In the three games since their embarrassing Keyston Kops routine on Friday night in St. Louis, the Yankees have played some of their crispest baseball of the year. Accordingly, they've gone 2-1 in those games, twice shutting out their opponent, holding a 2-1 lead in the seventh inning of the one loss, and outscoring their foes 17-5 in the three games combined. Going back to the final game of their Series in Milwaukee, the Yankees are 3-2 in their last five games, a small, but significant sample in that it represents their first winning stretch since late May.
Last night's victory behind Mike Mussina's second shutout of the year (his most since 2002) moved the Yankees 1/2 game ahead of the Pirates and within one game of .500, a mark they've not equaled in a week and a half. The Yankees also moved into a third-place tie with the Blue Jays in the AL East, 3.5 games behind the Red Sox and 6.5 games behind the first-place Orioles.
Tonight they send Kevin Brown to the mound to face lefty Mark Redman, whom the Yankees handled easily when they last met in Game 2 of the 2003 World Series. In thirteen starts for the Pirates this year, Redman has failed to deliver a quality start (minimum 6 IP, maximum 3 ER) just once, that coming against the Cardinals four starts ago. The reason for Redman's strong performance has been a combination of a career-high ground-ball rate (2.04 ground balls for every fly ball, twice his usual rate) and the Pirates' NL-best Defensive Efficiency. Thus the key for the Yankees tonight will be to try to hit the ball in the air, particularly to center field, where Rob Mackowiak and Tike Redman represent the Achilles heal of the Pirates' defense.
Mark Redman's consistency also puts the pressure on Brown, who has a superior strike-out rate, a similar ground ball rate, but the second worst defense in baseball (pity Cincinnati) behind him. As a result, hitters are hitting exactly .100 points higher against Brown than they are against Redman. That may not all be due to their respective defenders, but I'd guess that a great deal of it is.
On a more encouraging note, the Yankees did the right thing when disabling Rey Sanchez yesterday in that they called up, not Felix Escalona, but Andy Phillips. With the Yankees facing two left handers in three of their next four games (Redman tonight, Oliver Perez tomorrow, and Glendon Rusch on Saturday), Tino Martinez cold as ice, and Jason Giambi pulling his OBP-only routine (his double off the 408 sign in center last night was just his second extra-base since May 18, and only his fourth since April 20), one hopes that Andy Phillips will get multiple starts at first base in the coming days, thus getting a second chance to establish himself in the Yankee line-up.
That trio of lefty starters might also lead to some bench time for Tony Womack, who, in addition to being useless to begin with, has started hitting everything in the air, which is death for a slap-hitting speedster of his ilk. Allow me to repeat one of my favorite anecdotes from Whitey Herzog's You're Missing a Great Game concerning Herzog's advice to a young Willie Wilson, who was swinging for the fences as a rookie for Kansas City in the mid-'70s:
I still don't understand what in the hell told him he had home-run pop in his bat . . . the fly balls he hit just gave the outfielders a long way to run before the catch . . . He might get his 12 homers, but the rest of the time he was going to make himself and out, kill our rallies, and put the Kansas City fans in a coma.
What Willie did have, though, was speed . . .With the wheels he had, if Willie'd just learn to . . . beat the ball into the ground, and take off running, he'd be on base more often than Babe Ruth ate hot dogs.
A few walks wouldn't hurt either. According to baseball's free agency rules, today is the first day that teams can trade their first-year free agents (such as Womack) without their permission. Here's hoping those lefties will get Womack out of the line-up, and Cashman's new freedom to trade him will get Womack out of pinstripes for good.
In more lefty news, Steven Goldman tells me that, despite correctly leaving the righty-batting middle infielder Escalona in Columbus, the Yankees are indeed looking to sit Robinson Cano against lefties. It will be interesting to see if this results in a second base start for Phillips or Russ Johnson (something I'd approve of, as it could decrease the likelihood of either being demoted any time soon). Meanwhile, I'll be fantasizing of an every-day line-up that looks like this: