Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Double-Edged Sword of Three Days' Rest

I was prepared to write a post-World Series blog today, but Cliff Lee and Chase Utley changed my mind, sending the Series back to Yankee Stadium for a nifty Game 6 matchup between Pedro Martinez and Andy Pettitte. So I'll hold most of my thoughts on the Series and focus today on what is looming as the key factor in who winds up winning the title.

Columnists and bloggers have been going nuts the last few days over the different approaches taken by the two managers in deciding who will start which game this week. The consensus is that Charlie Manuel blundered in holding Cliff Lee back until Game 5, while Joe Girardi showed fortitude in bringing back C.C. Sabathia for Game 4. This may have been fueled in part by the perception that Sabathia is the kind of pitcher who'd go out there every day if he could, while Lee is a laid-back guy who could take today's start or leave it with equal enthusiasm.

Perhaps just as significant was the fact that Lee has never started a game on three days' rest, while Sabathia did so over and over again in 2008 and, at 290 pounds, is a "horse" in every sense of the word. Then there's the overall tendency of World Series managers to lose games in which they trot a starter out there on "short" rest. But as some writers have noted this week, starters working on three days' rest have pitched effectively most of the time even if they haven't actually won the game.

Like chess players determining when to deploy their most powerful pieces, Manuel and Joe Girardi faced different dilemmas after the Yankees took a 2-1 lead in games. The Phillies had a more urgent need to win Game 4, and Lee seemed to be the obvious choice. The defending AL Cy Young Award winner had allowed only two earned runs in 33 innings in this post-season and completely stifled the Yankees in winning Game 1. For purposes of logical decision-making, Manuel had to assume that Lee would win his game (if Lee couldn't beat the Yankees again, his team was toast). Winning Game 4 with Lee would not only square the Series, it would make him available to start Game 7 if it came to that, again on three days' rest but still wearing the cloak of invincibility. Holding him back for Game 5 would risk not only going behind 3-1 but also removing him from the rotation for Game 7.

It seemed like a no-brainer, and Manuel has indeed been accused of having no brain for deciding to give Lee that extra day of rest. Sure enough, Joe Blanton--who won Game 4 for him last year--was ineffective, and the Phillies did fall behind 3-1. Sure enough, Lee won his start last night, pitching strong ball for seven innings before weakening. Now we're told that he'll be available for relief work if there is a Game 7. Fine. It worked for Arizona in 2001 when Randy Johnson came back (with no day of rest) to close out the title game in relief. But Phillies fans can't help thinking that if Lee had won Game 4 instead of Game 5, there was a good chance for that momentum to carry that to a Game 5 victory and a lead going back to New York.

In chess terms, Manuel let his queen--his most powerful piece--get stuck in a defensive mode instead of using it aggressively. That's the opposite of what Girardi did with Sabathia, his big weapon. Sabathia wasn't great on three days' rest in Game 4, but he was good enough to win--until his bullpen blew the lead and forced the team to rally in the ninth inning against Brad Lidge. Not that that was so tough to do. Not only did Girardi gain a 3-1 lead in the Series, he could give Sabathia another three days of rest in case he needed to bring him back again for Game 7.

The trick is that starting Sabathia on short rest triggered a chain reaction in the rest of the Yankees rotation. Girardi also committed himself to using his other two starters on shorter rest. Last night, A.J. Burnett got drilled early and often, allowing six runs in two-plus innings. Whether that was because his stuff was missing due to the short rest or because the Phillies made smart adjustments at the plate doesn't matter. "We didn't pitch," said Girardi after the game, explaining the loss. In essence, the Series is where it probably would've been if Girardi had sent Chad Gaudin or some other sacrificial lamb out to pitch Game 4 against Lee and brought back Sabathia in Game 5. The games were split, and the Yankees secured the lead that gives them two chances to win the title at home.

But the chain reaction is still in effect for tomorrow night's game. The starters are both old in baseball years. Pedro Martinez turned 38 last week; Andy Pettitte turned 37 in June. One will be pitching Game 6 on five days of rest, the other on three. That sounds like a big advantage to me. That was Girardi's big gamble. He felt that winning Game 4 to take a 3-1 edge would not only put his team in a spot from which 26 of 31 World Series contenders have gone on to win the title, it would also demoralize the opposition.

Not so soon. Apparently the only person it demoralized was Cole Hamels, who said--after getting hammered in a Game 3 loss--"I can't wait for the season to be over." Hamels' teammates understandably got in his face about this self-centered, defeatist attitude, making it fascinating to see whether Manuel trusts him with a Game 7 start if it comes to that. Meanwhile, those teammates had no trouble with Burnett, and they're prepared to pick on another short-rest pitcher when the battle is rejoined at Yankee Stadium. Will Girardi regret committing himself to four straight games with a short-rest starter, or will Manuel regret limiting Lee to two starts? Either way, the writers will have plenty to say about it.

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