Monthly archives: September 2005
The Giambian Bargain
Needing just one win to clinch a tie for the American League East, the Yankees went to Fenway Park last night and lost a game they could have won. The decisive play came with the bases full of Red Sox in the sixth inning, one man out, the score 3-1 in favor of Boston, and an 0-2 count on Jason Varitek. Varitek hit a weak grounder to Jason Giambi at first, who charged the ball and fired to Jorge Posada to force David Ortiz at home. But Giambi failed to set himself before making the throw, despite the fact that the lumbering Ortiz was the runner at third. His throw tailed down and to the foul side of home, bouncing short of Posada, who was unable to handle the hop. Ortiz scored safely and the Yankees failed to get an out. John Olerud, who started at first base, then flew out to Bernie Williams in center--the only one of the twenty outs Yankee starter Chein-Ming Wang recorded that came via a fly ball to the outfield. Olerud's fly scored Manny Ramirez from third, pushing the score to 5-1. Had Giambi's throw been on target, Olerud's fly would have been the final out of the inning and the score would have held at 3-1, allowing Derek Jeter's two-run homer in the seventh inning to tie the game. Instead, the Yankees lost 5-3.
That's not to say that Giambi's error was the only missed opportunity of the night.
The Yankees and The Red Sox
updated 7:10 pm EST
Here we go, folks. This is not a test, this is the real deal. Three games at Fenway Park to determine the outcome of the American Leage East race for 2005. The Yankees lead the Red Sox by one game and can win the division with just two more wins. One Yankee victory would clinch a tie, meaning that, at worst, the Yankees would get to play one final all-or-nothing home game to decide the division. In essence, the Yankees simply need to split the next four (potential) games against the Red Sox to win the division. The Red Sox, meanwhile, need to win two of three just to have a chance to play for the division crown at Yankee Stadium on Monday, and would have to sweep to clinch in their home park.
Meanwhile, the series between the AL Central Champion White Sox and the Cleveland Indians, who are currently tied with the Red Sox one game behind the Yankees, will determine if the losers of the New York-Boston series win the Wild Card or start emptying their lockers. Hank Waddles over at Only Baseball Matters has posted a handy chart outlining the 23 possible outcomes, which, at their most stomach-churning include a pair of one-game playoffs, one on Monday for the AL East crown and one on Tuesday between the Indians and Monday's loser for the Wild Card. Eighteen of those 23 possible outcomes have the Yankees in the playoffs (as opposed to 14 each for the Red Sox and Indians), which would give the Yankees the edge if everything else were equal. Of course, as Waddle concludes, the problem is, "we're not flipping coins."
Of course, with the Yankees and Red Sox, it often seems as though we are. The two teams are 34-34 in head-to-head match-ups over the past three seasons, and each has won a seven game ALCS at the expense of the other to push their overall records to 38-38. Thus far this season, the Yankees have a 9-7 advantage over the Sox in head-to-head match-ups, including a 5-2 record against the Sox since the All-Star break and a 4-3 record at Fenway Park (this despite the Red Sox having won a full two thirds of their home games on the season while the Yankees have played mere .526 ball on the road). The Yankees are also the hotter team, having gone 14-3 since Randy Johnson beat Tim Wakefield 1-0 in the final game of the two teams' last match-up. The Sox, meanwhile, are 10-8 over that span (both teams are 5-2 over their last seven, but the Yanks are 2-1 while the Sox are 1-2 in their last three).
Ultimately, what matters is the quality of the teams on the field this weekend, not over the past six months. So let's take a closer look at the two rosters and tonight's starting pitchers.
The Holy Trinity: 1904
As the Yankees head to Fenway for the final three games of the season with a mere one-game lead over the Red Sox in the AL East, it's worth noting that this is just the third time in the 103-year history of the team that they've concluded a regular season by playing their Boston rivals head-to-head for a chance at the postseason. As we are about to watch the fourth such finish unfold before us over the next three days, I thought it would be fun to revisit those three seasons, one per day, as we anticipate what this year's will bring. The hope is that the juxtaposition between these recaps and the games at Fenway will do far more than a lot of hype and mythmaking could to underscore the significance of this weekend's series. I'll start today with 1904.
But before I do, in addition to those head-to-head match-ups there have been just four other seasons in that 103-year period in which the two teams have finished within four games of one another (the maximum distance possible this year). It's interesting to note, however, that three of those seven seasons have occurred since the American League was split into three divisions in 1994. Including this year, that accounts for a full third of the three-division era. In light of that, it is amazing that the schedule makers haven't pitted the two teams against each other in the final series of a season since 1996, when the Yankees finished seven games ahead of the defending AL East Champion Red Sox.
Equally amazing, this is the first time since it was adopted in 2001 that the unbalanced schedule has resulted in season-ending Yankee-Red Sox matchup. In 1999 and 2000, when the Yankees finished 4 and 2.5 games ahead of the Red Sox respectively, the final regular season games between the two clubs were on September 11 and 12, almost three weeks before the season's conclusion. All of which is even more stunning when you remember that the Yankees and Red Sox have finished first and second in the AL East respectively for the last seven straight seasons. Major League Baseball switched schedule makers prior to this season for the first time since 1981. Now, entering the season's final weekend, four of the six teams that have niether clinched nor been eliminated from the postseason are playing each other, including the first scheduled season-ending series between the Yankees and Red Sox to mean something since 1949. Kudos to baseball and the Sports Scheduling Group for correcting an obvious flaw in the system.
Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls: Dyin' Time's Here
Jason Giambi crushed a three-run home run in the first inning and the Yankees built an early lead on their way to an 8-4 victory last night in Baltimore. Aaron Small worked out of a jam in the third inning and pitched another credible game as he upped his record to an improbable 10-0. Hideki Matsui added a two-run homer, and a fine catch (the kind he normally doesn't make), Gary Sheffield had an RBI, and Alex Rodriguez had two hits, two stolen bases, and two runs scored. There were some unsure moments courtsey of the bullpen, but that is nothing new. When Joe Torre came out to the mound in the eighth inning to replace Taynon Sturtze he looked as like he was on the verge on a heart attack. Sensing his anxiety, Derek Jeter rubbed his shoulder to let him know that everything would be alright.
The Yanks beat the Orioles three times in the last four days and seven-of-eight times since last week. They remain one game ahead of the Red Sox who defeated the Blue Jays 5-4 last night thanks to some familiar heroics from David Ortiz, who tied the game with a solo home run and then drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth with a single. Ortiz has repeatedly come up big for Boston this year, but this game just might have saved their season. The Indians also won, while the White Sox clinched the AL Central. The Red Sox and the Tribe are tied for the lead in the wildcard race.
The Yankee and Red Sox begin the final series of the regular season tonight in Boston. It is downright cold this morning in New York and the weather this weekend promises to be fitting for October baseball. Amazingly, these two proud teams continue to live up to the hype of their rivalry, though at this point, much of the sensational media coverage has become not just depressing but offensive. The backpage of The Daily News reads, "Out For Blood," the banner on the backpage of the Post, "Brawl for it All," while the front page of El Diario goes, "Duelo A Muerte." And that's just in New York. It's as if they want something vicious and violent to go down. Bloodlust, like comedy, is not pretty.
Regardless, the tension will be exquisite for Yankee and Red Sox fans alike. Here's hoping that nothing too ill happens in the stands, that no player makes a critical error to decide a game, and that ultimately, the best team wins. Last night seemed like the most important game of the year for the Yankees. Now, we can say the same thing about tonight's game. The Bombers need to win two-of-three, the Sox need the sweep, and both hope that the White Sox rough up the Indians.
As dramatic as this weekend's showdown in Boston will invariably be, I have the feeling that tonight could be the most pivotal game of the year for the Yankees. To be honest, part of me feels that it'd make perfect sense for the Red Sox to win--could they possibly drop three straight to the Jays?--and the Yanks to lose, and have 'em both duke it out in the best-of-three. Speaking of the Yanks and Sox, Cliff is just one of a handful of Boston and New York-based bloggers who will be interviewed tonight at Open Source radio between 7-8 pm est. Click here and here if you are interested in streaming it live.
Aaron Small gets the nod over Jaret Wright in Baltimore this evening. Small is 9-0 and I've been waiting for his arm to turn back into a pumpkin for over a month now. But even when he's been roughed-up, the Yanks have managed to get him off the hook. Does he have another good outing in him? Can the Bombers put up enough runs to pull him through? Erik Bedard, the talented young lefty goes for the O's and he could be as tough as Cabrera was last night. Baltimore also has a strong enough offense to mush bad pitching. I dunno, folks. I can't call it. I just hope Small keeps 'em in it and that the bats don't get completely shut down. Me, I'm just gunna sit back, say my prayers, and watch it all unfold. Oh yeah, and try to remember to breath while I'm at it.
One Up, Four Left
Shawn Chacon pitched a marvelous game last night for the Yankees. He received support from his infield defense, particularly Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez, and stellar relief from Flash Gordon and Mariano Rivera as the Bombers eeked out a 2-1 victory in Baltimore. The Devil Rays beat the Tribe 1-0 (in a game that featured some fine defense of its own--thanks, Johnny Gomes?!?), and Ted Lily mastered the Red Sox as the Jays won at Fenway 7-2. New York is now one game ahead of Boston in the American League East. The Sox and the Indians are tied in the wildcard standings.
Chacon allowed one run--a solo homer off a 2-0 meatball to Javey Lopez--the only run he's allowed in his last 23.2 innings. The Orioles only managed to get four hits off of the right-hander, all by Lopez (who missed another home run by a few feet and settled for a double instead) and Chris Gomez. Though he walked three, Chacon only threw 91 pitches, and once again, kept batters off balance all night, inducing plenty of soft grounders and harmless pop flys.
This is it
So it'll be Shawn Chacon, the guy with the sweet smile and baggy pants, squaring off against Daniel Cabrera, the dude with the scowl and the red ass tonight at Camden Yards. As Cliff mentioned to me in an e-mail this afternoon, Chacon would start a one-game playoff if it comes to that, but this may be his final start of the season. He could also wind up as the Game One starter in the ALDS if the Yanks pull this thing out without a one-game playoff. Meanwhile, the Yankee offense has to remain patient against Cabrera, who has a live arm and can be a tough customer.
Only five games left. Every ball and strike, every foul ball, every everything counts, as we sit back helplessly and watch it all unfold.
Keep the faith and let's go Yanks!
While Curt Schilling finds himself embroiled in some bad clubhouse vibes (paging Mr. Ramirez), Alan Schwarz has a front-page article on Mike Piazza and Bernie Williams in today's New York Times. Piazza, in particular, seems to have accepted where he is at in his career:
"I compare it to a new car," Piazza said recently at Shea Stadium. "When you get a new car, the power windows go up quick - it's quicker and you get more response. And then when it gets older, little things start to break. Things fall off. Our bodies are machines. You have to be pragmatic. You have to be realistic."
I like the idea of Bernie Williams replacing Ruben Sierra next year as a pinch-hitter, part-time DH, spot outfielder. Perhaps Piazza would be equally as effective in that role too.
Every Game Counts, Except These
It took four hours and sixteen minutes and 398 pitches, but last night's 17-9 Yankee loss to the Baltimore Orioles finally came to an end just before 11:30 p.m. EST last night. And in the end, it meant nothing. Yes, despite the fact that the Yankees are in a three way tie for the AL East and the Wild Card with just five games left to play in the season, last night's loss meant nothing. That's because the Red Sox, Indians, and White Sox all lost last night as well.
In the end, the evening was a complete wash for the American League save for the Angels clinching the West with a 4-3 win over the A's. All that happened was that one more game came off the schedule. Thus, despite the Yankees failure to emerge with a victory last night, their Drive For Five is down to four. With four wins the Yankees will win the American League East.
For those gluttons for punishment, the bloody details of last night's games follow the jump.
The Drive For Five
The Red Sox won Game One of their double-header today 3-1. It was a swift, low-scoring affair that took just 2 hours and 23 minutes to play and was dominated by pitching, particularly the pitching of Tim Wakefield (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 6 K), who didn't allow a hit through the first four innings. All three Red Sox runs were driven in by Boston's Big Boys, two by David Ortiz (1 for 4, 2B, 2Ks) and one by Manny Ramirez (1 for 2, IBB, HBP, throwing error). Meanwhile, the Blue Jays wasted the solid pitching of Dave Bush and Dustin McGowan by stranding runners in scoring position in the eighth and ninth against Jon Papelbon and Mike Timlin.
And with that, the Red Sox and Yankees are again tied atop the AL East. Of course. You didn't actually think the Yankees would get any breathing room, did you? Still, for those in a state of panic over what awaits the Yankees in the coming week, consider this: The Yankees only need to win five games to make the postseason. That's it. Just five.
Of course, there are only six games left in the season, but if the Yankees win five of them, there is no way the Red Sox can beat them. Of course, part of the reason for that is that a minimum of two of those wins will have to come against the Sox this weekend (if the Yanks sweep the O's they'll enter that series no worse than tied and can win the division by taking two of three in Boston, if they drop just one game to the O's, they can still win the division by sweeping the Sox as they'll be no worse than a game out come Friday morning). Yes, that sounds daunting when you spell out how those five wins would have to be acquired, but when you think about it as just five wins, five of six for a team that has won 13 of their last 15, it doesn't sound so bad.
Tonight the Yankees look to drop that quasi-magic number (their actual magic number is seven, but any Yankee win against the Sox would take two off of that as it represents any combination of Yankee wins and Red Sox loses that totals seven) to four by sending Mike Mussina back to the hill against Bruce Chen. Last Thursday, Mussina came off the unofficial disabled list to pitch six efficient innings allowing just one unearned run on four hits and no walks while striking out six men. It was the ideal outing for Moose coming off the elbow inflammation that shut him down for more than three weeks. He threw just 76 pitches, 76 percent of which were strikes, mixing in his full repertoire, getting his fastball up to 91 and a nice break on his knucklecurve.
Chen, meanwhile, cruised through the first four innings, retiring twelve straight men after a Derek Jeter lead-off single and a Bernie Castro error started the first. Jorge Posada then led off the fifth with a solo homer and capped a four-run Yankee rally in the sixth with a three-run dinger that drove Chen from the game. Still, it's worth remembering that, prior to that start, Chen had turned in eight quality start in his nine outings since returning to the Oriole rotation after a brief tune-up in the bullpen in late July, and had posted a 1.84 ERA with a 0.92 WHIP in those nine starts combined.
Mussina reported no discomfort following his bullpen session on Saturday. Obviously, the Yankees hope he will be able to build on last week's start, stretching out his pitch count in anticipation of Sunday's season finale against Curt Schilling and the Red Sox. Having Mussina back at full strength would be a tremendous boon to the Yankees playoff hopes. On his career, Mussina has a 2.90 ERA in September, his best mark in any single month save his 0.95 ERA in five regular season October starts (Sunday is October 2). Separating out the past three seasons (2002-2004) that September ERA improves to 2.50. Moose also has a career 3.16 ERA in the postseason, nearly a half-run better than his career ERA during the regular season. This is his time of year, and it's great to see him back in action. Here's hoping I still feel that way after the last out of tonight's game.
Making and ASS Out Of U And ME
Eleven days have passed since I last played the assumption game to try to predict how the Yankees, Red Sox and Indians would be stacked up heading into the season's final weekend. Thus far, the Red Sox and Indians have performed exactly as expected (though the Red Sox have done so by sweeping the Orioles and losing two of three to the Devil Rays where I expected them to take two of three from both), while the Yankees, in sweeping Baltimore last week at home, have exceeded my assumptions by one game. As a result, rather than trailing the Sox and Tribe by a game, the Yankees have pulled even with them (pending the result of Game One of today's doubleheader in Boston, that is).
With just three games left before the division showdowns in Boston and Cleveland, let's look at this another way. Let's assume the Red Sox win this afternoon and that the Yanks, Red Sox, White Sox, and Tribe all win two of their remaining three games prior to this weekend. That will keep the standings where they are and send the Bosox, Indians and Yankees into the final three games with identical records, two games behind the White Sox. If that were to happen, here are the possible outcomes this weekend:
Assuming the Yanks and Sox split their series two games to one, the winner winning the AL East:
If Cleveland sweeps Chicago, the Indians win the Central, the White Sox win the Wild Card and the NY/Bos loser goes home.
If Cleveland wins two of three, the White Sox win the Central, the Indians win the Wild Card and the NY/Bos loser goes home.
If Chicago wins two of three, the White Sox win the Central, and the Indians and NY/Bos loser play a one-game playoff on Monday for the Wild Card.
If Chicago sweeps Cleveland, the White Sox win the Central, the NY/Bos loser wins the Wild Card and the Indians winner go home.
If the NY/Bos series results in a sweep here's what changes:
If Chicago wins two of three, the White Sox win the Central, the Indians win the Wild Card and the NY/Bos loser goes home.
If Chicago sweeps Cleveland, the White Sox win the Central, and the Indians and NY/Bos loser play a one-game playoff on Monday for the Wild Card.
It seems unlikely that the standings will remain unchanged through Friday morning, but it's fun to speculate. This can also serve as a game thread for anyone watching or otherwise keeping track of the day game in Boston.
Declaration Of Intent
Much like they did against in Tampa two weeks ago, the Yankees arrived in Baltimore last night and delivered a statement: they're not fooling around this time. On a night when the Indians (due to the schedule) and the Red Sox (due to the rain) were idle, the Yankees beat up on the Orioles in Camden Yards, winning 11-3 in a game that wasn't even that close.
Unlike the Devil Rays' game, this one wasn't a blowout from the start. In fact, the game almost didn't start at all. Delayed an hour and a half by rain, the game finally got underway in a mild drizzle just after 8:30. The Yankees leapt into action, with Derek Jeter singling on Rodrigo Lopez's second pitch, followed by an Alex Rodriguez walk, and, as the rain picked up, a Jason Giambi fly out to center that moved Jeter to third. Gary Sheffield then fouled off a pitch only to have his at-bat interrupted by a twenty-minute rain delay.
June Showers Bring . . .
The Yankees and Orioles were originally scheduled to play the game being made up tonight at Camden Yards on Wednesday June 29. Instead, the game was washed away by rain, which seemed very similar to what was happening to the Yankees' season at the time. The night before, Joe Torre had brought Mike Stanton in to pitch the bottom of the tenth inning against the top of the Orioles' order despite not yet having used Mariano Rivera in the game (Rivera had thrown just two innings over the previous week). Brian Roberts crushed Stanton's first pitch into the left field stands to give the Orioles a 4-3 win and drop the Yankees' June record to 12-14.
During the two days of inactivity that followed (the first due to the rain-out, the second a travel day as the team headed to Detroit to start a weekend series against the Tigers), the Yankees designated relievers Mike Stanton and Paul Quantrill for assignment. When they returned to action on Friday night in Detroit, the Tigers and their 22-year-old ace Jeremy Bonderman handed the Yankees and their 41-year-old putative ace Randy Johnson a 10-2 loss that dropped the New Yorkers' overall record to 39-39. After stumbling out of the gate with an 11-19 (.367) record, the Yankees appeared to have righted their ship in May with a ten-game winning streak, but by the time Tino Martinez grounded out to Bonderman to complete that July 1 loss in Detroit, most of the optimism that streak had brought had dissipated.
Since then, however, the Yankees have gone 52-25 (.675), and now, with exactly one week left in the regular season, find themselves tied with the Boston Red Sox for first in the American League East with the opportunity to tie the idle Indians for the Wild Card lead with a win tonight. It's been an absolutely stunning turn around, and now, with just seven games left in the season, it's time for the payoff.
"You have to be confident; if you're not confident, you might as well go home. It was really nice of the fans," captain Derek Jeter said pointedly, "but it won't be Bernie's last game here."
The Yankees and Red Sox each have seven games remaining and appear to be on a collision course for the final three, which they'll play against each other this coming weekend in Boston. Yesterday, the Sox completed their three-game sweep of the Orioles, while the Yankees rallied to beat the Blue Jays, 8-4. On an afternoon when Bernie Williams--possibly playing for the last time as a Yankee in the Bronx--received several ovations, Robinson Cano and Gary Sheffield provided the fireworks, as C.W. Wang had another credible outing.
Boston and New York are tied for first place--the Sox play four against the Jays this week while the Yanks play four against the Orioles. I doubt whether either team will be able to build more than a two-game cushion going into Friday night (and maybe that's a stretch). If their rivalry has taught us anything over the past three seasons it is that things will go to the last moment, the games will be theatrical and almost unbearably tense. What both of 'em have to hope for is that the Devil Rays will give the Indians trouble (the Tribe, one-half-game ahead of both Boston and New York in the wildcard race, has the day off), and that the White Sox will pounce on Cleveland over the weekend.
Otherwise, it is simple: one week of baseball will determine whether New York or Boston moves on. If it does in fact come down to the last three, one fan base gets its dream scenerio while the other faces its worst nightmare. What could be better for Red Sox fans than to illiminate the Yankees at Fenway Park? And what could be worse than losing to them? And vice versa.
Oy and veh, peoples. Pass the pepto.
Giving It Back
While the Yanks remain in first place, the one-game lead they had on the Red Sox disappeared yesterday as Jaret Wright and B.J. Ryan each suffered a meltdown that would be directly responsible for handing their teams a loss. Wright's was almost tragicomic.
In his previous start, also against the Blue Jays, Wright was forced to leave the game with one out in the third when a broken bat lacerated his pitching elbow. Less than three weeks before that, he had a start shortened when a comebacker ricocheted off his collarbone. This after spending more than three months on the disabled list with a reoccurrence of the shoulder problems that have plagued him throughout his career. Yesterday, Wright was again hit by a comebacker, this time in the chest. This time, however, the projectile did not prompt his removal from the game, though in retrospect, it might have benefited the Yankees if it had.
Wright surrendered singles to the first four batters he faced yesterday, putting him down 1-0 with the bases loaded and no one out by the time he had thrown a dozen pitches. Two pitches later, Erik Hinske hit what looked to be a sac fly toward the foul line in left field, which would have made the game 2-0 with one out and men on first and second. But Hideki Matsui, perhaps bewildered by the mid-afternoon sun, closed his glove before he had the ball, effectively swatting it toward foul territory, allowing two runs to score and putting runners at second and third, still with no outs. Two pitches later, Gregg Zaun hit a shot off Wright's chest for a 1-3 groundout. Wright then surrendered a sac fly to Reed Johnson that made it 4-0 and struck out Gabe Gross to get out of the inning.
The Yankees got right back in it in the bottom of the first when Derek Jeter was hit in the back foot with a Scott Downs curve ball and Alex Rodriguez cashed both the Captain and himself in with a two-run dinger into the Yankee bullpen (tying Joe DiMaggio's record of 46 home runs for a right-handed Yankee batter in the process). Unfortunately, Wright couldn't get it together, allowing two more singles to start the second then walking Frank Catalanotto to load the bases. That was enough for Joe Torre, who replaced Wright with displaced starter Aaron Small. Brought into an unfair bases-loaded, no-outs situation, Small got Vernon Wells to foul out to Giambi at first, and got a hard ground ball to second base from Shea Hillenbrand. Unfortunately, Hillenbrand's grounder was a little too hard and Robinson Cano, rather than getting his body in front of it, tried to scoop it to turn two and wound up having the ball ricochet off the inside of his elbow and into right field, scoring two runs and placing runners at the corners. Erik Hinske followed with a sac fly to make it 7-0 and Small struck out Zaun to end the inning.
Without the errors by Matsui and Cano (the first of which was far more egregious than the latter) the game would have been tied 2-2. Had Zaun's comebacker driven Wright from the game, prompting Torre to bring in Small with one out in the first, the game likely would have stood at 4-2 after an inning and a half. Instead, it was 7-2 and, despite a tremendous performance from Small, who pitched 5 2/3 more scoreless innings, allowing just four singles, striking out three and walking none, the Yankee offense just couldn't make up the difference.
Death To Flying Things
Jason Giambi returns to the line-up today as Jaret Wright and Scott Downs face off at the Stadium. The MVP bats second, Giambi three, Cano down to seventh with Bernie and Bubba rounding it out as the Yanks look to make it six straight.
So, any guesses as to what flying object will strike Jaret Wright today?
Mariano Rivera got loose in the Yankee bullpen during the top of the ninth inning tonight but that is as close as he came to contributing to the team's 5-0 win over the Blue Jays. Shawn Chacon pitched eight brilliant innings (allowing just three hits and walk to go with three strikeouts) and the very flammable Scott Proctor worked a scoreless ninth (around two bases runners). It was the Bombers fifth consecutive victory and their 10th in their last 11 games. Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano hit back-to-back dingers in the first inning, as the team scored four times off of Ted Lily giving Chacon all the support that he would need. Thankfully, it wasn't a one-run game, and in the process the bullpen got some much-needed rest. Chacon was nothing short of terrific.
The Yanks remain a game ahead of the Red Sox who came back from an early 3-1 deficit (thanks in large part to a careless throwing error by Miguel Tejada) to bury the hapless Orioles, 6-3. Jose Contreras, who has been fantastic recently, pitched a complete-game as the White Sox beat the Twins, 3-1, while the Indians out-lasted the Royals, 7-6. Everything's the same cause tonight, everbody won.
Man, can you believe it's been a whole four days since the Yankees have played the Blue Jays? Feels like . . . Oh, right.
The Jays roster remains the same as it was last weekend when the Yanks took two of three in Toronto, though there's a chance that Orlando Hudson could return to action this weekend after sitting since September 7 due to an ankle injury. Considering the fact that all three of last weekend's contests were decided by a single run, and that the Jays are coming off a split with the Mariners in which they outscored their opponent by a single run over the course of four games, the Jays could use any advantage that might tip the balance in their favor. Still, one hopes that the upgrade from struggling rookie Aaron Hill to a less mobile Hudson wouldn't be enough to overcome the disadvantage the Jays face as a .459 road team coming in to face a team playing .654 ball at home that has handled them nicely thus far this season (Yanks own the series 10-5).
While the Yanks play three at home against the Jays followed by four on the road against the O's, the second-place Red Sox (now trailing by a nice, round full game) do the exact opposite (three in Baltimore, then four at home against Toronto), so one would hope that neither of these teams is ready to roll over completely. Still, it sure would be nice to see the Yanks clean house on their final home stand of the year.
One item already in their favor is that Joe Torre has decided to go with Chien-Ming Wang on Sunday (as well he should) moving Aaron Small to the bullpen, which can use all the help it can get. With that, I've been able to project the pitching match-ups for the remainder of the season on the side bar.
Tonight, the Yanks send Shawn Chacon to the mound. Chacon has owned the Jays in two starts since joining the Yanks (total line: 15 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 0 HR, 5 BB, 7 K), and turned in a gem in Toronto last Saturday. The next day, Ted Lilly, who starts against Chacon tonight, turned in his first quality start since Bastille Day, handing the Yankees their only loss since September 10, but was lit-up by the Bombers in two starts at the beginning of the season. One hopes the Jays aren't overly familiar with Chacon at this point and that he can continue his dominance of the remaining Canadian team. Meanwhile, here's hoping the O's take the never-say die spirit that gave us all fits over the past three days and perhaps some individual anger and stick it to the Sox.
Any Which Way But Lose
Well, I guess we Yankee fans just need to reside ourselves to the fact that each and every game from here on out is going to be dramatic in one way or another. The Bombers seem incapable of playing anything but a one-run contest these days--last night was their sixth in the last seven games as they beat the Orioles 7-6 on a cool and breezy night in the Bronx. But right now the bottom line, more than ever, is the the bottom line: winning. And no matter how uncomfortable or ugly it might be to watch, the Yanks have been winning, not losing and that makes all the difference in the world doesn't it?
I covered the significance of tonight's game in yesterday's pre-game post, but there are two corrections that need to be made to what I said yesterday.
The first is that, while the Yankees will indeed erase the half-game in the standings between themselves and the Red Sox for better or worse tonight, they will not do so with regard to the Indians until Monday as Cleveland opens a four-game series in Kansas City tonight, but will be off on Monday. Of course, the Yankees hope that half game with Cleveland is a moot point as, with a half-game lead in the AL East entering tonight's game, their focus is entirely on winning the division, as well it should be as they still trail the Indians by a half game and the White Sox by three.
The other correction is that Joe Torre appears to have backed off his six-man rotation idea. Last night the YES announcers reported that Aaron Small would be the odd man out, but on today's Mike & the Mad Dog show on WFAN, Torre claimed not to have made up his mind yet, though the choice does appear to be between Small and Chien-Ming Wang, one of whom will start thus Sunday against the Blue Jays and, barring a disaster outing in that game, will return to the hill in Game One of the season-ending showdown with the Red Sox.
Assuming that Torre goes with Wang, who I think is not only the no-brainer choice between the two, but the Yankees second best starter at the moment (behind only Randy Johnson), this is how the rotation would project over the remainder of the year.
Thu 9/22 v Bal: Mussina
Of course, having Small and Leiter in the bullpen gives Torre the option of using either one in place of Wright (should he struggle this Saturday) or Mussina (should he tank tonight and/or Tuesday), or of using either or both in tandem with the starter listed above to complete a must-win game (as if there are any that aren't at this point). After all, if the season does wind up coming down to that final game on October 2nd, the starting assignment is merely a formality. Any sign of struggle and the hook comes out and everybody, perhaps even the previous day's starter, will be available to pitch.
In other news, Jason Giambi will sit tonight due to the sore back that drove him from yesterday's game in the middle innings. Tino Martinez, who walked and doubled in two plate appearances in relief of Giambi last night, will start at first base. Bernie's back in center after last night's day off. Matt Lawton, who went 2 for 3 last night with a two-run dinger that accounted for all of the Yankees runs last night, will start in right in place of Bubba Crosby (also 2 for 3 last night) against the left-handed Bruce Chen.
Speaking of Chen, he was bounced to the bullpen after a few rough outings in July, but quickly returned to the rotation and has turned in eight quality start in his nine outings since doing so, the one exception being an start against Cleveland in which he allowed just one earned run in five innings. Since returning to the rotation he's posted a 1.84 ERA with a 0.92 WHIP.
Mike Mussina, meanwhile, will likely be on a short leash with Al Leiter ready to come in as a second-leg starter if need be. So that's your match-up, Chen against Mike Mussina on 23 days rest for a guaranteed half-game swing in the AL East race. Gulp. Here's hoping the first-place Yankees, the hottest team in baseball right now (yes, they're even a game better than the Indians over the last ten games), finds a way to pull this out and go a full-game up on the reeling Red Sox.
When a Yankee player crosses home plate after hitting a home run it has become customary for his teammate to raise a finger to his lips in the universal expression of "shhh." That is very much how I feel this morning after the Yankees edged in front of the Red Sox into first place. According to The New York Times:
"I don't think it really means anything," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "We still have to play well. There's no time to congratulate anyone or walk around and be happy, because we haven't won anything. If we play well and win our games, everything will be fine."
Behind a vintage performance by Randy Johnson the Bombers beat the Orioles 2-1 last night in the Bronx--their fifth one-run contest in their last six games--while the Devil Rays came-from-behind to topple the Sox, 7-4 in Tampa. The Bombers are a half-a-game up on the Sox, who have the day off, and remain a half-a-game behind the Indians for the wildcard. Mike Mussina will take the mound for New York tonight (with Senator Al Leiter waiting in the wings should Mussina falter in his return); the Yanks have eleven games left, while the Sox have ten.
Johnson was simply overpowering. He didn't allow a hit until the fifth inning. In the sixth, the fleet Bernie Castro reached first on an infield single. He slapped a shot down the third base line, a sure double, but it was stabbed by Alex Rodriguez, but there was no way to nab Castro. Melvin Mora then pounced on one of the only mistakes of the night for Johnson--a belt-high fastball--driving it into left center field for a double. After Miguel Tejada flew out to center, Javey Lopez hit another smash to third. This time it was to Rodriguez's left. The Yankee third baseman slickly picked the ball and threw on to first to end the inning, saving a run in the process.
The Big Six and That Pesky Half
If the Yankees win tonight and tomorrow to complete a four-game sweep of the Orioles, they will wake up on Friday in first place in both the AL East and the Wild Card race, and there's not a damn thing that Boston or Cleveland can do about it. That's because the half game by which the Yankees currently trail those two clubs is the result of the Bombers having played one less game thus far this season. On Thursday, the Sox and Tribe will be idle while the Yankees finish the current series with the O's, thus that pesky half game will be gone, for better or worse, come Friday.
As a result, with the exception of the final three games of the season in Boston, each of which counts for a full game the AL East standings, tomorrow night's game is the most important one on the Yankees remaining schedule, as it is guaranteed to effect a half-game swing in the race for the playoffs. Joe Torre knows this. Prior to last night's game he made a comment about how much he was looking forward to eliminating that half game come Thursday. Thus his decision to give Mike Mussina his first start since Aug 29 tomorrow night is . . . well, maybe it's just Joe being Joe.
Eight Ain't Enough
The Yankees and Orioles have played a lot of turgid, exhausting games against each other during the past decade, and last night's unsightly 12-9 Yankee win was no exception. Weighing in at a combined 21 runs, 34 hits, and 345 pitches in 3 hours and 41 minutes, it was an ugly victory for New York, one which left me feeling more frustrated than pleased, but hey, a win, is a win, is a win, and I should not complain. Aaron Small was forgettable as he improved his record to 9-0, and the Yankee relief corps were just as bad, so bad that Mariano Rivera was forced into a game in which the team scored a dozen runs. Fortunately, Rivera only needed eight pitches to retire the Birds in the ninth, but with precious little time remaining in the season, this was not a night where you wanted to see Mo in the game.
However, the Yankees did pick up a game on the Indians who lost to the White Sox in a dramatic, extra-inning affair in Chicago. They are just a half-a-game behind the Tribe and remain a half-a-game behind the Red Sox who battered the Devil Rays 15-2 (David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were the stars, belting the bejesus out of the ball all night, prompting John Olerud to observe, "Maybe they ought to put out a public address announcement to tell those children out there to be careful.") The backpage headlines in both the Daily News and New York Post this morning read "Half and Half."
Getting It Right
Bubba Crosby's game-winning home run last night just might have solved the Yankees' right field situation, which has been in flux since Gary Sheffield injured his leg at home against the Devil Rays two weeks ago. At the time of the injury, Matt Lawton had just "hit" his way out of the line-up, having gone 4 for 25 with a homer and three walks (.160/.276/.280) in eight games since joining the Yankees. Lawton's benching forced Bernie Williams back into center (where Lawton's arrival had temporarily placed Hideki Matsui), and created room for Ruben Sierra at DH.
Sheffield's injury created another opportunity for Lawton, who promptly squandered it by playing abysmal defense in right while going 0 for 12 against the Devil Rays and Red Sox. That opened the door for Bubba Crosby, who proceeded to go 7 for 20 over the next five games, starting two of them in right and one in center.
However, Crosby's grip on the starting job was jarred loose when Sheffield returned to the line-up as the DH, forcing Torre to give Ruben Sierra a trio of starts in right in order to get his favorite 39-year-old out machine in the line-up. However, Sierra also played his way out of Torre's rotation, going 2 for 27 with a homer and a pair of walks in the wake of Sheffield's injury, mixing in some costly defensive mistakes in the Yankees lone loss on the just-completed road trip.
Ultimately it was Sierra's defense that prompted Torre to start Crosby against the left-handed Erik Bedard last night, as Joe told MLB.com, "Yesterday, we may have given away too much, defensively. Bubba probably gives us our best defense, so where it may cost you a little on the offensive side, you hope he can make up for it."
Crosby, who is clearly the Yankees best defensive outfielder, responded by going 2 for 3 against Bedard by victimizing 320-pound Oriole firstbaseman Walter Young with a hot shot down the line and a bunt, then won the game by homering off of lefty reliever Eric Dubose in the bottom of the ninth.
With that 3 for 4 night under his belt, Crosby is now hitting .379/.379/.552 in 29 September at-bats (his triple against Tim Wakefield and last night's homer being his only extra base hits of the year), which has brought his season line comfortably above the Womack line to an almost respectable .278/.307/.347 (speaking of whom, Womack has made just one plate appearance since August 24, which is exactly what has to happen for this team to make the postseason). Last night's game has also thrown Crosby's splits for a loop as he's now hitting .357/.357/.571 against lefties in a mere 14 at-bats, three of his five hits and all of his extra bases against lefties coming last night.
Crosby made the Yankees' 25-man roster out of spring training the last two years due to his ability to get extremely hot at exactly the right time, hitting .320 during spring training this year and .357 last year. Thus it would be foolish for Torre to do anything other than ride Crosby until he runs out of gas, particularly as he is leaps and bouds better than his other options defensively. Fortunately, Torre seems to have caught on, as Crosby will again get the start in right field tonight as Aaron Small looks to extend his perfect record to 9-0.
Ducks on the Pond (We wanna come home)
Yankee fans have been hollering all year about the team's propensity for leaving runners on base. Last week, a reader wondered where the team ranks in that category. David Pinto has pointed me in the right direction, and it should come as no surprise that the Yanks lead the American League in runners left on base with 1163. The Red Sox are second with 1149, followed by Oakland (1089), Cleveland (1049) and Minnestoa (1036). However, as Pinto also mentioned to me, the Yanks and Sox score a lot of runs so it is natural that they would be at the top of the league in leaving men on. Boston currently leads the league in runs scored with 838, followed by Texas (816), New York (806), Cleveland (727) and Oakland (724). The team that looks the worst here are the Twins who are dead last in the AL in runs scored (637).
Hubba Hubba Bubba
"I've never hit a walk-off homer, ever, in my whole life, not even in Little League," Crosby said. "To do it at Yankee Stadium, this time of year, when it counts, it just doesn't get any better than this."
C.W. Wang pitched his best game since returning from the DL last night, holding the Orioles to two runs over eight innings. He was a little shaky in the first three innings but after that, he cruised, getting Baltimore to hit ground ball after ground ball. I can't recall him throwing harder either. The YES broadcasters said his fastball was hitting between 93-96 mph. Wang had nine assists himself (two shy of the League record). He left the game after eight fine innings with the score tied at two. The Yankees blew a scoring opportunity in the third inning (Gary Sheffield, depleted of his power, grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded) and left nine men on base in total for the night. However, they managed to score two runs in fifth (RBI single by Alex Rodriguez, RBI ground out by Sheff) to tie the game at two.
Mariano Rivera pitched the ninth. After striking out Jay Gibbons (check swing) for the first out, Javey Lopez popped out to Tino Martinez. Actually the ball was in foul territory up the first base line. Crosby raced in from right and Cano motored over from second. Cano almost collided with Tino, who was once again called on as a defensive replacement for Giambi, but Martinez held onto the ball for the out. B.J. Surhoff followed and hit the first pitch in virtually the same spot. Actually, this play was even easier for Martinez but an overeager Cano bumped into him and the ball dropped out of Tino's glove. (Martinez shot Cano a look that said, "Now, listen here, son, lemme 'splain something to you...") Surhoff worked the count full before lining out to Hideki Matsui in left.
Bubba Crosby, who already had two hits, led off the bottom of the ninth and plastered a 1-0 breaking ball deep into the right centerfield bleachers. Crosby, who hasn't hit a home run in well over a year, knew it was gone immediately, and went into style-mode. He practically froze at the plate, like he was doing a dance move, admiring his unlikely moment in the spotlight.
Doity, filty, stinkin' boids. C.M. Wang squares off against the Orioles' talented southpaw Erik Bedard tonight in the Bronx. Yanks must to take at least three of four against Baltimore, both this week and next week. Hopefully, they come out on the good foot and nab a "w." Whatta ya say, let's go boys!
My assumptions panned out this past weekend, with the Indians sweeping the Royals and the Yanks and Red Sox taking two of three in their respective series. As a result the Yankees are a game and a half out in both the East and the Wild Card race.
Meanwhile, the Indians have moved within 3.5 games of the White Sox and still have all six head-to-head match-ups remaining (including a three-game series that starts tonight in Chicago). That's bad news for the Yankees' Wild Card hopes as they still trail the White Sox by five games.
Tonight our heroes play the first of eight remaining games with the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles team that the Yanks will face in the Bronx tonight is drastically different from the one that last visited the House that Ruth Built back in late June. That team arrived in New York with a .543 winning percentage, but, starting with a pair of loses to the Yankees, went on to post a 18-33 (.353) record through the end of August. Along the way they changed managers, traded their left fielder, released their would be ace starter, and lost a pair of would-be hall of famers to a combination of injury and steroid suspension.
Things have been looking better for the O's since the calander changed to September. The birds have posted a .500 record on the month, but that's largely been the result of a pair of series wins against the lowly Mariners and Rangers, which produced a four-game winning streak last week. They've also dropped series to the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Devil Rays. The Yankees hope to complete the divisional sweep this week.
Tonight's Oriole starter, Eric Bedard, has pitched reasonably well since being activated from the DL in late July, but has walked a lot of men and had trouble going deep into games. His opposite number, Chien-Ming Wang, has looked good in his two starts since being activated, though he has yet to really deliver on his pre-injury promise. Here's hoping he has a breakthrough tonight after a pair of warm-up starts against those gall-darn Devil Rays.
Every loss hurts more. The Yankees fell to the Blue Jays on a bright sunny afternoon in Toronto 6-5 leaving Yankee fans to grind their teeth for the rest of the day. Although the team went 5-1 on their road trip, this was a sour ending as they blew an opportunity to move to within a half-a-game of Boston. They did, however, lose a game in the wildcard standings to Cleveland, who crushed Kansas City. It wasn't so much that the Yanks lost, it was they way they played: tight and sloppy. After two important wins on Friday and Saturday, this was another example of a game they let slip away.
Keep it Rollin'
The Yankees have won six games and already taken the weekend series against the Blue Jays. Funny to think that they could start the week having lost ground on Boston and Cleveland should those two teams win today and the Yanks lose. Our old friend Ted Lilly will square off against Jaret Wright this afternoon in Toronto. Wright tends to get hurt early, but the Yankees desperately need him to make like Shawn Chacon and give them some length. More to the point, they need the offense to put up at least a half-a-dozen runs, which is possible, though no lock against Lilly, who can be nasty when he's on. Jorge Posada is showing some signs of life, and Robinson Cano has been hot. Let's see who can step up today. Got to drive 'em in when they are on, boys. Let's see youse guys get them ducks off the pond.
One more pin Rodney. Just win it. Any which way you can.
The last two victories for the Yankees are just the kind of games that could make you start to believe. Then again, if you are an Indians fan, I'd think you are feelin' the faith pretty strong right now too. The Yankees won 1-0 yesterday afternoon putting pressure on Cleveland and Boston, who in turn both won one-run games last night as well. It was the Yankees league-leading 13th shutout on the year (go figure that), a nail-biter that featured some timely defense. I counted seven fielding plays over the course of the game (two by Jeter--including his John Stallworth over-the-shoulder routine, two by Cano--one featuring a nice pick by Jason Giambi, one by Matsui, another by Ruben Sierra, and the icing-on-the-gravy by Rodriguez-Cano-Martinez). Vernon Wells also robbed Bernie Williams of extra bases with a basket catch in right-center field that was the definition of smooth.
Last night, the Yankees won a game by the skin of their teeth, a game that felt like they were going to lose seven different ways even though they held an 11-3 lead at one point. It's just the kind of game that could mean the difference between them making or missing the playoffs and in the end, they won it. Good thing too as both Cleveland and Boston were victorious as well.
The Blue Jays
The last week, in which our heroes went 5-1 against the rival Red Sox and dastardly Devil Rays, has been a physically and emotionally draining one for both the Yankees and their fans. Fortunately, while there are no off-days left in the Yankees season, their schedule does get decidedly easier starting tonight when the Yanks begin a stretch of fourteen games against the Blue Jays and Orioles.
But it is exactly that that concerns me about these four series against the weaker sisters of the AL East. The Yankees avoided a let down after taking two of three from the Red Sox, and they avoided a let down after both unloading 17 runs on the Devil Rays in the first game of that series and pulling out a one-run victory in Game Two. But in both cases they were facing a team that had made them angry, the Red Sox by virtue of the natural rivalry, last year's humiliating ALCS, the standings, and all of the accompanying baggage, and the Devil Rays by inexplicably pushing the Yankees around during the first five series between the two teams this year.
The Blue Jays and Orioles, on the other hand, have thus far minded their manners. After a hot start, the Orioles have tumbled to a .476 record, 14 games behind the still second place Yankees, and they haven't been seen 'round these parts since just before the All-Star break when they dropped a pair to the Yanks in the Bronx. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have gone a very accommodating 4-8 against the Yanks thus far this season, most recently dropping three of four to the Bombers at the Stadium in late August, the only Blue Jay win in that series coming on what remains Mike Mussina's last game of the season, when the inflammation of his elbow became too severe for him to continue.
The fear, of course, is that after the fever pitch of their last six games, the Yankees will ease off against the Jays this weekend, forgetting that they're markedly better than the Seattle team that split a four game set with the Yanks two and a half weeks ago, and perhaps completely unaware that Toronto has a .545 Pythagorean Winning Percentage, which, if substituted for the Blue Jays' actual record, would rank them just two games behind the A's and Angels in the overall American League standings.
Then again, looking back over the Yankees' schedule, other than their struggles against the Devil Rays, the Yanks haven't lost a series to a team not currently in a playoff slot since they dropped two of three to the Mets in late June, and other than that Mariners series the only other split they've suffered over that span was the rain-shortened two-game set against the Orioles that immediately followed that Mets series.
What that tells us is that, over the last two and a half months, the Yankees have done their job against the lesser teams in the league, but simply winning these four series may not be enough to get the Yankees in the playoffs. Let's speculate, shall we?
"That's why the Yankees are the Yankees," Rays DH Jonny Gomes said. "The buffoonery they had earlier, that was something else. But they're the Yankees and they're here now. They mean business. And they're not taking no for an answer." (N.Y. Daily News)
Welp, Cliff was right: neither pitcher was pretty last night. But that didn't stop the Yankees from winning their fourth straight game. Down 5-1, the Bombers scored seven runs in the top of the sixth inning, giving Aaron Small all he would need in order to up his record to an improbable 8-0. The final score: Yanks 9, Rays 5. According to the YES broadcast, it was the tenth time this season that the Yanks have come back from a deficit of four or more runs, a team record. Robinson Cano hit a huge grand slam and Alex Rodriguez made like David Ortiz with a tie-breaking two-run blast which gave the Yanks the lead for good. New York inched to within a half-a-game of the idle Cleveland Indians and a game-and-a-half to the Boston Red Sox who lost to Oakland last night at Fenway Park.
Aaron Small had two bad innings. In the second, he allowed two doubles and hit a man as the Rays jumped to a 2-0 lead; in the fifth, he gave up two singles and a long home run (which hit the catwalk) to Johnny Gomes (hey, the dude can hit the high fastball, 'specially when it ain't that fast). He also retired the side in order three times. The most important work for Small came after his offense reclaimed the lead in the top of the sixth. He retired the next five men, throwing strikes, and keeping the aggresive Rays hitters off-balance with his breaking pitches, throwing them slower rather than harder.
Not A Pretty Pitcher
It won't be a beauty contest tonight when Aaron Small and Seth McClung face off in the final game of the year between the Yankees and Devil Rays (and, yes, I just accidentally wrote "Red Sox"--sure feels like it), but McClung, who has made just one relief appearance and no starts against the Yankees this year, sure will be a welcome change from the endless parade of Hendricksons and Fossums the Bombers have seen in this match-up.
McClung, a burly 24-year-old in his first full season, is a hard cat to figure. His last four starts have alternated between quality wins (including an eight-inning gem in Toronto in his penultimate effort), and disaster loses (a total of three innings pitched in two starts, including just two in a rematch against the Blue Jays his last time out). The bad news is that means McClung is "due" for a quality win this time out. The good news is that he's had difficulty harnessing his stuff and a patient Yankee offense (like the one that made Mark Hendrickson throw 113 pitches in five innings last night) could wear him out quickly.
Like McClung, Small will be making his first start against the Devil Rays this year after facing them once out of the bullpen. Unlike McClung, Small has been nothing if not reliable for the Yankees this year. The four runs he allowed against the Red Sox in 6 1/3 innings in his last start were the most he's allowed in any outing this year, and one of those scored after Joe Torre had pulled him from the game. Prior to that he had thrown fourteen scorless innings.
Small's success may be a fluke, but there's no reason why that fluke has to come to an end prior to next season, as Tom Zachary's 1929 campaign demonstrates (a point Steven Goldman likely didn't realize he was making). The Yankees certainly hope Small's coin stays balanced on its side, as any loss at this point in the season will feel like a catastrophic one, especially if it comes at the hands of these blasted Devil Rays in the final confrontation of the year.
Oh, and don't look now, but the Yankees have the fifth-best record in baseball (behind the Cardinals, White and Red Sox, and Indians). It sure would be a shame to see the Yankees sit home this October with a better record than both western division winners. Unfortunately, there are a number of ways that could happen, but none of them can occur if the Yankees keep winning.
Aaron Small, I turn it over to you.
Victory At Last!
It didn't come easy, but the Yankees finally took a series from the Devil Rays, by pulling out a 6-5 victory in Tampa last night.
Throughout the game, the Yankees seemed on the verge of yet another collapse against the Devil Rays. They left the bases loaded in the first inning after plating just one run, stranded runners at the corners in both the third and fourth (scoring another run in the latter inning thanks in large part to a Julio Lugo throwing error), then promptly surrendered their 2-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth on a two-out game-tying single by Toby Hall.
The first true sign of life came in the fifth when, with a man on first and two outs, Bernie Williams reached on an infield single to second and Ruben Sierra drew a five-pitch walk, just his fifth of the season, to load the bases and bring Robinson Cano to the plate. Cano, who was 1 for 15 on the season with the bases loaded coming into that at-bat, fell behind Tampa starter Mark Hendrickson 1-2, then lined a single into right that scored two runs, restoring the Yankees' two-run lead.
That the second Yankee lead was in part the result of two things that never happen--a Ruben Sierra walk and a Robinson Cano hit with the bases loaded--was an indication that last night just might be the night the Yankees broke through against the Devil Rays, but things weren't quite that simple.
The Day After
After being embarrassed by the Devil Rays all season, including losing two of three to them at home last week, the Yankees were clearly a team on a mission last night in Tampa, unloading on the D-Rays for five runs in the first inning, knocking starter Doug Waechter from the game before he had recorded a single out, and finishing the night with a whopping 17-3 victory.
From one point of view such an outburst was exactly what this team needed to do: send a message to Tampa Bay that clowntime is over and papa won't take their mess no mo'. From another point of view, such an outburst is actually cause for concern. Could it be that the Yankees expelled all of their frustration over a season worth of series loses to the Devil Rays with one cathartic explosion of run scoring and will thus lack that fire in the remaining two games of the series, which are every bit as important to their playoff chances? After all, hasn't it been true all season that the Yankee offense has followed such a outbursts by failing to score more than a run or two the next day?
Well, no, actually.
Prior to last night, the Yankees had run up a double-digit run total in thirteen games this season. In six of the games that followed such an outburst, the Yankees scored fewer than five runs, but in six others they scored more than five runs (in the one remaining game they scored exactly five), twice scoring in double-digits again the next day and once scoring nine runs and following that with a fifteen-spot the next day. While it may not look impressive compared to the nearly 14 runs the team scored on average in their thirteen highest-scoring games, the Yankees have scored an average of 5.62 runs in the games immediately following those outbursts, with a median total of five runs. That average is actually higher than their overall season average of 5.39 runs per game.
It's much more informative to look at tonight's starting pitchers for an indication of what tonight's contest might bring. For the Devil Ray's, that man is Mark Hendrickson, who has made four starts against the Yankees, all of which the Devil Rays have won, with Hendrickson himself picking up the win in three of them. In his last two starts against the Yankees, which includes his most recent start of the season, Hendrickson has posted this line:
14 1/3 IP, 12 H, 9 R (8 ER) 2 HR, 5 BB, 8 K
That translates to a 5.02 ERA, more than a run better than his season mark of 6.06. But then consider what Hendrickson did in his three starts in between those two games against the Yankees:
21 2/3 IP, 17 H, 5 R, 3 HR, 3 BB, 15 K, 2.08 ERA
And what weaker sisters of the league did he amass that line against you might ask? The Blue Jays (who are an even .500 after defeating the Red Sox last night), the AL West-leading Angels (against whom Hendrickson hurled 8 2/3 innings of one-run ball), and those red hot Cleveland Indians.
What all of this goes to show is that if the Yankees do struggle to score runs tonight it has nothing to do with the 17 runs they scored last night or Hendrickson "owning" them, as he's actually pitched much better over the past month against the Yankees' rivals than against the Yankees themselves.
The Yankees will send Chien-Ming Wang to the mound tonight for just his second start since returning from a minor league rehab assignment and what was once thought to be a season-ending rotator cuff injury. Wang's last start also came against Hendrickson and the Devil Rays and saw the rookie groundball pitcher surrender three runs on eight hits and a pair of walks in five innings.
Curiously, that outing was Wang's best result in three starts against the Devil Rays this year (he surrendered five earned runs in six innings in each of his other two and took the loss in all three). The loss in his last start could be considered hard-luck as the Yankees did score four runs, one more than Wang allowed, but their bullpen gave up four more after Wang departed to put the game out of reach before the Yankee bats finally got to Hendrickson in the eighth (it's worth noting that Hendrickson needed just 85 pitches to get through 7 2/3 innings in that game, which means that the Yankee runs were not the result of Hendrickson tiring, but also means he was alarming efficient through the first seven innings).
Wang threw just 80 pitches in that game, likely due to concerns over the health of his shoulder. With the bullpen well rested following Monday's off day and last night's blow out, I would expect the Yankees to again be cautious with Wang's pitch count, so the performance of the bullpen tonight could turn out to be every bit as important as Wang's, though it would certainly do the Yankees well to see Chien-Ming continue to improve coming off his injury and, hopefully, heading toward the postseason. Of course the latter will be less of a concern should the Yankees fail to pull out another win (and their first series victory over the Rays this season) tonight.
Tom Verducci thinks that the AL MVP award is Alex Rodriguez's to lose. While he appreciates the fact that David Ortiz is the most dangerous late-inning hitter in the league--and possibly the game--he notes that Rodriguez hasn't exactly been chopped liver in the clutch either. But the telling difference between the two players comes down to this:
Ortiz doesn't play defense. There is no way to understate this. The guy is half a player. He is a specialist. He can devote his entire energies to his at-bats. There is a good reason why no position player ever has won the MVP with fewer than 97 games played in the field (Don Baylor, 1979). A DH would have to be miles better than the next best player who actually contributes to his team in both halves of the game. Is Ortiz having that kind of a season over Rodriguez? No. Meanwhile, Rodriguez, after a shaky start, has provided Gold Glove quality defense at third base, once running off the longest errorless streak among all AL third basemen over the past seven years.
Cookie Monster is an outstanding hitter, Alex Rodriguez is an outstanding player.
What a Difference a Game Makes
Um, now that is more like it. Heppy boitday Bernie (Silly Carl, don't you know my man's got a hose?).
The Devil Rays VI: This Time It's Personal
There are twenty games remaining on the Yankees regular season schedule, one more than the Red Sox and two more than the Indians. The Red Sox added a half-game to their division lead yesterday by defeating the Blue Jays in eleven innings thanks to yet another game-winning home run by guess who while the Yankees enjoyed their final off-day of the season. The Yankees will make up that game next Thursday when the Red Sox are idle, thus that frightening extra half-game that will stick to the Red Sox AL East lead over the next week and a half is illusory. The opportunity still exists for the Yankees to match the Sox win-for-win to keep the Boston lead at three games entering the final three games of the season in Boston. Should the Yankees then sweep that series, a single-game playoff between the two teams would be played at Yankee Stadium to decide the division.
The Indians, meanwhile, were shut out by Dan Haren and a quartet of relievers last night, thus dropping their half-game advantage in the Wild Card race. You see, while the Indians still lead the Yankees by a full game, that game is the result of the Indians having won two more games than the Yankees. The two teams are even in the loss column, which, by a certain strain of logic, means they are actually tied. Thus the opportunity still exists for the Yankees to match the Indians win-for-win over the remainder of the season, win the two extra games in their schedule, and finish the season tied with Cleveland. If that happens, a single-game playoff between the two teams would be played at Jacob's Field to decide the Wild Card.
So, technically, the Yankees are still in control of their own destiny, even if that destiny now includes a one-game playoff win. Merely forcing such a playoff game against either the Indians or Red Sox, however, will be a monumental task for the pinstripers. To begin with, needing to sweep the Red Sox at home over the final three days of the season is a frightening thought, even though the starters for that series currently project to be Aaron Small, Randy Johnson and Shawn Chacon (though Chacon's start could go to Mike Mussina as I'll explain in a moment).
What's more, the Indians have been the hottest team in the American League over the past week. Last night's loss broke a seven-game winning streak that saw them sweep the Tigers and Twins, including a 4-2 win over Johan Santana this past Friday.
Meanwhile, the Yankees find themselves in Tampa tonight to play their final three games of the season against the Devil Rays team that has, er, bedeviled them all season. At this point it should no longer be necessary for me to recap the Devil Rays' success against the Yankees this season. And any analysis of the overall success of the Devil Rays' pitchers against the Yankee hitters is statistically obscured by the two 13-run innings the Yankees have dropped on the D-Rays this season (yes those innings can be factored out, but I lack the time, the patience, and the stomach to do so right now). That said, it is informative to note that the Devil Rays have outscored and flat out-hit the Yankees head-to-head even with those 26 runs in two innings included on the Yankees' side:
D-Rays: .293/.367/.451 (.278 GPA), 102 R
In addition, consider the fact that the Yankee starter and the two Yankee hitters who have performed best against the Devil Rays this season, Mike Mussina, Tino Martinez and Gary Sheffield, have all been sidelined with injuries of late. The good news is that Sheffield (.322/.349/.678, 6 HR, 22 RBI vs. TB this year) will start tonight at DH. Sheffield missed the entire Boston series with a mysterious muscle pull in his upper leg (it's been variously reported as a quad, a hamstring, and a groin). As Alex and I were discussing on the phone this afternoon, you know that had to eat Sheffield up inside. The guy played all of last year with a muscle separation in his shoulder and a torn ligament in his thumb and almost won the MVP award. Do you think he would have missed the entire Boston series if that leg injury wasn't something we should be concerned about? Hells no! Do you think he wasn't going absolutely crazy having to sit through those last two games in which the Yankee offense produced a total of three runs? You bet your sweet bippy he was!
Having Sheffield at DH could actually be a plus for the Yankees in this series as it opens up right field to the team's best defensive outfielder, Bubba Crosby, who, to Joe Torre's credit, will indeed start there tonight, his second consecutive start in right field. Playing on the slick Tropicana Dome turf over the next three games, the Yankees would be well advised to dispatch Bubba Crosby to the outfield in all three games, even against the left-handed Mark Hendrickson tomorrow. Now that we've all had a good look at Matt Lawton's defensive shortcomings, I can't imagine anyone would disagree that the Yankees cannot afford to run him and Bernie Williams out there on turf against this fast and aggressive Tampa Bay team, and Gary Sheffield, particularly Gary Sheffield with a bum leg, would only be a marginal improvement.
To that end, having Sheffield at DH also keeps Jason Giambi in the field, where his bat has heated back up, producing two of the three runs the Yankees scored in the final two games of their weekend series against the Red Sox. Giambi has spent all of September in the field thus far thanks to the rib cage injury which has kept Tino Martinez out of the line-up for the entire month. According to Torre's pre-game press conference, Tino could return to game action this week, which is actually an item of some concern as anything that pushes Jason Giambi to DH is a blow to the Yankee offense. Thankfully Sheffield will block him for the time being. I for one could deal with seeing the likes of Bubba Crosby, Matt Lawton or Ruben Sierra in the line-up in place of Tino as long as it kept Giambi in the field.
As for Mussina, the last of the Yankees' injury brigade, he threw 45 pitches in the bullpen today and, though he's still not 100 percent, will take another bullpen turn later in the week, and could eventually slot into Chacon's spot in the rotation if the latter continues to struggle. That would make Mussina, not Chacon, the starter for the final game of the season in Boston. Myself, I'm nervous about a potential Mussina return, as the Yankees can't afford to sacrifice a single game to get the rust off of him, even if it would make their rotation stronger over whatever portion of the season remained.
As for the Devil Rays themselves, their roster is unchanged from last week and they'll be sending Doug Waechter to the mound to face Jaret Wright tonight. Waechter has a 3.38 ERA in three starts against the Yankees (21 1/3 IP, 20 H, 3 HR, 3 BB, 11 K), while Wright, eliminating his April start against Tampa as I believe he was less than healthy during that part of the season, has posted the following line in two starts against the Rays since returning from the DL:
14 IP, 12 H, 6 R, 1 HR, 5 BB, 4 K, 1.21 WHIP, 3.86 ERA
That's good but not great. Still, it accounts for two of the Yankees five wins against the Rays this year.
Given some of their comments after Sunday's remarkable 1-0 win over the Red Sox, it seems the Yankees are finally ready to not only take this Devil Rays team seriously, but approach this series as if it were against the Red Sox themselves. It's about time, as there's no margin for error and no room for a let down follwing the Boston series.
I'm sorry that I haven't gotten around to mentioning it sooner, but Matt McGough's charming memoir about being a bat boy for the Yankees in the early nineties is a light, engaging read. It is particularly compelling if you are a Yankee fan 35 and under. It's not that the book won't appeal to you if you are older than that, but I think "Bat Boy" will really resonate with fans who grew up during the Matt Nokes dog days in the Bronx (as it turns out, Nokes is one of the nicer players that McGough encountered, along with Jim Abbott, Bernie Williams and Don Mattingly). McGough's prose is simple and direct and he tells a good story. It is the perfect holiday gift for a young fan--even a fan who is too young to remember that era. If you are interested, you can check out excerpts of "Bat Boy" over at The Hardball Times (Part One and Two)and at The Futility Infielder. In addition, Peter Handrinos, who has conducted a series of interesting interviews this summer at All-Baseball.com, spoke with the author (again, in two parts--one and two.) McGough was also interviewed on The Baseball Savant blog.
In a thrilling pitcher's duel yesterday afternoon in the Bronx, the margin of difference came down to a curve ball that Jason Giambi wrapped around the right field foul pole in the first inning. Final Score: 1-0. Tim Wakefield usually performs well against the Yankees, but yesterday he was downright brilliant, allowing only three hits while striking out a career-high twelve over eight innings. Randy Johnson was equally as good, giving up just one hit over seven shutout frames. Johnson glared at the hitters (most memorably at Kevin Millar, who after striking out, gave him the gasface right back) and was his old animated self.
Flash Gordon relieved him in the eighth and with a man on first an easy pop-up to the mound almost became a nightmare for the New Yorkers. Gordon could not see the ball, while Cano, Jeter and Rodriguez rushed in. But nobody took control and the ball landed safely on the ground. Fortunately, Cano had the presence of mind to rush back to second, and the ball took a lucky hop into Rodriguez's glove. He threw to Cano and they retired the lead runner. Gordon got the second out but then was yanked in favor of Mariano Rivera when David Ortiz entered the game as a pinch-hitter. It was a dramatic moment, by which time eight of the ten finger nails on my hands were decimated. Rivera pitched Ortiz deliberately, everything up and in, before walking him. Johnny Damon was next, and during a classic ten pitch at-bat, I thought I was going to hyperventilate. But Rivera induced an easy ground ball to first and got out of the jam.
Edgar Renteria led off the top of the ninth and drilled the first pitch back up the middle. It looked like a clear base hit. But Rivera stabbed at it and made the catch for the first out. After getting pinch-hitter Trot Nixon to ground out to first (the ball was hit sharply), Rivera worked carefully to Manny Ramirez, again, busting everything up and in. Like Ortiz before him, Ramirez drew a walk. Kevin Millar then slapped a clean single to deep center and Ramirez chugged into third. But Rivera was able to rally and strike out John Olerud to end the game and keep the Bombers in the AL East race. Had they lost, the Yanks would have fallen to five games behind Boston. With the win, they trail by just three. Cleveland won again last night, so they remain a game-and-a-half ahead of New York and two-and-a-half in front of Oakland who lost yesterday.
It was an absolutely beautiful day in the Bronx last night . . . for Red Sox fans, that is.
As Alex predicted, Curt Schilling turned in what was easily his best performance of the year, retiring the first eight Yankees in order and holding them hitless through 3 1/3 innings. A towering upper deck shot by Jason Giambi eliminated the no-hitter with one out in the fourth, but that would be the only hit the Yankees would get until a two-out Robinson Cano single in the seventh, and only run the Yankees would get until a lead-off Matt Lawton walk came around to score in the eighth.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, equalled the two runs the Yankees would score on the day before the Yanks even got a chance to hit. With two outs and an 0-2 count, David Ortiz battled Shawn Chacon for a ten-pitch walk. Chacon then got to 2-2 on Manny Ramirez before giving up an absolute bomb into Monument Park.
Chacon worked around a pair of baserunners in the second and another in the third, but couldn't escape the fourth, which John Olerud led off with a solo homer into the upper deck in right. Buell Mueller and Gabe Kapler followed with singles and that was a wrap for Chacon, who needed 77 pitches (just 55 percent strikes) to get his nine outs. Felix Rodriguez came on in relief and surrendered a single to Tony Graffanino, batting lead off in place of the sore-shouldered Johnny Damon. With Dale Svuem playing it conservatively (!), that loaded the bases. Rodriguez then got Edgar Renteria to hit a chopper back to the mound, and fired home for a 1-2-3 double play, but his throw sailed low and away, where John Flaherty, starting for the sore-shouldered Jorge Posada, made a great play to simply get the one out at home.
With Ortiz due up, Joe Torre then went to Al Leiter, who got Ortiz to fly out to left, only to have Hideki Matsui lose the ball in the sun and drop it for an RBI single. Singles by Ramirez and Nixon followed to make it 7-0. Then Jason Varitek hit a double play ball to short, which Jeter flipped to Cano, who pivoted and launched a hail mary pass into the stands behind first to plate another run. Leiter then got the sixth out of the inning by getting Olerud to fly out to center.
To his credit, Leiter stayed in the game, pitching five more innings and allowing just one more run, thus saving the bullpen for today's must win series finale.
With yesterday's loss, the Yankees are four back in the east with just four games left against Boston. If they lose today, it's over. To make matter's worse, Cleveland, Oakland and the Angels all won yesterday, dropping the Yankees into a tie with the A's, a game and a half behind Cleveland in the Wild Card chase.
At this point in the season, every game is a must win, every loss devastating, but today's confrontation between Randy Johnson and Tim Wakefield just might be the most important of them all.
With Boston generating G.T.O.U.S.'s (Game Threads Of Unusual Size), here's a a post for today's game, along with some food for thought from previous posts by Alex and myself:
Cliff on Friday:
Alex on Saturday:
C'mon, Yanks, flip that FOX jinx and prove us wrong!
This Ain't No Beauty Contest
Johnny Damon lifted the first pitch of last night's game between the Yankees and Red Sox to right field for what appeared to be an easy fly out, but Matt Lawton, starting in place of the injured Gary Sheffield, perhaps unaware the game had begun, misplayed the ball so badly, staggering around right field like a man with an inner ear infection, that he didn't even come close to catching it. The ball dropped in front of Lawton for what was inexplicably ruled a single (the old, "if he didn't touch it, he couldn't have made an error" ruling), setting the tone for an evening of sloppy, but enthralling baseball from which the Yankees ultimately emerged with an 8-4 victory.
With Damon on first, Renteria bunted Aaron Small's second pitch foul, took his third for a strike and lost his bat swinging at Small's fourth offering of the game to strike out on three pitches. That brought David Ortiz to the plate. After a first-pitch ball, Small blew a gut-high 90-mile-per-hour fastball past Big Papi, threw three pitches low and away--the first a ball, the second a perfectly placed strike, and the third fouled off by Ortiz--then came back to blow another gut-high 91-mile-per-hour fastball past Ortiz to pick up his second strike out of the night.
After striking out Renteria and Ortiz, Small got ahead of Manny Ramirez 0-1 and 1-2 before getting Manny to bounce a weak grounder to third base. Unfortunately the grounder was so weak that Ramirez was able to reach on an infield single, well ahead of the barehanded scoop and throw of Alex Rodriguez. Small then got ahead of Trot Nixon 1-2 before getting him to foul out to Derek Jeter charging the stands behind third in a faint echo of last year's July 1st epic.
Small retiring Ortiz and Nixon would also be a sign of things to come, as the lefty-hitting, Yankee-killing duo would finish the night 0 for 9 with three strikeouts and six runners left on base, their only RBI coming when Robinson Cano booted a potential double play ball off Nixon's bat with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh.
The Red Sox
Three weeks ago, the Yankees headed to Chicago to face the first-place White Sox coming off yet another dispiriting series loss to the Devil Rays. Having been spared their performance in that series in Tampa due a long weekend away from electronic media of all kinds, this is how I sized up the Yankees chances at that point in the season:
What I see when I look at the standings is that the Yankees are four games behind the Red Sox in the AL East with six games left to play against Boston and one and a half games behind the A's in the Wild Card race with three games left to play against Oakland. That means the Yankees' destiny is in their own hands. If they are able to match just one of these two clubs win-for-win over the remainder of the season and sweep their head-to-head confrontations, the Yankees will make the playoffs for the eleventh consecutive season.
Here's how those three teams have faired since then:
Red Sox: 13-7
The Yankees didn't sweep the A's head-to-head, but they did take two out of three while otherwise outplaying the A's by a game and a half (removing that head-to-head series, their records over that span are NYY: 11-6, Oak: 9-7). So, despite yet another just-completed dispiriting series loss to the Devil Rays, the Yankees have thus far accomplished what I said they would need to.
There are only two problems:
"We have to be better," said Rodriguez, who was 1 for 4 with an infield single. "We expect more out of ourselves. That is just not acceptable. We're better, I'm better, the whole team is better."
A Bomber blowout? So what do I know? At least I was thinking positively. Instead, it was another pathetic outing against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, as the Yankees were trounced 7-4, and it wasn't even as close as the final score suggests. New York was mastered by Mark Hendrickson--dig it--and their bullpen could not hold Tampa Bay down after Chien-Ming Wang's decent return performance. The four runs they scored in the seventh inning proved to be an abberation as the offense was lousy all night--in four at-bats, Bernie Williams saw a total of five pitches. This is the Yankees?
Apparently so. The Red Sox are in town for three games starting tonight and their offense has been terrific of late--last night's loss notwithstanding (David Ortiz, representing the go-ahead run, struck out with the bases loaded in the eighth inning--Great Googlie Mooglie, the man is human after all). I wish I had a good feeling about Aaron Small tonight but I fear that the Sox will crush him. Hopefully, the Bombers will take two of three, but these days, it's tough to figure what you are doing to get from them on any given day. With just over twenty games remaining they are four behind Boston in the AL East and a half-a-game behind the Indians for the wildcard. They are still very much in it. As down as I feel now, I realize that can all change quickly. Or it could get worse. Ah, these are the pros and cons of hitchhiking, right?
Two in a Row?
Wang is back tonight for the Bombers. Don't know how he'll do, but yo, the boys are going to slap Hendrickson about the neck and face. I wanna see a blowout, dog.
As I was buying the papers this morning I saw a middle school kid waiting for the bus. He was wearing a Jason Giambi shirt and I instantly remembered being his age and how proud I'd be to wear my gear after a big win like last night's 5-4 Yankee victory over the Devil Rays. (It was only the fifth time in fifteen games that New York has toppled Tampa Bay this year.) He was a small dude, and his napsack looked half as big as he did. Looking at the back cover of The Daily News I said to him, "You must be a happy man this morning." He assured me that he was. I asked him if he thought the Yanks would make the playoffs and he said with the utmost confidence that he believes they will beat the Sox to win the AL East. Whatever scars he has from last year's October meltdown were not discernable. "Damn, you are too young to remember the Yankees not being good aren't you?" He smiled in the self-satisfied fashion that Yankee fans have for generations. Dag.
Let's Try That Again
Jaret Wright returns to the mound tonight. It should be interesting to see what kind of stuff he's got against an aggresive Tampa Bay line up. If this gets ugly it could get ugly if you know what I mean? Couldn't you see Gomes charging Wright? Although I don't have much of a vibe about the game I have to think the Yanks are going to bomb those suckers.
All Moosed Up
The latest word on Mike Mussina, brought to us by Bob Klapisch, is not encouraging for the Yankees:
Asked if he was feeling better, Mussina shook his head and said, "Actually, it's feeling worse. At least when I was pitching, it would loosen up after a while. Now, I'm just sitting around and I can feel it tightening up."
S.S.D.D. a.k.a. Speed (or lack thereof) Kills
Randy Johnson finally got his third-consecutive quality start last night, allowing three runs in 6 1/3 innings while throwing 73 percent of his pitches for strikes, but it wasn't enough. Thanks in large part to a quartet of baserunning errors and one decisive fielding error, the Yankees once again came up short against the last-place Devil Rays. In turn, the Devil Rays clinched the season series, while the Yankees' opportunity to reverse course against these pesky Rays slipped away, possibly along with their postseason hopes.
Everything started out well for the Yankees last night. While Randy Johnson started the night with two perfect innings, the Yanks put a two-spot on the board in the first via a quartet of singles (two of which never left the infield) and an error by Tampa second baseman Nick Green, then added another run in the second on a Robinson Cano double and Derek Jeter's second single in as many innings.
Things started to turn in the third. Up 3-0, Johnson allowed his first baserunners when an overactive slider hit Green in the foot and Julio Lugo followed by drawing a six-pitch walk. In the fourth, Jonny Gomes picked up the first Devil Ray hit of the night with a one-out single and moved to second on a ground out for the second out. Alex Gonzalez then pulled a double down the left field line to plate Gomes and came around to score himself on a single by Toby Hall to bring the D-Rays within one. Meanwhile, Casey Fossum kept the Yankees off balance by changing speeds and hitting his spots, setting the side down in order in the third, fourth, and fifth innings.
Then came the sixth inning.
The Devil Rays
I first posted this in the wake of Randy Johnson's showdown with Felix Hernandez, but as tonight is his first start since that inspiring performance, here it is again:
Randy Johnson's best consecutive starts this season:
Johnson has not turned in three consecutive quality starts at any point this season. The closest he came was an eight-inning, three-run performance against the Mariners following the first two starts on the above list. I've disqualified that start, however, as Johnson actually skipped his turn following the Toronto game due to a strained groin suffered while completing that duel against Roy Halladay.
That skipped start would have come against in Tampa against the Devil Rays (Sean Henn took Johnson's turn and got lit-up in his major league debut). Johnson has made three other starts against the Devil Rays this year with the Yankees, none of which have produced the desired result. Here's a brief history:
Tues 4/19 (home): With yours truly sitting in $5 seats in the upper deck, Johnson pitches well but surrenders a two run home run to Eduardo Perez in the third and a solo shot to Perez in the sixth. Meanwhile, the Yankees struggle to hit current Columbus Clipper Hideo Nomo, who was pitching on three day's rest. Final score 6-2 Devil Rays.
Tues 6/21 (home): Again facing off gainst Nomo, Johnson gets absolutely lit up, surrendering back-to-back homers to Damon Hollins and Kevin Cash amid a five-run second inning and a two-run shot by Jonny Gomes in the third. Johnson leaves the game down 7-1 after three innings, but the Yanks come back to win 20-11.
Tues 8/16 (away): Much like the first game, Johnson pitches well save a two-run homer by Eduardo Perez in the sixth. Still, he leaves with a 3-2 lead, which is erased when Perez hits a solo shot off Mariano Rivera with one out in the bottom of the ninth. The D-Rays win it in the eleventh when Scott Proctor, on in relief of Alan Embree, is ordered to intentionally walk Aubrey Huff to load the bases, then proceeds to walk Jonny Gomes on four pitches to drive in the winning run.
By now it's common knowledge that the Yankees are 4-9 against the Devil Rays this season. With six games to play against Tampa this week (home) and next (away), the Yankees need Johnson to step up and stop the bleeding tonight, setting the tone for the remaining five games between these two teams. Outside of the six remaining games against the Red Sox, tonight's contest just might be the most important game on the Yankees' remaining schedule.
Putting the "Unk" back in Junk
Last week Bob Klapisch wrote an interesting article for The Baseball Analysts about pitching in a semi-pro league. He wrote that no feeling in the world "matches making a hitter swing and miss." The historian Glenn Stout has also played baseball as an adult, also as a pitcher. Here is his take on the allure pitching:
I don' think it's so much the feeling you get when a batter swings and misses. What's addictive is everything you have to do and go through to make a batter swing and miss being confirmed when the batter misses the swing is confirmation that everything that has come before has been concluded and all is right with that world or even if it's not, like when your arm hurts or you know you have nothing, a swing and a miss is sometimes even better then, because you used your brain mentally and emotionally, you were able to affect the physical world, which is a powerful narcotic. And I think that as pitchers age, this generally gets more pronounced, because when you are young and can just throw the ball past people, so what? But whenever you are pitching at a level where the hitters, or a good number of them, can hit your shit and aren't overmatched, then you have to use everything. I think I've said before that nothing I've ever done successfully before has ever required so much physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally at the same time. When it is all working together, it's the most powerful feeling in the world. There are times you just know that you're going to get the hitter out, or get out of the inning, or win the game. You don't get that feeling in the rest of the world very often.
After the Summer, Before the Fall
Labor Day weekend in New York City is undoubtedly my favorite holiday of the year. The town is dead, which means plenty of room to move around for the natives. You can get a parking space without a problem, stroll around without having to deal with crowds. There is a sleeping feeling about the place that is almost magic. What makes it even more enjoyable is the knowledge that it will all soon change, in a matter of hours. Tuesday will roll around, everyone will return from vacation, kids will be on the train on their way to school, the buzz will return. It makes the last moments of summer feel even more precious.
We were blessed with gorgeous weather this year. Saturday and Sunday were bright, sunny days, still very warm--ideal for taking longs walks followed by an afternoon nap (I ate corn and tomatoes from a local farmer's market and made the first, and probably last, fresh pesto of the season). Yesterday was sunny as well but there was a crispness in the air, a chilly breeze that felt like the start of autumn. I visited a friend in New Jersey in the morning and spent the early afternoon listening to old records. By the time I returned to my neighborhood around 3:00 the place was still deserted. Space, silence. Talk about two things that a New Yorker relishes.
The Yanks return home along with everyone else tonight, kicking off a week-long homestand with three against the Devil Rays. With six games remaining against Tampa Bay, the Bombers can still salvage the season-series (10-9) if they sweep 'em. I think they need to take 5-6 to feel good about themselves. I know if they drop more than one game to them, I will be leading the moans and groans. We Yankee fans are known to be a tad dramatic, but from here on out, all bets are off: bring on the sturm and drang. Randy Johnson, who has not pitched well against Lou's Crew this year, goes tonight. It'll be nice to see him settle the score with one E. Perez, no?
Behind another unspectacular yet effective performance from Shawn Chacon, the Yankees defeated the A's last night 7-3. They jumped all over Barry Zito early and often, knocking the Oakland southpaw from the game by the fourth inning. Zito gave up six earned runs (including two solo dingers--Jeter, Bellhorn) on five hits and three walks. With the win, the Yanks are a game ahead of Oakland in the wildcard race, two in front of the Indians. They remain three-and-a-half behind the Red Sox in the AL East.
Mark Bellhorn started at second base, hit a home run, worked a walk with the bases loaded, and made several nifty plays in the field. In the first, he made a basket catch on Mark Ellis' foul pop in foul territory, and in the fourth he started a slick double play. With Jay Payton on first, Dan Johnson hit a hard ground ball to Bellhorn's left. He bent over and fielded the ball, and instantly spun toward second. Turning his body, and falling into right field he made a perfect throw to Jeter who then completed the play. I was surprised that Bellhorn attempted the double play in the first place. But there was no hesitation on his part and it was a fine play.
Sunday Night Delight
After a shaky outing and a thoroughly poor one, Shawn Chacon looks to get back on the good foot tonight for the Yanks. He'll face Barry Zito in Oakland on the ESPN Sunday Night Game of the Week. The Red Sox won this afternoon, and the Angels are well on their way to a win, but the Indians fell to the Twins.
The Yanks didn't score on Friday, and the A's didn't score yesterday. Wish I could say I had a hunch about what's going to happen, but I don't. Hopefully, the Yanks pull out a win and come back home feeling okay about things.
Enjoy. I hope everyone is having a beautiful holiday weekend. Let's Go Yan-Kees.
Ace in the Hole
Aaron Small out-dueled Kirk Saarloos yesterday afternoon in Oakland as the Bombers rebounded from Friday night's beating. As our colleague Ken Arnson noted, the final score of 7-0 is misleading as this was a tense game until the Yankees broke it open in the seventh (Ken was at the game and took a series of nice photographs). And even then, the A's were close to getting out of the inning without the damage being too costly.
With the score 1-0, Hideki Matsui came to the plate with the bases loaded and just one out (Posada had singled, Cano dribbled a single that barely found a hole through the left side of the infield, then Bubba Crosby sacrificed the runners to second and third before Jeter was walked intentionally). The A's brought in the left-hander Ricardo Rincon. Though Matsui has been slumping, I had a good feeling about his at bat as I'm sure many Yankee fans did. Sure enough he smashed a line drive up the middle. But it was speared by Oakland's second baseman Mark Ellis and it appeared as if the A's were going to be able to turn the double play and get out of the inning. But Matsui beat the relay throw, a run scored, and the inning was alive. It was a heck of a way for Matsui to drive in his 100th run of the year.
The young right-hander, Justin Duchscherer replaced Rincon, got ahead of Gary Sheffield but then lost him. Sheffield walked and the bases were juiced again for Alex Rodriguez who had two ground ball singles and had been hit by a pitch on the afternoon. Rodriguez took a strike and then fouled off a fastball that was over the plate. The second pitch was his pitch to hit and he missed it. But Rodriguez did not give up. Duchscherer then just missed striking Rodriguez out with a curve ball. The pitch was low but Rodriguez's knees buckled all the same. Two more balls and the count was full before Rodriguez poked an outside pitch into right field for a single, scoring two runs. Rodriguez said something aloud half-way to first, and he clapped his hands once he reached the bag, looking directly into the Yankee dugout (the visitor's dugout in Oakland is along the first base line). At that moment Joe Torre, who held the eighth team meeting of the season prior to the game, pointed directly at Rodriguez as if to say, "Right on!" That is about as animated as Torre gets, but it was an important at bat. Rodriguez did not try to do too much, he went with the pitch and came through once again. Jason Giambi followed, and he muscled a three-run dinger into the right field seats and that, as they say, was that.
After getting blown-out on Friday night, Aaron Small pitched a shut out. Hard to believe what a ride this guy has had since joining the team this summer. I'm sure it has been the time of his life. One thing is for sure, he has been a savior for the Yankees. I shutter to think where they'd be without him.
Kicking off the biggest series of the year thus far for the Yankees, Al Leiter faced ten batters and retired just two of them before being removed from last night's game down 6-0 with runners on second and third. Never mind that lead-off hitter Jason Kendell, who was hit with a 2-2 pitch to start the game, appeared to be thrown out stealing second but was called safe. Or that when Mark Ellis followed Kendell's stolen steal by hitting a payoff pitch over Hideki Matsui's head in left that Matsui misplayed badly, Hideki recovered to throw out Ellis trying to stretch it into a triple only to have Ellis called safe as well. Such quibles are minor in the face of the 12-0 thrashing the Yankees took at the hands of the A's last night.
Leiter had nothing, resulting in the shortest non-injury start of his career. According to Joe Torre after the game, Leiter, notorious for his refusal to throw strikes, was simply catching too much of the plate. Though Leiter's 50/50 ball to strike split would suggest otherwise, Leiter did say that, as a result of watching video on the A's, he expected the Oakland to take more pitches and thus tried to get away with a few gimme strikes. What he failed to realize was that the A's take balls and swing at strikes, particullarly big juicy ones over the heart of the plate.
With Mike Mussina out indefinitely and Aaron Small insterted in his place in the rotation, Joe Torre called on Jorge DePaula to stop the bleeding and soak up inings. Armed with an 86-mile-per-hour fastball, the 26-year-old DePaula, who has spent the season in Columbus working his way back from Tommy John surgery, was only up to half the task. DePaula got the final out of the first on three pitches, but then gave up four more runs in the second and single runs in the third and sixth. Still, credit Brian Cashman (as Torre did after the game) with realizing that the Yankees might need an innings sponge such as DePaula with Leiter and Small starting on consecutive days. DePaula and Wayne Franklin, who pitched two perfect frames against Oakland's subs to finish the job, prevented Torre from having to use any of his more valuable relievers.
On the other side of the ball, the Yankees stranded runners in scoring position with less than two outs in the second, third and fourth innings against Danny Haren, also stranding a lead-off walk by Jeter in the first. After it took Haren just 18 pitches to get through the the Yankee's three through eight hitters in the fifth and sixth, Joe Torre put in his B-squad:
1B - John Flaherty
Shockingly, Womack and Flaherty got themselves on first and third in the eigth only to be stranded by Nieves, otherwise Lawton's two hits were all the subs had to offer.
Elsewhere, the Red Sox lost, thus failing to increase their 3.5 game lead in the East, but the Angels and Indians won. As a result, the Yankees have fallen into a second place tie with the Indians in the Wild Card race, a game behind the A's and Angels, who remain tied for first.
Today's game starts at 4:05 and it couldn't come soon enough. Last night's game was far too reminiscent of Game Seven of last year's ALCS and I'm desperate for a brand new ballgame to erase those awful memories (not to mention put the Yankees back in a tie for the Wild Card). Aaron Small, show your old team what you can do.
Showdown in Oak Town
The A's and Yankees enter this weekend's series with identical 75-58 records, tied for third best in the American League, the lead in the Wild Card race, and in the case of the A's, with the Angels for lead in the AL West. It's a rather stunning accomplishment considering how badly both teams stumbled out of the gate.
For the A's, their lowest point came after an eight-game losing streak in late May. After losing to the Indians on May 29, the A's were 17-32 (.347). Since then they are 58-26 (.690).* I'm not entirely sure that it's a coincidence that May 30 was the day that the A's activated their 25-year-old shortstop and number-three hitter, Bobby Crosby, from the disabled list.
Crosby started the A's opening day loss to the Orioles in Baltimore, but was removed mid-game and placed on the DL due to a stress fracture of his ribs that had resulted from being hit by a pitch in spring training. The A's had lost their last eight games prior to Crosby being activated at the end of may, but with him in the line-up, Oakland ran off four straight wins, with Crosby getting a hit in each. Crosby proceeded to hit .337/.394/.568 (.319 GPA) through the end of June as the A's finished the month with an eight-game wining streak, the last seven games of which also saw Crosby hit safely.
Bobby fell off some from that point hitting (.260/.333/.431 - .258) in July and August, but his presence in the line-up and Gold Glove-worthy defense at shortstop (112 Rate) remained a key part of the A's success, as they started the second half with seven straight series wins (20-4, .833). Well, last Saturday, Baltimore struck again as Crosby suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left ankle when he slid into Sal Fasano at home plate. Crosby is now back on the disabled list and the A's are unsure if he will return before the end of the regular season.
Thus far the A's have done well in his absence. With Crosby still at short, the A's followed their remarkable start to the second half of the season by dropping series to the Twins, Orioles and Royals and losing the opening game of a series in Detroit, a 2-8 stretch, only to recover and with their next four games, the last of which was the game in which Crosby broke his ankle.
With Crosby on the shelf, the A's completed a four-game sweep of the O's and then dropped a hard-fought and well-pitched three-game set to the rival Angels, in which aggregate score of the entire series was 6-3 Angels, with A's winning the first game in eleven innings and the Angels taking the last two. Thus it's difficult to say whether or not the Yankees, who are 5-1 against the A's this season having played all six games against them during Crosby's absence in May, are returning to Oakland at an advantageous time or not. In a sense, this series will be a greater test for Oakland than it will be for the Yankees. In addition to Crosby, the A's are likely to be without center fielder and number-two hitter Mark Kotsay for at least the first two games due to back spasms. Kotsay last played on Sunday in Baltimore and received an epidural injection on Wednesday. The A's are also playing without their young ace Rich Harden, who has missed his last two starts due to a strained right lat and is likely to miss at least one more. With harden out a month due to a strained left oblique suffered in a start against the Yankees in Oakland on May 14, the A's went 17-19 (including losing that game against the Yankees). They later won Harden's first three starts (and seven of his first eight) after being activated.
These injuries to Crosby, Kotsay and Harden, along with the just completed series loss to the Angels which erased the A's lead in the West, could put the young A's into a psychological funk. As Barry Zito told MLB.com, "Potentially it could bring us down, but we've faced adversity before and come through it. Granted we sucked the last time we had a bunch of guys on the DL, but now we have some momentum. We've been picking each other up for the past two months."
As it turns out, Marco Scutaro has been almost as solid as Crosby in the field (108 Rate at shortstop), and the Yankees would have missed Harden's turn in the rotation this weekend even if he had been healthy. The Yankees will also miss Joe Blanton, who along with Harden has formed a new trio of aces with Sunday's starter, Barry Zito.
Hot on the heels of those three aces, however, is tonight's starter, Dan Haren. Haren will oppose Al Leiter, who is coming off six ugly two-hit innings against the Royals, proceeded by a relatively efficient seven innings against the Blue Jays. The way the pitching rotations fell this weekend may not be ideal for either team, but no matter what happens this weekend there should be a playoff atmosphere in Oakland as the odds are the team that wins the series will emerge with the lead in the Wild Card race (though a poor performance by the Angels against the Mariners this weekend could put the A's in the AL West lead and thus Yankees in the Wild Card lead regardless of the series outcome, but we'll ignore that for now).
A Sense of Who You Are
Bob Klapisch has covered baseball in New York since the heyday of the Mets in the 1980s. He is a columnist for The Bergan Record and a contributor to ESPN. Now in his forties, he continues to play semi-pro baseball. Yesterday, he contributed a terrific post about playing ball to The Baseball Analysts. Klapisch's article has some keen insights into the pysche of ballplayers, and it is nice to see him write something longer, and more personal. But Klap isn't just a guy who loves to play the game, at heart he's a pitcher, and they are a breed apart:
From Little League all the way to Cooperstown, there's a fraternity convened by the adrenaline rush of throwing a baseball. Bret Saberhagen once told me, "Nothing matches making a hitter swing and miss. It's the greatest feeling in the world. Guys who retire, they spend the rest of their lives looking for it, but once you stop pitching you never get it back."
I sent the article to Pat Jordan, the veteran journalist and former pitching prospect for the Braves. He replied:
The allure of pitching is about being in control and playing God. Nothing happens without you. You control the game, good or bad. also the feeling of ball off fingertips and your ability to make it spin and do things is exhilarating. I love to throw a baseball. The feeling of artistry and power in making a ball approach the plate with the speed or curve that I dictate is unrivaled in anything else I've ever done, including writing. I was born to be a pitcher, but taught myself to be a writer. I was an artist on the mound, but, alas, am merely a craftsman, like a brick layer, in front of a typewriter.
Which brings me to another thought. Why do the best jock-turned-writers all seem to be pitchers? Jordan, Jim Brosnan, Jim Bouton. Glenn Stout pitched in an over-30 league for years. What gives? Michael Lewis was a pitcher when he was in high school, Rich Lederer was a pitcher back in his playing days, and Will Carroll was too. Bouton thinks that it "may be that pitchers spend a lot of time sitting around." What do you think?
"I still like how we feel right now," Manager Joe Torre said. "We have a great deal of confidence right now. A game like today is not going to shake that."
I'm glad that Torre feels that way. I felt far more discouraged yesterday after the Yankees dropped the final game of a four-game set in Seattle yesterday afternoon, 5-1. But I should keep things in perspective, especially considering what is happening in New Orleans right now. I know the two don't have anything to do with each other, I simply mean that in light of the distressing situation down there it is inappropriate for me to feel too grave about how our team is playing. Jaret Wright was beaned by a line drive in the collarbone in the sixth inning. It was a scary moment, fortunately, x-rays were negative. However, Taynon Sturtze, Alan Embree, and Ramiro Mendoza did not pitch well in relief, while Joel Pineiro had a fine game for the M's. It was an unfortunate loss. The Bombers fell another game behind Boston who beat up Tampa Bay again (Ah, so that's what good teams do--beat the bad ones). The Red Sox offense has carried a mediocre pitching staff. Meanwhile, the Yankees have scored six runs in the last three games combined. The Angels beat Oakland last night, and the two teams are tied for first in the AL West, and tied for the wildcard lead with the Yankees.
Just Win Baby
As I made my way out of my apartment building this morning I saw several brown leaves on the ground. The weather, which has been hot and muggy for the past few days, was clear and lovely and for the first time this year I thought, fall is near. For a decade that's meant one thing for Yankee fans: the playoffs. Yet with 29 games left in the regular season, the Bombers are no lock to play October baseball. Funny, but I feel more confident in their chances should they reach the playoffs than in their ability to actually make it in the first place (damn those Devil Rays). From here on out, the wins will be that much sweeter and the losses more painful. Joel Pineiro is starting for the Mariners this afternoon and he's not a bad pitcher, but the Yankees have to win this game and that is all there is to it. I feel if they can take two-of-three from the A's, Rays, Sox and Rays again, they should be in good shape.
Time to step up, fellas.
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
10 09 08 07
06 05 04 03 02 01
12 11 10 09 08 07
06 05 04 03 02 01
12 11 10 09 08 07
06 05 04 03 02 01
12 11 10 09 08 07
06 05 04 03 02 01
12 11 10 09 08 07
06 05 04 03 02 01
12 11 10 09 08 07
06 05 04 03 02 01