Respect

There is perhaps no statistic that shows how impressive the Yankees of 1996 to the present have been than the fact that in games started by Pedro Martinez, perhaps the greatest pitcher of his generation, they are 20-12. That’s the same winning percentage the Yankees had this year against all pitchers, and that was their record against the one of the very best of them over the past eight seasons.

Martinez has of course pitched well against New York; it’s been his team that’s failed to win. But this is irrelevant in the amount of frustration it has had on Martinez. After another frustrating loss to the Yankees in late September, that frustration came out:

What can I say? I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy … I wish they would disappear. I wish they would disappear and never come back. I’d like to face any other right now. To pitch a good game, make good pitches and still can’t beat them, it’s frustrating.

That was the focus of tonight’s game, that was the inescapable quote, and the question that was being asked was whether Pedro could beat the Yankees.

The standard had been lowered so much that it was almost as though his last start in Yankee Stadium where he gave up 8 runs in 5 innings was the new reality. In fact, Martinez had pitched well against the Yankees all year, just like he always has. He pitched well again last night, not giving up an extra-base hit until John Olerud’s homer in the sixth — after having passed the magic 100 pitch count.

But the Yankees had a fine starter going for them, too. Coming into the ALCS, everyone had conceded the advantage in starting pitching to the Red Sox, of course with good cause. But in giving the edge to Boston, the analysis went too far and completely discounted the quality of the Yankees’ starters. Mike Mussina was given a great deal of respect of course, but Kevin Brown is being dismissed too quickly for breaking his hand five weeks ago, Orlando Hernandez is assumed to be unable to come back from a tired arm with two weeks of rest, but most disrespectfully of all, Jon Lieber has been almost completely ignored.

Lieber’s numbers this year were not spectacular. His DIPS was solid, and the Yankees won two-thirds of his starts, but he rarely dominated a ballgame. However, as the season has gone on he’s gotten better, and the Yankees have now won the last nine games he started. He might not shut down a lineup like he did last night, but he will usually keep the Yankees in the game.

Lieber might have opened people’s eyes last night — he’s almost like a right-handed David Wells, having walked only 18 batters all season. He’s come up big in big games, putting the Yankees in position to win the crucial Game Two of the ALDS, pitching a no-hitter into the seventh against Boston in mid-September, and totally dominating Boston’s great lineup last night. Lieber isn’t as talented as Curt Schilling or Pedro Martinez, and he’s nobody’s idea of an ace, but he’s a pitcher that you can trust with the ball. Having him start Game 2 of the ALCS isn’t an embarrassment to the Yankees; people have just been spoiled by their ridiculously deep rotations in seasons past.

For seven innings last night, Lieber completely dominated the Red Sox. Only Johnny Damon was able to put together an extended at-bat against him, and Boston didn’t score a run against him until he was out of the game.

The first two games of the ALCS have highlighted the futility of predicting the playoffs. Boston’s starters have combined for 9 innings and a 9.00 ERA; the Yankees’ starters have combined for 13.2 innings and a 3.29 ERA.

Boston is down 2-0, but they aren’t by any means out of this series. Just last season they came back from a 0-2 deficit against Oakland, and there they had no leeway to lose any games (though they only needed to win three). Several teams have come back from 0-2 in the postseason, and Boston is as good a team as most of them.

One thing that’s going to make it tougher, though, is the possible loss of Curt Schilling. Without their ace, the Red Sox may be forced to go with Derek Lowe in Game Five, and they’ll certainly be forced to go with Bronson Arroyo in a potential Game Seven.

But Arroyo has pitched very well lately, and for the most part has been solid against the Yankees. Tim Wakefield, the Game Four starter, has pitched exceptionally well against New York, and has somewhat dominated them since the start of last year’s ALCS (except for that one pitch). If they win both of those starts, Pedro goes in Game Six, and they’ll have a shot to play for the pennant in New York.

This series isn’t close yet, but both games have been. A couple of breaks in favor of the Red Sox, and the series is 2-0 Boston. Things can turn very quickly in that direction, and the Yankees can’t get cocky. We’ve got at least two more great games ahead of us, and I think we’ll have more than that.

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