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ALCS Game 5: Pitching, Pitching, Pitching

It was a game in which 280 pitches were thrown, but it was the very last one that decided it.

It was a game in which no pitcher was happy. In tonight’s game, Phil Hughes took the loss, and in postgame interviews put all the blame on his own shoulders, but the Yankees’ six-run uprising in the seventh inning was made necessary by A.J. Burnett’s dismal start out of the gate, and possible by Mike Scioscia yanking his protesting starter with two outs in the seventh only to see his bullpen melt down.

At first blush, it looks like Lackey was the one who was going to struggle. Derek Jeter, suffering from a cold but ever eager to play, singled on the first pitch of the game. Two pitches later, Johnny Damon pulled a ground ball to right for another base hit. But Lackey bore down, caught Teixeira looking, got A-Rod to pop up harmlessly, and then Matsui to ground weakly to first.

Then it was Burnett’s turn on the hill. He walked Chone Figgins on five pitches to start the game, then gave up four consecutive hits within the space of seven more pitches, and not a soft one in the bunch. That’s right, it took only 12 pitches for it to be 4-0 Angels. After that, Burnett got a fly ball and a double play to end the inning, and he settled down, allowing only three hits over the next five innings and striking out three, despite losing his personal catcher in the fifth to a pinch-hitting Jorge Posada. Unfortunately, Lackey got Posada looking for the sixth Yankee K of the night.

Lackey retired Nick Swisher, who has been struggling the whole postseason, on a pop fly to center to start the seventh, then gave up a double to Melky Cabrera. This time Posada worked a walk, ball four coming on a pitch Lackey (and Fox PitchTrax) thought was strike three on the inside corner. Rattled, he then walked Jeter on four straight, but got Damon to fly out.

That was when Scioscia brought out the hook. Lackey was vehement on the mound and reading the word “mine!” on his lips repeatedly was not difficult. But Scioscia took the ball anyway, and handed it to Darren Oliver.

Oliver is a lefty pitcher the Yankees have seen a lot in his lengthy career, since he used to be a starter for Texas, and also passed through Boston briefly. If memory serves, they used to pound him pretty good, leading to the expectation (or perhaps the hope) that pretty soon they would pound him again.

The pounding didn’t go on for long. Teixeira, who had been oh-for-the-postseason with runners in scoring position, doubled on Oliver’s very first pitch to bring in three runs. After an intention walk to A-Rod (c’mon, WHY would you pitch to this guy right now?), lefty Matsui brought Tex in and tied the game with a base hit, and that ended Oliver’s night. On came Kevin Jepsen, who then gave up a double to Robinson Cano, insuring that Oliver earned all three runs from the three batters he had faced, while Oliver allowed all three inherited runners to score–six runs in all.

But the Yankees gave one back right away when Burnett went back to the hill. After the long, long inning, Burnett thought he wasn’t stiff or tired. But he gave up a base hit to Mathis, then walked the number nine hitter, Erick Aybar. Mathis is the guy who hit the game-winner the other night, and he was now three-for-three on the night, prompting me to wonder why Mike Napoli has been in there at all. Probably Napoli is better against lefties in career numbers, and with Sabathia and Pettitte, slated to see more action. But Mathis has been hot. Burnett left the game having put the tying runs on base. He looked just as morose as Lackey as Damaso Marte faced Figgins. Figgins dropped down a tectbook bunt to move the runners up, and then Marte got a ground ball to first from Abreu, which brought in a run.

Out with Marte, who did get two outs but allowed an inherited runner to score, and in with Phil Hughes.

This was not the time to get bat shy, but Hughes faltered, admitting after the game he was “trying to be too fine.” It looked to me more like he just didn’t have control, and so a pitch he said was supposed to be “up and in” was right through the heart of the plate. He walked Torii Hunter, then threw that meatball to Vlad Guerrero, who laced it for the game-tying RBI. Then Kendry Morales did the same thing, making it 7-6 Angels. Hughes struck out Maicer Izturis to end the inning, but the damage was done.

Jered Weaver then pitched the eighth, one two three, including strikeouts of Posada and Jeter, so maybe he was happy, although it probably doesn’t feel great for a starter to come out of the bullpen like that. I’m sure since they won he was happy to contribute.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Yankees went to Joba, who didn’t look that dominating either, giving up a leadoff double to Juan Rivera. He was the guy who finally retired Mathis, though, striking him out, but Erick Aybar got just enough of the bat on the ball to get it through the infield, and with men on the corners and one out, Girardi went to Mo.

Mo got a rare fly ball from Figgins (I thought surely if Scioscia was going to put on the squeeze, it would have been here, but he decided not to over-manage) into short right. Nick Swisher put on the biggest crow hop I’ve ever seen–more of a pterodactyl hop–and they had to send the runner back to third. Then a harmless fly to center from Abreu, and Mariano had done it again… except it wasn’t a save situation. The only way to make Mo happy would be to score some runs in the top of the ninth and then give him the ball to shut the door.

It almost happened. Almost. Brian Fuentes, the Angels’ closer, came on to get the final three outs. Johnny Damon pulled a laser shot but right into the glove of Morales at first. Teixeira flew out quickly. With two out and no one on, they elected to intentionally walk A-Rod (and Guzman ran for him). THen Fuentes unintentionally walked Matsui (and Gardner ran for him). Then he hit Robinson Cano on the second pitch of the at bat to load the bases.

Bringing up Nick Swisher. Swisher, who has been scuffling, striking out when he should be walking. Maybe even pressing. Swisher chopped a ball right to Figgins at third, who gloved it and stepped on the bag and it seemed like the game was over. But no! It was called foul and Swisher was giving a new lease on life. Could this be one of those magical moments any championship team needs to win? Another changeup, another foul. The count mounted. Soon it was 3-2. Now all it would take is a wild pitch, a hit batter, ball four, any of the above, to tie the game and give the Yankees a chance to bury the Angels for the year. But all it would take is one strike, or one out, to ensure they would live to see at least one more game. Fuentes had pitched horribly, but if he could make this one pitch, all would be erased.

On the seventh and final pitch of the at bat, Fuentes challenged him, a fastball in the middle of the plate, a four-seamer at 91 miles an hour. And Swisher popped it up to short to end the game.

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