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September 6, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Well, if you're going to lose, you might as well lose big. The Yankees weren't going to beat Pedro tonight--his stuff was far too good--and by the time Andy Pettitte left in the third, it was 7-0, and the rest of the game was spent getting used to the Red Sox being 2½ out.

The headlines will all say how the Red Sox pounded Pettitte, and how the Yankees' winningest pitcher couldn't come through in what may have been the most vital game of the season. Pettitte didn't pitch well, he was solely responsible for the runs that scored in the second and third innings, runs that put the game out of reach. But the nature of the game changed in the first inning, when Boston put three runs on the board. None of those runs were Pettitte's fault, all three baserunners who scored reached base because of poor defense or bad luck, not the pitching of Pettitte. Last night's game highlights the weaknesses of traditional defensive statistics, for though the Yankees' defense failed on several occasions, they were charged with not a single error on the evening.

By fielding this bunt by Damon, Johnson eliminated any chance the Yankees had to retire him (click for larger image)
In the first inning, Johnny Damon turned and drag bunted a 1-1 pitch past Andy Pettitte. Nick Johnson fielded the ball on the infield grass about a third of the way towards second base. With Alfonso Soriano still halfway between first and second, and nobody on first, Damon was easily safe. On the CBS 2 Broadcast, Kay and Kaat both said that Andy Pettitte was the only player with a chance to field the ball and throw Damon out, but the replay shows that had Johnson stayed at first base, Soriano could have gotten to the ball on the lip of the grass, and had a good chance to throw Damon out. It wasn't a certain out, but it wasn't a certain hit, either. Johnson is a good defensive first baseman, but on this play he suffered a lapse of judgment, and cost the Yankees a baserunner.

A bad angle of approach threw Enrique Wilson out of balance, cost the Yankees a sure out at second, any shot at a double play, and ultimately any outs at all (click for a larger image)
Pettitte then struck out Bill Mueller on a 2-2 for the first out of the inning, bringing up Nomar Garciaparra. Pettitte got ahead 1-2, and induced a slow ground ball to shortstop. Wilson came towards the ball at a bad angle, and was forced to field it backhand at his feet. Had he fielded it properly, a double play was possible due to his close proximity to second base, but the speed of the ball made it uncertain Soriano could have gotten Garciaparra at first. However, the out at second would have been certain. Instead, Wilson threw off balance and high to first base, and the runners were both safe. Again, not an error, but a defensive failure.

Garcia's throw beat Ramirez to the bag, but Boone would bobble the ball and fail to make the play (click for a larger image)
Again, Pettite got ahead of Ramirez 0-2, but Manny took a high fastball the other way, past Soriano who was in on the dirt to cover Damon at second. This was not the fault of Pettitte, and not the fault of the defense beyond the fact that Damon should not have been on second base, but simply bad luck. Had Wilson been covering second base, the ball would have been hit right to Soriano for the inning-ending double play, but the right decision was probably made (as batters tend to pull ground balls). Had Damon not been on base, the inning would have been over as well, but instead, it was 1-0 Boston with 1 out. David Ortiz followed with a sharp base hit between Johnson and Soriano (nothing that could have been done about that), scoring Garciaparra from second, and Manny Ramirez headed towards third. Karim Garcia fielded the ball and threw it on one hop to Boone, who tried to make the tag before closing his glove on the ball and dropped it. 2-0 Red Sox with 1 out, and the Yankees had given Boston 3 outs. Pettitte then struck out Millar, then gave up a solid single to left to Varitek, and it was 3-0.

And this is what defense is about. These weren't horrible plays, but they weren't terribly difficult plays, either. An average defensive team would have gotten out of the inning with no runs, an excellent defensive team would have retired the side in order. Instead, the Red Sox pushed across 3, and it changed the entire game, it changed the way Pettitte pitched, and forced him to throw as many as 15 more pitches in the first inning.

This is not to take Pettitte off the hook. He wasn't "Bad Andy" tonight, but he did not pitch particularly well after the first inning, giving up solid hits, falling behind batters and walking them. The other 5 runs he earned were absolutely his own, but one has to wonder how he would have pitched had the Red Sox gone down in order in the first. This isn't to take credit from Boston, either, which took advantage of opportunities handed to it by the Yankees' defense, which is what good teams do--which is what the Yankees did for years. Rather, this is to point out a deficiency in the Yankees' makeup that casual observers have a vague awareness of, but often miss the results of. The Yankees' defense killed them last night.

But like I said, it was unlikely the Yankees could have won this game anyway: they couldn't touch Pedro until the game was out of reach, and he was pitching to get the game over with rather than to shut the Yankees down. But the weakness that cost them three in the first will rear its head again, and cost them again. It's something that can't be fixed now, but when the Yankees look to retool in the offseason, they should take note of it. It's time to move either Derek Jeter or Alfonso Soriano, and to shift Bernie Williams to left. The struggles of Hideki Matsui may make the Yankees wary of chasing another Japanese star, but if Kaz Matsui's glove is all that is advertised, it might be worth the offensive risk. When you're a good team playing other good teams, it's the little things that often make the difference, and defense is one of the most important.

And so Boston is now only 2½ games back, which is most definitely within striking distance, and they're 1/3 of the way to a huge sweep. But if they had never fallen 7½ back, the Yankees' lead would feel a bit more comfortable, and a lot less ominous. The Yankees still have the advantage, but a big loss and a hot streak by the Red Sox has made things uncomfortable. To get that comfort level back, the Yankees need a stop, they need a big pitching performance. They need the Rocket.

(Cue dramatic music...)