Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Yankee steals the show

It’s a dog-eat-dog world, that ain’t no lie, but despite the world’s tendency toward chaos and trouble, a measure of the natural order has been restored. The world has made a shift towards its proper axis: The New York Yankees are once again the kings of the baseball hill, having won the World Series on Wednesday night, defeating the Philadelphia Phillies in six games, 4-2, in front of delirious fans at the new Yankee Stadium (“Now it’s Home,” one sign in the stands read).

The Boston Red Sox watched it all from home. Life is good.

The so-called Core Four — Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettite and Mariano Rivera — were reliable as clockwork. The unflappable, Obama-calm Pettite pitched a gem on three days’ rest; and Rivera, the best closer in the history of the game, shut the door on the Phillies decisively.

But maybe it was days earlier, during Game 4 on Sunday in Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, when you could sense the outcome. With one play in that game, one player’s daring WTF exercise of smarts and guts in the enemy’s house, the axis of possibility shifted. For good.

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The outcome of the duel of one pivotal at-bat in that game confirms for me a long-held suspicion: The longer an at-bat goes on, the more it favors the batter. Even the best major-league pitchers tend to have a limited, if powerful, repertoire. Most of the best don’t dabble in exotica for very long; they tend to rely on one or two of their best pitches: a reliable fastball; a solid curveball or maybe a slider.

So the longer a batter can hang in against a pitcher, the likelihood increases that the batter will see everything the pitcher’s got in his arsenal. Sooner or later, a pitcher’s prowess is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Sooner or later, the batter will make adjustments for the one or two specialty pitches coming his way.

It happened on Sunday. The Phillies were one out from cutting the Yankees lead in the Series to 3-2. Phillies reliever Brad Lidge pitched to Jeter, who struck out. Then Lidge pitched to Johnny Damon, who worked Lidge to nine pitches, battling back from being down 1-2, hitting four foul balls before slapping out a single to left field. The tying run was aboard, and Damon got there after making the necessary adjustments. Nine of 'em in a row.

Next up: left-handed Yankee Mark Teixiera.

Apparently anticipating Teixiera’s tendency to fly out to right field, the Phillies had already shifted the outfield in that direction. A lot.

The usually stellar Phillie shortstop Jimmy Rollins moved from his position over to the right of second base. Third baseman Pedro Feliz moved near to Rollins’ usual position.

Lidge threw a slider to Teixiera, and pretty much conceded Damon second base.

What happened a literal eyeblink after Damon took second base is already being hailed as the smartest move in the history of the World Series. You can debate that; it was inarguably a daring and unprecedented display of opportunism, the kind of bare-handed grab for the possible that New Yorkers take to their hearts forever:

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Damon swiped second base directly behind Feliz, paused for a moment, bounced up — and headed for third base. He should’ve have been dead meat for Feliz … if only Feliz was covering third base. He wasn’t. Where was catcher Carlos Ruiz? Where was Rollins? Where the hell was Lidge? Where was anyone? Except for Lidge, they were all holding court on the right side, anticipating Teixiera. Third base was completely unoccupied; you could have landed a 747 in the space between home plate and deep left field.

Feliz tried to engage Damon in a foot race, but there was nobody on the other end for Feliz to throw to. In that three or four seconds, the arc of the game changed completely. The Phillies had just witnessed something never done before in a Series, maybe never done in the history of the professional game: John David Damon swiped two bases on the same pitch. Hell, not even Jackie did that.

Ken Burns, where are you now that we need you?

Rattled, Lidge hit Teixiera a few pitches later. And then it was A-Rod time. Alex Rodriguez, hungry for his first ring (and a man who loves the dramatic moment), hit a double that gave the Yankees the lead. Posada singled in two more runs for insurance.

Rivera, about as automatic as the sunrise, put down three Phillies in succession. And that was that: Yankees 7, Phillies 4. Ultimately, more accurately, that was That.

The power of Game 4 was undeniable. But it must be said: The heroics of Yankee Hideki Matsui in Game 6 can't be underestimated. Matsui tied a World Series record for RBIs (6, same as Bobby Richardson), coming through with clutch hits at key moments to become the World Series MVP, the first Japanese-born player to be so honored. It's not clear whether Matsui will be back; he became a free agent with the last out of the Series, and there's been speculation that he could join his friend Ichiro Suzuki on the Seattle Mariners. If that's true .... whew ... what a way to go.

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The Phillies will never admit it; you could waterboard everyone on that team and they wouldn’t admit it. But the Damon sprint was a dagger to the psyche, a blow to a team mentality no doubt already shaken by the daunting prospect of having to win two in Yankee Stadium during the Fall Classic, the Event That Yankees Built. They won one more at home to keep it interesting, or at least respectable. But a play like Damon’s has a way of chewing the heart out of a team’s resolve. In some ways, the World Series ended that night.

The game of baseball often pivots on a scale of inches: the inches between a strike and a ball, the inches between a foul ball and a fair one; the inches between a ground-rule double and a home run. This World Series had its climax by a bigger distance: the 90 feet between second base and third, and the miles of nerve that Johnny Damon summoned at exactly the right time.

That’s a moment that’s instantly become Yankee lore. If you love the game, you know it’s a moment to be saved, recorded, TiVoed, recounted from now until the world ends. And if you love the Yankees (and who wouldn’t tonight?), you know it’s a moment that’ll wear pinstripes, forever.

And the Boston Red Sox watched it all from home. Life is good.
Image credit: The New York Yankees: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times. Damon: Fox Sports. Damon and Feliz: Keivom/New York Daily News. Matsui: AP Photo.


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