I'm calling it now. Oakland is going to sweep the Yankees this weekend. I'll be pleased if I'm wrong, but before last night's game I predicted a Yankee win followed by a pair of weekend loses. After seeing the way they performed in the most favorable pitching match-up of the weekend, I would be downright shocked if they won one of the remaining two.
For those who were privileged enough not to witness it, here's what went down:
Meat Pavano wasn't on his A-game, but he got the job done against the struggling Oakland line-up. Despite throwing just 57 percent of his pitches for strikes and walking a season-high three men (a damn fine total for a season high in walks), Pavano gave his team a full seven innings of three-run baseball. The only A's runs in regulation came via a solo dinger by Eric Byrnes and a two run job by the hot-hitting Bobby Kielty (following a Scott Hatteberg walk, naturally).
Meanwhile, Barry Zito did bring his A-game, holding the Yanks to five hits and no walks through seven while striking out five and allowing just one run (a Womack single followed by a two-out Matsui triple that ticked off Mark Kotsay's glove in center).
The tide turned in the bottom of the eighth. After a tidy 1-2-3 top half by Buddy Groom, John Flaherty (starting due to his small-sample success against Zito, 3 homers in 12 trips) drew a seven-pitch walk. Robinson Cano replaced Flaherty at first via a fielder's choice. Derek Jeter then smashed a hot shot down the third base line on which Eric Chavez made a great backhanded stop, but bounced his throw to first, earning a hard-luck error and putting runners on first and third. Jorge Posada--who may finally be warming up at the plate (5 for his last 15 prior to last night with two doubles and a homer)--then hit for Womack and delivered an RBI single to move the Yankees within a run, put runners on first and second and driving Zito from the game.
With Octavio Dotel on the mound, one out, and a 2-0 count on Gary Sheffield, Jeter and Posada then executed a successful double steal, with Jason Kendall's throw going to second, but not in time to catch Jorge (who has eleven steals in his eleven-year career, including that one). Suddenly, after looking listless all game, the Yankees were a productive out away from tying the game thanks to a clutch hit and some successful agressive baserunning. On Dotel's next pitch Sheffield ground out to short, scoring Jeter and tying the game.
Suddenly it seemed the Yankees were having their moment. It was against the A's last year that, following a demoralizing sweep at home at the hands of the Red Sox, the Yankees reversed their losing ways via a late-inning rally which began and eight-game winning streak that launched them toward their seventh-straight AL East title. For those who allowed their thoughts to wander, it seemed this rally could have the same effect. Better late than never.
For some reason I (and Ken Arneson) fail to understand (or rather, we understand them--the force, the lefty/righty matchup, the clutch reputations of the players involved--but don't agree with them), the A's then intentionally walked the slumping Hideki Matsui to pitch to Alex Rodriguez, who is third in the majors in RBIs thus far this season, with the go-ahead run on second base. It was a moment of truth for Rodriguez, whose perceived failures in the clutch have come to define him as a Yankee. Dotel's first pitch to Rodriguez was a ball. His second was fouled off for a strike to even the count. His third went behind Rodriguez. It actually looked like the pitch hit Alex in the back, but instead it glanced of Kendall's mitt. Thinking the pitch had gotten further away from Kendall than it actually had, Posada took off for third only to be thrown out by a fair distance, taking a shoulder in the face from Eric Chavez in the process of getting tagged out to end the Yankee rally and leave Rodriguez at the plate with his bat in his hand.
Still, the Yankees had tied it up, erased Zito's strong performance, and vindicated Pavano's contribution. For the top of the ninth, Posada stayed in to catch, Tino Martinez took Flaherty's spot in the line-up at first base and Andy Phillips, who started at first against the lefty Zito going 1-for-4 with a double and a warning track shot to right that got caught in the swirling wind, moved left to replace Womack. Mariano Rivera made a rare appearance on the mound, signaling the fact that the Yankees were in this one for a change.
Mo breezed through the A's in the ninth, only to have Dotel return serve in the bottom of the inning. Then came the top of the tenth. Nothing good ever seems to happen after Mariano Rivera walks a lead-off batter, and that was again the case last night after he issued a full-count walk to the A's ninth-place hitter Marco Scutaro to start the top of the tenth. Still, it didn't seem that bad. Mark Kotsay failed to bunt Scutaro over, eventually striking out on a 1-2 count. Mo then got ahead of Jason Kendall 0-2. But Rivera's third pitch to the Oakland catcher hit him in the side, pushing the go-ahead run to second with one out and the heart of the Oakland order due up.
On another full count, Eric Chavez hit a sharp grounder toward the shortstop hole that Derek Jeter backhanded, but the ball was hit to deep for Jeter to force Kendall at second. All hands safe. Bases loaded. Still one out. That's when the roof fell in.
Scott Hatteberg pulled a 1-1 Rivera pitch up the line where Tino Martinez, playing near the line corralled it on a bad hop. Tino then took two steps toward first before firing home to try to force out Scutaro and preserve the tie. In the process, he appeared to step on first base for the second out. In reality, he neither stepped on first (which would have erased the force at home), nor got Scutaro out at the plate. The latter was true because Tino released late on his throw, bouncing the ball past Posada, allowing not just Scutaro, but Kendall to score as well, putting the Yankees down 5-2 with runners on the corners and still just one man out in the inning.
Charles Thomas, a defensive replacement for Kielty in the eighth, then grounded to Rodriguez, who threw out Chavez at home for the second out as Hatteberg moved to second and Thomas reached first. Erubiel Durazo followed by hitting another grounder to Rodriguez, this one glancing off his glove for another error, loading the bases. Rivera then issued another full count walk, this one to Keith Ginter, forcing Durazo home. He then struck out Byrnes to finally end the inning.
With the A's up by three, Ricardo Rincon took over for Dotel. Tino Martinez attempted to make good for his error in the top of the inning by drawing a four-pitch walk (after the game, a mortified Tino told the press he had cost the Yankees the game), but he was erased by yet another Cano fielder's choice and Jeter, who has finally cooled off with a .192 average in the first six games of May, and Posada went down in turn to Kiko Calero to end the game. 6-3 A's in 10 innings.
Before the game, Blez at Atheltics Nation wrote, "Don't let the Yankees fool you, this team is lying and waiting to awaken. Their lineup is still one of the best in all of baseball. And their pitching, though inconsistent, is capable of putting up Cy Young-type performances every night." That sentiment was reportedly echoed by Eric Chavez, who said that he and his teammates were apprehensive coming into the Bronx because no one wants to be the team the Yankees wake up against. Having now seen this team up close, I'm wondering if either would like to amend their comments. Mr. Arneson, for one, now understands.
Less than 12 hours from now, Old Moose will take on 24-year-old Joe Blanton, a product of the Moneyball draft, at the Stadium. At 6:00 PM, not long after the game wraps up, George Steinbrenner's Bellamy Road will run the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Yesterday Joe Torre's Sis City finished fourth in the Kentucky Oaks. I'm curious to see what happens if both Bellamy Road and the Yankees lose within hours of one another. Something tells me George won't take it as well as Joe did yesterday.