When playing out the string on the way to the playoffs, the last thing you want is to have a hapless team rally from a multi-run deficit against your closer to force extra innings, then go on to win. You want to coast in. Lose a low scoring game because you're resting your big bats. Lose a high scoring game because you gave a spot start to a rookie or a retread. Lose a blowout for both reasons, but you don't want to go extra innings, and you never want to see your closer melt down against a 90-loss team.
The game was never pretty last night. Neither starter pitched well and the Yankees, who had leads of 4-1 and 7-2, were clinging to a slim 7-6 lead after five, all of those runs being charged to Jon Leicester and Mike Mussina, respectively. The Yanks padded their lead to 9-6 against Victor Zambrano and Rob Bell while getting a scoreless inning of relief each from Ross Ohlendorf, Kyle Farnsworth, and Luis Vizcaino.
Then came the bottom of the ninth. With the crowd at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox had defeated the Twins 5-2 behind an outstanding outing by Daisuke Matsuzaka, watching on the scoreboard, Mariano Rivera took the mound with a three-run lead. Working the outside corner, Rivera fell behind 2-1 on Nick Markakis, then came inside, and Markakis fisted a looper into center for a lead-off single, bringing up a parade of right-handed hitters. Miguel Tejada followed by ripping a 1-0 pitch on the inside corner right to Alex Rodriguez, who was guarding the line at third, for the first out. Mo's 0-1 pitch to Kevin Millar sailed up and in and hit Millar on the hand to bring the tying run to the plate. Rivera and Jose Molina argued that the ball hit the knob of the bat and was therefore foul, but it made a dull thud when making contact, not a sharp crack, suggesting it caught Millar's bottom hand. Mo then got ahead 0-2 on Melvin Mora, who then fouled off the next two pitches.
Mo had been right around Molina's glove to that point in the inning, but his next pitch was in the dirt and the one after that was up around Mora's head. Mora flied out to right on Rivera's 15th pitch of the inning, and Ramon Hernandez took his 16th--which was supposed to be on the inside corner, but drifted back over the plate--for a strike, but Rivera's 17th pitch, which was supposed to be inside, drifted to the outside and Hernandez sliced it into right for a bases-loading single. Rivera's first pitch to Jay Payton sailed high. His second was on target on the outside corner and Payton fouled it off. His third sailed high again. As Jose Molina set up for the 2-1, he opened his glove right over the plate before shifting to the outside corner. Rivera, who looks down as he begins his wind up, first saw Molina's glove in it's original location and his pitch was not only right over the plate, but it drifted up and Payton, who had tripled off Mike Mussina in the second inning to set up the first Oriole run of the game, ripped the letter-high fastball down the middle past Bobby Abreu in right for a bases-clearing, game-tying triple. Rivera then got rookie Scott Moore, a lefty, to hit a broken bat grounder to first to end the inning.
Whenever Rivera's struggled this year, or really any year, it's been because he loses his location and his pitches start to float up over the plate. That's exactly what happened all the way back on April 15 when he blew his first save opportunity of the year against the A's and Marco Scutaro. From the way-back machine:
. . . then Rivera's location deserted him. The 1-1 pitch to Kendall was supposed to be low, but instead was up and inside for a ball. The 2-1 pitch was also supposed to be low, but floated up high for ball three. The same thing happened on the next pitch, but Rivera got a generous high-strike call to run the count full, much to the consternation of the Oakland bench. Rivera's next pitch also missed a couple feet high of Jorge Posada's target, but Jason Kendall fouled it off. Mo seemed to find his slot on his next to pitches, both down in the zone, but Kendall spoiled both by fouling them off. On the fourth 3-2 offering, Posada again called for a pitch down and in, but once again Rivera's delivery floated up high for a ball, putting the tying run on base and bringing Marco Scutaro to the plate as the winning run.
Scutaro had faced Rivera just twice before, walking once and striking out once. On this occasion, Rivera's first pitch to Scutaro is a low called strike. The next runs inside and Scutaro fouls it off to the third-base side, breaking his bat in the process. That puts the count at 0-2. Once again, Jorge Posada calls for a pitch down in the zone. Rivera kicks and delivers but the pitch that leaves his hand is a meatball right down the middle. It's as if he set it on a tee, and Scutaro doesn't miss it. What he does do is almost jump out of his shoes and thus swings a hair early, sending the ball soaring down the left field foul line. Rivera spins and leans back, willing the ball to go foul. Instead it clangs off the foul pole, giving the A's a 5-4 victory.
Derek Jeter led off the top of the tenth with a double against Chad Bradford, and moved to third on a grounder to first, but O's manager Dave Trembley met with Bradford on the mound and decided to intentionally walk Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui to load the bases and set up the force at home. Bradford then got ahead of both Jose Molina and Jason Giambi 0-2, getting Molina hit a foul pop to first, and getting Giambi, who battled for four more pitches, to fly out to left.
With that, Joe Torre--who had pinch-run for Jeter in the top of the inning, and earlier subbed out Jorge Posada and Johnny Damon--pulled Abreu and Alex Rodriguez (who was 3 for 5 with a double, his 54th home run, and four RBIs, pushing his season total to 155), refusing to overextend his best hitters (or worse, risk an injury) for an meaningless extra-inning game.
Not that it mattered much. Edwar Ramirez gave up a one-out double to Tyke Redman on a slicing flare to shallow left (Redman, thinking it was a foul ball, almost didn't run). Edwar's first pitch to Nick Markakis, a good changeup in the zone with late movement, clanged off the thumb of Molina's glove and skipped between his legs to move Redman to third. In the confusion, the pitch was ruled a ball. Two more changeups sunk out of the zone for balls two and three, at which point, the Yankees put Markakis on intentionally. Torre then followed Trembley's lead by coming to the mound and deciding to intentionally walk Tejada to load the bases. Ramirez then struck out Kevin Millar on four pitches (fastball looking, fastball outside swinging, changeup in the dirt, fastball at the knee on the outside corner looking), but with two outs and the infield having moved back to regular depth, Melvin Mora laid down a perfect squeeze bunt that Wilson Betemit had to eat at third as Redman scampered home to give the Orioles a 10-9 victory.
And so the Yankees' nine-year run of AL East titles has come to an end, but their 13-year streak of postseason berths is alive and well. If nothing else, perhaps Joe Torre has been turned on to the merits of the squeeze bunt (even if Mora's bunt, like current teammate Ramon Hernandez's in Game One of the 2003 ALCS, wasn't technically a squeeze as both came with two outs and were therefore hits, not sacrifices). Now that they're locked in to the Wild Card, the Yankees are assured of an ALDS matchup with the Indians, who have clinched an overall record tie with the Angels and split the seasons series with the Angles (5-5), but win the secondary tie-breaker of having the better intra-division record (the Indians actually smoked all four of their AL Central foes, doing "worst" against the Royals at 9-6). From what I've heard, the Indians would prefer the series with the extra day off, while the Red Sox would prefer the series with fewer days off. So it looks like it'll be Chien-Ming Wang vs. C.C. Sabathia at Jacobs Field on Wednesday, but don't make any plans around that assumption just yet.
Hey, it could be worse, a lot worse. The Mets lost 7-4 to the Marlins, two of those Florida runs scoring in the third after David Wright, while straddling third base on a would-be 5-2-5 double play with one out and the bases loaded, both failed to step on the bag and missed the tag on the runner, allowing the inning to continue at which point Oliver Perez hit two batters to force in two runs. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Cole Hamels struck out 13 as the Phillies beat the Nats to take a one-game lead in the NL East with just two to play. If the Mets lose and the Phils win again tomorrow, the Phillies will clinch the division. A division, incidentally, which had the Mets in first place for 135 days prior to last night's game.
Elsewhere, the Cubs clinched the Central, and the Diamondbacks clinched a playoff berth by eliminating the Rockies from the division race head-to-head. Today, the Padres can clinch a playoff berth with a win today or losses by both the Mets and Rockies, both of whom are two games back in the NL Wild Card race. The Rockies are the only surviving team that could win today and still be eliminated from the postseason.