The A's and Yankees played a thrilling eleven-inning game last night, but let's skip straight to the action in the eighth inning, as it was in the top of the eighth that the worm turned for the Bronx Bombers.
With the game tied 4-4, Oakland manager Bob Geren called on his ace set-up man Justin Duchscherer to face the heart of the Yankee order. Alex Rodriguez singled on Duchscherer's first pitch. Jason Giambi followed by yanking a double into the corner in right field, pushing Rodriguez to third. Joe Torre sent in Kevin Thompson to pinch-run for designated hitter Giambi at second base with Jorge Posada coming to the plate. Posada worked a 2-1 count then hit a blistering liner directly at first baseman Todd Walker for the first out. Geren then elected to have Duchscherer intentionally walk Robinson Cano to load the bases, thus allowing Duchscherer to Doug Mientkiewicz with a force at every base.
At this point Mientkiewicz was 0 for his last 18 with just one walk over that span. In his three previous at-bats in this game he had struck out and hit into two double plays, the first a line-drive to left that doubled up Posada at first, the second a conventional 4-6-3 that plated a run, but otherwise killed a bases-loaded, no-out rally in the sixth.
Now, if you're Joe Torre, or even Yankee bench coach Don Mattingly, what do you do in this situation.
If your answer is anything other than "squeeze bunt," you lose, and so did the Yankees.
Torre had Mientkiewicz hitting away. Duchscherer's first pitch was a ball, high over the plate. His second was a strike right down the middle, belt-high, a perfect pitch to bunt. His 1-1 offering was an inside strike just below the belt, and even better pitch to bunt. Mientkiewicz swing and hit a flare just over the mound. Duchscherer scrambled to make the catch, but the ball tipped off his glove, then bounced and glanced off his bare hand. Duchscherer fell to the ground, smothered the ball and, from a sitting position, threw home to nail Alex Rodriguez, who had been forced to hold up to avoid being doubled off had Duchscherer made the catch.
The Yankees had two chances to score the go-ahead run in the eighth inning via an out. After Posada's bad luck left them one more chance and their worst hitter at the plate, the Yankees had no excuse not to take the almost sure thing of a squeeze bunt, but refused. It ultimately cost them the game.
This refusal to attempt the squeeze has been consistent during Joe Torre's tenure as Yankee manager. The most famous instance was in Game Four of the 2003 World Series, the infamous Jeff Weaver Game. With the score tied at 3-3 in the top of the eleventh, the Yankees had runners on second and third with the pitcher's spot due up. Much like the A's last night, the Marlins walked pinch hitter Juan Rivera to face Aaron Boone, who, other than his ALCS-winning homer, had struggled mightily throughout postseason. A squeeze bunt would have given the Yankees the lead with Mariano Rivera available to pitch the bottom of the eleventh. Instead, Torre had Boone hit away. He struck out, John Flaherty popped out to end the inning, and the Yankees lost both the game and the series.
This year's Baseball Prospectus annual has managerial statistics dating back to 2004. In over the last three seasons, the Yankees under Torre have zero successful squeeze attempts. They did attempt one squeeze last September, but it came after the division had been sown up in a game the Yankees were already leading 4-1. Derek Jeter was the runner at third and Andy Cannizaro was the batter. The Devil Rays identified the play and pitched out, nailing Jeter at the plate. That the Yankees lack the fundementals to successfully execute the squeeze bunt is as much the fault of Torre and his coaching staff as his failure to call for the play in a situation that required it.
Melky Cabrera followed Mientkiewicz with a groundout to leave the bases loaded and the score tied. Mike Myers, Luis Vizcaino and Brian Bruney combined to keep the game tied through the next three innings, but after Bruney struck out Jason Kendall to start the eleventh, he surrendered a booming triple to dead center by rookie Travis Buck. Mark Ellis was hitting away when Brian Bruney's second pitch hit him square between the shoulder blades. Bruney then fell behind 2-0 on Nick Swisher, who had tied the game in the seventh with a solo homer off Kyle Farnsworth. The Yankees correctly opted to put Swisher on, setting up the very same situation that greeted Mientkiewicz in the eighth. The A's won the first game of the 2003 ALDS on a squeeze bunt by catcher Ramon Hernandez, but, like the Yankees, declined to employ the tactic here, despite having Bobby Kielty at the plate hitting left-handed, the side from which he's hit .229/.332/.349 on his career.
The A's had Kielty swing away. He fell behind 0-2 on a foul and a swing-and-a-miss, then hit a low hopper to the right of the drawn in Mientkiewcz at first base. Mientkiewicz dove and smothered the ball, but, throwing almost from his stomach, was unable to get off an accurate-enough throw to force Buck, who crossed the plate with the winning run.
The A's got lucky. In identical situations, both teams had terrible hitters in squeeze bunt situations but declined to call for the squeeze. In both cases, the hitter put the ball in play weakly in the infield (there's some irony for ya). Kielty's was placed just right and stayed on the ground, allowing the runners to break. In other words, it was an unintentional squeeze bunt. Mientkiewicz's was also placed just right, but stayed in the air, forcing the runners to hold. That was the difference in the ball game.
Earlier in the game, Kei Igawa looked good, working down in the strike zone, getting ahead of hitters, and throwing all of his pitches for strikes. There's still room for improvement. He wasn't particularly efficient, throwing 95 pitches in 5 1/3 innings. He'd also miss badly on occasion. A pitch up to Eric Chavez turned into a two-run homer, closing a 4-1 lead to 4-3 in the bottom of the sixth, but Igawa only allowed two other hits and a pair of walks on the night.
On the flip side, the Yankee hitters, Mientkiewicz included, had a great approach against Dan Haren, taking pitches and forcing him to work deep into counts. Right off the bat in the first inning, Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu took him to full counts and Alex Rodriguez worked a walk. By the time the Yankees had loaded the bases with no outs in the third, Haren had thrown 58 pitches, the last two men to reach base being Damon and Jeter who drew walks on a total of 15 pitches. By the time he got the last out of that frame, Haren had thrown 72. He was done after five innings having tossed 107 pitches.
In injury news, Carl Pavano reported some tightness in his forearm near his elbow and has been bumped to Tuesday. Darrell Rasner starts in his place tonight, but, according to Kim Jones, the blisters on Rasner's index finger and thumb were still visible yesterday. Those blisters hurt his ability to throw his off-speed pitches, including the nasty curve which makes him so effective. Uh oh.
Mike Mussina did some running yesterday and will throw a light bullpen tomorrow. Joe Torre hopes to make a final decision on whether or not to place him on the DL before the team leaves Oakland.
Jeff Karstens will start for single-A Tampa on Monday and could be activated afterwords, setting him up for a start next weekend in Boston.
Chien-Ming Wang will throw in extended spring training today and has a minor league start scheduled for Thursday. That would put his next turn on April 24. The Yankees have said all along that Wang will need two rehab starts, but if Wang looks good enough and the problems with Carl Pavano's forearm and Mussina's hamstrings haven't resolved themselves, I wouldn't be surprised to see Wang pitch for the Yankees on the 24th.