By Mike Jaggers-Radolf
The Yankees have been employing a high-risk strategy in the playoffs. They’ve been leveraging CC Sabathia, assuming that he’s the best pitcher in each series they’ve played. Take his stellar performance out of the equation, and the Yankees are a more pedestrian 4-2 so far in October -- a number that recedes further still when all those extra innings games (read as, ties) are considered.
Last night the Phillies blew up that strategy. For at least one game Cliff Lee was the best pitcher still playing baseball. This complicates the Yankees' plans. Girardi has stated he intends to bring CC out on short rest in game 4. Charlie Manuel has said he’ll counter each Sabathia start with Lee. Now we know why. Even though Cliff Lee has never before started on short rest in the Bigs, we can expect he’ll rise to the occasion.
The Yankees need to employ a new strategy to beat the Phillies. Rather than assume they can continue riding CC’s brilliance they need to leverage the relative weakness of the rest of the Phillies’ rotation. Manuel’s announcement that Lee will match CC in starts, even on short rest, is the same as confessing that the Phillies don’t have a fourth starter.
Games 2 and 3 are now the Yankees best chance to take control in the Series. Lose even one of them and we face Lee, and potentially a 3-1 hole.
Tonight the Phillies face a first test of their own. Pitching Pedro Martinez in game 2 at Yankee Stadium is a fantastic idea, in 1999 (Who’s Your Daddy? Clap-Clap...Clap-Clap-Clap). Despite his troubles, A.J. Burnett should still be favored. The Yankees need to get into the Phillies bullpen, and early.
The Yankees' best chance to regain home field advantage is game 3. Andy Pettitte has been excellent this postseason. There’s been something terribly wrong with Cole Hamels this year. The Yankees need to capitalize on the depth of their top 3 starters before a potentially tired Sabathia faces off against Lee for the 2nd time.
The risks accelerate for the Yankees after game 4. Matching Sabathia against Lee is the right move. It’s better to try to neutralize him than concede a game starting Chad Gaudin (Joba cannot start, even a single game -- he’ll get lit up like the Brooklyn Bridge on the Fourth of July). The question is whether or not they also pitch A.J. and Pettitte on short rest as well.
A.J. Burnett last pitched on three days' rest when he was a Blue Jay in 2008. It’s easy to imagine the erratic Burnett hitting three and walking seven if he pitches tired, but his record in these situations is unexpectedly solid: 4-0 with a 2.33 ERA. The risk of starting A.J. on three days’ rest seems about the same as starting him on normal rest. If we’re lucky, he’ll plunk Jimmy Rollins.
Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched on short rest since 2006. That’s all the analysis I need. When I began imagining this piece I was equally scared about pitching Burnett and Pettitte on three days' rest. But I’m comfortable assuming that Burnett can handle it; not so Pettitte. His career record is solid with a 3.93 ERA, similar to his regular season performance. Except Andy Pettitte is 37, completely ran out of gas in the 2nd half of last season, and had shoulder problems this season. Game 6 is always important if it gets played. Girardi should at least give thought to the serviceable Gaudin, especially if the Yankees are ahead.
The strategy isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound. Pitching A.J. on short rest in game 5 may force Manuel’s hand again, except he has fewer options than Girardi. Pitch Joe Blanton, or Pedro. If the Yankees get to Pedro early tonight, they may not see him again in the Series. If Manuel starts the aging right hander on only three days' rest it may blow up in his face.
Starting Gaudin in place of Pettitte in game 6 may draw Cole Hamels to the mound on short rest as well. Hamels has been erratic this postseason and, like Lee, has never pitched on short rest in the major leagues. Rather than risk injury to Pettitte the Yankees may want to bank that the Phillies will pitch to a lower standard against Gaudin.
That would setup either CC on short rest or Pettitte on full-rest if the Series goes to 7 games. CC is approaching 260 innings this season, roughly the level when he lost steam last year. If he can’t get the job done quickly the Yankees could turn to a fully rested Andy Pettitte.