Thursday October 22nd, 2009

Back when I was a high school tennis player in New Jersey in the mid- to late-'90s, the most grievous offense that an opposing coach could commit was to engage in what we used to call "stacking" his lineup. A team's best player was supposed to play first singles, its next-best player was supposed to play second singles, and so on. Once in a while a nefarious coach would put someone who looked as comfortable with a tennis racket as Kirsten Dunst did in the movie Wimbledon at the top of his lineup, thereby matching up his best players with the opponent's inferior ones. This would enrage us, the honor-bound Columbia Cougars that we were, and the worst part was that it sometimes worked.

Stacking, of course, is far from illegal in postseason baseball, but what Angels manager Mike Scioscia has (inadvertently, perhaps) done by using a four-man rotation in the ALCS against the Yankees' three-man rotation is to set up a Game 5 on Thursday evening in which, for the first time in the series, his club appears to have the advantage in the starting pitching matchup, however slight. Angels ace John Lackey had a 3.83 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP this season, to Yankees starter A.J. Burnett's 4.04 and 1.40, and Lackey was particularly good after the All-Star break, when we can assume that he had fully recovered from the elbow inflammation that caused him to sit out the season's first six weeks. In his 15 post-break starts, Lackey went 7-4 with a 3.05 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and a .239 batting average against. Burnett, in 16 starts after the break, went 5-5 with a 4.33 ERA, a 1.42 WHIP and a .254 BAA.

Lackey, who turns 31 on Friday, also has experience pitching in potential elimination games such as this one. In 2002, when he was a rookie just four days past his 24th birthday, he won Game 7 of the World Series against the Giants, allowing four hits and one earned run over five innings. Burnett's playoff experience consists of the two starts he has made during this postseason -- both wins, yes, but both of which came after CC Sabathia had given the Yankees 1-0 series leads.

On Wednesday, Lackey, who is at times the prototype of the laconic Texan, stressed that he would the following day face a different situation than he did seven years ago. Back then, he said, "I was just trying to help out the older guys and not mess it up, you know. Now I'm kind of one of those older guys that needs to step up and needs to help lead this team to another game. It's definitely a different feeling."

It will certainly be a different feeling for the 32-year-old Burnett, an emotional pitcher who has never before been asked to perform under this sort of pressure. Burnett can often be virtually unhittable, as he was in innings one through four of last Saturday's Game 2. But he can also fall into spells in which he struggles not only to throw strikes, but to throw the ball anywhere near the plate, as he did in a fifth inning on Saturday in which he threw 33 pitches -- 18 strikes and 15 balls -- and allowed four base runners, though only two runs.

Scioscia expressed his hope on Wednesday that innings like last Saturday's fifth will come quickly for his offense in Game 5. "We need to get out there early," he said. "Get some early runs. Get some leads, and then hold them. I think that's the only template that's going to work against a team like the Yankees."

If Burnett pitches as well as he is able, that template will prove to be as easy to follow as is the one for winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Lackey at his best is no match for Burnett at his best. When he's on, Burnett requires only two pitches -- a 94 mph fastball and an 82 mph curve (he throws one of those two pitches about 94 percent of the time) -- to be as dominant as anyone in baseball. The bone-dry, 78-degree weather in Anaheim, as opposed to the 47-degree, intermittently rainy conditions with which he had to contend last Saturday in the Bronx, should work to his benefit. "I look forward to the weather, pitching down here and breaking a good sweat, for sure," he said on Wednesday.

Still, for the Angels to have any chance in Game 5, Lackey will not only have to outpitch Burnett, but clearly outpitch him, as L.A. cannot count on a bullpen that cumulatively had the AL's sixth-worst ERA (4.45) during the regular season, and allowed six earned runs in five innings in Game 4, to hold the Yankees' ferocious offense at bay for any length of time.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi generally said what he was supposed to say on Wednesday: "One game, win one game," he said. "And we talked about it yesterday. Win this game today, and that's your focus. You don't look ahead. You look at just trying to win a game on Thursday, and you go from there."

Girardi, though, demonstrated that at least one part of his brain was looking past the Angels to the World Series, where the Phillies await, with the very first sentence he spoke at his press conference. "I think it's important to try to close series out when you can, because, you know, if you're able to do it, it allows you to set up your pitching," he said. Girardi is likely already envisioning a Sabathia-Cliff Lee World Series matchup in Game 1 next Wednesday, even as he tries to banish that thought from the minds of his players.

One can't blame him. The thing about stacking high school tennis lineups was that it never came close to working against teams that were manifestly more talented than yours -- teams that, as Torii Hunter said of the Yankees on Tuesday night, "Have it all." Scioscia, in deciding to employ a four-man rotation, might have hoped that his club would split the first four games, then capitalize on Lackey's narrow advantage over Burnett in Game 5, and would then have only to edge the Yankees in one of the final two games to advance to the World Series. Now that the Yankees are up 3-1, though, the Angels' chances of winning the series appear even slimmer than they usually are for teams in their situation. (Teams that lose three of a playoff series' first four games have advanced just 11 times in 69 opportunities.)

Even if Lackey outduels Burnett tonight, the Yankees would have a clear advantage in a potential Game 6, when Andy Pettitte would face Joe Saunders in Yankee Stadium on Saturday, and an enormous advantage on Sunday, when Sabathia would face either Scott Kazmir or Jered Weaver. Sabathia, though, has probably already started looking forward to next Wednesday. At this point, things would have to go historically wrong for the Yankees in order for him to pitch before then.

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