Despite droping the opening game of their series in Cleveland 6-5, the Yankees should feel good about the way they played last night. Everyone but Al Leiter that is.
Leiter was up to his usual tricks, but to a disastrous degree. He threw 21 pitches in the first inning, allowing a run on a Jhonny Peralta double that wedged in between the warning track and the padding of the left field wall and a Victor Martinez RBI single. He then threw 34 pitches in the second, walking Aaron Boone with one out, then walking ninth-place hitter Jason Dubois (who, along with first baseman Jose Hernandez, got the start with the left-handed Leiter on the mound). That brought up lead-off man Grady Sizemore who singled Boone home to make it 2-0 Indians.
The Yankees got one back when Cleveland starter Scott Elarton floated a 2-0 breaking ball to Tino Martinez to start the third and Tino deposited it in the right field stands.
Then came the bottom of the third. Having thrown 55 pitches through the first two innings, Leiter started the third with three balls to lead-off hitter Jhonny Peralta, then proceeded to walk the bases loaded, finishing the job with a four-pitch walk to Hernandez. He then got ahead of Ronnie Belliard (who's a dead ringer for a younger, smaller Manny Ramirez, by the way) 0-2 only because Belliard fouled off three balls before taking a fourth. Leiter's fifth pitch to Belliard was high and over the inside part of the plate and Belliard tatooedit into left for a a bases-clearing double to make it 5-1 Indians and drive Leiter from the game.
Leiter's final line was a hideous 2 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 2 K, 5 BB with just 53 percent of his 78 pitches going for strikes. After the game, Leiter talked about his lack of confidence in his fastball (though not in those words, saying instead "I don't have an overpowering fastball" then apparently tring to convince himself that that was okay) and his refusal to "give in" to the hitter, the plate and the umpire. Throughout his conversation with YES's Kim Jones, Leiter seemed to be trying to convince himself that he still had something left to offer, but appeared unable to do so.
With Leiter having recorded just six outs, Joe Torre turned to Scott Proctor, who retired three men in order on eleven pitches to end the third, then retired the top three batters in the Cleveland order on ten pitches in the fourth. After a full-count homer by Victor Martinez to start the fifth, Proctor then allowed just two singles over the remainder of the fifth and sixth innings. All totalled, it was the longest outing of his young major league career, and quite nearly a game-saving performance. Perhaps best of all, following Leiter's outing in which he walked a full third of the batters he faced, the frequently wild Proctor didn't walk anyone, throwing 64 percent of his 59 pitches for strikes.
With Proctor having stalled the Indian offense, the Yankees began to chip away. With one out, Gary Sheffield creamed a 2-2 pitch off the foul line high up on the left field wall of Jacobs Field only to have it take a Fenway Park bounce right to left fielder Coco Crisp who was able to hold Sheffield, who momentarily watched what he thought was a solo homer, to a single. On the very next pitch, Alex Rodriguez picked up his teammate by clearing that same left field wall, and, curiously, also admiring his shot for a momement before circling the bases to cut the Indians' lead in half.
In the seventh, Eric Wedge tempted fate once again by brining in Arthur Rhodes. Rhodes promply gave up a clean single to Posada. He then snagged a hot shot back through the box by Tino Martinez only to rush his throw to second, despite Posada being nowhere near second base, short arming it and sending the ball tailing toward the first base side of the bag, away from both middle infielders, turning a would-be double play into runners at the corners with no outs. Bernie Williams then hit for Tony Womack--who was rewarded for his game-winning hit on Sunday with the start last night and went 0 for 2--and popped out. Derek Jeter followed with a grounder off the left side of the pitcher's mound that knocked Rhodes on his keester and bounded to short for an RBI fielder's choice to make it 6-4. Rhodes then struck out Robinson Cano on a pitch that was several inches outside but pulled back into the zone by Victor Martinez for a stolen called strike three to end the inning.
Wedge then turned to Bobby Howry in the eighth only to replace him with lefty Scott Sauerbeck after Gary Sheffield reached second on a single and a groundout. Matsui, who has actually been murdering lefty pitching this year (.349/.384/.627, .330 GPA), only managed to ground Sheffield over to third, but it would be enough as Sauerbeck's first two pitches to Giambi were wild. The first, low and away, did not get far away enough from catcher Victor Martinez to get Sheffield home, but the second, intended to be a breaking ball, floated several feet above and behind Giambi going all the way to the backstop. The ball actually ricocheted right back to Martinez, who threw to Sauerbeck covering home in time to catch the charging Sheffield, but Sheff made a perfect slide, staying low and away from the play, to run the score to 6-5.
With Felix Rodriguez and Tom Gordon having pitched scoreless seventh and eighth innings respectively (the former thanks to a nice pick of a hot shot near second base by Jeter that turned into an easy double play to erase a five-pitch lead off walk), the Yankees were in position to complete their third comeback in as many games.
With Cleveland closer Bob Wickman on to close it out, Jorge Posada scorched the first pitch of the ninth into the glove of Jose Hernandez at first. Tino then got ahead 3-1 only to top an off-speed pitch to second for a ground out. Getting a similar pitch from Wickman, Bernie, knowing what to expect, lined it off the left field wall for a double that put the tying run on second. Derek Jeter followed by getting ahead 3-1 only to poke a game-ending groundout to second off the end of his bat.
Close, but no cigar.
A couple of random notes from the game:
Don't look now, but Jhonny Peralta could be the next great American League shortstop. After having been rushed as a 21-year-old rookie in 2003, Peralta, still just 23, is hitting .298/.357/.529 (.294 EQA) with a 112 rate in the field in his first full season.
Speaking of future of a position in the American League, every one--including the Indians, who put their money where their mouth is--was ready to anoint Victor Martinez AL catcher of the future after his .283/.359/.492 (.285 EQA) performance last year, but many of them were scared off when he was hitting just .212/.294/.341 in mid-June. Well since June 19, Martinez has hit .343/.416/.569 (.329 GPA) and he's now up to .268/.348/.444 (.268 GPA) on the season, which puts him hot on Joe Mauer's heels (.298/.374/.433 - .277 GPA)
Jason Giambi creamed three pitches last night. One was a upper deck foul home run. The other two he got under, turning them into towering fly outs to right. His swing looks as powerful as I've seen it since the first half of 2003.
In addition to Matsui, the other lefties in the Yankee line-up are holding their own against their own kind. Robinson Cano, after struggling against southpaws earlier in the year, is now hitting .293/.341/.373 (.248 GPA) agaist the wrong-handed, which exchanges some power for more patience than he has shown against righties. Jason Giambi meanwhile is weaker across the board against portsiders, but is still hitting .256/.383/.513 (.301) against them. Tony Womack has actually faired better against lefties across the board (though everything's relative with Mowack). Tino Martinez, however, has a mere .208 GPA against lefties (which is of course almost exaclty Tony Womack's "better against lefties" GPA).
I've always had mixed feelings about Jorge Posada. I find him to be tremendously likeable as an individual. He was the best offensive catcher in the American League from 2000 to 2004. Yet, I've never had a huge amount of faith in him in clutch situations and his defense absolutely infuriates me. Cheif among my complaints about Posada has been his refusal to block the plate, a shortcoming that reared it's head in the sixth game of the current season:
With Paul Quantrill on in relief of Tanyon Sturtze . . . the Orioles have the bases loaded and one out. Jay Gibbons lifts a fly out to Gary Sheffield in medium right field and Miguel Tejada decides to tag and come home. Sheffield fires a strike to home plate in plenty of time to catch Tejada but, as is his wont, Posada catches the ball on the first-base side of home instead of on top of it and misses Tejada, who comes in with a nice evasive head-first slide, when lunging back for the tag. Here's hoping Joe Girardi had a few words with Posada about this play.
Indeed, one of the reasons I had so welcomed the idea of Joe Girardi becoming the Yankee bench coach was that I had hoped that he would break Posada of his fear of blocking the plate, as I wrote in the comments to that post:
In 1994, Posada's first year at triple-A Columbus and his third as a catcher, Jorge suffered a broken left leg and a dislocated left ankle in a collision at the plate (you can deduce from the injuries that he had blocked the plate with his left leg while receiving the throw), which ended his season six weeks early.
According to JockBio.com: "Though he recovered from the physical damage of the injury, the psychological imapact stayed with him for years. Never before shy about blocking the dish, he became hesitant to put himself in harm's way with a runner bearing down the line."
On a certain level it makes sense, the Yankees can more easily afford to give up an extra run in the sixth game of the season then they can to be without Posada in the line-up for a prolonged stretch. At the same time, such injuries are very rare, and he not only fails to block the plate in meaningless mid-season games, but in key games and the playoffs as well.
What really gets me, is that if he's not going to block the plate, he should catch the ball, behind the plate, not in front of it. It's the exact same thing as taking the ball behind second on a stolen base attempt. No human can make a swipe tag as quickly as the ball is already moving. Let the ball's velocity do the work, catch the ball behind the bag.
At any rate, with Joe Girardi in the house on yesterday's play at the plate, I'm hoping we'll see something different the next time such a play occurs.
Then, in a 6-3 victory over the Red Sox on May 27, Posada blocked the plate twice in one inning:
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!
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.
Since then it's become clear that Girardi did indeed correct this glaring flaw in Posada's defensive game. I bring this up now because last night in the first inning, with Peralta charging home on Victor Martinez's single, Posada again blocked the plate.
Unfortunately, his doing so didn't result in an out. Although the throw from Matsui beat Peralta to the plate, it bounced in front of Posada and kicked off his chest protector. Posada still had time to grab the ball to force out Peralta, who was coming straight for him, but, still displaying a nervousness about being in the runner's path, Posada looked up at Peralta as he began his slide and lost track of the ball. A lot of fans might criticize Posada for failing to make that play, but considering that it's been just a few months since he started blocking the plate at all, I'm willing to give him a pass. Still, it's sad to think that Posada may finally be fixing this essential part of his defensive game at a point in his career when his offensive production looks to be slipping.