You know the Yankees don’t like to admit corporate mistakes. They’re the baseball equivalent of Microsoft, which is like saying, good luck getting to the core of their decision-making process.
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But it doesn’t require an insider’s knowledge to know Joe Girardi should’ve started Andy Pettitte in Game 2 of the ALCS on Saturday. His choice of Phil Hughes backfired in the worst possible way: the Yankees were smoked by the Rangers 7-2, which turned the series into a best-of-five affair full of potential landmines for the defending world champs.
Although it’s true they now have the home-field advantage, the Yankees inadvertently increased the odds of Cliff Lee making a second appearance in this war — in what would be the decisive Game 7.
The Yankees obviously considered every possible scenario as this series unfolds. It surely must’ve occurred to them that winning the first two games on the road was critical. Yet, Girardi stuck with Hughes, who’d never made a postseason start away from Yankee Stadium, instead of Pettitte, who’d won more postseason games than anyone in the sport’s history.
Why? Because of Pettitte’s career 5.47 ERA at Rangers’ Ballpark and the 20 home runs Hughes has allowed at Yankee Stadium this year. Girardi was unbreakably married to the numbers, turning a blind eye to the two intangibles that skewed the stats.
The first was that Pettitte’s poor performance in Arlington came early in his career, before he’d even turned 25 — an ERA over 16.00 between 1995-97. He took the mound trying to impress his family, who hailed from Texas. The result, Pettitte said, “was a disaster.”
There was another backstory the Yankees should’ve considered as well: Hughes would be understandably nervous pitching in front of a soldout, hostile crowd on the road. And that’s exactly what happened. He couldn’t even get out of the fifth inning, crushed for seven runs and 10 hits.
The beating was so one-sided the Yankees couldn’t even muster the semblance of a comeback, not this time. Thus, they boarded a charter flight for New York, sobered by a realization of the Rangers’ tenacity.
“We’re in a fight right now,” is how Lance Berkman put it. “That’s a very good Rangers team.”
Girardi’s made his first mistake of the postseason and got burned by it. Now we’ll see if he’s capable of calling an audible. He was purposely vague in answering questions about the rotation, which leaves open the possibility — even the likelihood — that CC Sabathia will start on three days rest in Game 4.
Why? Because the Yankees are running into an iron wall called Cliff Lee on Monday night. Beating the game’s most devastating strike thrower isn’t impossible, but the odds say not even Pettitte will be able to match Lee. He’s never lost a postseason game.
That’s why the Yankees so desperately needed to come home ahead 2-0 instead of just splitting the first two games. Sabathia could conceivably rescue the Yankees in Game 4, helping them get even again in the event Lee wins Game 3.
But then what? One option is to bump A.J. Burnett back to Game 5, but who in the organization really trusts him at this point? Burnett was given a second life by Girardi, but the way he pitched in a simulated game at the Stadium deeply disturbed Yankee officials. He hit two of his teammates and showed none of the command and control necessary in the postseason.
If Girardi can be forced to admit Burnett’s a lost cause for 2010, he’d have to completely reverse field and finish out the ALCS with a three-man rotation. He and GM Brian Cashman promised that would never happen, but no one foresaw the current mini-crisis taking shape.
The emergency plan would mean pitching Hughes on three days rest in Game 5. Pettitte would go on similar short rest in Game 6 and Sabathia, with the season on the line, would be asked to slay Lee in Game 7 in Arlington.
It’s not a pleasant thought for the Yankees, who figured the Rangers would roll over for them the way the Twins did in the World Series. But a new reality became evident in the very first inning on Saturday, when Hughes realized, “(the Rangers) hitters were being very aggressive against me. I made a lot of mistakes and they took advantage of every one.”
There was no mistaking the look of concern on the faces of the Yankee hierarchy as they marched into the clubhouse after the game. Cashman paced the room; the tension on president Randy Levine’s face was just as plain.
The series isn’t over, of course. It’s just reached a different phase. It’s exactly what Berkman called it: a fight. Or, more succinctly, a war. We’ll see if the Yankees are ready for the next four days. Their season rides on it.