Commentary

Yankees miss chance to close out series

A two-run lead with nine outs to go wasn't enough as Angels rally to force a Game 6

Originally Published: October 22, 2009
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Stacks of unopened champagne bottles and a growling media waited for the Yankees outside their clubhouse following Game 5.

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William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireThe Yankees allowed the Angels to score three runs in the seventh inning of Game 5, forcing the ALCS to head back to New York.

Based on the comments and pointed questions from reporters, New York manager Joe Girardi may receive plenty of criticism before Game 6 Saturday night for his decision to let starter A.J. Burnett pitch the seventh inning in Game 5 Thursday night. If so, it's unwarranted. You can't have it both ways, people. You can't rip Girardi for overmanaging Game 3 (as I most certainly did, as well) and then rip him for undermanaging in Game 5. Burnett had a 6-4 lead, had thrown only 80 pitches, had retired 10 of the previous 12 batters and faced the bottom of the Angels' order. If you don't stick with the starter in that situation, why did you sign him for $82.5 million?

"You know, if he was around 105 pitches, it's probably a different story," Girardi said. "But because his pitch count was low, he felt great, we stuck with him."

Besides, Burnett left with the lead. It was the bullpen that lost the game. Phil Hughes walked the first batter he faced, gave up a game-tying single to the second and a game-losing single to the third. And Girardi should have brought Hughes in earlier? Or the overrated Joba Chamberlain, who gave up a double and a single while retiring only one batter in the next inning? Please. Sometimes the blame goes to the players on the field, not the manager in the dugout.

"It's frustrating," Burnett said. "You pitch for these guys all year, you know what they're about, you're hoping they explode and they do, and then you do that."

Burnett dug the Yankees into a 4-0 hole before he retired his first batter in the first inning, then faced three batters over the minimum heading into the seventh. New York exploded for six runs in the top of the seventh, and if Burnett and the bullpen had held on, all the second-guessing would have been directed at Angels manager Mike Scioscia for taking out his starter that inning rather than Girardi for leaving his in.

That's what makes baseball interesting, though. And the way things turned out is good for baseball fans. Maybe not Yankees fans, but for everyone else.

Until the Angels rallied, this had been another disappointing postseason. Three of the four Division Series ended in sweeps and the other one went four games. The NLCS ended in five games. And with nine outs to go Thursday, it looked liked the Yankees, the richest team in baseball, would advance to the World Series again after just a five-game ALCS.

Yawn.

Sure, there have been some good games along the way. The Twins took the Yankees to extra innings once, the Phillies staged some dramatic late-inning rallies, and there was the whole Matt Holliday moment, but a postseason series can never be considered dramatic unless it nears a win-or-go home game for both teams.

We're still not there yet. The Angels merely forced a Game 6, and with the Yankees heading home to the Bronx, the Angels still face an enormous challenge, since even if they can reach a Game 7, CC Sabathia would start it on normal rest for New York.

But at least there's another game, a couple of days of spirited debate ("A.J. Burnett is not a true Yankee, not like Mr. Clutch, A-Rod") and a most intriguing storyline.

Remember the good old days, when it was the Red Sox who always collapsed in the end? Remember the cuticle-devouring tension and the underwear-changing finales they gave baseball back then? Well, now we have the "Will The Yankees Collapse Again?" plot. As you might have heard, in 2004 New York became the first team in baseball history to blow a 3-0 series lead in the postseason. Now there is the possibility they could blow a 3-1 lead.

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Rich Pilling/MLB Photos/Getty Images The Yankees hope the Angels don't follow the script the Red Sox did back in the 2004 ALCS.

"Going to Game 6, there's going to be pressure even with a lead," said Johnny Damon, who was on the other end of the situation in 2004 when he played for the Red Sox. "Anything can happen in baseball and that's why the fans talk about it and the players think about it. But what we need to have on our minds is to win another ballgame."

The Angels' victory, Damon said, "gives them a couple more days of hope and hopefully that hope ends on Saturday. Anything can happen, especially with the type of conditions we'll probably be playing in [the forecast for Game 6 in New York calls for rain] and they're definitely a step closer. But they still have to beat us in our place and hopefully that will be tough to do."

One minute the Yankees have a 3-1 lead in the series, a two-run lead in Game 5 and are stacking champagne bottles outside their clubhouse. The next, they're blowing a two-run lead and answering annoying questions from pesky reporters, and that series lead is down to 3-2 and no longer so safe after all.

The Yankees may very well wrap up the ALCS on Saturday, but for now the postseason is alive and finally interesting.

At the very least, it beats waiting around nearly a week for the World Series to start.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com