Thursday, June 11, 2009

In the long run, bagging themselves plenty of homers won’t do the Yankees much good

Mindy McCready--err, Lurlene Lumpkin--is going to pen a sad song about the Yankees and Homers. Photo from this site.

Well, all that optimism over the new-look Yankees lasted all of a night. The Red Sox waxed the red-hot Yankees Tuesday night, 7-0, and then won again Wednesday, 6-5, to improve to 7-0 this season against their arch-rivals, their longest winning streak to open a season against the Yankees since way back in 1914.

Josh Beckett’s streak of consecutive 100-pitch starts ended at 10 Tuesday because he was so good—he allowed just one infield single and struck out eight in six innings—that the Sox could afford to pull him after 93 pitches. It was Beckett’s best outing against the Yankees since he tossed a five-hit shutout in the Marlins’ World Series-clinching victory in 2003, and the latest proof that the Yankees’ title drought seems likely to last at least another season.

The Yankees might have better makeup than usual and maybe even a bunch of newcomers who can handle the unrelenting pressure of New York, but none of that makes up for the fact their homer-happy brand of baseball (the Yankees lead the majors with 95 homers after going deep three times Wednesday) doesn’t usually translate well to the playoffs.

The Yankees, of all teams, should know the risks of relying on the homer, and the benefits derived from not doing so. This is likely to be the seventh time in eight seasons the Yankees rank among the top five in the majors in homers. Of course they haven’t won a World Series in that span, though they made the playoffs every year except last season (ironically, in that it’s not ironic at all, 2008 was the only season in which they fell out of the top five in homers).

Yet from 1996 through 2001, during which they ranked higher than 10th in homers just once, the Yankees won four World Series and lost another in the ninth inning of Game Seven.

The Phillies proved last year it’s possible to hit a bunch of homers in a joke of a home park and win the World Series—they finished second in the majors in homers—but the last team to reach the World Series the same season it led the majors in round-trippers was the 1995 Indians, who went 100-44 but lost to the pitching-rich Braves in the Fall Classic.

Three of the top five teams in homers began Wednesday with at least a share of first place (Yankees, Phillies and Rangers), but to watch the Sox is to think they’re the most likely candidate to knock one—or more—of those teams out of the playoffs. Beckett and Jon Lester, each of whom regularly dial it up to the mid-to-upper 90s, will front a rotation that could also feature John Smoltz, who is perhaps the best postseason pitcher of all-time, and Clay Buchholz, who is a man among boys at Triple-A.

Tim Wakefield is the farthest thing from a fireballer, but he’s also been the Sox’ most consistent starter this season and could provide a pretty drastic change of pace if he’s healthy and in the rotation in October. And that doesn’t even account for Brad Penny, who will probably be traded by the All-Star Break, or Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has been the Sox’ sixth-most effective starter thus far.

In defense of the Yankees, they attempted to add some power to the rotation, as well, by signing CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. But Burnett’s next playoff game will be his first, and his two games at Fenway this season (0-1 with a 12.91 ERA) don’t exactly engender confidence in his ability come October. Sabathia, meanwhile, has a 9.47 ERA with 17 walks in 19 innings in his last three postseason starts, so it’ll be interesting to see how he fares tonight as he tries to help the Yankees avoid the sweep.

Of course, the additions of Sabathia and Burnett were all but negated when the new Yankee Stadium turned out to be a lot like the old Coors Field. It’s tough to remake oneself as a pitching-first team when pop flies land in the seats…which means the Yankees will find it pretty difficult to remake themselves come October as well.

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