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Monthly Archives: July 2006

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Can’t Win for Losing

Alex Rodriguez collected the 2,000th hit of his career last night. It also happened to be a home run–a laser into the left field seats, making Rodriguez the youngest man in history to hit 450 dingers. The shot–a three-run job–also put the Yankees back in the game. However, it was the only offense the Bombers would muster all night as they fell to the Jays, 7-3. It was New York’s third straight loss. They now trail Boston by three-and-a-half. A.J. Burnett was showing off his nasty stuff last night, while Jaret Wright was ineffective. Rodriguez also committed another throwing error (after losing a pop foul in the glare of the roof earlier in the same at bat), which unfortunately marred his historic accomplishment. So it goes right now for Rodriguez.

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?

Toronto Blue Jays

In November 2001, the Toronto Blue Jays hired Oakland A’s director of player personnel J.P. Riccardi to be their new general manager, hoping that some of Billy Beane’s sabermetric pixie dust could revive the declining franchise. The Blue Jays, the first team ever to draw 4 million fans back in 1991, and back-to-back World Champions in 1992 and 1993, had seen their attendance decline steadily in the wake of the strike, with fewer than 2 million fans coming to SkyDome in 2001. Their on field success was in similar decline, with their best post-strike season placing them 26 games behind the 114-win Yankees in 1998, and their record declining in each of the following three seasons.

Riccardi’s first year saw the Jays decline by another two games, but their attendance saw a small but meaningful improvement. In 2003, Riccardi’s second season, the Jays improved by eight games, winning just two fewer games than in 1998. Things seemed to be going according to plan, with young stars Vernon Wells, Roy Halladay, Eric Hinske, Orlando Hudson, and Josh Phelps leading the charge. But just as quickly the bottom dropped out. Injuries and disappointing seasons shaved 19 wins off the Jays’ record in 2004 in a season when many, myself included, expected them to finally disrupt the New York and Boston hegemony at the top of the division. Instead, they broke Tampa Bay’s hold on last place.

The Jays bounced back just as quickly last year, improving by 13 games despite finishing eight games below their 88-74 Pythagorean Record (an exact match of their real life 1998 finish). Emboldened by that improvement, signs of weakness from the Yanks and Sox (who tied for the AL East lead and were both eliminated in the ALDS), and an increase in cash flow in the wake of their buying out the lease on the rechristened Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays approved a total of $210 million in payroll increases over the 2006-2008 seasons. With the extra cash, Riccardi went out and signed fellow initialites A.J. Burnett and B.J. Ryan to absurd contracts and traded for high profile cornermen Troy Glaus (who also makes a pretty penny) and Lyle Overbay.

Still, despite their splashy offseason, I really didn’t expect much from the Blue Jays this year. Thus far, I’ve been wrong as the Jays have been hanging tight in the AL East and Wild Card races and on pace for their first 90-win season since their last World Championship season. But the cracks are beginning to show.

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Murphy’s Law

Or some sort of something that has to do with karma. A day after the Yankees recieved a generous call they were the victims of a poor one as they fell to the Mariners at the Stadium, 3-2 The bad call came at the tail end of a nice piece of base running from Alex Rodriguez. Shame, as they wasted a fine outing from the Big Unit.

On a lighter note, check out this amusing (if foul-mouthed) critique of the Yankees’ radio team. Is Brooklyn in the house?

Rollin’

With a big four-game set against the third-place Blue Jays on deck, the Yankees have picked a good time to get hot. This afternoon they go for their second straight sweep in an attempt to avoid their first second half loss.

The man for the job is former Mariner Randy Johnson, who pitched one of his best games as a Yankee last year against his former team and their future ace, Felix Hernandez. That game was a thrilling pitchers’ duel in which Johnson held the M’s hitless through five innings and the Yankees emerged with a 2-0 victory. That was an emotional game for the big man, as it was the first time he had pitched in Seattle in six years and he was facing a phenom who many believe will challenge Randy’s position as the greatest Mariner hurler of all time.

The stakes are far lower today, with the Yanks playing a house money game at home against Gil Meche little more than 12 hours after one of their most improbable wins of the year, but Johnson seems to be back on track, turning in quality starts in five of his last six outings. Here’s hoping that trend continues today.

Kelly Stinnett gets his second straight start due to Jorge Posada playing the late innings of last night’s game. Melky moves up to the two-spot. Alex Rodriguez returns to third base. Guiel starts in right and bats seventh behind Phillips followed by that man Nick Green (5 for 12 with two doubles, a homer, three walks and a stolen base as a Yankee) at second base. Randy’s old nemesis Eduardo Perez starts at DH for the M’s.

One Day a Real Rain is Gunna Come…

As I walked to the subway last night I saw a middle-aged man wearing a Yankee cap and a navy blue t-shirt that read: “Got Melky?” I complimented him on his shirt. Dude was the first person I thought about early this morning when Melky Cabrera’s solo home run won the game for the Yankees in extra innings, 5-4.

Sidney Ponson wasn’t terrible but Joel Piniero was better. (Both bullpens were strong.) The Yanks trailed 4-2 in the ninth when it began to rain. After the heat we’ve suffered through in New York for the last few days, the rain was welcome. And just as the Yanks started to rally, the rain started to fall. The crowd–as if speaking for all of New York–started to cheer, both for the team and for the rain. Andy Phillips doubled. Thunder clap. The fans roar. Winds swirling like mad. Aaron Guiel, pinch hiting, singled to right scoring Phillips. Lighting. More cheers.

And then, a gift. The Yanks lucked out when Jorge Posada was called safe legging out a ground ball. He was clearly out. Instead of two outs and a man on third, it was one out, men on the corners. Johnny Damon followed and slapped the first pitch into center for a sacrifice fly, tying the game.

Alex Rodriguez did not start but entered the game late as a pinch-hitter (Nick Green played third and collected three hits). In the seventh, Rodriguez popped up to the shortstop. Before the ball landed, the boo birds began to howl. Now, Rodriguez was up in the ninth with two outs and a runner on first. The rain poured down, a real summer thundershower. The crowd cheered Rodriguez. But with the count 3-1, the umps called for the tarp. Derek Jeter was due up next. As the players filed into the dugout, Jeter had a look of mock disgust on his face (though the Yankees were lucky the umps let them play as long as they did). Seconds later, he was smiling, that broad, easy smile of his that we only see on the field or in the dugout but never when addressing the press.

Rodriguez would have to close to two hours to think about things before he got back in the batter’s box. When play resumed, he swung at a slider and then was caught looking by a fastball on the outside part of the plate. The boo birds had mercy–or most of them had gone home already. Perhaps the rain temporarily refreshed them. Two innings later, Cabrera ended it. What a joyous way to end the game as well as the heat wave. As Cabrera approached the plate, he tossed his helmet into the air with both hands–a move that has become customary these days. Johnny Damon caught the helmet and happily spiked it into the ground behind home plate.

The energy in the stadium in the ninth inning will go down as one of the most memorable moments of the year for me. And how about Johnny Damon playing first and Andy Phillips playing second base? The Yanks steal a win and remain a half-game behind Boston. Not a bad way for Joe Torre to celebrate his 66th birthday.

What Fresh Hell Is This?

Temperatures reaching 100 degrees, a threat of thunderstorms, Alex Rodriguez (toe) and Jorge Posada (four straight starts) out of the line-up, and Sidney Ponson on the mound for the Yankees? My hat is off to the fans who chose to sit through that in person tonight.

For what it’s worth, things have been quite heavenly for the Yankees recently. They’ve won eight of their last nine, easily their best stretch of the year, they’re tied in the loss column with the Red Sox, just 2.5 games behind Chicago in the Wild Card chase, and, with a winning percentage two points better than the Mets’, have a better record than every team in the National League. In fact, only two teams have lost fewer games than the Yankees thus far this season and the Yankees have a 6-1 record against those two clubs (the Chisox and Tigers).

Keep reading that paragraph as Sir Sidney gets a right pounding at the hands of an exceedingly average Mariners’ line-up tonight. It will help. As might the fact that The Big Ponson Toad is going up against Joel Pineiro, who’s been down-right Ponson-like of late.

We’ll Take It

Chien-Ming Wang was not at his best on Monday night but he was still good enough to earn his 10th win of the season. The Yankees committed four error–three by Alex Rodriguez–but Wang worked out of trouble several times as the Bombers beat the Mariners, 4-2 It was a miserable night for Rodriguez who was pulled from the game after the seventh inning. Rodriguez fouled a ball off his left toe in the fifth inning. According to Tyler Kepner:

“You never want to come out of a game,” said Rodriguez, who iced the toe near the end of the game. “But it was swelling up pretty bad in my last at-bat.”

…”That’s baseball,” Rodriguez said. “The day before, I had a brilliant day defensively. Tonight, I stunk. The good news is we won, and move on.”

Rodriguez, who now has 16 errors this season, will have x-rays taken on the foot this morning.

Johnny Damon had three hits and Jason Giambi hit a solo dinger into the upper deck in right. Mariano Rivera gave up a double and a single to start the ninth, and then faced our old pal, Ironhead Edurardo Perez. 2-5 lifetime against Mo, Perez took two huge hacks at cutters that were over the plate. They were mistakes, but all Perez could do was foul them off and feel confident that he was seeing the ball well and getting in some good cuts. Rivera struck him out looking on an inside fastball. It was off-the-plate but Rivera got the call the way great players often do. Ichiro popped out to short and then Rivera struck out Willie Bloomquest to end the game. Like Wang, Rivera was not at his best, but he was good enough.

The Yanks still trail the Red Sox by a half-a-game.

Less than two weeks to go before the trading deadline and the talk around the Yankees is an outfielder: Bobby Abreu, Reggie Sanders, Kevin Mench, even Shawn Green.

The Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are a hard team to figure. They started the season on the expected course, going 22-32 over the first third of the season. They then won 20 of their next 28, briefly poking their heads above .500, only to have lost eight of their last ten. And so they sit two games under .500, but just four games out of first place in the AL West and with a winning Pythagorean record, but also in last place in an ugly division lead by the A’s, who have the inverse record of the M’s and are the only team in the West with a losing Pythagorean record. Got all that?

What it all adds up to is that the M’s are a nearly perfect .500 ball club. They’re in the middle of the pack in terms of hitting and pitching. Their lineup is well-balanced with a full supply of average players lead by the pesky, but not overwhelming offensive tallents of Ichiro Suzuki. After Ichiro, Raul Ibañez is their biggest threat. On the mound, 20-year-old uberprospect Felix Hernandez has struggled in his first full season, making the 43-year-old junkballer Jamie Moyer the team’s ERA leader once again. In fact, the only dominant performances the team has received this season have come from the bullpen, with 29-year-old J.J. Putz and former prospect Rafael Soriano making Eddie Guardado expendable.

Really the Mariners are just dull. Ho hum. Here’s hoping the Yanks don’t suffer a let-down after this weekend’s unexpected sweep of the World Champs.

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One Word…

Sweep. Or how about, Hot. Yesterday was the first of what is supposed to be three near-100 degree days here in the Big Apple. It wasn’t humid, man, it was just flat-out hot. Clear blue sky, even a gentle breeze. I was out in the late afternoon and it felt like high noon–I can’t remember the last time I felt the sun like that. Cliff was out in the bleachers for the game, and whether or not he had the Ban De Soleil for the San Tropez tan, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that he left a lighter shade of George Hamilton.

What he saw was an exciting game. The Yankee bullpen worked out of jams in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings as the Bombers beat the White Sox, 6-4 to complete a three-game sweep of the defending World Champs in the Bronx. New York is just a half-a-game behind Boston in the AL East. Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera, and Aaron Guiel contributed fine defensive plays; Rodriguez and Derek Jeter also homered. But it was Mariano Rivera’s two innings of scoreless–if tension-filled–work that will be most remembered. The save was the 400th of Rivera’s great career.

According to Jack Curry in the New York Times:

When Guillén was asked to define the significance of Rivera’s 400 saves, he responded in Ozzie-esque fashion by saying, “One word: Hall of Fame.”

Right. What he said.

Moose Call

I’ve got my usual Fox Saturday heebee jeebies. Not like I do when the Bombers play the Red Sox or the Mets, but still…

It’s hot and muggy and overcast in the Bronx. In spite of my superstitions, I feel good about the offense today (A Rod, Jeter, Jorge).

Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

All Good Things…

“That’s one of those unfair losses—he pitches to one guy in the eighth and he ends up scoring,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “But you knew it had to end, sooner or later.”
(Chicago Tribune)

Jose Contreras allowed a lead-off single to Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the eighth inning last night. It would be his last batter of the game, which was still tied 3-3 at the time. Minutes later, the TV cameras showed Contreras leaning over the rail of the visitor’s dugougt, chatting with his teammates. He was loose and confident, smiling easily. This was not the Jose Contreras that we saw in New York, this was a World Champ who had not lost a decision since the middle of last August.

The Bombers would score three runs in the inning but the Sox didn’t blink. Chicago collected three straight singles in the ninth off of Mariano Rivera. One scored on a ground out, then another on a fly out (a terrific catch against the right field wall in foul territory by Bubba Crosy). AJ Pierzynski pinch-hit with the tying run on third and put together a whale of an at-bat against Mariano Rivera, taking some good hacks and fouling off some decent pitches before popping up to right to end the game (he got under that last pitch, perhaps the most hittable one he saw). The Yanks pulled it out, but you could tell that the White Sox expected to win the game, just as they expect to win every game. They are not overly cocky–though you can say what you want about their showboat of a manager–they simply act like defending World Champs.

Contreras wasn’t vintage but he was good enough. Miguel Cairo led off the fifth inning with a triple. The game was tied at two. But Contreras came back and struck out Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter–nasty forkballs and well-placed fastballs. Jason Giambi was walked intentionally and Rodriguez was plunked in the elbow to load the bases. But Jorge Posada was eaten up by a forkball and he hit what looked like a scewball to short for the final out.

You can see why the Yankees want to make a move to get another hitter, but give Contreras credit–he’s tough. Damon would have a key hit in the eighth, ditto for Melky. And Aaron Guiel hooked a flat forkball into right for a homer too.

Melky Movin?

Over at MLB.com, Mark Feinsand reports:

General manager Brian Cashman has made it clear that pitching prospect Philip Hughes is as close to untouchable as any player in the Yankees’ farm system.
Melky Cabrera on the other hand, may not be.

According to a Major League executive, the Yankees and Pirates have discussed a deal that would send the young outfielder to Pittsburgh in exchange for outfielder Jeromy Burnitz and first baseman/outfielder Craig Wilson.

Steve Lombardi doesn’t like it.

Way to Go, Big Guy

A nice, solid outing for the Big Unit tonight, as the Yankees beat the defending World Champs, 6-5 (more on the game to come).

Here is what Joe Torre said about Johnson in Friday’s paper (from Steve Serby in the Post):

“He’s about as relaxed as I’ve seen him since he’s been here,” Torre said yesterday at his Safe At Home Foundation charity golf tournament at Trump National Golf Course in Briarcliff Manor. “I don’t think anybody really prepares themselves for what you have to deal with here. Especially guys that have been around, and they’re on their way to Cooperstown . . . ‘All right, I’ll just do what I do.’

“They don’t realize the questions they have to answer that they never had to answer in Phoenix or Seattle or wherever. And not taking anything away from those cities, but the enormity of the media here . . . I’d say over the last six years, that there’s no insignificant piece of news. Some throwaway stuff that may happen there, I think it takes time for these guys to understand that this is something they have to deal with, and I know last year, he was . . . I hate to use the word overwhelmed, because I know he won’t agree with me. But I think he was dealing with more than he ever thought he needed to.”

I asked Torre whether he has had to lower his expectations for The Big Unit (10-7, 5.13) over the second half.

“No, I really haven’t,” Torre said. “What I’ve seen in his swagger here, the anger that you see – when I say anger, determination, I guess, when he gets his feathers ruffled a little bit . . . guys foul some pitches off, it’s fun to see that. All of a sudden, OK, and all of a sudden, boom! There’s that 96. I don’t need 98 miles an hour. I’d say over the last half dozen starts, if we see that, we’re gonna be all right as far as his contribution.”

The Big Unit struck Jim Thome out three times tonight. Johnson was pumped up after the last one. RJ did not figure in the decision but he pitched well. Turned out to be a nail-biter in the ninth. Fortunately, the Bombers found a way to pull it out. They inch closer to the Red Sox, who got creamed by the A’s up in Boston.

The World Champion Chicago White Sox

The second half of the Yankees’ 2006 season kicks off with a bang tonight as the Yankees take on the defending World Champion Chicago White Sox at the Stadium. The White Sox are one of two American League teams the Yankees have yet to face this year (the other, the Mariners, comes to town on Monday), and one of two teams that stands between them and a playoff spot. The White Sox lead the Yankees by six games in the Wild Card race. That’s a much tougher row to hoe than the 2.5 game deficit the Yankees face in the AL East, but the Yanks and Chisox are actually far better matched than you might expect.

Although the reputations of their two pitching staffs differ significantly, both have been equally effective thus far this season, with the White Sox allowing 4.715 runs per game and the Yankees allowing 4.721 runs per game, putting the two teams in a virtual tie for the fourth-best run prevention in the American League. The same thing is true on defense. Despite their disparate reputations, the Yankees actually have a slightly higher defensive efficiency than the defending World Champs, with the two teams ranking third and fourth respectively in the American League.

Where these two teams differ is offense. Thanks to the acquisition of Jim Thome (.298/.414/.651, 30 HR, 77 RBI), a career year from Jermaine Dye (.318/.397/.646, 25 HR, 68 RBI), and a breakout season from 28-year-old Joe Crede (.294/.331/.512, 16 HR, 57 RBI), A.J. Pierzynski’s rediscovery of his 2003 form (.320/.365/.440), the usual contribution from the suddenly consistent Paul Konerko (.313/.384/.449, 21 HR, 67 RBI), and more of the same from Tadahito Iguchi (.287/.346/.429), the White Sox have the major league’s best offense, and one that’s powered by getting on base and hitting for extra bases.

That’s not to say that the Sox don’t have a couple of stiffs. Juan Uribe has 11 homers, but a Womackian .264 on-base percentage and has been losing occasional starts against righty pitching to Alex Cintron, who has just two bombs, but 56 more points of OBP. Rookie Brian Anderson, meanwhile, has more than replaced Aaron Rowand’s defense in center, posting a staggering 122 Rate, but is cruising down the interstate at .192/.280/.324, forcing his manager to sacrifice his glove for the bat of lefty-hitting utility man Rob Mackowiak (.309/.396/.407) against certain right handers.

The contrast between the Sox and the Yankees lends a great deal of support to the idea that what the Yankees most need is a big bat for right field. (A quick aside, today’s New York Post back page featured a big photo of Bobby Abreu along with a headline suggesting that the Mets and Yankees were both trying to deal for the Phillies’ right fielder. First of all, the Mets aren’t going to get a right fielder from a division rival when what they need most of all is starting pitching. Second, it reminded me of a similar Post back page from 2000 featuring Sammy Sosa. Sosa didn’t wind up going anywhere, and the Yankees made a brilliant and unexpected deal for David Justice. Seeing that Abreu headline, I began wondering who might be a similar high-profile, yet off-the-rumor-radar acquisition for the Yankees this year. It would have to be a veteran with a big contract looking to jump off a sinking ship for one last chance at a title. Preferably someone who’d been there before, maybe even had a ring of their own. The names that I came up with were Moises Alou and Luis Gonzalez. Remember, you heard it here first).

That said, any team willing to take a gander on Sidney Ponson is clearly in need of pitching. The Yankees are still fourth in the majors in runs scored, but with their sudden loss of faith in Shawn Chacon (which hasn’t been entirely undeserved, but still feels premature), they’re essentially without a fifth starter. Aaron Small’s glass slipper has shattered, Darrell Rasner might not return to action this year, Matt DeSalvo and Jeffrey Karstens crashed and burned in Columbus and were demoted to double-A, Ramiro Mendoza has been awful of late, Sean Henn spent most of the first half on the DL, Steven White is still finding himself in triple-A, and the Yankees’ fourth starter is Jaret Wright, who still hasn’t pitched out of the sixth inning (though after he struck out ten and walked none in his last start while allowing just four hits and throwing just 91 pitches and still got the hook after six, I became even more convinced that the Yankees have imposed that ceiling in an attempt to keep Wright healthy).

Think about this for a second: wouldn’t Jason Schmidt help this team more than Bobby Abreu?

At any rate, this weekend’s series with the World Champs is a big one. The Yankees need to make a dent in the Sox’s Wild Card lead and prove that they can hang with these big boys the way they did with the AL-best Tigers at the end of May. Tonight they’ll take their first stab at the Sox by taking on the undefeated Jose Contreras. Easily the Sox’s ace this year, Contreras has actually not been as consistent as his 9-0 record might lead you to believe. He’s the only Sox starter to have missed a turn, having spent 15 days on the DL with sciatica (the Sox as a whole have been alarmingly consistent, their opening day roster differing from today’s by just one man, reliever David Riske, and their current record falling just two games shy of their record at the same point a year ago). After being activated in late May, Contreras recorded three no-decisions, dodging the loss in a 12-8 defeat at the hands of the Indians who touched up El Titan de Bronze for six runs in five innings. In his last three starts in June, he gave up 15 runs in 17 2/3 innings and three of his last five starts have also been no decisions despite his receiving an average of eight runs of support over that span.

The Yankees will counter with Randy Johnson. Johnson was acquired prior to the 2005 season to be the difference maker and in a way, he has been. The Yankees won their division last year because of a late-season run that was lead by Johnson’s stellar performance down the stretch in which he won each of his final eight starts, posting a 1.93 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP and allowing just two home runs over 51 1/3 innings pitched. They then lost the ALDS in large part because Johnson spit the bit in Game 3. With the Yankees easily within striking distance of the playoffs coming out of the All-Star Break, it’s very likely that Johnson, who was maddeningly inconsistent during the first half, will make the difference yet again down the stretch.

The Yankees can guess at what they’ll get out of the other three permanent members of their rotation in the second half. Mussina will likely regress slightly from his strong first half, but will continue to turn in quality starts. Wright will continue to give the Yankees a solid five or six innings each time out with an occasional stinker, and Wang will continue to mature into an efficient and occasionally dominant innings eater. But Johnson’s a mystery. He was excellent in four of his last five starts during the first half (take off the eighth inning of his final start against the Indians when he was trying to save the bullpen with a nine-run lead and his line in those four outings was 27 1/3 IP, 15 H, 5 R, 1 HR, 2 BB, 27 K), but the exception was a miserable loss to the Mets in which he allowed eight earned runs (though he did strike out seven in six innings pitched). It could be that this is what Johnson is now, inconsistent, but if one side of Randy Johnson’s split personality takes over, he will take the team with him to glory or destruction. Tonight we’ll get our first indication of which direction he’s headed.

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This Just In . . .

Sidney Ponson is bad.

Ain’t Nothing like the Real Thing, Baby

Last night, Cliff and I met up after work for a bite to eat. On my way over to his office–”the ugly building with the rounded corners,” as Cliff calls it, or the building with the garish Frank Stella sculptures in the lobby, as I remember it–I see some girls getting ready for a softball game. On the east side of Hudson street between LeRoy and Clarkson streets is James J Walker Park, which has a fenced-in turf softball field. Beyond right-center field–and moving due east–are a series of handball courts, and behind that is the Carmine Street pool (which was where Martin Scorsese shot the pool sequence in “Raging Bull,” when DeNiro meets Cathy Moriarty). The Hudson River is not far off, and a gentle breeze helps cut through the summer haze.

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I Said, “Half-Full”

Here’s the New York Times’ second half-preview for our Bronx Bombers. And, following-up on something that Cliff mentioned in the comments section earlier this week, a human interest piece by Anthony McCarron about Johnny Damon overcoming his stuttering problem.

Tintin et Moi

Last night PBS ran a documentary on Herge, the legendary creator of the Tintin comics. He was a classic Belgian character–proper, tasteful, disciplined, droll and very Catholic. As a kid, the Tintin comics had an enormous impact on me. Though they were translated into English, Tintin never caught on in the States like he did elsewhere around the world. Herge is national treasure in Belgium; he’s very much their Walt Disney.

My mother is from Belgium, and we visited her family periodically when I was growing up. I vividly recall visiting my grandparents home–an old, stone farm house that was roughly thirty minutes outside of Brussels, and even closer to Waterloo–and reading all of the comics I could find. And there were plenty to have.

My grandparents home had amazingly steep staircases. I would stay in the attic room when I visited. It wasn’t a small room, but it was cozy, as the walls were slanted in a triangular shape. A drafting table was next to the staircase. A twin bed lay in the middle of the room, above it a moon window. A small sink was tucked into the corner, a large, old radio nearby, where I’d pick up a BBC station and listen to soap operas and crickett matches–anything to hear English! Lined on the floor next to the bed was a series of comic books (or dessins animés as they are called in French): fifty, sixty of them. They belonged to my mother and her siblings, leftover from their childhoods in the Belgian Congo. (The room was closed off from the other side of the attic space by a wall with a door–on the other side were crates and crates from my family’s days in Africa.) Jackpot.

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Business As Usual

Rangers shortstop Michael Young remembers last year’s All-Star Game in Detroit, when he was sitting in the dugout with Rivera next to him. A moment later, Gary Sheffield came up to Young.

“Sheff goes, ‘That’s a legend right there sitting next to you,’” Young said, “and Gary Sheffield is a potential Hall of Famer (yet) he’s the one who singles out Mo. Those are the kinds of things that stick out in your mind. … (Rivera) might be the most respected player in the league.”
(Daily News, 7/11/06)

Mariano Rivera: A Name You Can Trust.

I didn’t see much of the game, but I did see my boy Vlad’s dinger. Is there anyone else in the big leagues who could hit a pitch that high and hard for a homer? Maybe Piazza in his prime. Regardless, it was a classic Vlad shot. Also saw Mo in the ninth, putting heads to bed, as is his wont.

Briefly, Jon Heman examines the Bombers’ need for a starting pitcher, while Bill Madden talks about the Yankees’ possible interest in Phillies rightfielder Bobby Abreu:

In the Yankees’ only discussions with Gillick, the Phillies GM asked about top pitching prospect Philip Hughes, whom the Yankees will not include in any deal. But as the deadline draws closer and Gillick is unable to unload Burrell, the thinking is he’ll come down on Abreu’s price to at least get rid of his contract. In many ways, the lefthanded-hitting Abreu would be a perfect fit for the Yankees in that they could put him right into Gary Sheffield’s salary slot for next year.

The Yankees have also gotten a strong recommendation on Abreu from his former manager Larry Bowa, who believes the 32-year-old right fielder would thrive in a situation where he doesn’t have to be the top gun.

I’ve heard that fans in Philly think Abreu is a chump. I know the sabermetric crowd fawns over him. He’s expensive, but without seeing him on a regular basis, there is a lot to admire about his game. If the Yanks get Abreu, it’s curtains for Sheff. If Gillick steps off his asking price (Hughes), this is the kind of splashy move that might be hard for the Yanks to resist–George would be satisfied aquiring a big name, while Cashman and Stick get their kind of player (good defense, speed, high on-base percentage).

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