"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Too Little Too Late

Does that headline apply to last night’s 7-5 Yankee loss to the Orioles in which the Yankees rallied for four runs in the ninth only to have Bobby Abreu strikeout to end the game while representing the tying run, or to the Yankees’ season itself? You tell me.

The Yankees got exactly one man on base against Brian Burres in each of the first six innings last night. Twice that runner was erased by a double play. Twice he stole second base. Once he was thrown out stealing. In none of those six innings was he advanced by another batter, and none of those six runners came around to score. The Yanks finally broke through when Hideki Matsui led off the seventh with a solo home run. Jorge Posada followed that homer with a single, driving Burres from the game, but despite a subsequent walk, the Yankees were unable to do further damage against reliever John Parrish.

For his part, Roger Clemens had a rough first inning, allowing two runs on a walk and a pair of doubles and throwing 31 pitches. He pitched out of another jam in the second, but another 19 pitches put him at 50 after just two frames. Clemens set the O’s down 1-2-3 in the third, but it was the only time he was able to do so all night. The O’s scratched out a third run in the fifth on a lead-off walk to Brian Roberts, a sac bunt, a steal of third, and an RBI single.

Despite having thrown 110 pitches, Clemens came out for the seventh, but when Roberts delivered a one-out single on Rocket’s 113th pitch, Joe Torre brought in Mike Myers to face Corey Patterson. Patterson singled to put runners on the corners, then stole second uncontested when the Yankee infield came in to cut off the run. Myers got Nick Markakis swinging for the second out and Torre called on set-up ace Luis Vizcaino, but Vizcaino walked Kevin Millar on five pitches to load the bases then gave up a bloop single to right by Miguel Tejada to plate two more runs, running the score to 5-1 O’s.

In the eighth, Danys Baez got Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, and Alex Rodriguez on eight pitches and the O’s tacked two more on against Brian Bruney and Ron Villone to make it 7-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth.

With a six-run lead, Dave Trembley turned to the bottom man in his pen, Cory Doyne. Doyne got ahead of Hideki Matsui 0-2, fell back to 2-2, then got Matsui to ground to second. Only the ball was a slow, bounding, three hopper close to the bag and Matsui was able to beat Brian Roberts’ throw at first base by a half step. Then this happened:

Posada home run
Cano double
Phillips single
Cabrera single, Cano scores

With the score 7-4 Yankees, Trembley pulled Doyne and brought in lefty Jamie Walker to face Johnny Damon. With two men on base, I wondered about the wisdom of going for broke by pinch-hitting Shelley Duncan for Damon against the lefty Walker. The thought being that the righty slugger Ducan could run into a pitch and tie the game, while Damon, being a lefty, was more likely to roll over on one and hit into a rally-killing double play. The other side of that being that Damon had hit .355/.412/.516 over the previous seven games and, with no outs, Damon’s on-base abilities were more likely to keep the line moving and bring the team’s big hitters to the plate. Torre, smartly, elected to stay with Damon. What I didn’t know at the time, but Torre did, was that Damon had hit into only one double play all season prior to that at-bat, but that DP had come in the third inning of this very game. Damon rewarded Torre’s informed decision by grounding into his second double play of the 2007 season. Undeterred, Derek Jeter singled to plate Phillips, bringing Bobby Abreu to the plate as the tying run.

With Alex Rodriguez, still looking for his 500th career home run, lurking on-deck, Abreu took a slider on the outside corner for strike one as Jeter took second base on defensive indifference. Abreu then took another slider well outside for ball one, and a fastball that looked a bit outside for strike two. With catcher Ramon Hernandez bouncing around to prevent Jeter from relaying location from second base, Walker threw a slider in the dirt to make it 2-2. Abreu then fouled off a slider and a fastball (both of which were in the strike zone), and took another slider low and away to run the count full. Seven pitches into the at-bat, Walker had thrown five sliders and two fastballs, all had been belt-high or lower, all had been away, and all but the last fastball had been on the outside corner or outside the strike zone. Walker’s last pitch started out headed for Abreu’s ribs. Bobby had seen it often enough to recognize it: the slider again. This one was higher and a bit further over the plate than the others. Abreu paused to avoid swinging early at the 73-mile-per-hour pitch, then let loose.

Watching the replay, I still can’t figure out how he missed it. The pitch was high in the zone. Al Leiter, broadcasting for YES, said it was too high for Abreu to reach, but it was letter-high at most and the replays show that he swung on the right plane. If anything it looks like he swung too early despite the extra pause. In either case, the pitch was likely ball four. Having come up empty, Abreu stared back at the ball in Hernandez’s glove in shock, then let out a yell of frustration and realization before staggering back to the dugout in a daze behind Rodriguez, who was left on deck.

Will a similar scene be played out on a larger scale in September? With the Yankees having now dropped the weekend series to the Orioles, breaking serve for the first time in the second half (if you’ll allow the cross-sports metaphor), let’s do some calculations.

The Yankees are now 55-49. They are nine games behind Boston (who won last night) in the AL East, and five games behind Cleveland (who lost) in third place in the Wild Card race (thanks to Friday’s completion of the suspended game, their games behind in the standings and games behind in the loss column are now in synch). Thus far in the second half, the Yankees have gone 13-6 (.684) (including that suspended game, which was not added to their record until it was completed on Friday) against their cupcake opponents. If the Yankees can arrest their current three-game losing streak to continue to play .684 ball against the cupcakes (O’s, Chisox, D-Rays, KC, Jays), and go 12-11 against their tougher opponents (Tribe, Tigers, Halos, Bosox, M’s) per my previous calculations, they’ll finish the season with 91 wins. At their current winning percentage, Cleveland would finish the season with at least 93 wins. There’s still hope for the Wild Card, but there’s no room for error. The Yankees have to compensate for their current slump with a sweep against someone else, and they have to do better than 12-11 against the big boys (preferably beginning by winning their three-game series in Cleveland) if they want to make the postseason. The Red Sox, who are on pace for at least 99 wins, are likely out of reach. The Mariners (on pace for a max of 89 wins and having lost 7 of their last 9) are of little concern.

Chien-Ming Wang needs to be the stopper this afternoon, and the offense needs to build on its ninth-inning rally. If this team gets any deeper into its sudden funk, it’s over, both the season and the franchise’s 12-year streak of reaching the postseason.

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