It was a beautiful day in the Bronx yesterday, or at least it was for eight innings.
Bathed in golden sunlight on a still, 67 degree day, the Yankees and Red Sox played a nice taut 3-2 game through eight. Tim Wakefield's knuckler was dancing as he allowed just five baserunners in his 6 2/3 innings of work, facing the minimum through 3 1/3 thanks to Doug Mirabelli nabbing Derek Jeter, who had singled, as he tried to swipe third with one out in the first.
Jeter probably spent more time on base than any other Yankee during the first seven innings. In the fourth, Alex Rodriguez lifted a lazy Wakefield curve into the lower part of the black section in center for the Yankees first run. An inning later, Tino Martinez creamed a knuckler that stayed up around his shoulders into the right field seats for what remains his only hit of the season. Bernie Williams followed Tino with a five-pitch walk. Bernie remains hitless this season, but has a .308 on-base percentage thanks to four walks and a sac fly. Jason Giambi was the fifth man to reach against Wakefield, drawing a full-count walk in the seventh. Giambi has just one hit this year, but a .455 OBP thanks to one walk and three hit-by-pitches and a single.
Speaking of hit batsmen, Derek Jeter, who has now been plunked twice, was hit in the left shoulder by a Mike Timlin pitch in the eighth. The pitch actually glanced off Jeter's shoulder and hit the bill of his batting helmet, sending Jeter to the ground in a loud and scary moment. Jeter got up and ran the bases--avenging his first-inning caught stealing by making it to third, though no further--but he was replaced in the top of the ninth by Rey Sanchez (wearing 26, despite being listed as #14 on the Yankees official site). After the game, Jeter was taken to the hospital because of a ringing in his ears. A CAT scan came back negative. There are no cats in Derek Jeter's head.
On the other side of the ball, Mike Mussina, if the YES broadcasters are to be believed, did a solid job despite being unmercifully squeezed by home plate umpire Mike Dimuro. Mussina walked just two in six innings and scattered five hits. Unfortunately he clumped four others in the fourth when a five-pitch lead-off walk to Trot Nixon was followed by singles by Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Kevin Millar, the last plating Nixon and Ramirez. Thankfully, Ortiz wandered too far off second on Edgar Renteria's subsequent liner to Tony Womack, turning a first-and-second, one out situation into a man-on-first, two outs situation and rendering Mirabelli's subsequent (there is apparently no proper synonym for subsequent) single harmless as Moose escaped the inning by inducing Buell Mueller into a ground out to second.
Taynon Sturtze contributed another pair of scoreless innings of questionable merit. In the seventh he allowed a lead-off single to Mark Bellhorn, which was followed by a Johnny Damon fielder's choice back to the mound. Sturtze then walked Trot Nixon on five pitches, but Damon took off to steal second on the 3-1 count. While Damon was automatically awarded second because of the walk, his momentum coming out of his slide carried him off the bag where Derek Jeter, having received the throw from Posada behind the plate, tagged him for the second out. For those confused by the play, while a runner can take his sweet time going from first to second when forced over by a walk without fear of being tagged out, once he reaches the base the force is eliminated and he can be tagged out if he leaves the base. This exact situation is spelled out in the rulebook, rule 7.08 (e).
Sturtze then gave up an Ortiz double to start the eighth before retiring Dave McCarty (in for Millar who came up lame in the sixth following his third single in as many at-bats), Renteria and Mirabelli in order. Altogether, Sturtze allowed three baserunners in two innings, struck out no one, and threw just half of his pitches for strikes.
In the bottom of the eighth, after Bernie flew out to right, Tony Womack fouled off a bunt before taking four straight Alan Embree pitches for balls. Yup, a Womack walk. On his career, Womack has walked once every 17 plate appearances, so we can expect another in about a week. Womack's walk was followed by the entry of Mike Timlin, who hit Jeter with his first pitch and walked Rodriguez with his next four to load the bases. Amazingly, Gary Sheffield then swung at the first two pitches he saw, fouling off the first and lifting the second to Ramirez in left to plate Womack with a go-ahead sac fly.
And thus it had been a taut, if deliberately paced, 3-2 game when Joe Torre handed the ball to Mariano Rivera for the top of the ninth. The day before the situation was the same and Rivera left the mound with the score tied, having given up a solo homer to Jason Varitek, but wound up with the win thanks to a walk-off dinger from Jeter. He should have been so lucky on this day.
Four of Rivera's first five pitches missed the strike zone, sending Mueller to first with a walk. Bellhorn followed with a single on a 1-1 pitch. Mo then started Damon off with a ball, then fell behind 2-1 before Damon ran the count full by fouling off a pair of pitches. Damon then dumped a single into shallow right to load the bases. With Trot Nixon at the plate, bases loaded, and no outs, Mo fell behind again, this time 2-0. Then Rivera gathered himself and started working the outside corner, striking out Nixon on a pair of pitches tailing away. He then got ahead of Manny Ramirez 0-2 by running the ball in on his hands where Manny could do nothing but foul it off. On Rivera's second 1-2 pitch, Ramirez hit a grounder to third that looked like it had the potential to be a 'round-the-horn, game-ending double play.
But Alex Rodriguez missed the ball. Despite the ball hitting him in the gut, Rodriguez, who seemed to be back on his heels perhaps readjusting to the quicker hops of third base, failed to glove it. With the chance of a double play gone, he then attempted to pick up the ball and fire it home to retire the lead runner, which would have left the bases loaded, but with two outs and the Yankees still in the lead. But he missed the ball again. Mueller scored. All hands were safe. Tie game. Bases Loaded. One out.
Rivera then got Ortiz to ground out weekly between the mound and first, but Mo was unable to come home with the ball because of where it was hit. Thus the Red Sox took a 4-3 lead with two outs in the ninth. Then the roof caved in.
Dave McCarty walked on four pitches, Renteria fought off a pitch for a single to shallow left plating Damon and Ramirez, and Mirabelli walked on five pitches. 6-3 Red Sox. That was it. Joe Torre came out to get Rivera, who left to a mix of boos and cheers having given up five runs on three walks and three singles. That just one of those runs was earned would be small consolation.
Felix Rodriguez, making his Yankee debut, gave the Sox a bonus run on a wild pitch (that actually hit Posada's glove near his right hip) before striking out Mueller, the tenth Boston batter of the inning. In the bottom of the ninth, Ruben Sierra hit for Bubba Crosby who had run for Giambi in the seventh (why Torre pinch ran for a bopper like Giambi in a tie game with two outs in the seventh and the bottom of the order due up, in the DH slot no less, has been lost to the furor over the Yankees' disastrous ninth inning), and lead off with a double, but was stranded as Keith Foulke failed to return the favor as he had on Tuesday afternoon.
Incidentally, in response to all of the remarks about how it's a sign of the apocalypse that Torre actually took Rivera out of a game, it is extremely rare, but it's not unheard of. In his eight seasons as the Yankee closer Mariano has averaged six "unfinished" games per season (total games minus games finished), which adds up to 48 unfinished regular season games over that span. Of course not all of those were games that he left due to poor performance. Over the same span he's blown 44 saves (5.5 per year), and some of those were surely games in which he left between innings of a tie game, or did indeed finish because they came on the road. Still, there have to be a fair number of those 48 unfinished games in which Torre had to take the ball from Mo.
Likewise, in response to the outrage over the Stadium crowd booing Rivera, those who saw the game on TV were witness to the fact that many of those still in the stands were applauding the Yankee closer, and were even encouraging those around them to join in. The reaction was at worst a mix. The problem is that, no matter how much respect one has for a player, it's awfully difficult to cheer after a performance like the one Rivera turned in yesterday (incidentally, he threw just 47 percent of his 38 pitches for strikes as opposed to 67 percent strikes on Tuesday). If I were in the stands, I likely would have simply remained quiet and tended to my scorecard. My point being that had the "true" fans simply remained quiet, the few bad-seed boo birds would have been the only voices that were heard. Credit, then, the fans that were applauding, and don't paint the crowd, or Yankee fans in general, with so broad a brush that you accuse the many for the actions of a few.
A lot has and will be written about Rivera's struggles in the past two games, and against the Red Sox in general in the past few years, but one has to remember a few things:
For the first time in recent memory, Rivera, perhaps as a reaction to pitching in a career high 74 games last season, did not work out this winter. In theory the rest should have done him good, but that's a drastic change in his conditioning that could have allowed a lot more rust to grow on his 35-year-old right arm than otherwise would have.
Rivera was briefly sidelined with bursitis in his pitching elbow during spring training and as a result pitched fewer spring games than usual.
Rivera's inactivity over the winter and reduced spring schedule, combined with his advancing age, could mean that he is simply not yet in regular-season shape. Unfortunately the only way to get Rivera in shape at this point is to get him in ballgames. With the Yankees next nine games coming against the high-powered offenses of Boston and Baltimore, that could cause more problems than it solves, though it might behoove Joe Torre to use Mo in a blow out, just so he can reestablish his pitches. That's not to say that Mo shouldn't continue to be handed the ball in key situations, but if he blows two more saves before the season is twelve games old, the panic in NYC will reach chicken-little proportions. If it gets there, remember that had Alex Rodriguez not bumbled (or to paraphrase Alex, shcrewed up about as badly as it could be shcrewed up) Ramirez's grounder, we may not be having this conversation.
By the way, the Red Sox out-hit the Yankees 14-4 in yesterday's ball game, but 13 of the Boston hits were singles, Ortiz's double off Sturtze being the only extra-bagger. The Yankees scored 3 runs on 3 hits through eight, while the Red Sox scored 2 runs on 11 hits over the same span. Then in the ninth, the Sox scored 5 runs on 3 hits. To quote Ol' Golden Throat Sterling, "you figure this game out."