Well, the second half of the season sure has been an exciting for the Yankees thus far, no? Before returning to action on Thursday with a four-game series against the rival first-place Red Sox, who lead them by 2 1/2 games in the standings, the Yankees learned that their best starter, who was scheduled to start on Friday, had been placed on the DL and could be done for the year. They then found out that Carl Pavano, who was expected to start Sunday, was still two weeks away from coming off the disabled list. Suddenly, the Yankees had Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny starting half of this crucial series in Boston, making the first and third games of the series, stared by Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson, must-wins of the first order.
So what happened? Mike Mussina gave up four runs in the first inning on Thursday, but the Yankees came back to win on a ninth-inning home run by Alex Rodriguez against Curt Schilling in the latter's first relief appearance since being actived from the DL himself. The Yanks then got creamolished on Friday, losing to the Sox by a score of 17-1 for the second time this season. Unshaken, the Yankees then overcame a shaky outing by Randy Johnson by beating up on Boston ace Matt Clement to win Saturday's game, accomplishing their revised goal for the weekend. With the Yankees still scurrying on Saturday to find a spot starter for Sunday, most fans on both sides assumed a split. Then Brian Cashman pulled of a coup.
On Thursday, Al Leiter, a big-name free agent who signed a one-year, $8 million contract this offseason, had been designated for assignment by the Marlins after a poor first-half performance. On Saturday, he was acquired by the Yankees along with $2.4 million to help pay his contract in exchange for a player to be named later. On Sunday, Leiter dominated the Red Sox for six-plus innings, allowing just one man past second base (and just two past first) while striking out eight, giving the Yankees a shocking series win and vaulting them over the Orioles into second place, just 1/2 game behind the reeling Red Sox, and putting them in a tie with the Twins for the lead in the AL Wild Card race.
Eight games into the punishingly difficult portion of the Yankees' mid-summer schedule, the Bombers are 6-2 (one of the two being a game they probably should have won). The Yankees are now 10-3 in July against the Tigers, Orioles, Indians and Red Sox.
Tonight they get Kevin Brown back, restoring their rotation, which had been down to two men as late as Saturday night, to four strong. They'll still need a spot starter for Wednesday's game (Aaron Small gets the call, more on him in a bit), but that fifth spot in the rotation will fall on Monday's off-day the next time around. That means that Carl Pavano should be ready to come off the DL when the Yankees next need a fifth starter on July 30 against the Angels at home.
It seemed that during the Yankees' struggles during the first half every other week they would pull out one come-from behind victory against the sub-.500 A's or the last place Devil Rays and everyone would say "maybe this is the win that turns it all around." Then the Yankees would go out the next day and lose to the very same opponent. Wise voices at the time would say that a single win against a clearly inferior opponent couldn't possibly be the turning point of a disappointing season. That would require a gutsy effort resulting in multiple victories against a team the Yankees weren't supposed to beat. Something like going into Boston for a four game series with two starting pitchers and taking 3 out of 4, pinning the loses on Curt Schilling, Matt Clement and Tim Wakefield. Things couldn't have looked worse for the Yankees Thursday afternoon. Now, on Monday afternoon, the Yankees are at their high water mark of the season.
The Yankees will have made a trio of roster moves by game time today. Obviously, Kevin Brown will be activated to make the start, with the assumption being that Darrell May will be sent down to make room for him. In addition, Melky Cabrera was sent down after last night's game and it is assumed that Bubba Crosby will be called up to take his place. Finally, Wednesday's spot starter Aaron Small was called up before last nights game to be available had Leiter had a short start, with Russ Johnson being designated for assignment to make room for Small on the 25- and 40-man rosters. The Brown move is obvious, logical and self-explanitary. The others are more thought-provoking.
It was clear that the Melky Cabrera experiment came to an unofficial end with Trot Nixon's inside-the-park home run on Saturday night. Sure enough, Bernie Williams started in center in the final two games in Boston. When the Yankees called up Cabrera, they said they didn't care how he hit, as long as he played the sort of centerfield they believed he was capable of. Obviously, they greatly overestimated Cabrera's defensive abilities, as he was clearly more comfortable at the plate (4 for 19, 2 Ks--not awful for a 20-year-old's first six major league games) than in the field. One wonders, however, if they will extend the same courtesy to Crosby in what seems like his 900th attempt to stick on the Yankees 25-man roster. Crosby has proven himself to be superior to Cabrera in the field, but has often looked overmatched at the plate, barely outpacing Melky at 4 for 17 with a walk and 4 Ks despite coming into the year with 70 major league plate appearances under his belt and eight more years of minor league experience than Cabrera. Bubba has also been abysmall at Columbus this year, posting a .231/.306/.363 (.228 GPA) line thus far in 160 at-bats. More likely, Joe Torre will return to his spring-training plan of using Crosby to spell Bernie two or three times a week until the front office can find another reason to send him back to Columbus.
Moving on to Aaron Small, here's what I wrote about Small in March when he was a non-roster invitee to spring training:
A 33-year-old journeyman, Small has been bouncing between AAA and the majors since 1994 with nine organizations, a few of them twice. Other than a solid AAA showing in 2001, he hasn't pitched particularly well at either level since impressing at AAA as a 23 year old a decade ago.
Here's a bit on Small, who was a high-school teammate of Jason Giambi's, from Tyler Kepner of the New York Times:
Small missed six weeks with a groin injury this season for Class AAA Columbus. In 10 starts there, he was 1-4 with a 4.96 earned run average. Even so, Small was told at least twice that he was being called up to the Yankees, before the Yankees changed their minds. "This time, I told my dad not to tell anyone," Small said.
But Small finally made it to the Yankees, coming aboard for Sunday's game to give the Yankees an extra arm in long relief. His start Wednesday will be the fourth of his [major league --CJC] career and his first since 1996. He has made 143 appearances in relief.
"If he has his command, he's got a lot of movement on his ball if he keeps it down," Manager Joe Torre said. "And he knows how to pitch. That, hopefully, will be an advantage for us. He's not overpowering."
Expect Small to get the heave-ho when Pavano comes off the DL, if not before.
According to Brian Cashman, the Yankees decided to drop Johnson to make room for Small because they wanted to have twelve pitchers on the roster to protect against overworking the pen with Brown coming off the DL and Small coming up to spot-start. That makes sense on its face, but designating Johnson, who hopefully will land back in Columbus, robs the Yankees of the only back-up third baseman on their roster. The four members of the Yankee bench--catcher John Flaherty, outfielders Ruben Sierra and (we assume) Bubba Crosby and utility man Tony Womack--have played a combined ZERO games at third base in their combined 45 seasons and 4,505 games in the major leagues. The only men on the Yankee roster other than Alex Rodriguez to have played third base in the major leagues are Gary Sheffield, whose two innings at the hot corner last year resulted in one chance and one error and were his first at the position since 1993, and Jason Giambi, who played himself out of the position as a sophomore with the A's in 1996.
What the Yankees are doing here, it would seem, is hoping that they won't need a back-up third baseman during the Texas series, as they should be able to drop Small after his start on Wednesday and recall either Johnson or a utility infielder from Columbus such as Felix Escalona or Damian Rolls. Personally, I'd rather they bring back Johnson, who can and did play first, second, third and the outfield (and can also play short in a pinch) and has a career .348 OBP in 966 major league plate appearances, or Andy Phillips, who can play the same positions as Johnson, but with a ton more power at the plate, if a tad less agility in the field.
Also, be on the lookout for the return of Felix Rodriguez during this series, most likely at the expense of Jason Anderson, though we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
Manager: Buck Showalter General Manager: John Hart
Ballpark (2004 park factors): Ameriquest Field (111/109)
Who's replaced whom?
Jason Botts replaces Laynce Nix (DL)
Marshall McDougall replaces Chad Allen (minors)
Ricardo Rodriguez replaces Ryan Drese (Nationals)
John Wasdin replaces Pedro Astacio (Padres)
Kameron Loe replaces Carlos Almanzar (DL)
Joaquin Benoit replaces Matt Riley (minors)
Erasmo Ramirez replaces Nick Regilio (minors)
1B Mark Teixeira
2B Alfonso Soriano
SS Michael Young
3B Hank Blalock
C Rod Barajas
RF Richard Hidalgo
CF - Gary Matthews Jr.
LF Kevin Mench
DH - David Dellucci
R - Mark DeRosa (IF)
R - Sandy Alomar Jr. (C)
R - Jason Botts (1B/OF)
R - Marshall McDougall (IF)
L - Kenny Rogers
R - Chris Young
R - Ricardo Rodriguez
R - Chan Ho Park
R - John Wasdin
R - Francisco Cordero
R - Doug Brocail
L - Brian Shouse
R - Kameron Loe
L - Ron Mahay
R - Joaquin Benoit
R - Erasmo Ramirez
R Laynce Nix (OF)
R - Greg Colbrunn (1B)
R - Frank Francisco
R - Ryan Bukvich
R - Carlos Almanzar (60-day)
L - David Dellucci (DH)
R - Michael Young (SS)
S - Mark Teixeira (1B)
L - Hank Blalock (3B)
R - Alfonso Soriano (2B)
R - Kevin Mench (LF)
S - Gary Matthews Jr. (CF)
R - Richard Hidalgo (RF)
R - Rod Barajas (C)
The Rangers are a .600 team in the Ballpark at Armitron, but are 17-23 since launching themselves into the thick of the AL West race with a 18-7 May. The open up a homestand tonight after opening the second half by dropping three of four to the surging A's in Oakland. Now seven back in the West they could make hay in the Wild Card picture, where they currently trail the Yankees and Twins by two, with a good showing in these next three games.
As usual, the Texas offense is deadly. The Rangers have scored the third most runs in baseball (after the Red Sox and Yankees, of course) with five of the top six men in their batting order slugging .524 or higher (Blalock is slugging a "mere" .492, while Soriano is the only one of the six getting on base in less than 34 percent of his plate appearances). Those numbers are even scarier in Texas, where Soriano's still last in OBP among the six, but with a .353 mark, while Dellucci becomes the only one to slug less than Young's .557. But, as usual, the Rangers give most of it back with their pitching, which is fourth worst in the American League and lines up nicely for the Yankees as they'll miss petulant All-Star Kenny Rogers and towering phenom Chris Young, the Rangers two best starters.
Tonight is anyone's guess as Brown faces Ricardo Rodriguez, who last pitched out of the bullpen on Thursday and is 2-1 with a 3.90 ERA in five starts during the first half.