The Choke Was on Them


The House was still rocking courtesy of Bernie and Sori as Rudy paused in its bowels, waiting as his posse made the South Bronx safe for Hizzoner. Beneath the NYPD cap was the smirk that had been on hiatus for much of the past year or so. “We’re the Yankees,” he seemed to gloat. “Ain’t we clutch?” Let’s think about clutch hitting for a second. When a late-inning outburst happens, like the Yanks’ say-what? comeback on Sunday, everyone from Giuliani on down starts yakking about clutch hitting.

Nice idea. But how exactly does it work? Hitting is all about reaction—”You see the ball, you hit the ball,” to paraphrase the Skipper in Bull Durham. So how do you explain the mechanism by which Bernie Williams can perform better in the eighth inning of a close game than in the bottom of the first?

Adrenaline? This ain’t football, friends. Focus? A batter spends, what, 40 seconds in the batter’s box during a typical at-bat? It would seem that trying to summon a peak mental state for a total of, oh, five minutes during the course of an evening—with the reward being millions of dollars and the adulation of countless fans—wouldn’t be too much to ask, now would it?

Mythology aside, I’d argue that about the best that Bernie can hope for is to go up to the plate and just not do any worse than he would in the second inning. “I tried to keep it simple,” Williams recalled modestly after his big dinger. “I knew that he was throwing a lot of good fastballs, so my plan was just try and relax and get the good part of the bat on the ball, and I was just blessed enough that it went out.”

That said, remember something else: A hitter succeeds to exactly the degree that the pitcher fails. So let’s look at the other side of the equation. The pitcher—let’s call him Arthur Rhodes—needs to decide what pitch he’s going to throw, and then he needs to throw it. So in the eighth inning on Sunday with a 1-0 lead, Arthur Rhodes gets David Justice looking for the first out of the inning. He’s probably thinking, “Hey, man, that’s the way we won 116 games. We got the Yankees where we want ’em. We’re going back to Seattle. We’re going to the World Series. I’m going to Disney World.”

Then he works the count full against Bernie Williams. He hears every pitching coach he’s ever known chant in five-part Gregorian harmony, “Babe Ruth is dead. Throw strikes,” and then add in the coda, “But don’t give him anything to hit.” Mr. Rhodes also knows that if he walks Bernabe and puts the tying run on base, his ass is out of there.

So he challenges Bernie with the cheese, throws a fastball that just finds the fat part of the plate. Bernie deposits a Monterey Jack 10 rows deep in the right-field stands. Foul by 20 feet.

“That was close,” he sighs. As he turns toward the still-quavering stands, he’s having a flashback to his last two playoff appearances at Yankee Stadium. Late innings. One-run leads. Gone in a heartbeat. His pitching line: a Mark Wohlers-like seven runs in three innings.

Rocky Rhodes stares in at the batter. “That’s Bernie Williams up there. He’s hit a gazillion postseason home runs. I don’t want to give him another fastball. But he’ll be expecting the off-speed stuff. And I don’t want to get beat with less than my best. Or do I?”

His diamond studs twinkling under the lights, Rhodes sighs, looking like Eriq LaSalle about to perform open-heart massage on yet another gunshot victim. He shakes off his catcher not once but twice. He swallows hard. He grips the ball a little tighter. He throws a fastball that runs high and over the plate and is as straight as Donny Osmond. Bernie swings. It’s gone. And so is Rhodes.

An inning later, it’s déjà vu all over again. Kazuhiro Sasaki walks Brosius, putting the winning run on base, and faces Alfonso Soriano. He’s worried about an infield hit. He’s worried about the bunt. He’s worried about being behind in the count. He’s just worried. He lays one in. Thuuhhhhhh Yankees win.

OK, I’ll say it. The Mariner bullpen choked. Tightness of the elbow and the brain has afflicted better pitchers than Rhodes and Sasaki. It happens a lot in postseason baseball, when what’s perceived as clutch hitting is really a lack of clutch pitching.

Call it heresy, but I’m not convinced that the Yankees really do hit better when the game’s on the line. Fortunately, sometimes all you have to do is not do worse.