No matter where you stand on the importance of winning the division, the story of yesterday’s extra inning loss begins with Andy Pettitte.
After some early jitters (he went 3-0 on the first two batters), Andy Pettitte settled into a groove and became a strike throwing machine, locating both his fastball and curve with incredible precision for a man who had not been atop a major league mound in two months. The only run surrendered by Pettitte came on a two out bunt single in the first inning, after which the Yankees lefty allowed only two base runners. Pettitte only needed 78 pitches to complete six innings, and retired the last 11 batters he faced.
While Pettitte was picking up where he left off, the Yankees were once again leaving men on base. So, instead of building a big lead, the Yankees allowed the Orioles to hang around and eventually tie the game when they scored single runs in the eighth and ninth, the latter coming on a lead off homerun by Luke Scott off Mariano Rivera. Scott’s blast, which just made it over the 18-foot wall in right, gave Rivera his second blown save on the road trip.
The game wasn’t lost when Rivera surrendered the lead. In fact, in the eleventh, the Yankees seemed as if they were poised to get a second chance at winning it. In that frame, however, Buck Showalter proved himself to be a master tactician, while Joe Girardi seemed to be one step behind in the managerial game of chess that ensured.
Alex Rodriguez led off the inning with a walk and his pinch runner, Eduardo Nunez, advanced to third on a wild pickoff attempt that bounced into the stands. Before the errant throw, Ramiro Pena had been attempting to sacrifice, but with the runner already on third, Girardi opted to send Marcus Thames to the plate with a 1-1 count. Thames eventually struck out in his abbreviated at bat, prompting Girardi use Mark Teixeira in place of Brett Gardner. Showalter then had Gonzalez walk both Teixeira and Jeter, putting the game in the lap of Lance Berkman, who had batted .177/.270/.266 against lefties this season. Sure enough, one weak ground ball later and the Yankees had let another golden opportunity slip through their hands.
Ultimately, winning and losing comes down the performance of players, but a manager’s job is to put his team in the best position to succeed. In this game, Girardi didn’t do that, while Showalter did. Once Thames struck out, Showalter knew exactly what his exit strategy was going to be. Girardi, however, seemed to be caught off guard by Showalter’s approach. By sending his last potent bat into an obvious intentional walk situation, Girardi was basically falling into Showalter’s trap. With no useful bench remaining, the Berkman versus a lefty matchup was checkmate for Buck.
After wiggling out of the jam in the top of the eleventh, the Orioles finally put the game away with back-to-back doubles by Scott and Ty Wigginton off David Robertson, who was pitching in his second inning. The Orioles’ walkoff helped the team avoid a home sweep, proving that turn around is fair play, as a Nick Swisher walkoff HR helped the Yankees avoid the same fate against Baltimore only 10 days earlier.
With the Jays building a strong young pitching staff and the Orioles under the control of one of the game’s better managers, the 2011 AL East could be an absolute monster. That’s a concern for next year, however. The Yankees still have two weeks to worry about winning this year’s division title.