Game 1 started out well for the New York Yankees. It started out, in fact, exactly the same way Game 4 of the 2004 World Series started for the Red Sox: With Johnny Damon popping a home run. Then, after Cap'n Derek McClutch, correctly recognizing that this was not a clutch situation, popped out, Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez both walked, with Indians ace C.C. Sabathia throwing the ball all over the place. Cleveland fans were clearly nervous as Jorge Posada stepped in and Sabathia tried to recollect himself.
Then Sabathia overpowered Posada and Hideki Matsui stepped right up and helpfully grounded out. Inning over.
Then Chien-Ming Wang took the mound, and it all went to hell in a handbasket.
First he drilled Grady Sizemore, and then Asdrubal Cabrera went after a pitch he never should have touched and grounded into a double play. But Wang couldn't get that third out: Walk, single, single, walk, single, and three runs later, Wang was spared further carnage only by the generosity of Jhonny Peralta.
Now, it was clear by this point in the game that Chien-Ming Wang had nothing. This is one of the things no baseball team does that every baseball team absolutely ought to do: If it's obvious your starter has nothing, get him out of there! Especially in the playoffs, when you only need three starters, you have a couple of extra starters around that can soak up the innings. If your starter doesn't have anything, don't wait until the game's out of hand—get him out!
Right from the get-go, it was clear that there was something wrong with Wang. His calling card is his relentlessly pounding the bottom of the strike zone with his power sinker, but this night, everything was up in the zone, and Wang struggled mightily to get the ball to go where it was supposed to. The thing is, it doesn't necessarily mean Wang is hurt, or tired, or rusty, or anything like that. Some days, even the best in the world at some particular skill just don't have it. Some days the best dart-throwers in the world—throwing darts, like pitching, requires tremendous precision—will lose to any random guy, because they're just off, and there's no especially strong reason why. He was just off that day. The next day, he'll come out and forget how to miss the bullseye.
Pitchers are like that too. Today, a pitcher might have his best stuff and be nigh-unhittable, and then tomorrow he might only be OK, and then the next day he might have nothing and be unable to hit spots entirely. My point is, if the Yankees had pulled Wang right there, they could have sent out Phil Hughes—who is no slouch—and, if he doesn't have much either, just let him absorb a beating for Wang's sake. If Hughes does have his game, the Yankees offense is certainly good enough to overcome a 3-1 deficit. And then the Yankees could have simply sent Wang back out tonight for Game 2, and he might have come out much better, or at the worst, if they want to be conservative, use him in Game 3.
But the Yankees did what everybody does: Left Wang out there to see whether he could get it right. He couldn't. He survived the bottom of the Indians lineup in the second, aided by Grady Sizemore getting caught stealing; then gave up a bomb to Cabrera in the third and then struggled through the next two innings, the Indians being unable to quite get to him but Wang clearly fighting to control his pitches. After the Yankees pulled to within 4-3, the hinges finally fell off of Wang's efforts in the fifth, and when the dust had settled, this game was history.
Or at least, Joe Torre thought so. Torre finally got around to yanking Wang after Victor Martinez' bomb made it 6-3, Jhonny Peralta singled and then Cool Papa Lofton doubled him in. At that point, the Indians had a runner on second, two outs, and you're trailing 7-3. You really need to prevent any further runs from scoring, which means you need to use one of your better pitchers, if not Joba Chamberlain, then at least Luis Viczaino, to get Franklin Gutierrez out. What you don't want to do is use the last man on your pitching staff, some 25-year-old with six innings of major league experience to his name. In other words, not Ross Ohlendorf.
By sending Ohlendorf in, Joe Torre was conceding the game, writing it off and moving his attention to Game 2. And you can't help but think his players knew it. As Ohlendorf promptly yielded three more runs, you could see the Yankees mentally packing it in, and following their manager's lead, they looked decidedly disinterested as the Cleveland bullpen finished off the Indians' victory.
I'm not one to write anything scathing about the Yankees not playing like champions or not grinding it out to the very last out. The Yankees didn't lose because they didn't have the heart to hang tough; they lost because Chien-Ming Wang sucked and Joe Torre left him in way too long after that former fact had become obvious. But Torre failed to make the most of his roster and put his team in the best position to win a playoff game, and for that he should be held responsible. Once Torre waved the white flag in the fifth inning, you can hardly blame his team for doing the same.
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