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November 2, 2009 at 12:16 PM

Yankees not out of the World Series woods yet

That sigh of relief you heard coming from the New York Yankees dugout last night was from manager Joe Girardi, who nearly had his most controversial World Series strategy blow up in his face.
Girardi is going with a three-man pitching rotation in the Fall Classic and it’s worked for him up until now. But just barely.
The Phillies were one foul tip away from getting out of last night’s ninth inning tied and likely going on to win Game 4 with all the momentum swinging their way. But Brad Lidge couldn’t shut the door and the Yankees won 7-4 and now hold a commanding 3-1 lead.
So, how commanding is it?
In my view, you’d rather be up 3-1 than down. But let me say this. The Yankees are one Cliff Lee defeat away from being in serious trouble.
Here’s why.
Photo Credit: AP

The Yankees loaded up behind a short-rested C.C. Sabathia last night and managed to squeeze out their late win. Philadelphia did not do the same with Lee, choosing to save him for Game 5 tonight on regular rest.
If you watched Sabathia last night, you could see he was not the same dominant pitcher he’s been in the past. He put a ton of runners on base, ran his pitch count up early and was bailed out of a couple of jams by some free-swinging Phillies hitters. The Jayson Werth at-bat and strikeout in the sixth was particularly bad. Not sure Sabathia hit the strike zone once.
For me, the game turned there, not in the ninth. Philadelphia had Sabathia on the ropes with two on, none out and their three biggest hitters up in that sixth. If they make him throw strikes and don’t chase his curveball like they did, Sabathia maybe goes five-plus innings and turns it over to a shaky bullpen.
Hey, I’ll give Sabathia some credit for getting those two pop-ups before the Werth strikeout. But seriously, this was not Sabathia at the top of his game.
And now, courtesy of Girardi’s three-man rotation, we’ll get to see A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte both theoretically not at the tops of their games tonight and in Game 6. Both will be going on short rest just like Sabathia did. And neither is as consistently good at this stage of their careers as Sabathia is.
For now, the plan is to start Pettitte in Game 6. The alternative is to start Chad Gaudin. Which is worse? You pick. Better yet, if Burnett and Pettitte/Gaudin can’t get it done the next two games, who starts Game 7 for the Yankees?
Sabathia? Sure, go ahead and try that one.
Of course, this is all moot if the Phillies can’t win behind a regularly-rested Lee tonight. Give up two early runs to New York as they did last night and the series will be over in five. But if Lee is as sharp as he’s been all post-season and the Phils haven’t already mentally given up, this series could go the distance.
Had the Phillies won last night, the Yankees would be in grave danger of losing this series in six. The fact that they won last night gets them one step closer to pulling this unlikely strategy off, but they aren’t out of the woods yet.
No team has come back from 3-1 down to win a World Series on the road since the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates defeated Baltimore.
Then again, no team had ever rallied from 3-0 down in a baseball playoff when Boston did it to New York in 2004. I covered that series and had the same feeling in my gut back then that if the Red Sox pulled out Game 4 — which they barely managed — then the Yankees were in serious trouble. Once again, the pitching matchups had everything to do with it.
Pedro Martinez should remember, since he was part of the Red Sox rotation in that series.
And if the Phils win tonight behind Lee, they’ll have a rested Martinez taking on a weakened Pettitte in Game 6, then a rested Cole Hamels taking on…who? I know Hamels has been awful, but you can run him out there for a few innings, then throw Lee in for a couple of frames on his non-start throwing day.
The point is, if the Yankees don’t wrap things up tonight, they could be in serious mound trouble. That’s why Girardi had to be exhaling after Game 4. His team managed to move one step closer to capturing a championship and getting away with a strategy most healthy mound teams would be ill-advised to try.
The Yanks aren’t all that healthy in their rotation, which is why they’ve done this.
But, because of this dubious strategy, securing that fourth win might prove a whole lot tougher than any of the previous three up to now.
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Geoff Baker

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