Tuesday October 20th, 2009

1. The Yankees are still in command of the ALCS. They give the ball on Tuesday night to a red-hot CC Sabathia, and, given that the Angels have no one like Sabathia, Mariano Rivera or Alex Rodriguez, New York is still likely to win the series. Joe Girardi hopes so, anyway. The Yankees manager needs to make ALCS Game 3 moot, because that game has his fingerprints, many as they are, all over it.

Girardi seemed manic in the way he ran that game, not just in his quizzical pitching changes, but in his many sprints to the mound to confer with his pitchers. Girardi spent more time on the mound in ALCS Game 3 than Dodgers starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda did in NLCS Game 3.

Girardi replaced a left-hander with a left-hander to face a left-hander, and replaced a right-hander with a right-hander to face a right-hander. He has made 14 pitching changes in the past 18 innings. It's like watching Carrot Top playing speed chess after downing a case of Red Bull.

Of course, the decision to pull right-hander David Robertson for right-hander Alfredo Aceves to pitch to Howie Kendrick in the 11th -- Robertson had retired the first two hitters easily -- is the one that made the loss possible. Girardi gave no details on why he made the move, saying, "It's just different kind of stuff against those hitters. And we have all the matchups, and all the scouting reports, and we felt that, you know, it was a better matchup for us."

We can only assume that Girardi wanted Aceves because Kendrick is a great fastball hitter and Robertson throws far more fastballs than does Aceves, who likes to mix in cutters. But the image that remains, caught by the Fox cameras, is of Girardi, with his back to the field, consulting a binder full of statistics and scouting reports, then running to the mound to get Aceves into the game. This time the binder didn't have the right answer. Kendrick singled, then came running home with the winning run on a ringing double by Jeff Mathis.

2. Less obvious, but curious nonetheless, was the decision by Girardi to sprint to the mound in the middle of a key Vladimir Guerrero at-bat in the sixth. Andy Pettitte was attacking Guerrero with two outs, a runner at first and a 3-1 lead. The sequence to Guerrero went like this: foul ball, ball, foul ball, pickoff attempt, ball, pickoff attempt, foul ball. Suddenly Girardi came running from the dugout. What for? Again, Girardi did not give much of a detailed answer.

"We just told him how we wanted to attack Vlad in that situation, and what we wanted to do," Girardi said. "And Andy missed his spot, and ended up being a two-run homer."

After the visit from Girardi, Pettitte made yet another pickoff attempt at first base, his 17th of the game. His next pitch was smacked over the left-field wall by Guerrero for a tie game.

If nothing else, the timing of the visit appeared odd. Here was Pettitte, making the 37th postseason start of his career (more than anyone in history), working with catcher Jorge Posada, playing in his 102nd postseason game, and already five pitches, including two strikes, into an at-bat with Guerrero -- and the manager saw an urgent need to interject.

3. That was fascinating dugout baseball in ALCS Game 3. I was particularly taken with the Angels' turn at bat in the 10th inning, when I thought manager Mike Scioscia nearly mismanaged his team right out of the game. But when I ran through the inning with Scioscia afterward, I better understood what he was thinking. It turned out that what I regarded as his mistakes were just more reasons why Mariano Rivera is so great that he changes the way a manager manages the game.

With no outs against Rivera, the Angels had Jeff Mathis on third and Erik Aybar at first. (Forget about a pinch-runner for Mathis. Mathis runs well enough for a catcher, and Scioscia, a former catcher, is not entrusting a tied, extra-inning, nearly-must-win playoff game to a seldom used third catcher, Brian Wilson.) Chone Figgins was the next hitter. The Yankees brought their infield in and did not bother holding Aybar on at first; they were giving him second base. But Scioscia ordered Aybar to hold at first.

I would have sent Aybar on the first pitch to Figgins. Why? With runners at second and third, you can put the "contact" play on for Mathis at third base. Mathis takes off running on any grounder instead of waiting to see if it passes through the infield. Even if Mathis gets thrown out at the plate, you still have the same situation in hand: the winning run, in this case Aybar, at third base with fewer than two outs.

By keeping Aybar at first, Scioscia could not run the contact play, because if Mathis gets thrown out, the lead runner is only at second base, not third. Sure enough, Figgins hits a grounder that first baseman Mark Teixeira stops with a dive to his backhand side and turns into an out at first. If Mathis is running on contact, he probably scores. But because Scioscia kept Aybar at first, there was no contact play and Mathis doesn't score.

So why didn't Scioscia let Aybar take second? Rivera.

"He jams so many guys and gets those weak little pop-ups, I can't risk what I have," Scioscia said. He meant he could not risk a double play, which would take away the advantage of a runner at third and fewer than two outs.

"But why not just let Figgins take the first pitch and let Aybar take second?" I asked.

The answer again was the same: Rivera.

Rivera is so good, Scioscia said, that he couldn't afford to tell Figgins to take one pitch. It might be the only decent pitch Figgins got to hit in the at-bat.

Wow. Now that's respect. Scioscia wasn't willing to trade one pitch from Rivera for a more advantageous base-running scenario.

Rivera, of course, continued to show why he gets so much respect. After an intentional walk to Bobby Abreu (only the second one Rivera has issued in the postseason as a closer), he retired Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero, also on ground balls to first base.

4. And then there were two.

For closers, the postseason is a version of Dancing with the Stars in spikes, in which those who can't cut it -- and their teams -- get booted off the show.

Of the eight closers who began this postseason, six have blown saves with their team three outs or fewer from a win -- with each of those blown saves leading to a loss. Jonathan Broxton of the Dodgers joined Joe Nathan of the Twins, Jonathan Papelbon of the Red Sox, Ryan Franklin of the Cardinals, Houston Street of the Rockies and Brian Fuentes of the Angels. The last two standing without a blown save are Brad Lidge of the Phillies and Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, whose teams, not coincidentally, are the closest to the World Series.

Broxton blew the save on Monday night by failing to come close to throwing a strike to Matt Stairs with one out and nobody on in the ninth. Yes, we know Stairs hit a big home run off Broxton -- a year ago. But nibbling with a one-run lead when you can throw the ball 100 mph is asking for trouble.

5. It may be a brutal postseason for closers, but it's a boon for fans. Of the 20 postseason games so far, 10 have been decided by one run -- nine in the last at-bat, including five by walk-offs.

Jimmy Rollins of Philadelphia became only the sixth player in postseason history with a walk-off hit when his team was one out from a loss. Here are the only players with a walk-off postseason hit when down to their last out:

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