Right or Wang?
Joe Torre said "Chien-Ming Wang" after Sunday's win over the Indians, but what Torre really meant was Wang and Mike Mussina and just about anybody and everybody else that it takes. The entire Yankees' pitching staff -- such as it is -- will be on red alert Monday night, from the first pitch on. The Bronx might not be burning. But the heat is certainly on.
Wang will get the start in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Indians at Yankee Stadium, with only three days' rest. It's a decision -- as are all decisions by all managers this time of the year, but especially for Torre, and especially in New York -- that is up for endless debate and second-guessing.
Wang has never started with fewer than four days off.
Mussina is fully rested, not to mention a seasoned postseason professional with 21 playoff starts.
Wang has been the clear ace of the team for two years running.
Mussina ... well, despite 250 career wins, "Moose" has not.
And on and on and on.
Still, with the season and the series on the line (Cleveland leads two games to one in the best-of-five) -- not to mention Torre's managerial livelihood -- it shouldn't be surprising to see Wang (19-7, 3.70 ERA) get the call.
"We're going to rely, as we always do," Torre said after Sunday's series-saving win over the Indians, "on Wanger out there."
What will be less surprising than Wang starting on Monday night will be seeing Torre with a short hook. Though the right-handed Wang doesn't often get pulled early -- during the regular season he lasted fewer than six innings only three times in 30 starts -- there's no telling how he will pitch on short rest. And Torre can't afford to sit back and hope he works himself out of trouble.
Wang, for what it's worth, has worked on short rest before. He has never started a game with fewer than four days off, but he has pitched with less than full rest twice in his career. In his rookie year, 2005, he threw 4 2/3 innings of relief against the Red Sox in a late-May game on short rest. He gave up six hits and two runs in a game that the Red Sox won. And last season Torre called Wang into the 10th inning of a game against the Orioles after only two days off. He pitched 2/3 of an inning without giving up a hit. The Yanks won and Wang notched the save.
Of course, facing a few batters in relief during the regular season on short rest and starting a critical game in the postseason on short rest are entirely different cases. And remember, it's not as if Wang had an easy time in his last start. In Game 1 of the ALDS, last Thursday in Cleveland, he gave up eight runs on nine hits and two walks. He served up a pair of home runs. He threw 94 pitches in 4 2/3 innings.
Torre's only other real choice for Monday was Mussina, who hasn't pitched since his last start of the regular season against Baltimore on Sept. 28. Mussina was shelled for 11 hits in five innings that day. He had three very good starts before that, pitching 19 2/3 innings with a 1.37 ERA in a pair of wins over the Blue Jays and one over the Orioles. But his season-long inconsistency has scared Torre.
That said, if Wang falters early, Mussina will no doubt be Torre's first long-relief option. Rookie Phil Hughes went 3 2/3 innings Sunday night in Game 3 in relief of starter Roger Clemens. Neither of those pitchers are available for much work, if any, Monday night. Andy Pettitte has to be held out for Game 5, if necessary, which is scheduled for Wednesday night. Rookie Ross Ohlendorf could help, but that's taking a huge gamble.
And a high-pressure postseason relief appearance would not be unfamiliar territory for Mussina. In 2003 he threw three innings of scoreless relief in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series against the Red Sox in an effort that propelled the Yanks into the World Series.
Complicating matters for Torre is that his short-relief options are limited, too. Though Torre rightfully said just about everyone will be available for Game 4, rookie phenom Joba Chamberlain threw 38 pitches in Game 3, and 25 in Friday's Game 2. Closer Mariano Rivera was used in Games 2 and 3, too, going two innings and 38 pitches in Game 2. (He was held to only 10 Sunday night.) Other than those two, the Yankees don't have a lot of trustworthy choices.
Maybe the most interesting part about Torre's decision to go with his ace on short rest is that the Indians have chosen to do the exact opposite. Instead of bringing back Game 1 starter C.C. Sabathia on Monday night with only three days of rest -- something the big left-hander has done only once in his career, at the end of his rookie season in 2001 -- Cleveland manager Eric Wedge (in consort with the team's general manager, Mark Shapiro) has picked 15-game winner Paul Byrd to oppose Wang. The 36-year-old Byrd has only three postseason starts in his 12-year career, but he's fully rested for this one. He's a soft tosser that can get banged around at times (he had a 4.59 ERA this year), but he's healthy, and he throws a lot of strikes. In more than 192 innings of work this season, he walked only 28 batters.
The difference in philosophies for Game 4 is easily explained: The Indians can afford to keep an ace up their sleeve. The Yanks can't. Going with Byrd enables the Indians to throw Sabathia on full rest in Game 5 on Wednesday if he's needed. If he's not needed -- if the Indians are good enough or lucky enough to win Monday -- Cleveland will have its co-aces, Sabathia and Fausto Carmona, fully rested and ready to go in Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven AL Championship Series against the Red Sox. That series begins Friday in Boston.
Will Torre's trust in Wang pay off? If not, can Mussina save the Yankees out of the bullpen? Are the Indians making the right move in saving Sabathia?
It's a debater's dream, a second-guesser's nirvana. And one answer is already nearly certain: Someone is about to get burned.