Chien-Ming Wang acquited himself quite nicely against Baltimore's sluggin' O's last night, posting his seventh quality start in ten starts on the season with this line: 7 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 2 HR, 0 BB, 3 K.
Here's the situation: Bottom of the eighth inning. The Yankees have a 4-3 lead. Wang has thrown just 83 pitches, 68 percent of them strikes. In the seventh he got Sammy Sosa to groundout on a full count, gave up a full-count single to Luis Matos, induced a double play grounder from Chris Gomez on a 1-2 count that was turned into a fielder's choice when Matos forced Robinson Cano to make a wide throw to first, then got pinch-hitter Eli Marrero to fly out on a 1-0 count.
The top of the Oriole order is due up in this inning: Switch-hitter Brian Roberts (ground out, fly out, double), lefty Larry Bigbie (homer, two ground outs), and righty Miguel Tejada (ground out, single, foul out to Posada). Everyone is available in the pen.
What do you do?
To me, it's a no-brainer to let Wang try to either finish the game or, at the very least get you straight to Rivera. Joe Torre, of course, handed the ball to Tom Gordon.
Now, I'm not saying that Wang would have absolutely held that lead, nor am I saying that Gordon shouldn't be used to hold small leads in the eighth inning. What I am saying is that when you have a small lead behind a pitcher who is more or less cruising and is no where near his pitch limit for the night, leave him in there.
As it played out, Gordon walked Roberts, made a throwing error on a sac bunt by Bigbie that put runners on the corners, then gave up a game-tying single to Miguel Tejada. Three batters, no outs, lead gone.
In his defense, Gordon then struck out Palmeiro and Gibbons and got Sosa to ground out. He then struck out two more in a 1-2-3 ninth inning. So, at the very least, he managed to avoid losing the game.
For that Torre had to make another bullpen move. So here we are again. Those same three batters due up, but this time the game is tied 4-4 in the tenth. You're playing on the road, so you have to keep the opposition scoreless in order to get another chance to score yourself. Again, everyone is available. Does Torre go to Mariano Rivera, who has not allowed a run since May 6? No. Does he go to Tanyon Sturtze, who has the third best ERA on the team after Rivera and Gordon, is coming of five scoreless innings in his last three games, and could last two, even three innings if necessary? No.
He goes to Mike Stanton, who has a 6.43 season ERA entering the game because, reasoned Torre after the game, "We saw enough of Roberts hitting left-handed. We just wanted to turn him around and see if it made a difference." (for what it's worth, Roberts was 1 for 3 with a double and walk from the left side)
Mike Stanton threw one pitch. I'll let him explain it:
It's supposed to be a fastball-sinker, down and away, and I throw it right down the middle. I could have hit that one out. It's hard to take. Regardless of what happens before I go in there, he puts me in there to hold the lead and I throw one pitch. It's just disgraceful. Somebody swings like that, you hear how solid he hits the ball, you don't even need to turn around.
Roberts did indeed cream that pitch, dropping it in the left field seats to break the O's six-game losing streak and hand the Yankees a 5-4 loss in ten innings.
Again, I'm not saying that the Orioles wouldn't have come back and won this game had Torre stuck with Wang and gone straight to Rivera (though the odds seem pretty good they would not have), nor am I saying that the Yankees would have been able to score in the top of the eleventh following a scoreless tenth from Rivera, or that Sturtze would have done any better than Stanton in the following innings.
But I am saying that Torre failed to give his team the best chance to win this game and that's unexceptable. Poor performance on the field from time to time is unavoidable. Poor performance in the dugout should not be, though when it comes to Torre's use of the bullpen (which can be said to have, at least in part, cost his team the 2003 World Series and the 2004 ALCS), it has come to be not just unavoidable, but expected.
Adding insult to injury, the Red Sox lost to Cleveland again last night, thus the Yankees had the opportunity to gain a game on both of the two teams ahead of them in the east for the second straight night.