- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Months ago, during a season heavy with the expectation of a 27th world championship or the consequence of failure and firings, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman attempted to distill the game to its least complicated element.
"Big-tool players win championships," he said. "You can say whatever you want about styles and philosophies, but so many times, and we've seen it time and time again, the game comes down to having impact players, and what those impact players do."
During the first act of the American League Championship Series, Cashman's edict has proven prescient. The Yankees are two victories from reaching the World Series and the Angels two losses from winter largely because the stars have dictated the action. CC Sabathia turned a high-energy opener into a languid affair, overpowering the Angels. As a team, the Yankees posted a 1.55 ERA against Minnesota in the Division Series, and in two games so far in the ALCS against the Angels the Yanks' ERA is 1.64. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez homered in Game 2; the former is hitting .300 for the LCS, the latter rewriting his enigmatic, fascinating legacy virtually with every at-bat.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Guerrero is hitting .182 without an RBI. Bobby Abreu is 0-for-9 with four strikeouts. Torii Hunter is hitting .333, but failed in his opportunities to deliver a mortal blow to the Yankees late in Game 2. Chone Figgins needed extra innings to get his first hit of the postseason. The Angels are hitting .154 for the series, and as good as Sabathia was in Game 1, they undermined themselves with costly mental mistakes.
The impact players of the Yankees -- at a $200 million payroll, they all seem to be impact players -- have been the difference makers of this postseason, far beyond the initial concerns of whether the Angels could thwart the Yankees with their unique, aggressive offensive style, or, yes, if the dreaded weather would be a determining factor. The big players at big moments have overwhelmed the entirety of the discussion.
The Angels are now home, and in a sense, may look at the first two games of the series as though they have lost nothing. The Yankees held serve, as all home teams expect to, and now with the next three games at Angels Stadium, Los Angeles can reverse the Yankees' momentum by winning the games in their building.
That is one way to look at it, and for the mental health of Angels manager Mike Scioscia and his players, likely the preference.
"So as far as what our mood is, we know this thing could turn in a heartbeat," Scioscia said on Sunday. "The momentum in a short series turns even pitch to pitch or inning to inning. So for us to come out here and play well in Game 3, obviously, that's important. And if we win Game 3, you know, we've got a different vibe in this whole series, and that's what we want to create."
But the Angels must know that instead of facing a 3-0 hole, this series should be tied. The Yankees do have that vintage and invincible look about them, but the Angels' nerves cost them in Game 1, and panic -- Maicer Izturis' hurried and ill-advised decision to try to start a daring double play in the bottom of the 13th inning -- cost the Angels in Game 2, even as the Yankees spent most of the night clawing to stay alive. The Angels could have mitigated the Yankees' talent advantage by winning the key points at the key moments in the series, one more important than the rest.
The Yankees put the winning run on second in the 10th when Erick Aybar failed to touch second on the front end of a 4-6-3 double play grounder by Jorge Posada -- a gutsy but correct call by second base umpire Jerry Layne (television replays showed Aybar clearly did not touch the bag before his relay throw to first).
In the top of the 11th, Alfredo Aceves walked Gary Matthews, Jr., who advanced to second on Aybar's redemptive sacrifice and a run-scoring flare to left by Figgins, who, also redeemed, stood at second base exalting.
And it was here where the Angels were poised to steal the game and the momentum in the series. They had shown toughness in the late innings, had come back from a 2-0 deficit and now led 3-2. As the series began, the Angels' greatest disadvantage against the Yankees was in their comparative bullpens: Oliver and closer Brian Fuentes against Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera. While both were good -- and Oliver excellent -- against Boston, asking them to close out a determined Yankees team is not an easy assignment.
But Oliver had pitched stoutly and was in line to be the winning pitcher.
Still, the Angels had an opportunity to finish the Yankees. With Figgins on second, Aceves walked Abreu to face Torii Hunter, who couldn't come up with a big hit, grounding into a 5-4-3 inning-ending double play.
Scioscia avoided using Fuentes though he could have used him for favorable matchups in the ninth and 10th, but now he entered to close out the game in the 11th.
Rodriguez led off, but was followed not by Hideki Matsui and Nick Swisher, but rookie Freddy Guzman (who ran for Matsui in the ninth) and Brett Gardner (who ran for Swisher in the seventh). Robinson Cano followed Gardner.
After Rodriguez, the left-handed Fuentes faced three left-handed batters. Guzman had six at-bats in the regular season, with one hit. For his career -- all 47 games of it -- he has 20 hits and 17 strikeouts.
Gardner, another rookie, notched his first-ever postseason hit an inning earlier, and Cano, whose two-out triple drove in the Yankees' first run of the game, was 1-for-4 lifetime against Fuentes.
Conventional wisdom says never walk the potential tying run, but of the three players that followed, Fuentes had a clear advantage, while Rodriguez -- already dangerous and playing with much to prove -- represented the only true home run threat.
But Fuentes challenged Rodriguez, throwing him a first-pitch fastball for a strike, and then another.
On his third pitch, Fuentes threw Rodriguez a mush fastball on the outer part of the plate, which Rodriguez crushed into the right-center-field seats, tying the game at 3.
Fuentes' pitch was inexcusable, and should the Angels fail to at least send this series back to New York, that one pitch will be the biggest reason the Angels' season came to an end.
The process deserves discussion. At no point was there a conversation on the mound to reiterate the situation. It is unclear if in the dugout, Fuentes was reminded that Rodriguez was no longer being protected by Matsui, but Guzman.
What is clear is that Fuentes made a colossal mistake, first by throwing a home run ball on an 0-2 count, and perhaps by pitching to Rodriguez in the first place.
"We're not in pitch selection once they get in the game. We're making adjustments between innings as far as what Butch [Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher] or I will do," Scioscia said Sunday. "That's totally between [catcher] Jeff [Mathis] and Brian, and Brian had the right ideas. There's a number of different things he can do on that count. We talked about execution all the time. Whatever your game plan is, if you're not able to go out there and make a pitch, obviously, the other team's going to get better swings and that's what happened in that case.
"Brian just didn't elevate it enough. And, Alex hit it. You know, it's -- I don't think it was a blatant mistake, it's just a pitch that he didn't quite get to the zone he wanted to. That's baseball. It happens. Give Alex some credit. He hit it."
There have been other wasted opportunities, and Scioscia knows this series is closer than the Yankees' 2-0 lead suggests. Following the Game 2 marathon, Scioscia was optimistic, focusing on the positives he saw on a cold and bitter night. Joe Saunders, who had terrible numbers against the Yankees' big guns, was terrific, beyond his seven innings of six-hit, two-run ball. Saunders had outpitched A.J. Burnett, even as it appeared that Burnett was on his way to a great night.
Instead, the Angels flustered Burnett, reduced him to a fastball pitcher -- indeed, his wild-pitch changeup to Guerrero with two outs in the fifth inning tied the game at 2-2 -- while Saunders got stronger, forcing the Yankees into ground-ball double plays in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings.
"We feel if we play at our level, we can beat them," Scioscia said. "And that's what we're going to keep focusing on."
For their part, the leaders keep leading the Yankees. Jeter, Damon and Rodriguez have as many total bases (16) in the first two games of the series as the entire Angels team. The Yankees have not been perfect: Teixeira is 1-for-10 in this series, 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, stranding 11 men. In the dugout, Yankees manager Joe Girardi's curious and formulaic use of his bullpen -- Joba Chamberlain, a starter all season, has been relegated to a situational pitcher, even in tie games -- seemed close to catching up with him as Game 2 progressed deep into the night and weaker Yankees pitchers found themselves pitching in big moments. As Game 2 descended into a war of attrition -- Cano's frightful error leading off the 13th nearly cost them the game -- the Yankees found an answer for everything.
"It's a good feeling as a manager," Girardi said. "And you're extremely proud of them that they have that feeling. Because you have been on clubs before -- I've been on clubs before that you don't have that success coming back, and it's not necessarily a great feeling in the dugout when you get behind."
"But as far as the manager, I'm very proud of how they go about their work. How they prepare themselves. And they have the ability to come back. A big part of that is the belief that you can come back, and they definitely believe."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.