Well, I guess Chien-Ming Wang has solved Fenway Park. Wang shrugged off his career 6.17 ERA at the Fens last night and dominated the Red Sox for nine innings. Wang only struck out three men and gave up more than his share of fly balls and line-drive outs, but he needed just 93 pitches to complete the game and held the Sox to just three baserunners on the night.
Wang set the first ten Boston hitters down in order, striking out David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez along the way. With one out in the fourth, Dustin Pedroia hit a hard grounder to Alex Rodriguez's right. The Yankee third baseman hit the dirt to backhand the ball, scrambled to his feet, and fired high to first base as Pedroia reached with what was initially ruled an infield hit. On the very next pitch, Wang got Ortiz to ground into an inning-ending 5-4-3 double-play. In between innings, Pedroia's hit was changed to an E5.
With two outs in the fifth, J.D. Drew hit a fly ball to the front of the Boston bullpen in right field. Bobby Abreu had the ball measured. He drifted back, found the five-foot-three wall with his bare hand, and lept to make the catch. Unfortunately, he got a bit too close to the wall and, as he jumped, his back caught the top of the wall and stopped his momentum. Drew's fly ball tipped off the end of Abreu's glove and fell into the bullpen for a home run that knotted the game at 1-1. Wang wouldn't allow another hit until Coco Crisp's bunt single with two outs in the ninth.
Clay Buchholz was good, but he was no match for Wang. The two pitchers combined to face one man over the minimum through four innings (a Hideki Matsui single in the second), but Buchholz started the fifth by walking Matsui and Jorge Posada. (Posada was again serving as the designated hitter. Johnny Damon took a night off while Matsui played in Fenway's small left field.) After Buchholz rallied to strike out Jason Giambi, Jose Molina struck a first-pitch double into the left field gap that plated Matsui and gave the Yankees a slim 1-0 lead. Buchholz escaped further damage when Alberto Gonzalez, who followed Molina with a walk, strayed too far off of first base and was doubled up on a Melky Cabrera line-drive to Sean Casey. The Yankees threatened again in with two outs in the sixth when Alex Rodriguez singled and Hideki Matsui doubled him to third, but Posada ground out to end the threat.
With his young starter up to 98 pitches and no margin for error given Wang's performance, Boston manager Terry Francona went to his pen in the seventh, calling on Mike Timlin, who had just been activated from the disabled list before the game. Timlin's first batter was Giambi. Giambi got out to a 3-1 advantage, looked at strike two, then sent the payoff pitch 379 feet to dead center for a skin-of-his-teeth homer into the nook to the right of the Green Monster. That gave Wang all the runs he'd need, but another Molina double, a Gonzalez sac bunt, and a Cabrera sac fly added another before Hideki Okajima managed to get the Sox out of the inning. The Yanks then added one more for good measure against should-be Pittsburgh Pirate David Aardsma in the top of the ninth when Gonzalez led off with a double, was bunted to third by Cabrera, and scored on a two-out infield single beaten out by Abreu.
The Yankees are now 6-5 on the season. Wang has three of those six wins. Wang also has a 1.23 ERA, a 0.73 WHIP, and is averaging 7 1/3 innings per start. In other Fun With Small Samples news, four members of the bullpen (Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, Brian Bruney, and Billy Traber) have yet to give up a run in a combined 18 1/3 innings. As a team, the Yankees are only allowing 3.55 runs per game and have allowed two runs or fewer in six of their 11 games. None of that will persist through the whole season, but it's nice to see. Similarly, Jose Molina, who was 2 for 4 with a pair of doubles last night, is hitting .346 and slugging .577 while filling in for the sore-armed Posada. Six of his nine hits have been doubles, which ties him for the American League lead in two-baggers. Alberto Gonzalez is hitting .375/.444/.625 after three games of filling in for Derek Jeter, boasting a pair of doubles of his own. Again, that won't keep up, but with both Jeter and Posada hoping to return to action by Monday, when the Yanks will be in the climate-controlled Tropicana Dome, it won't have to.
As for Wang, new pitching coach Dave Eiland has him working inside to batters (Wang struck out Ortiz in the first with a series of inside pitches), working both sides of the plate, and mixing in his slider, changeup, and split-finger. Eiland was also able to make an in-game correction with Wang last night following the inning in which Wang gave up Drew's homer and three other loud fly outs. Sez Eiland, "It was just his hand position behind the ball. He was kind of getting on the side of it and it was staying flat. He just repositioned his hand and threw down through the baseball and got his sinker working again and got back on track."
With that sort of guidance, one wonders if Wang might actually be taking his game to another level in his age-28 season. It makes Eiland's career 5.23 ERA as a Yankee seem totally worth it, don't it?