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September 12, 2005

3 back, with 20 to go
by SG

After splitting the first two games of a three game set with the Red Sox behind a decent outing by Aaron Small and a lousy outing by Shawn Chacon, the Yankees faced their most important game of the season.

Trailing by four games in the division, and 1.5 games in the wild card, a loss to Boston today would have been crippling. Instead, the Yankees and Red Sox played what may have been the best game of the season. Randy Johnson, who has been inconsistent for the Yankees, vs. Tim Wakefield, who has often given the Yankees fits.

Johnson began the game in fine form, striking out Johnny Damon on his way to a scoreless first inning.

In the bottom of the first, Jason Giambi lifted a short fly ball that likely would have been an out in any other stadium over the 314 ft sign in the RF corner, and the Yankees took a 1-0 lead.

Johnson's fastball was thrown consistently from 94-97 mph and hitting 99 a few times, with a snapping slider in the 86-88 mph range. This was his best stuff of the season. He looked like a man posessed, snarling at the Boston hitters and the home plate umpire, as he basically played catch with John Flaherty for 7 innings, allowing just a soft single by Kevin Youkilis in the fourth, walking 2, and fanning 8. In Johnson's last four starts, he's pitched 28.1 innings, fanned 26, walked 6, given up just 4 runs, and 0 HRs, for a 1.27 ERA.

On the other side, Tim Wakefield was almost as good, despite throwing about 30 mph slower than Johnson. Wakefield pitched 8 dominating innings, allowing only 3 hits, walking just 1, and striking out 12.

A 1 run lead against a team as potent as Boston is hardly comfortable, which helped make this game dramatic and tense for eight great innings. When the Yankees failed to bring in Bubba Crosby from third with one out in the third, it looked like it would come back to bite them in the ass.

After 100 pitches, Joe Torre decided to pull Johnson for Tom Gordon. I personally would have stayed with Johnson, but it's possible that he was spent and without knowing how he was feeling physically it's tough to criticize this move(It turned out that Johnson had a cramp in his calf during the seventh inning, which means pulling him made sense). With Tony Graffanino, Doug Mirabelli, Bill Mueller, and potentially Gabe Kapler (3 righties, 1 switch-hitter) due up, it may have made sense to bring in a righty on the surface, but Boston had a stocked bench, with David Ortiz, Trot Nixon, and Jason Varitek all lurking.

Gordon gave up a leadoff single to Graffanino to start the 8th on a ball that just eluded a diving Alex Rodriguez. Surprisingly, Terry Francona stuck with Doug Mirabelli instead of going to one of his bigger bats. Mirabelli popped up on the infield, but no one caught it. The Yankee broadcasters speculated that it may have been intentional, as it allowed a forceout of the faster runner at second, but it just looked like no one took charge of the play to me and the Yankees were fortunate that they got a true hop that allowed them to make the play.

Bill Mueller then flew out for out number two, and the stage was set for one of those matchups that makes baseball my favorite sport. David Ortiz pinch-hit for Gabe Kapler. Ortiz has killed the Yankees in the past. This season he has hit 5 HRs against them in 63 AB, and over the last 4 years he's hitting .321/.380/.609 against them, with 14 HR and 43 RBI.

I'm never afraid to criticize Joe Torre when he makes the wrong move, so when he makes the right move, he deserves all the credit for it. Rather than take the chance of his second-best reliever making a bad pitch to Ortiz, and ignoring the inning, Torre went to his best reliever with the game on the line. Mariano Rivera came out to face Ortiz in what looked like the key point in the game. Rivera toed the mound against a man who may weigh twice as much as he does.

The first pitch was a cutter up and just in off the plate for ball 1. The second pitch was a 93 mph 4-seam fastball a bit higher and over the plate, called for ball 2. Pitch three was a 94 mph cutter down and in that Ortiz swung over for strike 1. Pitch four was another 94 mph fastball in the same spot as pitch two, for ball 3. Pitch five was a 94 mph cutter aroung mid-thigh that was fouled off. Pitch six was an up and in cutter that broke Ortiz's bat in half as he fouled it off, and pitch seven was a neck-high 96mph fastball that Ortiz laid off for a walk.

That brought up Johnny Damon, with the tying run on second and the go-ahead run on first. Rivera got ahead with a called strike, then missed with two balls, one away, one inside(Damon checked his swing on both). Damon fouled off two pitches before taking ball three. Damon fouled the next pitch straight back, then blooped a foul ball down the RF line that almost dunked in for a hit that would have at least tied the game, then pulled another foul down the line before finally grounding out to Jason Giambi on a broken bat to end the inning.

Rivera got the first two outs in the top of the ninth, before walking Manny Ramirez and allowing a single to Kevin Millar. That brought up former Yankee John Olerud with runners on the corners and two outs. Rivera got Olerud swinging to end it.

It was a great game. Unfortunately for the Yankees, due to their inconsistent play all year, particularly against inferior teams, it may not end up being as meaningful as it could have been. The Yankees' elimination number is now 18, which means any combination of Red Sox wins and Yankee losses totalling 18 will eliminate them from the division title. Cleveland is on fire, although hopefully some combination of Oakland and the White Sox will cool them off. The Yankees are basically at a point where they can't afford to lose. Winning 2 out of 3 against Boston was nice, but it would have been nicer if it followed the same feat against Tampa Bay.

At this stage of the season, worrying about what got the Yankees to this situation is pointless. With 3 more games against Boston remaining, if they can keep it within 3, they can still control their destiny. It would be nice to get Gary Sheffield and Mike Mussina back soon. The Yankees head to Tampa next, which shouldn't be a problem, but you just know it will be.