Mariano Rivera may not be as invincible as Chuck Norris, but he is pretty darn close. Last night, however, was one of those rare exceptions that was made even more shocking by how it came about: with a Vladimir Guerrero lead-off walk and Jeff Francoeur walk-off hit by pitch. In between, head scratching strategy by Joe Girardi conspired to send the Yankees to their second straight walk-off defeat and fifth loss in six games.
Entering the ninth, Guerrero had enjoyed some success (4-11) against the Yankees’ closer, so with only a one run lead, Rivera seemed to approach the at bat with more caution than normal. Instead of attacking the free swinging Vlad, Rivera eschewed the cutter over the outside corner and instead tried to bust fastballs in on his hands. That approach resulted in a lead-off walk (an unlikely scenario considering Guerrero’s aggressiveness and Rivera’s pinpoint control) that set the wheels in motion for an eventual rare blown save. Following the walk, Nelson Cruz battled Rivera in a nine pitch at bat that ended with a soft single to right that sent pinch runner Esteban German to third. With the tying run at third and the go ahead run at first, Girardi then inexplicably decided to bring the infield in. With Arod playing up and off the line, Ian Kinsler rolled a ground ball down the third baseline to tie the game and put the winning run 90 feet from home. Following up on the misguided decision to cutoff the tying run, Girardi then opted to walk Chris Davis, who has struck out in an astounding 32% of his career at bats. With the bases now loaded, Rivera induced a weak pop to first by Andres Blanco, but then brushed the shoulder of Franoeur with the very next pitch, forcing in the winning run and ending a second straight night in which the Yankees played and managed so poorly.
The reason Rivera had such a small margin for error in the ninth was due in part to another curious decision in the top of the inning. After Eduardo Nunez singled and stole second, Girardi then had Francisco Cervelli, who was in the midst of reaching base in eight straight plate appearances, bunt with a 3-0 count. Like yesterday, the bunt backfired when pinch hitter Marcus Thames flew out to shallow left and Nick Swisher grounded out to end the inning.
Joe Girardi wasn’t the only manager making curious decisions. Ron Washington’s decision to allow lefty Matt Harrison to face Alex Rodriguez with the bases loaded was probably the worst of the game. When Arod lined a bases clearing double into the left corner, it seemed as if Washington’s folly would cost his team the game, but his team took him off the hook for a second straight night.
Like Friday’s game, the theme was a litany of relief pitchers and a boat load of wasted scoring opportunities. This time, however, an hour rain delay was also thrown into the mix to ensure the game surpassed the five hour mark. Before the rains came, AJ Burnett was solid, but, predictably, inconsistent. Burnett struck out six Rangers over only four innings, but also walked three batters, two of which scored. Because of the length of the delay, Burnett’s night was once again cut short, leading to another game of bullpen roulette.
The Yankees bullpen has perhaps been its greatest strength in the second half, but for the second straight night squandered a late lead. Before coming to Texas, the Yankees had only lost three games when leading as late as the eighth inning, but suffered that fate both times. Unlike Friday, when the bullpen actually pitched well in the defeat, only Kerry Wood distinguished himself last night.
With the starting pitching still in disarray, the Yankees will need their bullpen to get back on track. Just as important, Girardi needs to resist his recent urge to overuse it. A bullpen always walks a fine line between being underused and overworked, and over the last week, Girardi has seemed to lose his balance. Rivera would never admit it, but his two inning stint on Friday may very well have contributed to his relative lack of control last night. Similarly, one wonders what future effects David Robertson’s 36-pitch outing, his second appearance in as many games, will have on him
Before the team’s recent eight game winning streak, the Yankees had struggled in the month of August. Those struggles have now returned. By squandering two games to the Rangers, the Yankees have made it even more likely that they will be returning to Texas in October as the American League wild card. Is that necessarily a bad thing? If the two teams play as poorly and excruciatingly ugly, it will be for baseball. From the Yankees standpoint, however, that question could be answered by how Cliff Lee pitches this afternoon.
Games in Which Mariano Rivera Has Allowed At Least One Walk, Hit and HBP as a Reliever