Saturday, October 6, 2007

ALDS Impressions: Games 1 & 2

Cleveland utilized its entire arsenal to take the first two ALDS games from the Yankees this weekend. Game 1 featured an explosion from the offense, while Game 2 was all about Fausto and Raffy the Lefty. For Cleveland, winning both games before heading to the Bronx Zoo is huge, as it removes the chance of New York clinching at home and shifts some of the pressure away from the Tribe. Hopefully, winning the pivotal second game will allow the offense to loosen up against the lesser pitchers in New York's rotation. Game 3 pits Jake Westbrook against The Firecracker at New York on Sunday. Until then, here are my thoughts on the first two ALDS games:

Game 1: Sabathia vs. Wang

This was kind of a bizarre game, as neither ace performed anywhere near their usual standards. I'm not sure what to make of Sabathia's start. C.C. only gave up 4 hits and three earned runs, but really struggled with his control. Sabathia went just 5 innings on 114 pitches, walking 6 and striking out 5. During the regular season, C.C. had a ridiculous strikeout to walk ratio of 5.64. In Game 1, that ratio was 1.2 K/BB; more than just a regression to the mean against a tough lineup.

One issue I noticed was C.C. had trouble hitting the outside edge of the plate consistently. Bruce Froemming called a consistent strikezone for both teams, but Sabathia's sweeping pitches that normally have hitters whiffing wide over the plate either weren't enticing enough to the disciplined Yanks or weren't falling in for a strike. Sabathia's inability to pound the strikezone (just 54% of his pitches were strikes) caused him to fall behind many hitters early and put him in some tough jams. I have to give C.C. some dap for cleaning up after himself though, as he only gave up one run at a time. His strikeout of Jorge Posada in the fifth with the bases loaded preserved the Tribe's one-run lead, giving his team a shot to win (bottom of the fifth, not withstanding).

So what was wrong with Sabathia? Well, facing the Yankees lineup and their AL best, .366 OBP was bound to inflate Sabathia's walk rate at least a little, but I think the main issue with Sabathia's control was nerves. Some may be quick to dismiss a comparison of the stoic, mature C.C. of 2007 with the young, inexperienced hurler of 2001 (coincidentally, he pitched just slightly better against Seattle as a rookie). It would be perfectly normal for Sabathia to be affected by his nerves in only his second career postseason start. Pressure affects a lot of normally strong pitchers (most recently, Jake Peavy and Tom Glavine) and I think Sabathia was just a victim of poor focus.

My prediction is that C.C. will be locked in for his next start (be it against NY or another team). He's got too much talent and determination to let pressure affect him for very long.

The real story in Game 1 was the Tribe's destruction of Chien Ming Wang. Wang was [insert inappropriate adjective here] removed after giving up 8 ER on 9 H and 4 BB in just 4.2 IP. Kenny Lofton led the attack with 3 hits, a run, and 4 RBI. Victor and Garko combined on 6 H, 5 R, and 4 RBI to round out the offense. Cleveland showed how dangerous their power-laden lineup can be by launching four taters; two off groundball specialist, Wang.

Whatever Wang was doing in Game 1 wasn't fooling the Tribe batters. Cleveland took a steady approach and didn't try and do too much with the ball. By consistently going with the pitch, Cleveland kept Wang out of his element (5 GB-5 FB outs) and was able to put up crooked numbers in the first and fifth innings, chasing New York's ace early.

Bullpen stalwarts Perez, Lewis, and Betancourt combined on 1 hit ball over the final 4 innings.

Game 2: Carmona vs. Pettitte

Intense. That's how I would sum up Game 2 in a single word. Fausto Carmona pitched the game of his life, in October, against the best offense in baseball. Brilliant. Superb. Alucinante. Whatever you want to call it, Carmona's Game 2 stands as one of the greatest games I've ever watched live and ranks among the greatest postseason starts by a Cleveland pitcher. I try not to be too much of a homer on this blog, but anyone who disputes the outright awesomeness of this game is either a Yankee fan or has no appreciation for the sport.

Here is Carmona's stat line from Game 2:

9 3 1 2 5 1 1.00

Carmona never allowed more than one baserunner in an inning and scattered his three hits and 2 BB over separate innings. Carmona struck out Damon and Jeter twice each. He struck out Rodriguez thrice. Cano and Rodriguez did not advance from the batters box all night (Perez with the assist here). Despite utilizing a wide array of filthy breaking pitches, Fausto threw 67.5% of those 114 pitches for strikes. Carmona also had 18 groundball outs and 2 doubleplays on the night.

Fausto's complete game opus set up a crucial matchup for extra innings. If Carmona had only pitched seven innings, there is a good chance we would have seen Perez and Betancourt during regulation. This means the two best pitchers in the Cleveland bullpen may not have been available beyond the 10th inning. Fausto saving the bullpen gave the Tribe a significant advantage over New York once the game went to extras.

The Yankees didn't have a man in scoring position until Abreu reached on an infield single and stole secondbase in the 9th inning. Fausto Carmona versus Alex Rodriguez. Two of the best players in baseball facing off in a 9th inning, 1-1 tie:

The tempest of Lake Erie gnats was still clouding the field as Mariano Rivera warmed up in the bullpen. Abreu had just reached base on a dribbling, infield single. Carmona's attention was already diverted by the gnats, but now he has to monitor the speedy Abreu at first. Fausto directs his first pitch to the inside of the strikezone, right under Rodriguez's hands.

Rodriguez couldn't get around on Fausto's patented 94 MPH sinker, fouling off the first pitch and swinging over another. Despite a persistent Rodriguez, Fausto and Victor refuse to give in and continue to pound the inside of the plate.

Abreu piles on the drama as he steals second on a ball in the dirt. TBS flashes Rodriguez's April walk-off against the Tribe; a Yankee fan I'm watching the game with predicts a homerun by A-Rod, but I couldn't care less. Rodriguez is starting to get anxious as he chops at a ball heading towards the dirt. The count is loaded as Rodriguez fouls off his fourth pitch of the at-bat.

The Jacobs Field faithful have risen to their feet long ago. Victor sets up on the inside of the plate, once again. Fausto looks in, winds up and lets it fly. The ball starts over the plate, but makes a sudden break down and away; right where Rodriguez can't get it. The pitch glides into Victor's glove as Rodriguez walks toward the dugout. Beautiful.

Hafner's hit ended the game, but Carmona was really the one who won it, as the offense failed on multiple occasions tonight. It was clear early on that Carmona was going to have to be the one to carry the team tonight, as the offense suffered from a mix of bad luck and poor execution at the plate.

The Tribe's first late scoring opportunity came after Sizemore had led off the 6th inning with a triple. Rookie Asdrubal Cabrera grounded out and Hafner and Martinez struck out swinging to waste the opportunity. Other opportunities included Peralta's one-out double in the 7th and a bases loaded situation in the 8th. I really can't express how frustrating it was to watch these opportunities come and go, but I probably don't have to since a lot of Tribe fans felt the same way.

Wedge tried to compensate for the struggling offense by ordering four sacrifice bunts on the night. They were well-executed bunts, but I'm not sure I agree with the approach. Fortunately, I have more than just bitter hindsight to go on, as AstroCab's sac bunt in the 8th allowed Grady to score on a wild pitch to tie the game.

Raffy Perez pitched his fourth consecutive inning of no-hit, playoff baseball as he matched Mariano Rivera in extra innings, allowing Hafner to take advantage of the Tribe's second bases-loaded situation of the night. Hafner's hit ended the game, but Carmona was really the one who won it, as the offense failed on multiple occasions tonight.

Then of course, there were the bugs. Watching the 8th inning was like watching some kind of divine intervention play out at the Jake. It was as if Nature itself was rooting against the Yankees.

Joba's Kryptonite: Tiny Insects

Now, everyone seems to have an opinion on the bug infestation:

"According to crew chief Bruce Froemming, who spoke to a pool reporter after the game, stopping action because of the bugs never was under consideration." - article

"I would have probably pulled us off the field." - Roger Clemens

"The Yankees were acting like there were bullets flying around their heads, not gnats. I mean… this is the big leagues." - Ryan Garko

"It was no different than playing a game in a deluge. Cleveland's pitching was fabulous, but the Yankees must live with knowing that insects helped cause their defeat." - Tom Verducci

"They looked like small Pterodactyls. I don't know. They were there for a while and then they were gone." - Casey Blake

Personally, I think Casey's quote is the best.

I'm really surprised at Tom Verducci, as I normally have a lot of respect for his opinion on baseball matters. He is absolutely wrong in this case. First of all, both teams had to play in identical conditions. It's not like the gnats flew in for half an inning and left; they hung around through the bottom of the 9th, at least.

Second, a "deluge" is not the same as a swarm of gnats. A heavy rain affects the movement of the baseball, which is all that should matter short of something dangerous or physically impeding to the game. Chamberlain and Carmona pitched in the exact same conditions for the 8th. One could handle it, the other couldn't. Simple as that. The bugs weren't even capable of biting anyone, they were just a nuisance. People are acting as if the ump didn't allow time in case one flew into a player's eye (they allowed 10 minutes for bug repellent application, give me a break). Insects should not warrant a delay of game and apparently the crew chief agrees with me on this one.

Third, the idea that such an amazing game will be remembered by most fans as the bug game is absurd. Probably true, but absurd nonetheless. Am I paying way too much attention to this? Of course, but I thought it would be amusing to compare some of the various quotes on the matter. Oh, and Cleveland (not the gnats) won the game, which is also somewhat relevant.


Ryan Garko has a playoff blog up on the official team website. A lot of the content is typical fluff, but he does offer some interesting insight into pre-game preparation and what some of the players think about during the playoffs. Check it out here.

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