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.