Everything went according to plan for the Yankees through the first seven innings of last night's series opener in Fenway. Andy Pettitte turned in a quality start, holding the Red Sox to two runs on a Jason Varitek homer over 6 1/3 innings, then passed the baton to Scott Proctor, who retired his two batters on six pitches (five of which were strikes). Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez hit not one, but two more home runs, both off Curt Schilling, a solo shot into the Monster Seats in the fourth and a three-run shot that sent Coco Crisp tumbling into the Boston bullpen in the fifth. Those two shots were bookended by two other runs, the latter a Rodriguez double in the top of the eighth that was plated by a Jason Giambi single. That gave the Yankees a 6-2 lead entering the bottom of the eighth inning.
With David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez leading off the eighth, the Yankees' four-run lead looked safe. Even if both mashers managed to come around to score, the Yanks still had two runs to work with. Joe Torre brought in Mike Myers to face Ortiz, who promptly doubled. He then turned to Luis Vizcaino to face Ramirez, who worked a full-count walk. J. D. Drew, who was 3-for-3 with a trio of singles against Pettitte, grounded to second for the first out, moving Ortiz and Ramirez to second and third. Mike Lowell followed Drew with a single into left field that plated Ortiz, put runners on the corners, and brought the tying run to the plate in the person of Jason Varitek. With that, Torre turned to Mariano Rivera.
In spring training, Joe Torre said that he was going to use Rivera exclusively as a one-inning pitcher this year, but with all of the Yankee wins coming either in their last at-bat (Jason Giambi's extra-inning homer in Oakland and Alex Rodriguez's two walk-offs at home), or in blowouts (Opening Day's 9-5 score being by far the closest of the other five Yankee wins which they've won by an average of 6.6 runs), Rivera hasn't had much opportunity to pitch. Indeed, he hadn't thrown a pitch in five days, dating back to his blown save in Oakland last Sunday. Thus, Torre had no qualms against using Rivera for five outs in order to guarantee a win in the only game that favored the Yankees entering their weekend showdown with the rival Red Sox.
In Oakland, Rivera struggled with his command. Pitches that were supposed to be down in the zone floated up and over the plate. Last night his first five pitches to Varitek were right at Wil Nieves's glove, the first four at the bottom of the strike zone. Varitek fouled off the last three, however, and the sixth floated up and over the plate. Varitek deposited it into right center for an RBI single to pull the Sox within two. That brought up Coco Crisp. Rivera again threw a pitch right to Nieves's glove on the lower inside corner and Crisp hit it all of three feet. In the air that is. Crisp beat the ball into the ground, but past Doug Mientkiewicz's dive at first and down into the right field corner for a bases-clearing triple that tied the game. Two pitches later, Rivera missed high again to Alex Cora who hit a flare over the drawn-in infield to plate Crisp with the go-ahead run.
Rivera has now blown his only two save opportunities this season, taking the loss in each of his last two outings. Conversely, each of the last two Yankee loses were games in which they handed Mariano Rivera a multi-run lead. Is this cause for concern over the baseball mortality of the Yankees' 37-year-old closer?
Probably not. In 2005, Rivera blew his first two saves of the year in consecutive games at home against the Red Sox. Last year, Rivera blew his second save opportunity of the season and three outings later came into a tie game at home in the tenth inning and gave up two runs to take the loss. Following the latter on April 26, Rivera was 0-2 with a 4.91 ERA. He'd lose just three more games all year and finish with a 1.80 ERA. In 2005 he finished with a staggering 1.38 ERA. Rivera's throwing hard, as evidenced by his virtuoso performance on Opening Day, and, despite the pitch that got away from him and sailed over Julio Lugo's head before he struck Lugo out to end the eighth, his location was improved last night save for three or four of his 14 pitches (11 of those 14 pitches were strikes, though his recent location problems have had more to do with throwing strikes that are a little to good than with missing the zone). Rivera was lights out in spring training and allowed just one hit and one walk in his first four innings of the reuglar season while striking out four. He'll be fine.
So will Jorge Posada, who left the game with a bruised thumb on his glove hand. His x-rays were negative, but he'll likely miss the rest of the series with Wil Nieves catching the rookies Karstens and Wright, and Josh Phelps serving as the emergency backup catcher. After subbing in for Posada last night, Nieves has now come to the plate 19 times as a Yankee and made 19 outs. He has no official sacrifices and, though he did get to run the bases last night after hitting into a fielder's choice, has not scored a run.
As much as last night's loss hurt, a win in either of the next two games would be just as painful to the Red Sox. They really have no excuse not to sweep this series now.
Incidentally, there were some questionable moves made by Torre and the Yankee coaching staff in the eighth inning. The first being the decision to pinch-run for Jason Giambi following his single that gave the Yankees a 6-2 lead. The second being the fact that Doug Mientkiewicz was not playing a "no-doubles" defense against Crisp with the tying run on first base. The third being Torre's decision to save his best pinch-hitter, Josh Phelps for an at-bat that never came, leaving Phelps in the on-deck circle to hit for Nieves while Kevin Thompson, Giambi's pinch-runner, made the last out, stranding the tying run at first base. I can see both sides of all three. The thing I can't find any logic behind was Torre's decision to use Vizcaino in the eighth. With a four-run lead, Torre had six right-handed relievers available to pitch to Ramirez. Three of them, Kyle Farnsworth, Brian Bruney, and Vizcaino had pitched in the previous day's game. Of those three, Vizcaino threw the most pitches by far on Thursday in part because he got lit up for four runs. If I had to rank Torre's choices at that moment, Vizcaino would have been sixth of six behind even one-day call-up Colter Bean and Kyle Farnsworth and his 7.11 ERA (okay, maybe fifth, ahead of Farnsworth). Bruney threw just 15 piches on Thursday. Chris Britton has pitched two scoreless innings as a Yankee and was fully rested. Beyond that, Torre was obviously willing to go to Rivera in that situation, so why not cut to the chase? When fretting about Rivera's performance last night, remember that Mo was only charged with two of the five runs that won the game for Boston. Mike Myers gave up that double to Ortiz and the other two men were Vizcaino's.