Joe Girardi got his first win as the manager of the Yankees last night as the Yanks beat the Toronto Blue Jays by a score of 3-2 in front of a packed house in a beauty of a game in the final opener in the history of the original Yankee Stadium. Though it rained most of the day and again after the game, the weather for the rescheduled opener was gorgeous throughout, which was in part a tribute to the contest’s swift pace.
As I’d hoped, starters Chien-Ming Wang and Roy Halladay were both on their game and produced a riveting duel through the first seven innings. The two starting pitchers got 28 of the game’s first 41 outs on the ground, five more by strikeout, and one by caught stealing (Derek Jeter, who got a bad jump on Halladay and catcher Gregg Zaun). Wang got three more outs in the infield, two in the second via a humpback line drive to second baseman Robinson Cano, who doubled Alex Rios off first, and a rocket line drive by Marcos Scutaro in the seventh that Jason Giambi, playing in on the grass to guard against the bunt, snagged with a leap. That’s 37 of 41 outs in the infield between the two pitchers. Of those remaining four outs, two came on tremendous fourth-inning catches by Yankee center fielder Melky Cabrera. The first was a drive to the 385-foot sign in the right-centerfield gap by Lyle Overbay that Cabrera caught moments before turning and slamming back-first into the wall. Two pitches later, Aaron Hill hit a sinking liner to the left-centerfield gap that Cabrera caught on a lunge, topping forward and sliding on his chest after making the catch.
As the stellar defensive play behind Wang indicates, Halladay was the sharper of the two pitchers, but also the less fortunate. The Yankees got out to an early lead in the bottom of the first on a two-out Bobby Abreu single and a double by Alex Rodriguez that scored Abreu from first, but the Jays tied it up right away in the top of the second on a pair of singles by Frank Thomas and Lyle Overbay (the latter of which was a hard grounder hit to Alex Rodriguez’s right that ticked off the third baseman’s glove as he dove) and a fielder’s choice by Scutaro. The two aces each faced just one more than the minimum over the next four and a half innings until the Jays took the lead in the top of the fifth when Scutaro drew a lead-off walk, stole second (his second steal of the game), moved to third on a single by Zaun, and scored on a slow Shannon Stewart groundout to third.
Melky Cabrera led off the bottom of the sixth against Halladay with a ten-pitch at-bat that saw him battle back from 1-2 to a full count, fouling off four pitches along the way. On the tenth pitch, Cabrera lifted a pop fly down the right field line that just cleared the wall behind the “3” in the 314-foot sign for a game-tying home run. In the top of the seventh, Wang gave up a lead-off double to Hill, but Giambi’s snag of Scutaro’s line-drive held the runner. Hill then moved to third on the second out, a grounder of course, and Wang got David Eckstein to ground out to strand Hill.
The Yankees mounted their own threat in the bottom of the seventh following a flair single by Rodriguez over Hill’s head at second base. That lead-off hit was followed by a walk to Giambi. Cano then hit a chopper that Eckstein fielded in front of second base. Eckstein’s momentum carried him past the bag forcing him to attempt to make a tag on Giambi, but Giambi froze in the baseline and ducked Eckstein’s tag, forcing the Toronto shortstop to fire to first base in the hope of turning a 6-3-4 double play, but Giambi beat the return throw from Overbay, sliding headfirst and safely into second. A replay shows that Hill could have fielded the ball on the bag and turned an easy DP had Eckstein not cut it off, but as much credit for the eventual result of the play is due to Giambi’s savvy baserunning as to Eckstein’s aggression. Giambi, incidentally, had a fine game despite going 0 for 3. In addition to that baserunning maneuver and his leaping catch of Scutaro’s liner, Giambi made several nice scoops at first base and cut down a lead-runner at second in the second by ranging to his right for a hopper and making a nice shovel pass to Derek Jeter on the bag as his momentum carried him toward the keystone.
With Rodriguez on third and Giambi on second with one out, the Jays walked Jorge Posada to load the bases for Hideki Matsui, setting up the double play for groundballer Halladay against Groundzilla. Matsui, who went 0 for 3 with three groundouts in the game, hit a skipping grounder just to the right of second base, but the ball hit the heal of Hill’s glove on his attempt at a back-handed stop, and the Jays were only able to get Posada at second as Rodriguez scored with the go-ahead and ultimately winning run.
With Wang having maxed out at 92 pitches in the seventh (Girardi made the only mound visit of the game with two outs and Hill on third in the seventh, likely to tell Wang to empty the tank), Girardi followed the formula by calling on Joba Chamberlain in the eighth and Mariano Rivera in the ninth. Chamberlain wasn’t particularly sharp, but he still worked around a walk and struck out two for a scoreless frame. Curiously, he used his curveball more than his slider. He used the hook to get a 1-1 strike call against Alex Rios, but Rios successfully checked his swing on the slider twice, including on ball four of his ten-pitch walk. Joba’s slider was irresistible to hitters last year, so either the pitch wasn’t working last night, or the league is catching up. That will bear watching. Chamberlain got Wells looking on bit of a hanging curve that dropped into the top of the zone as Rios stole second, then made quick work of Thomas, blowing a high fastball by him for a three-pitch strikeout. Rivera needed just 12 pitches to pick up the save, striking out Overbay, getting Hill to lift an easy fly to center, and inducing a mild groundout from Scutaro to end the game. Rivera then collected the ball from Giambi and presented it to Girardi, who was clearly overjoyed by the entire experience. He couldn’t have asked for a better game.