The batboy that the Cleveland Indians provide to visiting ballclubs at Jacobs field is a portly, Asian, Ohio State student who keeps the cleanest dugout in the major leagues. According to the YES broadcasters, the Yankees have absolutely fallen in love with this bulbous batboy who actually sweeps the visiting dugout when the team is in the field. Their fondness for the kid was on display in the bottom of the sixth inning last night when, as he swept his way past Randy Johnson, the Big Unit stood up and took over for him, sweeping sunflower seed shells and such into a neat pile, then going to grab a dust pan.
Johnson didn't actually pitch last night, but thanks in part to the old reverse jinx, he was the only player on either side of last night's contest with a broom in his hand as the Yankees fended off the Cleveland sweep with a surprising ninth-inning rally, winning the final game of the series 4-3 (curiously the same score my softball team--which almost never triumphs--won by on Wednesday night, also overcoming a 3-2 deficit in our last at-bat).
As the final score might indicate, the game was something of a pitcher's duel, at least through the first six innings. Kevin Millwood was fantastic, needing just 94 pitches, 76 percent of them strikes, to get through eight innings (8 H, 2 R, 0 BB, 8 K). Shawn Chacon was less efficient, needing 104 pitches (a hair under 60 percent of them strikes) to get through six plus a batter.
Still, perhaps due to my low expectations, I was impressed by Chacon's performance. Despite working deep into counts, Chacon--who wears his uniform baggy and his hat slightly to the side with the brim almost flat in the style of the younger generation of African-American ballplayers such as the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis and Juan Pierre, the Indians' C.C. Sabathia and Coco Crisp, and the Mets' Mike Cameron--was working close to the strike zone and making hitters miss with a very effective curve ball. The extra-wide (but consistent) strike zone of home plate umpire Bob Davison surely helped, as Chacon walked just two men while striking out four (three of them looking at pitches on or off the corners) but, although it was technically earned, the only run that scored on his watch was entirely the fault of his defense.
The Yankees got out to a 2-0 lead on a pair of solo homers by John Flaherty, getting an unexpected start, and Jason Giambi in the third and fifth innings respectively. The former came with one out on the very first pitch after Bernie Williams, who reached on a single on his way to going 2-for-4 as the DH, got thrown out at second on a botched hit and run. It was the second time in two days that the Yankees missed a sign from third base coach Luis Sojo (the other being Robinson Cano's bunted third strike on Wednesday night). Williams was looking back at the plate all the way to second, then stared down Sojo after being thrown out making it clear that he thought he had received a hit and run sign. Instead, Flaherty took the pitch to run the count to 2-0, then homered on the next pitch.
In the bottom of the fifth, just after Giambi had increased the Yankee lead to 2-0, the Yankee defense gave one back. With two outs, a hot shot to first by Crisp skipped over the glove of a ducking Jason Giambi for a single after which Hideki Matsui twisted and turned a fly ball to deep left by Jhonny Peralta into an RBI double. As Alex and I agreed on IM after the game, the Giambi play was the sort of thing you have to accept as a trade off for his bat (which is far more effective when he plays in the field), but the Matsui blunder was inexcusable.
It could have been worse. In the third inning, Robinson Cano bungled a sure double play on a grounder that stayed low, grabbing for the ball before he had it securely in his mitt, recovering with an awkward flip to Jeter to get the lead runner. He nearly replicated that play in the fifth on a worm burner by Sizemore following a lead-off single by Blake, but, thanks in part to the speed with which the ball got to him, was still able to get the ball to Jeter in time to turn two. That cleared the bases and put two outs on the board ahead of the more costly boners by Giambi and Matsui. Entertainingly, after Peralta was balked to third (don't even get me started on the balk rule), Hafner hit another worm burner to Cano that Robinson caught very deliberately and held in his glove for several moments before flipping first for the final out.
Things got worse in the seventh. Entering the seventh inning having thrown 99 pitches, Chacon issued a five-pitch lead-off walk to Casey Blake, after which Joe Torre brought in Alan Embree to pitch to the left-handed Grady Sizemore. Going to Embree over Gordon there was a defensible move as Sizemore's splits are indeed striking (.299/.354/.510 vs. righties, .233/.295/.291 vs. lefties). Perhaps in part as retaliation against the LOOGY, Eric Wedge had Sizemore bunting, something he appears to do about as well as Robinson Cano. With Embree feeding him high fastballs, the hardest pitch to deaden on the ground, Sizemore took two for balls and fouled off two others to run the count even. With the bunt off, Embree then walked Sizemore, which proved to be a mistake every bit as costly as Matsui's.
The next batter was Coco Crisp, whose splits are even more severe than Sizemore's (.335/.383/.506 vs. righties, .206/.252/.302 vs. lefties). Torre left Embree in the game, and Wedge again retaliated with the bunt, this one successful to put runners at second and third with one out, which likely would have happened with either Gordon or Embree on the mound. With the big lumber due up, Torre correctly went to Tom Gordon, who got Peralta to ground out to short with his first pitch, unfortunately allowing the tying run to score in the process. Gordon then got ahead of Travis Hafner 0-2 only to run the count even and surrender an RBI single to make it 3-2 Indians. Credit Hafner there, who went 2 for 4 with that go-ahead RBI in his first game back from a beaning in mid-July. Gordon got ahead of Hafner with high heat that Hafner could only foul off, but then missed too high on the next two pitches. When he came back into the zone he got it a bit to low and Hafner served it into right.
Suddenly six outs from a sweep and third place in the Wild Card race despite having finally gotten a solid outing from his starter, Joe Torre then let Tony Womack (getting another inexplicable start in center) lead off the eighth, perhaps thinking that he'd make an ideal man to have on as the tying run with no outs, forgetting that Tony Womack never gets on base. Womack fell into an 0-2 hole and grounded out to first as Millwood set the side down in order on nine pitches.
Gordon then returned serve on eight pitches and Wedge brought in Bob Wickman to save his third game in as many days. After Gary Sheffield fouled a ball out of the stadium, nearly killed Luis Sojo for the umpteenth time with another foul and finally flied out to center, Alex Rodriguez took four pitches to go 3-1, then creamolished Wickman's next pitch well into the stands in right to tie the game. After a Matsui groundout, Jason Giambi cracked his second solo shot of the night just a foot or so beyond the leaping try of Casey Blake, bouncing the eventual winning run off the top of the right field scoreboard.
After Scott Sauerbeck toyed with the bottom of the Yankee order, in the process reminding Yankee fans of the organization's complete lack of catching depth by ricocheting a pitch of John Flaherty's kneecap, Mariano Rivera then retired the Indians on ten pitches to lock the Indians' broom closet and preserve the Yankees standing in the AL East and Wild Card hunt.