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October 1, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

As APNY said yesterday, let the overreacting begin.

Okay, so it's a lot bigger than one loss to the Red Sox in July--or even September--but it's not the end. One of many problems I have with the current playoff format is how the Divisional Series is only five games, rather than the seven of the LCS and World Series. Now the Twins are one third of the way towards winning the series, rather than one quarter of the way. It's a format that encourages the upset, and the more I think about it, the splitting of Games One and Two, which many Red Sox fans complained aids the Yankees, in fact aids the Twins far more. Now the Twins' bullpen, which might have been shorthanded by Romero and Hawkins had they played tonight, will be completely rested by Game Two. This isn't a complaint, but an observation. Really, I'm happy that I get to see the game on Thursday--I've got to work until 6:30.

A reader emailed me to say:
Offense wins games, defense wins championships
This is an old cliche that has a kernel of truth to it. If you don't give up runs, you can't lose, but if you score lots of runs, you can still lose if you give up more. Really, neither offense or defense wins championships, you need a combination of both.

Now, of course, when people usually say "defense wins championships" in baseball, they mean pitching and defense wins championships. The Diamondbacks won a World Series on this theory, but more typical is the case of last year's Angels, which combined great pitching with great hitting.

Yesterday, defense lost the game for the Yankees. Cristian Guzman was foolish when he tried to go to third on Shannon Stewart's single to left in the third--he may have run the Twins out of a rally--but he was barely safe on a missed tag. He then scored on a shallow fly to center field, because Bernie Williams lacked the arm strength to stop him.

The other two runs were also the fault of the defense, as well. In the sixth inning, with Al Borland, er, Kevin Smith, er, Matt LeCroy on first and one out, Torii Hunter singled to right-center, but Bernie Williams was unable to field the ball, and it rolled all the way to the wall. As LeCroy rounded third, Williams got the throw in to the cutoff man Soriano, who looked home, then threw off-balance over Aaron Boone's head. This might not have been a total disaster, but there was nobody backing up third base--Mike Mussina was behind home plate. Hunter scored, and it was 3-0.

Now, I complain about the Yankees' defense all the time, but there's really nothing that can be done about it now. It was really too late do anything about it once they stopped signing free agents; they're contrained by the roster they have, and can't afford to bench a superior offensive player like Jeter or Soriano for a better glove man who can't hit. But yesterday's follies could have been avoided by one simple move that Joe Torre has probably never considered: switch Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams in the outfield. Matsui has about the same range in center as Bernie--perhaps more since the knee surgery, and a stronger arm. The first run would never have scored with Matsui in center, and the second and third might have been avoided, too. There's really no reason for Bernie to be in center field anymore, only loyalty and respect, but those things are best saved when you're not trying to win a championship. You go with your best team, and if you can show respect and be loyal at the same time, all the better. But you try to win, first.

If the Yankees lose this series--or really, any series--you can expect George to go bananas and clean house once more. Torre would assuredly be gone, perhaps Cashman as well (which would be foolish), and he'll try to spend all the money he can in the offseason. But what good will that do? Signing Vlad would be a great move, he hits and plays good defense, but it doesn't look like he wants to be in New York. George is more likely to go after someone like Gary Sheffield, who is a spectacular hitter, but is older and nothing special with the glove. They're putting weight on the wrong side of the scale with that move, they don't need more offense.

They could non-tender Boone, move Jeter to third and sign Kaz Matsui...but that is never going to happen, so let's stop talking about it. The Yankees have stuck themselves with a lousy defense, and that's what they've got to work with.

They can work with it, of course. There's no team in this year's playoffs particularly well-equipped to exploit the Yankees' defense by putting the ball in play a lot. Stuff like yesterday just happens sometimes, and it shouldn't be expected to happen again--just feared. Mike Mussina pitched great yesterday, and Felix Heredia did a pretty good job. Jeff Nelson came in for one batter in the eighth and served up his specialty: a walk on a 3-2 count.

What really lost the game for the Yankees was their hitting. It's not that they didn't hit--they got 9 base hits and three walks--it's that they didn't put those hits together until the ninth inning. They'll have to put together better games that that if they want to win, and while you don't want to rely on the home run, that's probably the most important thing the Yankees need to do, hit home runs. Fortunately for the Yankees, the two pitchers they're facing next gave up a combined 59 home runs this season. It's not going to be a feast for the Yankees--Radke was brilliant in September--but it's not by any means over.

The Twins played yesterday's game the way they have to if they're going to win this series. They didn't get to Mussina, but they got runs on the board, and they didn't walk many batters, and didn't give up home runs, and they got the game to their best relievers with the lead. I said yesterday that a short series usually turns on a lucky break, and Shannon Stewart's great catch on Hideki Matsui's drive in the ninth inning--an unlucky break for the Yankees--might be the play that wins the series for the Twins.

It's a tough loss, they're a third of the way towards elimination, but this isn't like the losses last year, or even the ones in the 2001 World Series. They lost a close game, but they weren't dominated. Nothing I saw yesterday makes me think that the Yankees are overmatched in anyway, and there's only one thing--the defense--that I can see from yesterday that might lose us the series. It's not time to panic, not yet. They should still win this series, and even if they lose tomorrow, they still can win this series. They just are making it a lot tougher on themselves, that's all.

* * *

Just for fun, here's the results of the Bill James Prediction System for the four Division Series:

New York 110, Minnesota 39
Oakland 104, Boston 25
Atlanta 82, Chicago 71
San Francisco 100, Florida 27

Don't read anything more into this than there really is, it's just a toy. Last year, it was 2-4 with 1 tie, and 0-3 in the Division Series. There's a discussion about it from Baseball Primer last season here, that outlines the many, many flaws in it. It's still fun, though.