Commentary

Pitching Byrd, not Sabathia, only gives Yankees hope

Originally Published: October 7, 2007
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees beat the Cleveland Indians 8-4 in Game 3 of the American League Division Series knowing that The Boss, George Steinbrenner, was preparing his special guillotine for Joe Torre in the event of a season-ending loss.

AL DIVISION SERIES

Yankees-Indians
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Steinbrenner went on record before the game that he would fire Torre if the Yankees do not advance past Cleveland, a situation that is not new in New York. But Steinbrenner's public admission to Ian O'Connor in the Hackensack, N.J., Record further intensified an already-smoldering situation, what with the Yankees down two games and staring an explosive offseason in the face. The Boss has been looking for the right opportunity to fire Torre for years but has been unable to because Torre has the nerve to continue being successful in the most difficult place in sports to win.

Steinbrenner has never been quite comfortable with the high level of Torre's success and the respect he commands, for Torre is the only manager in Steinbrenner's 34 years as owner to transform his popularity into Kevlar even The Boss hasn't been able to penetrate.

Letting 'Em Play Another Day

Veteran right-hander Paul Byrd, rather than Game 1 starter C.C. Sabathia, is the Cleveland starter tonight as the Indians get Chance No. 2 to oust the host Yankees.

Indians' opportunities to eliminate opponents, since 1999
Series Matchup Outcome
'07 ALDS Game 3 at N.Y. Lost 8-4
'01 ALDS Game 5 at Sea. Lost 6-2
'01 ALDS Game 4 vs. Sea. Lost 3-1
'99 ALDS Game 5 vs. Bos. Lost 12-8
'99 ALDS Game 4 at Bos. Lost 23-7
'99 ALDS Game 3 at Bos. Lost 9-3

Torre handled the specter of his termination Sunday with class, as he always does, but if the Yankees somehow come back and win this series, it is Eric Wedge and Mark Shapiro, the Indians' manager and general manager, respectively, who should be fighting for their jobs. With the Yankees re-energized and at home, the decision to pitch Paul Byrd in Monday's Game 4 at Yankee Stadium instead of probable Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia on three days' rest might just turn out to be one the Cleveland organization regrets for years.

With Sabathia and Fausto Carmona -- who dominated the Yankees for nine innings in Cleveland's 11-inning, 2-1 win in Game 2 -- the Indians have the best pair of starters in the playoffs. They are the two pitchers no team wants to face, never mind having to beat them consecutively. They are the reason the Indians can win the World Series.

And when you have a chance to stamp out the Yankees, a team well-known for its ability to resemble the undead -- New York lost the first two games of the 2001 AL Division Series at home before winning three straight against Oakland, and the Yanks leapfrogged 10 teams after May 29 to make the playoffs this season -- you have to take it.

We're going to move forward just as we had planned. Byrdie will be on the mound [Monday], and we'll go from there. ... We knew we were going to need four starters if it went that far here in the series, and that's where we're at.

--Indians manager Eric Wedge

Wedge already has dodged one bullet, for if not for the biblical swarm of Lake Erie midges Friday night, the Yankees might have beaten the Indians and be playing to clinch the series Monday.

But the manager apparently likes to play with fire because he has Sabathia in his pocket with a chance to avoid even the possibility of a fifth game in Cleveland, where Carmona provides comfort but anything is possible in a winner-take-all situation. Just call Jake Peavy, who will win the Cy Young this year in the National League, and ask him about last week's one-game playoff with Colorado.

"We're going to move forward just as we had planned. Byrdie will be on the mound [Monday], and we'll go from there," Wedge said of Byrd, who is 0-3 with a 6.86 ERA in his past four starts against the Yankees. "You know, it's where we are. We knew we were going to need four starters if it went that far here in the series, and that's where we're at. That's what we're going to go with."

Maybe it will not turn out this way. Maybe Byrd will pitch the game of his life and eliminate the Yankees, allowing Carmona and Sabathia to pitch the first two games of the ALCS against the Red Sox. Or maybe it is more important for Wedge to have the seemingly unstoppable combination of Sabathia and Carmona available -- similar to Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson in relief in the 2001 World Series -- in the event of a Game 5 in Cleveland.

Many Yankees were expecting Sabathia, though, and his not being on the mound only further emboldens a suddenly dangerous team.

Still, Wedge knows his team, and it is always dangerous to second-guess a manager who won 96 games. The recent history of starting a pitcher on three days' rest also is not especially good. Just ask Ted Lilly about when he took the mound for the Cubs in Game 2 against Arizona. Wedge is not panicking. He believes in his team. Sabathia threw 114 pitches in five innings in Game 1, and he has pitched on three days' rest but once in his career.

At first, it appeared Wedge's strategy was to set up his rotation for the ALCS against the Red Sox that starts Friday night. But even if Sabathia started, he would be available on normal rest for Game 2 in Boston. Thus, Wedge & Co. simply do not want to veer from convention.

But not going for the jugular now is risky.

C.C. Sabathia
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesIndians ace C.C. Sabathia will pitch only if there's a Game 5 in Cleveland.

Even during this modern era of baseball when pitch counts and matchups supersede heart, there are elements to greatness that cannot be easily qualified, and one of those elements is a pitcher's taking the ball at a big moment and carrying his team. This is what Hall of Fame pitchers do. It is this -- and not mere win totals -- that makes a pitcher an ace. Sabathia has been that kind of pitcher this year. He is a difference-maker.

Sandy Koufax won Game 7 of the 1965 World Series against Minnesota on two days' rest. Koufax pitched a 2-0 shutout over the Twins on the road. If you prefer your memories in HD instead of Technicolor, Josh Beckett won the 2003 World Series on three days' rest, shutting out the Yankees 2-0, in Yankee Stadium. Derek Lowe did likewise, starting Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS at Yankee Stadium on two days' rest.

Were Sabathia merely a good pitcher who won a lot of games this season but lacked the sufficient ace mentality, Wedge and the Indians would be justified in being cautious.

But Sabathia is a franchise pitcher, and the Yankees are a dynasty for a reason. They trailed 3-0 when Roger Clemens limped off of the mound after two innings Sunday night, but they got off the mat. For the first two games and four innings of this series, the Yankees did not string together consecutive hits. They hit into three double plays in the first four innings while the Indians seemed to grow stronger. Then, the Yankees exploded, courtesy of a Johnny Damon three-run homer that turned a 3-2 deficit into a 5-3 lead. Now, they believe they can win. Byrd's pitching instead of fearsome Sabathia gives the Yankees even more hope that they can push this series back to Cleveland.

And hope is the first thing every team needs to take from its opponents. Wedge and Shapiro just gave some back to the Yankees.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.

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