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.
The Yanks eeked out a run in the bottom of the second when Bubba Crosby reached on an infield single with two outs (he hit a hard shot back to Downs, who, in an attempt to glove the ball, looped it back to the catcher), moved to second when Jeter was hit with another pitch, and was plated by an Alex Rodriguez single. Downs then cruised through the next few innings, a one-out Rodriguez walk and two-out Sheffield single going to waste in the fifth.
With two outs in the sixth, Bernie Williams reached on a bobble by out-of-position rookie second baseman Aaron Hill. Torre then sent up Ruben Sierra to hit for Crosby, and Ruben came through with a single to put runners on the corners and drive Downs from the game. Derek Jeter then picked up an RBI infield single off reliever Justin Speier to push the score to 7-4 where it would remain.
With one out and runners at the corners in the seventh, Jorge Posada swung at the first pitch he saw from lefty Scott Schoeneweis and grounded into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play. Miguel Batista then struck out Jason Giambi with two-out and the bases loaded in the eighth and struck out Sheffield, Matsui (on a combined six pitches) and Posada in the ninth.
Later last night in Baltimore, the Orioles entered the ninth inning in a 2-2 tie with the Red Sox. Joe Perlozzo put in his closer, free agent-to-be B.J. Ryan. The big lefty got Buell Mueller to pop out but then surrendered an infield single to Trot Nixon, another single to Tony Graffanino and walked Johnny Damon on four pitches to load the bases. Edgar Renteria then hit Ryan's very next pitch into short left for a two-RBI single that would give the Red Sox all the runs they would need to pull even with the Yankees in the AL East (for what it's worth, Ryan and Todd Willams then retired both Ortiz and Ramirez and the Orioles did rally for a run off of Mike Timlin in the bottom of the ninth--all too little too late).
The Indians and White Sox also won, putting the Red Sox and Yankees 1.5 games back in the Wild Card and keeping the White Sox 1.5 games up in the Central and three games ahead of the Yanks and Bosox.
Today, the Yankees play their final home game of the year and, barring a possible playoff appearance, what could very well be Bernie Williams' final appearance in pinstripes (though right now my gut is telling me Bernie will be back next year, for better or worse). Chien-Ming Wang has earned the start against Josh "Control" Towers (about 1 1/3 BB/9 both this season and for his career). Towers made a pair of quality starts against the Yankees in August, though his defense cost him a couple of extra runs in the first of those two outings at the Stadium. Wang is coming off a dominating eight-inning performance against the Orioles in which 23 of the 24 outs he recorded came via groundball or strikeout, and nine of the nineteen groundball outs were weak combackers that resulted in 1-3 putouts.