Prior to Friday's game I said that, despite the Yankees' ugly loss in the opening game of their series against the Tigers, I had feeling that they'd win the remaining three, just as they had done against the lowly Devil Rays four weeks earlier. It says something about a team when you can make a statement like that about a series against a playoff contender and have the team fulfill that expectation, which is exactly what the Yankees did, concluding their series win with a 9-3 victory in yesterday's finale.
Chien-Ming Wang wasn't particularly sharp again yesterday, but he battled through to turn in a bare minimum quality start (6 IP, 3 R). Wang didn't get his second ground ball out until the fourth inning, but did record six strikeouts, four of them coming in those first three innings. I can only assume that Wang was working his slider more in the early innings then shifted back to the sinker as his final three innings saw him record just two more strikeouts, but six of his seven ground-ball outs. Unfortunately, they also saw him cough up his three runs.
The Tigers cut the Yankees' early 2-0 lead in half with a run in the fourth, then took the lead on Wang in the fifth. Wang, who stranded five men through the first four innings including men at second and third in the fourth, really struggled with men on base in the fifth. Curtis Granderson led off the inning with a single then moved to second on a groundout. Granderson's dancing off second resulted in a pickoff throw that bounced into centerfield. Granderson didn't advance on that, but he took off on the next pitch, causing Wang to balk giving Granderson third. Wang then walked Gary Sheffield and gave up an RBI single to Magglio Ordoñez that moved Sheffield to second. Sheffield and Ordoñez then pulled a double steal on Wang and three pitches later, Wang bounced a pitch past Posada to allow Sheffield to score the go-ahead run. Wang rallied to strike out Carlos Guillen, and Ryan Raburn did the Yankees a huge favor by bunting with two outs and a man on third. I can only assume he was trying to catch the Yankee defense by surprise, but his bunt went right back to Wang, who threw to first to end the rally.
The Yankees tied things up right away in the bottom of the fifth against Jeremy Bonderman. Bobby Abreu led off with a single back through the box. Alex Rodriguez shot a grounder right through Brandon Inge's legs for a two-base error that moved Abreu to third, and Hideki Matsui plated Abreu with a sac fly to left. Wang struggled through the sixth, throwing another wild pitch with two runners on, but escaped with out further damage, and Johnny Damon gave the Yankees the lead in the bottom of the inning with a towering upper deck home run that just stayed fair down the right field line.
Then the fun started.
With a one-run lead and the heart of the Tiger order due up in the top of the seventh, Joe Torre called on Joba Chamberlain, who received a hero's welcome from the packed Stadium, then earned it. Chamberlain retired Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordoñez, and Carlos Guillen on nine pitches, eight of them strikes, striking out Ordoñez and Guillen on seven pitches with Ordoñez going down on three fastballs, the slowest being clocked at 98 miles per hour. Perhaps most impressively, Chamberlain had faced the same three hitters in the ninth inning on Friday night and did better against them yesterday.
Buoyed by Chamberlain, the Yankees added a pair of insurance runs against Zach Minor in the seventh and three more against Aquilino Lopez in the eighth. One of the fun subplots of the these late innings was the fact that the Tigers twice intentionally walked Robinson Cano to pitch to Wilson Betemit, who started at shortstop in place of the generally banged up Derek Jeter. Betemit had struck out in his first two at-bats against Bonderman. In the fifth, with two out and Rodriguez at second, Bonderman intentionally walked Cano to pitch to Betemit, who hit a sharp sinking liner to right field but right to Ordoñez for the third out. In the same scenario in the seventh (two out, Rodriguez at second), Miner also intentionally walked Cano to pitch to Betemit, who this time hit an RBI single back up the middle, setting up another RBI single by Andy Phillips. In the eighth, Betemit came to the plate with the bases loaded against Lopez and cracked a bases-clearing double into the gap in right center that put the game out of reach.
Also putting the game out of reach was Edwar Ramirez, who struck out the side in the eighth to preserve what was then a three-run lead, then came back out in the ninth with a six-run lead and retired the Tigers in order on seven pitches. Together Ramirez and Chamberlain pitched three perfect innings of relief, striking out five and throwing just 31 pitches. Torre, meanwhile, used them perfectly, bringing in Chamberlain to face the heart of the order in the seventh, then calling on Ramirez to face the weaker hitters in the eighth and sticking with him to avoid using Mariano Rivera with a six-run lead in the ninth. Here's hoping Ramirez, who has now pitched 4 1/3 innings since being recalled, struck out six, and allowed just one baserunner on a bunt single, becomes as important a part of the Yankees' end-game as Chamberlain has.
The Yankees now sit three games ahead of the Tigers in the Wild Card race and are a game and a half ahead of the AL Central-leading Indians for good measure. The Mariners, however, refuse to lose, and still hold a half game advantage on the Yankees and lead the Wild Card by two games in the loss column. Two weeks from today, the Mariners come to the Stadium for a three-game showdown. Time to circle that one in red.