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Monthly Archives: August 2007

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Tampa Bay Devil Rays

The Boston Red Sox are the best team in baseball, and the Yankees just swept them in a series in which the Sox threw their three best starting pitchers. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are the worst team in baseball and the Yankees took six of eight from them after the All-Star break. This weekend the Yankees will once again miss not only Scott Kazmir, but James Shields as as well. Can you say extended winning streak?

The catch, of course, is that the Yankees will have Ian Kennedy making his major league debut on Saturday. Kennedy’s tremendously talented, but so is Phil Hughes, and he’s been experiencing some growing pains thus far this season despite the fact that, as a man in his third full professional season and with seven major league starts under his belt, he’s a veteran compared to first-year pro Kennedy. Hughes, who starts tonight, has just two quality starts in those seven major league outings and is coming off a pair of similarly frustrating outings in which he allowed just eight hits in 12 1/3 innings and struck out ten, but also allowed ten runs due to five walks in the first game and three homers in the latter.

Opposing Hughes will be Andrew Sonnanstine, who, as a fourth-year pro with 16 major league starts under his belt, is of similar vintage to Hughes (though, as a Kent State product, he’s three years older). Sonnanstine’s only career start against the Yankees was his first following the All-Star break. He allowed five runs on a walk and nine hits, including homers by Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui, in 6 1/3 innings in that game and hasn’t been much better since, posting a 7.28 second-half ERA despite allowing just three more homers in his last eight starts and posting a solid 2.49 BB/9. The Yankees swept the Red Sox on the strength of their pitching. There’s no reason they can’t sweep the Devil Rays by preying on their pitching, just as they did the last time the Rays came to town and the Yankees scored 45 runs in the process of winning the final three games of that four-game set (the loser in game one, incidentally, was Mike Mussina).

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Pastime Passings for July and August

Baseball has lost some good people during the middle of the summer, including a pinstriped icon and a onetime Yankee from the late 1960s. With details of those deaths, along with some other baseball losses, here is the latest edition of Pastime Passings.

Phil Rizzuto: (Died on August 13 in West Orange, New Jersey; age 89; pneumonia and effects of Alzheimer’s disease): Considered one of the lynchpins to Yankee success throughout the 1940s and fifties, Rizzuto helped New York to seven World Series wins—in 1941, ’47, and ’49, and from 1950 to 1953. Regarded as a slick fielding shortstop and a top-flight bunter, the five-time All-Star provided both stability to the middle infield and to the top of the Yankee batting order. In 1950, Rizzuto batted .324 and drew 92 walks to earn American League MVP honors. After his playing days, "The Scooter" became a Yankee institution as a broadcaster. Anchoring WPIX, cable, and radio broadcasts for 40 years, the colorful and charismatic Rizzuto emerged as the centerpiece to television and radio coverage of the Yankees, replete with trademark catch phrases like "Huckleberry" and "Holy Cow!" In 1994, Rizzuto earned baseball’s ultimate honor—after being passed over 26 times—when he was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Commentary: Phil Rizzuto broke almost all of the rules of broadcasting. He often failed to follow the play, botched home run calls, interspersed his broadcasts with "Happy Birthdays" and personal notes, and sometimes even failed to take note that a no-hitter was in progress. Yet, none of that mattered. "The Scooter" was so personable, so charming, so completely entertaining that most Yankee fans loved listening to him, regardless of whether the Yankees were winning, tied, or being blown out.

There were also times that Rizzuto could be say, shall we say, somewhat risqué on the air. For example, during the 1969 season, the Yankees made one of their first trips into Seattle’s Sicks Stadium to play the expansion Pilots. (Rizzuto, by the way, hated Sicks Stadium, in part because it required climbing a ladder to reach the broadcast booth.) While on the air, Rizzuto made mention of the fact that his Seattle hotel room had only rounded walls. "There will be no cornering of Cora tonight," Rizzuto exclaimed, referring to his longtime wife. Perhaps the Scooter thought no one was listening since it was so late on the East Coast.

Steve Lombardi of waswatching.com recalls another one of Rizzuto’s less than politically correct moments. Late in the 1975 season, Rizzuto was announcing a game on the radio with longtime broadcast partner Bill White. Noting that the fans at Yankee Stadium had started to cheer loudly, Rizzuto announced that Bobby Bonds was coming into the game as a pinch-hitter. White then corrected him, saying that the pinch-hitter was actually Rich Coggins, who like Bonds was African-American, but wore No. 26, as opposed to Bonds’ No. 25. Rizzuto then tried to defend his error. "Well, you know, they all look alike to me," said Rizzuto, drawing loud laughs from White, also an African American. Only someone as well liked as Rizzuto could get away with such a statement on live radio.

Because of The Scooter, Yankee broadcasts in the seventies and eighties transcended sports; they became a mix of situation comedy, talk show, and baseball. Thanks, Rizzuto.

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Series Wrap: v. Red Sox

Offense: The Yankees only scored 4.67 runs per game, but that’s actually excellent considering the fact that the Sox have allowed just 3.63 runs per game since the All-Star break. Not only that, they did it against the Sox’s three best starters, beating Matsuzaka and Beckett, and tagging one of the league’s best relievers in Hideki Okajima in the finale.

Studs:

Derek Jeter 7 for 11, 2B, HR, RBI, 2 R, BB
Melky Cabrera 4 for 8, RBI, R, BB, SacB, CS
Robinson Cano 3 for 10, 3B, 2 HR, 2 RBI, 3 R, BB
Johnny Damon 3 for 13, HR, 4 RBI, 2 R

Duds:

Bobby Abreu 2 for 11, 2B, RBI, 2 R, BB, 2 K
Jason Giambi 1 for 6, K
Andy Phillips 1 for 5, K

Wilson Betemit went 0 for 1 with a K and a run scored as a pinch-runner after entering the opener in the seventh inning. Jose Molina and Shelley Duncan did not play in the series.

Rotation: Outstanding. Pettitte came up huge with seven strong innings in the opener, limiting the Sox to six leadoff hits (though two were homers and a third was a triple, which also scored) and a pair of walks while striking out six. Clemens then no-hit the Sox for 5 1/3 innings before allowing his only run (and one of only two hits) in six innings on a David Ortiz homer. Chien-Ming Wang then no-hit the Sox for six innings and shut them out for seven on a single hit while striking out five. Sure, Clemens and Wang walked a combined nine men in 13 innings, but I’ll take nine walks and three hits in 13 innings any time. The last time the Yankee starter earned the win in three consecutive games? Pettitte, Clemens, and Wang against the Tigers two weekends ago. On both occasions the Yankees allowed just six runs total across the three games.

Bullpen: Well, Kyle Farnsworth turned back into Farmaduke, but otherwise, excellent, which is how it tends to go when the starters are strong and the lesser arms in the pen aren’t required. Remember in my series preview when I said, “If Torre needs Britton tonight, something’s likely gone wrong?” Well nothing went wrong. Though here’s hoping Britton and Brian Bruney get some work in against the D-Rays this weekend, but not because things have gone wrong. The good news on Bruney, by the way, is with rosters expanding tomorrow, he’s here to stay. I just hope Torre gives him the opportunity to succeed or fail legitimately.

The Good:

Mo pitched 2 1/3 perfect innings and struck out two to pick up saves in the first two games. His four-out save in a one-run game in game two was huge, even if he did face the turnaround of the Boston order. Those four outs took him 14 pitches, 11 of which were strikes. Joba Chamberlain actually allowed four baserunners and struck out just two in his 2 1/3 innings, but one of those baserunners was the walk of Youkilis after he got tossed in the finale, and he still hasn’t allowed a run in 11 1/3 major league innings. Edwar Ramirez threw that ball four to Youkilis as well as a pair of wild pitches, but struck out the hot-hitting Mike Lowell and stranded Youkilis at third to wrap up the shutout in the finale. Luis Vizcaino walked one and struck out one in a scoreless inning in the middle game to the delight of Roger Clemens.

The Bad:

Farmaduke faced five batters in relief of Vizcaino, one struck out, one walked, one singled, one homered. Fortunately the walk came after the homer. Still, he nearly blew the middle game and didn’t even finish his inning, necessitating that four-out save from Mo.

Conclusion: The Yankees quite simply played great baseball over the last three games and swept the best team in the majors as a result. I don’t know what more there is to say. As a special bonus, they are now a game up in the Wild Card race and tied in the loss column with the Mariners, who were swept by the Angels and have lost six straight.

Read ‘Em and Sweep

The Yankees shut-out the Red Sox this afternoon, 5-0, completing a timely three-game sweep. New York now trails Boston by five games, and this one got contentious before all was said and done. Chien-Ming Wang took a no-hitter into the seventh inning (thanks, in part to three stellar fielding plays by Jason Giambi), and out-dueled Curt Schilling, who was excellent for Boston. Robinson Cano drilled two solo dingers off Schilling, both to left center field, the only runs allowed by Boston’s starting pitcher.

After Kevin Youkilis reached on a throwing error by Derek Jeter to start the seventh inning, Mike Lowell slapped a single to right for Boston’s first hit of the game. J.D. Drew followed and hit a ground ball to Alex Rodriguez, who lunged to tag Youkilis, before throwing on to first. Drew was called out at first on a close play as Youkilis and Lowell advanced. Rodriguez had missed the tag but soon he, and manager Joe Torre, were arguing that Youkilis had run out of the baseline. (It didn’t look as if he was that far out of the baseline when he passed Rodriguez, but his momentum carried him onto the infield grass a few steps later.) The umpires huddled and the call was overturned. Terry Francona, already having a tough day, came out, argued, and was run from the game.

I was watching the game with a friend who said, “Youkilis got himself out because he looks so awkward.” Wang struck out Jason Varitek, got out of the jam, his day complete.

Joba Chamberlain did not allow a run in the eighth but didn’t look particularly sharp. He could not control the slider. Still, after the Yankees scored three times in the bottom of the inning—two runs scoring on an errand throw by Varitek—Chamberlain, rules be damned, was still pitching. He retired David Ortiz on a fly out and then buzzed two consecutive pitches up and over Youkilis’ head. There was no warning from the umps. Instead, Chamberlain was thrown out of the game. The Red Sox players, notably, Josh Beckett, hollered at Chamberlain as the rookie pitcher walked off the field. “If that young man was trying to get our attention,” Francona said later, “he did a good job of it.”

Edwar Ramirez replaced him and got the final two outs to preserve the shutout.

After the game, Youkilis told reporters:

“You know, two balls going over somebody’s head at 98 mph, I don’t know. I didn’t see any other pitches going that far out of the strike zone. Those balls were pretty close to the head. There were a couple of nods here and there. Who knows what it really meant? Ask him what his intent was. He’s going to probably tell you he didn’t mean to throw those. It’s one of those things where only one person, or maybe a couple people on their team know.

“That’s the second time. Scott Proctor hit me in the head. Coincidence? I don’t know. It doesn’t look good. When two balls go at your head and the guy has a zero ERA and is around the strike zone pretty good, any man is going to think there’s intent to hit him in the head.”

So, the Red Sox are angry about the Youkilis call in the seventh, about Chamberlain throwing at him in the ninth, and most importantly, about getting swept. Boston still has a healthy five game lead, but there is sure to be more theatrics, posturing and general huffing and puffing the next time these two teams meet in Boston in a couple of weeks. (What a cheery thought.) Welcome to the Rivalry, Mr. Chamberlain.

In the meantime, it was the best possible outcome for the Yankees. They defeated Boston’s three best pitchers and swept a series that needed to be swept. Now, here’s hoping they don’t lose site of things this weekend against the Devil Rays.

UpdateThe Mariners rallied to tie the Indians in the top of the 9th but lost the game when Rick White issued a bases loaded walk to Kenny Lofton with two men out in the bottom of the inning. The Yanks are now alone in first place for the wildcard, tied with Seattle in the loss column.

Ah Shaddapa You Face

I’m up in Vermont this week, hanging at Em’s folks’ place. It is gorgeous up here, even though it’s been hot during the day. Em’s old man is some kind of gardener, and there is nothing like walking barefoot through the grass, onto the dirt of his garden, and picking fresh tomatoes and basil for a salad.

I don’t know that I could live up here–it’s just too country for me. But the air is clear and crisp, and the open spaces are beautiful. Clean-living, friend, clean living.

So yesterday, I had to stop in at a local supermarket to pick up a few things. I’m wearing a navy-blue t-shirt with a Yankee logo (and Hernandez, 26 on the back). I didn’t walk two feet into the place when a woman in the produce section looks at me and goes, “Ewww, boo-booo.” She drops her melon and makes the sign of a cross with her two fingers and then goes on to mumble something about the Yankees beating the Red Sox on Tuesday night.

“Try and keep it together,” I said cheerfully. “You can get through this, be strong.” It wasn’t so much being booed by a Red Sox fan that got me–heck that’s okay by me. It’s the fact that this lady was dumb enough not to know the standings. Sox got a seven-game lead (now six), lady, stifle, will ya, hah?

Anyhow, the Yanks and Sox finish their three-game series at the Stadium this afternoon. Should be plenty hot as Curt Schilling goes up against Chien-Ming Wang. With the Mariners coming into town for a critical three-game set starting Labor Day, the Yanks can’t fall asleep in this final game, and especially this weekend against the Devil Rays.

But first things first.

Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

Yanks Beat Sox, Tie M’s for Wildcard Lead

Texas Two-Step

Roger Clemens did not have his famous out-pitch, the split-finger fastball, working tonight. He did not have good control in general, issuing five walks in six innings. His face looked heavy and drawn. You could see him willing his old body through it tonight. How many more innings does he have left with all the wear-and-tear he’s endured through the years? Regardless, in a case of substance over style, Clemens did not allow a hit through the first five innings (he also did not have to deal with Manny Ramirez who sat out with an oblique injury). David Ortiz deposited a flat-splitter high into the upper deck for Boston’s first hit in the sixth.

Josh Beckett, on the other hand, was tougher than his numbers suggest. He used a sharp curve ball to record five of his six strikeouts, and looked decent, despite giving up a career-high thirteen hits. The Yankees scored three runs with two men out in the second—dinky, ground ball, RBI hits by Melky Cabrera and Johnny Damon, but otherwise found themselves stymied by Beckett, who got big outs when he needed them most. The Bombers didn’t help themselves either (Alex Rodriguez ran himself into an out after hitting a single to start the third), swinging at too many first pitches with runners on; with two men on, one out, and Beckett on the ropes in the sixth, Robinson Cano skied out to left on the first pitch. Johnny Damon eventually tapped out to first with the bases loaded to end the inning.

Beckett came back in the seventh and quickly retired Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu. He baffled Abreu, throwing him four curve balls in five pitches. But then he left a curve over the plate to Rodriguez—it wasn’t exactly a “hanger,” but it was flat. The Yankee third baseman hooked it, and muscled the ball on a line over the wall in left field, good for his 44th homer of the season. It was an insurance run that had eluded the team inning after inning, and, as it turns out, it would be the difference in the game.

Cut to: Kyle Farnsworth. Do I need to get into it? Doesn’t the name say it all? Well, after retiring Ortiz on a fly ball, Cooter gave up a single to Mike Lowell and then Kevin Youkilis drove the first pitch he saw from Farmadooke into the left field seats (it was a harder version of Rodriguez’s dinger). J.D. Drew struck out next but then Farnsworth walked Jason Varitek and the reliever’s night on the mound was over.

Enter Sandman. Mariano Rivera got Coco Crisp to tap a ground ball back to the mound to finish the eighth. After Mike Timlin retired the Yankees, Rivera threw a strike one fastball to Eric Hinske and then got a generous call on another fastball, this one on the outside corner. Rivera threw the following pitch to the same spot but did not get the call. So he threw it again—not one cutter in the sequence—and Hinske made like Coco and tapped out to Rivera. Julio Lugo hit a 1-0 pitch on one-hop to Rodriguez at third; though it took a tricky hop, A Rod made the play look easy for the second out. Finally, Dustin Pedroia—Only the Angels have Dirty Faces, right?—fell behind 0-2, fouled a pitch off, took a cutter outside for a ball, and then hit a nubber up the third base line. Rivera made the play, Andy Phillips—who replaced Jason Giambi in the sixth—made a nice catch, and Ortiz was left in the on-deck circle. Hot Dog.

Yankees 4, Red Sox 3.

The win moves the Yankees to within six of the Red Sox. More importantly, it ties them with the Mariners for the wildcard lead (though Seattle is still up a game in the loss column). Both starting pitchers were quietly impressive tonight. Neither was great, but they both displayed how tough they are.

Yanks go for the sweep tomorrow afternoon when Chien-Ming Wang faces Curt Schilling.

Tense

Roger Clemens was the Red Sox’s young fireballing ace. Josh Beckett is the Red Sox’s young fireballing ace. The two face off tonight at the Stadium in a series that got a heckuva lot more exciting after the Yankees decided to show up last night and make things interesting.

If you were to plot this series out, you could see a focused Yankee team winning behind Pettitte and Wang on the days Joba’s available to nail down the setup innings and against two pitchers the Yankees have fared well against thus far this year in Matsuzaka and Schilling. That would chalk tonight’s game up as the loss, as Beckett has finally put it all together at age 27, while Clemens has just two quality starts in his last five tries at age 45. As great a player as Hanley Ramirez has become/is becoming, if Beckett and Mike Lowell can lead the Sox to another World Championship this year, it’ll be hard to call that trade a mistake.

One positive for the Yankees tonight is that Manny Ramirez’s back is tense. Manny left last night’s game with back spasms, isn’t in the lineup tonight, and is likely unavailable. Erik Hinske gets the start in left. Jason Giambi starts at first base for the Yankees. The other positive is that, if the Yankees do manage to win tonight, they’ll be in great position for a very unlikely sweep.

Yankee Panky #22: The Bull and the Moose

The consensus when the Yankees re-signed Mike Mussina in the winter was that at $23 million for two years, he was a bargain. He was coming off his best season since 2003, was healthy, and for all intents and purposes, would have his best chance at winning a World Series title in New York.

The same was said for re-signing Andy Pettitte. The media downplayed Mussina’s re-signing more than it hyped Pettitte’s return, but in both pitchers — at least, according to the numerous reports that surfaced at the time — the Yankees thought they were getting proven winners, people who had performed at the highest level of pressure in the greatest pressure-cooker environment Major League Baseball has to offer.

My thoughts at the time were thus: I disagreed with both acquisitions, but was more in favor of the Pettitte signing, because (a) I believed he had more left physically, and (b) he would approach this second go-round with even fervor and provide something to the rotation that’s been lacking — leadership. I didn’t come to that theory initially, however. Immediately after the signing was announced, it seemed to me that signing Pettitte was a means of assuaging guilt over what happened in the offseason between the 2003 and ’04 seasons that led to the Carl Pavano/Jaret Wright/Javier Vazquez/Kevin Brown atrocities. I believe that part of why the Yankees allowed Pettitte to leave New York after the 2003 season, despite his 21-win season and victories in Game 2 of each of the team’s three postseason series, was because they believed his left forearm and elbow were fragile. That he made only 15 starts for Houston in 2004 because of elbow problems corroborated the damaged goods theory. I said at the time of Pettitte’s exodus that come 2007, when he’s turning 35 years old and practically done, he’ll be perfect for the Yankees again.

I didn’t question his competitiveness, but I did wonder how he would handle returning to the American League. Pettitte has surprised me in many respects. As Al Leiter alluded on Tuesday’s YES Postgame, Pettitte has a bigger, sharper curveball, and because his velocity isn’t what it once was, he’s mixing his pitches better, using both sides of the plate with more regularity and changing hitters’ eye level. In other words, his patterns are less predictable. Pettitte has been far and away the Yankees best and most consistent starter, and if not for the rickety bullpen in April and May, would have three or four more victories to his credit.

Tuesday’s series opener with the Red Sox was a perfect example of Pettitte’s worth. He hung tough, going pitch for pitch with Dice-K, and gave the Yankees a chance to win. Johnny Damon’s home run, which proved to be the game winner, allowed Pettitte to run his August record to 6-0. In his Yankee career, he is 69-33 in starts following a loss.

Then there’s Mussina. In Baseball Prospectus 2007, Steven Goldman, who wrote the Yankees chapter, had this to say about Mussina in his player analysis for the team: "The Yankees took a good risk in turning Mussina’s one-year option into a discounted two-year extension."

I thought Steve was being generous. Because Mussina was healthy, for the most part — he made 32 starts despite a short DL stint with a groin injury — and he added the splitter, last year was the only year in the last three years he had fewer hits than innings pitched, a WHIP of less than 1.20, at least 15 wins, and an ERA less than 4.00. I thought it was an anomaly. Including the improvements in 2006, his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) over the last three seasons was .310. That’s not good for any pitcher, let alone one who’s being relied upon as a potential 15-game winner. PECOTA projected a slip back to his ’04 form was projected: 12-9, between 40 and 50 walks, 29 starts, an ERA in the 4.25 range, and a WHIP near 1.30.

I thought the declining velocity — NoMaas.org‘s assessment is stinging yet hilarious — would catch up with him. He’s been more reliant on his off-speed stuff and the assortment of curveballs does not have the same bit as it did even four years ago. Based on three straight seasons of landing on the disabled list with assorted elbow and leg ailments, I didn’t believe he was in good enough shape to handle a 32-start workload. I also thought his finicky nature would wear thin. It seemed like the Yankees signed him because no one else would.

Save for a few standout performances, Mussina’s Yankee career has been good, but generally nondescript. Yes, he was one out away from a perfect game Labor Day weekend in Boston six years ago, and he kept the Yankees alive with a brilliant performance in Game 3 of the DS that same year, and his three innings of relief in Game 7 against Boston in the ’03 ALCS laid the foundation for the comeback. But it appears the negatives outweigh all that. There’s a faction of fans that believe he’s gutless because he won’t buzz opposing hitters to protect his own guys who’ve been hit (see July 7, 2003 vs. Boston), which projects an image that he’s selfish and not a good teammate. If the home plate umpire isn’t giving him the corners, he gives the steely stare as if to say, "Do you know what a strike is? I do." And he’ll keep throwing pitches in the same location to get the ump to cave in a psychological game of cat-and-mouse.

Mussina has always thought himself to be his own pitching coach. He’s a "creature of habit," and is outspoken when certain elements of his routine are altered. He can be stubborn and abrasive, and is prone to shun accountability for his deficiencies. Last Wednesday night in Anaheim, following a sequence that led to Garret Anderson’s RBI double in the disastrous second inning, YES cameras caught Mussina mouthing to Jose Molina, "That’s not what I said. It wasn’t my fault," referencing the pitch sequence.

Who threw the pitch?

To that point, I shot through the archives and stumbled upon a column from Ian O’Connor in USA Today recapping Game 4 of the ’03 ALCS, in which he railed Mussina for not taking responsibility for the loss and minimizing his effect on the result of the series to that point.

"It seems like we do well when I don’t pitch," Mussina said at the time. "We’ll just let the other guys have at it, we’ll win the series and move on."

Mussina’s self-deprecating assessment can be applied to this current spate of distress that had Joe Torre and Ron Guidry visibly at odds in the dugout during Monday’s third straight calamity.

Steve Lombardi, our friend at WasWatching, makes an apt comparison:

"At this stage, Mike Mussina has become to the 2007 New York Yankees what Luis Tiant was to the 1980 Yankees. Moose is an imported star who has reached the end of his effective days. If you told me, at this point, that Mussina would not win another 10 games in the major leagues, I wouldn’t fight you, with tooth and nail, to make you say ‘Take it back.’"

David Justice was more forthright on Monday’s postgame.

"Mike Mussina has been so successful for so long doing it his way," he said. "How do you sell him on committing to something different? It’s a tough sell. … In my opinion, he just doesn’t have it anymore."

Mussina, in his current way, cannot help the Yankees. He is 0-7 this season after Yankees losses, and 2-6 against teams with winning records. In his last two starts, the Yankees have been outscored 34-9.

Monday night, he did not pitch like a man willing to fight for his spot in the rotation. When presented with a challenge, an affront to his position on the team, he did not pitch like someone determined to work through his struggles; he pitched like a complacent man who responded, "Who would they replace me with?" when asked about his tenuous position.

The answer came late Tuesday: Ian Kennedy. Torre announced that Kennedy would take Mussina’s place in the rotation and make his major league debut Saturday versus the Devil Rays.

Reporters relayed Mike Mussina’s message that he "didn’t feel like anything good was going to happen" when he let go of the ball. Clearly, neither does the Yankees’ brain trust.

[OOPS: Monday's NY Times notebook hinted that Kennedy was an unlikely call-up, even if Mussina had a bad outing. It was probably correct at the time.]

On Tuesday’s postgame, when asked what Kennedy’s promotion means for Mussina, Justice had this to offer:

"You’re asking him to go into the bullpen. That means long man. Mop-up. It’s not about Moose’s feelings right now. It’s about winning ball games and getting into the playoffs."

At least the Yankeees’ hunch on one veteran pitcher was correct. And the assessment of the two pitchers, especially over the past month, has been fair.

Until next week …

The Stopper Returns

Everything that went wrong for the Yankees in Detroit went right in the Bronx last night. Andy Pettitte came up big once again, and the Yankee offense kept picking up the runs they needed to make it count.

The Yanks got out ahead in the first thanks to some of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s bonus baserunners. Johnny Damon got things started with a single and moved to second on a Derek Jeter groundout. Matsuzaka then walked Bobby Abreu and nailed Alex Rodriguez in the back with his next pitch to load the bases for Hideki Matsui. Matsui hit a double play grounder, but didn’t hit it hard enough and, with Alex Rodriguez sliding hard, Julio Lugo’s throw pulled Kevin Youkilis off first as Damon scored the first run of the game. Jorge Posada then twisted the knife a bit with an RBI double before Coco Crisp ran down a deep Robinson Cano drive to center to end the inning.

Then a curious thing happened. The Red Sox led off each of the next six innings against Andy Pettitte with a hit, but those were the only six hits they managed off Pettitte all night. Unfortunately for the Yankees, the first of those leadoff hits was an opposite field Manny Ramirez homer in the third, and the second was a Julio Lugo triple in the third, the latter of which was plated by a David Ortiz sac fly to tie the game.

Matsuzaka, meanwhile, settled down after that rocky first, allowing just a walk to Alex Rodriguez over the next three innings. In the fifth, however, Derek Jeter, who was in an 0-for-14 slump at that point, delivered a go-ahead solo homer to the Armitron sign in right center that made it 3-2 Yanks.

Andy Pettitte entered the seventh inning having thrown 103 pitches, Luis Vizcaino warming in the bullpen, and Joba Chamberlain stretching to pitch the eighth. Four pitches later the Red Sox had tied the game yet again on a front-row Jason Varitek homer to left, but for the fourth consecutive inning Pettitte retired the side in order after allowing a leadoff hit, and the Yankees retook the lead in the bottom of the seventh when Johnny Damon snuck a two-run home run around the base of the foul pole in right, plating a leadoff single by Andy Phillips.

With that, Joba and Mo took over. Chamberlain appeared to be overthrowing a bit at first, issuing a leadoff walk to Kevin Youkilis (Boston’s seventh straight leadoff baserunner), but despite that walk and later a single by Mike Lowell, Chamberlain survived his first taste of "The Rivalry"TM pitching a scoreless inning and striking out two. Mo did the same without the baserunners to seal the 5-3 win.

It was a big night for the Yankees. Not only did they win a game that was crucial to the emotional state of the team, but the Wild Card-leading Mariners blew a 5-0 lead over the Angels to lose 10-6, so the Yankees are now just one game behind Seattle in the Wild Card race, and just two back in the loss column. (And, don’t look now, but the Mariners are on a four-game losing streak.)

But that’s not the big news. The big news is that despite my assumptions about Ian Kennedy’s innings pitched limits (which were apparently picked up by Rob Neyer over on his ESPN.com blog), the Yankees are going to promote him to take Mike Mussina’s start on Saturday after all. As that start falls on the first day of expanded rosters, the Yankees will not need Mussina to work out of the bullpen to justify his roster spot. Thus Moose will work on the side, but not out of the pen, with the hope of reclaiming his spot in the rotation next week. I’m still concerned about Kennedy’s innings (he threw just 104 1/3 innings last year between USC and the New York-Penn League and has already thrown 146 1/3 innings across three minor league levels this year), but, given that the team that has implemented the Joba Rules is likely being mindful of such things, I’m delighted to see him get Saturday’s start. Incidentally, here’s a scouting report on Kennedy from Rich Lederer via a post of Alex’s in the wake of last year’s draft.

Here’s the skinny on Kennedy, who will be the sixth man to make his major league debut by starting a game for the 2007 New York Yankees. Kennedy was the Yankees’ top draft pick last year, taken ahead of Joba Chamberlain, both players coming via the compensation picks the Yankees received when Tom Gordon signed with the Phillies. Kennedy has often been referred to as a young Mike Mussina (which, lest you forget, is a very, very good thing) as he is a slender, 6-foot-tall righty who throws a low-90s fastball along with a very effective curve/slider/change repertoire, all of which he can throw for strikes. Just as Chamberlain fell to the Yankees in the draft due to concerns about his conditioning (which has obviously improved) and a forearm injury which put a damper on his senior year at Nebraska (which was last year, by the way, and may be why Joba has Rules and Kennedy does not), Kennedy fell to the Yankees at the 21st pick because of signability concerns linked to his being represented by Scott Boras. Both Chamberlain and Edwar Ramirez have raved about Kennedy to the press, and he’s posted a 1.91 ERA along with a 10.03 K/9, 0.96 WHIP, and a 12-3 record in 26 games (25 starts) between single-, double-, and triple-A this year.

The best part about this move is that, if Kennedy has any sort of success at all, it increases the chances of the Yankees opening the 2008 season with Kennedy, Chamberlain, and Phil Hughes in the major league rotation behind Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte.

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The Boston Red Sox

The Yankees and Red Sox last met in Boston in early June. To illustrate how long ago that was, Jason Giambi had just hit the DL and Roger Clemens had yet to throw a major league pitch this season. Entering that series, the Yankees were seven games below .500 and in fourth place in the AL East, 13.5 games behind the Red Sox. It was then that I became convinced that the Yankees only hope for the postseason was the Wild Card.

A lot has changed since then. The Yankees took two of three in Boston that weekend and have gone 50-30 (.625) over the last three months to pull their record 13 games above .500. They’ve passed six teams in the Wild Card race and shaved five games off their deficit there, while moving comfortably into second place in the East and decreasing their deficit there by 5.5 games. However, they’re still eight games behind Boston, which has gone 44-35 (.557) over the last three months and is coming off a four-game sweep of the White Sox. A lot has changed, but with just six head-to-head games left against the Red Sox, the Yankees still only have one route to the postseason, and that’s the Wild Card.

That doesn’t mean these three games against the Sox are meaningless or pointless. Every game counts, and the Yankees need a strong performance to bounce back from their 2-5 road trip. Prior to the Yankees’ home series against the Tigers two weeks ago, I looked ahead at the “very tough stretch of fourteen games that begins tonight against the Tigers, continues on a road trip through Anaheim and Detroit, and concludes with three against the Red Sox back home. If the Yankees can’t at the very least split those 14 games, all the good work they’ve done since the calendar turned to July might have been for naught.” Thus far the Yankees are 5-6. They would have to take two of three from the Red Sox in order to have split those 14 games. Looking at it now, I won’t say that a 6-8 record in those 14 games would be the death knell of the Yankee season, but the three games by which they trail the Wild Card-leading Mariners in the loss column loom large, as do the three games they will play against Seattle at the Stadium beginning a week from today. It would be hard to have much optimism regarding either should the Yanks lose their third-straight series to a contender.

As for the Sox themselves, they not only have the best record in baseball and the biggest lead of any team currently holding a playoff spot, but they just beat the everloving snot out of the White Sox, taking four games in Chicago by a combined score of 46-7. They’re also coming off a day of rest while the Yankees took a night-game beating at the hands of the Tigers, then had to fly home on the red eye. If ever there was a test of the Bombers’ resolve, this has to be it.

Fortunately, the Yankees send their stopper to the mound tonight. Since the All-Star break, Andy Pettitte has gone 7-1 with a 2.67 ERA in nine starts, averaging 6 2/3 innings per start, and striking out 7.71 men per nine innings. The Yankees have gone 8-1 in those nine games, rallying to win Pettitte’s one no-decision by a score of 3-2, and failing to do so in Pettitte’s lone loss, a 4-2 defeat in Baltimore. Pettitte is 1-1 with a 5.01 ERA in four starts against the Red Sox this year, but, again, a lot has changed since then, and his last start against the Sox at the stadium was a seven-inning, one-run gem.

On the hill for the Red Sox will be Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka hasn’t dominated in his first major league season, but, if not for Josh Beckett making the leap, he’d be the Red Sox’s best starter. As it is, his hit and strikeout rates have been outstanding (he is one of just four qualifying starters in the American League to have a K/9 rate over 9.00), and his 3.76 ERA works out to an impressive 120 ERA+ given that he pitches his home games in hitter-friendly Fenway. Matsuzaka has turned in quality starts in 17 of his 26 games including five of his last six.

If anything, Matsuzaka’s biggest problem has been putting runners on base via walks and hit-batsmen. On its own, Matsuzaka’s walk rate isn’t particularly troubling, but when you factor in his eleven hit-batsmen (the fourth-highest total in the league), you get 3.92 men reaching base without a hit per nine innings, which is a bit much, especially facing a team like the Yankees that’s third in the majors in walks and fifth in the majors in being hit by pitches. Matsuzaka has faced the Yankees twice this year, doing so in back-to-back starts in late April. He walked five and hit two in those 13 innings (4.85 BB+HBP/9), posting a 6.92 ERA, but striking out 14 and winning both games, the first of which was the game in which Chase Wright allowed four consecutive home runs, the latter of which came against a poor Pettitte outing in the Bronx.

On a final housekeeping note, as expected, Sean Henn is on his way to Scranton, and Chris Britton is, at long last, back in the Yankee pen. If Torre needs Britton tonight, however, something’s likely gone wrong.

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Series Wrap: @ Detroit

Offense: They may have scored 5.67 runs per game, but I consider that a poor performance against a team that had allowed 6.4 runs per game over their previous 34 contests. What’s more, the Yankees lost two of the four games because they couldn’t scratch out an extra run, losing in extra innings in the opener, then falling 5-4 in the penultimate match.

Studs:

Hideki Matsui 5 for 13, 2B, 3 RBI, 3 R, 4 BB
Bobby Abreu 4 for 12, 2 R, 3 BB, 4 SB

Duds:

Derek Jeter 0 for 11, 2 R, 2 BB, 2 K
Jorge Posada 1 for 11, 2B, 2 RBI, R, BB, 2 K
Wilson Betemit 0 for 8, R, BB, 2 K
Robinson Cano 3 for 16, HR, 3 RBI, 2 R, K, 2 GIDP
Melky Cabrera 4 for 17, 3B, 3 RBI, R, SB, CS, GIDP
Andy Phillips 1 for 5, RBI, SacB, K
Shelley Duncan 1 for 4
Jose Molina 1 for 4

Rotation: If you want to find out how the Yankees could drop three of four to a team that was playing .324 ball over it’s last 34 games, look no further than the starting rotation. Outside of Chien-Ming Wang’s outstanding return to form in game two (8 IP, 1 ER, 6 K, 4.00 GB/FB), no starter allowed fewer than five runs or pitched more than six innings, both marks set by Phil Hughes. Mike Mussina was awful, of course, but so was Roger Clemens, who allowed six runs in five innings in the opener. Fittingly, the Yankees won Wang’s game, but lost the other two.

Bullpen: Taking Sean Henn out of the picture, the pen was outstanding, allowing just a solo homer off Edwar Ramirez in 10 1/3 innings. Henn, however, allowed 12 runs in 3 1/3 innings to push his total on the trip to 18 runs in 6 2/3 for a 21.60 ERA. Kyle Farnsworth dominated in his two innings, striking out three of the six batters he faced. Joba pitched just once, striking out one and retiring the side in order on ten pitches (seven strikes). In 2 1/3 innings, Brian Bruney allowed a single and a double, but no runs and no walks (though also no Ks, and that double did plate a runner he inherited from Henn). Mariano Rivera allowed a leadoff double to Magglio Ordoñez in the tenth inning of the opener and needed a spectacular stab of a line drive by Andy Phillips to keep the run from scoring, but he did escape, and Joe Torre deserves credit for twice using Rivera in a tie game on the road on this trip, even if they lost both games because the offense couldn’t score before Torre ran out of quality relievers. In addition to the solo homer by Placido Polanco, Ramirez walked two and struck out two in two innings, but allowed no other hits. Luiz Vizcaino allowed three baserunners in his two scoreless innings of work.

Conclusion: Henn should be on his way to Scranton before game time tonight, so that solves that problem, but the Yankees have had consistently disappointing performances from their starting rotation of late, with Andy Pettitte being the only consistent exception. Hopefully Wang’s performance on Saturday marks a permanent return to form for him, but even having both Pettitte and Wang pitching in top form won’t be enough to get this team into the playoffs. Clemens and Hughes need to step it up, and Torre and Guidry need to find a solution to the Mike Mussina problem. This is paramount as the offense is cooling off a bit, which was to be expected. This is a very talented team, and one that deserves a playoff spot, but it will only go as far as it’s starting rotation can take it.

Moose Tracks

Mike Mussina only lasted three innings last night. If not for a tremendous Willie Mays-style catch by Melky Cabrera with the bases loaded and a questionable out call at home on a great throw by Robinson Cano, Mussina might not have made it out of the first. As it was, his final line was 3 IP, 9 H, 6 R, 1 BB, 0 K, 0 HR.

After the game, Mussina compared his performance to his previous two stinkers:

The first two games I was trying to pick corners, throw a lot of offspeed pitches, pitch backwards all the time. Today I thought I was going right after people. I threw a lot more fastballs today. I got ahead in counts today. I had a lot of two-strike counts. [Moose threw 68 percent of his pitches for strikes last night compared to 64 and 56 percent in his last two starts.] And when they put the ball in play, they just put it in play someplace where we weren’t playing defense.

Moose would later return to that excuse, saying that the Tigers only hit three balls hard off him and curiously asserting that his velocity isn’t down from when he was pitching well (it is). While it’s true that some of those nine hits were seeing-eye ground balls, flares, and flies that dropped just out of the reach of Melky Cabrera and Bobby Abreu, there were still nine of them in three innings, and, again, Moose was saved by his defense in the first inning.

Despite that excuse, Mussina wasn’t defiant. If anything, he sounded lost while reflecting on his last three starts:

I really don’t feel like I can do much of anything right . . . Probably the last nine innings are the worst nine innings I’ve pitched in my whole career, in a row. It’s tough to take. I don’t even know how to describe it because I’ve never had to deal with it before. . . Right now I let go of [the ball] and I don’t feel like anything good is going to happen. It’s tough to pitch that way. You can’t play the game that way. You feel like you have no control over anything, and that’s how I feel right now. Even the sixty feet six inches [from the mound to the plate] doesn’t seem like I have a grasp of, and two weeks ago I felt like I could do anything I wanted. And that’s how this game is, it’ll slap you in the face when you think you’ve got it. And I felt good about it, and now I don’t feel good at all.

And so the question becomes, will Mike Mussina take his next turn against Tampa Bay on Saturday. Peter Abraham thinks it’s “unlikely” citing Mussina’s 7.59 ERA in two starts against the Rays this season (Moose had one quality start and one disaster in consecutive starts against the Rays in mid-June, the former in Tampa, the latter in the Bronx, but he allowed 13 baserunners and strike out none in six innings in the “quality” start). Mussina had this to say:

If Joe thinks that somebody else can give us a lift or do the job better, then that’s up to him. I’m certainly not hoping that somebody else is taking my spot. I want to keep going out there and figure out what’s going on, because I can’t believe in three starts that I forgot how to pitch after seventeen years. So I hope he has confidence enough in me to keep sending me out there and let me figure this out, but at the same time we’ve got to win ballgames, and I’ll understand if he thinks that we need to do something else.

For his part, Torre said that he and Ron Guidry would talk to Mussina today to determine his status for his next start and that he should have some answers on Mussina’s status soon, but did not offer any immediately following the game last night. Torre suggested that what Mussina has to say would greatly influence the decision. Looking at the above quote from Mussina, I could see it going either way. Moose obviously wants to keep going out there, but that he even acknowledged the fact that a change might be best for the ballclub is a huge admission and could signal to Torre and Guidry that a change may indeed be necessary.

As for how that change might be implemented, Mussina’s not hurt, so it would take considerable trickery to put him on the DL, which means the Yankees would have to play a man short in the pen in order to add a replacement starter to the roster in the short term. rosters expand on Saturday, so the only difficulty the Yankees might have in adding an extra pitcher is if they want to bring up someone who’s not currently on the 40-man. As to who that starter might be, Ian Kennedy has been fantastic since being promoted to triple-A along with Joba Chamberlain, but, like Joba, Kennedy is a first-year pro on a strict innings limit. Joba’s supposedly being held to 130 total innings (he’s at 97 1/3 right now). Kennedy has already thrown 146 1/3 across three minor league levels. He’s also not on the 40-man. I’d be very surprised to see the Yankees push him into the major league rotation at this point in the season, despite his minor league dominance.

Kei Igawa has pitched better for Scranton than he did for the big club, but he hasn’t been great (2-2, 4.21 ERA in six starts since his last demotion). Steven White has posted a 3.75 ERA and a 2-2 record in his last six starts for Scranton, but has never pitched in the majors. The last two men in the Scranton rotation are Matt DeSalvo and Jeff Karstens, neither of whom I want to see in the Bronx again this year. To my mind it’s between Igawa and White. Igawa would be closer to regular rest on Saturday having last started on Sunday, while White last started on Friday. Also, of the four pitchers I just mentioned, White is the only one who is not on the 40-man roster. So, really, that’s the question Torre and Guidry will be asking themselves today: With the season running down and every game crucial to the Yankees’ postseason hopes, are they better off hoping that Mike Mussina can find those five miles per hour on his fastball and the break on his curveball that have gone missing in his last three starts, or are they better off hoping that the third time’s the charm for Igawa, who went 0-2 with a 5.97 ERA, a 1.71 WHIP, and seven homers in six starts after his last recall from the minors (though the Yankees went 4-2 in those six games)?

As for the rest of last night’s game, Justin Verlander was in top form, holding the Yankees to three hits and a pair of walks over seven scoreless innings, and Zach Miner mopped up with a pair of perfect innings. The only Yankee to reach second base was Bobby Abreu with two outs in the first, and the closest the Yankees got to a run all night was a drive by Hideki Matsui that was caught at the top of the right field wall by Ryan Raburn in the seventh.

Meanwhile, Edwar Ramirez allowed a solo home run to Placido Polanco in his lone inning of work, and Sean Henn continued his impression of Oscar the death-dealing cat by appearing in four of the Yankees’ five losses on the road trip, topping this one off by allowing nine runs in 2 2/3 innings to set the final score at 16-0. Henn’s last six outings have all come in Yankee losses. He posted a 21.60 ERA on the road trip, taking the loss in both extra inning games, and giving up 18 runs in 6 2/3 innings while mopping up in Mussina’s two starts. Expect Henn to get farmed out before tonight’s game. The only question is whether or not the Yankees finally bring back Chris Britton, or if they’ll instead feel the need to replace Henn with either a lefty or a long man, in which case Kei Igawa could make a very different return to the majors than anticipated above.

Moose Tacos?

Mike Mussina’s been mind-bottlingly awful in his last two starts. Justin Verlander was pretty awful himself last week against Cleveland (4 IP, 7 R). The weekend prior to that, Verlander worked 5 1/3 inefficient innings in the Bronx (119 pitches), but managed to pull out the win as he allowed only three runs and the pitcher he was facing was none other than Mike Mussina (5 IP, 7 R). The Yankees are hoping the rematch will tilt the other way, as they need this last game of the series to salvage a split and some dignity from this road trip before heading home to play three games against the suddenly out-of-reach Red Sox. Mussina, meanwhile, could very well be pitching for his job.

Damon in left, Matsui DH, Giambi at first for the second day in a row. Putting G’Bombi in the field scares me, as supposedly that’s how he hurt his foot in the first place, but this is undoubtedly the Yankees’ best offensive alignment.

Meeting Montefusco

One of my favorite local pastimes is keeping tabs on those non-Hall of Famers who visit Cooperstown over induction weekend. Given the induction of heavyweights like Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn, an unusually large number of former big leaguers came to town at the end of July. The list of former Yankees included Jesse Barfield, Paul Blair, Rich "Goose" Gossage, John "The Count" Montefusco, Graig Nettles, and current Yankee broadcaster Ken Singleton. Of this group, the one I took the most interest in was Montefusco, who ironically enough was the player least associated with the Yankees. Why Montefusco? Well, I knew I would have a chance to talk to him since he was scheduled to sign at the Main Street CVS Pharmacy, where my wife works.

Although I didn’t have an opportunity to interview Montefusco, I did meet him on the Saturday of Hall of Fame Weekend. As advertised, he signed autographs for any customers purchasing Coke products, with the proceeds going to a CVS employee who is battling cancer. I came away impressed with the former Yankee, Padre, Brave, and Giant right-hander; Montefusco was scheduled to appear for only two hours, but willingly continued to sign for an extra half-hour and didn’t turn down a single request for a personalized autograph or photograph.

Montefusco came across much differently than I expected. He was quiet and polite, nothing like his reputation as a player. Now, let’s emphasize that I liked him as a player. He was colorful, with a great nickname, and he played for the Yankees—an excellent combination. Beginning with his earliest major-league days in San Francisco, Montefusco had established a reputation for brash words and flamboyant behavior, making him one of the most distinctive players of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Montefusco loved to make bold predictions, which he sometimes fulfilled—and sometimes failed at miserably—earning himself the additional nickname, "The Mouth that Roared." Prior to a 1975 game against the eventual World Champion Cincinnati Reds, he predicted that he would strike out Johnny Bench four times and shut out the "Big Red Machine." He fell short on both counts; he allowed seven runs in a third of an inning, with three of the runs scoring on a home run by Bench.

Regardless of his failure that day, Montefusco made strong impressions as a rookie. With his 97-mile-per-hour fastball and 90 MPH slider (think of him as a thinner version of Joba Chamberlain), Montefusco earned National League Rookie of the Year honors and had some San Francisco followers proclaiming him the heir apparent to Juan Marichal. Earning the nickname "The Count" from broadcaster Al Michaels (a play on his last name’s similarity to Monte Cristo), Montefusco seemed destined for cult status in the Bay Area. The following year, he pitched a no-hitter, once again procuring himself national attention.

Unfortunately, Montefusco couldn’t avoid injury. Pitching with an undiagnosed broken bone in his ankle, Montefusco hurt his elbow late in 1977, forcing him to make the early-career adjustment from power pitcher to sinkerball specialist. Montefusco adopted an unusual motion; he appeared to hunch his back while delivering the ball from a three-quarters arm slot, but he remained mildly effective in stints with the Giants and Padres.

Montefusco found once last return to glory in 1983. After pitching well for the non-contending Padres, the Yankees acquired him in late August for a pair of players to be named later. Almost single-handedly, Montesfusco did his best to help the Yankees win the American League East, winning all five of his decisions while sporting an ERA of 3.32. (Come to think of it, the 2007 Yankees could use a late-season acquisition like Montefusco.) Yet, he didn’t have enough help from the supporting cast of pitchers (there were too many ineffective starts from the likes of Doyle Alexander, Jay Howell, and Matt Keough), as the Yankees finished third behind the Orioles and Tigers in a stacked Eastern Division.

Continuing arm problems relegated The Count to secondary status for the remainder of his Yankee days and ultimately resulted in his 1986 retirement. Just as injuries had become a recurring theme, Montefusco often found himself involved in controversy throughout his career. While with the Giants, he regretfully engaged his manager, Dave Bristol, in a fistfight. The incident resulted in his departure from the Giants, who traded him to the Atlanta Braves. Unhappy with his role in Atlanta, Montefusco failed to make the plane for the team’s season-ending road trip to Cincinnati and earned himself a suspension.

More serious controversy followed Montefusco after his playing days. His wife filed charges that he had committed aggravated sexual assault and made terrorist threats against her, among a number of charges. Unable to afford bail, he spent two years in jail awaiting trial. All along, he maintained his innocence, claiming that his wife had twisted the circumstances of their marital problems. While I don’t know all of the details of the situation, the newspaper accounts I’ve read indicated that many of his wife’s charges may have been "trumped up," if not out and out fabrications. Montefusco was eventually acquitted of all the felony charges and only had to serve probation for criminal trespass and simple assault.

As Montefusco met fans in Cooperstown, I heard him discuss his hopes for the future. He would like to return to baseball with the Giants, his first major league organization, as a pitching instructor. According to some of the people who worked with him while he was coaching in independent minor league ball, Montefusco is particularly good at breaking down a pitcher’s mechanics, a valuable skill for any pitching coach. He has no interest in becoming a coach at the major league level, but would like to work with young pitchers in San Francisco’s minor league system. Given what he’s been through, I hope The Count gets that opportunity.

Bruce Markusen is the author of eight books, including The Team That Changed Baseball, and writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com. He can be reached at bmark@telenet.net.

The Great Flydini

For the second straight start, Phil Hughes allowed five runs in six innings despite allowing only four hits. In Anaheim last week it was because he walked five and Luis Vizcaino allowed both of Hughes’ bequeathed runners to score. In Detroit yesterday, Hughes walked only one, but allowed three home runs which plated all five baserunners.

Only two of those homers were really Hughes’ mistake, however, as Curtis Granderson led off the game by slicing a pitch down the line in left where Hideki Matsui made a vain attempt to make a running catch, allowing the ball to skip by him and ricochet into the roomy depths of Comerica Park’s left field as Granderson came all the way around with an inside-the-park home run. The two-run homers by Carlos Guillen later that inning and Marcus Thames in the third, however, were simply a case of Hughes throwing a couple of fat fastballs right over the plate. Hughes, who allowed just six home runs in 275 career minor league innings, has now allowed five in 38 2/3 major league innings. Of course, Granderson’s homer was a fluke, but those homers have called attention to the fact that the ground-ball tendencies Hughes showed in the minors (2.35 groundouts per flyout in his eight minor league starts this season) have decreased in the majors (0.84 GB/FB).

That last stat is a bit misleading, as Hughes has really been all over the map, showing strong groundball tendencies in his first two starts before his hamstring injury (2.14 GB/FB) as well as in his last start in Anaheim (3:1), but occasionally extreme fly ball tendencies in his other four big league starts, topping out with his 1:11 GB/FB ratio yesterday. It could be that Hughes has been a bit tentative since coming off the DL and isn’t getting on top enough on his pitches to get them low enough in the zone (his splits before and after his DL stint are rather telling, with him posting a 0.61 GB/FB ratio since and the above 2.14 ratio before). Or, given his strong groundball rate in Anaheim, there could be something else going on. Either way, it bares watching as Hughes’ dominance is tied to the fact that he keeps the ball in front of his outfielders.

As for the game, despite the fact that Detroit’s rookie starter Jair Jurrjens (whose name, it turns out, is pronounced exactly like it’s spelled) had to leave due to a sharp pain in his shoulder after giving up a solo home run to Jason Giambi with one out in the second inning, the Yankees couldn’t overcome those five runs allowed by Hughes. Robinson Cano added a three-run dinger off emergency reliever Chad Durbin in the fourth, but over the last 4 2/3 innings Bobby Seay, Joel Zumaya, and Todd Jones held the Yanks to just an opposite-field Giambi single in the ninth.

And so the Yankees lost 5-4 and have to somehow win tonight’s matchup between Mike Mussina and Justin Verlander to leave Detroit with a split.

How do you spell Relief?

Wang.

After three straight shaky outings, Chien-Ming Wang threw more than twenty pitches and allowed a run (an RBI single from, guess who, Magglio Ordonez) in the first inning. But his sinker was moving in the right direction and Wang settled in, giving up just one more run over the next seven innings. Wang gave the Yanks length just when they needed it the most (Brian Bruney tossed a scoreless ninth), as New York beat Detroit, 7-2. While the Red Sox bombed The White Sox again, the Rangers beat the Mariners. So the Yanks gain a game in the wild card. They are two behind the M’s, three in the loss column.

The Yanks scored a couple of early runs off Jeremy Bonderman, who also fell into a groove. But Bonderman is not the pitcher he was last year. His fastball is not in the mid-to-upper 90s and eventually, the Yanks got to him. Melky Cabrera hit a triple with the bases loaded in the sixth, Johnny Damon hit a solo dinger and a triple, and Hideki Matsui had three hits and a couple of RBI.

It wasn’t a terribly exciting game, which was just fine with me–my body is still recovering from Friday night. Jorge Posada caught all nine innings so I assume we’ll see Molina this afternoon. Joe Torre talked about giving Alex Rodriguez a rest last week but that hasn’t happened yet (Alex was 1-3 with two walks and a run scored last night). I wonder if Damon gets another start today at DH, or if Giambi will get the nod.

Today is pivotal. Phil Hughes, this is your life, kid. With Mussina-Verlander going tomorrow, this is the game the Bombers need to have.

Henn Pecked: Up (all night) with the Chickens

I went out to Brooklyn last night after work to watch the game and cook dinner with my old friend Anthony Pick, aka Piccalini, aka Tony Pickles. Anthony and I went to school together and have made many a delicious meal together over the years. Well, we had another good one last night (heirloom tomato salad, basil and tomato sausage ring, home fried potatoes, corn on the cobb and a peach crumble with mint) but no game, as it was pouring in the Motor City. I left Brooklyn after 10:30 and didn’t get home until just after midnight. Before hitting the sack I figured I check the scores. That’s when I found out the Yanks and Tigers were actually playing. Top of the fifth, Tigers 6 Yanks 3. Yup, they waited four hours to start the game. Impressively, there was still a good-sized crowd, one that didn’t leave until the final out.

I settled in, watched the Yanks quickly tie the score, and then waited up until 3:30 a.m. when Carlos Guillen ended it in extra innings with a three-run home run against Sean Henn. Final: Tigers 9, Yanks 6. With the Red Sox sweeping a double-header and the Mariners winning again, this will surely go down as one of the heartbreaking losses of the year. The only reason I wasn’t more upset when it finally ended was because I was too tired, and, after all, Sean Henn was pitching.

“Whether I’m on the mound or not, going that many innings, till 4 in the morning, it’s tough,” said Henn, who also lost in extra innings on Monday in Anaheim. “But it’s that much tougher to swallow when I’m the one walking off the mound and they’re celebrating at home.”
(N.Y. Times)

Alex Rodriguez homered but Magglio Ordonez, the other only viable candidate for AL MVP, also went deep and had four hits. The final one, against Henn, was a check-swing, excuse-me single, which helps explain why dude is hitting just about .360. Andy Phillips made a wonderful, reaching catch to save the game while Mariano Rivera was pitching in the 10th; Bobby Abreu, who entered the game late as a pinch-hitter, smacked the ball hard twice with nothing to show for it. Most notably, Jorge Posada was run by home plate umpire Bob Davidson for arguing balls and strikes. Davidson was calling strikes on pitches six inches off the outside corner all night. He did a lousy job, though to be fair, he was equally lousy for both sides (before Ordonez’s check swing hit against Henn, Mags was barking at Davidson too). “His strike zone was a mystery – on both sides,” Joe Torre said after the game. Posada added, “He should be answering the questions, not me.”

Probably not a lot of good rest for these Yankees last night as this was a bitter pill to swallow. But they have to pick themselves off the mat and show some fortitude tonight by winning and not letting this thing spiral out of control.

Detroit Tigers Again

Picking up what I wrote about the Tigers in my quickie look at the AL contenders over on SI.com today, Detroit is playing terrible baseball right now, their best pitchers have been horrible since the break, and they just lost Gary Sheffield for this weekend’s series. Picking up part of what I wrote about the Tigers when they came to the Stadium last week, Detroit has faired much better on the road than at home this year, though of late they’ve been equally awful no matter where they play. Seeing as the Yankees took three of four from the Tigers in the Bronx last weekend, they have not excuse not to do at least as well in Motown this weekend.

Other than losing Sheffield, which has bounced Sean Casey up to the three spot in the batting order, the big changes for the Tigers are the return of flame-throwing setup man Joel Zumaya, who took the loss in yesterday’s rubber game against the Indians, and tonight’s starter Andrew Miller. The left-handed Miller was the sixth overall pick in last year’s draft and made his major league debut against the Yankees last year in a brief relief appearance mandated by his contract (he pitched a scoreless inning marred only by his plunking Craig Wilson). This year, he joined the Tiger rotation in June after pitching six scoreless innings in a spot start in mid-May. He’s only turned in a quality start in three of his ten appearances since then–one of those coming by the slightest margin (three earned runs, but four total in six innings in Philadelphia)–and spent the last three weeks on the DL with a hamstring strain. In his last three starts before landing on the DL, Miller posted a 8.56 ERA, a 2.34 WHIP, and opposing hitters hit .367/.465/.550 against him. Miller is, of course, a much better pitcher than that, and in his brief major league career has held his fellow lefties to a .169/.324/.237 line, having never allowed a homer to a major league southpaw. Indeed, Shelley Duncan will start in place of Bobby Abreu in right field tonight and Andy Phillips will start at first base, though Johnny Damon does get the start at DH.

In other roster news, the Yankees have called up Brian Bruney and Pete Abe suspects it’s Ron Villone who’s been designated for assignment to make room for him. Bruney had made just four appearances since being demoted. Here’s his line from those outings: 6 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 1 HR, 2 BB, 5 K, 1.17 WHIP, 6.00 ERA, 2-0, SV. Meanwhile, Chris Britton’s line since coming off the DL at the beginning of the month: 11 IP, 6 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K, 0.64 WHIP, 0.82 ERA, 1-1. Amazingly, even Bruney’s 6.00 ERA is a significant improvement over the 7.59 mark Villone has posted in August, and that doesn’t even include the inherited runners he’s allowed to score.

Opposing Miller tonight will be Roger Clemens, who struck out eight Tigers and walked none while holding them to two runs over six innings in his last start. Clemens did spend a fair portion of that game in trouble, however, as he allowed ten hits, including the first hit and later the first home run of Cameron Maybin’s major league career. Clemens has been everything the Yankees had hoped for since his stinker against the White Sox two starts ago, holding the Tigers and Blue Jays to three runs on 12 hits and a walk and striking out 14 in his last 12 innings. Clemens had similar success in his last visit to Comerica Park with the Astros last June, but suffered a hard luck loss as the ‘Stros failed to score a single run for him. Here’s hoping he avenges that loss tonight.

(more…)

Series Wrap: @ Anaheim

Offense: Twenty-three runs in three games against the third-stingiest staff in the league? Yeah, that’ll do.

Studs:

Alex Rodriguez 5 for 12, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 6 R, 3 BB, SB
Hideki Matsui 6 for 14, 2B, 3B, RBI, 2 R, BB
Derek Jeter 5 for 12, 2B, RBI, 2 R, BB
Jorge Posada 4 for 8, 2 2B, HR, 5 RBI, 3 R, 2 BB
Bobby Abreu 4 for 13, 2B, HR, 3 RBI, 4 R, 5 K
Jose Molina 1 for 2, 2 R, 2 BB

Duds:

Robinson Cano 3 for 11, 2 RBI, R, BB, K, 2 GIDP
Wilson Betemit 1 for 6, HR, 3 RBI, R, BB, 2 K
Jason Giambi 0 for 6, 3 K
Andy Phillips 2 for 7, K, CS
Shelley Duncan 0 for 2

Rotation: If not for Mike Mussina’s stinker in the middle game it would have been easier to see the bright side of Phil Hughes start in the opener. Hughes turned in a quality start through six innings, slamming the door on the Angels after a three-run double in the second inning, but having thrown just 81 pitches he went back out for the seventh, put two of the three batters he faced on base, and then watched as Luis Vizcaino let them score. The bright side there being that he made in-game adjustments to keep his team in the game against a contender despite not having his best stuff. Of course, Andy Pettitte came up huge in the finale.

Bullpen: Fourteen runs in 11 1/3 innings? To be fair, 11 of them came in 5 1/3 innings in Tuesday’s disaster. Still, three runs in 6 frames ain’t so hot neither.

The Good:

Just Joba, but sooooo goood! He struck out the side around a single in the eighth inning of the finale, finishing up with a three-pitch K of Vlad Guerrero.

The Bad:

Everyone else. Sean Henn had the roughest week, taking the loss in extra innings in the opener after facing three batters, one he retired, one who scored the winning run, and the other who drove it in. He then took the hit in Tuesday’s blowout, allowing five runs in three innings. Actually, he allowed those five runs in one inning, allowing just a walk in the two frames that sandwiched it. Ron Villone was supposed to take the bullet in that game, but he allowed four of the five batters he faced to reach, walking in a run in the process. Edwar Ramirez allowed the rest of Villone’s runners to score as well as one of his own on a sac fly and a three-run homer, then added another run in the following inning, though he did strike out four in the process. Luis Vizcaino allowed the two runners he inherited from Hughes in the opener to score, then plated one of his own. The next night he allowed two more baserunners in a scoreless inning. Kyle Farnsworth nearly blew the opener before Henn had a chance, but was saved by a great play by Wilson Betemit and a questionable check swing call after getting the first out of the inning on a sac bunt. Mariano Rivera didn’t do any harm, but he allowed five baserunners and one run in his two innings of work.

Conclusion: Lotsa runs. Too many runs, really. This team needs to start winning some low-scoring games. They sort of did that in the finale as most of those runs were tacked on to a pitchers’ duel after the Angel pen came into the picture. Still, all those runs both hide faults in the pitching staff and lead to some poor performances being written off as flukes, such as Henn’s and Ramirez’s in the middle game, whether or not they really were.

Seven Letter Word for “Finished”?

Gary Sheffield aggrivated a shoulder injury on Tuesday and is out indefinitely. I don’t think any of the Yankee pitchers will bark about not having to face Sheff.

Meanwhile, is Mike Mussina done? Is he finished, kaput? Anthony McCarron examines this question in the Daily News:

A major league scout familiar with Mussina’s work said yesterday that velocity “is his problem.” Mussina has never been a power pitcher, nor has he needed to throw that hard to win. But his hard stuff was clocked mostly around 86 mph Tuesday night in Anaheim, which the scout says hinders Mussina’s arsenal of off-speed and breaking pitches.

“You have to have separation,” the scout said. “There has to be some change of speeds with the fastball. If the changeup or the breaking balls are too close, they lose their effectiveness.”

The scout also noted the difference in Mussina’s starts against good teams and bad ones. Mussina is 2-4 with a 6.65 ERA in eight starts against teams that had winning records entering yesterday’s play. Against teams that were below .500 entering yesterday, he was 6-5 with a 4.34 ERA.

“Which is typical when you start to lose your stuff,” the scout said. “You’re still smart enough to get the inferior hitters out, but you have problems when you pitch against the better-hitting teams because there are fewer inferior hitters.”

Mussina is a number five pitcher now. The Yanks still have some weak teams to play in October. He still has a chance to contribute. The question is, does he have enough stuff left? Color me skeptical.

* I bit the headline from one of the comments the other night.

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