There were just two run scoring plays in last night's 2-1 Yankee loss to the Rangers in Arlington, both coming in the eighth inning.
In the top half, Robinson Cano (now hitting .305 on the season) singled Bubba Crosby home for the lone Yankee run (Bubba, starting in center, walked on five pitches to start the inning and was bunted to second by a slumping Derek Jeter--2 for his last 19--Crosby also singled earlier in the game, going 1 for 3 on the night).
In the bottom half, Hank Blalock hit a two-out, two-run homer to right center off of lefty Wayne Franklin to provide the Rangers with the eventual margin of victory.
The latter provoked many questions as to just what exactly Wayne Franklin was doing pitching to the heart of the Rangers order in the eighth inning of a one-run game. I'll get to that in a moment, but first it's worth mentioning that the only inning in which the Yankee batters were retired in order was the first. Thirteen Yankees reached base, yet they only managed to plate one run against Texas starter Chan Ho Park (5.64 ERA) and were unable to break through against relievers Kameron Loe (4.77 ERA) and Francisco Cordero (4.02, five blown saves). The Yankees as a team left eight men on base, a number artificially lowered by the fact that they hit into three double plays and ran in to one unnecessary out on the bases.
In the second inning Alex Rodriguez lead off with a single and with one out was singled to third by Jason Giambi, but Giambi tried to stretch his hit to a double and was thrown out. Jorge Posada then struck out looking on three pitches to end the inning. Crosby's one out single in the third was erased by a Jeter double play. With two outs in the fourth, Alex Rodriguez was hit by a pitch and Hideki Matsui walked, but Giambi struck out looking on three pitches to end the inning. In the fifth, Posada lead off by being struck by a Chan Ho Park pitch, but he was erased by a Bernie Williams double play. In the sixth, the Yankees had runners at the corners with one out courtesy of a Robinson Cano double and a Gary Sheffield infield single, but Alex Rodriguez hit into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. With one out in the seventh, Giambi walked on four pitches, moved to second on a wild pitch and moved to third on a Posada ground out, but was stranded when Bernie struck out swinging on three pitches. In the eighth, Cano moved to second on the throw home after driving in Crosby, but was stranded when Gary Sheffield lined a ball directly at Blalock and Alex Rodriguez struck out swinging on three pitches to end the inning. In the ninth, the Yankees had the tying run on first in the form of pinch-runner Tony Womack with one out courtesy of a Matsui infield single and a Giambi fielder's choice. After Posada flied out for the second out, Bernie Williams walked to put the tying run in scoring position, but pinch-hitter Tino Martinez flied out to end the game.
As for Franklin, prior to the game, Joe Torre told Suzyn Waldman that Mariano Rivera (saved the last three games, 36 pitches total) and Tanyon Sturtze (3 1/3 innings in the last two games, 36 pitches total) were unavailable, but said that he hoped the Yankees would be in a situation to be able to use Tom Gordon to nail down a win. Without Rivera or Sturtze, the Yankee bullpen looked like this:
R - Tom Gordon (Monday off, 43 pitches on Saturday and Sunday combined)
R - Felix Rodriguez (activated from the DL last night)
R - Scott Proctor (18 pitches on Monday, Saturday and Sunday off)
L - Wayne Franklin (27 pitches on Monday, his first action in seven days)
L - Buddy Groom (unused in the last three games, just one appearance in the last 13 days)
Mike Mussina scattered four hits across six scoreless innings while striking out seven, but did not pitch very efficiently, walking three and needing 109 pitches (just 59 percent strikes) to get those 18 outs. With the game still scoreless, Torre turned first to Rodriguez, who worked around a two-out walk to pitch a hitless seventh, but fell behind every batter he faced, using 25 pitches, just 56 percent of them strikes.
The Yankees broke the scoreless tie in the top of the eighth, plating a single run. Torre now needed just six more outs to win the game. With one of the two lefty hitters in the Ranger line-up leading off the eighth (David Dellucci, who, despite hitting .273/.408/.527 overall, struggles so mightily against lefties has only been allowed 16 at-bats against them this year), Torre turned to lefty Wayne Franklin.
With Dellucci due up followed by Michael Young and Mark Teixeira, a pair of switch hitters who are much stronger from the left side, and Hank Blalock, the other lefty in the Ranger line-up, it would seem that Torre's decision to go with one of his two lefties was a defensible decision. In reality, Torre's failure to use his best pitcher against the Rangers' best hitters in the eighth inning of a one-run game was completely indefensible, and it exposed the two most glaring weaknesses in Torre's use of his bullpen.
The first, and most familiar, is his overuse of his best pitchers, often in unnecessary situations. Despite having Monday off, Tom Gordon had still thrown more pitches in the last three days than any other man in the Yankee bullpen, yet he was the only one of the Yankees Big Three that Torre deemed eligible for last night's contest. Somewhat paradoxically, Torre still managed to be influenced enough by Gordon's workload that he shied away from using him for the final six outs of the game, despite the fact that Gordon was by far the best pitcher available and that he needed to protect a one run lead against the third-best hitting team in the sport in one of the top ballparks for offense in the majors.
The second is a weakness that extends throughout baseball. The save rule states that a save will be awarded to the player who records the final out of a victory of three runs or less, not to the pitcher who recorded the outs most crucial to the preservation of that lead. At some point this rule came to influence the way major league managers use their best relief pitchers, going as far as to call them "closers," meaning the men that record the final outs. It seems unlikely that it has ever occurred to any of them to bring in their closer to face their opponents' best hitters should their final trip through the opposing line-up begin in the seventh or eighth, with the idea that they could replace their closer with an inferior reliever when the inferior hitters came due in the ninth.
Such a strategy did not occur to Torre last night, nor did it occur to him to bring in Gordon after Dellucci and Young singled off of Franklin to start the eighth, putting the 1-0 Yankee lead in extreme peril. No, there were still six outs to go, apparently far too many for Gordon. Never mind that there were just four dangerous hitters left in the Ranger line-up.
Bringing in Gordon to start the eigth, or to rescue Franklin would have at least opened up the possibility of Gordon getting the final six outs. Had Gordon become gassed in the ninth, Torre could have mixed and matched Proctor, Franklin and Groom to face the likes of Richard Hidalgo and Gary Matthews Jr. rather than Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock. Ah, but that would have "demoted" Gordon below the level of closer as structured by the save rule. Far be it for Torre, or any other manager in the major leagues for that matter, to belittle a mighty closer, even a closer-for-a-day like Gordon, by actually turning to him to record the game's most important outs.
I'm not saying that such a strategy would have guaranteed a 1-0 victory, but Torre has, time and again, failed to use his best relief pitcher in the most important game situations, opting to save him for a later inning that never arrives due to the failures of the inferior pitchers that Torre does use. Last night was just another loss that can be blamed on Torre's use of his pen, thethird in the past three weeks.
It's not Torre's fault that Mussina only lasted six innings, or that his offense couldn't score in seven of the eight innings that they had men on base. And it's not his fault that he's saddled with a bullpen that includes Franklin, Proctor and Groom to begin with. But given those circumstances, he still could have managed his team to a win last night, but he failed. Torre has often said that physical errors on the field are forgivable, but mental mistakes are not. Physician, heal thyself.