Angels 5, Yankees 3
-- One runner reached base in the bottom of the seventh inning, then another, without so much as a ball leaving the infield grass. It was a tie game, and there was not a soul stirring in the New York Yankees' bullpen. Once upon a time, a guy named Clemens might have been afforded such a show of faith and trust. Cone, maybe. Pettitte, probably. But Chien-Ming Wang was a rookie, with a suspect shoulder, making his first postseason start. To leave the ball in his hand was to tempt fate.
A sacrifice bunt, a shallow fly ball to center field. Two outs, runners on second and third. Movement in the Yankees' bullpen. But the ball remained in Wang's hand.
Should he have been out there? It may be debated for years. But when Orlando Cabrera laced a single to center field, scoring two runs and sending the Los Angeles Angels to a 5-3 victory in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, the Yankees suddenly lost a very winnable game, and they did it with their least experienced pitcher on the mound.
The Angels' victory evened the best-of-five series at a game apiece, and it was one they had to have -- because now the series shifts to Yankee Stadium, where Yankees ace Randy Johnson will be awaiting them in Friday night's Game 3.
Wang, the Yankees' sinkerball sensation, was pitching a brilliant game when the seventh inning rolled around, the only marks against his name a solo homer by Juan Rivera in the fifth and an unearned run in the sixth that was born out of an egregious error by Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. It was 2-2, the Yankees having chased Angels starter John Lackey from the game in the sixth.
But Rivera led off the Angels' seventh with a high chopper to shortstop for an infield single, and Wang threw wide of first base on Steve Finley's bunt. Adam Kennedy then bunted both runners over. All the while, the Yankees never had anyone up in their bullpen. The signal was clear to Wang: It's your game, kid.
Finally, after Wang struggled to put away Angels leadoff man Chone Figgins, the Yankees' bullpen stirred to action. But Wang, with all of 18 big league starts to his name, was left in the game for one more batter, Cabrera.
On Wang's first pitch to Cabrera, the Angels' slick shortstop smashed it into shallow center, scoring both runs and sending a crowd of 45,150 at Angel Stadium into ecstasy.
Into this ear-splitting din walked Yankees Manager Joe Torre, emerging from his dugout and slouching out to the mound to take the ball from Wang. The Yankees' infielders converged on the mound, not to discuss the next batter, but to congratulate their pitcher on a fine effort. Wang hung his head as he made the long, slow walk back to the dugout.
"We gave them a few extra outs and paid the price for it.," Torre said. "[Wang] pitched well. He left [the pitch to Cabrera] up, and that was the difference in the game."
For eight straight Octobers under Torre, Game 2 of the Division Series belonged to Andy Pettitte, an indication of how important Torre considered that particular game -- and an indication, as well, of how highly the Yankees think of Wang.
John Cox, the Yankees' Pacific Rim scout who signed Wang out of Taiwan five years ago, initially was unimpressed by the young right-hander's stuff at the time, which included an 89-to-90 mph fastball. But then he watched one night as Wang got into the late innings of a close game, at which point the radar readings started going up to 93 and 94.
And that's where Wang's fastball hovered on Wednesday night, each one finishing its trip to the plate with a pronounced dip southward. Baseball folks call it a "heavy" ball because it seems pulled to the earth as if it were made of lead. Wang's game is to induce ground balls in bunches, something he does exceedingly well. In one recent start, he coaxed no fewer than nine grounders back to the mound.
For most of Wednesday night's game, Wang was outpitching his more accomplished Angels counterpart, Lackey. Lackey was a rookie once, too, and he came of age during the Angels' magical 2002 postseason run. It is he who earned the win for the Angels in Game 7 of the World Series, becoming the first rookie to do so in 93 years.
Lackey has grown into a dominating near ace in the intervening years, but the Yankees' collection of patient, veteran hitters worked him for five walks and a pair of runs during his 52/3 innings.
And that's where, perhaps now, the Yankees might wish they had given Wang the rest of the night off, too -- perhaps in the bottom of the sixth, after Bengie Molina's RBI single tied the game. Perhaps after the go-ahead runs were pushed into scoring position in the seventh. Perhaps after Wang had secured the second out of the inning.
But they put their faith in the rookie. They left the ball in Wang's hands.