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Friday, October 7, 2005
Unit left in too long

Page 2

Friday, October 7

Rob Neyer: Eric, I'm writing this in the third inning and the Yankees are losing 5-0. I'm not one of those who thinks Paul Byrd is the right-handed version of Whitey Ford (old-fashioned windup notwithstanding), but five runs are a lot of runs, considering the combination of Byrd and the Angels' lineup. So what can we second-guess? The decision to start Randy Johnson rather than Aaron Small? That would be a tough argument, even for a couple of avowed contrarians like you and me.

So in the absence of anything to second-guess in this game (at least for the moment), I'd like to second-guess the Red Sox, who were beaten fair-and-square by the White Sox but also gave the Whites some real help.

In Games 1 and 3, do you want to guess which left-handed "bat" was on the Red Sox bench when they needed a left-handed bat?

Alex Cora.

Seriously.

And it's not just that. The Red Sox's postseason bench wasn't built for anything: no speed, no outfield defense, no hitting strength. Then again, it probably wouldn't have mattered, since Terry Francona seemed to be afraid to use what bench he does have. I've mentioned this elsewhere, but Roberto Petagine batted exactly six times in September. Frankly -- and it hurts me to say this, because I have friends who eat and breathe with the Red Sox -- this team didn't deserve to win.

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Eric Neel: I'm not questioning the decision to start Randy, Rob, but I do think there's a slightly unconventional case to be made that says you go get him (or at least get Small up) after going down 0-3 in the first. And I'm not just saying that because it would also mean taking John Flaherty and his microscopic batting order out of the lineup. I'm saying it for two reasons: One, it was clear Johnson wasn't hitting spots, and two, it was clear the Angels knew he wasn't hitting spots. They're an aggressive, swing-first-ask-questions-later club and there was just no chance they were going to wait for him to find his rhythm. Maybe Torre needed to give them a different look right away, needed to give them a dose of Small's diving stuff to try to take advantage of their aggressiveness, before it became a five-run game. In a five-game series, I say forget patience; it's got no place.

As for the Red Sox, I'm with you. They were considered favorites because of who they were, not who they are. Last year at this time we were all calling Theo a genius for the way he handled the roster. This year we're looking at John Olerud, Mike Stanton, and Alex "You Ain't No Joey" Cora and wondering, seriously, what was he thinking? Did he drink the Papi kool-aid, thinking his club, rational analysis notwithstanding, was unbeatable? Did he think the bullpen issues were something he could ignore?

Whatever it was, I'm ready to forget the Red Sox and their boy genius for a while. Seriously. I'm ready to talk about another genius. A guy named Ozzie. A guy whose move for El Duque tonight was bold, and whose move to keep El Duque on the playoff roster (over Brandon McCarthy) at all, was bolder still.

Rob: As you know, in the old days it was exceedingly common for a manager to lift his starter at the first sign of trouble. It's funny -- back then a manager, during the regular season, would let his starter pitch a complete game while giving up seven or eight runs. But then the calendar turned to October, and after a couple of hits and a walk in the first inning, here comes the bullpen.

I'd agree that Small probably should have been up earlier than he was, and perhaps he even should have been in the game earlier than he was. And if it were anybody else starting ... but this was Randy Johnson. As I've heard a couple of hundred times over the last week or so, the Yankees are paying Johnson all that money to win games like this. All things considered -- and by the way, I was highly critical of Torre after Game 2 -- I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in this case. And it's nice to have Small in reserve.

Eric Neel: I understand the case for waiting. You're right, it's Randy and he's earned the benefit of the doubt. But the way he was missing, the way he looked, would have had me thinking against the grain from the get-go.

Rob: That's an interesting point. I've been led to believe -- when and by whom, I can't recall -- that when it comes to pitchers, what's come before (in a game) has little or nothing to do with what comes after. That is, a 3.00 ERA pitcher who gives up three runs in the first inning will still be a 3.00 pitcher in the second inning. I mean, fatigue or injury or emotional frustration notwithstanding. But you're right, the Unit just didn't look right early in the game, and maybe this was the perfect spot to go to Small and think about using Johnson in Game 5, either to relieve or perhaps even start. Because if he's healthy, he's still your best pitcher.

Of course, Johnson's struggles will be forever forgotten if the Yankees wind up winning, and they've just rallied for a 6-5 lead. I don't know that Scioscia should have played it any differently. He gave Byrd all the leash he could, then went to one of his solid relievers, and when that didn't work out he went to another one. Usually it's the players who fail, not the manager.

Eric: True enough. Donnelly was getting hit hard in August and September (.300-plus BAA), but more than anything, the Angels were stung by some bad luck when the Yanks came back -- Giambi cue-balling a hit against the shift, Cabrera air-mailing a relay, etc. The rain has balls wiggling like slithery eels.

Rob: Slithery eels. I like that. Reminds me of somebody's description of the knuckleball as "a curveball that doesn't give a damn."

We're through six innings, and Mike Scioscia's a lucky man. If he didn't have Kelvim Escobar, he'd be in trouble because he's already used Donnelly and Shields, and those two were the Angels' only two non-Rodriguez relievers for most of the season. But since returning to the roster and joining the bullpen, Escobar's been practically unhittable: 19 innings, 11 hits, four walks. In Game 2 of this series he was lights-out, two innings and just a walk given up.

Things are set up nicely for both managers now. Gordon pitches the seventh, Rivera the eighth and ninth. Escobar pitches the seventh and eighth, Rodriguez the ninth. If these guys pitch like they usually do, we won't have much to talk about the rest of the way.

Eric: Gordon pitches the seventh? Not so much.

And let me ask this, lefty-lefty matchups aside (and I know Leiter does manage a strikeout against Erstad), can you justify bringing Al Leiter in to any situation in any game anymore? I mean is this not the baseball equivalent of sending Mike Brown in to plug a broken levy?

Rob: Bases loaded, nobody out, Gordon's out of the game?

I would bring in Rivera because if you don't get out of this the game's probably over. But to face Erstad? Erstad's generally terrible, but he's truly hopeless against lefties. So I don't have a problem with using Leiter here. Different story if Leiter's left in to face right-handed hitters, though.

Eric: So it's over, and as it turns out, what Torre did or didn't do with Randy Johnson was irrelevant. The Angels hit everyone tonight. 19 times. But on a night when Garret Anderson went deep and drove in five, for my money, Scot Shields was the story. His two innings and four strikeouts righted the Angels' ship (after they'd fallen behind 6-5) and gave the offense a chance to respond to the New York comeback. It seemed likely that the Yanks would take control of the game when they came back form 0-5 to 6-5; they were at home, the Angels were (should have been) rattled, Small looked pretty good at that point, and so on. But Shields kept New York hitters off balance with some wicked breakers, and the four strikeouts kept balls out of play on a night when anything on the grass was also in the mud and therefore in doubt. He was big-time. Now the only question is, after two tough innings (36 pitches), can he be called on to do it again tomorrow if need be? I'm all eyes on Jarrod Washburn now, because if he gets in trouble tomorrow night, Mike Scioscia's got some thinking to do, weighing what he needs out of Shields (and Escobar, who threw two innings tonight as well) against what he might need out of him in a possible Game 5.

At 11-7, tonight was, in the end, a snoozer, but now it gets interesting.

How about you? What's your headline tonight and what are you looking for tomorrow?

Rob: Headline? UNIT OFF CLOCK, PITCHES LIKE IT.

I don't guess that would fit. But he certainly didn't look like the $15.4 Million Man tonight, and he might not a chance to redeem himself until next October. Tomorrow? I'm looking to see if Shawn Chacon finally turns into a pumpkin, and I'm looking to see if Joe Torre manages to lose yet another game without ever using his best pitcher. Because tonight makes two straight, and if I were a Yankees fan I'd be worried about the hat trick.

Eric: The other thing that's interesting to me about the Shields section of the game tonight is that the Yankees have no analog for him. Or for Escobar, for that matter (if tonight's Tom Gordon sequence is at all indicative). When the Angels pulled back ahead, and had the bases loaded and nobody out, Torre went to Al Leiter. At which point I said, mmm, Scot Shields, Al Leiter ... Scot Shields, Al Leiter ... Scot Shields, Al Leiter?! It was an Uma-Oprah moment, and Al wasn't the drop-dead stunner but the talk-show host pushing maximum density, if you know what I mean. There's a case to be made, I'd say, that Torre should have gone with Rivera there, because the game hung in the balance. And it's not even that I want to make that case (because it was still early). It's just that I want to note that at that point you could make the case that Rivera was his only/best option, and the Angels meanwhile had BOTH Shields and Escobar at the ready, long before they had to think about their lights-out closer Frankie Rodriguez. All of which is to say, if the Yankees' lineup has it all over the Angels' (a tougher case to make on a night when the Angels rap out 19 hits), the Angels' bullpen might just own New York's.

Rob: Well of course it does. I mean, I expected Gordon to pitch well this month. But he was awful tonight, and his career postseason ERA is now (gulp) 8-something. The way I figured, the Yankees' bullpen would be one inning of Gordon and two innings of Rivera, and that  along with the Yankees' clearly superior hitting attack  would more than balance the Angels' bullpen of Shields, Escobar, and Rodriguez. But between Gordon's struggles and Torre's insistence on saving Rivera until the Yankees have a late lead, it seems my math was way off.

Tonight's game was sort of fluky, of course; it's not often the Yanks will give up 11 runs. At the moment, though, it does seem like they have to score six or seven runs to win. Because Scott Proctor -- by the way, Proctor = Pitches Righty, Often Contributes To Obvious Result -- just doesn't stack up with Scioscia's mid-game options.

Eric: So somewhere tonight Jarrod Washburn is no doubt praying to the baseball gods that they let him do what he's done to the Yankees all year (2.35 ERA in 15.1 innings).

And you can bet Mike Scioscia's on his knees right next to him.

Previous Second Guesses
Oct. 6: Jumpin' on the White Sox bandwagon

Oct. 5: Why leave Wang in the game?

Oct. 4: Colon over Lackey ... say what?