Off to the second worst start in franchise history and tied for last place after a crushing 3-1 series loss against the abysmal Devil Rays, the Yankees needed someone to step up against the A's this weekend. Carl Pavano tried to be that person, but instead he discovered that even three runs allowed were too many for a team that seems to find a new way to loose every day.
Mike Mussina got the message. Yesterday afternoon he took the hill and turned in by far his best performance of the year, going the distance and shutting the A's out to halt the Yankees' losing streak at four games and lift them out of last place in the AL East. Mussina allowed just one walk (erased by a double play) in the second and one single in the third through five. He then allowed two singles in the sixth before working 1-2-3 seventh and eighth innings. Through the first eight innings, only one Oakland runner made it to second base and none to third.
Meanwhile, the Yankees scratched out four runs against A's rookie Joe Blanton. Jeter lead off the first with a walk. Running on a one-out full count, he then scored on Sheffield double to deep left. Tino Martinez hit the first pitch Blanton threw in the second inning over the wall in front of the bleachers in right to make it 2-0. In the third, after a Jeter groundout Womack singled, Sheffield walked, Groundzilla moved them over, and Alex Rodriguez smacked a ball in the gap in left for two two-out RBIs on what turned out to be a hustling double, with Rodriguez beating the throw from Mark Kotsay, who cut the ball off before it reached the wall.
The Yankees added an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth off Justin Duchscherer. With one out, Gary Sheffield was called safe when, after fielding Sheffield's grounder at third, Eric Chavez threw high to Scott Hatteberg at first. According to the replay Hatteberg, who lept and caught Chavez's high throw, actually landed on the bag before Sheffield, but Sheff was called safe nonetheless and Chavez given another hard-luck error. Sheffield then waltzed to second on a sleeping Duchscherer and, after a strikeout by Slumpzilla, was driven home by an Alex Rodriguez single, his third two-out RBI of the game.
Mussina then came out in the bottom of the ninth to a tremendous Moose call. He quickly got the first two outs on second-pitch groundouts by Kotsay and Jason Kendall and got ahead of Chavez 1-2. Then the trouble started. Mussina's second strike to Chavez was his 116th of the night. Last year, Mussina had thrown more pitches in just four starts and passed 120 only once (in eight shutout innings against Seattle on May 8). Yesterday, his 117th, 118th and, after a foul, 120th pitches were balls, walking Chavez. Hatteberg then singled on a 2-1 count on pitch 124 (one more than in that May 2004 start).
Joe Torre then jogged to the mound, not his deliberate, slumped march to remove a pitcher, but a spritely jog. He asked Mussina, who is very particular about his pitch counts, if he was okay and wanted to keep going. Mussina told him to get back to the dugout. Torre insisted on waiting until Mussina--who had to cover first on Hattberg's single, which just scooted to the right of a diving Tino Martinez and was stopped by Robinson Cano--caught his breath. Torre retreated without Mussina to huge applause and Mussina set to work on Bobby Kielty. Strike looking. Ball one. Ball two. Foul (strike two). Ball three. Suddenly Mussina was in danger of giving Erubiel Durazo a chance to make this a one-run game with one swing. Kielty then fouled of pitch 130 and sent pitch 131 to left where Tony Womack caught it for the final out.
Yankees win. Thuuuuuuuuu Yankees win.
What's more, they did it thanks to a strong pitching performance, some above-average defense (especially a running catch by Sheffield in the gap and a nice double play started by Mussina), successfully aggressive baserunning, and clutch hits with runners on base.
Some quick thoughts on Moose's performance yesterday. First, his final line:
9 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 3 K, 63 percent strikes, first-pitch strikes to 26 of 32 hitters.
Mussina had his fastball up to 90 yesterday for the first time all season and, while he didn't look as sharp as he has at his best in the past, seems to be pulling out of the Old Moose doldrums. He lasted seven innings in each of his previous two starts and in his prior start held the Devil Rays to two runs on five hits and a pair of walks. At the time I chalked that performance up to his facing the Devil Rays, but over the next three days the Rays scored 28 runs against Yankee pitching. Similarly, there is a temptation to credit Moose's performance yesterday in part to the A's anemic offense, but at some point one has to stop blaming the opposing hitters and give Mussina his due.
Mussina's problem early in the season was that he was allowing too many hits (no thanks to the Yankee defense, which killed him last year as well) and not making it out of the sixth inning. Both of those problems have gone away in his last two-to-three starts. Looking back now, I notice that Moose has only given up more than three runs in two of his seven starts and has allowed two or fewer in four of his seven starts. His season ERA is now down to 3.60 which, if it holds up, would establish a Saberhagen-like pattern of success in odd years that dates back to 1995.
It could be that Mussina really did need longer to get warmed up this season, but I still have one major concern, and that's his reduced strikeout rate. Mussina has a career K/9 of 7.13 and has struck out 200 men in a season four times, but thus far this season his single-game high is three Ks. That was his single game low in his strong September last year (for those who forget, Moose was lights-out last September, pitching like the potential Cy Young of old for the only time all season), a month in which he had fewer than six strikeouts in just one of his six starts. In fact, after coming off the DL last August, Mussina had fewer than six Ks in just two of nine starts. In 2005, he is striking out just 4.60 men per nine innings pitched.
Still, Mussina may be on track to being the number two or three starter the Yankees need him to be. If so, that could be the break the Yankees need to get their season on track (if it's not already too late).
Good timing, as tomorrow's pitching match-up is about as unfavorable as it gets for the Yankees. Kevin Brown will take his early-inning struggles and 8.25 ERA to the mound against Rich Harden. Here's a quick scouting report on Harden from fellow Toaster Ken Arneson (adapted from an IM conversation):
Harden has been just nasty this year. He has a new 88-89 MPH changeup that is just killer against his 97-100 fastball. He has a splitter, too, around 92, but he's been his nastiest when he throws that changeup about half the time. Before the All-Star break last year he was just a thrower, but he's become a pitcher since then, changing speeds, moving in and out. He's almost unhittable already. I think with Harden, you have to sit fastball, and hope you get it. When he's been hit, it's been the fastball, which is pretty straight.
The stats support Ken's points. Harden's ERA was a run lower in the second half last year than in the first half and thus far this year he's been almost unhittable: 1.82 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, .232 BAA, 8.31 K/9. He had one rough outing against the world-beating White Sox two turns ago, but allowed just one run total in his first three starts and his last outing was a complete game against Texas in which he allowed just one earned run (but two unearned to take a 3-2 loss despite allowing just 8 baserunners and striking out seven).
I'm taking my mom to the game for Mother's Day. She's braced for a loss. As long as the weather holds up, I'm sure she'll have a good time regardless.