Sunday November 1st, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- For opposing pitchers, the Yankees offense must seem as unwelcome and inevitable as the onset of winter. It's going to arrive sooner or later, and when it does, it's going to last a long time, it's going to be brutal and it's going to send you scurrying for cover. The Yankees 8-5 win in Game 3 of the World Series on Saturday night brought the 2009 baseball season ever closer to its winter slumber. That the end seems near is due largely to the way Yankees bats finally emerged from their own somnambulant state to take a 2-1 lead in the Series.

Through the first three innings of Game 3, the Yankees had no runs, no hits and had given no indication that they were on the verge of an offensive onslaught that many had anticipated when the series began. Yet from the fourth inning onward, they erupted for eight runs, eight hits and, perhaps just as importantly, four walks, en route to a convincing and confidence-inspiring win. "You hope you can put together some good at-bats and string together some runs," the always low-key Derek Jeter said afterward.

As they arrived in Philadelphia, the Yankees had done very little of either. Only once in the first two games in Yankee Stadium did the Yankees manage three consecutive base hits, and they failed to score more than one run in an inning and managed just four runs total -- one of which was unearned. It equaled their lowest two-game total in consecutive home games all season.

Yet perhaps the most illuminating statistic of their offensive woes was this: the Yankees had walked just twice, an astonishingly low total for a team that led the major leagues in bases on balls this season. Their much-heralded ability to work a count to, as Jeter had said on Friday, "wait for your pitch and then not miss it," was absent again in the first three innings on Saturday when the Yankees allowed Cole Hamels to shut them down on just 35 pitches.

All that began to change with Mark Teixeira at the plate and one out in the fourth inning. On Friday's off day, Teixeira was recounting his postseason struggles that had seen him bat just .196 with 11 strikeouts in two games. He was asked how his swing was. "How did it look in that second at-bat?" he answered with a smile.

His face was friendly, but his tone was serious. Yes, Teixeira's fourth-inning home run that tied Game 2 of the World Series was important, but just like the rest of his Yankees teammates, his swing still seemed out of whack, and as a result, their offense that had been slugging all year long had remained sluggish against the Phillies. Now, in the fourth inning of Game 3, came the at-bat that would change the game, and perhaps, tilt the World Series irrevocably in New York's favor. Teixeira fell behind in the count 1-and-2. To that point, he was 1-for-8 in the Series with four strikeouts. Yet he exhibited remarkable plate discipline, a trademark of both his (he has a .383 career on-base percentage) and the team's when he calmly watched a curveball break out of the strike zone for ball two, then a fastball miss just inside to run the count full. On the 3-2 pitch, Teixeira took again, and although the pitch may have caught the corner, it was ruled a ball by home plate umpire Brian Gorman.

That six-pitch at-bat matched their longest of the game to that point. Alex Rodriguez was also looking not just for results -- he was 0-for-8 with six strikeouts in the first two games -- but a different approach. "The first two days I got pitched to tough, but I also felt I helped out the opposing pitcher by swinging at balls that were borderline and not strikes," he said. "And I thought the game plan today was to swing at strikes and to keep them in the zone."

A-Rod did just that. With a swing reminiscent of the ones he used to overpower Joe Nathan, Carl Pavano and Brian Fuentes earlier in the postseason, he took another high fastball out to right field for a momentum-shifting (and replay reviewed) home run. Suddenly the Yankees had trimmed their deficit to one, quieted a rowdy Halloween crowd and unnerved Hamels. Having used patience as a virtue to get back in the game in the fourth, in the fifth the Yankees set out to show just how quickly they could bury an opponent.

Nick Swisher, who ranked fourth in the majors this season in pitches seen per plate appearance, led off and grounded a double inside the third base line on the fifth pitch of his at-bat. After Melky Cabrera struck out on four pitches, it took just four pitches for the Yankees to get three hits, score three runs. Along the way, they took a lead they would not relinquish and took command of the World Series.

It started with a contribution from an unlikely source. Starting pitcher Andy Pettitte, who took advantage of Hamels' first curveball of the evening and plunked into centerfield for a hit that scored Swisher. Jeter followed with a first-pitch single to center to move Pettitte to second, and Johnny Damon ripped a double to right to score both runners, though that is a word that Pettitte would not attribute to himself after Jeter nearly caught him from behind before both crossed the plate with the runs that put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

"I could have caught him," Jeter said with a laugh. "But it would have been embarrassing."

Instead, he would have to settle for his team having caught, and passed, the Phillies. The rest of the game became a continuing display of the Yankees' offensive prowess: a pair of solo home runs sandwiched around a typically patient and destructive seventh inning, when the Yankees padded their lead with a rally that began with a seven-pitch walk by Damon, a five-pitch at-bat by Rodriguez ending with his second hit-by-pitch of the game, and a six-pitch at-bat by Jorge Posada that resulted in an RBI single and a 7-4 lead.

"We were a little more patient," said Posada, explaining the Yankees offensive eruption. The whole lineup contributed today.

That wasn't quite accurate -- Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera each went 0-for-4 -- but the Yankees did resemble the dangerous top to bottom threat that had worn down opponents on their way to a big league-best 103 wins in the regular season and seven more entering the World Series.

In fact, Saturday was a perfect example of why the Yankees are so difficult to beat. Despite Pettitte's self-professed struggles -- "It was tough, I'm not going to lie to you," he said. "I couldn't put the ball where I wanted to" -- the Yankees revived the formula that had carried them to this point: a quality start, a patient and destructive offense, quality middle relief and the incomparable Mariano Rivera.

It's a formula they need to put together just twice more to win their franchise's long-awaited 27th world championship. Before the final out was secured, the calendar had already flipped to November. Afterward, Mr. November himself was asked to reflect on what it meant to still be playing baseball in this month for only the second time in the game's history. "It's a long season, man," said Jeter. "A long season." With two more performances from their offense like they got in Game 3, the Yankees long season will be over very soon. Winter is almost here.

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