"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Don’t Call It A Comeback

Pitching on an extra day of rest due to a mild calf strain suffered in his last start, Chien-Ming Wang wasn’t sharp this afternoon. Joe Girardi speculated that the sinkerballer may have been a bit too strong due to the extra rest. Jose Molina reported that there was almost too much movement on Wang’s pitches. Indeed, Wang walked four men in his first four innings.

With the game tied at 1-1, Wang walked Adrian Beltre on five pitches to start the fourth frame. Kenji Johnjima hit the next ball to shortstop, but came away with an infield single when Derek Jeter’s throw pulled Shelley Duncan off the bag. Wang then walked Richie Sexson on five pitches to load the bases. Alex Rodriguez kept the game tied by picking up a hard grounder off the bat of Wladimir Balentien and firing home to force out Beltre, but Yuniesky Betancourt followed with a single past Rodriguez that gave the Mariners a 2-1 lead and kept the bases loaded with none out. Ichiro Suzuki, who had homered into the right field box seats for the first Mariner run in the previous inning, then hit a grounder to second that Duncan botched, allowing all hands to move up safely, making it 3-1 M’s. Two pitches later, Jose Lopez hit a shot right at Duncan, who dropped the line drive but recovered in time to start a 3-2-6 double play as Suzuki had to hold near the bag on the liner, thus allowing Jose Molina to gun him out at second base to end the rally.

Their initial run having come on a two-out Johnny Damon double and Jeter single in the third, the Yankees squeaked out another tally in the fifth when Cano led off with a walk, Jose Molina singled, and Melky Cabrera bunted the pair to second and third base. Although it came fairly early in the game, I didn’t have a problem with the bunt, as moving up two runners like that is actually the highest-leverage bunt a manager can call for short of a squeeze as it puts the offense an out away from one run and a hit away from two. In this case, it set up that situation for the top of the order with the Yankees trailing by exactly two runs. Unfortunately, Damon and Jeter only managed the outs thanks to a diving stop of a would-be Damon double down the right field line by Richie Sexson.

Hanging in with a 3-2 deficit, Joe Girardi sent Chien-Ming Wang back to the mound in the seventh inning having already thrown 97 pitches. Betancourt hit a bullet all the way to Johnny Damon for the first out, but the next three men all picked up hits, the last of them plating the first two to drive Wang from the game at 112 pitches trailing 5-2. Edwar Ramirez held the line there, but the bottom of the Yankee order failed to mount a threat against reliever Sean Green in the bottom of the seventh. Melky Cabrera did single with two outs in the seventh, but I found myself rooting against that hit, preferring that the top of the order be given a chance to mount a comeback against J.J. Putz’s set-up men with a clean slate in the eighth. As it turns out, Damon grounded out as well and that’s exactly what happened.

Derek Jeter led off the bottom of the eighth by battling back from 1-2 to draw a walk off Green. Inexplicably, Mariner manager John McLaren then emerged from the dugout to remove Green and give the ball to Arthur Rhodes. I know McLaren was going for the lefty-on-lefty matchup against Bobby Abreu, but if there’s one thing every major league manager should know, it’s don’t give Arthur Rhodes the ball against the Yankees. Rhodes faced three men without getting an out in Saturday’s game and today battled Abreu for eight pitches before surrendering a booming double into the right-field gap that made it 5-3 Yankees. That seemed to shake McLaren out of his stupor as he then removed Rhodes, who thus failed to get an out in two appearances in this series, and brought in his closer, Putz. Facing Alex Rodriguez who represented the potential tying run, Putz walked the defending AL MVP on six pitches and struck out Jason Giambi looking.

Girardi then sent up Hideki Matsui to pinch hit for Shelley Duncan, who had started in Matsui’s place against the lefty Washburn. Matsui took a bad swing at the first pitch he saw and tapped a lousy hopper to the right of the mound, but it was just far enough to the right to cause problems. Putz lept off the mound and snagged the ball on a dive, falling face first into the grass and likely breaking up an easy 4-3 putout in the process. Gathering himself as Matsui reached the bag, Putz then inexplicably threw to first from his stomach, firing over Richie Sexson’s lofty head and allowing Abreu to score and Rodriguez to advance to third base.

With the tying run now just 90 feet from home and only one man out, Robinson Cano creamed a 1-1 pitch from Putz to deep right center for a game-tying sac fly that was deep enough to allow Matsui to tag from first and advance to second on Ichiro Suzuki’s arm. Jose Molina appeared to hit the next pitch to the same spot, but on a higher arch. Everyone in the park, including Molina, though it was the third out, but apparently he got it just far enough around to right (and perhaps just enough of the late-afternoon sun got in Suzuki’s eyes) that the ball dropped on the lip of the warning track for an RBI double that gave the Yankees their first lead of the game.

As Mariano Rivera began to warm in the bullpen, Melky Cabrera grounded out on just two more pitches. Giardi thus let Ramirez warm up for the ninth only to pull his should-be set-up man just before the official start of the inning. Rivera, old pro that he is, warmed in a hurry and came in to pitch a perfect ninth inning, striking out the third and fourth men in the Seattle order to finish the job and nail down the 5-4 win.

That win, which was the Yankees’ second late-inning comeback in the last four days as well as their second of the season, gave the Yankees their second three-game sweep of the season (both of the Mariners at home), brought their overall record back up to .500 at 25-25, and moved them out of last place in the hyper-competitive AL East, a half game ahead of the Orioles, whom they just beat in two of three games at home and will face in a three game series in Baltimore starting tomorrow afternoon.

Edwar Ramirez got the win and still hasn’t allowed a run in 12 2/3 major league innings this year, but has struck out 15 men in those frames. He should get some serious attention as a set-up replacement for the transitioning Joba Chamberlain, who will pitch again Tuesday or Wednesday.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Derek Jeter’s throws have been poor all season. It appears that he’s been releasing the ball late, thus firing the ball into the dirt and to the outfield side of the bag, as was the case in the play described above. As for Duncan’s misadventures in the field, Shelley also went 0-for-3 at the plate and is hitting .176/.259/.275 on the season. If he’s not going to play a viable first base or contribute at the plate, he may be the player who loses his roster spot to Jason Lane this week. The positive indicators for Duncan are that he’s hitting .258/.333/.419 against lefties and not striking out at an inordinate rate in general. That’s not great, but it’s a sign of life.

What the Yankees have done since Alex Rodriguez has returned from the disabled list, a 5-1 record to this point, is a far more encouraging sign of life. Sure it’s come against one poor team and one awful one, sure today’s comeback was the result of a few lucky breaks, but this team has needed something to remind them that they’ve been here for years. Last year, the Yankees were seven games below .500 and 13.5 games behind the Red Sox on the morning of June 1. This year, they could have a winning record and be within five games of first place when the calendar flips to June. Don’t call it a comeback.

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