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October 19, 2003

Letdown: Florida 3, New York 2
by Larry Mahnken

I don't know about anyone else, but for the first few innings of last night's game, it didn't feel like the World Series. Obviously, when your team has been in the World Series 6 times in the past eight seasons, you do get used to the way the games feel. But this was different, almost like a mid-summer game against Toronto, and it didn't feel like winning was that important.

It was, to use a sports cliche, a letdown. There was no way that last night's game could match the emotional high of Thursday, and it was almost as though my emotions shut down for a couple of days, knowing that if I allowed myself to invest myself emotionally in the outcome I could only be disappointed, and hurt, because it couldn't match the joy of Thursday.

Maybe the Yankees to a degree felt the same way, or maybe some of them did, but I doubt it. I criticize Joe Torre's in-game decision making incessantly, but he's an exceptional manager of men, and there is no doubt in my mind that he, and Derek Jeter, reminded the team on Friday that beating Boston was not what they're getting paid for. There is still more work to be done.

They didn't get the job done last night, falling 3-2 to Brad Penny, Dontrelle Willis and a predictably shaky Ugueth Urbina. There is plenty of criticism to go around--and believe me, I'll get to it--but the failures of the team last night was not because they came out flat. They just plain failed.

Florida was pretty lucky to win last night, which is not to say that they didn't play well--they played excellent baseball--but that the formula they followed last night is not one that's likely to win them this series. They will have to play better than they did, and differently than they did to win, and they likely will. But getting a few bloop singles, bunting runners matter what Joe Morgan thinks, if that's how they play this series, they're going to have to shut the Yankees' offense down every game to win, and they still might lose. It's not how they beat San Francisco, and it's not how they beat Chicago.

But it is how they beat the Yankees last night, and a win from a bad formula counts the same as a win with a good formula--and more than a loss with any formula. Brad Penny was surprisingly strong, and the Yankees' failed to come through with the big hit in several situations. But they did create those situations, and ultimately, it should pay off. They just have to hope that Florida hasn't stolen a couple more games before it does.

But then again, the Yankees have seemed unable to get the big hit all season long. I think a large part of that has to be lineup construction, particularly the insistence of Joe Torre in batting Bernie Williams cleanup, which might be more ridiculous than Soriano batting leadoff. Coming off of knee surgery, Bernie has hardly displayed any power this season--last night's home run was only his 4th extra base hit this postseason, he's only slugging .422--but he's still getting on base at a decent rate, because he still has an excellent eye.

Torre made a bold move in dropping Jason Giambi to the seventh spot for Game Seven on the ALCS, and it was, in my opinion, a good move, getting Giambi out of pressure situations, so he wouldn't hurt the team as much if he failed. He didn't fail, he hit two home runs off of Pedro Martinez.

But rather than bring Giambi right back up to the third spot, he left him batting seventh. If he was doing it just because "it worked" it would be silly, but the reasoning that it was only one game, and he may not be out of his slump yet tells you that it's probably not an awful move to leave him there. I'd still move him back up, but Torre's decision is defensible.

But his decision to leave Soriano and Williams where they are is not. Williams isn't hitting for any power, and his singles are moving runners from first to third rather than bringing them home, leaving it up to other people to finish the job. The Yankees would be better served moving Bernie up in the lineup, where his ability to get on base makes him a better asset, and the people who are capable of moving people up will get more opportunities to do so.

Soriano, on the other hand, isn't doing anything. He's not hitting for power, he's not hitting at all. He's not getting on base. He's not moving runners up. He's not making things happen. He's been worthless this October.

So, of course, let's give him more plate appearances than anyone else on the team. No better way to start the game than with an out. On one pitch.

Leaving him batting leadoff is insane. While he's ice cold like this, he's killing the team, and when he's hot, a lot of his value is wasted. Michael Kay may marvel at all of Soriano's leadoff home runs, but I look at every one of those HRs as a lost opportunity. Had Soriano been batting lower in the order, perhaps someone would have been on when he hit those. For some of them, at least, someone would have been.

It's obvious that Soriano is lost at the plate, looking for fastballs in the strike zone. Throw him a changeup in the zone, he'll swing and miss, throw him a breaking ball that leaves the zone, he'll swing and miss. Throw him one that breaks into the zone...he'll take it for a strike. He's looking for heat over the plate, and nobody's that stupid, he's not going to get it.

And yet, he keeps batting leadoff. Because Torre thinks that there's a real psychological advantage to a leadoff home run (scoring the first run of the game isn't any more important than scoring the second one), thinks that speed on the bases is important high in the order (it isn't), and that he doesn't have a better leadoff option (he has at least three). I don't expect it will ever do any good, but I'm going to keep saying it: batting Soriano leadoff is idiotic.

Well, it's one game, I'm not too worried right now. Andy Pettitte's a lefty, but should do fine against the Marlins tonight, and Mark Redman doesn't really scare me. I think they'll win this one.

* * *

MLB has a rule that an umpire can't work consecutive postseason series. I'm not sure why, but I suppose it's in the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the umpires. MLB also doesn't assign umpires by performance, and the umpires are fighting MLB's use of the Questec system to evaluate calls of balls and strikes.

I've never been in favor of an electronic ball and strike calling system. I like the human element in the game, and arguing a close call is fun. But then there's this:

I don't know if you can pick up the ball in that picture, it's the faint white streak just to the left of Posada's right shoe. That was the pitch called strike two with two outs in the eighth inning with runners on first and third. That ball was not a strike. It wasn't anything close to being a strike. It was at least six inches off of the plate--I measured it. It showed up better on TV, but take a close look at the faint white line under the white streak: IT WAS IN THE BATTER'S BOX.

Now, if that was outside, I suppose I could accept that. The umpire is seeing it from the side, not straight on, so missing by a few inches is understandable. But take a look at Randy Marsh's head. It's right over the inside of the plate, right where it should be. The key to this is that from his perspective--right on the inside boundary of the strike zone, the pitch was to his right. And not a tiny bit to his right, it was to the right of his entire head. Visualize yourself back there, a 100 mph fastball coming in, all you see is a fraction of a second, a white streak. Visualize yourself standing right where Randy Marsh is standing, and how the pitch would look from that perspective.

There's no way you could call that a strike. But Marsh did, probably because he decided that he was going to call his own strike zone last night, and that it was going to be 12 inches wider than the plate.

And some would say that as long as both teams get the same strike zone, then it's fair. First of all, it's not fair--it's unfair to the batters, it's simply unfair to the batters on both teams. Secondly, it's not the umpire's job to decide what is or isn't fair, it's the umpire's job to enforce the rules, period. It's the job of the rules to make things fair, and what the rules have determined is that it is fair to both the batters and the pitchers for the strike zone to be from the batter's knees to his letters, and over the plate.

My regular job is making bagels. There are three requirements for a bagel to be a bagel. It has to be round with a hole in it, it has to be boiled, and it has to be baked. If I decided to ball the bagels up, they wouldn't be bagels, they'd be balls of bagel dough, boiled and baked. And I'd lose my job. If I decided to bake them and not boil them, they'd look like bagels, but they wouldn't be chewy inside, and they wouldn't be bagels. And I'd lose my job. If I decided to boil them and not bake them, well, they'd be soft rings of dough, and that wouldn't be very appetizing. And I'd lose my job.

But if an umpire decides to redefine something as clearly defined as what a strike is, he doesn't get fired. Or reprimanded. Or, if the umpires had it their way, even told that he's doing it wrong. No, he gets to work the World Series.

I'm not bitching that this call cost us the game, it didn't. If called properly, the count would have been 3-1 on Posada with two outs and two on, and Posada did strike out one pitch later, but you don't know what would have happened. he might have walked, and Giambi would have made an out. The Yankees have had bad calls go there way before, that's not the point. Sometimes an umpire makes a mistake--like when a 12-year old kid interferes with a fly ball and the ump calls it a home run--but that happens. It's not a redefining of the rules, but rather an error. But what umpires do behind the plate is redefine the rules to suit their own whims. They're not calling a ball six inches off the plate a strike because they made a mistake and didn't see that it was a ball, they're doing it because they've decided that's how they want it to be. They've decided that they'd rather just boil the bagels, and skip the baking. And that's not only wrong, it's inexcusable.