Last night, the Yankees won a gem of a ballgame in Fenway that pressed all the right buttons for a Yankee team that seemed to be on the verge of a slump.
With Curt Schilling coming off the disabled list, Jaret Wright coming off a disaster start against Baltimore, and the Red Sox coming off an 8-1 win over the Yankees in their celebratory home opener on Monday, everything seemed to be leaning the Red Sox way.
In the early going it stayed that way. Schilling looked dominant, while Wright appeared to be hanging on by his teeth. Schilling struck out four while allowing just two hits in the first three innings. Then Wright--who stranded runners at the corners in the first, and pitched around a lead-off single in the second--got himself into an awful mess in the bottom of the third.
He went to a full count on the first two batters, getting Ramon Vazquez (starting at second for Mark Bellhorn) to groundout before yielding a double to Johnny Damon. He then walked Trot Nixon and Manny Ramirez on five pitches each to load the bases. That brought David Ortiz to the plate with one out. Wright promptly fell behind Ortiz 3-1, who was 5 for 10 lifetime against him coming into the game. Miraculously, Wright got Ortiz to lift a mere sac fly to left. He then walked Kevin Millar to re-load the bases and fell behind Edgar Renteria 2-0 only to get him to ground to short on the 2-1 pitch to end the inning.
Despite struggling through the heart of the Red Sox order, walking three men and allowing a double to another, Wright escaped down just 1-0. He then settled down in the fourth, pitching around another lead-off single by racking up his only two strikeouts of the game.
In the fifth, the Yankees finally got to Schilling. After Jason Giambi reached on an infield single into the shift, Tino Martinez followed with a booming ground rule double that bounded into the Boston bullpen, pushing Giambi to third. After a Bernie fly out to shallow left, Tony Womack drew his third walk of the season (more on this later)--after falling behind Schilling 0-2, no less. That loaded the bases. Jeter then singled Giambi home, keeping the bags juiced, and Gary Sheffield followed with a sac fly to center that put the Yankees ahead 2-1.
Trot Nixon then tied the game, leading off the bottom of the inning by sending Wright's third pitch into the Boston bullpen. The Yankees returned serve in the top of the sixth when Jorge Posada singled and Jason Giambi cranked a two-run homer into the seats in right field. After a Tino groundout, Bernie cracked a shot to right center, putting the Yanks up by the eventual final of 5-2 and driving Schilling from the game.
Tanyon Sturtze and Tom Gordon (TanGorMo?) followed with three scoreless innings, two for Sturtze, who pitched around a lead-off single in the sixth and needed just six pitches to retire Ramirez, Ortiz and Millar in the seventh. Gordon then set down the next three Sox in order on nine pitches in the eighth.
That brought in Mariano Rivera to sarcastic cheers from the Fenway Faithful in the ninth. Rivera is still not up to his usual form (with two outs he walked Trot Nixon on five pitches, and he needed 18 pitches, only half of which were strikes, to get through the inning), but he nailed down the save without incident, the perfect cherry on top of a delicious Yankee win that evens their record and guarantees that they'll leave Fenway no worse than tied with the Red Sox in the season series.
In addition to beating Schilling and the Sox and getting a solid outing from Mo, the big story of the night was the bottom of the Yankee order. Posada, Giambi, Martinez, and Williams went a combined 8 for 15 with two doubles (Bernie, Tino), two homers (Bernie, Giambi), three RBIs, five runs scored, a walk, and just two strikeouts. Bernie Williams went 3 for 4 with seven total bases and, after starting the season hitless in his first four games, now has a four-game hitting streak going in which he is six for thirteen. Bernie has also reached base in all but one of the Yankees games thus far this season.
Another interesting wrinkle to last night's game was the Yankee batting order itself. A sign that the Yankees were taking their 1-4 run as hard as some of their fans, Joe did the Torre shuffle and wound up with this:
Now, I know what you're thinking, "Womack leading off? Cliff's face must be melting off his skull." Actually it's not, and I'll tell you why. As I mentioned in the above recap, Tony Womack drew his third walk of the season last night. Thus far Womack is walking something in the neighborhood of 70 percent more often than his career rate, in fact he's walking more often than Derek Jeter's career rate (and about as often as Jeter is in the young season).
The sample size is miniscule (we're talking about three walks), but if he can keep it up, Womack will have greatly increased his value and could even prove to be a legitimate lead-off candidate. Right now Womack has a .355 on-base percentage, a total about 70 points higher than his batting average. If Womack can keep that up, I'll keep quiet about Torre leading him off. Sure a potential .340-.360 OBP would be among the "worst" in the Yankee line-up, but it's a far sight better than his career .319 or PECOTA's projected .303.
Of course, Womack could go the remainder of the month without drawing another walk and I'll go right back to burying him in this space, but thus far I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. One major reason for that is that all three of Womack three walks have come in the middle of Yankee rallies, which suggests that, rather than submitting to the opposing pitcher's wildness, Womack is being strategically selective. Schilling walked just one man last night: Tony Womack. This could actually be significant.
Meanwhile, Womack leading off pushes Alex Rodriguez into the heart of the order, which is a nice trick as it protects Hideki Matsui and surrounds him with MVP-quality righty bats. Of course, it would have been easy enough to move Matsui to third and have Sheffield protect him in the clean-up spot, which with the 2004 Matsui apparently the real deal, is the more appropriate order anyway, but having Rodriguez hit fifth accomplishes something else significant: it keeps Ruben Sierra out of the heart of the order. For some reason Joe has refused to bat Jorge Posada fifth since the season's opening series, instead using Giambi and Tino once each and Sierra thrice in that slot. Unless and until Giambi proves that he can again be an offensive force, this just won't do, and Sierra batting fifth really won't do. Putting Rodriguez there would, obviously, protect against that impulse.
Lastly, I was very interested in the roster move the Red Sox made when activating Curt Schilling yesterday. The parallels between the Red Sox and Yankees 25-man rosters are surprising. Both started the season with four-man rotations due to an aging ace starting off on the DL. As a result, both teams had seven-man bullpens and five-man benches. It is widely assumed that the Yankees, upon activating Kevin Brown this weekend, will stick with 12 pitchers (an uncessecary number), and demote Offical Bronx Banter Lost Cause, hella-hitting corner infielder Andy Phillips.
Similarly, it was assumed that the "smarter" Red Sox, would stick with eleven pitchers, understanding the value of a deeper bench during the regular season and recognizing the twelfth pitcher as extraneous. It was assumed National League import Blaine Neal would be the man to get the bump. Not so, Neal is out of options and the Sox don't want to lose him, despite having six better options in their pen. The next best candidate for elimination would have seemed to be Matt "Sea Cow" Mantei, but his upside is too high for the Sox to cut bait this early in the season. Thus they're going to stick with 12 pitchers, just like the "misguided" Yankees.
Thus, the Sox had to get rid of a bench player to make room for Schilling. Ramon Vazquez, who started at second last night in place of Mark Bellhorn (who supposedly has terrible numbers against Jaret Wright), is the weakest hitter on the Sox bench, but he's the only man who can replace Renteria at shortstop (a problem the Yankees shouldn't have with Rey Sanchez thanks to their playing a Gold Glove shortstop at third base). The next man on the list appeared to be Dave McCarty, who was the last man to make the team out of camp and is a tad redundant as the team's fifth outfielder and third first baseman. But no, the Sox have sent down the 26-year-old Greek God of Walks himself, Kevin Youkilis.
The parallels between Youkilis' and Phillips' situations are many. Both are corner infielders who are more valuable at the plate than the majority of their team's major league bench players, both are a bit old to be top prospects, but would be the youngest position player on their respective teams, both have impecable track records (though Youkilis hits for less power) . . . and both have options left.
There are several teams in the Major Leagues that would be improved by having Youkilis start at third and Phillips start at first. But what at first glance would seem to be a byproduct of the opulence of the game's two most powerful teams, the burying of these two young men in triple-A, is actually the rare instance of the Red Sox utilizing their resources as poorly as the Yankees. There's consolation there somewhere.
Tonight, the Yanks send Randy Johnson to the hill as the Red Sox hope to even the season series behind Bronson Arroyo. Here's hoping we get another gem.