A couple days ago, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy made a curious decision to start beleagured southpaw Barry Zito over Tim Lincecum in Game 4. Of more concern to Giants fans was the fact that after losing the first two games of their Division Series at home to the Cincinnati Reds, their team rested its season's hopes on a man who has become a punchline for big contracts and awful results. A man who somehow failed to compile even one full point of fWAR despite 184.1 innings at an ERA a run lower than his oft-criticized rotationmate who still managed 1.5 fWAR (Tim Lincecum). The results cannot have surprised many fans.
The Giants handed Zito an immediate 1-0 lead on an Angel Pagan leadoff homer, but following two quick outs, Zito gave up a single to Joey Votto and walked the bases loaded. He then walked Todd Frazier to force in the tying runbefore striking out Dioner Navarro to end the inning. It should be noted that Navarro only had 73 plate appearances this year. Striking him out was not an accomplishment. Soon trailing 3-1, the Reds threatened another two-out rally against Zito with back-to-back singles in the second that he escaped, but a solo homer from Ryan Ludwick and a two-out walk to Navarro was enough to convince Bochy that Zito simply was not the right man for the mound should he want to preserve his lead. After only 2.2 innings and 76 pitches, Zito was done for the day and the Giants' bullpen took over. The Reds were limited to one run on five hits in 6.1 innings (4.1 from Lincecum) for the rest of the game, an 8-3 Giants victory to force Game 5.
The $64,000 question is "Why should I care about a Giants victory?" The Yankees' Game 4 starter, Phil Hughes, had a much better season than Zito after all. Hughes is not even close to the terrifying thought that A.J. Burnett was in ALDS Game 4 last year. Still, he is by no means anywhere near the levels of Game 1-3 starters CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Hiroki Kuroda. CC after all is the almost-unquestioned ace, Pettitte is a wily, crafty, clichey playoff veteran, and Kuroda might have had the best 2012 of all three of them. Meanwhile, Hughes was around league-average with 1.9 fWAR, a 101 ERA-, and 108 FIP-, even while surrendering 35 homers, second-most in Yankees history. Fortunately, the Yankees got remarkable length from the Sabettiroda chimaera in the first three games of the ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles. They combined for 24 of 29 innings pitched so far, and their contributions have put the Yankees in an excellent position to handle Hughes's Game 4 start.
Hughes certainly has a better chance at staying in the game longer than Zito and Burnett did in their Game 4 starts, but with a well-rested bullpen, the Yankees have options. Hughes's long-ball tendencies can surface in a hurry, and he has some great backups waiting in the wings should he hit a bump in the road. Here's a list of the available bullpen options and how much each has pitched in the series thus far.
Look at all those zeroes. It's great, and not because those pitchers are incapable; the starters have just been so terrific that Joba, Lowe, Phelps, and Rapada have not been needed at all. Logan struck out his one batter last night, and Soriano pitched an inning and a third scoreless to take the game to the 11th inning. D-Rob has been the one workhorse, getting the final out of Game 1, pitching the eighth in the Game 2 loss at Camden Yards, and tossing the final two innings of the 12-inning thriller last night. He's been lights-out, allowing only one baserunner, which came on a fluke pop-up.
Phelps would likely be the Yankees' Lincecum in this situation, ready to serve as Hughes's caddy like he often did with Freddy Garcia way back in April. Phelps had a Ramiro Mendoza-esque season, taking a spot in the rotation when there was an opening in 11 games and pitching the other 22 out of the 'pen in both long relief and short relief. He finished a third of an inning shy of a nice, round 100 for the season, and most importantly, it was great baseball. He had a 80 ERA- and batters hit just .216 off him all year. Manager Joe Girardi felt comfortable enough in Phelps to start him over a shaky Ivan Nova in the crucial Game 161 while just a game ahead of Baltimore in the division title race. On three days' rest, he came up with 5.1 fine innings of three-hit, two-run ball. It is not likely a big assumption to postulate that Girardi would use a well-rested Phelps if Hughes stumbles like Zito did early on. He could certainly pitch as long as Lincecum did if need be, though it would not probably not be necessary.
Should Hughes last a few innings and the Yankees want to save Phelps for a potential emergency long relief situation in extra innings, the other unused arms can help piece together a Game 4 win as well. Lowe found his niche in short relief in September, pitching 14.1 innings of 1.26 ERA baseball to close the season after a couple bad outings. He would be useful to utilize immediately after Hughes as well since his bowling ball sinker is a big departure from Hughes's pitching style, which does not produce many ground balls. As a bonus, Lowe's playoff experience will also probably help, although rookies Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez just demonstrated how overrated that can be. Regardless, it is comforting to know that Lowe has previously come up with clutch relief moments like this one to clinch the 2003 ALDS in Oakland. The Yankees would certainly not be in dire straits with him.
Early bumps are okay to work through in the regular season, but when unreliable pitchers hit them in the playoffs, managers cannot risk letting the game escape from their teams. Former Yankee manager Joe Torre often recounted a tale from one of his first playoff series, the 1996 ALDS against the Texas Rangers. The Yankees had a 2-1 series lead entering Game 4, so they started Kenny Rogers, who finished '96 with a mediocre 4.68 ERA and 96 ERA-. He worked around a single and a walk in a scoreless first, but was roughed up for two runs on four hits in the second. During this inning, Torre's old bench coach Don Zimmer advised him to get the bullpen ready. When questioned why so early, "Zim" answered, "This is the playoffs. You don't have time to mess around." And so Torre replaced a stunned Rogers with Brian Boehringer. The move did not pay off immediately, as the deficit widened to 4-0 in a two-run third, but the bullpen of Boehringer, David Weathers, Mariano Rivera, and John Wetteland held the potent Texas offense scoreless the rest of the way. The Yankees rallied for a 5-4 victory to clinch the series.
The Yankees have a fresh bullpen with only one pitcher possibly in need of rest, and Robertson could probably get a hitter or two out tonight anyway if needed. No matter what length Hughes gives them, Girardi should be able to construct a winning formula from the barely-used 'pen parts he has at his disposal. Even if Hughes only shows vague signs of faltering like Rogers did when Girardi caught him in '96, then Torre's successor should not hesitate to make a change. The offense has been slumping outside of a few hitters, but if the game is still winnable despite an early deficit, then Girardi must keep the game close. CC will be going in Game 5 if necessary, but the Yankees should pull as many stops as they can to avoid the randomness of a win-or-go-home matchup.