It rained all morning in Kansas City yesterday, and though the precipitation stopped in time for the Royals' home opener against the Yankees, the weather remained cold, dank, and dreary. The two teams played accordingly, putting 30 men on base, but scoring just seven of them in a slow, sloppy contest which the Royals won by the surprisingly tidy score of 5-2.
Brian Bannister failed to execute his gameplan early on, throwing first-pitch strikes to just three of the first 11 men he faced. Phil Hughes didn't fair much better, getting strike one on just four of his first dozen batters. Neither pitcher was sharp, and the weather was at least partially to blame, as Hughes seemed to spend as much time blowing into his pitching hand as he did actually pitching, but home plate umpire Mark Wegner's strike zone wasn't helping. Wegner's performance behind the plate was one of the worst I can remember. There was absolutely no consistency to his zone not only from at-bat to at-bat, but within single at-bats. Both benches were riding him, both pitchers were frustrated, and batters on both sides couldn't figure out what to swing at or what to take. In part due to Wegner's embarrassing performance, there were ten walks and 19 strikeouts in the game, eight of the latter on called third strikes.
Things were bad all over. At the end of three innings, the game was tied 2-2 with both starters having walked four men. Brian Bannister had thrown 71 pitches and allowed eight baserunners. Hughes had thrown 79 pitches and allowed nine baserunners. Things tilted in the Royals' favor when Bannister pitched around a Johnny Damon single in the top of the fourth and Phil Hughes came out and gave up a pair of singles to start the bottom of the inning. Those two at-bats pushed Hughes' pitch count to 87 and, thanks to the baserunning of Joey Gathright (more on that below), gave the Royals a 3-2 lead. With a man on first and no outs, Joe Girardi went to his bullpen, hoping for a groundball double play from Ross Ohlendorf.
Ohlendorf delivered exactly that, then struck out Jose Guillen to end the inning, but after Bannister pitched the first 1-2-3 frame of the game in the top of the fifth, Ollie coughed up a pair of runs in the bottom of that inning to set the final score.
The Yankees got three more baserunners against lefty reliever Ron Mahay, but never staged a credible threat in the late innings as their last nine batters were retired in order by Mahay, former Yankee farmhand Ramon Ramirez, and the end-game combo of Leo Nuñez and Joakim Soria, thus wasting scoreless innings of relief by Ohlendorf (who saved the Yankee pen by going three full), Billy Traber, and LaTroy Hawkins (who again put two men on only to work out of his own jam).
Adding insult to injury, the Yankees played poorly in the field. Bobby Abreu made the only error of the game in the second inning when he tried to backhand a single on the run only to have the ball clank off the heal of his glove and the runner go to second, but there were several other misplays by the Bombers. Johnny Damon uncorked and errant rainbow throw from the outfield on an RBI single in the fifth that allowed the batter to go to second. Wilson Betemit, who otherwise acquitted himself well at shortstop, twice misplayed throws from Jorge Posada at the keystone, once having the throw clank off his glove and another time attempting, unsuccessfully, to take the throw while straddling the bag, narrowly avoiding a knee injury in the resulting collision with the baserunner. Most distressingly, the Yankees thrice correctly identified when the Royals were going to attempt a steal, twice pitching out and once throwing to first behind the runner, but failed to catch the runner in any of those three instances. In the last, Jason Giambi failed to get a good grip on the ball and never even made a throw to second.
Those issues with opposing basestealers were the most disturbing part of the game. Clearly aware that Jorge Posada had been struggling with a sore throwing shoulder, new Royals' skipper Trey Hillman decided to run on the Yankee catcher at every opportunity. The Royals' first batter, Joey Gathright, led off the bottom of the first with a single, then stole second. In the second, Hillman again found himself with a runner on first and no one ahead of him and had Tony Peña Jr. steal second. In the fourth, Gathright again led off with a single and stole both second and third in the next at-bat.
Posada singled in three at-bats, but his inability to control the Royals' running game forced Girardi to replace him after six innings. Jose Molina's record was promptly tainted by Ross Gload stealing on the pickoff botched by Giambi, but Molina announced his presence on the next pitch by throwing Gload out at third.
So here's where things go from bad to worse. Adding injury to insult, Posada was scheduled for an MRI on his shoulder after the game. He says he feels no pain in the shoulder, but that his arm feels "dead," a feeling he's had before, but one that's previously gone away with four or five days of rest. Posada rested three days last week and had Monday off, but obviously his shoulder is no better.
The thing is, with Derek Jeter also out of commission, Posada's injury leaves the team with a two-man bench and Morgan Ensberg, who last donned the tools of ignorance as a schoolboy, as their backup catcher. Either man could be back in action by the end of the weekend, making a DL stay excessive in either case, but the Yankees may be forced to make some other sort of roster move in the meantime just to avoid being caught shorthanded. For example, farming out Ohlendorf in the wake of his three-inning, 36-pitch outing in order to make room for triple-A catcher Chad Moeller or an extra infielder might make sense. Ohlendorf would have to spend 10 days in the minors, but the Yanks could juggle the roster by replacing Moeller with Jonathan Albaladejo when Posada's ready to catch again, then decide what do with Ohlendorf when he becomes eligible to be recalled (certainly Ollie's ability to come in and get a groundball DP like he did yesterday is of considerable value, as is his 6:0 K/BB rate in seven innings thus far this season). Of course, Posada's MRI could show that he'll need to miss more time, making a DL stay and Moeller's recall an easier decision, but we likely won't know more about that until closer to game time. Stay tuned . . .
If there's good news to be had here it's in Molina's performance thus far. Molina has picked up a hit in each of his four starts in place of the injured Posada, two of them doubles, and has thrown out four of the five men who have attempted to steal on him (not counting yesterday's botched pickoff). If he can stay hot both at the plate and behind it, the Yankees won't miss Posada too much provided he doesn't miss any more than the 15-day minimum, preferably much less. That's a lot of wishful thinking, but Molina has looked good in the early going.