The Cavalry Never Came

Well, this time the cavalry didn’t come. Flamethrowing ace on the mound, a 2-run lead, 5 outs away from the championship — you were thinking, as I was, “here we go again.” The comeback begins. But this time, that’s how it ended. In fact, Josh Beckett threw just 11 more pitches after getting to the talismanic “5 outs” mark, getting a GIDP from Nick Johnson, flies to what’s left of Death Valley in left from Bernie Williams and Hideki Matsui, and a weak grounder from Jorge Posada.
Beckett also, in the process, saved the idea of the complete game. After watching Mark Prior and Pedro Martinez — arguably the best pitcher in each league this season — wilt in the heat of defending a 3-run lead in the 8th inning, managers everywhere had to be revising even further downward their willingness to let their hoss finish what he started. Tonight, pitching on 3 days’ rest, Beckett finished the job. Not bad for a guy whose career record stood at 9-11 with a 3.69 ERA entering the All-Star Break this season. My hat is off to Jack McKeon; he was right on the call for Beckett on 3 days’ rest, and I was wrong.
Did the Yankees choke, in losing such a hard-fought series to an opponent over whom they were favored? I explored this question at length two years ago:
It really all depends how you look at the postseason. There are those, like me, who believe that baseball games are basically determined by four things: (1) talent, including not just physical talent and skill but the collection of abilities ranging from concentration to judgment of the strike zone and on the basepaths that separate good players from bad ones; (2) strategy; (3) matchups, i.e. the fact that the righthanded-swinging 1953 Dodgers would fare much better against Randy Johnson than would the 1927 Yankees; and (4) timing or luck, which may or may not be the same thing. The first is paramount over the long regular season, provided that the strategy isn’t so totally awful that a team squanders its ability to put the best talent on the field. In the postseason, though, the other three factors loom much larger because the games are closer, they’re head-to-head rather than against a cross-section of the league, and with fewer games a single blunder can turn the tide.
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But there are also those, most prominently among pro-Yankees sportswriters, who view the postseason as a sort of mythical proving ground where true champs are separated from “phony” stars who don’t really “have what it takes” . . . Thus, winning in the postseason becomes proof of a form of moral superiority, or is seen as somehow revealing who is truly the better team. The media loved, for example, revelling in how the Mariners’ 116 wins “don’t mean anything now” once they lost to the Yankees — as if the entire regular season was an illusion and in 6 games the shadows had now been cast off to reveal, with Platonic insight, the actual form of the best team in the American League. We heard variations on this line for three years, but the problem with the argument is that it provides no room for the best team to lose – if you lose, by definition, you are no longer “a champion.”
Did they choke? Sometimes you put your best pitcher on the mound, and he gets beat. Happens to everybody. Except the Yankees, we were told. We were told wrong.

(On a personal note, my predictions for the postseason wound up 4-3, but one thing I called before the NLCS: “Great matchup of young arms, with Josh Beckett and Kerry Wood making The Leap and Prior already there.”)