We Came Out West Together With a Common Desire
After spending two days in Austin, Texas to start my work week, I was happy to be coming home to Boston. Since I was on a Jet Blue flight from Austin to Boston last night, replete with leather seats and television screens, I was even happier since I would be able to watch Game 4 of the ALCS. The FOX telecast started as we took to the skies.
I had the option of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver or my iPod, and having spent 48 hours or so in Austin, maybe the best music city in the country, you can understand why I might not have been eager to ditch the tunes for the telecast. Emmylou Harris was playing and as the game was about to start, the cameras cut to Derek Jeter and the Yankee bench. Emmylou belted out "We came out west together with a common desire." Two More Bottles of Wine was playing, and two more wins was all the Yankees needed to advance to their first Fall Classic since 2003.
The Yankees are ridiculously talented, without a doubt the best team in baseball based on their performance in 2009. That guarantees you nothing in the post-season, but it should be said. The Angels are also excellent, probably the second best team in baseball. I note these things because when you boil a game down, you can never set aside pure talent. Alex Rodriguez can hit. C.C. Sabathia can pitch. That's a lot of your Game 4 story right there.
But for me, looking a bit further, this game came down to Scott Kazmir's inability to command his off-speed stuff, and an excellent Yankee approach that seemed to be predicated on an understanding that Kazmir might struggle to command his off-speed stuff. For the latter, credit the Yankees advance scouting effort. What makes Kazmir so tough, however, is that he commands his fastball exceptionally well. The Yankees game plan seemed to be to bear down with their pitch recognition, pick up the fastball and attack it, and whenever possible let the braking ball pass. Chances are it will be a ball anyway.
To start the game, Jeter saw a fastball at the knees on the outside corner - a terrific pitch. On the next offering, another fastball, Jeter was ready and he muscled a base hit to right field. Jeter would be picked off, Johnny Damon would ground out and Mark Teixeira would come to the plate with two outs and nobody on. If you're a baseball fan, like you really really love the game within the game, you loved last night's Kaz/Tex match-ups.
In his first at-bat against Kazmir, Tex worked the count to 2 and 2. Kazmir then rolled a loose change-up to about 56 feet for ball 3. It was 3-2 and Tex knew what he was looking for. He crushed two inside fastballs foul. He was just a tick off. With nobody on base, Kazmir thought he would try his hand at a breaking ball. Sure enough, Tex was taking but Kaz managed to find the plate for strike 3. Tex walked confidently back to the dugout, like he knew that given his approach for the evening, what had just transpired was precisely the downside he had already calculated. Kazmir was out of the first inning.
The Yankees patience was on display once again in the second. A-Rod worked an easy walk after watching a few breaking pitches pass for balls. Jorge Posada owned Kazmir his first time up, almost laughing to himself as Kazmir's breaking pitches landed nowhere near the strike zone. After A-Rod stole easily - another advance scouting triumph given the jump he had - Posada worked a walk. Kazmir would settle down and induce three consecutive lazy fly balls to get out of the inning but still, the formula was clear for the Yanks. Wait out the soft stuff, pounce on Kazmir's fastballs that catch too much of the zone.
Teixeira would come to bat once again in the third with Damon on first. He got up 2-0 after watching two Kazmir fastballs go by for balls. Kaz then was the beneficiary of a gift called strike on a hanging breaking ball that looked both high and outside. Now it's on between these two again. Kaz lets a fastball go a little high and away and Tex, sitting on it, swings through it. He usually won't chase, but that's a pitch he wanted. Now, at 2-2, Kazmir could use some of his opponent Sabathia's command. Instead he bounces another slider to 57 feet or so. The count goes to 3-2 and as a result of the wild pitch, in a scoreless game with two outs, Damon advances and is now in scoring position. On the 3-2, Teixeira sits dead-red on a fastball and to his credit, Kaz breaks off his best pitch of the night; a hard cutter/slider that dives right into Tex's kitchen. He swings over it. Strike 3. Again, Tex had the exact right approach but Kazmir made a pitch. No sign of frustration or disappointment this time around either for Teixeira. He knew what he was up against tonight.
Kazmir's command struggles came to a head in the 4th. A-Rod worked Kazmir over a bit and then roped a single. After watching off-speed pitch after off-speed pitch bounce to the plate in his first plate appearance, Jorge Posada came to the plate a step ahead of Kazmir. The lefty thought he would change up his approach with Posada and started him with a fastball. Posada was all over it and ripped a double down the left field line.
Again, a moment that makes baseball so great. Hideki Matsui comes up with two ducks on the pond and with Kazmir on the ropes, Matsui promptly takes two sharp sliders for strikes. Had Kazmir commanded his off-speed like this all night, who knows what this series looks like this morning? Even better, on the 0-2, Kazmir busts Matsui in with a fastball he feebly offers at. A quick punch out. After a Robinson Cano fielder's choice that plated A-Rod, now it's Nick Swisher. And again, he works a tough at-bat and gets to a full count. Kazmir tries the inside slider that he got Tex with in the 3rd but misses badly. Ball 4, bases loaded. Again, the off-speed command evades Kazmir.
Now it's Melky, the one mediocre hitter in baseball's best lineup. Seemingly sick of letting hitters get away from him by offering poor breaking pitches, Kaz starts with two fastballs for strikes. Then, like the football team that runs twice on the goal line and then predictably goes play action on 3rd down, Kazmir rolls a crappy breaking ball to the plate. No way Cabrera was going to swing at that, yet another bouncer. After fighting two pitches off, Melky then delivers a base hit that scores two more Yankee runs.
The 4th was Kazmir's undoing. The rest of the game was all about Sabathia pitching lights out and the Yankees tatooing the dregs of the Halos bullpen. Sabathia commands all of his pitches and notably, in stark contrast to Kazmir, after bouncing a breaking ball to the plate on a 1-1 pitch to Torii Hunter in the 6th, Sabathia kicked the dirt on the mound. That pitch, the hard breaking ball bouncer that Kazmir must have featured a dozen times, is entirely unacceptable to C.C. I am not sure there's much difference between Sabatia and Kazmir's stuff. There's a world of difference between their command and control.
The Yanks would cruise to a win, thanks to their approach at the plate. They knew Kazmir's strengths and weaknesses and with an approach content to let his rare well-placed breaking balls beat them, wore down the talented Angels lefty. Now they're two games up, and one game from fulfilling that common desire they came out west to fulfill.