"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: August 2007

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Stopper

Having dropped the first two games in Anaheim, the Yankees needed Andy Pettitte to come up big in the finale, and that’s exactly what he did. Pettitte held the Angels scoreless through five innings (though a blown call at first base by Dan Iassogna on an inning-ending double play in the fourth helped). The Yankees, meanwhile, scratched out a run in the fourth off John Lackey, bringing around a one-out walk to Alex Rodriguez to give Pettitte a 1-0 lead.

Pettitte made his only mistake of the night in the sixth, doubling up on curveballs to Orlando Cabrera, who knocked the second one over the fence in left just beyond Johnny Damon’s reach to tie the game. The 1-1 tie didn’t last long, however, as the Yankees rallied to take the lead against Lackey in the seventh. Jorge Posada, who was 3 for 4 with a pair of doubles on the night, led off with a walk and moved to third on a single up the middle by Robinson Cano. Wilson Betemit, who had struck out in his first two at-bats, followed by yanking a line drive to right, but right at Vladimir Guerrero, whose strong arm held Posada at third. Melky Cabrera then followed with an RBI single past Howie Kendrick at second, and, after a quick fly out by Damon, Derek Jeter delivered a two-out single to plate Cano.

Curiously, both run-scoring innings by the Yankees to that point ended with outs on the bases. In the fourth, Jorge Posada got caught in a run down between third and home as he tried to score on John Lackey’s wild throw to first on Cano’s infield single which had plated Rodriguez. In the seventh, Jeter was thrown out trying to advance to second on Guerrero’s throw home.

Fortunately, the Yankees didn’t need any extra runs as Pettitte stranded a leadoff single by Kendrick (that was aided by a Robinson Cano bobble) in the seventh, and the Yankees piled on in the eighth. A leadoff homer to dead center by Bobby Abreu bounced Lackey, after which the Bombers added two against the struggling Scot Shields and plated a third run charged to Shields with Chris Bootcheck on the hill. With a 7-1 lead, Joba Chamberlain came on to strike out the side, all on that nasty corkscrewing slider, around a Reggie Willits single in the eighth. The highlight of Chamberlain’s inning was his three-pitch strikeout of Vladimir Guerrero. Vlad fouled back a 100-mile-per-hour fastball on 0-1 only to come up empty on that slider for strike three.

The Yanks and Angels each added a run in the ninth, the Angels on three dinky singles against Mariano Rivera, to set the final score at 8-2.

With the Red Sox and Mariners both losing, the Yankees gain a game in both the Wild Card and the division with the win, which also moved Joe Torre past Casey Stengel and into second place on the Yankees’ all-time managerial list. The Yankees are just 4-5 in their last nine games, but they’re 7-3 against the contenders they’ve faced over the last two weeks and will have today to rest up before starting a seven-game stretch against Detroit and Boston.

Could be Worse (Could be Raining)

What to say, what to say? We’ve bitched and moaned for two days now as the Angels have once again handed the Bombers their bacon. Lots of humble pie round these parts, dag nabit. The Yanks put Andy Pettitte on the spot to come up with another huge performance tonight, hoping they end their losing skid at two. It’d sure be nice to see ‘em leave Southern California with a victory. Unfortunately, they’ve got to deal with the tough John Lackey, but hey, playoff teams beat good pitchers, and if the Yanks think of themselves as a playoff team, well, they’ll have to face the likes of Lackey, Escobar, Beckett and Matsuzaka somewhere along the line. So never mind the bollocks, Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

Yankee Panky # 21: The Joba Chronicles

We are learning more about Joba Chamberlain every day. At first, the stories ranged from, "What kind of a name is Joba?" to tracing the line of Yankees with Native American ancestry (those of you proposed the "Superchief 2" nickname last week, nice call).

Tyler Kepner informed us yesterday of the special relationship Chamberlain has with his father, who contracted polio as a child and is sometimes relegated to a wheelchair. We’ve surmised through various television interviews that he has a competitive drive with a demeanor that leads us to wonder whether he’s oblivious to the fact that he tore through three minor-league levels and is succeeding in baseball’s grandest league and with its most hallowed franchise. We’ve seen that his Clemensish body produces Clemensish pitches.

We’ve learned other things, too. For example, there are rules for Chamberlain’s usage. He will not pitch on consecutive days. Joe Torre won’t summon Chamberlain in the middle of an inning. We’ve learned that the plan is still for him to be a starter next season, but with many comparisons of Chamberlain’s ascent to that of Bobby Jenks in 2005 and Jonathan Papelbon in ’06 — and verbal comparisons to the 1995-96 edition of Mariano Rivera — that the Yankees would be wise to at least consider Chamberlain to succeed Rivera as the Yankees’ closer.

The way he has captured our attention is not unlike the means Shane Spencer made an all-time season even better in 1998. His once-in-a-lifetime September that featured 10 home runs, including three grand slams, 27 RBIs and a silly .910 slugging percentage, led Torre to add his righty power bat to the postseason roster, where he played a role in the Yankees’ first-round sweep of the Texas Rangers. But Spencer never recaptured the ’98 magic. He shuttled back and forth between the majors and minors for the next four seasons. He did participate in more memorable Yankee moments — he started the relay that became the Derek Jeter “flip” play in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS at Oakland — but his utility was limited. His batting average was 77 points lower versus righties (.239, as opposed to .316 vs. lefties), and when given every possible chance to win the everyday right-field job after Paul O’Neill’s retirement, he could not follow through.

Stories like Spencer’s and Chamberlain’s got me thinking about an old media trick: building up the “Cinderella story, out of nowhere,” and offering us every possible bit of information we could consume about the player. Murray Chass compared the effects of the Red Sox’ latest bullpen acquisition — the Quebecois Jon Favreau look-alike — to the Big Nebraskan’s effect on the Yankees. (I’ll cut Mr. Chass some slack; he probably didn’t read this blog or our discussion on that topic last week.)

At what point is it too much hype? Will it cause the guy to crack? I don’t believe this will happen, given what I’ve seen from Chamberlain, but the name Rick Ankiel continues to pop into my mind. The buzz surrounding Ankiel as the Cardinals’ next great young pitcher in 2000 was enormous, and on a national stage, he turned into Nuke LaLoosh when he stopped breathing out of his eyelids. Luckily, and perhaps remarkably, Ankiel proved to be an excellent hitter and had a fallback option, having worked his way back to the big leagues as an outfielder.

Do you object to this kind of buildup of 20- and 21-year-olds? There is no such thing as a sure thing, so why present Joba Chamberlain, or anyone, for that matter, in such a light, regardless of whether or not it sells papers? I ask you: Do you want to read these stories for the hero buildup, to learn more about him as a person, or to learn more about him as a ballplayer?

The crapshoot element of Chamberlain’s short- and long-term success was echoed in last week’s comments. If he is lightning in a bottle, then as fans, we should make like the Metallica album and ride the lightning. It’s not as if we haven’t done that before.

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Parental Advisory

Hide this one from the kids.

The Yankees scored five runs in the first three innings last night against Kelvim Escobar, but it didn’t much matter. Mike Mussina, who was throwing 86-mile-per-hour fastballs and an assortment of hanging curveballs, didn’t make it out of the second inning, and Ron Villone, who replaced him, only managed to record one out.

Mussina put the Yanks in a 7-1 hole after two. The Yanks rallied to make it 7-5 heading into the bottom of the third, but Villone, who got the final out of the second in relief of Mussina, loaded the bases with none out then walked in the eighth Angel run. Looking to keep his team in the game on the heels of their rally, Joe Torre called on Edwar Ramirez to minimize the damage. It was a gutsy move, and it almost paid off. Hideki Matsui ran down an Orlando Cabrera drive tailing toward the left field corner to turn a would be extra-base hit into a sac fly for the first out. Ramirez struck out Vlad Guerrero for the second out, but then he fell in love with his changeup against Garrett Anderson. Anderson took the first three changeups to get ahead 2-1, swung over the fourth, then parked the fifth in the left field seats for a three-run homer that made it 12-5 and put the game back out of reach.

Ramirez allowed another run in the fourth, though he did strike out four men in his two innings of work, including Guerrero twice. Sean Henn then came on to take one for the team, allowing five more runs in the sixth, the capper being a Garret Anderson grand slam that gave Anderson a franchise record ten RBIs on the night. The Yankees got four consolation runs off rookie reliever Marcus Gwyn in the top of the ninth on homers by Wilson Betemit, a three-run shot, and Alex Rodriguez, his second solo shot of the game and third tater of the series, to put the final score at 18-9.

Mussina’s start (1 2/3 IP, 7 R) was his worst in his seven years with the Yankees and one of just four starts in his 17-year major league career in which he failed to complete two innings. Mussina is now 0-6 in seven starts following Yankee losses this season. The most impressive part of Mussina’s night was that he faced the media after the game and offered no excuses.

And so the Yankees are four games behind the Wild Card-leading Mariners in the loss column. The good news? They’ve got their ace, Andy Pettitte, going tonight followed by a day off.

Keep Hope Alive

Why do Yankee fans loathe the Angels so? There’s the simple fact that no other team, not even the Red Sox, has a winning record against the Yankees since Joe Torre’s arrival in the Bronx in 1996. Derek Jeter is fond of saying that boos on the road are the same as cheers at home. Yankee fans hate the Angels because the Angels have tortured them over the past decade. Indeed, with last night’s win, the Angels won the season series from the Yankees for the fourth year in a row. Here’s another simple fact: Since the end of World War II, only two teams have defeated the Yankees more than once in the postseason. The first is the Dodgers, against whom the Yankees hold a 7-3 advantage in postseason play (all World Series, of course, the most recent coming in 1981). The other is the Angels, who are 2-0 against the Yankees in the postseason, knocking them out in the first round twice in the last five years.

Quick note on last night’s game: Phil Hughes said after the game that he knew from the get-go that he didn’t have his stuff. Given that, it’s pretty impressive that he was able to hold the Angels down after giving up that bases-clearing double to Jeff Mathis on a hanging curve in the second (though Hughes was charged with five runs in total, Luis Vizcaino had as much to do with the last two as Hughes did). Hughes was also really bothered by the five walks he issued. He said he wasn’t sure he’d ever given up five walks total in back-to-back starts before, let alone in a single start. Looking over his minor league record without the benefit of game logs, he could very well be right. Hughes walked just 66 men in 54 minor league appearances (53 of them starts).

As for tonight, here’s hoping Mike Mussina has his stuff (or his scuff). He sure as heck didn’t in his last start in the opener against the Tigers. Moose had four strong start before that however and, unlike Hughes, has walked just four men over his last five starts, that disaster included. Mussina last faced the Halos in late May, turning in a strong outing (6 1/3 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 6 K, 0 HR), only to have the Yankee offense struggle and Scott Proctor blow the Yankees’ slim lead. Sometimes it seems that could describe every game the Yankees have played against the Angels over the past four years.

The Yanks really have their work cut out for them tonight as they face one of the hottest pitchers in the league. Kelvim Escobar is second in the AL with a 2.68 ERA, but he’s been far better than that over the last two months. In his last start in June, Escobar allowed seven runs in 4 1/3 innings to the Orioles. Since then he’s posted a 1.56 ERA, averaged 7 1/3 innings per starts, and allowed one, count it, one home run in eight starts (congratulations, Travis Buck). Escobar has allowed more than one earned run in just two of those eight starts and in his last outing he struck out nine Blue Jays in seven innings and walked none. The Yankees last faced Escobar the day before Mussina’s start in late May and saw more of the same: 7 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 8 K, 0 HR. Yes, Escobar is pitching over his head, but only slightly. His BABIP is a favorable, but not fluky, .289, and he’s been succeeding beyond his usual level by suppressing hits and homers. He has not, however shown the increase in groundball rate that might explain those decreased rates.

There are some positives the Yankees can latch on to. First, 15 of the 17 men who have tried to steal against Escobar this season have been successful, that’s a tremendous 88 percent success rate (on his career, baserunners have stolen at an 80 percent clip). Second, though Escobar has dominated his last eight starts, the Angels have only won five of them due to poor run support. Over that stretch, the Halos have scored just 3.5 runs per game on Escobar’s behalf. Of course they just dropped seven on the Yanks last night, but you gotta have something to cling to, right?

With Jorge Posada having caught five games in a row including ten innings last night, Jose Molina starts behind the plate against his old team tonight. The hot-hitting Andy Phillips is at first. Jason Giambi will DH.

Quick Fast

It’s cold and rainy in New York today as we Yankee fans moan about last night’s game. At least, the Yankee fans I’ve spoken to have been whinning (and none louder than me). Here’s a couple of links to break the mood. Okay, first, Steven Goldman ‘splains why Scioscia-Ball works more than it should; Mark Lamster writes that sometimes nice guys finish last, Hank Waddles interviews Jayson Stark and Baseball-Reference’s Stat of the Day blog notes that Jorge Posada is on his way to having the best season ever for a 35-year old catcher. And for something completely different, check out this series of recordings by former Yankee organist Eddie Layton. Ed Alstrom, the regular weekend organist at the Stadium these days (who is also a Bronx Banter regular), posted the Layton recordings, which are from the 1950s. Don’t sleep, peep.

You’ll Never Guess How I Feel About the Angels

It’s funny: as much as I hate the Angels, I’ve never found much to dislike about their individual players. If we’re being honest, they’re a pretty inoffensive group*; I mean, John Lackey tends to breathe through his mouth all the time, which is a pet peeve of mine, and Chone Figgins has been slightly overrated, sure… but I think that’s about it, really. I just loathe them as an entity, the entire organization, the whole idea of them. Individual Red Sox have irked me far more – Schilling, Pedro back in the day, Carl “The Bible Never Says Anything About Dinosaurs” Everett, etc – but ultimately I respect the Sox, and clearly baseball is richer for their existence…whereas I firmly believe the Angels should be legally abolished.

Now more than ever, of course, as I stayed up late with a summer cold to watch all three hours and 45 minutes of an indescribably frustrating Yankee loss: Angels 7, Yankees 6. The highs were high but the lows were low, and the lows ganged up on the highs and beat them to a bloody pulp. New York hitters wasted several opportunities, but seems to me it was the Yankee pitching that was most at fault, and particularly the bullpen.

Phil Hughes, coming home for the first time as a Yankee, was slightly better than his box score indicates (because Luis Vizcaino was significantly worse than his), but he certainly struggled off and on tonight, especially with his control: 5 walks and 4 hits in 6.1 innings of work. He was not helped by Robinson Cano, who made what proved to be a harmless error on a routine-ish grounder in the first, followed by a costly — if unofficial — mistake when he let a ball hit hard to his right slip under his glove in the second. Larry Bowa looked… displeased. Three runs would score in the inning, but to be fair, Hughes was hardly blameless: after Cano’s flub, he walked two in a row and gave up a bases-clearing double, to Jeff Mathis of all people, on the hang-iest of hanging curves.

It was 3-0 Angels, but the Yankees raged against the dying of the light: Hughes settled down and pitched well for the next four innings, and the offense began to stir, especially after the removal of Angels starter Dustin Moseley. In the fourth, Hideki Matsui tripled and scored on a Jorge Posada groundout; in the sixth, Alex Rodriguez went deep for the 40th time this season, scoring Bobby Abreu and breaking an extremely brief tie with Prince Fielder for ML home run leader. 4-3 Yankees. As a bonus, Rodriguez did this off a pitcher with the top-notch name of Bootcheck.

Things went south in the bottom of the seventh, however. Hughes started the inning and promptly allowed a hit and a walk, so Joe Torre went to the bullpen… but unfortunately, though he tried to call for July Luis Vizcaino, he accidentally summoned May Luis Vizcaino, who promptly allowed both inherited runners to score, plus one to grow on. 6-4 Angels.

But! In the 8th, after A-Rod singled, Jorge Posada knocked a Justin Speier pitch over the right field fence to tie the game. (Had they skipped this part, the game would have ended 45 minutes earlier, thousands of New Yorkers would have been spared a dangerous rise in blood pressure, Mariano would have been fresh for tomorrow, I would have gotten some sleep, and Sean Henn wouldn’t have ended his night on the verge of tears*. But nice hitting, anyway).

Kyle Farnsworth came on in the bottom of the inning, and I don’t see why two solid recent outings should cancel out the dozens and dozens of mediocre to horrendous outings that preceded them. He promptly reverted to his most infuriating pitching style, falling behind Gary Matthews and Casey Kotchman and allowing a double and a walk, respectively. Maicer Izturis then smashed a line drive right to Wilson Betemit, who made a better play than he had any right to and was able to throw out Matthews at home plate. Spiritually, that ball was a run-scoring double. Reggie Willets (of “his family literally lives in a batting cage” fame) then struck out on a veeeeery questionable check swing call. Honestly, I’ve rarely seen a worse-pitched scoreless inning; yes, Farns got out of it without allowing a run, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

Torre then did something many statistically inclined fans have been wishing he’d try for a long time: he brought in Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of a tie road game. It doesn’t get much higher-leverage than that, and Mo came through, pitching around some lucky hits. Unfortunately, he only went the one inning; and in the 10th, Torre brought in Sean Henn… who allowed a double to Kendrick, followed by a walk-off game winner to someone named Ryan Budde. Poor Henn looked to be taking it hard after the game, and I want to be clear that you really can’t pin this loss on just him, but I do just need to point out here that this was the SECOND-EVER HIT OF BUDDE’S CAREER.

I’m going to bed.

 

*I’m not as down on Torre as many of you, but I will say that when a third of your bullpen has left games openly weeping**, that’s probably a sign there’s room for improvement in that area, no?

 

**Or set their equipment on fire in front of the dugout.

 

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

In case you had forgotten, the Yankees kicked off their current hot streak by taking three of four from the Twins and then two of three from the Angels at Yankee Stadium in the final two series before the All-Star break. Since then, the Angels have gone a modest 19-16 in the second half. Along the way they’ve lost series to the D-Rays, Twins, A’s (twice), M’s, Blue Jays, and most recently split four games with the Red Sox. The bad news is that the Halos have maintained their considerable home-road splits over that stretch, going 8-12 on the road and 11-4 at home, the latter including a series win against the Red Sox and sweeps of the Twins and Tigers. Indeed, the Angels have a losing record on the road for the year, but have played .702 ball at Angel Stadium. Meanwhile the Yankees are still a game below .500 on the road.

The good news is that the Yanks, who have played .717 ball dating back to that Twins series, have also gone 12-5 on the road since their disastrous swing through the NL West in late June. That sets up the three-game series in Anaheim that kicks off tonight as a real battle of the titans. Indeed, the Angels are just 2.5 games ahead of the Yankees in the overall American League standings and are one of just three teams in baseball that has won more games than the Bombers (Boston and upstart Arizona being the other two). Of course, every stat about the Yankees recent success comes with the caveat of the quality of their second-half competition, but now that the Yankees have taken six of seven from the Indians and Tigers, with three of those coming on the road, one needn’t sound that warning quite so loudly.

As for the Angels, rookie sensation Reggie Willits has crashed back to earth in the second half, returning the left field job to Garret Anderson, who had a hot July, but has been awful in August. With Anderson in the field, Mike Scioscia has been using the DH spot to give rotating rest to his three outfielders, with Willits picking up most of those spot starts and some extra time at DH himself. Elsewhere, the team’s young catcher Mike Napoli just can’t seem to stay healthy. That’s why Jose Molina was starting for the Angels earlier in the year and that’s why backup Jeff Mathis is doing so now. Mathis, who started five games over the season’s first four months,has started 19 games since Molina was traded and has hit .237/.299/.373 over that span, which is actually a fair upgrade from what Molina had done as the Angel starter. Fortunately, Molina, who should get a start against his old team as Posada has now started four straight, has stepped up his game since coming to New York.

Tonight, the Yankees send Phil Hughes, who has been excellent in his two major league road starts, to the hill to face fellow rookie Dustin Moseley. Though a starter by trade, Moseley has spent most of the year in the Angel bullpen after opening the year with two solid starts in place of the injured Jered Weaver. Moseley returned to the rotation in late July after the Angels optioned the disappointing Ervin Santana to triple-A and Bartolo Colon hit the DL with elbow trouble once again. Moseley’s made four starts since then, but failed to make it out of the sixth inning in any of them alternating stinkers against Detroit and Boston at home with solid, but short outings against the A’s and Jays on the road. Moseley’s back home facing another good offense and due for one of those stinkers. Here’s hoping his trend continues. Either way, with Santana having made a triumphant return in Boston on Friday, it appears Moseley will be heading back to the pen after tonight.

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Card Corner–Graig Nettles

 

As The Bronx is Burning winds down its two-month run on ESPN, it’s time to present the last in our series of three tributes to members of the 1977 Yankees. One of the few criticisms I have of the riveting miniseries is the lack of face time given to the character of Graig Nettles, whose cutting sense of humor and sincere dislike of Reggie Jackson represented two interesting sub-themes in 1977. Nettles might have been the most underrated member of the "Bronx Zoo" Yankees; he was a terrific defender and power source at third baseman, a borderline Hall of Famer who remains underappreciated, especially by those who never saw him play.

When the Cleveland Indians traded Nettles and catcher Jerry Moses to the New York Yankees for a package of four players on November 27, 1972, the Topps Card Company was left with a familiar quandary: how to portray the players on their new 1973 cards? As Topps often did, it resorted to the art of airbrushing, a re-touching method that involves drawing in new colors and logos onto existing photographs. In the case of Nettles’ 1973 Topps card (No. 498), we might call it a case of airbrushing gone mad. After selecting a 1972 action shot of Nettles (playing in a game for the Indians at either Milwaukee’s County Stadium or Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium), the Topps artist decided to brush in the colors of the Yankees’ road uniform, which is gray. Instead, the artist came up with a kind of bluish hue, giving the card somewhat of a surreal look. The blue on the helmet and the socks is also the wrong shade of blue—a light blue, instead of the traditional Navy blue used by the Yankees (a blue so dark that it looks black, especially from a distance). Showing further unawareness of the design of the Yankees’ road uniform, the artist decided to play a game of mix-and-match, drawing the famed interlocking "NY" logo onto the front of the jersey. Of course, the interlocking "NY" is only worn on the home uniform, and not the road jersey, which features the words "New York" spelled out in block print. So what we have is a rather intriguing amalgam of a uniform, one that has never been worn by the Yankees anywhere or anytime in their history. Yet, it’s actually somewhat attractive and might provide a reasonable basis for future changes. Heck, the interlocking "NY" looks better than "New York;" perhaps the Yankees should carry the "NY" both on the road and at home.

Here’s one other trivial note about Nettles: for those wondering why Nettles first name is spelled "GRAIG," instead of the conventional "GREG," here’s the story. According to Wayne Nettles, Graig’s father, it was Nettles’ mother who came up with the idea for the unusual birth name. Mrs. Nettles wanted to name him Greg, but she hated the longer version of that name, which is Gregory. So she found a way around that conventional trap by coming up with the alternate name of Graig, so that once others realized how his name was spelled, they would never try to lengthen it to the more formal version of the name.

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Series Wrap: vs. Tigers

Offense: The Yankees scored 6.25 runs per game against a Tigers team that had been allowing 6.70 runs per game over their previous 27 games. I’m going to call that disappointing, especially as they got a few lucky hops along the way.

Studs:

Bobby Abreu 8 for 16, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 5 R, 2 BB, 2 SB
Andy Phillips, 6 for 11, 2B, 4 RBI, R, BB
Jason Giambi 4 for 13, 2B, 2 HR, 2 RBI, 2 R, 5 K
Jorge Posada, 5 for 16, HR, 2 RBI, 3 R, 2 BB
Johnny Damon 4 for 11, HR, RBI, 2 R, 2 BB
Wilson Betemit 2 for 6, 2B, 4 RBI, 3 K

Duds:

Derek Jeter 3 for 12, 3 R, BB, 2 K, GIDP
Melky Cabrera 3 for 12, BB, 3 K, CS

Shelley Duncan struck out in his only at-bat of the series. Jose Molina did not appear.

Rotation: A solid showing with three quality starts followed Mike Mussina’s stinker (5 IP, 7 R) in the opener. Andy Pettitte was again the best, holding the Tigers to one run on five hits and a walk over eight while striking out five. Roger Clemens and Chein-Ming Wang combined to strike out 14 Tigers in 12 innings, though they also allowed 19 hits. Clemens allowed two runs and walked no one. Wang allowed three, walked two, and also balked and bounced to wild pitches.

Bullpen: Farming out Jeff Karstens and Jim Brower and bringing back Edwar Ramirez has done wonders for a bullpen that had already benefited from replacing Scott Proctor with Joba Chamberlain. Sean Henn (who replaced Karstens) was the only reliever who didn’t appear in this series and together the remaining six men allowed just one run and only five baserunners in 11 innings while striking out 14.

The Good:

Edwar Ramirez struck out three in two perfect innings in the finale. Joba Chamberlain faced the meat of the Tiger order twice and allowed just a single while striking out three in two scoreless innings. Kyle Farnsworth allowed just a walk while striking out two in two scoreless innings. Luis Vizcaino did the same replacing the walk with a single. Mariano Rivera pitched around a walk to earn the save in Saturday’s game, striking out one.

The Bad:

Ron Villone struck out three men in his two innings in the opener, but also allowed a solo homer to Ivan Rodriguez. Then again, Rodriguez was Villone’s only baserunner in those two innings.

Conclusion: If Joe Torre starts trusting Edwar Ramirez late in close games like he did in the finale, something he already does with Chamberlain, and Farnsworth can continue to succeed in the earlier innings (his two innings in this series came in the sixth on Thursday and seventh on Saturday), Vizcaino won’t be overworked and can slot in either the middle or late innings as needed, and Mariano Rivera will get the rest down the stretch that he’s seemed to need in recent years. That means that, save perhaps for swapping Villone out for Chris Britton, the bullpen is as fixed as the bench, which puts the onus now on the starting pitchers to perform up to their abilities and reputations. If that happens, this team could be unstoppable.

There’s No D in “Relief” Either, I Don’t Care What Rolaids Taught You

Prior to Friday’s game I said that, despite the Yankees’ ugly loss in the opening game of their series against the Tigers, I had feeling that they’d win the remaining three, just as they had done against the lowly Devil Rays four weeks earlier. It says something about a team when you can make a statement like that about a series against a playoff contender and have the team fulfill that expectation, which is exactly what the Yankees did, concluding their series win with a 9-3 victory in yesterday’s finale.

Chien-Ming Wang wasn’t particularly sharp again yesterday, but he battled through to turn in a bare minimum quality start (6 IP, 3 R). Wang didn’t get his second ground ball out until the fourth inning, but did record six strikeouts, four of them coming in those first three innings. I can only assume that Wang was working his slider more in the early innings then shifted back to the sinker as his final three innings saw him record just two more strikeouts, but six of his seven ground-ball outs. Unfortunately, they also saw him cough up his three runs.

The Tigers cut the Yankees’ early 2-0 lead in half with a run in the fourth, then took the lead on Wang in the fifth. Wang, who stranded five men through the first four innings including men at second and third in the fourth, really struggled with men on base in the fifth. Curtis Granderson led off the inning with a single then moved to second on a groundout. Granderson’s dancing off second resulted in a pickoff throw that bounced into centerfield. Granderson didn’t advance on that, but he took off on the next pitch, causing Wang to balk giving Granderson third. Wang then walked Gary Sheffield and gave up an RBI single to Magglio Ordoñez that moved Sheffield to second. Sheffield and Ordoñez then pulled a double steal on Wang and three pitches later, Wang bounced a pitch past Posada to allow Sheffield to score the go-ahead run. Wang rallied to strike out Carlos Guillen, and Ryan Raburn did the Yankees a huge favor by bunting with two outs and a man on third. I can only assume he was trying to catch the Yankee defense by surprise, but his bunt went right back to Wang, who threw to first to end the rally.

The Yankees tied things up right away in the bottom of the fifth against Jeremy Bonderman. Bobby Abreu led off with a single back through the box. Alex Rodriguez shot a grounder right through Brandon Inge’s legs for a two-base error that moved Abreu to third, and Hideki Matsui plated Abreu with a sac fly to left. Wang struggled through the sixth, throwing another wild pitch with two runners on, but escaped with out further damage, and Johnny Damon gave the Yankees the lead in the bottom of the inning with a towering upper deck home run that just stayed fair down the right field line.

Then the fun started.

With a one-run lead and the heart of the Tiger order due up in the top of the seventh, Joe Torre called on Joba Chamberlain, who received a hero’s welcome from the packed Stadium, then earned it. Chamberlain retired Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordoñez, and Carlos Guillen on nine pitches, eight of them strikes, striking out Ordoñez and Guillen on seven pitches with Ordoñez going down on three fastballs, the slowest being clocked at 98 miles per hour. Perhaps most impressively, Chamberlain had faced the same three hitters in the ninth inning on Friday night and did better against them yesterday.

Buoyed by Chamberlain, the Yankees added a pair of insurance runs against Zach Minor in the seventh and three more against Aquilino Lopez in the eighth. One of the fun subplots of the these late innings was the fact that the Tigers twice intentionally walked Robinson Cano to pitch to Wilson Betemit, who started at shortstop in place of the generally banged up Derek Jeter. Betemit had struck out in his first two at-bats against Bonderman. In the fifth, with two out and Rodriguez at second, Bonderman intentionally walked Cano to pitch to Betemit, who hit a sharp sinking liner to right field but right to Ordoñez for the third out. In the same scenario in the seventh (two out, Rodriguez at second), Miner also intentionally walked Cano to pitch to Betemit, who this time hit an RBI single back up the middle, setting up another RBI single by Andy Phillips. In the eighth, Betemit came to the plate with the bases loaded against Lopez and cracked a bases-clearing double into the gap in right center that put the game out of reach.

Also putting the game out of reach was Edwar Ramirez, who struck out the side in the eighth to preserve what was then a three-run lead, then came back out in the ninth with a six-run lead and retired the Tigers in order on seven pitches. Together Ramirez and Chamberlain pitched three perfect innings of relief, striking out five and throwing just 31 pitches. Torre, meanwhile, used them perfectly, bringing in Chamberlain to face the heart of the order in the seventh, then calling on Ramirez to face the weaker hitters in the eighth and sticking with him to avoid using Mariano Rivera with a six-run lead in the ninth. Here’s hoping Ramirez, who has now pitched 4 1/3 innings since being recalled, struck out six, and allowed just one baserunner on a bunt single, becomes as important a part of the Yankees’ end-game as Chamberlain has.

The Yankees now sit three games ahead of the Tigers in the Wild Card race and are a game and a half ahead of the AL Central-leading Indians for good measure. The Mariners, however, refuse to lose, and still hold a half game advantage on the Yankees and lead the Wild Card by two games in the loss column. Two weeks from today, the Mariners come to the Stadium for a three-game showdown. Time to circle that one in red.

Catch A Tiger By The Tail

The day after his best bud Andy Pettitte broke the Yankees’ three-game losing streak by shutting down the Tigers over eight innings, Rocket Clemens turned it into a winning streak with six strong frames of his own. As has been his way this season, Clemens used up a lot of pitches and gave up a fair number of hits, but he clamped down with runners on base yesterday afternoon, didn’t walk anyone, and used a particularly crisp and accurate fastball to rack up eight strikeouts, four of them coming with runners on base.

One of those strikeouts started an extremely rare 2-1 double play in the third inning. With one out, rookie Cameron Maybin on first via his first major league hit, a groundball through Robinson Cano’s vacated second base position on a hit-and-run play, and Brandon Inge on third, Marcus Thames battled Clemens to a full count. Maybin took off on the next pitch, which Thames swung through for Clemens’ sixth strikeout of the game (91 mph fastball up and in). Jorge Posada then fired to second, but Clemens cut the ball off and charged Inge, who had taken off for home when Posada released the ball. Inge was a dead duck as Clemens applied the tag for the final out. According to the FOX broadcast, the last time a runner was caught stealing by a throw to the pitcher was a whopping 21 years ago, when the Cardinals Vince Coleman was nabbed by the Giants Bob Melvin and Juan Berenguer in the fifth inning of this game (note how the play-by-play differs from the play in the second inning of this game, on which a runner was thrown out at home trying to advance on a wild pitch with the pitcher covering the plate), and even that wasn’t a double play. I find it both difficult to believe and very disappointing that no pitcher has caught a runner by cutting the throw from his catcher with runners on the corners and the man on first stealing second in 21 years. I am, however, encouraged by the fact that, in this case, the play was entirely premeditated as Posada and Clemens had conferenced at the mound before the previous pitch.

Despite nailing Inge (and nail him he did, Clemens almost knocked Inge into the Tiger dugout with the tag) and stranding eight other men, Clemens left the game trailing Detroit. In the fourth, Clemens got into a one-out, bases loaded jam and escaped after allowing only one run on a sac fly. In the fifth, the rookie Maybin led off the inning by hitting what looked like either a lame splitter up in the zone or a rare curveball (Clemens’ fourth if not fifth best pitch) to dead center for his first major league homer and just second career hit. The Yankees, meanwhile, had managed just one run off quadruple-A journeyman Chad Durbin, who was making just his third start since mid-June.

Durbin allowed just three hits and a walk through the first five innings, one of those hits being a solo Jorge Posada homer to the retired numbers in the second inning. He then allowed three more hits to start the sixth, including a two-run Bobby Abreu tater off the left field foul pole that would give Clemens the win. The Yanks then scratched out two more in that inning against relievers Tim Byrdak and Jason Grilli and shut the door with Farnsworth, Vizcaino, and Rivera each pitching a scoreless inning to wrap up the 5-2 win.

For what it’s worth, Farnsworth looked as good in the seventh inning yesterday as I’ve seen him all year. It took him ten pitches to get leadoff hitter Sean Casey to fly out, but he came back from that to strike out Gary Sheffield and Magglio Ordoñez, the two most dangerous hitters in the Detroit lineup, on a total of eight pitches, finishing both off with high heat in the upper 90s. The last pitch to Ordoñez was 98 mph, but the third strike to Sheffield was the most exciting as it was 97 miles per hour and literally head-high. In his last four outings, Farnsworth has allowed just one baserunner, no hits, and struck out five in four scoreless innings. That’s his best multi-game stretch of the season.

The Yanks look to take the series this afternoon in a matchup of excellent young pitchers who have struggled of late. Chien-Ming Wang has allowed 20 baserunners and 13 runs in his last two starts totaling just 8 2/3 innings. Most of that was his disaster outing in Toronto, but his last start was one of just three others in which he’s allowed five or more runs this season. Jeremy Bonderman was actually excellent in his last start in Cleveland (7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 8 K), but before that he put together a 11.28 ERA across his previous four, all losses. Like Wang, most of that damage came in a single disaster start (Bonderman’s came in Anaheim), but he still posted an 8.10 ERA in the remaining three starts from that rough patch.

Mr. Big Stuff

Rain delayed Friday night’s game for just over an hour, and for the rest of the night, the field was swarmed by moths. I don’t recall ever seeing that at The Stadium before. Time was called when a moth flew into Jorge Posada’s eye, otherwise, they didn’t interfere with the game.

I had a good feeling about the Yanks last night, didn’t you? Soup to nuts, it just felt like a game the Bombers would win. I wasn’t the only one feeling good–the crowd at the Stadium was intense, the atmosphere like that of a playoff game. Yankee fans know how important these games are, and remember the sting of losing to the Tigers last October.

After watching Mike Mussina flirt with the edges of the strike zone the night before, it was immediately comforting to see Andy Pettitte pound the strike zone, early and often. As a Yankee, Pettitte was 66-32 in starts after a Yankee loss coming into the game. When it was all said and done, the Bombers rolled to a 6-1 win.

The Yanks got the breaks. Down 1-0 in the third, the Yanks had runners of first and second with two out when Bobby Abreu’s seemingly routine ground ball to short hit the lip of the infield grass and hopped over Carlos Guillen’s glove, allowing the tying run to score. Alex Rodriguez hooked Nate Robertson’s next pitch to left. On TV, I thought it might have gotten enough of it to poke it over the seats for a home run. But the ball hit off the end of Rodriguez’s bat and didn’t have the distance. However it landed just fair before bouncing over the fence for a double.

The Yanks never looked back. Andy Phillips, who has not been hitting at all recently, had three hits and two RBI. Jason Giambi hit a couple of long home runs. The second dinger went a-way up in the upper deck, a truly monstrous shot. Pettitte pitched eight innings and Joba Chamberlian cleaned-up the game in the ninth (he allowed a single to Magglio Ordonez and struck out Pudge Rodriguez with a slider to end the game).

Gary Sheffield was booed each time he came to bat. He was revered when he played in New York, in spite of what some fans thought about his mouth. And I think he would have been received much differently now if he hadn’t blasted Torre in public.

Another thing that I’ve been meaning to mention, only because there haven’t been any screaming headlines about it in these parts. In a contract year, Mariano Rivera is having the worst season of his career. I’ve been avoiding calling it like it is for a while now, but the numbers don’t lie, do they?

Welcome Back to the Five-and-Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

Finally, on a personal note, Cliff and I would like to echo Emma’s recent comments about Bronx Banterite Jim Dean who passed away last month. Jim was watching the Yankee game, hanging in the Bronx Banter comments section when his heart gave in. Neither Cliff nor I were on-line at the time. Jim knew his baseball and loved to provoke conversation and arguments. I didn’t know Jim personally, but my dad died earlier this year, so I’m familiar with the feelings that surround death these days.

I want to send our deepest sympathies to Jim’s family. It is humbling to discover that one of our own has passed, especially in our midst, so to speak. It could happen to me or you anytime. The fact that he died while hanging with us on the Banter chokes me up. I don’t know how to honor the moment exactly, but in a strange way–and I don’t mean to sound trite–it feels like an honor that he would be with us during his last moments. His spirit remains with us. Next time Torre makes a lousy bullpen move, we’ll be thinking of you, J.D. and how you won’t be resting easy about it. We’ll make sure to give ‘em hell on your behalf.

Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

Maybin? I’m Amazed

The good news about last night’s loss to the Tigers was that it came in the game with the least favorable pitching matchup for the Yankees. In a way, it reminded me of the team’s 14-4 loss to the Devil Rays in the opening game of a four-game series in the Bronx four weeks ago. Mike Mussina got torched in that game (4 2/3 IP, 6 R), and then the Yankees torched the Devil Rays over the remaining three games.

Indeed, tonight’s matchup favors the Yankees quite a bit. Nate Robertson is 1-3 with a 6.39 ERA over his last five starts, while Andy Pettitte has recovered from his stumble just before the All-Star Break to go 5-1 with a 3.15 ERA in seven post-break starts. Five of those seven have been quality starts and the only two that weren’t saw Pettitte fall just one out short. The biggest difference between the two of late has been extra base hits. Opposing hitters have hit just one home run and slugged just .352 against Pettitte over those last seven games while hitting four jacks off Robertson in his last five and slugging .557 against the bespectacled Bengal. Altogether, 41 percent of Robertson’s hits allowed over that span have gone for extra bases, while just 23 percent of Pettitte’s have.

Finally some roster notes on the Tigers. Remember in yesterday’s preview when I said “Monroe has been so bad . . . that he appears to be losing his job.” I meant his job as the starting left fielder. Turns out, he just lost his job as a Detroit Tiger, getting designated for assignment this afternoon so that the Tigers could call up top prospect Camron Maybin. Maybin, a 20-year-old righty-hitting outfielder, is a classic five-tool prospect who was the organization’s minor league player of the year while in low-A ball last year, but this might be a little too much too soon. Maybin just hit double-A this month and comes to the majors with just six games above A-ball under his belt. Of course he went 8 for 20 with four homers in those six games, but it’s still just six games. He also struck out 83 times in 83 games in high-A and six more times in those six games in double-A. Nonetheless, he’ll make his major league debut in left field at Yankee Stadium tonight in a game with playoff implications. But no pressure, kid.

Less exciting is the swap of right-hitting backup infielders Omar Infante and Ramon Santiago. A lot less exciting.

Meanwhile, Joe Torre seems unconcerned about Robertson’s left-handedness and rather fierce platoon splits. Torre’s keeping Bobby Abreu in the lineup, starting Jason Giambi at DH, and giving Melky Cabrera a day of rest, which puts Johnny Damon in center field. Save for Abreu, who should be platooning with Shelley Duncan, there’s really nothing wrong with that lineup. Andy Phillips starts at first over Duncan as well, but with the groundballing Pettitte on the mound, that’s legit, too.

Did He Who Made the Lamb Make Thee?

I recently returned from a trip to Taiwan, on which more later. (I’ve braced myself, and I’ll try not to take it personally when the inevitable slew of “Go back to Taiwan! Quick!” comments appear below.) I had no trouble following the Yankees while I was there, because ESPN Taiwan shows every game, first live (at 7 am or one in the morning), then repeated at least two or three times throughout the day. But it’s all in Chinese of course – with the occasional “wow” or “home run!” thrown in, or “ooh la la!,” which I think is like the ESPN Taiwan version of “booya!” – so I may have missed a few subtleties; if so, please don’t hesitate to correct me.

Strangely enough, this is the Yankees’ first series against the Tigers since last October’s Series of Unfortunate Events, and things didn’t go any better this time around: Tygers 8, Yankees 5, and it wasn’t even as close as the final score would indicate. Is there an Onion jinx?

Last night’s Yankee starter was Mike Mussina, who I’ve always enjoyed watching (and listening to, even when he’s grousing about something), but who does, increasingly, strike me as a grouchy 85-year-old trapped in a 39-year-old’s body. When not yelling at the Tigers to get off his damn lawn, Mussina struggled with his control, and that combined with bad luck put the Yankees in a big hole before the first commercial break. Mussina allowed a single, and an A-Rod error allowed Sheffield to reach base. (By the way, if you were curious about the crowd’s reaction to Sheff: he was booed, but as far as I could tell, not too intensely. The Yankee pitchers seemed not to want any part of him, not that I blame them, and he went 0-for-3 with two walks.) With two on, Magglio Ordoñez up, and one out, the situation was unlikely to end well; sure enough Ordoñez and the fuzzy thing living under his batting helmet walked, and Carlos Guillen promptly knocked a grand slam just over the right-field wall. Mussina offered no excuses after the game and refused to blame the error: “I lost the game for us in the first inning… I have to do my job when it’s my turn to play, and today I didn’t do it.”

In the bottom of the first, Derek Jeter singled and reached second on a wild pitch. I’d like to take a minute here to appreciate the anonymous Yankee fan sitting in the front row on the third-base side, who made what happened next possible. Hideki Matsui popped up and Brandon Inge, an excellent fielder at third, threw himself into the stands to try for the catch. He would have made it, too – he had it timed perfectly – but a spectacled, slightly nebbishy young guy in a blue button-down shirt jumped, just barely got his fingers behind the ball right as it headed into Inge’s glove, and flicked it away. He was the anti-Steve Bartman. It was masterfully done, and perfectly legal – he never touched Inge, didn’t do anything obnoxious or dangerous, but single-handedly saved the Yankees from an out; and on the very next pitch, Matsui singled to plate Jeter. As it happened, that run didn’t really matter, but you never know… had things gone slightly differently, it might have been decisive. So, well done, anonymous Yankee fan. I guess not everyone who sits in the front row is a soulless corporate tool.

The way the Yankee offense has been playing lately, three runs are hardly insurmountable, but the pitching staff just couldn’t hold it there. Mussina was hit hard again in the top of the second, making it 6-1. He then settled down – a combination of better location and better luck, as several well-hit balls found gloves – and an inning later the Yankees got two back on a Bobby Abreu homer; but that would be as small as the margin ever got. It was a frustrating loss, in large part because Tigers starter Justin Verlander seemed vulnerable all night – lots of balls (not in the good way), deep counts, long at-bats, and a massive pitch count, with 90 thrown by the 4th inning. To his credit he held things together and slogged his way into the sixth inning, throwing 119 pitches in the process.

 

Unfortunate juxtaposition of the game, brought to you by Michael Kay: “He could tell you what his plans were for the 7th, 8th, and 9th inning – for pinch-hitting, hitting and running, the way he’d use his pitchers – in his office before the game. If there’s such a thing as a genius in baseball, Billy Martin was a genius in baseball. He was a genius … and there you see Ron Villone beginning to throw…”.

 

Anyway. The Tigers added a run in the 5th, on singles off Mussina in his final inning of work, and in the 7th, with a Pudge Rodriguez home run off Villone. One interesting note: with two on in the bottom of the sixth, Joe Torre pinch-hit for Johnny Damon with Shelley Duncan. Now, Damon’s been very gracious about his recent lack of playing time, saying he’ll fill whatever role the team wants, anything to help – but man, that’s got to sting a little.

The Yankees staged a mini-rally in the ninth off Todd Jones – with the Padres’ recent release of David Wells, Jones is perhaps now the reigning Major League Pitcher Who Looks Least Like a Professional Athlete, and I love him for it. The Yanks scored twice with two outs before Jason Giambi struck out to end the game; too little too late, though I suppose it at least it made the final score more respectable.

On a very sad note, we learned in last night’s comments that passionate Banter commenter Jim Dean passed away July 27th – while watching the Yankees, in fact. Jim needs no introduction to any regular reader of this site; as many people noted during the game, he was a strong presence here, and he will be missed. My condolences to Kate Dean, and the rest of Jim’s family and friends.

The Detroit Tigers

This is it. The make-or-break part of the Yankees’ season has arrived. The team’s next fourteen games all come against playoff contenders, six against the division leading Angels and Red Sox and, starting tonight, a whopping eight games against the Tigers, who are currently tied with the Indians atop the Central. After that, the Yanks have just three in Boston, three at home against the Wild Card-leading Mariners amid 21 more games against the cupcakes (though that 21 does include six more matches with Baltimore). Two weeks from tonight the Yankees will either be heading toward the playoffs or reeling from a harsh dose of reality.

The good news is that they’ve played contenders well since flipping the switch in July, going 5-1 against the Indians and Angels with an addition 3-1 against the pretending Twins. The Tigers, meanwhile, have been heading in the other direction.

The Detroit Tigers’ high water mark came at the conclusion of a three-game sweep of the Twins in Minnesota on July 19 when they were 21 games over .500 and held a two-games lead over the Indians in the AL Central. Detroit hasn’t won a single series since then and counts among their loses two of three at home to the Royals in which their only win came in extra innings, six of eight to the White Sox, four of seven to the A’s, and a four-game split at home against the Devil Rays. In total, the Tigers have gone 9-18 since leaving Minnesota and have fallen into a tie with the similarly slumping Indians atop the Central and a game behind the Yankees in the Wild Card race.

Whereas the Indians problem of late has been scoring runs, the Tigers’ problem has been preventing them. Over those last 27 games, Detroit has allowed 6.70 runs per game, this despite 21 of those contests occurring in the typically pitcher-friendly Comerica Park and the even more pitcher-friendly Oakland McAfee Coliseum. Curiously, Comerica has been and oddly neutral park this season, and the Tigers have been better at preventing runs on the road, where they’ve allowed 4.79 runs per game as opposed to 5.52 runs per game at home. As a result, they’ve been a much stronger road team, but that hasn’t held true over the last 27 games, as the Tigers have been equally terrible at home (5-9, 6.86 R/G allowed) and on the road (4-9, 6.53 R/G allowed).

The reason for the Tigers’ pitching struggles throughout the season has been injuries. Ace set-up man Joel Zumaya hasn’t pitched since May 1 following surgery on the middle finger on his throwing hand (he’s due back soon, but not for this series). Kenny Rogers, who was a huge part of their pennant-winning season last year, had offseason shoulder surgery and was active for just about a month beginning in late June before landing back on the DL with elbow inflammation after posting a 9.98 ERA in the last three of his six starts. Andrew Miller, the team’s top pitching prospect and 2006 draftee who was promoted to fill the rotation spot vacated when the struggling Mike Maroth was traded to St. Louis, strained a hamstring in his August 3 start against the White Sox and landed on the DL. Filling in for those three are 33-year-old journeyman Tim Byrdak, who didn’t see major league action from 2001 to 2004 and had his own DL stint in July due to elbow tendonitis, journeyman Chad Durbin, who last started in the majors in 2004, and rookie Jair Jurrjens, who made his major league debut in a loss to the Indians last night.

Further complicating the issue, remaining starters Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman have underperformed. Bonderman was expected to have a break-out season, but has been merely average, spending some time on the DL himself in May due to a blister, and posting a 9.20 ERA over his five starts since that Minnesota series. Robertson pitched over his head last year, but has gone too far in the other direction this season and was actually DLed in June due to what was termed a “tired arm.” Similar things can be said about incumbent set-up men Fernando Rodney, who was awful earlier in the season and spent all of July on the DL with shoulder and elbow tendonitis, and Jason Grilli, who’s been overused as a result of the injuries to Zumaya and Rodney and has seen his performance suffer as a result.

The Tigers can’t even count on 2006 Rookie of the Year and current staff ace Justin Verlander to hold the wolves at bay. Verlander, who starts tonight, has a 5.14 ERA over his last eight starts despite solid peripherals, has lasted more that six innings in only one of his last five starts, and has turned in quality starts in just two of his last six and three of those last eight. To all of that you can add the flu, which has been going around the Tiger clubhouse of late and could impact Verlander’s performance tonight.

On the flip side, the Tiger offense is second only to the Yankees in runs per game this season. The key difference being that, unlike the Yankees, the Tigers have some soft spots in their batting order, specifically third baseman Brandon Inge (.239/.316/.391), 35-year-old catcher Ivan Rodriguez (.278/.288/.426), and left fielder Craig Monroe (.222/.264/.373). Monroe has been so bad, in fact, that he appears to be losing his job to the recently reactivated Marcus Thames, starting only when Thames shifts to first base to spell Sean Casey against lefties.

At the same time, the tough spots in the Tiger order are very, very tough. Gary Sheffield, Curtis Granderson, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, and especially Magglio Ordoñez are all having outstanding seasons. Sheffield’s season is a dead ringer for his two healthy seasons in New York except he’s been far more active on the bases, stealing 18 of 22, and even harder to strike out. Granderson appears to have made the leap at age 26. The most remarkable thing about his season isn’t necessarily his 18 triples, but the fact that 12 of them have come on the road. Polanco is enjoying a career year with a performance that’s a dead ringer for what he did over the remainder of 2005 after being acquired from the Phillies. Guillen is merely playing to his usual high standard. Finally, Ordoñez is a legitimate challenger to Alex Rodriguez’s MVP hopes, matching Rodriguez in the cumulative total-performance stat VORP despite fewer plate appearances. In third place in the AL: Jorge Posada. In fact, the Yankees and Tigers combine to employ ten of the top 22 VORP totals in the American League. The five Tigers are the men just discussed. The three Yankees after Rodriguez and Posada are Jeter, Matsui, and Cano.

The man who will try to tame those Tiger bats tonight will be Mike Mussina. Moose has been on a roll of late, posting a 2.84 ERA over his last four starts, all wins. He’s not walked a batter in his last 22 innings pitched. He will, however, have to cope with Jason Giambi at first base tonight, as G’Bombi will get the start at first for the first time since May 3. Hideki Matsui will DH, Johnny Damon’s in left, and the Yankee lineup is utterly seamless. Wow.

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Yankee Panky #20

By Will Weiss

I’ll begin with a note on the Phil Rizzuto coverage. All outlets did a good job, but I thought the Daily News hit every angle yesterday. Even the normally crusty Bob Raissman provided a touching eulogy in his column. On the radio broadcast, beat man Mark Feinsand told a story about how he went to grade school with Rizzuto’s granddaughter, and when he’d come for Grandparents Day, he’d sign autographs and talk with every kid in the class. Great information all around.

***

For anyone who believes athletes when they say they don’t read the papers or they don’t check the standings or the scoreboards, Curt Schilling has burst your bubble. A compliment from 38pitches.com:

“The Yankees have begun playing like we knew they would, which makes how well we played and the cushion we built a nice thing to see. I expect that team, managed by that guy, to maintain that pace the rest of the year.

The bottom line is the ball’s in our court, we have a 6 game lead so for us to not be Division Champions will rest squarely on us. As a player I don’t think you can ask for anything more. If we win it’s our fault, and if we lose it it’s our fault as well. No relying on someone to beat someone for it to work out for us. Now we spend the off day in Baltimore and go up against a team playing very well right now. We don’t need any one thing to get where we are going, we just need to play better as a team, which we will.”

That post was from last Thursday, the 9th, and since then the Yankees have nearly cut that six-game lead in half. Counting Monday’s victory over the Orioles, the Yankees are 30-13 since July 1, playing a remarkable stretch of .698 ball to vault over seven teams into the Wild Card lead, and to our delight and the New Englanders’ dismay, within striking distance of the Red Sox. In only one week have the Yankees lost three games – that was July 26, 27 and 28, when they lost the last of a four-game set in Kansas City and the first two games of a three-game weekender at Camden Yards.

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Series Wrap: vs. Orioles

Offense: Once again, the Yankee offense went missing in action against the Orioles, this time going 17 straight innings without a run between Tuesday’s shutout and Erik Bedard’s performance yesterday afternoon. Shelley Duncan’s three-run homer with two out in the ninth yesterday drove in all of the runs the Yankees have scored since Melky Cabrera’s game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth on Monday night.

Studs:

Alex Rodriguez 6 for 10, 2 BB, 2 R, 2 SB
Hideki Matsui 4 for 10, 3 BB, 2 R
Shelley Duncan 2 for 6, HR, 3 RBI, R, BB, 3 K

Duds:

Derek Jeter 1 for 12, RBI, HBP, 2 K
Robinson Cano 1 for 10, 3 K
Wilson Betemit 1 for 9, HR, 2 RBI, R, BB, 6 K
Melky Cabrera 1 for 10, 2B, RBI, R, 3 BB, HBP, K
Jorge Posada 2 for 11, RBI, R, 4 K
Andy Phillips 0 for 5, K
Jose Molina, 1 for 5, K

Rotation: Not s’good. Not a single quality start. The Jeff Karstens’ disaster can be dismissed as he’s been optioned and was merely spot-starting for Clemens anyway, but Chien-Ming Wang and Phil Hughes, the present and future aces of the Yankee rotation, combined to allow eight runs (seven earned) in a mere 11 innings. Wang’s last two starts have increased his ERA by 0.60 runs, pushing it above 4.00 for the first time since the beginning of June. His next start comes on Sunday after an extra day of rest due to Clemens’ return on Saturday.

Bullpen: Due to the lack of a quality start from the quality starters and Karstens’ disaster, the pen was called upon to pitch as many innings as the rotation in this series. Things rarely go well when that happens, and indeed they did not.

The Good:

Just typing this is fun: Joba Chamberlain struck out two in a perfect eighth inning on Monday, and Edwar Ramirez struck out three while allowing only a bunt single in 2 1/3 innings yesterday afternoon. Edwar also stranded the two inherited runners he picked up from Sean Henn, who was also solid, allowing just those two singles, one of which didn’t leave the infield, in 1 2/3 innings. Luis Vizcaino and Kyle Farnsworth both struck out one in very efficient 1-2-3 innings to finish up the Karstens disaster. Farnsworth threw eight of nine pitches for strikes in his frame.

The Bad:

Jim Brower poured gas on Karstens’ fire and thus joined Jeffrey on the trip to Scranton. Here’s hoping he had a one-way ticket. Ron Villone allowed all four of his inherited runners to score and added one of his own. Finally, Mariano Rivera blew a one-run save on Monday night only to vulture the win as the Yankees rallied. Brought into the tenth inning of a tie game yesterday, he coughed up the lead after two batters, then heaped on some insurance to take the loss.

Conclusion: The seven runs in the opener and the two bottom-of-the-ninth rallies were nice, as were the performances of the rookie relievers, but otherwise the Yankees stunk up the jernt. Here’s hoping this works the way the last Orioles series did to get that bad play out of the Yankees’ systems and wake them up for 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.

O’s No, Mo!*

I often wonder about the common practice of sending righty-heavy lineups against dominant lefties at the expense of starting a team’s best players. I’m not saying that Joe Torre was necessarily wrong to use a day game after a night game to give Robinson Cano and Bobby Abreu days off or to give Jorge Posada a spell as the DH while putting Jose Molina behind the plate. Indeed, one of the advantages of the strong Yankee bench is that the lineup doesn’t actually suffer that much when such moves are made. I just wonder if the practice artificially inflates the performance of both the lefty pitchers who face these second-rate lineups and the lefty batters who come down with what has been referred to as the 24-hour Randy Johnson flu.

Take for example some of the statistics quoted in the comments early in yesterday’s game thread. Erik Bedard entered yesterday’s game holding righties to a .208/.261/.335 line, and lefties to .230/.329/.385, but, as reader NJYankee41 pointed out, a lot of that left-handed production is courtesy of Carl Crawford, who is 7 for 12 with two doubles, a triple, and a homer against Bedard on the season. Even without his performance against Bedard, Crawford has a pretty even split this year, but historically he’s had a more typical platoon split. Who’s to say that some of the other high-profile lefties who have been sitting against Bedard wouldn’t find similar success against him (or Johan Santana, or whomever) if given enough exposure? In fact, I can guarantee that some of them would simply because they’re good hitters. What’s more, while Bedard is undoubtedly one of the elite pitchers in the game this year, would his performance against righties be as strong if it weren’t for the fact that a great many of them are reserves rather than his opponents’ regular starters?

Yesterday’s Yankee lineup had Wilson Betemit batting from his weaker right side in place of lefty Robinson Cano, righty Shelley Duncan in place of lefty Bobby Abreu, and righty Jose Molina pushing switch-hitter Jorge Posada to DH (Jorge’s numbers are pretty even from both sides of the plate) and thus starting in place of either Jason Giambi or Johnny Damon, both lefties. For good measure, switch-hitter Melky Cabrera was batting from his weaker side as well. That lineup struck out five times before Alex Rodriguez picked up the first hit off Bedard leading off the fourth and was held scoreless by Bedard over seven full innings with Rodriguez (twice), Hideki Matsui (the only lefty in the starting lineup), and Duncan (who also struck out twice) picking up the only four hits against Bedard.

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A Day With Sunshine

It’s an absolutely perfect day in the tri-state area. Beautiful, sunny, low humidity, a nice crisp breeze. What a day for a stellar pitching matchup in an afternoon rubber game at the Stadium. Orioles ace Erik Bedard has been one of the best pitchers in the league since April (2.32 ERA, 9-2, 87 hits and 157 Ks in 128 innings, quality starts in 17 of 19 games) and is a legitimate Cy Young contender. Yankees rookie Phil Hughes has a 4.64 ERA in just four major league starts, but two of those starts can be written off as one was his major league debut and the other was his first in the majors after three months on the DL. The two starts that followed those two have seen him post this combined line: 12 1/3 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 12 K, with the lone run coming on a solo homer. Hughes threw a career-high 95 pitches in his last start in Cleveland finishing six strong, so endurance is no longer a concern. Sit back and enjoy this one.

Aiding the enjoyment is the knowledge that Jeff Karstens and Jim Brower have both been jettisoned from the roster (via option and likely DFA, respectively) and replaced by Edwar Ramirez (who was back to his old tricks in Columbus, striking out 22 in 12 1/3 innings while allowing just 12 baserunners and two runs since being demoted) and Sean Henn. In his most recent major league stint and subsequent work in triple-A combined, Henn has posted this line: 11 1/3 IP, 13 H, 5 ER, 5 BB, 13 K, which yeilds a 3.97 ERA.

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