Wednesday October 20th, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO -- 1. Yankees manager Joe Girardi made himself the story in ALCS Game 4. It was bad enough that he put the go-ahead run on base intentionally in the sixth inning -- it was David Murphy who got the Bonds treatment. He had to compound his mistake by leaving the game, and perhaps the Yankees season, in the hands of A.J. Burnett, a guy who hadn't pitched in 17 days, hadn't beaten a winning team in 147 days and is the pitching equivalent of a loaded dump truck with no brakes trying to get down a steep mountain road.

How could Girardi make such risky moves? Numbers. That fat binder he keeps in the dugout told him to play the percentages -- to have Burnett intentionally walk Murphy, a left-handed hitter, to pitch to Bengie Molina, a right-handed hitter, while holding a 3-2 lead and a runner already on.

"Murphy has swung the bat in the past pretty good against him," Girardi said.

This is the information Girardi acted on: Murphy is a career .278 hitter against Burnett. Five hits in 18 at-bats (including one hit, a home run, in the past seven at-bats.) Two-seventy-eight. Eighteen at-bats. That's it.

That decision might have been tolerable if Girardi then fetched a right-handed pitcher who actually has pitched in a meaningful game in recent weeks. No Joba Chamberlain. No Kerry Wood. No David Robertson. No, Girardi left Burnett in the game with 97 pitches. Already he had left Burnett in the game too long, every pitch since he even began the sixth inning, a finger wagging in the face of the baseball gods.

Of course, it blew up on Girardi immediately. Molina, who seems to have a knack for big hits, blasted an inside fastball for a game-busting, back-breaking home run.

I could not believe it happened. The danger of Burnett was so obvious that I wrote about it here yesterday. The problem for Girardi was not putting the ball in Burnett's hands to start the game, I wrote, the problem was "when to take the ball out of his hands."

Burnett is, by measurement of his 5.26 ERA, the worst pitcher in franchise history ever to take his turn in the rotation more than 25 times. He hadn't pitched in nearly three weeks. Since Aug. 2 he was 1-7 with a 6.61 ERA. He was too dangerous to trust for too long.

Here is how I concluded the item yesterday before the game: "There is no way after the way Burnett threw the ball the previous two months that Girardi can allow Game 4 to get away with Burnett on the mound."

What seemed incomprehensible actually happened.

Back in 2002, 13 of the first 25 picks in the draft were pitchers. Two of them wound up facing each other yesterday in NLCS Game 3 and another one goes today in Game 4. The guy who dominated yesterday was the last of those 13 pitchers taken in the top 25. Here is the order of the first 13 pitchers drafted in 2002, their slot in the draft, and their career records in the majors (NLCS pitchers in bold):

Cain actually has more strikeouts and more innings and a lower career ERA than Hamels (3.45-3.53). There was some justice involved with Cain, the guy with the losing career record and buzzard's luck, outpitching Hamels and posting an NLCS "W" to his resume. In a typical Cain game in NLDS Game 2, Cain allowed no earned runs -- and didn't get a win.

Giants catcher Buster Posey said on a staff of great arms Cain is the easiest starter to catch. Why? Because Cain is so good at hitting the target with all of his pitches. He put on a clinic against Philadelphia, a team that devours fastball. Cain repeatedly changed speeds and quadrants of the strike zone. He threw a much higher percentage of changeups that is typical for him, the better to keep the Phillies off his fastball. It was terrific game-planning and even better execution.

With all the talk about the Phillies' Big Three (the H2O starters), the Giants have owned the postseason with the best set of four starting pitchers in the tournament, with rookie Madison Bumgarner rating the edge in the Game 4 matchup today over Blanton.

Giants starters are now 7-for-7 in quality starts this postseason. The tally: 4-1 with a 1.47 ERA, 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings and a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Before the NLCS, a scout told me, "Keep an eye on Chase Utley. It looks like he's developing the yips at second base." True enough, Utley's footwork and awkward transfers from his glove to a throwing position have been sketchy, though harmless -- until a key mistake in the fifth inning of Game 3.

The Phillies should have been back in the dugout with a 2-0 deficit after Freddy Sanchez hit a two-out, sawed-off, soft looper to Utley. But Utley's feet were stuck in cement. It was a routine play as long as he charged the ball, either to catch it in the air or on a short hop.

Instead, Utley played it into a bad hop. A jam shot like that is going to create spin on the ball, rendering the first bounce tricky. Sure enough, the bounce ate up Utley, and the Giants' third run was ushered home by his poor decision.

The play was initially ruled an error, then changed to a hit -- almost as bad a call as Utley made. Plain and simple, it was an error because it was a play that should have been made without extraordinary effort.

Meanwhile, San Francisco pitchers have owned Utley. He has one hit, an infield single, in 10 at-bats with few balls hit hard. Since Sept. 17 he is hitting .257 with just four extra-base hits. Time is running out for Utley to get hot.

Does baseball have some rotten luck or what? The baseball postseason has been full of pitching stars and great mound performances, though much of it has shared the spotlight with college and pro football telecasts. So last night baseball finally gets a prime time spot with no competition from football, and what's the pitching matchup for everyone to see in ALCS Game 4? Tommy Hunter against Burnett. Ugh.

The result? Four hours and five minutes of rotten baseball that was tough for casual fans to watch. The toll: 320 pitches, 10 pitchers and nine walks.

Something is seriously wrong with baseball's instant replay rules if that home run by Robinson Cano is not reviewable. And can New York fans please leave the playing to the actual players? Over two straight nights we got a fan running on the field and fans reaching into the gloves of Texas right fielder Nelson Cruz and Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner while the players were trying to catch a ball in play. ... How good is Javier Lopez? The Giants lefty has faced seven batters this postseason and retired every one of them, four by strikeouts. ... Good postgame line from Phillies manager Charlie Manuel as he stood in a hallway waiting to enter the interview room after his team was shut out: "I've been waiting all day." ... Joba Chamberlain, age 25: garbage time pitcher. Remember when? ... Giants manager Bruce Bochy is riding a hot streak. He pulled cobweb-covered veterans Edgar Renteria and Aaron Rowand from the end of his bench, and all they did was start the Giants' two run-scoring rallies. Renteria had led off only three games all year, and there he was atop the lineup in NLCS Game 3. ... Extra-base hits this postseason by Cody Ross: 5. Extra base hits by everybody else on the Giants combined: 6.

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