Prior to last night's game against the Angels, Kevin Brown threw his normal bullpen warm-up, then took a seat in the pen for a few minutes and did it all over again. The idea was to allow Brown to work out his first inning struggles in the pen rather than the game mound. It worked.
Despite a groundball single through to right by Chone Figgins and a four-pitch walk to Vladimir Guerrero, Brown pitched a scoreless first inning. He then pitched around a one-out double by Dallas McPherson to record a scoreless second. Brown did give up two runs in the third (due in large part to Chone Figgins' baserunning) and one in the fourth, but then settled down to retire the last eleven batters he faced.
Altogether it was not just Brown's best outing of the year, but the sort of performance most Yankee fans would happily take from Brown every fifth day:
The problem was that the Yankee offense essentially repeated it's performance from the night before and the Yanks lost 3-1. Again the Yankees, and specifically Derek Jeter, ran into an out in the first inning when Jeter was picked off first base following yet another lead-off walk (his 19th, last year Jeter reached the All-Star break with just 20 walks). Jeter getting thrown out at home on Wednesday was Luis Sojo's fault, but getting picked off first was Jeter's. Perhaps if he was caught stealing by the catcher you could blame Joe Torre for sending him, but getting picked off has to fall on the player's shoulders. Speaking of unnecessary outs, Hideki Matsui, after hitting into his first double play of the year Wednesday night, added another last night.
More importantly, in 17 official at-bats with runners on base, the Yankees collected just two hits, a Gary Sheffield single in the first and a Hideki Matsui RBI double in the fifth which drove in the only Yankee run of the night (in fairness, Bubba Crosby, starting in center, and Tino Martinez both drew walks with runners on).
What's going on here? Bad things, man. Part of the problem is that this line-up has yet to have more than three men clicking at once. Derek Jeter is having an incredible April, and Gary Sheffield has been contributing steadily, but as soon as Alex Rodriguez stepped up (10 for 27 over the past week), Hideki Matsui cooled off (3 for 22). With the exception of those four, the only Yankee hitter with a GPA above league average is Jason Giambi (.279, despite a sub-.400 slugging percentage and a team-leading 19 strikeouts). That means that the typical Yankee line up includes these four:
Womack's stats are right in line with his career (.234 GPA), but both Bernie and Tino, even at their advanced ages, should be in the .260s, while Posada has had a GPA above .300 over each of the last two seasons. In a way, that's good news. Things should get better, while no one is so on fire that they should really be expected to cool off too much, with the possible exception of Jeter, who, except for the first month and a half of last year, is not a terribly streaky hitter.
At the same time, the fact that the Yankees are getting disappointing production from the two oldest men in their line-up (Bernie is a few months older than Sheffield) and their 33-year-old catcher is disconcerting to say the least. Never mind that Jason Giambi seems to have become a Three True Outcomes hitter who's been a little light on the best of the three outcomes (on pace for just 22 dingers) and seems to be leaning into inside pitches (5 hit-by-pitches already, in his 2000 MVP season he had just nine) and taking called strike three in a failed attempt to work a walk at an alarming rate, apparently to hide a severe loss of bat speed.
Most confusing of all is both Posada's complete lack of production after two of the three best offensive seasons of his career and the fact that no one is paying attention to it. Jorge's on pace to have his worst month since June 2002, an ominous sign coming from a 33-year-old catcher in an organization without a decent catcher anywhere in their minor league system (small sample size consolation: Dioner Navarro's GPA in the hitting-happy Pacific Coast League is a mere .263). It's probably good for Jorge that he's flying under the radar right now, but he's an essential part of this offense. The Yankees' record in games in which Jorge has more than one hit is 5-1. By comparison, their record in games in which Gary Sheffield has multiple hits is 2-7. The difference is that Sheffield hits in front of the teams' top hitters (save Jeter), while Posada hits behind them, meaning Posada's hits are more likely to come with more runners on base.
The fact that Posada, Martinez and Womack typically bat consecutively in the final three spots in the order compounds the problem, giving opposing pitchers a break every third inning and killing potential rallies started by the heart of the order. The need for some production out of these three spots is tremendous. The good news is that Tino is 3 for 7 with a walk in the last two games (perhaps the threat of Andy Phillips woke up his bat) and Womack is hitting .400/.474/.500 in his last six games. The reason that hasn't lead to more production (Yankees not named Alex drove in a total of three runs in three games against the Angels) is that Matsui and Giambi are a combined 7 for 41 over the past week.
Then there's the all-or-nothing factor. With the exception of the 4-3 win in Toronto that I was so pleased about last Thursday, the Yankees have scored a minimum of 11 runs in four of their last five wins (dating back to their 19-run outburst against the Devil Rays) and a maximum of three runs in their last five loses. Over their last ten games they have scored 66 runs and allowed 47, but are merely 5-5 over that span (Pythagoras would suggest somewhere between 6-4 and 7-3).
In a way, that could be a good sign. Not the clumping of runs, but the fact that they're outscoring their opponents. Beginning with the closing game of the season-opening series with Boston and lasting through the end of the Devil Rays series, the Yankees allowed their opponents to score more than five runs 10 times in 12 games. Since then, they've allowed their opponents to score more than five runs just once in eight games (that being Jaret Wright's last start). With Brown showing signs of getting his act together (I'll need a couple more starts like last night to feel comfortable, but he has found a dominating groove in two of his three starts) and Chien-Ming Wang ready to make his debut on Saturday, the Yankees rotation could be taking shape, with Brown in the three spot behind Johnson and Pavano.
Finally, since I'm at full ramble, last night's loss guaranteed the Yankees their first losing April since 1991, but if you remove their 1-5 road trip to Boston and Baltimore they've played .500 ball with a .607 Pythagorean winning percentage good for a 10-6 Pythagorean record in those remaining games. The losing pitchers in their five loses on that road trip were Brown, Pavano, Gordon twice, and Mussina. Pavano has since established himself as the team's number two starter with a pair of solid outings, Brown looked good last night in just his third start, and Tom Gordon has struck out six, walked one and given up no hits in his last three appearances.
Tonight, the Yankees start a run of seven games against the Blue Jays and Devil Rays against whom they went a combined 3-1 last week.