .500
Colin Curtis: 1 for 2, 1 R, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 CS
Austin Romine: 0 for 2, 2 K, 1 PB - caught six innings
Ian Kennedy: 3.1 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 1 WP, 11-5 GB/FB – 45 of 66 pitches were strikes (68.2%) … things unraveled a bit in the fourth, so he probably tired a bit

Still no Puerto Rican League rosters. One of these days…

Girardi overmanages his way to a Game Three loss

I wrote about the similarities between the ALDS and the ALCS in this afternoon’s game thread, and those similarities continued today. The Yankees won both Game Ones thanks to CC Sabathia‘s dominance, then prevailed in extras in both Game Twos thanks to Alex Rodriguez‘s homerun heroics. Game Three against the Angels played out similar to Game Three against the Twins, in that the Yanks relied on the long ball and the work of their pitching staff to stay in the game.

The game started off about as well the Yankees could have asked it too. Jered Weaver’s first two pitches to leadoff hitter Derek Jeter were off the plate away, but the third was a 2-0 fastball right in the Captain’s wheelhouse. Jeter pulled the ball into the leftfield seats – something we don’t see him do often – for a quick 1-0 lead. Hideki Matsui started off the second with nine-pitch at-bat resulting in a single to right, and Jorge Posada followed that up with a six-pitch walk. Robbie Cano, not exactly a guy with a nose for RBI spots, bounced a double play ball but beat out the throw. Nick Swisher followed by flying out to left, but not deep enough to score the run. Melky Cabrera grounded out weakly to second to end the threat. An eerily similar rally played out in the fourth, when the 7-8-9 hitters again couldn’t bring Matsui and/or Posada in with no out. Weaver was at 79 pitches after just four innings, but he did a good job wiggling out of jams.

Yankee pitchers were able to avoid the long ball in their first five playoff games, but Pettitte wasn’t able to extend the streak this afternoon. After the amazing Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon chipped in solo homers to give the Yanks a three run lead, Howie Kendrick took Pettitte deep in the fifth to cut the Yanks lead to two. Just an inning later Vlad Guerrero broke out of his postseason slump in a big way, drilling Andy’s two-strike pitch deep into left, almost to the exact same spot Kendrick hit his. The problem with Vladdy’s homer is that Bobby Abreu picked up his first hit of a series two batters earlier, so it was a two-run shot that tied the game at three.

Andy’s final line was damn close to what I predicted in this afternoon’s chat, seven hits and three runs in six and third innings of work. He’s wasn’t great, allowing at least one hit in every full inning he pitched, but on most nights it would have been good enough to win. Pettitte gave way to Joba Chamberlain, who was greeted rather rudely when Kendrick launched his first pitch off the right field wall for a triple. Two pitches later the Angels had the lead on a Maicer Izturis sac fly. Joba would go on to give up a double to Erick Aybar, but Damaso Marte came in to retire Chone Figgins on one pitch to kill the rally.

Like they’ve done so many times this postseason, the Yankees came right back and answered immediately after the opponent scored. Matsui worked his second walk of the game to leadoff the eighth, and was immediately replaced by pinch runner Brett Gardner. Unlike Game Two, when Gardner pinch ran but never did the running part, he took off for second but was gunned down on a pitch out. Posada picked up Gardner by homering to dead center – the Yanks fourth jack of the game – to knot the game up at four. Another battle of the bullpens was in place, and any Yankee fan would take it.

After Marte reached his pitch count of one, Phil Coke came in to face Abreu, the first of two questionable pitching moves. Abreu doubled to dead center but the Yanks caught a break when he got too greedy and was caught wandering too far off second. The Yanks caught another break in a postseason that has been full of them, however they never seemed to be able to get that big hit in this game.

The score remained tied into the 10th, when Phil Hughes, entering his second full inning of work, served up a leadoff double to backup catcher Jeff Mathis and was immediately lifted for the Hammer of God. Erick Aybar attempted to give himself up to move the runner to third, but Mo fielded the ball and flung it towards third to get the lead runner, except the ball ended up in left. Instead of a runner on third with one out, the Angels had runners on the corner with zero away.

Every Yankee fan feels comfortable when Mariano is on the mound, but I admit I had already accepted this game as a loss at this point. Instead, Mo did exactly what he does best – he bailed the Yankees out. Figgins grounded the first, and Tex touched the bag for the first out after looking the runner back to third. After an intentional walk to Abreu to load the bases and put the force at any base, Torii Hunter dug himself into a hole and tapped another grounder to first. Tex fielded and threw home for the force, although no return throw was made and the Angels still had the bases juiced for Vlad, who homered earlier.

At this point, I had shifted from accepting defeat to holding out hope that somehow Mo could escape the jam. His first pitch to Vlad was inside for a ball, and the second was fouled off for strike one. The third pitch, a nasty cutter down and away, was grounded weakly to Tex, who scooped it up and raced to the bag for the third out. The Yanks had a second lease on life, but it would be short lived.

With the score still tied in the 11th, Girardi turned to David Robertson, who made quick work of Juan Rivera and Kendry Morales. On a night when he already replace a lefty specialist who had thrown all of one pitch with another lefty specialist, Girardi got cute and took out K-Rob in favor of Al Aceves. Inevitably, Kendrick picked up a hit anyway, and two pitches later Mathis lined a double into the gap for the win. The Yanks lost for the first time this postseason, on a pitching move that was never necessary in the first place.

In the end, the Yankees inability to hit with runners in scoring position was every bit the goat as Girardi’s overmanaging. They went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position as a team, and the bottom three hitters in the order were a particularly dreadful 0-for-7. They had chances in the 2nd, 4th, and 8th innings, but didn’t bring anyone home. That said, the game of baseball just isn’t as hard as Joe Girardi makes it.

The Yankees still lead the best-of-seven series 2-1, and are still sending CC Sabathia to the mound tomorrow. Things could certainly be worse.

NLCS Game Four & MNF Thread

Here’s a thread for you guys to talk about some of the non-Yankee sports action going on tonight. Randy Wolf (11-7, 3.23) tries to even up the NLCS at two games a piece against Joe Blanton (12-8, 4.05) at 8pm ET, while the Broncos visit the Chargers a little later on. The Rangers are also playing. Talking about whatever you want here, just follow the guidelines and be cool.

ALCS Game Three Spillover Thread IV

What a head’s up play by Tex. Amazing.