When the Yankees won ten in a row against the lowly A's and Mariners (who currently have the second and third worst records in the AL) there were many observers, myself included, who felt that the true test of this Yankee team would be what they did next, particularly against the rival Mets and Red Sox. Well, since returning from the west coast, the Yankees have won six of seven including two of three from the Mets and their last five straight. The most recent of those victories came last night at the expense not only of the rival Sox, but against a pitcher who always seems to have their number, knuckleballer and would-be 2003 ALCS MVP Tim Wakefield, who was 3-0 with a 1.34 ERA in last six regular-season starts against the Yankees.
Opposing Wakefield on the mound was Randy Johnson, who has yet to turn in the sort of dominating performance the Yankees expected they'd get routinely when they traded twenty percent of their starting rotation and their Catcher of the Future for him in January. Last night was no different. Despite dialing his fastball up to 95-96 miles per hour for the first time all season, Johnson struggled with his control and threw far to many hittable pitches. Fortunately, he was able to get out of the almost constant trouble he got himself in.
In the first inning the Red Sox loaded the bases on a Robinson Cano error and a pair of walks only to have the struggling Kevin Millar crush a 400-foot fly out to center to end the inning. With two outs in the second, Mark Bellhorn walked and moved to second on a Johnson wild pitch only to be stranded by a Johnny Damon groundout to short. In the third, Johnson stranded Edgar Renteria who smacked a lead-off double on his way to a 3-for-4 night in which he reached base four times. In the fourth a Buell Mueller walk and a Jay Payton single with one out amounted to nothing as Johnson struck out Bellhorn on three pitches and got Damon to fly out to Womack.
Then came the fifth. Renteria lead off with a single. David Ortiz popped out to short. Manny Ramirez ground into a fielder's choice, replacing Renteria at first. Two outs and Ramirez on first and Jason Varitek, the Sox best hitter thus far this year, stepped to the plate. Tek took Johnson's first three pitches to get ahead 2-1, then Randy tried to get him to chase a slider, but the pitch didn't slide far enough away and Varitek just dropped the bat on it and launched it over the wall in left.
That made it 2-0 Sox, as Wakefield, true to form, had allowed just one Yankee hit through the first four. Of course, he had also walked four men and Cano had reached on an error by Bellhorn, but hadn't allowed a run. In a way, Johnson and Wakefield were locked in an unimpressive pitcher's duel. The only 1-2-3 inning between the two of them was Wakefield's first. Both had walked four men through four, but neither had allowed a run until Varitek's homer.
With the stalemate finally broken, the Yanks got one back right away in the bottom of the fifth. Jeter lead-off with a hustling triple and Womack got him home on a groundout. The Yanks then proceeded to load the bases on two more Wakefield walks and a hit by pitch (Rodriguez got one in the lower back), but Posada, who owned just one of the Yankees two hits to that point in the game, just got under a knuckler (which is the idea, they're hard to center on the bat), flying out to center to end the inning.
Unfortunately, Johnson gave that run right back in the sixth on a one-out Jay Payton double and back-to-back singles by Bellhorn and Damon. But then the tide turned.
With one run already home to make it 3-1 Sox, one out, and men on first and second, Edgar Renteria singled to left. Dale Svuem, the much maligned Boston third base coach, sent Bellhorn home from second. Womack delivered a sharp one-hop throw to the plate that bounced in a way to put Posada in perfect position to block the plate, which he did, hitting Bellhorn with and elbow and the ball as he tried to slide around the Yankee catcher. Two outs.
Let me repeat that. Jorge Posada blocked the plate!
For those who missed it when we discussed this earlier this season, Jorge suffered a nasty, season-ending leg injury in the minor leagues because of a collision at home plate. As a result, he's extremely reluctant to block the plate and usually takes throws in fair territory or up the first base line and then dives for the runner. When this happened earlier in the year, with the runner easily evading Posada's tag, I wrote that I hoped that with Joe Girardi on hand, Jorge would finally be broken of this habit. Last night, we may just have seen evidence of exactly that.
Although there was not a significant collision between Posada and Bellhorn, Jorge looked somewhat shaken after the play. In his defense, I'm sure he has a legitimate and deep-rooted fear of home plate collisions because of that minor league injury. But then something even more amazing happened.
Womack's throw had bounced in such a way that Jorge had almost no choice but to block the plate. But then the next batter, David Ortiz, hit a single up the middle that Robinson Cano was able to stop behind second base, but unable to come up with cleanly. As the ball trickled away from Cano, Svuem sent Damon (who had moved to second on the Renteria single) home. Cano scrambled after the ball and fired a low one-hopper home which Posada fielded and then again set-up to block the plate. With no where to go, Damon made a half-assed attempt to go over Posada's left shoulder only to get tagged out for the third out of the inning.
What would turn out to be Randy Johnson's last inning of work on the night went: ground out, double, single, single, single, single. But the Red Sox only scored one run thanks to a strong throw by Womack, impressive range and heads-up play by Cano, and Jorge Posada blocking the plate twice in one inning.
As if on cue, Bernie Williams lead off the bottom of the sixth with a walk (Wakefield's seventh of the game) and Robinson Cano crushed Wakefield's first pitch over the wall in right center to tie the game at 3-3. The ball Cano hit was a knuckler that didn't knuckle, thus becoming a belly-high BP pitch, but Cano didn't miss it, hitting it deep into the bleachers over the Armitron sign in right center for his second major league home run.
Derek Jeter followed with a single, driving Wakefield from the Game. Tony Womack then attempted to bunt Jeter to second, but after fouling off his first two attempts against Alan Embree settled for a single of his own (Becky, who seems to have an implicit understanding of Moneyball, but is a bit hazy on players' individual limitations, argued during Womack's at-bat that having him bunt was stupid when they should just "let him hit a home run"). Next up was Gary Sheffield, who took one strike from Embree and absosmurfly moidilized his next pitch, sending it into the upper deck in left field for a three run homer to put the Yankees up by the eventual final of 6-3. Sheffield's shot had to be seen to be believed and surely came complete with a meal, an in-flight movie, complementary beverage service and a bag of peanuts.
And that was all she wrote. Tanyon Sturtze pitched around a two-out single in the seventh. Buddy Groom came on to strike out pinch-hittin' Trot Nixon in the eighth and Tom Gordon relieved him to strike out Edgar Renteria to end that inning. Gordon then struck out Ortiz and walked Manny in the ninth before Joe Torre, who claimed after the game that he was trying to get away with not using Rivera, who had pitched the previous two nights, called in Mo. Rivera took eight pitches to strike out Varitek for the second out and then gave up a 1-2 single to Millar, bringing Bill Mueller to the plate as the tying run only to have Mo exact his revenge by striking Mueller out on four pitches to pick up the save.
Special bonus: in addition to the Yankees beating the Red Sox, the Tigers (whom the Yanks just swept) beat the Orioles and the Twins (whom the Yanks face next weekend) beat the Blue Jays, giving the Yankees second place all to themselves and moving them within 3.5 games of first place.
Today Matt Clement and Carl Pavano face off on FOX, a rematch of the second game of the season, which the Yankees won 4-3 on a walk-off homer by Derek Jeter off Keith Foulke after Rivera had blown a one-run save in the ninth. This is a particularly intriguing match-up for me because I had hoped the Yankees would sign Clement rather than Pavano this offseason based on his superior strikeout rates, steadily improving walk rates, and his more consistent and largely injury-free track record. Here are their lines thus far this season: