Before Robinson Cano’s seventh-inning grand slam blew it open, Monday’ night’s 8-2 Yankee win over the Royals was a nice little ballgame. Chad Gaudin walked Mitch Maier to start the game, then retired eight straight before Maier came back around and pulled a ball just inside the right-field line the first Royals hit of the game. The Yankees broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the fourth on a double by Cano and singles by Jorge Posada and Eric Hinske, who made his first start at third base as a Yankee amid a bench-heavy, post-clincher lineup that included Ramiro Peña at shorstop, Juan Miranda at first base, Francisco Cervelli behind the plate (Posada was the DH), and Shelley Duncan in right field.
Mark Teahen got the Royals on the board by leading off the fifth with a game-tying opposite-field solo shot of Gaudin. Cervelli led off the fifth with a single, but was thrown out at second when Ramiro Peña failed to hold up his end of a hit-and-run (he got the sign, but missed the pitch). Peña then went from goat to hero on the next pitch, which he got under and lifted to the front row in right field for a Yankee Stadium homer, the first tater of Peña’s young career.
In a game that otherwise meant very little, the Yankee dugout’s reaction to Peña’s homer was the highlight. As soon as the bench began to celebrate, Alex Rodriguez jumped into action to organize the popular silent treatment often given to rookies following their first career homer (you might remember the Phillies giving it to John Mayberry Jr. at the stadium earlier this year). Alex grabbed the celebrating Jeter by his hoodie and dragged him back to his perch behind the dugout screen, then waived the others back to their seats. Jeter and company instantly complied, sporting devilish grins as they took their places.
When Peña got to home plate, he received a dispassionate fist-bump from on-deck hitter Brett Gardner and from Melky Cabrera in the on-deck circle, but was ignored by his teammates as he entered the dugout. Joe Girardi couldn’t resist giving the rookie a high-five, but the others sat stone-faced as Peña put away his helmet and gloves. Then Jorge Posada clapped as if to cheer on Gardner, which was the signal for the team to swarm Peña. It was a great moment, captured beautifully by the YES cameras. I’m among those who believes that winning begets team chemistry, not the other way around, but it’s hard not to be impressed and enthused by the cohesiveness and amicability of this Yankee team. There seems to be genuine affection and good humor in that clubhouse, moreso even than on the business-like teams of the late-90s dynasty.
Peña’s homer gave the Yankees a brief 2-1 lead. The Royals answered back in the top of the sixth, tying the game on a Yuniesky Betancourt single, Billy Butler’s 51st double of the year, and a Mike Jacobs sac fly. The Yanks then returned serve again in the bottom of the sixth on a Posada double ultimately plated by a Shelly Duncan single. A Cervelli double in the seventh plated by a Peña single and Cano’s slam, all off Royals starter Luke Hochevar, put the game away in the seventh.
Gaudin turned in the best and deepest start of his Yankee career (6 2/3 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 5 K) and now feels like a lock for the postseason roster. Damaso Marte, who retired Alex Gordon to finish the seventh for Gaudin, helped his cause as well, as did Freddy Guzman, who pinch-ran for Duncan in the sixth and stole second on the first pitch to Miranda. Cervelli and Peña combined to go 4-for-8, each with a single and an extra-base hit. Peña drove in two. Shelley Duncan drove in another after striking out and grounding into a double play and held Maier to a single on his hit down the line in the third with a strong throw to second. Hinske had an RBI single, but didn’t get a chance to field a grounder at third base (just three pop ups). All surely benefited from facing the lowly Royals, but given that these final six games are like a brief spring-training period for the postseason, it’s nice to see the borderline players making their cases. Speaking of which, David Robertson could return to action Tuesday night, and Jerry Hairston Jr. will take batting practice as both try to prove they’re healthy enough to make the ALDS roster.
Meanwhile, potential ALDS opponents the Twins and Tigers were rained out in Detroit, resulting in a Tuesday day/night double-header which could knot the division if the Twins pull off an unlikely sweep against Morristown, NJ’s Rick Porcello and Detroit ace Justin Verlander. Down in Atlanta, former Tiger Jair Jurrjens pitched the Braves to their seventh-straight win, bringing them within two games of the idle Rockies in the still-interesting NL Wild Card race.