Thursday, April 18, 2013

Anatomy Of An Unexpected Comeback

Things weren't looking good for the boys last night.  They were down 3-0 heading into the bottom of the 7th inning and hadn't shown many signs of offensive life against Arizona starter Wade Miley.  He had cruised through 6 innings of work on just 77 pitches, the kind of efficiency that few Yankee starters have had this season, mainly on the strength of his 2-seamer.  The Yankee lineup played into Miley's game plan by swinging early in a lot of at-bats, and the fact that Miley hadn't had to go to his curveball and changeup much didn't bode well for the Bombers as they opened the bottom of the 7th with the weakest part of their lineup.  But as the old saying goes, that's why they play the game and the game the Yankees played in that half inning was the kind of smart, clutch, winning baseball that they were unable to play in so many close games last season.

After a Kevin Youkilis first-pitch groundout, Ben Francisco stepped in and notched his first hit of the season on a curveball that was just a little bit up in the zone from where Miley wanted it.  That probably should have been looked at as a good omen, but at the time it seemed like just a blip on the radar for Miley.  He retired Francisco Cervelli swinging for the second out of the inning and looked poised to end another threat before it could even begin as he faced Brennan Boesch again.

Boesch was already 0-2 against Miley, having been retired on two groundball outs off of Miley's 2-seam fastball.  Boesch was looking first pitch 2-seamer again and Miley obliged, only this one didn't have the same life to it that his earlier ones did and Boesch stroked it into left for a double.  With 2 RISP and 2 outs, hacker extraordinaire Eduardo Nunez stepped in and ... drew a walk?

That's right.  Nunez, he of the 6.3% career BB rate, drew a 2-out walk to load the bases and he did it by laying off three offspeed pitches after getting down 1-2 in the count.  Worth mentioning in this at-bat, and in the Cervelli at-bat, was the number of changeups that Miley threw.  5 of his 6 pitches to Cervelli were changeups, and after giving up the Boesch double on a 2-seamer Miley went back to the change against Nunez, throwing it 3 times in that AB and missing with it twice for balls 3 and 4.

Miley was clearly starting to tire at this point, and he was losing both steam on his 2-seamer and command of his change as he worked his pitch count up to 93.  Jayson Nix probably picked up on this watching Nunez's at-bat and he took a similar patient approach when he stepped in, working a 5-pitch walk to force in a run on nothing but fastballs.  That was the end of Miley's night and it was almost entirely the result of two hitters who are not known as count workers or walk drawers recognizing the situation, taking a more patient approach, and daring the tiring pitcher to throw them a strike.

Miley went out and Tony Sipp came in to go lefty-lefty against Brett Gardner, the smart strategic move given Gardner's slow start and "nothing to write home about" career numbers against southpaws.  Sipp worked a 2-2 count on 2 sliders and 2 4-seam fastballs, then elected to throw a third straight fastball with 2 strikes.  Gardner, protecting the plate and looking to make contact on anything close, recognized the pitch and put a good swing on it as it drifted back over the plate, lining it into left field and bringing home the game-tying runs.  He didn't try to do too much, he didn't swing harder than he needed to, he just took what Sipp gave him and made solid contact.  A first-pitch double, a couple of smart, patient walks from the 8-9 hitters in the batting order, and a clutch 2-strike single and the game was tied.

Travis Hafner got all the headlines for his first-pitch homer in the next inning, but none of that would have been possible without the great work done by the bottom of the order the inning before.  After putting themselves in a hole by playing into Miley's strategy for the first 6 innings, the Yankee smartened up and made him work late, taking pitches and drawing walks to just keep the rally going.  They put four straight runners on base with 2 outs and did it by playing smart, patient baseball and by being willing to pass the baton to the next guy in line.  This was what we knew they needed to do well early in the season to get by without all their power hitters, and they've done it multiple times already.

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