Previewing the subway series on Friday I wrote “Kris Benson seems to be rounding into shape after being disabled with a strained pectoral muscle early in the year.” No doubt, Benson held the Yankees scoreless through six innings yesterday, allowing just three hits (Matsui, erased by an E-Rod double play, Posada double, E-Rod single) and not a runner past first in his first four innings of work.
However, he did walk two (walking Cano intentionally to pitch to Randy Johnson with two out and Posada on second doesn’t count) and hit Derek Jeter in the elbow. According to the radio broadcast (I only caught parts of this game live, and less than that on television), Jeter was in a great deal of pain, and left the game after being forced out at second. X-rays were negative and both he and Gary Sheffield, who was a late scratch in favor of Bernie Williams due to a sore left hand that he actually in jured two weeks ago on a check swing, are day-to-day. Both could start today’s rubber game against Pedro Martinez.
Neither of those injuries are as troubling as the inconsistent performances of Randy Johnson thus far this season. Johnson did strike out some men this time, five in 6 2/3 innings, but he also gave up hits. Lots of them. Three singles in the first (no runs thanks to a fielder’s choice and a caught stealing). Three in the second (one run). Three in the third (including an RBI double by David Wright). That’s nine hits in this first three innings. Johnson settled some after that allowing just one more hit (erased by a double play) in his next three innings. But then lost his grip in the seventh.
At this point in the afternoon, Becky and I were in the car running errands, listening to the Mets radio broadcast on WFAN (a welcome respite from Suzyn and Sterling). Leading off the seventh was lefty Met reliever Dae-Sung Koo, who had relieved Benson with E-Rod on first and none out in the seventh only to have Rodriguez get caught straying off the bag by Piazza (2-6-3). Koo then struckout Tino and Jorge and was apparently getting this at-bat to deal with Cano and RJ in the next half.
That Koo was getting a chance to bat greatly entertained the Met broadcasters, Gary Cohen and Howie Rose. It seems Koo, who was a veteran of Japanese baseball before signing with the Mets, had his first major league plate appearance on Monday against Cincinnati and stood in the general vicinity of the Mets on-deck circle with the bat glued to his shoulder as he took five pitches from rookie Todd Coffey.
Now, Koo was standing in against Randy Johnson. Batting lefty, no less. Remarked one of the Metscasters, “this oughta be cute!” Indeed, Koo took Johnson’s first two pitches (one ball, one strike). But on the next pitch he finally took his first major league swing and blasted Johnson’s pitch deep in the gap in right center for a lead off double. Cohen and Rose exploded in a combination of shock, disbelief and laughter.
If that wasn’t enough, Jose Reyes the attempted to bunt Koo to third base. His sacrifice was successful, but upon reaching third Koo noticed that the play had pulled Jorge Posada away from the plate and that no one else was covering it, so he dashed home. Caught off guard, Posada took a throw from Tino and dove at Koo, who made a great head-first slide to the outside of the plate to score the Mets third run of the day. The replay showed that Posada tagged Koo on the neck well before he reached the plate, but Johnson should have been covering the plate, regardless of the accuracy of Chuck Meriwether’s call.
Johnson then went full on Miguel Cairo only to give up what remains the only home run of this series. After striking out Cliff Floyd, Johnson’s day was done.
As I said before, Johnson’s inconsistency has been troubling. It’s not that he’s not being effective. He held the Red Sox to one run in six innings on opening day. Then, after three home-plagued starts (the shortest being six innings and only one of which saddled him with a loss), he allowed just one run in eight innings, two runs in a full nine innings, and three runs in eight innings in his next three starts. Those three starts, which helped build a streak of five straight games in which he struck out a minimum of seven men, gave me a great deal of confidence in the fact that the real Randy Johnson was starting to emerge.
Then in his previous start against the hapless A’s he gave up more hits than innings pitched for the first time since April 9 and struck out no one, marking the longest outing of his career without a strikeout (six innings). Yesterday against the Mets he gave up 12 hits in 6 2/3, nine of them in the first three innings. He did throw 70 percent strikes, walking no one, but that merely confirms what Suzyn Waldman was saying (ad infinitum, of course) on the radio about Johnson throwing flat pitches down the middle. Indeed, Posada added after the game:
It seems like his location is not there. He’s up in the zone, his slider doesn’t have any tilt. It’s from the same level. . . . When I call a pitch inside, it’s in the middle of the plate. When I call a pitch away, it’s on the plate most of the time.
Said Torre, echoing his in-game comments to Buck ‘n’ McCarver on FOX:
It looked like he was struggling with a release point. Some of the breaking balls were just flat instead of going down.
Johnson, in full grump, opted to blame the off-days in the early-season schedule:
There hasn’t been much consistency in my performance. It’s tough going out there once every six days. I haven’t been able to get in a rhythm. I’m working on that.
The bottom line is for a pitcher to go out there and keep his team in the game. I’ve done that pretty much with the exception of two or three games. When I give up a couple of runs and we win, that’s what I’m supposed to do. Today, I gave up more runs than we got. I didn’t get the job done.
In all fairness, he’s right. Johnson had allowed more than three earned runs in just three games prior to yesterday (those three early season games against the Orioles, Red Sox and Devil Rays, the latter two of which saw him give up a combined five home runs), and with the exception his 2-0 complete game loss to Roy Halladay, he’s won those other four starts.
Yesterday, Johnson gave up four runs in 6 2/3. That’s not great, but its not a disaster. What went most wrong was that the Yankee offense was only able to muster one run, that coming on a Womack infield single, a Bernie groundout and an E-Rod RBI single in the top of the ninth, after Buddy Groom, who last pitched exactly one week ago and faced five righties out of seven batters, gave up three more runs in the bottom of the eighth. Final Score: an ugly 7-1 Mets, as the Yanks slip back into fourth place.
Today Pedro Martinez and Carl Pavano take to the hill to decide this series in a game laced with intriguing (and surely overhyped) subplots. Pedro faces his “daddies” with an NY on his cap. Pavano faces the man for whom he was traded as a young can’t-miss prospect. The Yankees big free agent fish faces the Mets big-splash signings, Pedro (who the Boss reportedly wanted this offseason) on the mound and Beltran (who shoulda been in navy pinstripes) at the plate. You know George will be watching intently. I’ll unfortunately have to catch it on tape (yes, tape, you wanna buy me a TiVo suscription?), but Alex will be living and dying with each pitch and will have a full report afterwards.