Since the Division Series was first played in 1995, the Yankees have won Game 1 six times, and lost it five times. All five times they lost they ended up winning the series, only twice did they win the series after winning the first game—both of those wins came in sweeps.
Didn’t I write this last year? Yes, yes, this is all very familiar. Just like last year, the Yankees took control of Game 1 early and held on for the win, then lost a two-run lead halfway through the second game. Bobby Abreu is scheduled to run over Johnny Damon in right-center sometime Sunday afternoon.
If the Yankees eventually lose this series, they lost it in the early innings of yesterday’s game. They lost it when Derek Jeter, fresh off an MVP-worthy season and a 5-5 Game 1, tried to lay down a bunt on the first pitch he saw, instead popping up to Ivan Rodriguez. They lost it when they failed to bring home a single run with runners on first and second and nobody out in the second inning. In each of the first three innings of the game, the Yankees got the leadoff runner on. They should have scored at least one run over the three innings, they could have scored several. They could have put the game, and the series, away in the first few innings. Instead, they didn’t score until Damon’s two-out three-run homer in the fourth, and that was it.
You wanna blame Alex Rodriguez? Fine, blame A-Rod. He did strike out with the bases loaded in the first—but he struck out on two unhittable fastballs over the inside part of the plate and a spectacular curveball that started inside and broke into the strike zone. Gary Sheffield, on the other hand, who has done less to help the Yankees win a postseason series than A-Rod has, struck out two times himself, also stranded three runners, and killed a potential rally in the third with a double play. The upshot of moving A-Rod to the sixth spot in the lineup is that when he’s failed, it’s after those in front of him failed first. He didn’t help them yesterday, but it’s not his fault they lost.
You want to say the Yankees’ great lineup got shut down by great pitching? If you’re talking about the bullpen, you’d be right, but Justin Verlander, a very good pitcher, gave up 11 baserunners in just over five innings. Mike Mussina pitched better than him, but the difference was that Verlander’s opponent let him off the hook. Mussina’s didn’t.
The Tigers made up for Tuesday’s blown opportunities by not wasting the opportunities they got from Mussina yesterday. Five times the Tigers got a runner to second base, and they brought him home three times. But for horribly executed and poorly thought-out two-out bunt single attempt by Craig Monroe in the fifth, there were no real mistake by the Tigers on the offensive side of the ball. They didn’t try to “make things happen” like they did in Game 1, thus costing themselves great scoring opportunities that could have panned out without trying to make anything happen, and simply trusted in their own ability to get the job done. Manager Jim Leyland has complained that many observers have treated the Tigers like they don’t deserve to be on the same field as the Yankees, but in Game 1, Leyland managed like they didn’t deserve to be on the same field, and needed to go to extraordinary lengths to somehow be competitive with this awesome juggernaut. Yesterday he let the team play, and in doing so, they proved that they belong.
And now, stunningly, the Tigers are in control of the series. Not just because they have home field advantage—though the Yankees have a better road record than the Tigers have a home record, and won three of four at Comerica earlier this season. No, the Tigers’ advantage is in that they don’t have to rely on Randy Johnson and Jaret Wright in the next two days. They don’t have to hope that an epidural injection will allow them to keep the game close, they don’t have to wonder who they’ll pitch in the sixth inning of Game 4 when their starter runs out of gas, no matter how well he pitches. They’re not running two aces out there, but in comparison to what the Yankees have, they might as well be. And the Yankees will have to find a way to win one of those two games to stay alive.
The Yankees do have one distinct advantage tonight, though. Detroit’s starter, Kenny Rogers has had a terrible postseason history. He nearly pitched the Yankees out of the playoffs three times in 1996, but three comebacks allowed the Yankees to win all three games. He was beaten twice in the 1999 NL playoffs before Game 6 of the NLCS, where, as the Mets were about to become the first team to ever erase a 3-0 playoff series deficit, he walked in the pennant clinching run without ever coming close. In his postseason career he’s 0-3 with a 8.85 ERA and 16 walks in 20.1 innings. As Michael Kay said in 1996, it’s amazing that Rogers took a perfect game into the ninth inning and didn’t walk anybody.
But it gets better for the Yankees, in a way. In 14 career starts against the Yankees, Rogers is 2-7 with a 8.14 ERA. His teams are 2-12 in those 14 games, with the last win coming on Aug. 17, 1993. Thirteen years ago.
And more pertinent to tomorrow’s game, the eight Yankees starters who’ve faced Rogers have a combined batting line of .375/.470/.763—and if the numbers are balanced so that each batter’s rate stats get an equal share of the total, that line jumps to .403/.474/.865. (The only Yankee never to face Rogers is Robinson Cano).
So even if the epidural injections Johnson has received don’t help, so long as Torre doesn’t keep an inffective Johnson in the game too long, the Yankees have a very good chance to win. And if they somehow don’t score off of Rogers, the credit for that should probably go squarely on their own shoulders.
And if Johnson gets bombed, and Rogers doesn’t; if the Tigers take the series lead with Jeremy Bonderman facing Wright at home on Saturday, the chances of this series going back to New York are slim. The Yankees play their most important game since a mid-August series in Fenway tonight. They swept all of those games. They’ll need to win this one too.