"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: September 2005

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Shhh

When a Yankee player crosses home plate after hitting a home run it has become customary for his teammate to raise a finger to his lips in the universal expression of “shhh.” That is very much how I feel this morning after the Yankees edged in front of the Red Sox into first place. According to The New York Times:

“I don’t think it really means anything,” shortstop Derek Jeter said. “We still have to play well. There’s no time to congratulate anyone or walk around and be happy, because we haven’t won anything. If we play well and win our games, everything will be fine.”

Behind a vintage performance by Randy Johnson the Bombers beat the Orioles 2-1 last night in the Bronx–their fifth one-run contest in their last six games–while the Devil Rays came-from-behind to topple the Sox, 7-4 in Tampa. The Bombers are a half-a-game up on the Sox, who have the day off, and remain a half-a-game behind the Indians for the wildcard. Mike Mussina will take the mound for New York tonight (with Senator Al Leiter waiting in the wings should Mussina falter in his return); the Yanks have eleven games left, while the Sox have ten.

Johnson was simply overpowering. He didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning. In the sixth, the fleet Bernie Castro reached first on an infield single. He slapped a shot down the third base line, a sure double, but it was stabbed by Alex Rodriguez, but there was no way to nab Castro. Melvin Mora then pounced on one of the only mistakes of the night for Johnson–a belt-high fastball–driving it into left center field for a double. After Miguel Tejada flew out to center, Javey Lopez hit another smash to third. This time it was to Rodriguez’s left. The Yankee third baseman slickly picked the ball and threw on to first to end the inning, saving a run in the process.

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The Big Six and That Pesky Half

If the Yankees win tonight and tomorrow to complete a four-game sweep of the Orioles, they will wake up on Friday in first place in both the AL East and the Wild Card race, and there’s not a damn thing that Boston or Cleveland can do about it. That’s because the half game by which the Yankees currently trail those two clubs is the result of the Bombers having played one less game thus far this season. On Thursday, the Sox and Tribe will be idle while the Yankees finish the current series with the O’s, thus that pesky half game will be gone, for better or worse, come Friday.

As a result, with the exception of the final three games of the season in Boston, each of which counts for a full game the AL East standings, tomorrow night’s game is the most important one on the Yankees remaining schedule, as it is guaranteed to effect a half-game swing in the race for the playoffs. Joe Torre knows this. Prior to last night’s game he made a comment about how much he was looking forward to eliminating that half game come Thursday. Thus his decision to give Mike Mussina his first start since Aug 29 tomorrow night is . . . well, maybe it’s just Joe being Joe.

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Eight Ain’t Enough

The Yankees and Orioles have played a lot of turgid, exhausting games against each other during the past decade, and last night’s unsightly 12-9 Yankee win was no exception. Weighing in at a combined 21 runs, 34 hits, and 345 pitches in 3 hours and 41 minutes, it was an ugly victory for New York, one which left me feeling more frustrated than pleased, but hey, a win, is a win, is a win, and I should not complain. Aaron Small was forgettable as he improved his record to 9-0, and the Yankee relief corps were just as bad, so bad that Mariano Rivera was forced into a game in which the team scored a dozen runs. Fortunately, Rivera only needed eight pitches to retire the Birds in the ninth, but with precious little time remaining in the season, this was not a night where you wanted to see Mo in the game.

However, the Yankees did pick up a game on the Indians who lost to the White Sox in a dramatic, extra-inning affair in Chicago. They are just a half-a-game behind the Tribe and remain a half-a-game behind the Red Sox who battered the Devil Rays 15-2 (David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were the stars, belting the bejesus out of the ball all night, prompting John Olerud to observe, “Maybe they ought to put out a public address announcement to tell those children out there to be careful.”) The backpage headlines in both the Daily News and New York Post this morning read “Half and Half.”

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Getting It Right

Bubba Crosby’s game-winning home run last night just might have solved the Yankees’ right field situation, which has been in flux since Gary Sheffield injured his leg at home against the Devil Rays two weeks ago. At the time of the injury, Matt Lawton had just “hit” his way out of the line-up, having gone 4 for 25 with a homer and three walks (.160/.276/.280) in eight games since joining the Yankees. Lawton’s benching forced Bernie Williams back into center (where Lawton’s arrival had temporarily placed Hideki Matsui), and created room for Ruben Sierra at DH.

Sheffield’s injury created another opportunity for Lawton, who promptly squandered it by playing abysmal defense in right while going 0 for 12 against the Devil Rays and Red Sox. That opened the door for Bubba Crosby, who proceeded to go 7 for 20 over the next five games, starting two of them in right and one in center.

However, Crosby’s grip on the starting job was jarred loose when Sheffield returned to the line-up as the DH, forcing Torre to give Ruben Sierra a trio of starts in right in order to get his favorite 39-year-old out machine in the line-up. However, Sierra also played his way out of Torre’s rotation, going 2 for 27 with a homer and a pair of walks in the wake of Sheffield’s injury, mixing in some costly defensive mistakes in the Yankees lone loss on the just-completed road trip.

Ultimately it was Sierra’s defense that prompted Torre to start Crosby against the left-handed Erik Bedard last night, as Joe told MLB.com, “Yesterday, we may have given away too much, defensively. Bubba probably gives us our best defense, so where it may cost you a little on the offensive side, you hope he can make up for it.”

Crosby, who is clearly the Yankees best defensive outfielder, responded by going 2 for 3 against Bedard by victimizing 320-pound Oriole firstbaseman Walter Young with a hot shot down the line and a bunt, then won the game by homering off of lefty reliever Eric Dubose in the bottom of the ninth.

With that 3 for 4 night under his belt, Crosby is now hitting .379/.379/.552 in 29 September at-bats (his triple against Tim Wakefield and last night’s homer being his only extra base hits of the year), which has brought his season line comfortably above the Womack line to an almost respectable .278/.307/.347 (speaking of whom, Womack has made just one plate appearance since August 24, which is exactly what has to happen for this team to make the postseason). Last night’s game has also thrown Crosby’s splits for a loop as he’s now hitting .357/.357/.571 against lefties in a mere 14 at-bats, three of his five hits and all of his extra bases against lefties coming last night.

Crosby made the Yankees’ 25-man roster out of spring training the last two years due to his ability to get extremely hot at exactly the right time, hitting .320 during spring training this year and .357 last year. Thus it would be foolish for Torre to do anything other than ride Crosby until he runs out of gas, particularly as he is leaps and bouds better than his other options defensively. Fortunately, Torre seems to have caught on, as Crosby will again get the start in right field tonight as Aaron Small looks to extend his perfect record to 9-0.

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Ducks on the Pond (We wanna come home)

Yankee fans have been hollering all year about the team’s propensity for leaving runners on base. Last week, a reader wondered where the team ranks in that category. David Pinto has pointed me in the right direction, and it should come as no surprise that the Yanks lead the American League in runners left on base with 1163. The Red Sox are second with 1149, followed by Oakland (1089), Cleveland (1049) and Minnestoa (1036). However, as Pinto also mentioned to me, the Yanks and Sox score a lot of runs so it is natural that they would be at the top of the league in leaving men on. Boston currently leads the league in runs scored with 838, followed by Texas (816), New York (806), Cleveland (727) and Oakland (724). The team that looks the worst here are the Twins who are dead last in the AL in runs scored (637).

Hubba Hubba Bubba

“I’ve never hit a walk-off homer, ever, in my whole life, not even in Little League,” Crosby said. “To do it at Yankee Stadium, this time of year, when it counts, it just doesn’t get any better than this.”
(N.Y. Times)

C.W. Wang pitched his best game since returning from the DL last night, holding the Orioles to two runs over eight innings. He was a little shaky in the first three innings but after that, he cruised, getting Baltimore to hit ground ball after ground ball. I can’t recall him throwing harder either. The YES broadcasters said his fastball was hitting between 93-96 mph. Wang had nine assists himself (two shy of the League record). He left the game after eight fine innings with the score tied at two. The Yankees blew a scoring opportunity in the third inning (Gary Sheffield, depleted of his power, grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded) and left nine men on base in total for the night. However, they managed to score two runs in fifth (RBI single by Alex Rodriguez, RBI ground out by Sheff) to tie the game at two.

Mariano Rivera pitched the ninth. After striking out Jay Gibbons (check swing) for the first out, Javey Lopez popped out to Tino Martinez. Actually the ball was in foul territory up the first base line. Crosby raced in from right and Cano motored over from second. Cano almost collided with Tino, who was once again called on as a defensive replacement for Giambi, but Martinez held onto the ball for the out. B.J. Surhoff followed and hit the first pitch in virtually the same spot. Actually, this play was even easier for Martinez but an overeager Cano bumped into him and the ball dropped out of Tino’s glove. (Martinez shot Cano a look that said, “Now, listen here, son, lemme ‘splain something to you…”) Surhoff worked the count full before lining out to Hideki Matsui in left.

Bubba Crosby, who already had two hits, led off the bottom of the ninth and plastered a 1-0 breaking ball deep into the right centerfield bleachers. Crosby, who hasn’t hit a home run in well over a year, knew it was gone immediately, and went into style-mode. He practically froze at the plate, like he was doing a dance move, admiring his unlikely moment in the spotlight.

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Boids

Doity, filty, stinkin’ boids. C.M. Wang squares off against the Orioles’ talented southpaw Erik Bedard tonight in the Bronx. Yanks must to take at least three of four against Baltimore, both this week and next week. Hopefully, they come out on the good foot and nab a “w.” Whatta ya say, let’s go boys!

The Orioles

My assumptions panned out this past weekend, with the Indians sweeping the Royals and the Yanks and Red Sox taking two of three in their respective series. As a result the Yankees are a game and a half out in both the East and the Wild Card race.

Meanwhile, the Indians have moved within 3.5 games of the White Sox and still have all six head-to-head match-ups remaining (including a three-game series that starts tonight in Chicago). That’s bad news for the Yankees’ Wild Card hopes as they still trail the White Sox by five games.

Tonight our heroes play the first of eight remaining games with the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles team that the Yanks will face in the Bronx tonight is drastically different from the one that last visited the House that Ruth Built back in late June. That team arrived in New York with a .543 winning percentage, but, starting with a pair of loses to the Yankees, went on to post a 18-33 (.353) record through the end of August. Along the way they changed managers, traded their left fielder, released their would be ace starter, and lost a pair of would-be hall of famers to a combination of injury and steroid suspension.

Things have been looking better for the O’s since the calander changed to September. The birds have posted a .500 record on the month, but that’s largely been the result of a pair of series wins against the lowly Mariners and Rangers, which produced a four-game winning streak last week. They’ve also dropped series to the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Devil Rays. The Yankees hope to complete the divisional sweep this week.

Tonight’s Oriole starter, Eric Bedard, has pitched reasonably well since being activated from the DL in late July, but has walked a lot of men and had trouble going deep into games. His opposite number, Chien-Ming Wang, has looked good in his two starts since being activated, though he has yet to really deliver on his pre-injury promise. Here’s hoping he has a breakthrough tonight after a pair of warm-up starts against those gall-darn Devil Rays.

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Half What?

Every loss hurts more. The Yankees fell to the Blue Jays on a bright sunny afternoon in Toronto 6-5 leaving Yankee fans to grind their teeth for the rest of the day. Although the team went 5-1 on their road trip, this was a sour ending as they blew an opportunity to move to within a half-a-game of Boston. They did, however, lose a game in the wildcard standings to Cleveland, who crushed Kansas City. It wasn’t so much that the Yanks lost, it was they way they played: tight and sloppy. After two important wins on Friday and Saturday, this was another example of a game they let slip away.

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Keep it Rollin’

The Yankees have won six games and already taken the weekend series against the Blue Jays. Funny to think that they could start the week having lost ground on Boston and Cleveland should those two teams win today and the Yanks lose. Our old friend Ted Lilly will square off against Jaret Wright this afternoon in Toronto. Wright tends to get hurt early, but the Yankees desperately need him to make like Shawn Chacon and give them some length. More to the point, they need the offense to put up at least a half-a-dozen runs, which is possible, though no lock against Lilly, who can be nasty when he’s on. Jorge Posada is showing some signs of life, and Robinson Cano has been hot. Let’s see who can step up today. Got to drive ‘em in when they are on, boys. Let’s see youse guys get them ducks off the pond.

One more pin Rodney. Just win it. Any which way you can.

Onions

The last two victories for the Yankees are just the kind of games that could make you start to believe. Then again, if you are an Indians fan, I’d think you are feelin’ the faith pretty strong right now too. The Yankees won 1-0 yesterday afternoon putting pressure on Cleveland and Boston, who in turn both won one-run games last night as well. It was the Yankees league-leading 13th shutout on the year (go figure that), a nail-biter that featured some timely defense. I counted seven fielding plays over the course of the game (two by Jeter–including his John Stallworth over-the-shoulder routine, two by Cano–one featuring a nice pick by Jason Giambi, one by Matsui, another by Ruben Sierra, and the icing-on-the-gravy by Rodriguez-Cano-Martinez). Vernon Wells also robbed Bernie Williams of extra bases with a basket catch in right-center field that was the definition of smooth.

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Whew

Last night, the Yankees won a game by the skin of their teeth, a game that felt like they were going to lose seven different ways even though they held an 11-3 lead at one point. It’s just the kind of game that could mean the difference between them making or missing the playoffs and in the end, they won it. Good thing too as both Cleveland and Boston were victorious as well.

The Blue Jays

The last week, in which our heroes went 5-1 against the rival Red Sox and dastardly Devil Rays, has been a physically and emotionally draining one for both the Yankees and their fans. Fortunately, while there are no off-days left in the Yankees season, their schedule does get decidedly easier starting tonight when the Yanks begin a stretch of fourteen games against the Blue Jays and Orioles.

But it is exactly that that concerns me about these four series against the weaker sisters of the AL East. The Yankees avoided a let down after taking two of three from the Red Sox, and they avoided a let down after both unloading 17 runs on the Devil Rays in the first game of that series and pulling out a one-run victory in Game Two. But in both cases they were facing a team that had made them angry, the Red Sox by virtue of the natural rivalry, last year’s humiliating ALCS, the standings, and all of the accompanying baggage, and the Devil Rays by inexplicably pushing the Yankees around during the first five series between the two teams this year.

The Blue Jays and Orioles, on the other hand, have thus far minded their manners. After a hot start, the Orioles have tumbled to a .476 record, 14 games behind the still second place Yankees, and they haven’t been seen ’round these parts since just before the All-Star break when they dropped a pair to the Yanks in the Bronx. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have gone a very accommodating 4-8 against the Yanks thus far this season, most recently dropping three of four to the Bombers at the Stadium in late August, the only Blue Jay win in that series coming on what remains Mike Mussina’s last game of the season, when the inflammation of his elbow became too severe for him to continue.

The fear, of course, is that after the fever pitch of their last six games, the Yankees will ease off against the Jays this weekend, forgetting that they’re markedly better than the Seattle team that split a four game set with the Yanks two and a half weeks ago, and perhaps completely unaware that Toronto has a .545 Pythagorean Winning Percentage, which, if substituted for the Blue Jays’ actual record, would rank them just two games behind the A’s and Angels in the overall American League standings.

Then again, looking back over the Yankees’ schedule, other than their struggles against the Devil Rays, the Yanks haven’t lost a series to a team not currently in a playoff slot since they dropped two of three to the Mets in late June, and other than that Mariners series the only other split they’ve suffered over that span was the rain-shortened two-game set against the Orioles that immediately followed that Mets series.

What that tells us is that, over the last two and a half months, the Yankees have done their job against the lesser teams in the league, but simply winning these four series may not be enough to get the Yankees in the playoffs. Let’s speculate, shall we?

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Eight Ball

“That’s why the Yankees are the Yankees,” Rays DH Jonny Gomes said. “The buffoonery they had earlier, that was something else. But they’re the Yankees and they’re here now. They mean business. And they’re not taking no for an answer.” (N.Y. Daily News)

Welp, Cliff was right: neither pitcher was pretty last night. But that didn’t stop the Yankees from winning their fourth straight game. Down 5-1, the Bombers scored seven runs in the top of the sixth inning, giving Aaron Small all he would need in order to up his record to an improbable 8-0. The final score: Yanks 9, Rays 5. According to the YES broadcast, it was the tenth time this season that the Yanks have come back from a deficit of four or more runs, a team record. Robinson Cano hit a huge grand slam and Alex Rodriguez made like David Ortiz with a tie-breaking two-run blast which gave the Yanks the lead for good. New York inched to within a half-a-game of the idle Cleveland Indians and a game-and-a-half to the Boston Red Sox who lost to Oakland last night at Fenway Park.

Aaron Small had two bad innings. In the second, he allowed two doubles and hit a man as the Rays jumped to a 2-0 lead; in the fifth, he gave up two singles and a long home run (which hit the catwalk) to Johnny Gomes (hey, the dude can hit the high fastball, ‘specially when it ain’t that fast). He also retired the side in order three times. The most important work for Small came after his offense reclaimed the lead in the top of the sixth. He retired the next five men, throwing strikes, and keeping the aggresive Rays hitters off-balance with his breaking pitches, throwing them slower rather than harder.

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Not A Pretty Pitcher

It won’t be a beauty contest tonight when Aaron Small and Seth McClung face off in the final game of the year between the Yankees and Devil Rays (and, yes, I just accidentally wrote “Red Sox”–sure feels like it), but McClung, who has made just one relief appearance and no starts against the Yankees this year, sure will be a welcome change from the endless parade of Hendricksons and Fossums the Bombers have seen in this match-up.

McClung, a burly 24-year-old in his first full season, is a hard cat to figure. His last four starts have alternated between quality wins (including an eight-inning gem in Toronto in his penultimate effort), and disaster loses (a total of three innings pitched in two starts, including just two in a rematch against the Blue Jays his last time out). The bad news is that means McClung is “due” for a quality win this time out. The good news is that he’s had difficulty harnessing his stuff and a patient Yankee offense (like the one that made Mark Hendrickson throw 113 pitches in five innings last night) could wear him out quickly.

Like McClung, Small will be making his first start against the Devil Rays this year after facing them once out of the bullpen. Unlike McClung, Small has been nothing if not reliable for the Yankees this year. The four runs he allowed against the Red Sox in 6 1/3 innings in his last start were the most he’s allowed in any outing this year, and one of those scored after Joe Torre had pulled him from the game. Prior to that he had thrown fourteen scorless innings.

Small’s success may be a fluke, but there’s no reason why that fluke has to come to an end prior to next season, as Tom Zachary’s 1929 campaign demonstrates (a point Steven Goldman likely didn’t realize he was making). The Yankees certainly hope Small’s coin stays balanced on its side, as any loss at this point in the season will feel like a catastrophic one, especially if it comes at the hands of these blasted Devil Rays in the final confrontation of the year.

Oh, and don’t look now, but the Yankees have the fifth-best record in baseball (behind the Cardinals, White and Red Sox, and Indians). It sure would be a shame to see the Yankees sit home this October with a better record than both western division winners. Unfortunately, there are a number of ways that could happen, but none of them can occur if the Yankees keep winning.

Aaron Small, I turn it over to you.

Victory At Last!

It didn’t come easy, but the Yankees finally took a series from the Devil Rays, by pulling out a 6-5 victory in Tampa last night.

Throughout the game, the Yankees seemed on the verge of yet another collapse against the Devil Rays. They left the bases loaded in the first inning after plating just one run, stranded runners at the corners in both the third and fourth (scoring another run in the latter inning thanks in large part to a Julio Lugo throwing error), then promptly surrendered their 2-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth on a two-out game-tying single by Toby Hall.

The first true sign of life came in the fifth when, with a man on first and two outs, Bernie Williams reached on an infield single to second and Ruben Sierra drew a five-pitch walk, just his fifth of the season, to load the bases and bring Robinson Cano to the plate. Cano, who was 1 for 15 on the season with the bases loaded coming into that at-bat, fell behind Tampa starter Mark Hendrickson 1-2, then lined a single into right that scored two runs, restoring the Yankees’ two-run lead.

That the second Yankee lead was in part the result of two things that never happen–a Ruben Sierra walk and a Robinson Cano hit with the bases loaded–was an indication that last night just might be the night the Yankees broke through against the Devil Rays, but things weren’t quite that simple.

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The Day After

After being embarrassed by the Devil Rays all season, including losing two of three to them at home last week, the Yankees were clearly a team on a mission last night in Tampa, unloading on the D-Rays for five runs in the first inning, knocking starter Doug Waechter from the game before he had recorded a single out, and finishing the night with a whopping 17-3 victory.

From one point of view such an outburst was exactly what this team needed to do: send a message to Tampa Bay that clowntime is over and papa won’t take their mess no mo’. From another point of view, such an outburst is actually cause for concern. Could it be that the Yankees expelled all of their frustration over a season worth of series loses to the Devil Rays with one cathartic explosion of run scoring and will thus lack that fire in the remaining two games of the series, which are every bit as important to their playoff chances? After all, hasn’t it been true all season that the Yankee offense has followed such a outbursts by failing to score more than a run or two the next day?

Well, no, actually.

Prior to last night, the Yankees had run up a double-digit run total in thirteen games this season. In six of the games that followed such an outburst, the Yankees scored fewer than five runs, but in six others they scored more than five runs (in the one remaining game they scored exactly five), twice scoring in double-digits again the next day and once scoring nine runs and following that with a fifteen-spot the next day. While it may not look impressive compared to the nearly 14 runs the team scored on average in their thirteen highest-scoring games, the Yankees have scored an average of 5.62 runs in the games immediately following those outbursts, with a median total of five runs. That average is actually higher than their overall season average of 5.39 runs per game.

It’s much more informative to look at tonight’s starting pitchers for an indication of what tonight’s contest might bring. For the Devil Ray’s, that man is Mark Hendrickson, who has made four starts against the Yankees, all of which the Devil Rays have won, with Hendrickson himself picking up the win in three of them. In his last two starts against the Yankees, which includes his most recent start of the season, Hendrickson has posted this line:

14 1/3 IP, 12 H, 9 R (8 ER) 2 HR, 5 BB, 8 K

That translates to a 5.02 ERA, more than a run better than his season mark of 6.06. But then consider what Hendrickson did in his three starts in between those two games against the Yankees:

21 2/3 IP, 17 H, 5 R, 3 HR, 3 BB, 15 K, 2.08 ERA

And what weaker sisters of the league did he amass that line against you might ask? The Blue Jays (who are an even .500 after defeating the Red Sox last night), the AL West-leading Angels (against whom Hendrickson hurled 8 2/3 innings of one-run ball), and those red hot Cleveland Indians.

What all of this goes to show is that if the Yankees do struggle to score runs tonight it has nothing to do with the 17 runs they scored last night or Hendrickson “owning” them, as he’s actually pitched much better over the past month against the Yankees’ rivals than against the Yankees themselves.

The Yankees will send Chien-Ming Wang to the mound tonight for just his second start since returning from a minor league rehab assignment and what was once thought to be a season-ending rotator cuff injury. Wang’s last start also came against Hendrickson and the Devil Rays and saw the rookie groundball pitcher surrender three runs on eight hits and a pair of walks in five innings.

Curiously, that outing was Wang’s best result in three starts against the Devil Rays this year (he surrendered five earned runs in six innings in each of his other two and took the loss in all three). The loss in his last start could be considered hard-luck as the Yankees did score four runs, one more than Wang allowed, but their bullpen gave up four more after Wang departed to put the game out of reach before the Yankee bats finally got to Hendrickson in the eighth (it’s worth noting that Hendrickson needed just 85 pitches to get through 7 2/3 innings in that game, which means that the Yankee runs were not the result of Hendrickson tiring, but also means he was alarming efficient through the first seven innings).

Wang threw just 80 pitches in that game, likely due to concerns over the health of his shoulder. With the bullpen well rested following Monday’s off day and last night’s blow out, I would expect the Yankees to again be cautious with Wang’s pitch count, so the performance of the bullpen tonight could turn out to be every bit as important as Wang’s, though it would certainly do the Yankees well to see Chien-Ming continue to improve coming off his injury and, hopefully, heading toward the postseason. Of course the latter will be less of a concern should the Yankees fail to pull out another win (and their first series victory over the Rays this season) tonight.

Top Dog

Tom Verducci thinks that the AL MVP award is Alex Rodriguez’s to lose. While he appreciates the fact that David Ortiz is the most dangerous late-inning hitter in the league–and possibly the game–he notes that Rodriguez hasn’t exactly been chopped liver in the clutch either. But the telling difference between the two players comes down to this:

Ortiz doesn’t play defense. There is no way to understate this. The guy is half a player. He is a specialist. He can devote his entire energies to his at-bats. There is a good reason why no position player ever has won the MVP with fewer than 97 games played in the field (Don Baylor, 1979). A DH would have to be miles better than the next best player who actually contributes to his team in both halves of the game. Is Ortiz having that kind of a season over Rodriguez? No. Meanwhile, Rodriguez, after a shaky start, has provided Gold Glove quality defense at third base, once running off the longest errorless streak among all AL third basemen over the past seven years.

Cookie Monster is an outstanding hitter, Alex Rodriguez is an outstanding player.

What a Difference a Game Makes

Um, now that is more like it. Heppy boitday Bernie (Silly Carl, don’t you know my man’s got a hose?).

The Devil Rays VI: This Time It’s Personal

There are twenty games remaining on the Yankees regular season schedule, one more than the Red Sox and two more than the Indians. The Red Sox added a half-game to their division lead yesterday by defeating the Blue Jays in eleven innings thanks to yet another game-winning home run by guess who while the Yankees enjoyed their final off-day of the season. The Yankees will make up that game next Thursday when the Red Sox are idle, thus that frightening extra half-game that will stick to the Red Sox AL East lead over the next week and a half is illusory. The opportunity still exists for the Yankees to match the Sox win-for-win to keep the Boston lead at three games entering the final three games of the season in Boston. Should the Yankees then sweep that series, a single-game playoff between the two teams would be played at Yankee Stadium to decide the division.

The Indians, meanwhile, were shut out by Dan Haren and a quartet of relievers last night, thus dropping their half-game advantage in the Wild Card race. You see, while the Indians still lead the Yankees by a full game, that game is the result of the Indians having won two more games than the Yankees. The two teams are even in the loss column, which, by a certain strain of logic, means they are actually tied. Thus the opportunity still exists for the Yankees to match the Indians win-for-win over the remainder of the season, win the two extra games in their schedule, and finish the season tied with Cleveland. If that happens, a single-game playoff between the two teams would be played at Jacob’s Field to decide the Wild Card.

So, technically, the Yankees are still in control of their own destiny, even if that destiny now includes a one-game playoff win. Merely forcing such a playoff game against either the Indians or Red Sox, however, will be a monumental task for the pinstripers. To begin with, needing to sweep the Red Sox at home over the final three days of the season is a frightening thought, even though the starters for that series currently project to be Aaron Small, Randy Johnson and Shawn Chacon (though Chacon’s start could go to Mike Mussina as I’ll explain in a moment).

What’s more, the Indians have been the hottest team in the American League over the past week. Last night’s loss broke a seven-game winning streak that saw them sweep the Tigers and Twins, including a 4-2 win over Johan Santana this past Friday.

Meanwhile, the Yankees find themselves in Tampa tonight to play their final three games of the season against the Devil Rays team that has, er, bedeviled them all season. At this point it should no longer be necessary for me to recap the Devil Rays’ success against the Yankees this season. And any analysis of the overall success of the Devil Rays’ pitchers against the Yankee hitters is statistically obscured by the two 13-run innings the Yankees have dropped on the D-Rays this season (yes those innings can be factored out, but I lack the time, the patience, and the stomach to do so right now). That said, it is informative to note that the Devil Rays have outscored and flat out-hit the Yankees head-to-head even with those 26 runs in two innings included on the Yankees’ side:

D-Rays: .293/.367/.451 (.278 GPA), 102 R
Yanks: .280/.343/.474 (.273 GPA), 98 R

In addition, consider the fact that the Yankee starter and the two Yankee hitters who have performed best against the Devil Rays this season, Mike Mussina, Tino Martinez and Gary Sheffield, have all been sidelined with injuries of late. The good news is that Sheffield (.322/.349/.678, 6 HR, 22 RBI vs. TB this year) will start tonight at DH. Sheffield missed the entire Boston series with a mysterious muscle pull in his upper leg (it’s been variously reported as a quad, a hamstring, and a groin). As Alex and I were discussing on the phone this afternoon, you know that had to eat Sheffield up inside. The guy played all of last year with a muscle separation in his shoulder and a torn ligament in his thumb and almost won the MVP award. Do you think he would have missed the entire Boston series if that leg injury wasn’t something we should be concerned about? Hells no! Do you think he wasn’t going absolutely crazy having to sit through those last two games in which the Yankee offense produced a total of three runs? You bet your sweet bippy he was!

Having Sheffield at DH could actually be a plus for the Yankees in this series as it opens up right field to the team’s best defensive outfielder, Bubba Crosby, who, to Joe Torre’s credit, will indeed start there tonight, his second consecutive start in right field. Playing on the slick Tropicana Dome turf over the next three games, the Yankees would be well advised to dispatch Bubba Crosby to the outfield in all three games, even against the left-handed Mark Hendrickson tomorrow. Now that we’ve all had a good look at Matt Lawton’s defensive shortcomings, I can’t imagine anyone would disagree that the Yankees cannot afford to run him and Bernie Williams out there on turf against this fast and aggressive Tampa Bay team, and Gary Sheffield, particularly Gary Sheffield with a bum leg, would only be a marginal improvement.

To that end, having Sheffield at DH also keeps Jason Giambi in the field, where his bat has heated back up, producing two of the three runs the Yankees scored in the final two games of their weekend series against the Red Sox. Giambi has spent all of September in the field thus far thanks to the rib cage injury which has kept Tino Martinez out of the line-up for the entire month. According to Torre’s pre-game press conference, Tino could return to game action this week, which is actually an item of some concern as anything that pushes Jason Giambi to DH is a blow to the Yankee offense. Thankfully Sheffield will block him for the time being. I for one could deal with seeing the likes of Bubba Crosby, Matt Lawton or Ruben Sierra in the line-up in place of Tino as long as it kept Giambi in the field.

As for Mussina, the last of the Yankees’ injury brigade, he threw 45 pitches in the bullpen today and, though he’s still not 100 percent, will take another bullpen turn later in the week, and could eventually slot into Chacon’s spot in the rotation if the latter continues to struggle. That would make Mussina, not Chacon, the starter for the final game of the season in Boston. Myself, I’m nervous about a potential Mussina return, as the Yankees can’t afford to sacrifice a single game to get the rust off of him, even if it would make their rotation stronger over whatever portion of the season remained.

As for the Devil Rays themselves, their roster is unchanged from last week and they’ll be sending Doug Waechter to the mound to face Jaret Wright tonight. Waechter has a 3.38 ERA in three starts against the Yankees (21 1/3 IP, 20 H, 3 HR, 3 BB, 11 K), while Wright, eliminating his April start against Tampa as I believe he was less than healthy during that part of the season, has posted the following line in two starts against the Rays since returning from the DL:

14 IP, 12 H, 6 R, 1 HR, 5 BB, 4 K, 1.21 WHIP, 3.86 ERA

That’s good but not great. Still, it accounts for two of the Yankees five wins against the Rays this year.

Given some of their comments after Sunday’s remarkable 1-0 win over the Red Sox, it seems the Yankees are finally ready to not only take this Devil Rays team seriously, but approach this series as if it were against the Red Sox themselves. It’s about time, as there’s no margin for error and no room for a let down follwing the Boston series.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver