"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Where’s Aaron Burr When You Need Him?

Last night’s match-up of Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay was the sort of pitching confrontation people circle on their calendars weeks ahead of time, but while it did turn out to be a low-scoring, one-run game, it was ultimately a disappointment for more reasons than the ultimate result.

For one thing, the best pitching duels are the ones that reach the last three innings in a tie or with a one-run lead with neither team having scored more than three runs (a rule I just made up). But last night the Yankees broke a scoreless tie in the third when Miguel Cairo singled, stole second and scored on a Johnny Damon double, then added single runs in the fourth (Alex Rodriguez double, Posada single, Bernie RBI groundout) and fifth (Melky infield single followed by a Toronto error on a stolen base attempt that sent Melky to third and a Cairo sac fly that plated him). With a three-run lead after four and a half innings and Mussina cruising (just two Blue Jay base runners, both on singles, one that didn’t leave the infield, and six strikeouts through five), the suspense had gone out of the game. This appeared to be the Yankees’ night.

Then Aaron Hill led off the sixth with a double. He was moved to third on a groundout by John McDonald as the Blue Jay order turned over to face Mussina for a third time. With Reed Johnson up, Joe Torre played his infield back, willing to trade Hill’s run for an out, but Johnson hit a hard grounder right at Alex Rodriguez at third, giving him an easy play at home with Hill going on contact. Rodriguez fielded the ball cleanly, but his side-arm throw home tailed to the left of Jorge Posada who, once again frozen by the prospect of a charging base runner, failed to make a full effort to catch the ball. Hill was safe because of Rodriguez’s bad throw and Johnson went to second because of Posada’s failure to glove the ball, though only Rodriguez received an error on the play.

That play opened the doors for the Jays, who promptly plated Johnson when Frank Catalanotto dumped a single into shallow right. Vernon Wells followed with a soft single to left and both Catalanotto and Wells scored on a rocket double down the third base line by Troy Glaus that gave Toronto a 4-3 lead.

From there Mussina settled down, retiring the next (and last) five batters he faced. Meanwhile, Roy Halladay was doing the same. When Derek Jeter lined out to second for the second out of the eighth inning, Halladay had retired the last six men he had faced, but despite his having thrown just 93 pitches his manager didn’t want him to face Jason Giambi with a mere one-run lead. Four outs away from victory, John Gibbons replaced Halladay with dominating lefty closer B.J. Ryan.

Giambi took Ryan’s first four pitches to run the count even at 2-2, then poked an outside pitch through the shortstop hole vacated by the shift for a two-out single. Joe Torre sent in Bubba Crosby to run for his lumbering DH, and Ryan pitched around Alex Rodriguez, issuing a five-pitch walk to the Yankee third baseman, who never took his bat off his shoulder. Ryan’s next pitch bore in on the righty-hitting Jorge Posada, snapping his bat off at the handle, but Posada was able to get enough of it to loop it into left for a game-tying single. Having blown the lead, Ryan struck out Bernie Williams on three pitches to end the inning with the go-ahead run on second.

With the game tied, Torre turned to Scott Proctor in the ninth despite the fact that Mike Mussina had thrown just 92 pitches through seven and had retired the last five men he had faced. Fortunately, Proctor was able to pitch around a two-out Wells single in the eighth and, after a Ryan similarly stranded a one-out walk to Melky Cabrera, worked a perfect ninth. Seemingly discovering a miracle cure for Jeff Weaver Syndrome, Torre next turned to his own dominating closer, Mariano Rivera. Rivera set the Jays down in order in the tenth. The eleventh was another story.

After the Yanks went down in order to Justin Speier and Brian Tallet in the tenth and eleventh, Frank Catalanotto lead off the eleventh with a 0-2 single off Rivera, but was then gunned down by Posada as he tried to steal second. With one out, Rivera’s first pitch to Vernon Wells was a ball inside, but the second hung over the plate and Wells crushed it over the wall in left for a game-winning home run, the first off Rivera since Bill Mueller took Rivera deep almost two years ago exactly in the game best remembered for Rodriguez’s fight with Jason Varitek. Thus, in a game that looked like a must-see pitchers’ duel, neither starter factored in the decision, and two of the best closers in the majors gave up the lead. Yuck.

Oh, and if you think I’m disappointed because my team just happened to lose, check out my take when the Yankees lost a pitchers duel to Halladay and the Jays that actually lived up to the hype.

Tonight the Yankees get their first look at A.J. Burnett in a Blue Jay uniform. Burnett, one of the more misguided signings of the offseason, has already had two stints on the disabled list due to torn scar tissue in his surgically repaired right elbow (Burnett had Tommy John surgery in 2003). Between those two stints he made two undistinguished starts (10 IP, 12 H, 7 R, 4 HR, 2 BB, 10 K). Since being activated in late June he’s made five more with results varying from shutting out the Nationals to giving up seven runs in 4 1/3 innings to the Phillies (or, perhaps worse, six runs in six innings to the Royals). The similarly injury-prone Jaret Wright, who followed up his career-best 10 strikeout game against the Devil Rays by striking out just one White Sox in an otherwise solid outing, takes the hill for the Yanks. If this game ends without either pitcher wincing and walking off the mound while holding their right arm like a dead puppy I’ll be impressed. That said, wouldn’t it be fun if this turned out to be the pitchers’ duel last night wasn’t?

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