The Devil’s Advocate – Playoff Edition: Risk and Reward

When the Yankees clinched the AL East Saturday afternoon, Joe Torre made a quick decision: Jaret Wright would start Sunday’s game rather than scheduled starter Mike Mussina, who would instead start last night’s Game One of the ALDS.

Normally, this decision would be a no-brainer, even with home field advantage for the first round riding on the outcome of the last game. With Randy Johnson unavailable until Game Three, the Yankees would of course want a more experienced pitcher starting the first game of the Division Series, and Mike Mussina has been one of the Yankees’ best pitchers since coming to the team before the 2001 season.

But Mussina entered September hurt, and sat out most of the month with tendonitis. It was a pleasant surprise when he returned to the mound in the second-to-last week of the season and shut down the Orioles, but just a week later he was bombed by those same Orioles. As important as it is for the Yankees to have Mike Mussina on the mound in the playoffs, it’s more important for the team to have a quality starter — and they simply didn’t know if Mussina could provide that.

Sunday offered the Yankees the last chance to find out what Moose could do, and Saturday’s win made that a relatively risk-free chance, because even if he had nothing, they’d still win the division. If he was dominant, they couldn’t use him until Game Four — but at least they’d know he could shut down a determined team. The way they chose to play it, they could match Mussina up against Bartolo Colon in the first game of the series and have him for a potential fifth game, but there was the very real chance he could get tagged again, and the team would start in a series hole they might not have otherwise been in.

It wasn’t a cut-and-dry decision, using Mussina on Sunday wasn’t the obvious decision, and not using him wasn’t a bad one. It was just a risk.

On Sunday, Jaret Wright was bombed by Boston, and the Yankees’ loss combined with the Angels’ win sent the Yankees off to Los Angeles to start the ALDS — then off to Anaheim, since the Angels don’t play in Los Angeles. Having already lost something important, the potential damage of the risk Torre was taking grew even more.

But the risk paid off big-time for the Yankees last night, as Mike Mussina didn’t just pitch effectively, he held the Angels scoreless into the bottom of the sixth last night, leading the team to an important 4-2 victory, a 1-0 ALDS lead, and seizing back for the Yankees the Home Field Advantage they lost on Sunday afternoon.

New York got off to a quick start Tuesday night, scoring 3 runs on four straight hits with two outs in the top of the first inning, tacking on another run in the top of the second to take a 4-0 lead. But Colon was able to hold the Yankees there, and the Bombers were unable to touch the Angels’ vaunted bullpen, keeping the score at 4-0 into the seventh when Bengie Molina ripped a solo homer over the centerfield wall to make the score 4-1.

It went down to the wire, as Mariano Rivera recorded the last two outs while facing the potential tying run, having given up only the second ALDS earned run of his career, as well as only the second earned run on the road this season. Nonetheless the Angels were retired, the game was won, and the Yankees were up 1-0.

Game One never decides a series, and Game Two rarely does, but this is especially the case in this ALDS. Bartolo Colon is a strong candidate for the AL Cy Young Award, but there is almost no dropoff in the rest of the rotation, and some of the Angels’ starters may even be better. The Angels only need to face Randy Johnson once in the series, and the other games will be started by pitchers who are much less reliable at first glance than those the Angels are going with. New York’s bullpen is a mess before the eighth inning, and the Halos have had a fair amount of success hitting New York anyway.

Still, for a team who has been playing catchup for most of the season, that has been playing with its back against the wall for a month and a half, with almost every loss seeming like a deathblow, and which went from having a decent shot at being in the postseason as of Saturday morning to being in the postseason on Saturday afternoon, this is a bit of an unusual position — being in the lead. If they can respond to that as well as they responded to being on the brink, they’ll be in this thing for a while. If they become complacent again, well, they’ll be in this thing until this weekend.

Joe Torre isn’t managing complacently, taking another risk in Game Two, starting rookie Chien-Ming Wang over Shawn Chacon. Chacon’s curveball and style of working the fringes of the strike zone might be well-suited to facing the Angels, who put the ball in play and may end up making poor contact against Chacon’s stuff. On the other hand, Wang throws hard and low in the zone, and doesn’t strike out many batters, something the Angels don’t do anyway. His style of pitching may lead to a plethora of ground ball outs — and Chacon’s past as a reliever (although an ineffective one), does make him an option if the team needs help in the middle innings, making Aaron Small the Game Four starter.

Despite having the lead and Home Field Advantage, Game Two is just as important for New York’s chances as Game One was. With a win, the Yankees will force the Angels to somehow find a way to beat Randy Johnson in Yankee Stadium to survive, while a loss would mean the Yankees need to rely on Johnson to avoid facing elimination — without Johnson to rely on anymore in the series. Game Twos are almost always more important that Game Ones, and this is no exception.

The Yankees battled hard to overcome a poor start and injuries, but in New York it’s not enough to try your best and come up short. The 2005 regular season was a successful failure, the postseason has no such option. Last night, the Yankees took a step in the direction of success. Tonight they take the next step. Which direction it’s in depends largely on a rookie.

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