ARLINGTON, Texas — Between the constant debates this month over pitching strategies and the American League Championship Series nearly re-enacting the Yankees’ historic collapse to the Red Sox 16 years earlier, a thought popped into my head. Sixteen years later, I realized how the Yankees should have gone after the Red Sox in 2004 ALCS Game 7 at Yankee Stadium.
They should have tabbed Felix Heredia as their opener.
Of course, at the time such a thought would have constituted blasphemy. Start the game with a reliever and then switch over to a starter?! Insanity! But it sure as heck would have given the Yankees a better chance of avoiding infamy than their actual plan.
Those Yankees, unlike these 2020 Yankees (who, you might remember, actually used an opener and saw it backfire), were the perfect candidates for an opener. They had only three starters they trusted: Mike Mussina (who pitched in Games 1 and 5), Jon Lieber (Games 2 and 6) and Orlando Hernandez (Game 4). Surly veteran Kevin Brown started Game 3 at Fenway Park and lasted only two innings, allowing four runs, and his fellow first-year Yankee Javier Vazquez relieved him and also gave up four runs, albeit in 4 ⅓ innings. While the Yankees actually won that contest, 19-8, neither man inspired any confidence whatsoever. As Joe Torre detailed in his book with Tom Verducci “The Yankee Years,” is that the Yankees started the game knowing they were cooked. As Mussina said, “We’re finished. That was the feeling after Game 6. As soon as Game 6 ended.” The Yankees started Brown and trailed 2-0 after one inning, with Ortiz slamming a two-run homer, and 6-0 after two, with Damon clubbing’s Vazquez first pitch of the night for a grand slam.
Heredia, then 29, ranked as one of the least consequential players on the Yankees’ postseason roster; he had put up a 6.28 ERA in 47 regular-season appearances. Yet the southpaw knew how to pitch to lefty batters, who slashed a not-awful .216/.326/.405 against him that year. David Ortiz, who would win Most Valuable Player honors for the series, was 1-for-8 lifetime against Heredia with two walks and three strikeouts and failed to reach base safely against him in Games 5 and 6. Johnny Damon was 0-for-3 with a sacrifice bunt and hit by pitch. Trot Nixon was 1-for-9 with two walks and two strikeouts. Shoot, Heredia even struck out the lethal righty hitter Manny Ramirez twice in four tries, a double and a walk coming out of the other two.
If the Yankees started Heredia and told him to get through Nixon at the sixth spot (assuming Terry Francona didn’t change his starting lineup), maybe Heredia puts up a couple of zeroes and gives the Yankees’ lineup a chance to do something against Boston starter Derek Lowe. And maybe Brown or Vazquez feel better about entering the game with a lead, or perhaps even El Duque, on two days’ rest like Lowe, could have been sold on contributing a few innings of relief work.
For sure, it would have constituted a better plan than throwing Brown out there and hoping for the best. For sure, too, it would’ve made for a more sensible usage of the opener than what the current Yankees did with Deivi Garcia and J.A. Happ in AL Division Series Game 2 against the Rays. Instead, the ‘04 Yankees remain a group of one thanks to the Rays’ rebound after losing Games 4, 5 and 6. And the ‘20 Yankees join the Blue Jays and Astros as casualties of these remarkable Rays, who, the Dodgers will see, pounce on any advantage you give them.
Let’s catch up on Pop Quiz questions. Both came from Gary Mintz of South Huntington:
- Name the current major-league ballpark that can be seen in the 2004 film “Twisted.”
- In a 2019 episode of “Young Sheldon,” a Hall of Fame pitcher is mentioned. Name the pitcher.
Pamela A. Bakker’s book “Eyes on the Sporting Scene, 1870-1930” is an accounting, rich in detail, of two sportswriting brothers from long ago. My favorite parts were the descriptions of different New York areas (Brooklyn and Rockland County stand out) as the 20th century arrived.
Your Pop Quiz answers:
- Oracle Park
- Nolan Ryan
If you have a tidbit that connects baseball with popular culture, please send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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