A two-run Alex Rodriguez homer in the first inning of last night's gave the Yankees an early lead they would never relinquish as they rolled to a 7-2 victory behind a solid outing from Mike Mussina (7 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 HR, 3 BB, 5 K), running their current winning streak to five games.
The one homer Mussina gave up came off the bat of Jhonny Peralta in the top of the second, but Jason Giambi got the run right back on Kevin Millwood's second pitch of the bottom of the inning with a solo shot of his own. Actually, Giambi's shot would have hit off the top of the wall in right, but Cleveland right fielder Casey Blake managed to catch it, only to have it pop out of his glove and over the wall for a home run.
Amazingly, both Giambi's deflected home run in the second and Rodriguez's opposite field shot in the first were touched by the same fan in the right field stands. A sturdy fellow in his late 30s/early 40s with black gelled hair and a blue-gray t-shirt bobbled Rodriguez's shot eventually knocking it back onto the field, then had Giambi's ball scoot right through his hands altogether. He didn't wind up with either ball.
The Yankees fifth run also came on a bizarre play. Following a Cano infield single, a Sheffield fly out and a Rodriguez walk, Hideki Matusi singled to score Cano for the fourth run and put runners at the corners. Then, with a 1-0 count on Giambi, Millwood caught his front spike on the mound while attempting to pitch from the stretch. Rolling his ankle slightly, Millwood had to kick his foot toward first to avoid injury, eliminating the momentum of his delivery completely. However, with a runner on third, Millwood didn't want to stop his motion and get called for a balk, so he sort of flipped the ball home with a flick of his wrist. Unfortunately for the Indians, the throw went wide of Victor Martinez behind the plate and both runners advanced anyway.
Giambi then singled home Matsui from second to make it 6-2 Yankees (the Indians scored their second run on a pair of singles and a groundout in the fifth). Derek Jeter added a solo homer leading off the seventh against Fernando Cabrera to cap the scoring.
Speaking of Cabreras, Melky (suggested at-bat music: "Moulty" by the Barbarians) went 1 for 4 in his major league debut, the one hit being a ball he sliced over third base for a single. Cabrera took the first three major league pitches he saw to run his first at-bat to 2-1, then sliced a pitch foul before Millwood came at him with a high inside strike that he missed completely for strike three. He singled on the first pitch he saw in his second at-bat, then, with two on and two out, grounded to second on a 0-1 count to end the Yankee rally in the sixth. In Cabrera's final at-bat, he sliced the first two pitches from Bobby Howry foul, then sliced the third to Aaron Boone at third for the final Yankee out of the game.
All totaled, the strike-out pitch in his first at-bat was the only time Cabrera swung at and missed on the night, but the ground out in the sixth was the only time he was able to pull the ball past the third baseman (all of his at-bats came from the left side).
In the field, he caught every ball hit to center including a bloop that was well within Robinson Cano's range behind second. He also had a bead on Peralta's homer in the second, but ran out of real estate. The one time I saw the Indians test his arm (Peralta going to third from first on a single to shallow center by Boone in the fifth), Cabrera uncorked a remarkably strong throw, but one that was too far off target to get the runner.
The one other item of note from last night's game is that Tom Gordon, in to protect a five run lead from Victor Martinez, Ben Broussard and Ron Belliard (ugh), left the game after three batters (four-pitch walk to Martinez, three-pitch K of Broussard, five-pitch K of Belliard) due to tightness in his shoulder. After the game, Gordon said that the sensation was simply that he was unable to get his arm loose during his warm-ups and that it likely resulted from sleeping on his arm wrong. The pain dated from no earlier than yesterday morning and, though the Yankees will send him for a cautionary MRI today, neither Gordon nor Joe Torre appear overly concerned. The good news here is that between last-night's scare and the upcoming All-Star break, Torre will likely be forced to avoid using Flash in any other unnecessary situations for a solid week.
Scott Proctor finished the game, allowing just one hit (a Boone single) while recording the final four outs.
Incidentally, Tanyon Sturtze was seen warming up in the bullpen during last night's game. Before the game, Joe Torre--clearly having realized the folly of having asked Sturtze to start last Monday despite his not having pitched more than 2 1/3 innings all year, in turn robbing the team of its third best reliever for several games--told YES that the player who will start on Saturday was not currently on the Yankee roster, implying that the Yankees will call up a minor leaguer to make that start (my money is on Darrell May, who came over from the Padres in the Quantrill trade).
Meanwhile, Carl Pavano's MRI was negative (he was diagnosed with tendonitis in his pitching shoulder) and he will be eligible to come off the DL immediately after the All-Star break, though the Yankees won't need him until at least the 17th. Torre has said that he hopes to have both Brown and Pavano back after the break, which would be nice as the Yankees are down to three starters at the moment.
Incidentally, it's worth noting that the Yankees' two free agent pitching signings are currently on the DL with shoulder problems (this after one of them failed his physical prior to the finalizing of his contract). Their intended second baseman was bumped from his position by a 22-year-old minor leaguer after a month and has now been (miraculously) benched in favor of a 20-year-old kid who spend all last year in A-ball. Their utility infielder is also on the DL, as is one of their two bullpen acquisitions, the other of which they designated for assignment last week and will have to release this weekend if they cannot deal him in a trade. Other than Randy Johnson and Tino Martinez, the only off-season additions that are currently on the Yankees 25-man roster are spring training non-roster invitees Russ Johnson and Buddy Groom, and Wayne Franklin, a free agent signed to a minor league deal who wasn't even invited to spring training.
The 2004-2005 offseason has to go down as one of the worst winters in Yankee history. And despite all that, they're now just 3.5 games out of first in the AL East thanks to a rain-shortened Oriole victory over the Red Sox in Baltimore last night, and just two games behind the Twins in the Wild Card race. If the Yankees and Red Sox both win tonight, the Yankees will move into second place in the East and will tie the Indians for second in the Wild Card race, leapfrogging the nose-diving O's (3-11 in their last 14 games with last night's win) in both cases.