Commentary

It gets late early in the Bronx

Yankee Stadium is a tough place to win close and late. Can the Rays stand the heat?

Updated: May 19, 2010, 6:14 PM ET
By Mark Simon | ESPNNewYork.com

"Baseball Tonight" analyst and former New York Yankees manager Buck Showalter will frequently bring up on our show that the true measure of a closer is the ability to finish close games on the road, because those are the toughest games for a big league pitcher to try to end. It stands to reason that you could extend that to teams, as well. Winning tight games on the road is tough, as the Boston Red Sox found out the past two days.

Home teams do well in those games because they have all kinds of advantages, most notably batting last. Road teams have a lot to deal with besides that -- being on the road itself, dealing with loud, harsh crowds, and perhaps the occasional close call that doesn't go their way (studies have shown that home teams strike out less and walk more). That was evident last season when the Yankees had one of their best seasons ever for walk-off wins.

On Monday, Yankee Stadium's famed "mystique and aura" chewed up baseball's best road closer, Jonathan Papelbon, when the Yankees struck for four runs in the ninth inning to win. Then Papelbon came back to squeak through the ninth inning with a walk-the-tightrope effort on Tuesday.

Papelbon's not the only one to ride the Yankee Stadium roller coaster. Many have tried and failed in their attempts to match the original ultimate road closer, Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, who famously came out of the St. Louis Cardinals' bullpen to close Game 7 of the 1926 World Series by getting the last seven outs in a one-run game (including a bases-loaded strikeout of Tony Lazzeri) against a legendary lineup at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees are an incredibly difficult team to beat in a close game in their ballpark, the product partly of an extraordinarily offense that is both patient and potent, and partly because they have a dominant closer of their own in Mariano Rivera. They're tough because, after all, they're the Yankees.

[+] EnlargeRivera
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesHere's one reason the Yankees are tough to beat in close games.

From 1995 to 2009, the Yankees won nearly 64 percent of their home games decided by one or two runs, second best in baseball behind only the San Francisco Giants. The typical major league home team won a little more than 57 percent of those games in the 15-year span.

Scale that back to the past five years, and the Yankees (64.5 percent) are third best, behind their primary foes, the Tampa Bay Rays (65.4) and Red Sox (65.1). What does that mean from a practical perspective?

Over a season, a team will typically play around 37 home games decided by two runs or fewer. That's a little less than a quarter of their schedule. If the Yankees play that many, history indicates that they'd go 23-14 or 24-13, while the average team would probably go 21-16.

So the Yankees' historical "skill" in close home games (Tuesday notwithstanding) could be worth two to three wins in the standings, if you buy into the idea that this is not luck, but something that carries over from year to year. This year the team that is best in winning close home games could make all the difference in the American League East.

Teams that can win close road games consistently are very rare. The only team in baseball to have a winning record in one/two-run road games over the past five years is the Los Angeles Angels, and much of that run of success came from when Francisco Rodriguez was at his best. They couldn't get it done in close games in the Bronx last postseason.

That brings us to the Yankees' current opponent, the Rays, who have matched them step-for-step all year and look to be their most formidable AL foe. But the big test for Tampa Bay starts tonight when it will try to figure out not just how to win in New York, but how to get the final three outs there.

The Rays have done so in other locales, winning four of six road games decided by two runs or fewer this season. That kind of mark was the difference between their success in 2008 (21-18 in "close" road games) as compared to 2009 (14-26).

The 2010 Rays are banking a lot of chips on Rafael Soriano being the guy who can finish the close ones, but they're relying on a very small body of work against a Yankees team with a large body of success.

Last season, his first healthy one as a full-time closer for the Braves, Soriano was a perfect 10-for-10 at home, but on the road, he was 17-for-21 (81 percent), and walked batters at a rate of four-per-nine innings. Combine that with prior issues with home runs (he allowed six in 37 2/3 road innings for the Braves in 2007, four in 36 innings in 2009) and that's a formula for being eaten by the Yankee Stadium wolves.

But we counter that with three pieces of information, drawing from Soriano's minimal experience.

•  Soriano is 6-for-6 in road save chances this season, and opponents are hitting just 2-for-23 against him in road games.

•  Soriano has pitched in a tie game or with a one-run lead in the Bronx three times (albeit never in the ninth inning). In those three, all in 2006 or prior, he got 12 outs and allowed only one baserunner, and that was via an error.

•  Current Yankees are 4-for-19 against Soriano (Mark Teixeira is 2-for-5).

The numbers become moot, though, when we hone in on the question: Can Soriano finish the deal like the Papelbon of Tuesday, and not the one of Monday? It's cliché to say it, but that's why you play the games.

Of course, the Yankees may never see Soriano if one of two things happen -- if Tampa's starters pitch like Josh Beckett did in the 2003 World Series, in which case your end-gamers are the likes of David Price or Matt Garza, who have big-game finishing experience from beating Boston in the 2008 American League Championship Series.

Or if the Rays do what they've done all season -- win with a cushion, a la the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS. Tampa Bay is 11-2 in road games decided by at least three runs, a mark that can offset any team's home-field edge, if maintained for a full year.

Mark Simon is a researcher for "Baseball Tonight" and a frequent contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.

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