Wednesday October 21st, 2009

ANAHEIM -- CC Sabathia's 89th pitch on Tuesday night came on an 0-2 count against Angels catcher Mike Napoli, with one out in the top of the seventh inning and Sabathia's Yankees leading 5-1. The pitch was significant not only because of its result -- Sabathia struck out Napoli on a foul tip to Jorge Posada -- but because it put Sabathia's transcendent performance into stark relief against that of the Angels' starter, Scott Kazmir, who threw 89 pitches of his own. Whereas Sabathia's first 89 pitches resulted in 20 Angels outs, Kazmir's 89 pitches produced just 12 Yankees outs, and manager Mike Scioscia pulled him after he allowed a single to the first batter he faced in the top of the fifth.

Before the game, Kazmir had explained the secret to pitching against the Yankees. "They're a very high-powered offense, so you just have to attack the strike zone," he said. "I'm going to have to be very good facing Sabathia, because he's not going to give up much. You have to match him every inning." Kazmir neither matched Sabathia every inning, nor attacked the zone: he threw 49 strikes and 40 balls, and while 55% might represent a good field goal percentage for an NBA forward, it is a very poor strike rate for a major league starting pitcher. Kazmir not only allowed four runs -- which would prove to be far more than the Yankees would end up requiring in their 10-1 victory -- but his early exit put an extremely heavy load on the Angels' bullpen, a load which, as the final score indicated, the bullpen could not carry.

Sabathia, meanwhile, pitching on three days rest, threw 101 pitches in total, and those 101 pitches got him to the end of the eighth inning. Angels hitters seemed to spend most of the game taking weak half-swings at Sabathia's offerings, which resulted in routine fielding-practice-strength ground balls to either shortstop Derek Jeter or second baseman Robinson Cano. Sabathia could comfortably have finished out the game, but there was little reason to keep him in. The Yankees' lead was so overwhelming by the time Chad Gaudin relieved him in the bottom of the ninth that the mathematical probability that the Yankees would win the game, according to the website, was a sturdy 100 percent.

Sabathia's superb outing was nothing new for the Yankees this postseason. Through seven games and 39.2 innings of work, their starters now have a cumulative ERA of 2.04 and a WHIP of 0.96. What was different about this game was that it was the first one in which all facets of their extraordinarily talented club clicked at once. They made no errors; they stole two bases; and they even put together a few rallies that were not entirely dependent on home runs, or on Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees, as a group, hadn't been hitting particularly well during the playoffs, particularly in high-leverage situations. When Melky Cabrera stepped to the plate with two outs in the top of the fourth and Jorge Posada on third and Robinson Cano on second, the Yankees were 3-for-37 with runners in scoring position during the ALCS, including a remarkable 27 consecutive hitless at-bats in that situation. Cabrera sharply singled to left, driving in both runners. It would be the first of four Yankees hits with runners in scoring position on the evening, and those hits would result in six runs.

Every Yankee but two (Nick Swisher and Hideki Matsui) recorded at least one hit in Game 4, including -- of course -- Rodriguez, who continued his remarkable postseason by going 3-for-4 with two RBI that came on a long home run to left, a bomb that gave the Yankees a five-run lead in the top of the fifth and put to rest any question that the Angels might have a chance in this one. Viewers watching Rodriguez's post-game press conference might have experienced a strong sense of déjà vu, as he proved that there are a limited number of ways with which to say the same thing every single night. "It feels good to swing the bat well," he offered again. "Had some good pitches today," he said again. "When you get your pitch, not missing it," he explained once more. Rodriguez's statistics during these playoffs say enough by themselves, even if they look like typographical errors: he's batting .407, with a slugging percentage of 1.000 and an OPS of 1.469.

Fans at Angel Stadium spent an inordinate amount of time booing the umpires tonight, due to a bizarre sequence during the fourth and fifth innings in which the men in blue made incorrect rulings on three separate plays, two of which worked in the Yankees' favor. On the first, Kazmir spun and made a perfect throw to pick Nick Swisher off of second base -- had Kazmir only thrown with such accuracy and confidence 180 degrees in the opposite direction! -- but umpire Dale Scott called Swisher safe. Two batters later, after a Derek Jeter walk loaded the bases, Johnny Damon lifted a fly ball to center and Swisher tagged up at third and crossed home plate. On appeal, third base umpire Tim McClelland ruled that Swisher had left the bag early; replays showed that he had not.

The third umpiring error was even more curious. With Posada on third and Robinson Cano on second, Swisher hit a groundball to the pitcher, Darren Oliver, who quickly threw to catcher Mike Napoli. Napoli had Posada hung up between third and home, and chased him back to the bag, where Cano was soon to arrive. Both baserunners converged on third, but neither touched it. Napoli tagged them both with the ball. One of baseball's most basic rules is that if a man is tagged with the ball, and he is not standing upon a base, then he is out; but McClelland, inexplicably, ruled only Posada out, and Cano safe.

The fans in attendance chanted and jeered, and after the game McClelland took responsibility for the pair of mistakes for which he was personally responsible. "There were two missed calls," he said somberly. "I'm just out there trying to do my job and do it the best I can."

A lot of the post-game talk among fans as they filed out of the ballpark centered upon the umpires' ineptitude on this night, but that chatter obscured several facts: first, that none of the calls, as awful as they were, led to any Yankee runs; and second, that the Angels appear to have no chance to keep up with the Yankees when they're playing at the peak of their abilities, as they did tonight for the first time in seven playoff games. "We've got some life left, some breath left in us," center fielder Torii Hunter insisted after the game. On the Angels' chances of coming back from their 3-1 deficit? "It seems like it's impossible," Hunter said, "But it's not."

Not impossible, indeed; but if the Yankees play anywhere close to the total game they played tonight, highly unlikely.

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