Monday, October 26, 2009

Superb pitching seals Yankees' destiny as AL champs

NEW YORK -- It was 12:01 AM when the clock struck midnight for the Los Angeles Angels. It is, of course, somewhat ridiculous to cast a club with the game's seventh-highest payroll, and one that won the second-most games in the majors during the regular season, in a Cinderella role. But the Angels' payroll of $116.7 million is just 56 percent of the Yankees', and the 97 games they won were six fewer than the Yankees, and even as they won, by one run apiece, two of the three games in Anaheim to narrow the Yankees' ALCS lead to 3-2, there was a sense that if the Angels were somehow able to win two in a row and take the series, it would be a shocking, almost historic accomplishment. Not the equivalent of the Red Sox' recovery from a 3-0 deficit to win the 2004 ALCS, perhaps, but something close to it. But then Mariano Rivera struck out Gary Matthews Jr. with an 89 mile-per-hour fastball one minute after Sunday had become Monday, and the Angels, slipperless, flew home to California for the winter. Daily sports news
The Yankees won Game 6 using the same formula they used in most of their other victories in the series -- all of them, in fact, except for the 10-1 aberration that was Game 4. First, they received a stellar performance from their starting pitcher, in this case Andy Pettitte, who set a record with his 16th postseason victory. (Of course, all postseason "records" set these days are slightly bunk because teams play more games now than even not so long ago, but still). Over 6 1/3 innings of work, Pettitte allowed seven hits and one earned run, and threw 64 of his 99 pitches for strikes. That total might have been aided by home plate umpire Dale Scott's rather generous strike zone, but the Angels after the game did not complain, insisting that Scott's zone was consistent for both sides. Pettitte also made an amazingly athletic play for a 37-year-old man in the top of the sixth that saved at least one run, and maybe two. With the Yankees leading 3-1 and Vladimir Guerrero on second and Torii Hunter on third, Kendry Morales smashed a ball up the middle that bounced once and then headed directly toward Pettitte's skull. Pettitte reacted quickly, blocking the ball with his glove and then calmly picking it up and throwing Morales out at first. online sports
The second part of the formula was that the Yankees were able to take advantage of the insanity that seemed to strike the Angels again and again in crucial moments, as it had struck the Twins during the ALDS. In Game 6 alone, the Angels made three distinct mental errors (four if you count Chone Figgins' being called out after bunting into his own foot in fair territory to lead off the sixth, which was likely just unlucky), each more inexplicable than the last. In the second inning, Guerrero, who had just hit a lead-off infield single, allowed himself to be doubled off first by Nick Swisher on what ought to have been nothing more or less than a routine fly out by Kendry Morales, calling to mind names such as Gomez, Punto and Abreu, who had this postseason already made bizarre base running blunders from which the Yankees had benefitted.
Then, in the ninth, with the Yankees clinging to a 3-2 lead and the outcome of the game and the series still very much in doubt, Swisher tried to bunt Robinson Cano over to with no outs, but Howie Kendrick dropped pitcher Scott Kazmir's throw at first base. The next batter, Melky Cabrera, tried to bunt over both base runners, and Kazmir picked the ball up and nearly threw it into the stands. By the end of the inning, the Yankees were up 5-2, and the game was essentially over with Rivera on the mound. "They capitalized on every mistake we made," Hunter said afterward, speaking of both this game and the series as a whole. "Defensively, I thought we were sound, but when we got into this series things just happened. It was probably mental."
"Everybody came to play," said a dejected Figgins, who sat slumped in his corner locker still wearing his full uniform, dirt occasionally flaking off of his uniform pants onto the navy blue carpet. "I didn't think anybody approached anything differently. They pitched great, and we made some mistakes."
In their four victories, the Yankees' starting pitchers -- Pettitte, A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia, who won Games 1 and 4 and was named the series' Most Valuable Player -- combined to pitch 28.2 innings and allowed just five earned runs, for an ERA of 1.57. The Yankees' offense was, however, generally not the juggernaut that it had been during the regular season, particularly with runners in scoring position -- they were 2-for-8 in that situation Sunday -- and the Angels had real chances to win every game but Game 4, chances that were often thwarted by their own ineptitude. "At times we played good baseball," said manager Mike Scioscia, "At times we shot ourselves in the foot. The Yankees are a team that you can't give extra outs to. We did it in a couple of games. And obviously it cost us."
The Yankees' Game 6 win meant that they will be able to start Sabathia in Game 1 of the World Series against the Phillies in New York on Wednesday, and they ought to have every reason to believe that Element No. 1 of their winning postseason formula -- their superb starting pitching -- will remain in place. The Phillies, though, are a veteran group, and the defending champions, and it seems unlikely that they will make as many mistakes as the Angels and Twins did, allowing the Yankees to take advantage of them. (Of course, it had seemed unlikely that the Angels, the Yankees' primary nemesis this decade, would make as many crucial blunders as had the Twins in the ALDS, and they did.) To win their first World Series title since 2000, New York's offense will have to click in a way in which it really hasn't yet this postseason, except during one game, and that will mean hitting with men on base. The Yankees hit eight home runs in the ALCS, yes, but all but two of them were of the solo variety, and those two outliers were both two-run shots.
All of that, of course, is Wednesday's worry. "I said it was going to be a dogfight, and it was," said Figgins, blithely overlooking the fact that dogfighting metaphors are frowned upon in sports in this post-Vick era. "They came out on top, but they know it wasn't easy." It might not have been easy for the Yankees, but thanks to their starting pitchers and the Angels' gaffes, it wasn't all that hard. The Phillies, whose offense nearly matches the Yankees and who have a shutdown, lefthanded ex-Indian ace of their own in Cliff Lee, should present a much more significant challenge. There are, in other words, no potential Cinderellas remaining in this year's playoffs.
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