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Monthly Archives: April 2007

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Homer, Triple, Homer, Triple, Homer

Chien-Ming Wang is able to survive his alarmingly low strikeout rate by keeping his walks down and by inducing ground balls, the latter of which not only turn into outs with great frequency, but also rarely go for extra bases. Yesterday, Wang illustrated that formula for success by failing to execute it. Though none of Wang’s three walks came around to score, he did give up four runs in six innings because of the three extra-base hits he allowed. In the first, he gave up a solo home run to David Ortiz with two outs. In the third he gave up a leadoff triple to Coco Crisp that scored on a subsequent groundout by Alex Cora, and in the fifth, after hitting Crisp in the toe with one of his sinkers, he gave up another home run to Cora, the Red Sox’s surprise star of the game.

The Yankees countered the first two runs on an equally surprising three-run homer by Doug Mientkiewicz in the third, but Scott Proctor and Sean Henn combined to allow three more Boston runs (a Cora triple off Proctor in the seventh that was plated on a sac fly and a two-run Manny Ramirez homer off Henn in the eighth) before the Yankees were able to add their fourth tally on a Derek Jeter solo shot in the bottom of the eighth.

As it turns out, Wang was pitching with a broken nail on his pitching hand from the third inning on, thus the three walks, one hit batter, wild pitch (all of which came after the third inning), and unusual number of extra base knocks (Wang, who allowed just 12 homers all of last year hadn’t allowed two homers in a single game since June 28, 2005). The nail on Wang’s right index finger cracked in half perpendicular to his finger. According to Peter Abraham, Wang has reportedly fixed similar problems with glue in the past and says he will make his next start.

Despite not being on his game, Wang could have done worse. He gave the Yankees six innings and got 13 of his 18 outs on the ground (plus one K), but the nail effected his control, causing him to leave too many balls up in the zone. In addition to the two homers, both booming shots, and Crisp’s triple, Wang got two of his outs in the sixth on booming fly balls. Those shots, combined with a walk and wild pitch in that sixth frame, motivated Joe Torre to remove him after just 84 pitches.

At the plate, Alex Rodriguez went 2 for 4, including a one-out single in the sixth with the Yankees down 4-3 and Derek Jeter on base representing the tying run, but did not add to his homer or RBI totals. He thus finishes April tied with Albert Pujols for the most home runs ever in the month of April and second to Juan Gonzalez for the most RBIs ever in April. His final April line:

.355/.415/.882, 23 G, 27 R, 7 2B, 14 HR, 34 RBI, 23 K, 2 SB, 0 CS

Bobby Abreu broke an 0-for-19 slump with a single in the eighth inning.

On the injury front, Jeff Karstens was placed on the 15-day DL with a fractured right fibula, he’s expected to miss six-to-eight weeks. Colter Bean was recalled from Scranton to fill Karstens’ spot. Bean, who was a high school and college teammate of Josh Hancock’s, will likely return to the minors when Mike Mussina comes off the DL on Thursday. Johnny Damon will see a doctor about his aching back during today’s off day. Pavano threw 45 pitches in the bullpen, 20 of them from the top of the mound. He’ll throw again mid-week, but will remain on the DL for at least three weeks (which I read as “indefinitely”).

Final note from the Abraham post linked above: “The Yankees used five pitchers for the 10th straight game. That is the longest such streak in at least 50 years according to the Elias Sports Bureau.” The Karstens/Igawa game seems like a bit of a technicality there, but still, that about sums it up. One of these days, Joe Torre has to let his starter throw 110 pitches and let a single reliever finish the game regardless of the score. It’s every bit as important to break that streak as it was to snap the losing streak that ended on Saturday.

Gut Check

Julio Lugo lined Jeff Kartsen’s first pitch off the pitchers’ right leg yesterday bringing to mind the lyric, If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all. “You can’t print was going through my head and coming out of my mouth at the time that happened,” Yankee GM Brian Cashman said after the game (he also added, “0-7 feels like 0-14 in New York”). Kartsens threw five more pitches before giving up a single to Kevin Youkilis and was removed from the game. Turns out the kid has a fractured fibula.

So with no out and two runners on in the first, Kei Igawa entered to face David Ortiz. Not a promising site for the Yankees. But Igawa got Cookie Monster to hit into a double play and pitched into the seventh inning without allowing a run. Brian Bruney, Kyle Karnsworth and Mariano Rivera held the Sox to just one run the rest of the way as the Yanks pulled out tense, hard-earned 3-1 win. Bruney was excellent, Farnsworth not so much. He struck out Manny Ramirez looking, throwing nothing but sliders for strikes. Manny didn’t even take the bat off his shoulder. When is the last time you saw that? Coco Crisp was called out on strikes to end the eighth inning. He angrily threw his bat and helmet to the ground and was promptly tossed. Though home plate ump Bruce Froemming called wide strikes equally for both teams, it was hard to blame Crisp for being vexed. He didn’t have a chance to do anything with those “strikes.”

Jason Varitek got his third hit off of Mariano Rivera this season to start the ninth. But Rivera was helped out by a slick bare-handed play by Alex Rodriguez and held on for the save. After the game, Cliff e-mailed me, “Was that the tensest 9th inning you can remember in a long time or is it me?” He added that the win was “Huge in like 900 ways.”

Jorge Posada’s two-run homer proved to be the difference. If the Yanks can pull out a win today, it will be a huge relief for New York. If they lose, we’re back to fret-con-one.

Oy and Veh

The Yankee offense did a decent job against D. Matsuzaka for the second time in a week, but Boston’s bullpen was excellent and New York’s pitching was absolute horses*** as the Red Sox rolled 11-4. Andy Pettitte was lousy and, adding insult to injury, Mariano Rivera was even worse. That makes it seven losses in a row for the Yanks. I guess it can get worse.

I know Steinbrenner isn’t what he once was, but if this keeps up, would anyone really be suprised if heads roll?

The Red Sox: The Rematch

I know I said last week that I’d do a full breakdown in previewing this series, but frankly, I’m winded. While no one expected the Yankees to win more than on game in Boston last weekend, their being swept in a series that was actually more evenly matched than most anticipated was a bitter pill and their three loses this past week that have pushed their overall slide to six games has even the most optimistic Yankee fans shaking their heads.

The Yankees are languishing in last place with the third worst record in the AL and the fifth-worst in baseball, yet their Pythagorean winning percentage is .562. There are two reasons for that. The first is that the Yankee offense, despite being shut out for the first time all season last night, is still the most productive in baseball, scoring six runs per game. The second is that the Yankee bullpen, which looked like a major strength entering the season, has blown seven saves. Losing close and winning big, that’s how a team underperforms it’s Pythagorean, and that’s exactly what the Yankees have been doing. Only two of the Yankees’ 12 loses have been by more than two runs. Think about that. Eight times they’ve been a bloop and a blast away from tying or winning a game in their final at bat, but eventually lost (two of those close losses were walk-off jobs in Oakland) including five of their current six-game losing streak. On the flip side, three of their eight wins have come in their final at-bat (the two game winners by Alex Rodriguez and Giambi’s tie-breaker in extras in Oakland).

That’s exhausting baseball, and exhaustion is exactly the problem. The rotation was supposed to shape up before it shredded the bullpen. That didn’t happen. The offense is the best in the league but the best isn’t good enough to overcome the team’s pitching woes. Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte give the Yankees a powerful 1-2 punch atop the rotation, and both will face the Sox this weekend, but the Yankees have lost four of the five games those two have started because of the strain placed on the bullpen by the rest of the rotation. The pen appeared to get a reprieve with Wednesday night’s rain out, but having already soured on Japanese import Kei Igawa, who’s been pulled from the rotation, the team asked 20-year-old rookie phenom Phil Hughes to make his major league debut last night and thus needed another 4 2/3 innings from the bullpen. With the pen already exhausted, however, there was no one Joe Torre could turn to as a long man for mop up duty short of Igawa himself, so those 4 2/3 innings saw him burn through four of his seven relievers.

As a result the only fully rested relief arms for tonight’s game are Luis Vizcaino, Kyle Farnsworth and Mariano Rivera, who have been the team’s worst performers in the early going. Vizcaino was the pitcher most abused in the early going, but there’s reason for optimism with Farnsworth and Rivera. Rivera, of course, is Mariano Rivera, and pitched a scoreless inning on Monday, working around a hit to strike out two. Farnsworth, meanwhile, has turned in a scoreless frame in each of his last four outings, allowing just two hits and a walk over that span while striking out three (though three Ks in 4 IP is still a bit low for him).

In other good news, Wang looked like he was in midseason form in his debut on Tuesday, picking up the loss only because of the failures of the bullpen, and Hideki Matsui has also hit the ground running since being activated from the disabled list on Monday going 2 for 7 with a homer and five walks (.583 OBP). It may not seem like it, but the Yankees are a strong team than they were a week ago heading into Boston.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, were merely .500 on the week, dropping a pair at home to the Blue Jays by a combined score of 17-6, but beating the Orioles twice in Baltimore by a combined score of 11-3. The good news is that the Yankees will be facing the guys who pitched against Toronto (Tim Wakefield and Julian Tavarez), and not the ones who faced Baltimore (Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett).

Tonight, they get their second crack at Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Yanks touched Matsuzaka up for six runs in seven innings on Sunday, one of them coming on a Derek Jeter homer over the Green Monster. On the other hand, Matsuzaka struck out seven Yankees and walked just one. Meanwhile, Andy Pettitte excelled against the Sox a week ago tonight, holding them to two runs over 6 1/3 innings, but Andy’s peripherals were less impressive than Matsuzaka’s. I’m anticipating a pitchers’ duel tonight, which should simply add to the exhaustion factor for those of us watching the game, but could be a benefit to the Yankee bullpen.

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Welcome To The Big Leagues, Phil Hughes . . .

 

. . . you’re not in Trenton anymore.

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Deep Sixed

You can see why people are so high on Phil Hughes. He has a nice fastball–imagine that, a Yankee starter with the ability to throw a fastball past a hitter?!–a good curve and is unafraid to throw a change-up too (at one point early in the game he threw three straight change-ups). He fell behind too many hitters, and Alex Rios and Vernon Wells hit the ball hard off him in the first inning (Frank Thomas also connected for an RBI single; Hughes made a good pitch against him, fastball on the outside corner, but The Big Hurt showed why he’s a Hall of Fame hitter by slapping it into right). Hughes was just adequate last night, giving up four runs in less than five innings, but he’s certainly more promising than the likes of Kei Igawa, the Bombers’ new mop-up man in the bullpen.

“I certainly wasn’t disappointed,” Torre said. “I didn’t think he was out of his league, by any stretch of the imagination.”

…”The big thing I saw was even when he was down, he kept coming,” catcher Jorge Posada said. “That’s the sign of a good pitcher. I was really happy.”
(Tyler Kepner, N.Y. Times)

Unfortunately for the Yanks, Toronto’s answer to Nuke Laloosh, A.J. Burnett, was in fine form, pitching seven shut-out innings. The Bombers managed only four hits all night and lost their sixth straight game. Final score: Jays 6, Yanks 0.

How could Yankee fans be anything but glum watching the game last night? Oy and veh. The most exciting moment offensively came when Alex Rodriguez hit a ball to the warning track in dead center. It sounded great but came up just short. I did notice late in the game, both Johnny Damon and Alex Rodriguez smiling, so it doesn’t appear as if the players are too tight yet. After the game, however, Damon told reporters:

“There’s going to be panic soon, if the winning doesn’t start,” Johnny Damon said, although he quickly backtracked after realizing how that honesty came across. “We’re not panicking, but we need to get on track soon. It doesn’t matter who we get back on track with, we just need to start winning games sometime.”
(Peter Botte, N.Y. Daily News)

I think the Yanks will turn it around shortly. Surely, it can’t get much worse, can it? I’m more frustrated than panicked. It is dark and rainy in New York this morning with thundershowers in the forecast for much of the day. It is also supposed to rain tomorrow. I wonder how many games the Yanks and Sox will get in?

Making the Leap

 

Last July, Steven Goldman and I headed down to Trenton to see 20-year-old Phil Hughes start against the Akron Aeros. The above and below are two of a series of photos I snapped during that game. Hughes dominated the Aeros that night, striking out eight in four innings, but a long rain delay ended his evening there. With Hughes due to make his major league debut tonight after just three triple-A starts, I thought these photos would explain what my words might fail to sufficiently communicate. That is, quite simply, that regardless of a players skill level, it’s still a long way from double-A to the major leagues.

 

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Break It Down

Ballard’s piece on Bobby V isn’t the only reason to check out SI this week. Tom Verducci deconstructs Alex Rodriguez’s hitting. Verducci gets the skinny from the Yankees hitting coach, Kevin Long, who “identified three major flaw” with Rodriguez’s 2006 swing:

• Rodriguez would sometimes drag his back foot forward rather than leave it in place as he began his swing, which decreased his leverage.

• He would let his hands drift too far from his body during the swing, making it longer and “looser.”

• His front leg kick, a trigger mechanism, had become grossly exaggerated. Rodriguez would sometimes lift his left knee as high as his waist, then step toward the pitcher with that leg — a maneuver that would cause him to bring his front foot down late and violently, which created a tightness and imbalance in his swing.

“His leg kick was getting to a point where it wasn’t getting down on time,” Long says. “Your front foot has to land when the ball is about halfway to the plate. His was coming down much later than that. When that happens, you have to catch up a lot. You rush, and your body tends to drift [toward the pitcher].”

Long drastically cut the height of Rodriguez’s leg kick and virtually eliminated the stride, instructing him to simply move his left foot up and down, not toward the pitcher. Now Rodriguez’s left foot lands much softer and earlier, which gets him into a loaded, better-balanced position to hit. The changes also eliminated his drift and allowed him to keep his hands in tighter to his body, improving his core rotation. Think of a spinning figure skater: The closer the hands are to the body and the more stable the axis, the faster the skater spins. For Rodriguez, a faster, tighter spin has created better bat speed and power.

Rodriguez grooved his rebuilt swing through the winter to hit balls on a line into the back of the cage’s net, an approach that de-emphasized lift and the temptation to pull the ball. Whereas Rodriguez actually fretted last season about how many home runs he hit in batting practice, Long has encouraged Rodriguez to maintain his line-drive approach in batting practice this year. Indeed, A-Rod did not hit one batting practice home run on Friday at cozy Fenway Park.

Over at The Baseball Analysts, Jeff Albert has a great take on Rodriguez’s April, complete with images. Albert concludes:

While I am not so sure A-Rod will top 120 HR this season, I don’t feel that this is simply a hot streak. What we are seeing is a great player making great adjustments and setting himself up for a great year.

Our good pal Jay Jaffe also tackles Rodriguez’s hot start over at BP and The New York Sun.

Meanwhile, Jon Heyman has the latest on The Boss and the boys at River Ave. Blues tell us everything we need to know about Phillip Hughes (but were afraid to ask).

Bubby Magic

In the late 70s my father had a brief stint as a production manager for SNL. I remember him going to the Mets spring training camp (where they filmed the “Baseball been berry, berry good to me,” sketch). When he returned, I peppered him with questions about who his favorite players were and was disappointed when he answered, “Bobby Valentine.” Who? Bobby Valentine was a scrub. But years later, I understood perfectly well why Valentine appealed to my father. Bobby V is smart, articulate, charming, and just a tad egotistical (plus, he’s generally convinced that he’s Right about most things). Valentine has made it and he’s done it His way, my dad’s kind of guy. Even when I find him abrasive, I never really dislike Valentine, probably because he reminds me of my old man. And I just find him very amusing.

There is an entertaining (and lengthy) piece on Bobby V this week in SI by Chris Ballard. Check it out.

Hughes Debuts Tonight

Andy Pettitte was scheduled to pitch last night, but after the game was warshed-out, he’s being pushed to Friday, when Boston comes to town for a weekend series. Which means Phillip Hughes will start tonight as previously planned. After Chase Wright’s poor outing at Fenway last weekend, the Yankees are intent on keeping the pressure off Hughes, who’ll be plenty anxious anyhow, as he makes his big league debut (Cliff will be at the game tonight and hopefully will have some flicks for us to check out in the a.m.).

“I don’t know how he’s going to handle it,” catcher Jorge Posada said. “We all hope he is going to handle it well. He’s very smart. He understands what’s going on. The last two spring trainings he carried himself real well so we’re looking forward to it.”

…”I feel like I’ve really come a long way in just a few starts,” Hughes said, “especially that last start that I had went real well.”

That last start was against Syracuse, Toronto’s triple-A team. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said they’ll learn what they can from the Chiefs but they expect Hughes to pitch well.

“He’s thought very highly of,” Gibbons said. “Arguably, they say the best pitcher in the minor leagues. So we know he’ll be bringing it pretty good.”
Jay Cohen, Toronto Sun,

A.J. Burnett, who can be awfully tough to handle when he’s on will start for the Jays.

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The Toronto Blue Jays

I wrote a little something about the Blue Jays over on Fungoes while filling in on Alex’s AL East beat while he was off getting nuptualized. The crux of what I had to say was that the simultaneous injuries to B. J. Ryan and Troy Glaus are going to make it awfully hard for the Jays to compete because of the resulting thinness of their bullpen and lack of offense. Since that post went live on Monday, the Jays swept a quick two-game series in Boston by a combined score of 17-6 while the Yankees got swept by the same Devil Rays that I claimed Toronto and Baltimore had “fattened up” upon.

Heh.

The injuries just keep on coming for the Jays, however. The lastest to hit the DL is catcher and on-base machine Gregg Zaun, who was hit on the throwing hand last night by a foul off the bat of ex-teammate Eric Hinske. In a fantastic bit of irony, Zaun is being replaced on the Jays’ 25-man roster by ex-Yank Sal Fasano, who arrives accompanied by this gem from one-time Billy Beane disciple and current Jays GM J. P. Riccardi: “The nice thing is we’ve got Fasano to come up. Between him and [Jason] Phillips, we’ve got a veteran presence.”

Things are the same all over.

Tonight the Yankees send April pitching MVP Andy Pettitte (three quality starts plus two scoreless relief innings) to the hill against Josh Towers. The 30-year-old Towers had a solid season in 2005, but pitched his way off the Jays last year only to win the fifth starters spot out of camp this spring when free agent John Thomson hit the DL. Towers dominated the Tigers two starts ago, but has been roughed up by the Royals and Orioles in his other two outings.

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Get Your Phil of Hughes Puns

[Note: I wrote this post Tuesday afternoon. Since then I've heard a rumor that the Yankees played the Devil Rays, but I am dismissing it as mere hearsay. I suggest you do the same.]

Spring is a time of hope and renewal. And allergies, but never mind. It’s a gorgeous day, and I refuse to ruin it by dwelling on the state of the Yankees’ pitching over the course of the last few days. Er, weeks. Moving on! I’m not here, as they say, to talk about the past.
Let’s talk about the immediate future instead: an obscure, unheralded minor leaguer flying under everybody’s radar by the name of Phil Hughes. Hey, you know you weren’t going to talk about anything else today anyway.

I’ve been in the minority, I think, in that I wasn’t opposed to leaving Hughes in AAA Dunder-Mifflin a while longer; I thought it made sense to go carefully with him, and build up his innings, arm, and confidence — that was the Yanks’ original plan, and I can only assume they had their reasons for it. After all, it’s still only April, the guy can’t even drink legally (which certainly must have made it tough to watch these last few games), and he didn’t look quite ready for the bigs in spring training – though, for what it’s worth, Alex Rodriguez didn’t look quite ready to shatter every existing offensive record for the month of April, either. Regardless, when I heard Hughes was starting Thursday, it took me all of three seconds to decide to buy a ticket.

Normally when I go to the Stadium I sit in the bleachers, or the far reaches of the upper deck (don’t get me started on Yankee Stadium ticket prices). This time, though, I figured if I was going to be there, I might as well spring for a semi-decent seat. I imagine I’ll tell my children one day that I watched Phil Hughes’ very first major league start. I also imagine I’ll be telling them this by way of explaining why we don’t have the money to buy new shoes or turn the heat up, but what the hell.

I am a little worried. Expectations are stratospheric. I believe Hughes is the real deal, but many highly touted prospects never do make it in the majors, for reasons no one completely understands (although obviously one, two, or even twenty sub-par starts won’t mean that’s the case here). Expecting a guy in his first ever trip to the big leagues to not only pitch well, but also go deep, against a tough Toronto lineup, is asking a lot.

That said, I’m not particularly worried about his lack of AAA experience; it doesn’t seem to matter much, as demonstrated most recently by the performance this season of Mets reliever Joe Smith, who was in college less than a year ago and has yet to allow a run in 11 appearances. I also don’t see how making a few starts up here while the rotation scrapes itself off the DL would hurt his long-term health — my understanding is that it’s his season-long workload that’s the (potential) issue. Plus there’s the fact that the longer they wait to bring him up, the more the pressure will build. Maybe it’s best, after all, to get that first major-league start out of the way while it’s still early, before each game feels so freighted with importance, in a non-nationally televised contest with the Blue Jays (who, no matter how good they are in a given year, somehow just never manage to come across as legitimate rivals. Why is that? Give me your best cheap Canadian jokes).

So I’m psyched, but let’s try to stay realistic. It would be nice if Hughes could feed the whole stadium with just 20 kosher hot dogs and heal Carl Pavano with a laying-on of hands . . . but I’ll settle for six full innings.

Bonus Discussion Point: Let’s see if we can call the eventual Daily News/NY Post next-day headlines: Phil it Up? Hughes Your Daddy? The Post on Tuesday went with “Hughes Da Man For Rotation,” which strikes me as a bit of a stretch, while the Daily News disappointingly used merely “Panic!” instead of my dark horse pick, “Panic! At The Disco.”

The Say The Road Ain’t No Place To Start A Family

Chien-Ming Wang was his old self in his 2007 debut last night. Pitching into the seventh inning, Wang worked quickly, efficiently (81 pitches over 6 1/3 innings), and effectively, getting 12 groundouts to just four fly outs, striking out three and walking no one. His one rough inning had as much to do with bad bounces as bad pitches.

Carl Crawford led of the fourth with a single and a stolen base. Ty Wigginton then hit a chopper in front of the plate that bounced so high that even the plodding Wigginton had time to beat it out (though replays showed he was likely out at first). Crawford, who scampered to third on Wigginton’s chopper, scored on a groundout which also moved Wigginton to second. Carlos Peña then hit a clean single to left. Hideki Matsui’s throw beat Wigginton home by several steps, but again bounced off that hard surface in front of the plate and bounded over Jorge Posada’s glove to make it 2-1 Rays (the first Yankee run came on a tape-measure homer by Matsui leading off the second).

The Yankees took the lead in the top of the seventh after Matsui reached on a Scott Kazmir throwing error on an easy comebacker with one out. Jorge Posada doubled Matsui home and, after a Robinson Cano groundout, Josh Phelps came through with a huge two-out RBI single to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead.

Wang started the seventh by striking out Jonny Gomes, but then game up a single to Dioner Navarro and a double to B. J. Upton that put the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position with one out. The pitches to Navarro and Upton were high in the zone and that was all Joe Torre needed to see to take Wang out of the game with the top of the Rays’ order coming up.

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Stoked

The Yankees have the fourth-worst starters’ ERA in baseball (only the Rangers, Mariners and these Devil Rays have been worse, which gives you some idea how rough those teams have had it thus far). The Yankee starters are averaging just 4.87 innings per game, and opponents are smacking them around at a .301 clip. After 18 games, the Yankee have received just five quality starts, three of them from Andy Pettitte, one from the indefinitely disabled Carl Pavano, and the last from Kei Igawa, who was quite a bit short of quality last night.

There’s nothing this team needs more right now than a high-quality starting pitcher. Maybe something in a 19-game winner and Cy Young runner-up, ideally with a high pitch efficiency, possibly a pitch-to-contact groundballer of some type. Got anything like that? You do? Do you think he’d be available to pitch in Tampa tonight? You say he’s already there? Sweet! Just wait until the guys hear about this, they’ll be stoked!

Additional reason to be stoked (no, it has nothing to do with Brian Stokes . . . yet): The Devil Rays have placed Akinori Iwamura on the DL with an oblique strain and recalled Jorge Cantu, who failed to make the team out of camp and is hitting just .267/.317/.360 in triple-A. I don’t know how Joe Maddon plans to alter his lineup, but moving Ty Wigginton to third base, putting Carlos Peña at first, and moving B. J. Upton up in the order would make the most sense to me. Whatever he does, this is good news for the Yankees, as Iwamura has reached base nine times in 14 trips against the Yanks, scoring seven times. It’s a bummer for baseball fans in general, however, as Iwamura’s been one of the better stories of the young season.

I doubt the Yankees are shedding any tears. They’re too busy being stoked.

Yankee Panky #6: Yankees, Red Sox, and Halberstam

I had intended to follow up on last week’s poll with observations and details of the weekend’s coverage of the Yanks-Sox series, but the sudden death of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, historian, and author David Halberstam has rendered that idea moot. There will be plenty of opportunities to discuss Alex Rodriguez’s ridiculous video-game pace, the continuing wussification of Carl Pavano (Pavano told ESPN’s Rick Sutcliffe Monday that he was unsure if he’d pitch again this season – Pavano and the Yankees, despite there being a transcript of the interview, are denying the report and planning a throwing session Wednesday), the pantsing Yankee pitchers have received in the early going, and whether or not Dice-K is overrated.

Halberstam was killed in a car accident near Menlo Park, California, following a speech at UC Berkeley. He was 73.

In a strange, cosmic way, Halberstam’s death coming one day after the Yankees and Red Sox played their initial series of the season makes sense. He was a native New Yorker who grew up with Joe DiMaggio’s Yankees. He later became a Bostonian, graduating from Harvard and later residing in Nantucket as well as owning an apartment in New York City.

Furthermore, of the seven sports-specific books Halberstam completed – he published 20 non-fiction works in his career and was working on a book about the 1958 NFL Championship Game at the time of his death – the Yankees or the Red Sox were prominently featured in three. Summer of ’49, to me, is the definitive work about one of the most thrilling pennant races of all-time. The Teammates, which details Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, and Johnny Pesky’s trip to Florida to visit Ted Williams before his death, has much of the same biographical information as Summer of ’49, yet through the four Red Sox all-time greats, gives that pennant race a different sense of closure. Halberstam highlights the end of the Yankees’ dynasty some 40 years before Buster Olney in October 1964, chronicling that year’s seven-game World Series and the rise of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Many writers come to mind when thinking of the Yankees, the Red Sox, and their respective cities: Dick Young, Ring Lardner, Jimmy Cannon, Dave Anderson, Phil Pepe, Maury Allen, Bill Madden, Murray Chass, Mike Lupica (he was awesome once, and still can be when he wants to show he still has game), Leigh Montville, Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan, Dan Shaughnessy, Gordon Edes, and more recently, Tom Verducci, Sean McAdam, John Harper, and Joel Sherman. Halberstam, although he never covered baseball as a newspaper reporter, deserves mention among those names. His work didn’t become part of the vernacular or a convenient way to describe 86 years of ineptitude, but it is lasting, and will continue to last because of the historic figures he highlighted, and the way he portrayed them.

I got to meet Halberstam twice: the first time was eight years ago when I interned at the defunct ESPN show “Up Close”; the second was a year and a half ago when he appeared on “CenterStage.” He was tall, quiet, very much the stern, intellectual, professorial type. Yet, for someone so reserved and measured in his speech and gait, he had an energy that belied his demeanor. I spent maybe a total of two minutes with him over the course of those meetings, but I came away with one thought both times: He’s a man that commands respect when he walks into a room.

I didn’t intend to participate in the eulogy, although I unintentionally have in this space. This is a place of intelligent discourse, so why not pay homage to an intelligent man and a giant in the writing field? Halberstam, along with Dick Schaap, made it acceptable for newsies to be sportswriters. They had different styles, but were similarly effective and entertaining in their storytelling. They educated their readers.

With both of them gone now, there’s a great void.

Back to baseball next week, at which time A-Rod’s season totals will probably be in the range of a .400 average, 20 home runs, 50 RBIs, .475 OBP, and 1.500 OPS . . .

Blech

I have to admit, I missed the first six innings of last night’s game. Since getting a digital video recorder last August, I’ve watched very few games live, and I simply forgot to set the thing to record yesterday’s game. By the time I tuned in, the Devil Rays were up 7-6. Boy am I glad I forgot to set the DVR.

What I missed was Kei Igawa and Casey Fossum trying to out-awful each other. Fossum started the bidding with Alex Rodriguez’s 13th homer of the year, a solo shot to lead off the second. Igawa countered with a three-run shot by Rocco Baldelli in the bottom of the inning that made it 4-1 Rays (two walks and a single preceded the dinger). Fossum gave one of those runs back in the third (a Josh Phelps double plated by a Melky bunt and Jeter sac fly), one in the fourth (singles by Rodriguez and Giambi, sac fly by Matsui), and one in the fifth on a Robinson Cano solo homer.

Igawa gave up another run in the bottom of the fifth on a single by Delmon Young and a double by Akinori Iwamura, then got the hook after 97 pitches. Colter Bean came on and struck out Elijah Dukes, but let Iwamura score on a Josh Paul single before getting out of the inning.

Fossom followed Igawa out of the game in the top of the sixth after allowing another run on a double by Abreu and singles by Rodriguez and Giambi, then plunking Robinson Cano with two outs to load the bases. Gary Glover came on and walked Josh Phelps to force in a run before getting the final out.

That’s how it got to be 7-6 Devil Rays.

Brian Bruney and Luis Vizcaino combined to yield three more runs in the seventh, both yielding a walk and a double before Vizcaino recorded the first out of the inning, the big shot being B. J. Upton’s bases-clearing double off Vizcaino. After appearing in eight of the Yankees’ first 12 games and allowing just six base runners in those 8 1/3 innings, Vizcaino’s been terrible in three of his last four outings. Those splits are symptomatic of the way in which the rotation’s failures have wreaked havoc on the entire bullpen, which entered the season as one of the best in baseball.

Down four runs, the Yankees rallied in the eighth. After Juan Salas walked Giambi and Matsui, Brian Stokes came in and got Posada to foul out, but Robinson Cano singled to load the bases for Josh Phelps, who had doubled and walked in three trips. Except that Joe Torre sent Johnny Damon up to pinch-hit for Phelps against the right-handed Stokes. Sending Damon up wasn’t a bad move, but sending him up for Phelps rather than saving him to hit for the next batter, Melky Cabrera, was. Damon battled Stokes, but fouled out and Cabrera struck out on four pitches to leave the bases loaded.

Against Al Reyes in the ninth, Bobby Abreu drew a one-out walk and Alex Rodriguez delivered yet another home run to pull the Yanks within two, but Jason Giambi struck out and Hideki Matsui popped out to mercifully end the game.

The 10-6 loss to the Rays drops the Yankees to just a half game out of last place in the East. The Yanks have now lost four straight because their pitching staff has allowed an average of 7.75 runs per game over that span. This feels like rock bottom. Here’s hoping it is.

Chien-Ming Wang makes his first start of the season tonight. It’s not soon enough.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

The Devil Rays roster remains the same as it was on Opening Day, but the way Joe Maddon is using it has changed. To begin with, he’s switched Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford in the order, leading off Baldelli and putting Crawford in the three-spot. He’s also been working his four-man bench into the starting lineup with regularity, alternating Brendan Harris at shortstop with the struggling Ben Zobrist, starting Josh Paul behind the plate in two of the last four games in place of the scuffling Dioner Navarro, and setting up a rotation at DH that has allowed him to keep Baldelli and Ty Wigginton in the lineup on a daily basis while also working Elijah Dukes and Carlos Peña in at center field and first base respectively. Maddon will also use Wigginton at second base on occasion to give B. J. Upton a day off or at DH, and has also started Harris at third to give Akinori Iwamura a breather. As a result Jonny Gomes is last on the team in plate appearances, which is good news for the Yankees, though I must admit, I, like Alex, enjoy watching Gomes play.

Thus far Upton has been a world beater at the plate, but has committed five errors at second base. Iwamura has been the quiet surprise I anticipated. Peña has just six hits, but three of them are home runs. Paul is hitting for high average and getting on base, but has no extra-base knocks. Duke and Baldelli have both been struggling, and the team as a whole has been thrown out on 47 percent of its stolen base attempts.

The pitching, meanwhile, has been abysmal outside of the dominant performance of ex-Yankee and current closer Al Reyes. James Shields has been the team’s best starter thus far, but has also allowed six homers in four starts. Tonight’s starter, Casey Fossum, is the only other Ray with as many as two quality starts in the early going and, in fact, has piched very well after an opening week drubbing at the hands of the Blue Jays. In his last two starts against the Twins in Minnesota and the Orioles at home, Fossum has assembled this line:

14 IP, 11 H, 5 R, 1 HR, 1 BB, 6 K, 0.86 WHIP, 3.21 ERA, 1-0

The good news, of course, is that the Cherry Hill native will have to face a Yankee lineup that’s back at full strength. Hideki Matsui returns to left field tonight and is reportedly all the way back from the hamstring injury that place him on the DL during the frigid opening homestand. Joe Torre has said that Jorge Posada will be back in the lineup tonight. Jorge could return as the DH, pushing Jason Giambi into the field, but if he’s able to catch, the lefty Fossum will draw Josh Phelps at first base for a line-up that looks like it did on Opening Day

L – Johnny Damon (CF)
R – Derek Jeter (SS)
L – Bobby Abreu (RF)
R – Alex Rodriguez (3B)
L – Jason Giambi (DH)
L – Hideki Matsui (LF)
S – Jorge Posada (C)
L – Robinson Cano (2B)
R – Josh Phelps (1B)

Yum.

Kei Igawa takes the mound for the Yanks. He’s improved across the board in each of his last two starts (IP, K, ground ball rate up; H, R, HR, BB, fly ball rate, pitch total down). Here’s hoping that trend continues tonight.

By the way, Alex Rodriguez hasn’t gone more than two consecutive games without a home run this season. He homered twice on Friday night, but was kept in the park over the last two games in Boston. He has four career dingers off Fossum in 34 at-bats.

Update: Chase Wright was optioned back to double-A to make room for Matsui. That means Kevin Thompson’s still around, which suggests that Johnny Damon and his achy back may get the night off against the lefty Fossum on the Tampa turf (even if it’s fancy new turf). I would expect Darrell Rasner to be recalled to make Friday’s start against Matsuzaka at the Stadium.

Upupdate: Posada catches, Damon sits. Melky starts in center and leads off. Harris, Dukes and Paul start in the field for the Rays. Baldelli is the DH.

Upupandawaydate: Scratch Rasner. Phil Hughes makes his Yankee debut on Thursday against the Blue Jays. Karstens moves to Friday against Matsuzaka. More on Hughes after the game.

Observations From Cooperstown: Tracking Paul Blair

A recent YES Network article by sportswriter Phil Pepe, who ranked the greatest Yankees defensively at each position over the past half-century, has spurred an offshoot question resulting in some interesting internet debate. Who is the best defensive center fielder of the last 40 years? For me, there can only be one answer, and it’s been the same answer since he retired in 1980—Paul L D Blair. During the 1970s, this man was to catching fly balls what Alex Rodriguez is now to hitting two-out, game-ending home runs at Yankee Stadium.

Now before any San Francisco Giants fans call for the paddy wagon to be sent to Cooperstown, please remember that the question encompasses only the last 40 years. If we expand the question to 50 years (as Pepe did), then I would unquestionably vote for Willie Mays. But I limited the scan to 40 years because that approximates my life span, allowing me to select players based on what I have seen rather than merely relying on statistics. By the late sixties and early seventies, Mays had declined sufficiently to allow center fielders like Blair, Tommie Agee (he of the two great catches in the ’69 World Series), Ken Berry (the Gold Glover, not the actor), Curt Flood (his glove was nearly as pioneering as his labor efforts), and Cesar Geronimo (who had a booming right fielder’s arm) to creep into the argument.

Originally signed by the New York Mets in 1961, Paul Blair began his professional career as a middle infielder. He was incredibly nimble and quick, with enough arm to play shortstop in the minor leagues, but some scouts considered him too small to handle the wear and tear of the middle infield. After their inaugural major league season, the Mets left him unprotected in the 1962 first-year draft. The Orioles swooped in, eventually making the prudent decision to switch him from shortstop to the outfield.

Blair was a bit past his prime by the time he joined the Yankees in 1977 (still very good, though a step slower), but during his Baltimore Orioles heyday he established himself as the absolute standard bearer among center fielders. He played incredibly shallow, allowing him to catch almost any kind of short bloop, yet rarely let a ball get over his head for extra bases. He also had a good throwing arm, strong enough to play right field, which he often did as Reggie Jackson’s caddy in the late 1970s. With his shallow and proper positioning, his flawless jumps, and his oceanic like range, Blair simply had no weakness defensively. I can’t think of a center fielder who was better from the late sixties on, and that includes not only the older group of center fielders mentioned above, but more recent players like Garry Maddox, Gary Pettis, and Devon White, and the contemporary class of Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds.

As much joy as Blair brought to those who appreciated the artistry of brilliant defensive play, he brings other desirable qualities to those who enjoy the game’s history. Blair loves to talk—he wasn’t called "Motormouth" for reasons of irony—and has plenty of opinions on baseball past and present. Last year, Blair visited Cooperstown, ably entertaining fans who had gathered in the Hall of Fame’s Bullpen Theater to hear some Hot Stove League banter. Although he played for the Yankees for only four seasons, Blair could write several chapters and multiple verses about his experiences with the Bronx Zoo. The topic of Reggie Jackson, the man whom he often replaced in the late innings, provided a good starting point to the conversation. "The only trouble that Reggie had," Blair informed the Cooperstown crowd, "was before and after games. Not during the games." (Well, with the exception of one infamous Saturday afternoon in Boston during the 1977 season. On that play, Blair defended Billy Martin’s decision to pull Reggie from the game in mid-inning. "You don’t hustle, you don’t play. Billy would have done it with other players.) As Reggie stirred the pot, Blair tried to keep the contents under the lid. "I really became the ambassador and tried to keep peace. If I hadn’t been there, Reggie would have been in fights every day." With other strong personalities like Thurman Munson and Mickey Rivers ready to butt heads with Jackson, well-liked peacemakers like Blair and Fran Healy served an important role as clubhouse coolers.

Temperamental players like Jackson weren’t the only ones who kept Blair on guard; there was a certain manager who had mood swings that would have made a psychiatrist twitch. And while Blair liked the idea of playing for Billy Martin after asking to be traded away from Baltimore, he recognized that his new manager in New York had a full share of quirks. "Billy held grudges," Blair said without hesitation. "If you were in his doghouse, you might as well forget it." Fortunately, Blair managed to remain on Martin’s good side, in large part because of his upbeat personality and willingness to play the unheralded role of outfield caddy.

While Martin and Jackson had a dark side, Blair had nothing but praise for Yankee captain Thurman Munson, whom he likened to one of his most respected teammates in Baltimore. "You have to put Munson in the category of a Frank Robinson," said Blair, recalling his onetime outfield mate with the Orioles. "Thurman was fiery, a leader. Thurman was also a special talent." And much like Blair, Munson was one of those players who could not be fully appreciated unless he was seen on a day-to-day basis, with fans bearing full witness to his extraordinary catching skills and deft baserunning prowess.

In listening to Blair talk so passionately about most subjects, especially fielding and baserunning, I’m saddened that he isn’t working for some major league team in a meaningful capacity. Simply put, someone should hire Blair as an outfield/baserunning coach. He knows a great deal about both subjects and is a good communicator (again justifying the nickname of Motormouth). But Blair himself knows why he isn’t working for a major league team. He’s all too willing to challenge players who don’t play the game properly, confronting them face-to-face, and he doesn’t think that will fly with most organizations. It’s shameful that there is no longer a place in baseball for such honesty—brutal honesty—that is intended to instruct players and reduce the frequency of future mistakes.

Not surprisingly, the outspoken Blair is not a big fan of the way that the outfield is played today. On the one hand, he says that Andruw Jones reminds him of the way he used to play, but also feels that Jones makes far too many fundamental mistakes. If Blair were to work with the Braves, the expletives would fly throughout the outfield at Turner Field.

On a larger scale, Blair thinks that most contemporary outfielders play way too deep (not just center fielders), not only preventing them from making the short catch but also hurting their chances at throwing out runners at the plate. And if you’re like me, and you had the privilege of watching Blair play the outfield the way that he did, you might agree that he’s absolutely right.

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

I must say, I think the Yankees acquitted themselves rather well this weekend. Facing the Red Sox three best starters, the offense scored at least five runs in each game and, save for the eighth inning on Friday and Scott Proctor’s outing last night, the bullpen shut the Red Sox out over 9 1/3 innings. Unfortunately, that eighth inning on Friday and Proctor’s outing last night led directly to two of three loses in a weekend sweep that will loom large as the AL East race heats up toward the latter part of the season.

The Yankees got out to an early 2-0 lead on Daisuke Matsuzaka in the top of the first on a two-out Jason Giambi double and added a third run in the third when Giambi singled home Johnny Damon, again with two outs. Chase Wright, meanwhile, stranded two runners in each of his first two frames, then started the third by getting Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz to fly out. Then Manny Ramirez homered. Then J. D. Drew homered. Then Mike Lowell homered. Then Jason Varitek homered.

(more…)

The Matsuzaka Effect

Daisuke Matsuzaka’s line over his first three starts:

20 IP, 17 H, 6 R, 1 HR, 5 BB, 24 K, 1.10 WHIP, 2.70 ERA, 1-2

The combined line of the opposing starting pitchers in Matsuzaka’s first three starts:

22 2/3 IP, 15 H, 3 R, 1 HR, 3 BB, 16 K, 0.79 WHIP, 0.79 ERA, 2-1

At first it seemed as though this trend was the result of Matsuzaka starting against two of the best young pitchers in the league, but last time out his opponent was Mr. Gustavo Chacin, who bosts a 5.32 ERA on the season inclusive of the game in which he outdueled Matsuzaka. Tonight, Matsuzaka starts against Chase Wright, who will be making just his second major league start and just his fourth career start above A-ball. Here’s hoping the Matsuzaka effect is for real.

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