Wednesday night's 11-2 victory behind Meat Pavano's best Yankee outing was nice, but last night's 4-3 victory, which required clutch hits, manufactured runs, tight defense and, above all else, an unyielding bullpen, was the sort of victory that really could turn this team around.
The one disappointing aspect of last night's game was that Mike Mussina is still pitching like the rapidly aging veteran of April through August of last year rather than the days-of-old ace of September. Through the first four innings he alternated pitching out of jams (the worst a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the third which he ended by turning a comebacker into a rapid-fire 1-2-3 double play) and setting the side down in order (which he actually only did once, requiring a double play to keep it to three batters in the fourth). In the fifth he gave up five singles, which lead to three Blue Jay runs. Then in the sixth he gave up a single and a walk to the first two batters, got the first out via a sac bunt, and was pulled from the game by Joe Torre, who could have yanked him an inning earlier without argument from me.
The Yankee bats, meanwhile, were silent through three, the only baserunners being Rey Sanchez (starting for Womack against a lefty) who was hit by a pitch and Alex Rodriguez, who walked in the second only to get picked off, yet another unnecessary out on the bases.
The opposing starter was Gustavo Chacin (prounounced SHA-seen), who had intrigued me as he had pitched seven strong innings in the Bronx last September to beat the Yankees his major league debut and entered last night's game with a 1.42 ERA and a 3-0 record in three starts. Chacin is an interesting cat to watch. A lefty from Venezuela, he makes an odd pause prior to his delivery. He also wears Oakleys on the mound, but unlike the prescription lenses of Eric Gagne or Francisco Rodriguez, Chacin's are tinted and hide his eyes. Chacin also has a strangely drawn mouth with thin, rather bluish lips that turn down at the corners at sharp angles. Combined with the shades, his poor complexion, and the Blue Jays' gray caps, this gives him a creepy, robotic look. It's as if he were some sort of evil android from the future. (Strangest of all, he wore the shades for his MLB mugshot. Maybe he really is a robot from the future!)
Fortunately, last night he proved not to be the terminator appearance and his record suggested. The Yankees broke through in the fourth when a Bernie Williams single was followed by a rocket Gary Sheffield double, which scored Bernie with Sheff taking third on the throw home. MVPatsui then got Sheffield home with a sac fly. The Yanks tagged on two more in the fifth when Jorge Posada lead off with a walk, Tino Martinez singled him to second, Sanchez bunted them both over (a good move here because Sanchez can't hit and the top of the order was due up behind him), Derek Jeter got Jorge home with a sac fly, and Bernie drove in Tino with a single. 4-0 Yanks.
Then came Mussina's three-run fifth. Then came the sixth. With Moose failing to protect a one-run lead by allowing runners to second and third with one out, Joe Torre brought in Buddy Groom to make his Yankee debut. John Gibbons responded by pinch-hitting for Frankie Catalanotto (2 for 3 on the night) with Reed Johnson, whom Torre then intentionally walked to load the bases and have Groom face Gregg Zaun batting from the right. Groom got Zaun to pop out to second on his first pitch for the second out. Torre then called on Felix Rodriguez to face Shea Hillenbrand.
The choice to go to Rodriguez was an interesting one. My first reaction was that I was impressed that Torre was going to Rodriguez rather than Tom Gordon in such a big spot. That perhaps the move meant that Torre had recognized the needed to give the big opportunities which Gordon has been wasting to the other members of the pen. It also seemed to speak to a newfound confidence in Rodriguez, as Felix is prone to walks and wild pitches, either of which would have tied the game in this situation. As it turned out, Rodriguez's 1-1 pitch was indeed wild, but it took a lucky bounce off the backstop and came right back to Posada, keeping Alexis Rios at third. Rodriguez then evened the count at 2-2 and got Hillenbrand to ground into a fielder's choice to end the inning (though the ball almost scooted past Jeter as it was hit sharply to his left on the Toronto turf).
In the seventh, Rodriguez gave up a one-out double to Vernon Wells and was replaced by Mike Stanton, who retired the lefty Eric Hinske. With two outs and the tying run on second, Stanton was then replaced by . . . Tom Gordon. So much for my ideas about Torre shifting responsibility in the pen. As it turns out, the sixth inning just wasn't late enough in the game for Torre to go to Gordon. In a way, using Rodriguez when he did was the right decision for the wrong reason, though were it up to me, I'd have gone to Steve Karsay in that spot as he has walked just one batter in four appearances and needed just seven pitches to get through a 1-2-3 ninth against the Jays on Wednesday.
Still, Gordon repaid Torre's continued faith by getting Rios to ground out to end the inning. He then pitched around a lead-off walk in the eighth by striking out Russ Adams and Reed Johnson and getting Zaun to ground into another too-close-for-comfort fielders choice at second.
Actually, Gordon benefited slightly from a catchers interference call in that inning, which made for a curious subplot to the brief two-game series. In the third inning of Wednesday night's game, with Bernie Williams running on a full count, Gary Sheffield took what he thought was ball four. The pitch was actually called strike three, but as Blue Jay catcher Gregg Zaun came up to make the throw to second to nail Bernie, Sheffield sauntered in front of him, thinking he had walked. Zaun stopped his throwing motion as Sheffield wandered in front of him and then lobbed the ball over Sheffield's head to second, too late to catch Bernie, but close enough to suggest that a decent throw would have had him. Zaun and his manager, John Gibbons, complained to home plate ump Fieldin Culbreth (glad to finally get to write that name, though it's never good when umpires get mentioned in a game recap), but the interference call was not made.
In the bottom of the very same inning, Frank Catalanotto struck out swinging as Russ Adams was running from first. As Posada rose to throw, the momentum from Catalanotto's swing carried the batter across the plate and Jorge ricocheted his throw off the front of Catalanotto's batting helmet at close range, the ball careening out toward shortstop. In that case the interference call was made and Adams, obviously safe at second, was returned to first. In the eighth inning last night, a similar situation occurred when Adams struck out and staggered across the plate due to the momentum of his swing as Orlando Hudson attempted to steal second. In this case, Posada didn't throw at all, but did receive the interference call, returning Hudson to first, where he was stranded by Gordon. I can't remember the last time I saw interference called, but it happened twice (and should have been three times) in these two games.
Still clinging to a one-run lead, Joe Torre went to Mariano Rivera in the ninth, presenting Mo with his first save opportunity (and just his second appearance) since last Wednesday (4/13) in Boston. Rivera responded well, retiring Hillenbrand and Koskie quickly, then getting strike one on Vernon Wells. Wells then slapped a single "up the middle and through" to Jeter's left. Mo then fell behind Eric Hinske 2-0 before giving up another single to put runners on the corners. Mo then fell behind Rios 2-0 as well, though this 2-0 was somewhat purposeful as Rivera was busting the lanky youngster high and inside to keep him honest about the outside pitch. He then located a perfect pitch on the lower inside corner to make it 2-1 and got Rios to ground out to second to end the game.
Altogether the Yankee bullpen threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings allowing three hits (two against Mo), walking two (one intentionally), and striking out two (both Gordon). It wasn't a dominating performance (just 56 percent strikes collectively, that's not counting Groom's intentional walk), but it was an effective one that was helped by surprisingly solid Yankee defense, particularly the inning-ending plays by Jeter in the sixth, seventh and eighth.
The most exciting play, however, came to start the ninth. On a 1-1 count, Rivera got Hillenbrand to pop up between the mound and home. Posada came out from behind the plate appearing to have a bead on the ball with Rivera and Martinez closing in, but the ball was hit straight up and so high that Posada lost it in the Rogers Centre roof. As the ball descended Posada began to scream that he didn't see it. Tino, who assumed Jorge had the ball all the way, sprung into action at the last second, dove between Rivera and Posada, and snagged the ball no more than a few inches off the ground as Rivera, who also started to lunge, but much too late, had to leap over him.
Altogether last night was an important win for the Yankees. Their only other win which came with a margin of victory of fewer that three runs was the 4-3 win in the season's second game after Rivera blew his first save and Jeter rescued him with a walk-off homer. That game was also the only other time this season that the Yankees were able to follow a win with another one. Last night's win also gives the Yanks their first series sweep of the year (albeit a cheap one, coming in a two-game set), and their first series victory since that opening set against the Red Sox.
Looking forward, Bernie's knee seemed to be just fine last night, but Ruben Sierra will indeed land on the DL due to an undiagnosed right bicep injury suffered in Wednesday's game (he's scheduled to have an MRI today). The Yankees will announce just before game time who will replace Sierra on the roster, but obviously, I'll be pulling for Andy Phillips, who just might get that elusive start against a lefty with Sierra on the DL. In two games with the Clippers, Phillips is 4 for 9 with a homer, 5 RBIs, and 3 runs scored.
Of course, the Yanks aren't scheduled to face any lefties in their upcoming series with the Rangers, just Chris Young, Chan Ho Park and Pedro Astacio. The danger there is Astacio, who shouldn't be, but has been downright fantastic in his first three starts. He'll face Randy Johnson on Sunday. That should be a compelling contest. The first two games (Young v. Brown, Park v. Wright) could be mighty ugly.