It all started innocently enough. Randy Johnson struck out Carl Crawford on three pitches, the first two looking, the third swinging. He then sat Julio Lugo down on five more and stranded Jorge Cantu at first base by getting Aubrey Huff to ground out to second. Clean, simple, and an apparent indication that Johnson was picking up where he left off last Thursday with his complete game against the Pirates.
Then Johnson started the second inning with a ball to Eduardo Perez. His next two pitches were sliders that Perez offered, but, at least according to home plate umpire Eric Cooper and first base ump Fieldin Culbreth, did not actually swing at. Down 3-0 in the count when he just as easily could have been up 1-2, Johnson wound up walking Perez on four pitches. Johnson then got Jonny Gomes to pop out to short on an 0-2 count and got called strike one on Damon Hollins and all appeared to be well.
Then Hollins and back-up catcher Kevin Cash homered on Johnson’s next two pitches to put the Devil Rays up 3-0. Alex Gonzalez then singled on an 2-0 pitch and stole second on a first-pitch ball to Carl Crawford. Crawford then missed two pitches before yanking a third to deep right for an RBI triple. Johnson then got ahead of Julio Lugo 0-2 only to have Lugo single home Crawford. Just like that, the Devil Rays had scored five runs on Randy Johnson in the second inning.
The Yankees got one back in the bottom of the second on a Matsui walk, a Giambi ground rule double, and a Bernie Williams sac fly, but the D-Rays doubled that in the top of the third. Before Johnson could get the first out, Eduardo Perez doubled and Jonny Gomes homered to make it 7-1 Devil Rays.
Despite throwing 67 percent of his pitches for strikes, Johnson had given up seven runs on eight hits, three of them homers (to Damon Hollins, Kevin Cash and the rookie Gomes no less). After just three innings and 60 pitches, Johnson was done. After the game, Johnson reported that he felt fine physically, but simply had nothing working. Echoing what John Flaherty told him in the dugout, Johnson blamed his performance primarily on bad location. It was the first time Johnson had failed to go at least six innings since July 9 of last year, his first outing shorter than five innings since April 11, 2003, and his shortest outing in about 140 starts dating back to August 15, 2000. After the way Johnson dominated the Cardinals and Pirates, one has to hope that last night was indeed an aberration.
The Yanks scraped out another run in the bottom of the third on a Jeter ground rule double and a Sheffield single. Down five runs and needing to piece together six more innings from his bullpen, Joe Torre then turned to Scott Proctor, who had just been summoned from triple-A Columbus to take Bubba Crosby’s spot on the roster because of the strain put on the Yankee pen recently by Sean Henn (who will indeed take his next turn against the Mets on Saturday), Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown, and a lack of off-days.
This went about as one might expect. Carl Crawford lead off the fourth with a single. Proctor then walked Julio Lugo on six pitches and fell behind Jorge Cantu 3-0 before getting him to fly out on a 3-1 pitch. Crawford and Lugo then executed a double steal and Torre put Aubrey Huff on intentionally to set-up the double play and have Proctor pitch to the righty Perez. Lou Piniella countered with lefty Travis Lee, who choped the first pitch he saw to Cano at second. Aubrey Huff running from first, Cano and the ball all arrived at the same spot at the same time and as Cano attempted to field the ball and tag Huff in one motion he wound up swatting the ball out in front of second. All hands safe, 8-1 Devil Rays. Proctor then retired Gomes on a foul out before giving up a two-run single to Damon Hollins (who is hitting .320/.371/.539–.306 EQA on the season, by the way). 10-2 Devil Rays.
Proctor pitched around a Carl Crawford single in the fifth and, after stranding a lead-off single by Matsui in the fourth, the Yankees seized the opportunity presented by Proctor’s goose egg.
After Robinson Cano flew out to start he fifth, Derek Jeter and Tony Womack singled on consecutive Hideo Nomo pitches. Nomo then fell behind Gary Sheffield 2-1 and Sheffield cracked a three-run homer into the stands in left to decrease the Yankee deficit to five runs. After Alex Rodriguez ground out for the second out, Hideki Matsui and Jason Giambi picked up back-to-back singles. With Lou Piniella pacing the top step of the visitors’ dugout, trying to keep from having to pull his starter before he became eligible for the win, Bernie Williams laced a double down the right field line to plate Matsui and put the Yankees within a grand slam of tying the game.
Cursing to himself, Piniella then forced his feet to cross onto the field and removed Nomo in favor of rookie Chad Orvella, a 24-year-old converted shortstop that some consider to be the top relief prospect in baseball. Orvella walked Jorge Posada on five pitches (the one strike was a swing and miss by Posada on a pitch out of the zone), loading the bases for Robinson Cano.
At the time, this appeared to be the key at-bat of the game. Cano represented the tying run, Orvella hadn’t found the strike zone, and the on-deck hitter, Derek Jeter, had a double and a single in his previous two at-bats, the latter coming in this same inning. All Cano had to do was keep the bat on his shoulder and the odds were that Jeter would come to the plate as the go-ahead run. Cano did take ball one, but swung and missed at a pitch below his knees for strike one and then yanked Orvella’s third pitch (admittedly hard) right at Cantu at second base for the third out. Orvella’s next pitch, in the bottom of the sixth inning, landed on the far side of the centerfield fence for a solo Jeter home run.
Still, Mike Stanton and Tanyon Sturtze combined to pitch a scoreless sixth and Jeter’s homer brought the Yankees within three runs of the Devil Rays. Unfortunately, Sturtze gave that run right back in the seventh when consecutive one-out singles by Alex Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Julio Lugo loaded the bases and Jorge Cantu scored Gonzalez on a fielder’s choice that was about a stride away from being one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. Cantu absolutely scorched a 1-1 pitch from Sturtze down the left field line, only to have Alex Rodriguez catch it on a full dive, scramble to his feet, race to third to force out Crawford and fire to first as if turning a double-play pivot at second. Had his throw beaten Cantu (who is not a swift runner judging by his minor league stolen base totals), Rodriguez would have turned a spectacular inning-ending, run saving double play. As it was, Cantu beat a typically strong throw from Rodriguez by a step at most and the Devil Rays went up 11-7.
Buddy Groom then came on and got Aubrey Huff to fly out on his first pitch to end the inning. With Groom staying on in the eighth, the Devil Rays again loaded the bases on a lead-off Travis Lee double, a Gomes single and a one-out walk to Kevin Cash, but this time they actually were stifled by an inning-ending double play turned by Rodriguez, this one a more traditional 5-4-3.
With a four run lead and six outs from victory, Piniella then turned to another rookie reliever, Franklin Nuñez, who had been on and off the DL with shoulder tendonitis earlier in the year. Then this happened:
After an eight-pitch lead-off at-bat, Robinson Cano singled to center and Derek Jeter singled Cano to third on a 2-1 pitch. Joe Torre then pinch hit Ruben Sierra for Tony Womack. Sierra scorched a 1-0 pitch into the hole between first and second, but Jorge Canto made a spectacular diving play to turn a sure-thing base hit into an RBI ground out. 11-8 Devil Rays, man on second, one out. Gary Sheffield then singled on an 0-2 pitch to push Jeter to third and Alex Rodriguez singled him home. 11-9 Devil Rays, tying runs on first and second, one out.
That’s when Lou Piniella gave the ball to Travis Harper. Harper fell behind Hideki Matsui 2-1, evened the count, then gave him a juicy pitch low and over the plate that Matsui fouled back. Having apparently missed his pitch, Matsui bore down and drove Harper’s next offering on one hop to the wall in right for an RBI double, pulling the Yankees within one run of the Devil Rays and leaving runners on second and third with one out for Jason Giambi. Lou Piniella then elected to intentionally walk Giambi to load the bases in the hope of getting a double play grounder out of Bernie Williams. Torre responded by pinch-running for Giambi with Russ Johnson. Bernie Williams responded by taking it personally.
With the crowd chanting Bernie’s name, Travis Harper’s first pitch was a chest-high floater right over the plate that Bernie served into the deepest part of center for a three-RBI triple that pushed the Yankees ahead 13-11. In an unusual display of defiance, Bernie didn’t bust it out of the box right away, but flipped his bat to show up Piniella. Clearly upset, Bernie continued to scowl while being congratulated by Luis Sojo at third base. He continued to scowl when scoring on Jorge Posada’s subsequent home run, which pushed the Yankee lead to 15-11, and continued to scowl in the dugout.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Yankees went to town. After Posada’s homer Cano, who had lead off the inning, flied out for the second out. Derek Jeter then reached on an infield single to second. Seirra singled Jeter to third. Then came the heart of the order:
Gary Sheffield. Three run homer into Monument Park, 18-11.
Alex Rodriguez. Solo homer into my section of the right field bleachers, 19-11.
Hideki Matsui. Solo shot into the black in dead center, 20-11.
Russ Johnson, who had pinch-run for Giambi, the seventh batter of the inning, then rescued Travis Harper by lifting a deep fly out to right that fell short of the warning track. Tom Gordon then retired the Devil Rays in order in the ninth to nail down the win.
To recap that eighth inning in which the Yankees scored 13 runs on 12 hits and a walk, including six singles, a double, a triple and four home runs, it went a little something like this:
Single, single, RBI ground out, single, single, double, intentional walk, triple, homer, fly out, single, single, homer, homer, homer, fly out.
The list of personal and team bests (or “bests since . . .”) is to long to include here (I’ll leave that to Jayson Stark), but one of the more interesting factoids is that the last time the Yankees homered four times in a single inning was almost exactly 28 years ago, on June 30, 1977, also in the eighth inning, and the second of the four was hit by none other than Lou Piniella himself (Cliff Johnson hit two and Thurman Munson hit the other).
After looking listless for large chunks of the season, the Yankees suddenly have three thrilling come-from-behind wins in the past week and are four games over .500 for just the second time all year (their high being six games over .500 after their defeat of the Red Sox in the opening game of their most recent series in the Bronx). They’ve now won 7 of their last 8 and 9 of their last 12 and are second only to the Red Sox in total runs scored on the year.
I can only imagine how much fun it must have been to have been at the ballpark last night.