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Yankees' Heel—Weaver Breakdown Had To Happen Osuna or Later
2003-10-24 00:07
by Mike Carminati

My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle.

—Bible, Job 7:6.

Here lies.... You know, Weaver, I’ve forgotten who we just buried.

—William "Bee" Holden in The Bridge On the River Kwai

As of the start of game four of the World Series, Joe Torre bestrode the battlefield apparently impregnable. The Yankees game three victory had been a minor key masterpiece by Torre. Every move worked to perfection. While Torre was pulling triple-switches, Jack McKeon was blundering his way through late-inning missteps. It was like Bobby Fisher challenging Fisher Stevens to a game of chess.

Game four seemed headed in the same direction even as the Yankees feel behind in the first inning, 3-0. The game started with a misstep by game three hero, Derek Jeter. With Soriano on first and none out in the first, Jeter failed to run out an arching pop up that ended up dropping, allowing the Marlins to double him up. Yankee woes continued as Roger Clemens, in theoretically the final start of his career, gave up five straight two-out hits, including a Miguel Cabrera home run, to fall behind the Marlins, 3-0. Ironically, the inning-ender was an outfield fly by Alex Gonzalez.

Torre showed great confidence in Clemens, allowing him to work out of the early jam and keeping him in for an additional six innings. He was rewarded with six shutout innings in which the Marlins collected just three hits while Clemens walked none, struck out five, and threw just 64 pitches. He threw 42 in the three-run first inning.

Torre then turned to Jeff Nelson and Jose Contreras for three shutout innings with only one hit and one walk between them. Contreras struck out four in his two innings of work.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Marlin starter Carl Pavano was pitching the game of his life. Pavano survived a bases loaded, none-out jam in the first surrendering just one run. He then allowed just three hits and no walks over his final six innings of work. He faced the minimum number of batters from the fourth to the eighth innings.

The Yankees entered the ninth still trailing 3-1, but McKeon had gone to erratic closer Ugueth Urbina. The Yankees made the most of the opening. Bernie Williams got a one-out hit. Hideki Matsui followed with a six-pitch walk after falling behind 1-2 at one point. Jorge Posada hit a fielder's choice to second that erased Matsui. The Marlins did not attempt to get Posada at first even though it seemed that they had time.

With men at the corners and two outs, Torre inserted pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra, batting left for fellow lefty bat Karim Garcia. For the second time in the Series, Sierra faced his former teammate Urbina. Both had started the season in Texas and took much different routes to get to the Fall Classic. It was an unconventional move, inserting a switch-hitter batting left for a lefty bat, but perhaps as my friend Murray suggests Torre prefers Sierra's bat in power-hitting situations over Garcia's and wanted to ensure against the Marlins dipping into their bullpen with for a lefty. Whatever the rationale, the move worked beautifully.

Urbina started with two changeups off the outside corner and then a borderline outside changeup brought the count to 3 balls and no strikes. Then Urbina went to fastballs on the outside corner. He got two in a row to run the count to 3-2. Actually home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg's strike zone was nebulous the entire evening and was even more so in this at-bat. Borderline outside and low pitches were being adjudicated apparently by some random ball-strike generator.

Urbina continued with two more outside fastballs that Sierra fouled off. The fifth straight fastball got a little more plate than the rest and Sierra deposited it deep in the right field corner. After it rattled around there while inexperienced rightfielder Miguel Cabrera tried to get a handle, both runners had scored tying the game and Sierra had rumbled to third.

With the go-ahead run at third, Aaron Boone grounded meekly to short. Boone helped kill off the second-inning rally hitting a sac fly to center with one out and the bases loaded. His sac fly did score the only Yankke run in the first 8.2 innings, but it also ensured that the second-inning rally, that started with three straight singles, would end with just one run.

The Yankees had tied the Marlins in a remarkable comeback, but Torre had pinch-ran for his catcher and used three right fielders in the process. In a play similar to game three's, Torre used the pinch-runner David Dellucci to turn a double-switch. As the pitcher's spot batted leadoff in the tenth, Torre put backup catcher in the game as the number-nine hitter. He then replaced pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra in the order with Jose Contrearas. To complete the switch, Dellucci had stayed in the game as the right fielder.

The move seemed even more prescient as Flaherty lead off the tenth by sending a 2-1 offering to the wall in right-center. However, Juan Pierre made a tremendous play to reach the ball robbing Flaherty.

To lead off the eleventh Bernie Williams started another rally, doubling to left on a 1-2 pitch. Williams was 4-for-6 on the night and scored the first two Yankee runs. Like in the ninth, Mastui followed the Williams hit with a walk and again the Yankees had men at first and second. David Dellucci was then ordered to lay down a bunt, moving the runners to second and third.

Frankly, I do not see the point in bunting here. The pitcher's spot was up and Juan Rivera was in the on-deck circle. Dellucci is a fast runner and shouldn't be easy to double up. But let's say he hits into a doubleplay. The Yankees would have Williams at third and two outs with Rivera at the plate. Even though Dellucci is a good bunter, a bunt in no way assures that the runners will advance. A popup, falling behind 0-2 in the count, and nailing a lead runner are not unexpected results of a bunt. Besides even a successful one means that Rivera will be walked intentionally, as he was, and leaves the game in the shaky hands of Aaron Boone.

Boone had been up with the bases loaded and one out in the second and with a runner at third and one out in the ninth, and all he could muster was one sac fly RBI. He had the bases loaded and one out here. The infield was virtually eliminating the doubleplay. Boone fell behind 0-1 and then fouled off four of the next five pitches. He stood at 1-2 and then struck out on high heat. Then Flaherty popped out to third.

It seemed that the strategic tide had turned in this inning as McKeon pulled off his first double-switch perhaps in the entire postseason. Bringing in Looper and Encarnacion for Fox and Cabrera. The successful double-switch and the ill-conceived bunt were bon mots leading to the game's denouement. Looper's appearance was nothing short of miraculous. He entered with the bases loaded and one out in a tie ballgame, a ballgame that would put them down 3-1 in the Series basically if the Yankees scored. He exited with the tie intact.

Though Torre seemed to have been dipped in the River Styx and made impervious a la Achilles with his moves in the previous 19 innings, he was about to make a move that exposed the Yankee's Achilles heel in the person of Jeff Weaver.

After Contreras had been pinch-hit for, Torre made an ill-fated call to the bullpen. The Yankees had three left-handers (Felix Heredia, Gabe White, and Chris Hammond) and two right-handers, Jeff Weaver and Mariano Rivera in the bullpen. Rivera had been getting up in the pen from time to time ever since the Yankees tied the score in the top of the ninth. Weaver had not pitched in the playoffs. His last appearance was September 24. Torre apparently wanted the platoon advantage and since the Florida lineup featured righties, that narrowed it to Weaver and Rivera. Rivera had pitched three innings in the Yankees game seven victory over the Red Sox, but Torre apparently did not want to insert Rivera for more than an inning and then only after the Yankees had taken a lead.

That is how Torre arrived at inserting Jeff Weaver in the eleventh inning of a tie ballgame, which if the Yankees won would leave them one win short of another title. He chose Weaver as confidently as Neville Chamberlain had declared that a piece of paper guaranteed "peace in our time" to an English populace that would be bombed close to extinction.

Weaver served up a 1-2-3 eleventh inning on just 8 pitches. That brief success may have been the Yankees undoing. After the Yankees went quickly in the 12th, instead of patting Weaver on the tush, counting his lucky stars, and informing the pitcher that his next role would be as Louie Sojo's benchmate, Torre, perhaps influenced by his success in the eleventh, called on Weaver again. The last time that Weaver had pitched more than one inning was more than a month ago, on September 13 in a game that he started and in which he surrendered three runs in five innings to the lowly Devil Rays.

After a called strike one, Weaver fell behind to Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez entered the box in the twelfth having gone 0-for-4 on the day with two strikeouts and hitting under .100 in the postseason. After going 3-2, Weaver got Weaver to foul off two pitches. Gonzalez later said that he rightly guessed sinker on the next pitch, and he was greeted with a meaty, non-sinking one, which he deposited over the wall in left directly above the "330" mark like a bullet from a gun.

The Marlins won the game and tied the Series. In the process, they rehabilitated this year's Byung-Hyun Kim, Ugueth Urbina, and perhaps ended Jeff Weaver's career as a Yankee. The game and Alex Gonzalez's abrupt turnaround was reminiscent of Aaron Boone's game-seven, eleventh-inning, walk-off homer in the ALCS.

The Yankees are left with the knowledge that they very easily could have won both the games that lost. They have a well-rested Mariano Rivera, but if he goes unused in game 5 the Weaver move will seem all the more curious. Indeed, Weaver's mere presence on the postseason roster is an oddity in itself. The Yankees had a right-handed reliever who had pitched fairly well during the season, Antonio Osuna. With Florida predominantly right-handed (just Pierre, left, and Castillo, switch-hitter, are the exceptions among the regulars), the Yankees chose to add Chris Hammond to the active playoff roster for the Series, giving them three left-handed relievers who have pitched a grand total of zero innings, bubkis, in the Series. If they had instead added Osuna, perhaps Torre does call on Weaver or if he does, not for two innings.

For us baseball fans the game left us with an honest-to-goodness series, with the chance for further seventh-game heroics, instead of a 5-game lopsided cakewalk. It's appropriate that tonight's game is a rematch of game one with Brad Penny facing Davod Wells because the Series in essence has been reborn like a 3-game phoenix from the charred remains of Jeff Weaver's career as a Yankee.

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