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Monthly Archives: April 2006

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Nice n’ Easy

As ugly as the Yankees’ 10-5 loss was on Tuesday night, their 3-1 victory yesterday afternoon was just as pretty. Mike Mussina turned in his best start in what has proven to be a surprisingly strong start to the 2006 season, needing just 101 pitches to make it through 7 1/3 innings, allowing one run on seven hits and no walks while striking out seven. As we’ve heard him say several times this spring, he was in complete command of all of his pitches, pounding the strike zone (75 of his 101 pitches were strikes) and breezing through the Blue Jay order. Moose’s ex-teammate Ted Lilly, meanwhile, split the difference between his first two starts, striking out five and holding the Yankees to just two runs through five innings, but walking five and needing 100 pitches (just 57 strikes) to do it.

It was a tense, tightly pitched game through four innings before the Yankees broke through in the top of the fifth when Alex Rodriguez came to bat with one out and hit the first pitch he saw out of the park to give his team a 1-0 lead. After Jason Giambi—who DHed and saw nothing but lefty pitching all day, going 0 for 3 with a K and five men left on base—flew out, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada came through with back-to-back two-out singles to put runners on first and second for Robinson Cano. After falling behind 0-2, Cano smacked a single of his own into left field. Larry Bowa held Matsui at third, but Posada ran right through second base and got trapped in a rundown. Matsui scampered home while Posada tried to dance out of his pickle, but the baserunning gaffe ended the developing Yankee rally.

The Jays got their lone run in the sixth when consecutive one-out singles by Russ Adams, Frank Catalanotto and Vernon Wells fell just beyond the reach of the Yankee outfielders. It was the only inning in which Mussina would allow more than a single baserunner. In his first and only jam of the day, with one run in and men on first and second, Mussina struckout Troy Glaus on three pitches on the lower outside corner and got Lyle Overbay to ground to first base on one more toss to end the inning.

In the next half-inning, a Posada single cashed in a lead-off walk by Rodriguez to restore the Yankees’ two-run lead and end the day’s scoring. Mussina yielded to Kyle Farnsworth after a one-out single by Catalanotto in the eighth, and Farnsworth and Mariano Rivera combined to set down the last five Blue Jays in order. It was the first Yankee win of the season in which the offense scored fewer than nine runs, and it evened their record at 7-7.

That’s it. Nice n’ easy.

Hello, I Must Be Going

With a 12:30 start today, the Yankees’ two games in Toronto feel more like a night-day double header than anything one might call a “series,” but whatever it is, it’s wrapping up this afternoon with Mike Mussina facing Ted Lilly. Moose has been surprisingly solid in his three starts this year, but has twice been outpitched by men more than a dozen years his junior. Fortunately for Moose, Lilly is just seven years younger than him.

For his part, Lilly had nothing in his first start, walking six in 2 1/3 innings before getting the hook, but came up aces against Boston in his last outing, using a nasty looping curve to rack up ten strikeouts while holding the Sox to one run on six hits through seven and not walking a single batter. The Yankees have had good success against left-handed curveballers thus far this year, beating the tar out of Barry Zito (7 runs in 1 1/3 innings) and Jeremy Affeldt (6 runs in 3 1/3 innings). Here’s hoping that trend continues today.

Andy Phillips is scheduled to start at first base for the first time this year with Jason Giambi DHing, while Tanyon Sturtze is unavailable due to back pain. I consider both of these things good news. With Aaron Small just two rehab appearances away from being activated, I’d like to see Sturtze be the man he replaces in the pen. Wishful thinking, I know, but the Yanks have been trying to put wheels on this pumpkin for far too long already.

Blech

When you’ve got Randy Johnson and the Yankee lineup going against Gustavo Chacin and the Yanks drop a four spot on Mr. Gustavo in the top of the first on homers by Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi, you’ve gotta assume the Yanks are about to waltz to an easy W, right?

Wrong.

Randy Johnson had nothing last night. His total lack of command was on display as pitch after pitch floated just above waist high right over the plate. Johnson was serving meatballs on a platter and the Blue Jay hitters feasted on them. By the end of the first an Alexis Rios double and a Troy Glaus homer made it 4-3 Yanks. An inning later, a Rios homer made it 6-5 Jays. A Glaus double and a dreadful play in which Johnson failed to cover first on a ball hit to Giambi and Giambi decided to throw the ball anyway added another Toronto run. After the first two hitters of the fourth reached, Joe Torre had seen enough.

Scott Proctor came on and retired the first five batters he faced before walking Lyle Overbay to start the sixth, and a bunt, a walk and a sac fly plated the Jay’s eighth run.

Meanwhile, Chacin shut the Yankees down after his rough first, allowing just a double, a single and three walks over his remaining five innings.

The Yanks got one back off Justin Speier in the seventh, but Shawn Chacon, proving once again that he should never be allowed to pitch in relief, gave it right back when Glaus took his second pitch of the night out of the park. Gary Sheffield then dropped an easy fly ball off the bat of Bengie Molina and Chacon allowed him to come around and score on a single, a fly out and a wild pitch.

And that was that. 10-5 Jays. Johnny Damon made three spectacular catches against the wall to prevent things from getting worse. Matt Smith needed just eleven pitches to work a 1-2-3 eighth to keep his major league record perfect. Otherwise, an utterly forgettable evening for the Yankees. Today’s day game couldn’t come soon enough.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays fell well short of their Pythagorean expectations in 2005 and made a number of splashy moves in the offseason, leading many to believe that they had thrust themselves into the thick of the AL East race for 2006. I have to say, I just don’t see it.

Part of the reason is that I expect regression from new additions Overbay (who will miss Miller Park), Molina (who had a rather obvious career year in 2005) and Ryan (who’s mechanics and disposition scream implosion to me), as well as from the returning members of the Toronto bullpen, all of whom, save perhaps 27-year-old Jason Frasor, pitched over their heads in 2006.

In addition to their normal regression, the relievers will be hurt by the loss of Orlando Hudson’s defense, but not nearly as much as the starters, particularly tonight’s starter, Gustavo Chacin, whose solid 2005 ERA just didn’t jive with his unimpressive peripherals, and, much as I hate to say it, returning ace Roy Halladay, who is the most extreme groundball pitcher in the Toronto rotation. The second most groundball-prone Blue Jay starter is A.J. Burnett, which isn’t the greatest news for Toronto fans already coping with the fact that A.J. has as many DL stays as starts thus far this year.

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Memo from HR

For those who missed it, erstwhile Yankee third catcher Wil Nieves cleared waivers this past Thursday and was reassigned to Columbus. Having retained Nieves, the Yankees immediately designated Koyie Hill for assignment (who has since cleared waivers himself) in order to promote Matt Smith to the major league bullpen in anticipation of Jaret Wright’s Saturday start. As a result the Yankee bench is down to four men and one catcher, while the Yankee pitching staff has swelled to twelve men.

Twelve pitchers are unnecessary, even if one of them is trapped in limbo between the infrequently required fifth starters spot (next appearance: Saturday April 29) and long relief. Still, the promotion of Smith is to be applauded. A 26-year-old lefty drafted by the Yankees in 2000, Smith excelled after being converted to relief last year, posting a 2.70 ERA and striking out 9.94 men per nine innings between Trenton and Columbus, though with a few too many walks. Smith made his major league debut on Friday night retiring his only batter, lefty Joe Mauer, on a groundout to second.

Further bullpen moves are on the horizon as Aaron Small and Octavio Dotel have both started pitching in extended spring training games. Small threw four innings yesterday in his third game of the extended spring posting this line: 4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 4 K, 48 pitches. Dotel will make his extended spring debut with one inning today. Small is reportedly just building up arm strength and could return by the end of the month. Dotel is still projected for early June, but appears to be ahead of that schedule, though the Yankees plan to take things slowly with him as he’s coming off Tommy John surgery.

Meanwhile, the Yankees have signed first baseman Carlos Peña and reliever Jesus Colome to minor league deals. Colome was released by the Devil Rays on Thursday after just one appearance in which he faced two batters, walking one and retiring the other. Colome lost his roster spot to minor league journeyman Scott Dunn, which is an indication of his talents. Now 27, Colome pitched in part of five seasons with the Devil Rays, his best being 2004 when he posted a 3.27 ERA in 41 1/3 innings striking out 8.71 men per nine innings and walking 3.92 per nine. Last year, however, things went to pot as his hit and homer rates nearly doubled, while his strikeout rate dropped by more than three Ks per nine and his ERA swelled by more than a run and a quarter. Given the arms they already have on hand in Columbus and due back from the DL, things will have to go awfully awry for Colome to penetrate the Yankee bullpen.

Peña, meanwhile, is a very poor man’s answer to Hee Seop Choi. A slick-fielding, lefty-hitting first baseman, the 27-year-old Peña has power and patience, but has been unable to put them together after more than 1650 major league at-bats. Once a top prospect in the Rangers system, Peña was snagged by the A’s prior to the 2002 season in a six-player deal that netted Texas Gerald Laird and Ryan Ludwick, but after just a half season of disappointing production with Oakland, Peña became one of the key players in the three-team trade that sent Ted Lilly to the A’s, Jeremy Bonderman to the Tigers and Jeff Weaver to the Yankees. Peña did slightly better with the Tigers over the remainder of the 2002 season, but failed to show improvement as the Tiger’s full-time first baseman over the next two seasons. After hitting just .181/.307/.283 over the first two months of 2005, the Tigers lost patience with Peña, sending him down to triple-A Toledo, where he caught fire, hitting .311/.424/.525. Back with the big club, he hit seven home runs in his first eight games before settling back down to hit just .235/.284/.490 for the remaining month of the season, finishing the season with 95 strikeouts in 295 plate appearances. With Chris Shelton and Dmitri Young on hand and a full outfield of Ordoñez, Granderson and Monroe, the Tigers needed little more than Peña’s dismal spring showing to give him his release just before the 2006 season began.

I don’t really see how Peña would be an improvement over what Andy Phillips could give the Yankees. Certainly Peña has a lot more big league experience, but that has only allowed him to establish a level of performance (career: .243/.330/.459) that I’m confident Phillips could surpass if given proper playing time. The only upside I see here is that Peña is left-handed and could work his way into a DH platoon with Phillips should Joe Torre ever decide that would like to get an extra base hit or two out of the position. But that’s a long ways off, as Peña will have to first work his way back into shape, then prove himself worthy of a roster spot. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how Peña’s presence in Columbus affects Eric Duncan, who is learning first base with the Clippers, but struggling at the plate. Could Peña’s arrival at Columbus bounce the Yankees’ #2 prospect back down to Trenton (which is probably where he should have started the season anyway)? And if so, what might that do to the confidence Duncan built up between winning the Arizona Fall League MVP and the J.P. Dawson Award for best Yankee rookie in camp this spring?

Stay tuned . . .

Giam-Boom Boom

The Yanks bounced back yesterday, as we all hoped, beating the Twins 9-3, featuring strong showings from Chien-Ming Wang, Jason Giambi, Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez was critical of his own performance after Saturday night’s tough loss. According to Sam Borden in the Daily News:

Joe Torre wasn’t surprised to hear Rodriguez was being hard on himself because he’s seen A-Rod “set the bar sky-high” ever since Rodriguez arrived in the Bronx. Torre sometimes wishes Rodriguez would give himself a break.

“He drives himself to the point of expecting himself to do more than any human being is capable of doing,” Torre said. “Alex is very tough on himself because he doesn’t think he should do anything wrong ever. I don’t think we can live our lives that way.”

…”He never tires of physical work,” Torre said. “He’s out there constantly, trying to make himself better. Over 162 games, it takes its toll.”

Rodriguez can be called a lot of things. A slacker is not one of ‘em.

Sunday Special: Look Out Below

The Yanks hope to grab a win today before they leave for Toronto. A lackluster offensive outing on Friday night sperled Mike Mussina’s decent outing while fortune was on the Twinkies side against Mariano yesterday. Wang vs. Radke today. Let’s hope Wang gets some groundballs and that the infielders are positioned to gobble them up. As for Radke, well, let’s just say that I expect the bats to be alive this afternoon for the Bombers.

Cliff adds:

Joe Torre has been rotating his corner men through the DH on the Homerdome Turf. Friday night it was Gary Sheffield with Bernie getting his first start in right since the Buck Showalter days. Last night it was Jason Giambi, who got to sit out against the lefty Santana with Miguel Cairo getting the start at first (1 for 4 with a double off Santana) and Andy Phillips getting his first start of the year at DH (0 for 4 with three Ks after being robbed of a home run to dead center off Santana by Torii Hunter). Today it’s Hideki Matsui who will get to sit between at-bats, with either Bernie or Bubba taking his spot in left. This means that Giambi will be back at first with the groundballer Wang on the mound. Giambi has started in the field behind Wang in both of his starts this year with no ill effect, though it still seems as though Torre could have arranged things better to allow Giambi to DH behind Wang as Santana is hardly the sort of league average lefty against whom it makes sense to swap out Giambi, who, it goes without saying, is a superior hitter to both Cairo and Phillips. At any rate, it’s getaway day and the Yankees have tomorrow off, so it’s all in for the win this afternoon.

Seared

When Johan Santana has a four run lead on your team early in the game, you pretty much think it is going to be a short, curt afternoon for your boys. But Santana is not his usual dominant self yet and by the fourth inning, the Yanks started to hit him hard. The Bombers rallied down 4-0 and tied the game on Derek Jeter’s third hit of the game–this in spite Torii Hunter casually swiping a home run from Andy Phillips and Jorge Posada missing a homer to right by two feet. Alex Rodriguez, who has been laboring to find a groove this year, got down in the count and then hit a hard ground ball through the left side to put the Yankees ahead 5-4.

There was a lively discussion of what transpired in the bottom of the eighth inning yesterday in our comments section here yesterday. It involved all of your favorites–Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees had a man on second with nobody out and weren’t able to get a run home. The debate was sparked about Derek Jeter. Of all people. And it involved a sacrifice bunt. Of all things. Regular commenter and fellow blogger Mike Plugh wrote a good a follow-up post analyzing the inning over at Caynon of Heroes, which you should check out. Far as I saw it, the inning was highlighted by a thrilling duel between Juan Rincon and Gary Sheffield.

And that’s where it stood with Mariano on in the ninth. The first batter Luis Castillo has pestered the Yankees over two games and on the 2-2 pitch barely held up on a cutter. The third base ump opined that Castillo did not go around–it was a generous ruling at best. Castillo then slaps the ball into the turf and beats out an infield hit. Rivera pounced off the mound beautifully and made a strong peg, but it was just a fraction late.

Rivera narrowly missed striking out the next batter Mauer on the 2-2 delivery–a fastball, up and away. The high strike. It’s a pitch Rivera has been known to get over the years. So, on a defensive swing, Mauer slaps the ball into left. Matsui gets it and chucks it to third–an absent-minded decision that proved costly. There wasn’t going to be a play on Castillo at third, but the throw to Rodriguez allowed Mauer to go to second.

Mo then strikes out poor Rondell White, do did manage one base hit on the game, but who is in the midst of a horrid slump. (The Yanks twice walked Mauer to get to White in the game and both times they retired ‘ol Ro.) Mo made him look silly. And then Rivera overwhelmed Torii Hunter for the second out. Caught him looking at a nasty cut fast ball. It fooled Hunter so badly he argued with the home plate ump about the call, but replays showed it just broke devastatingly late. Nothing Hunter could have done about it, but say something. Got to get it out when you get burned that badly.

Then Justin Morneau plunks a soft liner into right, not all that far from Robinson Cano’s reach. Two runs score, and the Twins win the game, 6-5. Other than Mauer’s defensive-swing hit, nobody had hit the ball hard of Rivera.

But these things happen. It was the first game that hit me in the gut this year, that got me pissed and upset. What calmed me down more than anything was watching Rivera being interviewed after the game. He was smiling and saying, “What can I do, they didn’t hit it hard, I felt good, made some sharp pitches, and these things happen. I’ve already gotten over it and moved on.” And he means it, he has moved on. He’s speaking in cliches but he isn’t lying. Rivera is imperturbable. It’s not just schtick with him. That’s what makes him the greatest. Win or lose. And if he’s cool with the ups and downs of the game, I’ve got to ask myself “Why am I all nuts over this?” Way to calm me down, Mo, yer the man.

Dud

The Yankees wasted a good outing from Mike Mussina, who has previously owned the Twins, losing 5-1 on Friday night. The game moved along quickly for the first six-and-a-half innings and the Yankees were just “off” enough–both offensively and defensively–to come up short.

The Twins’ young right-hander, Scott Baker allowed just one run over seven innings, mixing pitches and change speeds effectively. He didn’t throw hard, but had the Yankees off-balance all night. A lot of his pitches were just off the plate, just out of the strike zone, and the Yankee hitters anxiously jumped on them. There were a lot of harmless fly ball outs. Gary Sheffield flew out four times and saw less than ten pitches on the night (he swung at the first pitch in his first two at bats, and the team made six first-pitch outs in the first five innings). According to the New York Times:

“He was like a surgeon,” Yankees Manager Joe Torre said. “He was down. He was up. Hitters like to zone in on location, and they were never able to do that.

“The thing he did the best was get ahead of a lot of hitters, and sometimes we just got caught in-between.”

…”It’s weird, because we need to learn how to win these close games,” Johnny Damon said. “We need to learn how to push across runs. It just shows how good a pitcher can be when he’s around the strike zone and doesn’t walk anybody.”

Mussina pitched well for most of the game–running into trouble in the third and later, in the seventh. Jorge Posada was thrown out at the plate attempting to tag on a fly ball to right. The replays showed that he was safe on a close play. The Yankee catcher was involved in another critical play later in the game.

In the seventh, with two men on and the Twins holding a one-run lead, Juan Castro popped a Mussina change up foul. Posada raced over towards the first base dugout to make the play but couldn’t get there in time. Jason Giambi, who was playing back off the base was too late arriving as well. The truth is, Posada covered a lot more ground than Giambi did, yet if anyone was going to make that play it would have been the first baseman. In what was clearly going to be Mussina’s final batter of the game, Castro worked the count full, then fouled off several pitches before slapping an RBI single to left.

It was just one of those nights. The Bombers put the first two men on in the eighth but Bernie Williams bounced into a double play–they went listlessly in the ninth, almost as if they had a plane to catch. Kyle Farnsworth pitched the bottom of the eighth and allowed two more runs to score.

I’ve complained about Farnsworth’s thought-process in the past and last night was an ideal example of why the guy drives me nuts. Farnsworth’s two best pitches are a plus fastball and a sharp slider. But you don’t get the sense that he knows how to mix his pitches properly–he falls in love with dominating a hitter and makes things tougher on himself in the process.

With two men out and nobody on, Farnsworth was pitching to Torii Hunter, a right-handed hitter. He threw a slider for strike one and then got Hunter to wave at a nasty slider for strike two. Now, I’m thinking, okay, time to come up and in with the heat. Posada signaled for a fastball and you could see him motioning for it to be high and tight. Hunter is a free swinger, after all. Farnsworth shook him off.

C’mmon, Meat, I’m thinking at home. We’re going to go through this Nuke Laloosh routine all year, aren’t we? (Funny to consider Jorge Posada as the sage Crash Davis, huh.) But no, Farnsworth wanted to get him out on another slider. It would be difficult to throw one better than the pitch Hunter had just swung through. Sure enough, the next pitch was a slider, it wasn’t as nasty as the previous one, and Hunter slapped the pitch into right for a double.

Justin Morneau, a lefty, was next. He had a great swing at a Farnsworth fastball that was low and right over the plate. The pitch was fouled straight back indicating that Farnsworth had gotten away with one–Morneau was right on it. He got strike two on another fastball, but this one was up and away, and he simply over-powered Morneau with it. So now, I’m thinking, maybe time for the slider, or another high heater. Instead Farnsworth threw another low fastball–seemingly identical to the pitch Morneau just missed–which was promptly slapped into left field for an RBI single.

Now, maybe Farnsworth’s location was just off. Again, I’ll admit that I’m ready to be critical of the guy so I’m not exactly even-handed when discussing him. He’s clearly got good stuff. I just don’t know that he’s got much sense. And after a long night of lousy at-bats, it was the icing on the gravy so to speak. Farnsworth didn’t lose the game for the Yankees, he just made it uglier.

No breaks for the Bomb Squad tonight as they face Minnie’s ace, Johan Santana. Santana has not pitched well in his first two outings, which is just enough to make me believe that he’ll be on tonight. Jaret Wright goes for the Yanks.

The Minnesota Twins

One of the best stories in baseball in recent years was the trio of AL Central Titles won by the Minnesota Twins immediately after Commissioner Bud Selig threatened the team with contraction. Unfortunately, that story does not have a happy ending as, while we have all been waiting around for the Twins to convert their seemingly endless supply of young talent into a more meaningful title, the team has regressed into mediocrity. That the left side of their infield is populated by Juan Castro and Tony Batista, the latter of whom spent 2005 playing in Japan, should be evidence enough of that.

That said, the Twins are always going to be dangerous because of their pitching, which is why it’s fortuitous that the Yankees are catching them this early in the season. One game shy of two times through their rotation, the Twins starters have a combined ERA of 6.63 and would-be two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana, who will go tomorrow against Jaret Wright’s first start of the season, has yet to win a game.

Tonight, the Yankees face 24-year-old rookie Scott Baker, who beat out Francisco Liriano (the left-handed future star who is generally considered the second coming of Santana) for the fifth starter’s spot in spring training. While no pushover himself, Baker took the loss in his first start, allowing three runs on nine hits and a walk in 4 1/3 innings against the powerful Indians’ lineup. A decent first outing spoiled by the fact that the Twins bats couldn’t muster a single run against Jason Johnson, Gullermo Mota and Bob Wickman.

Mike Mussina takes the hill for the Yanks, looking to build upon his surprisingly strong performance in his first two starts.

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Sweep: Grumble

Randy Johnson was cruising along for the first four innings yesterday afternoon, but he allowed three straight hits in the fifth, giving up a run in the process. He made it through the inning but after throwing only 87 pitches his day was over, sending a tremor through Yankeeland. The team announced that there was nothing physically wrong with Johnson but after the game it appeared that he had in fact experienced some discomfort out there. The Big Unit was his naturally defensive self when he spoke with reporters (if he is uncomfortable, you know he’s going to make the press uncomfortable). Tyler Kepner reports in the Times:

Manager Joe Torre said that Ron Guidry, the pitching coach, told him Johnson was stiff during yesterday’s game, although Torre said he did not know where. Johnson initially scolded reporters for getting the story wrong, but then admitted to some stiffness — sort of.

“Just a little tired, stiffness in the shoulder, if you want to call it that,” he said, adding a disclaimer that seemed to amuse him. “The right shoulder.”

…”I don’t need to go out there every time and pitch seven, eight innings because you might like it,” he said. “I might like it, but I also realize that the innings and the pitches that are going to be mostly counted on from me are going to be late in the year.

“So as much as I want to get my arm where it needs to be — that’s what spring training is for — there’s a time and a place to go out there and throw innings and pitches.”

The Yankee lead was cut to 4-2 when Tony Graffanino greeted Taynon Sturtze with a solo home run in the eighth, that was as close as KC would get. The Bombers scored five runs in the bottom of the frame–highlighted by home runs from Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, and that was that. Final score: Yanks 9, Royals 3. Gary Sheffield also homered, Hideki Matsui and Derek Jeter both lengthened their hitting streaks and Bernie Williams collected three singles on the afternoon. After the sweep, the Yanks are back on the road this weekend, out to see their old pal Ruben Sierra and his new team, the Twins.

Gitcher Brooms

With yesterday’s 12-5 victory over the Royals, the Yankees clinched their first series win of the season, pulled their record up to .500, and put themselves on pace to score 1134 runs this season. It almost doesn’t seem fair to send Randy Johnson to the mound this afternoon to go for the sweep. Sure, the Royals have scored 12 runs against the Yankees over the past two days, but the Yanks have countered with 21 of their own.

One reason for the Bombers onslaught has been the 17 free passes they’ve received from the Royals’ pitchers over the last two days. The walks are likely to keep coming today with former Orioles prospect Denny Bautista on the mound. Bautista historically walks about four men per nine innings, a number that’s sure to increase against the power and patience of the Yankee lineup. Randy Johnson, on the other hand, has yet to walk a batter this year in fifteen innings. Save for a Frank Thomas homer in his first start and an Adam Kennedy “triple” in his second, Johnson has dominated, holding his opponents to a smattering of singles.

On paper, today’s game is a complete mismatch. Knowing how baseball works, that likely means that Reggie Sanders will hit a pair of two-run homers off Johnson and the Yankee bats will sputter against the hard-throwing Bautista, but honestly, I just can’t see that happening.

Meanwhile, the big news is that Kelly Stinnett will again be behind the plate for Johnson, and without a day-game-after-night-game-related excuse. To make matters worse, unlike in Stinnett’s last start, Joe Torre is not keeping Posada’s bat in the line-up, sticking with his singles-hitting DH Bernie Williams. Williams will hit seventh, ahead of Cano and Stinnett.

Buddy Bell, meanwhile, has completely mixed things up against Johnson. Here’s today’s Royals lineup:

R- Tony Graffanino (DH)
R – Mark Grudzielanek (2B)
R – Emil Brown (LF)
R – Reggie Sanders (RF)
R – Angel Berroa (SS)
R – John Buck (C)
L – Doug Mientkiewicz (1B)
R – Esteban German (3B)
L – Shane Costa (CF)

Angel Berroa hitting fifth against Randy Johnson? I suppose Torre can afford to give Jorge the day off after all.

Thump

Yesterday’s game will be remembered for Gary Sheffield’s wicked foul ball in the first inning, which sent third base coach Larry Bowa to the turf. In the same at-bat, Sheffield hit a three-run homer to left, tying the game. According to the Daily News:

Sheffield apologized, but Bowa waved him off. “I told him forget sorry,” Bowa said. “I’ll go down on my back every day for a three-run homer.”

The Royals had a 3-0 lead, but their starting pitcher, Jeremy Affeldt walked Johnny Damon and then Derek Jeter in the bottom of the first (oy) before Sheff’s homer. Oh, those base on balls. The Bombers didn’t look back as they handled Kansas City 12-5. Shawn Chacon wasn’t especially terrific but after a rocky start he was good enough.

Hooky

With yesterday’s ugly 9-7 win on the books, the Yankees have allowed 16 runs in the two games started by Chien-Ming Wang and 14 runs in their other five contests. Seven of the 16 runs allowed in Wang’s starts were given up by the Yankee bullpen across 7 1/3 innings. The Yankee pen has allowed just two runs in 8 2/3 innings in the other five games. The Yankee offense, meanwhile, as scored 34 runs in the team’s three wins and ten in their four loses.

The Royals, meanwhile, have proved capable of both winning and losing both low and high-scoring affairs, dropping their first two against the Tigers 3-1 and 14-3, then taking their first two from the World Champion White Sox 11-7 and 4-3. Between yesterday’s loss and that first win against the Chisox, the Royals scored 18 runs, but have scored just nine runs in their other four games.

It’s too early for any of these stats to really be meaningful, but they sure are curious, and they make speculation about the potential of this afternoon’s contest all the more difficult.

Today the Royals will send to the mound 25-year-old lefty Jeremy Affeldt. Affeldt was once considered a future rotation star for the Royals before blisters and other injuries pushed him to the bullpen. Last year he pitched exclusively in relief, and not all that well, serving as a second lefty behind Rule 5 pick and yesterday’s losing pitcher Andy Sisco. The year before, he made just 8 starts and was far less effective as a starter than he was in his 30 relief appearances. This year he’s been thrust back into the rotation by the mysterious disapperances of Zack Greinke, who skipped the team in late February and is on the DL due to psychological issues, and Runelvys Hernandez, whom the Royals tried to placed on the DL due to “lack of stamina” after he showed up for camp overweight but were forced to option to Omaha instead. In his first start this season, Affeldt lasted just four innings, surrendering six runs on seven hits and a pair of walks to the White Sox.

The Yankees counter with Shawn Chacon, who faired better in his first start against the Angels, though not dramatically so, giving up four runs on eight hits and two walks in 5 2/3 innings. One encouraging sign was that Chacon struck out four in those 5 2/3 innings despite a mere 58 percent of his pitches being strikes. This against an Angels team that was the second hardest in baseball to strikout in 2005. Both Chacon and Affeldt feature big 12-6 curves, which just may be my favorite pitch to watch. If only I could take today off of work as well.

Mike Sweeney, who left yesterday’s game in the ninth after being hit on the right hand by a Mariano Rivera pitch, is expected to be in the line-up for Kansas City. His x-rays were negative.

Update: Joe Torre is sitting Robinson Cano against the lefty Affeldt, giving Miguel Cairo his second start in the Yankees’ first eight games. Cairo is hitting ninth behind Bernie, who will play right field allowing Sheffield to DH. Sweeney, meanwhile, is not in the line-up for the Royals. Matt Stairs will DH for KC instead.

Sunny

It’s a start, right? Johnny Damon debuted at home, and, unfortunately, Bob Sheppard, the veteran Stadium P.A. announcer missed his first home opener since 1951 (he’s due back for the next home stand, however). On a beautiful day in New York, the Yankees started out well, then muddled through a good portion of the game, the fans sitting on their hands. It wasn’t until the eighth inning, when the offense scored five runs–capped by Derek Jeter’s impressive three-run swat–that the Stadium came alive again. The Bombers came away with a 9-7 victory, their ninth consecutive win on Opening Day in New York.

Bernie Williams had a key hit in the frame, which helped make up for his base-running error earlier in the game. Mariano Rivera pitched the ninth for the save. It wasn’t a pretty game, but the Yanks will take it, and it because of the outcome, it is destined to become a “YES Yankee Classic.” Heck, even Mike Lupica is waxing poetic about the Yanks this morning. Go figure that.

Boss George was in the house, but didn’t have much to say, especially to his old pal Murray Chass. And Bill Madden notes that while the end result was positive, there was a lot of be concerned about during the middle innings.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox won their Home Opener as well. Josh Beckett, who is sure to become public enemy number 1 in the Bronx this year, was fired-up and pitched well. Beckett is an arrogant so-and-so and when he’s on, he’s exceedingly tough, as we well remember from the 2003 World Serious. He’s an easy guy to hate, but for Sox fans, a terrific guy to have on your team. The kid Papelbon sure looks poised as well.

The Kansas City Royals

The Yankees may have started the 2005 season 11-19, but they hit rock bottom at 27-26 following a three-game sweep at the hands of the Royals in Kansas City. Though the Yanks got their revenge at home in August with a three-game sweep of their own, I’m sure the humiliation in KC is still fresh in the minds of the returning members of last year’s Bombers. Coming off a disappointing roadtrip in which they went 2-4 due to a pair of one-run loses, I imagine the Yankees are unusually fired up for the lowly Royals.

The Royals are once again the worst team in baseball, though in their defense they do have three solid arms in their bullpen (Burgos, Sisco and Dessens, and will have a fourth when Mike MacDougal gets back from the DL), and four solid bats to kick off their lineup (DeJesus, Grudzielanek, Sweeney and Sanders, though DeJesus could miss the entire Yankee series due to a strained left hamstring). They might even get something useful out of tomorrow and Thursday’s starters Jeremy Affeldt and Denny Bautista, but that’s the extent of it and everything’s relative to how bad the team was last year.

Looking at the members of the 2005 Royals who have been replaced on the 25-man roster for 2006 the thing that jumps out at me when is that only Shawn Camp has surfaced with another major league team. Ruben Gotay, Chip Ambres, Aaron Guiel, J.P. Howell, Leo Nunez and Kyle Snyder all remain in the Royals system but failed to break camp with the team (in part due to the Royals own mismanagement). Terrence Long, Super Joe McEwing, Alberto Castillo, Jose Lima and Brian Anderson are all major league vets who appeared with various teams as non-roster invitees this spring, but failed to catch on. D.J. Carrasco likely saw a similar future for himself and signed with Japan’s Kintetsu Buffaloes in February. That these eleven men, nearly half of the Royals 2005 roster, failed to make another team is, to me, proof that the Royals are essentially operating at replacement level.

Meanwhile, the thing Yankee fans will best remember about today’s Royals starter Joe Mays is that he was the guy who gave up Hideki Matsui’s opening day grand slam in 2003. Here’s hoping we see a repeat of that today.

(more…)

People Get Ready

Doesn’t feel like snow, does it? No, it’s a beautiful, crisp spring morning in New York and looks like it’ll be gorgeous up in the Bronx for the Bombers’ home opener. I know the Royals aren’t the Red Sox, but anyone excited?

Plug Tunin’

One week is in the books and in many ways I feel as if the season hasn’t started yet. That’s what you get when the Bombers open up on the west coast. To be honest, between my job and promoting “Stepping Up”, I’ve simply been too preoccupied to focus on the Yanks. I’ve caught a few odd innings here and there, and, fortunately, I know where to come for all the latest recaps and analysis.

My trip to St. Louis was brief but a success and I really enjoyed the place, its history and all the baseball fans I met. The longest interview I did was the first–for the local NPR station (which you can listen to here). I’ve got just enough “ums” and “you knows” in there to make my old man roll his eyes–and I was trying my best to be on point with that stuff. (I must have said “essentially” or “the interesting thing” about a dozen times each too.) Just goes to show you what a learned skill talking in public is. Hey, I’m getting there. Tonight, I’ll be on Sports Bloggers Live between 7-8 on AOL, and I’m also hosting a chat over at Baseball Prospectus. I’d appreciate it if y’all could stop by and throw in a question–about Flood, the Yanks, or anything else you’ve got on your mind.

Thanks, and I hope to be back to the Yankee beat sometime in the near future.

Super Colon Blow

It’s official, the Yankees own Bartolo Colon. In four starts last year between the regular and postseason, the Dominican Dirigible posted the following line against the Bronx Bombers:

19.2 IP, 23 H, 19 R, 14 ER, 7 HR, 7 BB, 13 K

Yesterday they beat Bartolo’s base drum even harder, scoring eight runs (seven earned) on seven hits and two walks in just over two innings. Alex Rodriguez, who hit four home runs in his first four at-bats against Colon last year, went deep in his first trip against him this year leading off the second. A single and an error later, Jorge Posada made it 4-0 with another dinger. Three batters into the next inning, a Posada double made it 6-0 and chased Colon before he could get the first out of the third. It then took Esteban Yan two pitches to surrender both of Colon’s bequeathed runners via a Cano double. The Yanks put up two more on Yan over the next three innings, including Posada’s second homer of the day.

Meanwhile, Mike Mussina picked up right where he left off in his first start (6 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 5 K, 68 percent of 92 pitches for strikes), Kyle Farnsworth (2 K) and Scott Proctor (1 K) turned in a pair of perfect innings, and Mariano Rivera, yes Mariano Rivera, pitched around a Casey Kotchman single to close it out.

One and a half times through the rotation, the Yankees have a 3.04 team ERA and the offense is heading home to feast upon three Kansas City Royals starters who had ERA’s north of 5.00 last year. Everything’s going to be okay.

Saving Face

Randy Johnson pitched a gem last night that was spoiled by a two-out, defense-assisted Adam Kennedy triple and another bad night for the Yankee offense.

With the score knotted at one due to a pair of first-inning runs off a Derek Jeter homer and a Vlad Guerrero RBI single, Juan Rivera lead off the bottom of the fifth with the Angels fourth single of the night. Johnson then struckout Tim Salmon and Jose Molina before yielding yet another single to Robb Quinlan, who started at first in place of the left-handed Casey Kotchman and had also singled in his first at-bat against Johnson.

Adam Kennedy followed and after taking ball one, pulled an extra-base hit down the right field line. Gary Sheffield fished it out of the corner and fired in to the cut-off man Cano standing just behind first as Quinlan rounded third. Cano bobbled the ball, however, losing his opportunity to make a play on Quinlan at the plate. Instead he fired to third to catch Kennedy stretching. Cano’s throw was in plenty of time and Alex Rodriguez had the ball in his glove and on the bag ahead of Kennedy’s slide, but when Kennedy’s lead foot came in, it kicked the ball loose and the play was scored a triple.

It was the Angels only extra-base hit of the night and Johnson would complete the game allowing only one more baserunner on another Guerrero single, finishing with this line:

8 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 0 HR, 0 BB, 8 K, 71 percent of 97 pitches for strikes. Again, six of those seven hits were singles and all eight strikeouts were swinging.

It wasn’t enough. After Jeter’s homer, the Yankees could only strand a pair of walks against Ervin Santana until the sixth, when a throwing error by Chone Figgins put Jeter at first with one out. Gary Sheffield then singled to make it first and second for Alex Rodriguez. On a 1-2 pitch, Rodriguez lined a ball up the middle only to have it hit Santana in the back of the knee and drop to the ground for a 1-3 putout. Jason Giambi then worked an eleven-pitch walk to load the bases, fouling off five straight 3-2 pitches in the process and driving Santana from the game, but Hideki Matsui, who has been the hottest Yankee hitter thus far this season, popped out against lefty J.C. Romero to end the inning.

Rodriguez was robbed again in the eighth inning when, after a two-out ground rule double by Sheffield that was badly misplayed by Garret Anderson in left, Rodriguez scalded a ball in the second base hole only to have Kotchman, in the game as a defensive replacement for Quinlan, make a tremendous diving catch and flip to pitcher Scot Shields to retire the diving Rodriguez by the thinnest of hairs.

The Yankees threatened again in the ninth against Francisco Rodriguez following a one-out solo homer by Matsui that pulled them within one, but pinch-hitter Bernie Williams grounded weakly back to the mound to strand Bubba Crosby, who came in to run after a two-out Cano single and advanced on a wild pitch, at second. Final score: 3-2 Angels.

The Yanks look to save face tonight after scoring just three total runs in their first two games in Anaheim. Despite that miserable run total, there were some good indicator’s last night: Gary Sheffield was 2 for 4 with a double, Alex Rodriguez had two RBI hits taken away due to misfortune and good defense, Giambi stung the ball a couple times and had that fantastic at-bat that chased Santana, Jeter and Matsui homered, Cano got two-out single with his team down one in the ninth. On top of all that, Damon’s O-fer last night was his first of the season. This team is on the verge of busting out and tonight’s opposing pitcher just might be the guy they do it against.

The Yankees faced Bartolo Colon four times last year, including the playoffs, and none of those outings ended well for the heavy-set hurler. In their first meeting, Colon failed to make it out of the fourth as Alex Rodriguez went 4 for 5 with three homers and ten RBIs and the Yankees won 12-4. Three months later in Anaheim, Colon gave up four solo homers, another to Rodriguez, a pair to Giambi, and one to Matsui, though the Angels pulled out a 6-5 win when Vlad Guerrero hit a grand slam off Tom Gordon. In Game 1 of the ALDS, Colon kept the Yankees in the park, but gave up three first inning runs and lost to the Yankees and today’s Yankee starter Mike Mussina 4-2. Finally, in Game 5, Colon was unable to answer the bell for the second inning (though, curiously, the Angels would go on to win behind Ervin Santana on another two-out defense-assisted Adam Kennedy triple).

There’s word that Colon is still not completely healthy. He needed 95 pitches to get through five innings in his first start, allowing three runs on eight hits and a walk to the Mariners. Considering how well the Yankees hit him last year, even when he was in good health, I expect the key to this afternoon’s game to be not the performance of the slumping offense, but whether or not Mike Mussina can repeat the excellent performance he had against the A’s in his first start.

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