Traders SportsXtra: Disaster or Deliverance for Joe Girardi and the Yanks

Could the unthinkable happen again?

Could the New York Yankees, one of the great sports franchises in history, let a "sure thing" in the post season get away from them again?

Tonight the pressure is on the Yankees, who were virtually conceded the World Series after their Game Four victory over the Phillies gave them a 3-1 edge. That’s normally an insurmountable lead in World Series history.

Girardi’s Gamble

But then, Yankees manager Joe Girardi, not a favorite among much of the New York media for supposedly over thinking the game, decided not to take the conservative route. He took a chance and let the unpredictable but highly talented A.J. Burnett start Game Five in Philadelphia on short rest.

The media critics asked why not take someone out of the bullpen for Game Five, say Chad Gaudin, and let Burnett pitch on normal rest in New York in Game Five? Girardi said Gaudin wasn’t an option because he hadn’t started a game in a month.

Still, the first guessing critics, among them WFAN Radio’s Mike Francesa, the Sports Pope, seem vindicated after the Yanks lost Game Five. Indeed, Burnett was awful. He hit guys. He walked the ballpark. He was constantly behind in the count. He couldn’t get out of the third inning.

The Yankees trailed by six runs and tried to fight back. But their pitching had put them in such a deep hole that they fell short in an 8-6 loss. 

The Fighting Phils

The Yankees, who had the champagne on tap, had given the fighting Phils a little spark of life. Why hadn’t Girardi let Burnett, an up and down pitcher who throws better at Yankee Stadium than on the road, rest and come back at Yankee Stadium for Game Six?

Critics also pointed out that, by only using three starting pitchers in the series, Girardi was also ensuring that the Yankees Game Six and possibly Game Seven pitchers would all be pitching on short rest.

Will Girardi’s much debated decision ultimately derail the Yankees’ effort to win a record 27th world championship? It is a decision that will only be a footnote if the Yanks win, but if they lose, he’ll never hear the end of it.

Could it trigger one of those rare occurrences in World Series history? I speak of a team down three games to one, virtually counted out, coming back to win after taking the last three games.

Some historically literate Phillies fanatics after Game Five started talking about the Yankees, the Yankees of 1958. They had come back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Milwaukee Braves, who foolishly made a lot of stupid comments about the Yankees lack of heart when they, too, seemingly had the series wrapped up.

Bullet Bob

That happened just before the Yankees ran off three straight World Series victories. They stole the series from the defending champs Braves (Ironically, they would do almost the same thing to a defending Series champ Atlanta Braves in 1996). The Yankees did it in 1958 thanks to the great Yankee hurler, "Bullet" Bob Turley. He pitched on short rest back in those prehistoric days when there was no such thing as a pitch count.

There was also the Pittsburgh-Baltimore World Series of the 1970s. That was one in which the Orioles let a three games to one lead get away from them. A similar thing happened to the New York Mets in the 1973 World Series against Oakland. With the Mets up three games to two, they could either pitch their ace, Tom Seaver, on short rest in game six or on full rest in game seven.

The Mets, or Seaver, opted for game six on short rest. The Mets lost both games six and seven. Oakland won another championship on its way to three consecutive World Series victories. That was a great accomplishment in the modern era–when players switch teams about as frequently as governments spend money, raise taxes and engage in endless social engineering, Big Brother experiments.

Pettitte Against Petey

Tonight the Yankees, in deference to the sanity and blood pressure of their fans as well as themselves, need to close the deal. Otherwise, this time tomorrow there will be endless stories about how the Yankees are about to choke; how the Yankees threw away every advantage known to any literate fan. Will they?

Once again, as in so many post-season games, the issue hangs on pitching, pitching and more pitching. Neither of these teams has pitched very well in the series so far. The exceptions, of course, are Cliff Lee for the Phils and the great Mariano Rivera and, to a lesser extent, C.C. Sabathia and Damasio Marte, for the Yanks. I think the Yanks are ahead at this point because their pitching has been a little less bad than the Phils.

Tonight the Phils have to go to the ancient but great Pedro Martinez, a first round Hall of Famer who is a pitching immortal. But "Petey" Martinez is old and fragile, as many Mets fans will tell you. Martinez signed a four-year big money contract with them after the 2004 season. All the Mets ever got out of him was one nice year.

Martinez pitched Game Two and was OK, but he was on the verge of blowing up several times. Despite all his greatness, he is a gamble. He is going on full rest. But given how fragile Petey is, full rest probably should be a week or a month.

Andy Pettitte?

He has had a very good career. He is 16-9 in the post season. But Pettitte hasn’t gone on short rest in years. And Pettitte was shaky but survived in his World Series start in Game Three. He went six innings and gave up four runs. He was just good enough that a great Yankee offense, backed by the magnificent Mariano, pitching two innings at the end of the game, was able to win the game.

November Baseball

Neither one of these starters reminds one of Sandy Koufax against Bob Gibson in their primes on a hot July day. And the weather could be a factor too. It’s projected to be in the 40s or less tonight. Baseball is supposed to be a warm weather sport in which players can easily get loose, throw balls and swing bats, not put on parkas and hoods.

That cold weather could make things harder for two old men pitching for baseball immortality–a World Series win. It could also affect fielding and throwing. We could see a repeat of the 1997 World Series between Cleveland and Florida. That’s when the three games played in Cleveland’s then new stadium, Jacobs Field, were affected by the wintry conditions.

The same could happen tonight at the new stadium in the Bronx. When will the Lords of Baseball realize that night games at the outset of the winter with temperatures in the 40s and maybe the 30s is not good for the sport?

Who Will Win?  

Conditions seem perfect for both of these offenses to put up lots of crooked numbers. The Yankees will have their superb designated hitter, Hideki Matsui, back. They will not be hamstrung by having to put in their no-hit, great fielding catching Jose Molina in order to cater to the needs of Burnett.

The Phillies have a great lineup and three lefthanders in the middle of it who can easily reach that friendly right-field porch at Yankee Stadium. I think this could be a crazy up and down game; a game in which neither team can stop the other from scoring and no one in the bullpen has time to send out for Chinese food.

It could be a rehash of the seventh game of the 1960 World Series when my beloved Yanks–I grew up on a hill in the South Bronx called Highbridge overlooking the Stadium–lost to the Pirates in seven games.

The Yankees then manager, Casey Stengel, like Girardi, also made a controversial, inexplicable pitching decision. He didn’t start his ace, Whitey Ford, in Game One so he wasn’t available in the crazy back and forth Game Seven. That’s when he might have clinched the series for the Yankees had he pitched in Game One when he should have. That decision is still talked about today, 49 years later.

That’s because baseball, more than any other sport, is history. And in World Series history the Yankees, seemingly threw away a World Series championship in 1960. Indeed, Mickey Mantle was in tears because he knew the Yankees had one in their grasp and let it get away.

In the wake of a crushing loss to an upstart Pirates team that had every excuse for losing to the mighty Bronx Bombers, Casey was canned. The excuse? He was too old, the Yankees said.

At his farewell news conference, he broke away from the script and sarcastically said, "I’ll never make the mistake of being 71 years old again." Yet, if he were 71 or 710, there was no way the Yankees would have dumped Stengel had he won.

If the Yankees lose tonight and tomorrow, Girardi wouldn’t be fired. He isn’t anywhere near 71. But, if the Yankees lose, Girardi, 49 years from now will still be answering questions about why he threw away a series.