Thursday, August 12, 2010

Freakish win -- does it break the Yanks' slumber?

The Yanks have been sonambulating since the injury to Andy Pettitte on July 18. After running off a 7-3 stretch against the Angels, Royals and Indians, the Yanks had stunk against three division rivals and another division leader, all of whom were supra-.500 -- the Rays, Jays, RedSax and Rangers. A 4-7 record in 11 games marked by inconsistent pitching, terrible hitting (compare James Shields 7.1 IP, 11 K, no runs v. Yanks to his next start, when he allowed 6 homers to the Jays), failures on simple plays (see 10th inning v. Rangers -- infield hit by Michael Young), and bad managing (playing Teixeira as DH against Tampa in a low-scoring defensive game -- his replacement's failures led to all three Rays' runs in the 3-0 loss). So the Yanks needed to suck less last night to avoid an abominable stretch of 4-8 against three principal rivals and the 2011 dark horse playoff challenger (the Jays, who have a very good pitching rotation).

And it shouldn't have happened. The Yanks faced Cliff Lee, their bete noire who had beaten them twice in the '09 World Series, pitched a complete game victory at the Stadium earlier in the year, and should have been a Yankee but for some Mariner duplicity in early July. Lee had pitched at least 8 innings in each start for the Rangers. The Rangers knocked Javy Vazquez around for 6 runs (with no help from his defense) and took a 6-1 lead into the sixth inning. Jeter's lead off triple, and a rare wild pitch from Lee to score him, seemed harmless after Lee whiffed the side to keep a 6-2 lead. Nine outs remained, Lee on the hill, and the Yanks were about to slide to 4-8 in their 12-game stretch against real teams.

They rallied: Cano double, Kearns single, Berkman double, Gardner single and the Yanks were down 6-4 in the 7th when Lee was pulled with one out. Marcus Thames homered in the 8th, now it's 6-5. Berkman walked, Gardner singled, a wild pitch and the Yanks had second and third with none out in the 9th and the Rangers brought the infield in. A chop-and-drop single, strikeout, and clean single and the Yanks had a 7-6 lead. Rivera entered, he threw 8 pitches, four strikes -- each of which was put in play: lead-off triple, short liner to right that couldn't score the runner, bouncer to the box with infield in, and grounder to third. Ball game. And the Yanks' rally had me remembering a similar freak win.

In 1999, the Yanks had an 8.5 game lead over the RedSax in mid-August and entered their final regular season set with the Sawx -- a three-game series at home -- up 6.5. The Sux swept the Yanks and the Yanks hit road to Toronto and Cleveland (which finished with 97 wins) reeling. After losing game one in Toronto while the Indians blasted the Sawx, the Yanks trailed the Jays 6-1 in the top of the 8th, and the RedSax had won. The lead would be down to 2.5. With one out and Ricky Ledee on first, pinch-hitter Chili Davis hit a slow grounder to second. Jays' secondbaseman Homer Bush fielded the ball. Bush saw Ledee coming and was rattled, instead of throwing to the shortstop at second for the force and then to first to get the S L O W Davis, he tried to tag Ledee, who stopped dead in his tracks. Bush tried to get Ledee, gave up, and just threw to first. Ledee made it to second with two outs. A walk, RBI single, error, and grand slam later, the score was 6-6. Another grand slam in the 9th, and the Yanks won 10-6. They won the remaining game against Toronto, took three of four in Cleveland from the Indians and reestablished themselves as the top team in the League. An 11-1 run through the postseason made them World Series champs for the 25th time.

The Yanks' win last night was perhaps more improbable. First, they beat a division-leader, not a team out of the pennant race. Second, the Yanks struck out 17 times! And had 12 hits. The team was 12-for-38 batting. That means when the Yanks didn't whiff, they were 12-21, a .571 average. Third, the Yanks struck out 10 times after the fifth inning -- of the last 12 outs they made, 10 were whiffs and the other two came on a double play so they struck out at an incredible rate while they rallied to win. The Yanks had nine hits after the fifth. So they were 9-for-10 on balls in play -- an astounding number (the general average is slightly over .300; the Yanks were .900) -- and made all three outs on strikeouts in the 6th, 7th and 9th innings. And there's more: Marcus Thames, the Yankee hero last night with three hits and two RBI, hit his homer on a 1-2 pitch, and his game-winning single on an 0-2 pitch. For his career, Thames' averages with a 1-2 count is .126 and with an 0-2 count is .192. The odds of the Yanks' win last night entering the 6th inning against Lee with a 6-1 deficit were astronomical. But they won.

Now let's see what they do with that.