In a taut game that was in almost every way the polar opposite of Game Three, the Yankees beat the Angels 3-2 to force a Game Five tomorrow night in Anahiem. John Lackey and Shawn Chacon were both outstanding, the Yankees scratched out just enough runs against the Angels bullpen and Mariano Rivera pitched two scoreless innings to prolonge the season for the Bombers.
Chacon and Lackey have different approaches but both were stunningly efficient through the first five innings. Chacon finessed the Angels, getting them to chase balls out of the strike zone, and keeping them off balance. Lackey was far more aggresive throwing strikes. His curve ball had a tight spin and it looked great, particularly as it was mixed with a fastball that was clocked in the low nineties. Lackey froze Matsui with a breaking pitch to start the second, buckling the slugger's knees but good, and caught Rodriguez looking with a 2-2 curve--that was flat-out nasty--to end the third. Chacon wasn't throwing as hard and yet, according to the Fox broadcast, after five full innings, each pitcher had thrown exactly 68 pitches (and their splits 42 strikes and 46 were the same too). Each had allowed just a single hit.
The Angels had the best chance to score in the fourth inning but ran themselves into trouble. Chone Figgins led off the inning and reached first when Godzilla lost his fly ball in the lights (the play was scored an error). After a standard throw to first, Figgins lengthened his lead and Chacon went back to first. This time it appeared as if the throw beat him, but Giambi's tag was tardy and Figgins was ruled safe. It was a close play for sure. The Angels' speedster took off on the very next pitch and Jorge Posada threw him out. The throw was on the third base side of second and this time it appeared as if Figgins beat the ball to the bag. But Robinson Cano made a good snap tag and got the call. Vlad Guerrero reached on an infield single (that was almost a fantastic play by Cano, ranging far to his left), and he took off for second when the first pitch to Garret Anderson momentarily got away from Posada. Jorge had to look down, pick up the ball (which had not gone far), avoid Anderson who was standing as still as a statue in the batter's box as well as the home plate ump. He was able to do all of this and make a strong throw to second which nailed Guerrero easily.
The Angels got to Chacon two innings later when Juan Rivera walked to start the sixth on four pitches. Steve Finley sacrificed him to second before Cano made a nice, back-handed pick on Adam Kennedy's ground ball near second base, and then side-armed the ball to Jason Giambi at first for the second out. The slumping Figgins was next and my stomach sunk well before he lashed Chacon's 2-1 fastball into the right field corner for an RBI double. Orlando Cabrera followed and smacked Chacon's first pitch--a flat slider that analyst Tim McCarver called the pitcher's worst offering of the night--into right center for another RBI double. Vlad Guerrero whiffed to end the inning but the damage had been done.
Derek Jeter led off the bottom of the inning and grounded the first pitch sharply but directly at Cabrera at short, who had no problem throwing him out. After Jeter returned to the dugout, he selected a new bat from the bat rack and handed it to Joe Torre, a little bit of superstition between the two that they obviously hoped would spark a rally. Lackey threw two fastballs, right over the heart of the plate, passed Alex Rodriguez, but he couldn't put him away as the Yankee third baseman walked on a 3-2 curve ball that was low and away. Rodriguez moved to second after Giambi grounded out weakly to second on the first pitch and then Gary Sheffield hacked at the first pitch he saw and lined an RBI single into left. The ball was hit so hard that the Angels actually had a decent shot at nailing Rodriguez but Garret Anderson's throw was off-line and there was no play at the plate. Scot Shields replaced Lackey and he got Godzilla Matsui to bounce out to first.
Meanwhile, Chacon retired Anderson on a pop out to first to start the top of the seventh and then hung a slider to Benji Molina, who singled up the middle. Joe Torre emerged from the Yankee dugout and you could hear the stadium groan as he made his way to the mound. With Daren Erstad due up, Al Leiter was on his way in. Chacon received a nice hand and Senator Al got Erstad to wave at two breaking balls. With the count 2-2, Erstad hit into a 6-4-3 double play, Yankee fans breathed a sigh of relief and Al Leiter may well have ended his career on a high note.
Cano started the bottom of the frame with a slow roller to short for an infield hit. The fans got loud for Bernie Williams--again, perhaps playing in his final game at Yankee Stadium--and the old fella got a decent pitch to hit but he could not get good wood on it and he popped out to center field. Williams returned to the bench and slammed his helmet down in frustration. Joe Torre said a few words to him and as Williams walked down into the tunnel, Rodriguez followed him and had a few more things to say. Jorge Posada worked a walk on a full-count pitch and then Ruben Sierra, pinch-hitting for Bubba Crosby--singled through the right side. Guerrero came up slinging and fired a bullet to home but Cano beat the throw--though he did not slide, making the play seem closer than it should have been--and the game was tied.
Posada adroitly advanced to third and with runners on the corners, Jeter worked the count even at two. (After taking the 1-2 pitch for a ball, Jeter allowed a small smirk to cross his face as he adjusted his batting gloves showing us once again that even though he's not some mythical "clutch" player, there are few men in the game who enjoy being in a pressure situation as much as he does. He may not be "captain clutch" but he's a gamer in the true sense of the word.) Next, with Sierra taking off for second, Shields got a fastball in on Jeter's hands and the shortstop hit a ground ball to third. Posada broke for the plate. Figgens fielded the ball cleanly and then made a poor throw to the plate. Molina had to move to his right, field the ball on a hop and then stretch back across his body to tag Posada. His glove touched Posada's right leg a fraction of a second after the Yankee catcher's foot had safely touched the plate. Not only that, but the ball was in Molina's right hand and not his glove. That said, Posada's slide was clumsy at best. Remember on "The Honeymooners" when Ralph would be asleep, blindly walk out of the apartment and then you'd hear the drummer make an awful racket simulating Kramden falling down the stairs? That's the sound that should have accompanied Posada's graceless slide.
Kelvim Escobar entered the game and walked Rodriguez on five pitches, all of which were out of the zone. The bases were juiced, but Escobar got Jason Giambi on strikes (three pitches, two nasty splitters) and Sheffield to fly out to center to end the threat.
Not wanting to leave anything to chance, Torre brought Mariano Rivera in to pitch. Considering how suspect Flash Gordon has been in the playoffs, he didn't have much choice. Bernie Williams went to center from DH (now, it became clear that Torre had told Bernie that he was going to play the field during the previous half inning) and Tino Martinez replaced Giambi at first. That meant the Yankees were losing their DH for the night. Martinez would bat ninth, while the pitcher moved into the three-hole vacated by Giambi. Juan Rivera bounced out to Cano, Rivera caught Finley looking at a 3-2 two-seamer and Rodriguez made a slick, back-handed stop of Adam Kennedy's sharp ground ball to end the inning.
The Yanks failed to score in the ninth. After a one-out walk to Cano, Bernie actually got around on a fastball from Escobar but it was hit directly at Finley for the second out. Clearly frustrated Williams slouched back to the dugout. The entire stadium chanted out his name. I thought of Cliff and his lady Becky who were at the game. Bernie is Beck's favorite player and I was sure that she was on her feet giving him lots of love. Posada actually stepped out of the batter's box as Williams emerged from the bench and tipped his hat to the crowd. Posada walked but Tino popped out weakly to short as the Yankees were unable to provide any insurance for Rivera.
He wouldn't need any. He caught Figgins looking on a 2-2 two-seamer and got Cabrera to tap back to the mound. Finally, Vlad grounded out to Cano and the Yankees had won the game. It was a brisk and relatively well-played game. The only reason I'm qualifying that is that two poor defensive plays, both on throws to home (Anderson, Figgins) cost the Angels dearly. Both starting pitchers were excellent and the Yankees showed some fight. If their season has to end in the first round at least they didn't go out in New York, in front of the home crowd. They've given us one more day to look foward to, one more game to enjoy in what has been a long, strange season. And I ask you: What more could we have asked for?