Watching Game 3 of the ALCS I found myself transported back ten years to 1999 when the Yankees won eleven of twelve postseason games on their way to their third World Series title in four years. And for good reason. First of all, the Bombers swept through the Minnesota Twins with little difficulty. And consider the on-field happenings Monday night as the Yankees sought to take an insurmountable (well don't say that to the Red Sox) three games to none lead: Andy Pettitte was doing his usual playoff act of giving up a hit per inning but cruising along all the same; Derek Jeter led off the game with a homer in addition to performing his singular kind of defensive wizardry and just being his sublime October self; Jorge Posada hit a game-tying home run late in the game; and Mariano Rivera was placed in a tough spot late in the game as he had the bases loaded with no out but didn't surrender a run. The last four links to those beloved Yankees of the 1990's were behaving as if nothing had changed. A blissful and arrogant disregard for time's passing for these born and bred pinstripers.
So maybe this is for real I thought, as this Yankee team is truly dominant and deserves comparison to those storied teams of the late 1990's. After all, the Finally Fruitful Fall of Alex Rodriguez has been something to watch. His newfound, uncanny knack for crucial late inning home runs during this 2009 postseason (he also had one during the middle innings on this night) has been one of the key reasons why the Yankees entered the game with a commanding two-games-to-none series lead. Though he is not and perhaps never may be the incarnation of Jeter in October, A-Rod has nonetheless squashed all talk of choking.
But manager Joe Girardi, who managed superbly during the regular season in guiding the Yankees to a dominant 103 win season, could not conjure up that other most "intangibly important" Yankee from a decade ago, the man who shares his first name - Joe Torre.
In fact, during this game at least, Girardi would be fairly characterized as the anti-Torre. Choosing to run back to check stats from his loose leaf binders in the visitors dugout rather than use his eyes and his instinct - which was Torre's chosen strategy on most occasions - Girardi made a series of horrendous decisions leading to a 5-4 loss to the Angels. Bizarrely enough, the Yankees have now scored four runs in five consecutive playoff games, which has to be some sort of record.
Perhaps it was his overly thoughtful Libran nature which can at times stifle action and result in over thinking, as compared to the innately instinctual Cancerian nature that Torre embodied. Whatever the case, the evidence of Girardi's missteps were plentiful. I'll just enumerate an unholy trinity of poor decisions here:
• In the sixth inning Girardi made a trip to the mound with a seemingly determined look on his face as he spoke to Posada and Pettitte about the strategy when pitching to Vladimir Guerrerro. Though the Angeles slugger has struggled of late he presented a clear threat to tie the game. Girardi implied that he wanted Pettitte to pitch around him - why not just walk Guerrerro?
• Worried that the weak arm of Johnny Damon may cost the Yankees a run in the top of the 10th on a possible sacrifice fly when the Angels had the bases loaded and one out with Rivera on the mound, Girardi chose to replace Damon with Jerry Hairston thereby forcing Rivera to take the place of the designated hitter in the batting order. Girardi then used a pinch hitter in the 11th and Rivera was out of the game when he clearly could have pitched another inning. And with one out and Rivera on the mound why take out Damon? There was a good chance Rivera could induce a few weak fly balls or ground outs - which he did - and the benefits of pitching Rivera far outweighed the chances of a medium distance fly ball being hit to Damon.
• In the bottom of the 11th, Girardi chose to go with David Robertson who has been hurling very well of late. He pitched superbly, getting the first two batters out with ease. But then Girardi ran back those two feet in the dugout to check his stats and determined that the match-up against Itzuris and Mathis favored Alfredo Aceves. (And it must be noted that Mike Scioscia made brilliant moves, going with his gut by allow the not fleet-of-foot Mathis to stay in the game.) Aceves then gave up two hits and the game was over. In the 2009 postseason thus far, Aceves has allowed seven base runners in two and a third innings.
Did Girardi not feel strong enough to tell Pettitte just to walk Guerrerro or literally just throw the ball in the dirt to see if the powerful, possible future Hall of Famer would reach for a few pitches - after all, until tonight Guerrerro has looked fairly desperate at the plate. Did not Girardi witness how effective Robertson had been during the eleven pitches he threw to Posada? And most importantly, did Girardi panic, managing as if his team was playing in an elimination game, using seven - count them, seven! - pitchers in relief?
It's only one game and Girardi obviously pulled all the right levers during the regular season and the Angels were destined to break through and beat a team they have demonized for the better part of the decade. And until Monday night the Yankees have been playing more fundamentally sound baseball than Los Angeles.
But if the Yankees lose tomorrow night, the manager - not the players - will be feeling the most pressure. And having already failed last year in not leading the Yankees to the postseason for the first time since 1993 (after Torre had managed 12 consecutive playoff seasons) Girardi is in desperate need of an A-Rod boost - after all, if the most vilified Yankee has demolished nearly all suspicions about his October activities, then Girardi can surely overcome a few self doubts and manage from his gut rather than his notes.