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.
Removing Wang was a questionable decision in and of itself given that he’d thrown just 81 pitches. Replacing him with Luis Vizcaino, who had pitched in each of the previous two games and in four of the previous five contests while allowing 11 base runners in just 3 1/3 innings, was downright irresponsible. Torre had Vizcaino intentionally walk Rocco Baldelli to set up the force and bring Brendan Harris to the plate. Vizcaino then fell behind Harris 2-0, battled to a full count, and gave up a screaming liner right at Miguel Cairo at short. Having dodged that bullet, Torre called on Mike Myers to retire Carl Crawford for the final out of the inning. Myers had made a one-batter appearance the night before, getting Crawford to pop out to third on two pitches. On this occasion, he battled Crawford to a 2-2 count then floated a pitch right over the plate, which Crawford deposited in the right-field seats for a game breaking grand slam.
The Yankees got one back in the eighth when Hideki Matsui singled home a leadoff walk to Bobby Abreu, but Shawn Camps’ sinker made Alex Rodriguez (who took his first 0-fer of the season) and Jason Giambi look silly in between.
In the ninth another regrettable Torre move came back to bite the Yankees. Derek Jeter had been pegged in the lower thigh by a Scott Kazmir in the first inning and was replaced by Miguel Cairo when the Yankees took the field. After Phelps had given the Yankees the lead in the seventh, Johnny Damon singled to put runners on first and second with Miguel Cairo due up. Despite the fact that there were two outs and Cairo is hitless on the season (in an admittedly and delightfully small number of opportunities), Torre pinch-ran for Phelps with Melky Cabrera. After Cairo flied out to strand Cabrera and Damon, Torre put Doug Mientkiewicz in for defense . . . in Damon’s spot. Removing Phelps’ bat from a one-run game was bad enough, but removing both Phelps and Damon (and Torre confirmed after the game that Damon’s nagging injuries played no part in his decision) was downright reckless. Indeed, when the ninth inning came around, the Yankees were down just two runs with Cabrera, Mientkiewicz, and Cairo due up second, third, and fourth. Cairo never even made it to the plate as the Yankees went down in order on a ground out by Cabrera and strikeouts of Robinson Cano and Mientkiewicz. Final score: 6-4 Devil Rays.
How quickly things can change. The Yankees left the Bronx last Thursday with an 8-6 record having just swept the Indians behind a trio of rookie starters. Five days later they’re coming home with an 8-11 record after going 0-5 on their road trip. If there’s a bright side it’s that Wang appears to be back in midseason form and should combine with Andy Pettitte to form a powerful 1-2 punch atop the rotation. What’s more, the Yankees didn’t lose any of those five games by more than two runs and scored 5.8 runs per game on the trip. Unfortunately, the bullpen, which had been a strength in the early going, is now a full-blown problem. Having been overtaxed (or, in the case of closer Mariano Rivera, underutilized) due to the poor showing of the rotation, the bullpen is in tatters and is directly responsible for three of the road trip’s five loses. Only the Florida Marlins have required more innings from their bullpen on a per-game basis. Much as it may seem like it would be little more than passing the problem back to rotation, it would behoove Joe Torre to be a bit slower in removing his starters until the pen appears to restabilize.
A few quick notes: Jeter was hit just above the left knee. He ran the bases, but didn’t take the field. He has a bruise, but expects to play tonight. Wang was also hit solidly on the thigh by a comebacker, but continued to pitch and showed no ill effects. Finally, Kevin Thompson was optioned down to make room for Wang on the 25-man roster. One wonders if there was any internal consideration of optioning Melky instead (Peter Abraham reports that Torre said there was not). Right now, I’d rather have Melky playing every day in Scranton and Thompson coming off the bench. After 17 consecutive starts, Cabrera is hitting just .197/.227/.197. Note the complete lack of extra base hits in 77 plate appearances. Kevin Thompson has two doubles in just 8 trips, and six of his eleven major league hits have gone for extra bases.