Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Palpitations For Purists

In sports, a "purist" is usually someone who favors defense over offense. You hear it in football and basketball, especially: "Defense wins championships." Which is a lie: You can't win if you don't score.

You see it in hockey, where the Conn Smythe Trophy for Playoff MVP so often goes to the goalie or the top defenseman of the winning team, especially if said defenseman is team captain.

In soccer, this seems especially true. There is a strain of thought that says that no English Premier League team can be successful without stout-hearted English defenders. Well, Manchester United keeps winning with Rio Ferdinand in "central defence"; he's English, but he's hardly stout-hearted. And Chelsea keeps winning with John Terry in central defence; he's English, but it's not his heart that's stout -- and some of you know what I mean. Certainly, the Arsenal teams of the 1990s with Tony Adams and the early 2000s with Sol Campbell fit the bill.

Gianni Brera, a sportswriter who was to Italy what Red Smith and Howard Cosell combined would have been to America, believed that the perfect soccer game was one that ended 0-0.  A great writer, but he would never have made it in America, where most people like lots of scoring.  The long bomb.  The slam dunk.  The three-point shot.  The slap shot.  "Chicks dig the long ball."

And, of course, in baseball, there is the purist who thinks that what makes a team great is pitching, pitching and more pitching.

The Yankees have proven this more than most:

1920s: Yes, there was Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri tearing the cover off the ball.  But without Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Bob Shawkey, Sad Sam Jones and Bullet Joe Bush, they wouldn't have won 6 Pennants and 3 World Series.

1930s and early '40s: Yes, there was still Ruth for the first half of the decade, and there was Gehrig and now Bill Dickey, and then in the second half there was Joe DiMaggio, and then at the end of the '30s and into the '40s came Tommy Henrich and Charlie Keller.  But without the righty-lefty combination of Red Ruffing and Lefty Gomez, the Yankees would not have become "the lordly Yankees."

Late 1940s and early '50s: Yes, there was still DiMaggio for a little while, and Yogi Berra arrived, and soon so did Mickey Mantle.  But the key was the Big Three pitchers: Allie Reynolds, the Superchief, fireballer; Steady Eddie Lopat, the Junkman, slow; and Vic Raschi, the Springfield Rifle, fireballer.  You faced those three, in that order, there's the recipe for getting swept.

Late 1950s and early '60s: Yes, there was Mantle, and still Berra, and Moose Skowron and Elston Howard arrived, and then came Roger Maris.  But Whitey Ford actually had a better winning percentage than the rest of his team, and that's saying something.  The cast changed -- Bob Turley and Ralph Terry were there for most of it, but it wasn't often that both had a good year in the same year -- but the Yankees always had enough good pitching to carry them.

Late 1970s and early '80s: After the late '60s and early '70s seemed to break the pattern -- Mel Stottlemyre, Al Downing, Fritz Peterson and some others pitched their asses off but the hitting was pathetic -- the tide turned again.  Yes, there was Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Chris Chambliss, Lou Piniella, then table-setters Mickey Rivers and Willie Randolph, and then the big man, Reggie Jackson.  But the key was signing Catfish Hunter, and then trading for Ed Figueroa, and then developing Ron Guidry, and then going to the bullpen for Sparky Lyle, and later Goose Gossage.

1980s: In 1985, '86, '87 and '88, the Yankees got close, but couldn't close the deal.  They always seemed to be one starting pitcher away.  Late in the 1985 season, when Billy Martin was moving the pieces around the chessboard the way he so often did so well -- and had the Yankees won just 3 more games, enough to win the AL East, it would have been Billy's best managing job ever -- somebody reminded him of the adage, allegedly from another great manager, near the beginning of the 20th Century: "Connie Mack said that pitching is 75 percent of baseball." Billy said, "Connie Mack lied."

1990s: It took until 1996 for this team to finally put it all together, but this was the one that finally taught me just how important pitching is.  Yes, there was Wade Boggs, Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, and a kid named Derek Jeter.  But what a starting rotation: David Cone, Dwight Gooden, Jimmy Key, and a young Andy Pettitte.  Then it was Cone, Pettitte, David Wells and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez.  Then it was Cone, Pettitte, El Duque and Roger Clemens.  And, of course, the bullpen, first led by John Wetteland, with young Mariano Rivera and Jeff Nelson backing him up.  Then Mo becomes the closer, with Nelson and Mike Stanton as the setup men.

2000s: If you need any proof that deep pitching is necessary, look at 3 seasons: 2004, '05 and '06.  Clemens left for Houston, and Pettitte, another Houstonian and the only lefty in the Yankee rotation followed him.  The Yankees did not have a lefthander in the 2004 rotation, but they did have Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown on the right side.  It didn't matter much until Game 4 of the ALCS.  Granted, Pettitte got hurt, and wasn't available for the Astros' '04 Playoff run, so he might not have been there to pitch Game 7 for the Yankees anyway.  But suppose a lefty was available.  You think the Big Fat Lying Cheating Bastard and the Idiot (who became our friend in 2006) would have hit those home runs? I don't.  Then, George Steinbrenner, in the last great overreaction of his career, demands Randy Johnson, the greatest lefthanded starter of the last 20 years, who wins 17 in '05 and another 17 in '06, but melts down in Game 3 of the ALDS both times.  Thank God Pettitte was brought back, and that Mo never left.

So, yes, pitching is important.  It might not be 75 percent of baseball, but it's pretty important.

*

Last night proved it again.  Hiroki Kuroda started the first of a 4-game home set with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  (Unless, of course, they've changed their name again.)

Josh Hamilton doubled to lead off the 2nd.  Erick Aybar walked to lead off the 4th.  Mike Trout singled to lead off the 7th.  Chris Iannetta doubled with 2 out in the 8th.

Those were the only baserunners that Kuroda allowed.  None of them gained any additional bases.

I don't know if the Japanese eat bacon, but Kuroda has sure saved our bacon this season.

Of course, it wouldn't have mattered if the Yankees hadn't gotten some runs.  With one out in the 3rd, Eduardo Nunez singled.  Chris Stewart moved him over with a groundout, and Brett Gardner, twice the hero against the Detroit Tigers this weekend, singled him home.  In the 7th, Curtis Granderson hit a home run, his 3rd of the season.  (Doesn't sound like much, but remember, he was hurt most of the way.)

After 3 blown saves in 5 days, Joe Girardi gave Mariano Rivera the night off.  Understandable.  So to pitch the 9th, and get the last 3 outs, he brings in...

Oh, dear God, no...

Boone Logan.

The chant went up from the Stadium stands: "WE WANT MO! WE WANT MO! WE WANT MO!"

It's good to know that, in what is, competitively speaking, the worst stretch of his career, the fans still have Mariano's back.  But maybe they're finally seeing what I see: That Logan is a bum.

Why did Girardi bring Logan in? Because there were 2 lefthanders coming up: The 2nd batter of the inning was Kole Calhoun; and, if somebody got on, the 4th man due up was Josh Hamilton.

Remember the 2010 ALCS? Yanks vs. Texas Rangers? Twice, Girardi brought Logan in specifically to pitch to Hamilton.  Both times, Hamilton launched a Logan meatball into orbit.  Many times, Logan has choked against lefty power hitters, the very guys he is in the major leagues to stop.  At this point, bringing in Boone Logan to stop Josh Hamilton is like calling the Republicans in Congress trying to repeal Obamacare: No matter how many times you try it, you're going to look like an idiot.

And, sure enough, Logan allowed the leadoff hitter, J.B. Shuck, to get on base with a single.  Now the tying run, Calhoun, was at the plate.

The chant went up again, and even on the radio, it spoke volumes: "WE WANT MO! WE WANT MO! WE WANT MO!"

Logan struck Calhoun out.

This means he's doing his job, right? Not really: He's still allowed a baserunner, and, barring a game-ending double play, Hamilton will still come up.  And, before him, coming up next, the similarly dangerous Mike Trout.

Maybe something finally clicked in Girardi's head.  Or maybe someone rewrote a page in his Binder.  Either way, he took Logan out, and brought in David Robertson.

Apparently, the fans weren't ready to accept D-Rob as Mariano's heir apparent: "WE WANT MO! WE WANT MO! WE WANT MO!"

Trout worked Robertson for a walk.  And Hamilton, uncharacteristically, but nearly as effectively, dropped a looper into short left field.  Shuck scored from 2nd, Trout got to 3rd, and Hamilton got to 2nd.

Hell, Logan could have allowed that.

"WE WANT MO! WE WANT MO! WE WANT MO!"

Girardi ordered Aybar walked to load the bases, to set up a game-ending double play, or, at least, a force play at home.

Cringe time.

Mark Trumbo up.  Robertson struck him out.  One out to go.

Not out of the woods yet.  Chris Nelson is up, and the bases are still loaded.

Robertson struck him out to end the ballgame.

Heck, Mo could have done that.

But that's why they call Robertson "Houdini": He escapes.

Then again, it's not an entirely complimentary nickname, as was the case with Mitch Williams being called "the Wild Thing." The escape wouldn't be necessary if he hadn't gotten into the trap.

Not that it was all his fault.  After all, Logan did walk the leadoff man, potentially setting up his 32nd entry in Logan's Litany of Losing.

But this game, which could have resulted in blowing a wonderful performance by Kuroda, and giving a baseball purist heart palpitations -- or, as our old friend Phil Rizzuto would have said, given them agita -- resulted in Yankees 2, Angels 1.

WP: Kuroda (11-7).  SV: Robertson (1).  LP: Garrett Richards (3-5, although he didn't pitch badly at all, allowing 2 runs, 7 hits and just 1 walk).

Weather permitting (it's raining hard as I type this), the series continues tonight at The Stadium, with CC Sabathia pitching against Jason Vargas, a 30-year-old lefthander who has bounced around a bit, including 2 games with the Mets in 2007, and was 14-11 for a not very good Seattle Mariners team last year.  He's 6-4, 3.65 for the Angels this year.

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