I’ll tell you what I see. Sure, the Yankees dropped a tough game — and a tough series — to the Tampa Bay Rays, and will spend at least two days in second place, but things aren’t as bad as some people might have you believe.
Let’s take a look at Wednesday night’s game. With Phil Hughes taking the mound in the deciding game of a three-game set, I can’t say that I clicked on the TV with an overwhelming sense of confidence. Hughes hadn’t started a game in more than a week, and it’s been months since people were talking about him as a Cy Young candidate, but even with his recent struggles he still entered the night with a respectable sixteen wins.
For most of the night the Rays got the Phil Hughes from April, not August. After the game he spoke about the importance of using all his pitches, and indeed only half of his 106 pitches were fastballs. He mixed in curves, change-ups, and even a handful of cutters to keep the Rays in check as he retired the first twelve batters to start the game.
Trouble arose in the fifth, just about two seconds after I caught myself wondering how Joe Girardi might weigh an elevated pitch count versus a potential no-hitter. The thought shattered as quickly as it crystallized when Evan Longoria ended the mini-drama with a single to center. Two batters later a guy named Dan Johnson deposited a rope into the stands in right, giving the Rays a 2-1 lead.
That single Yankee run had come in the first inning, but it shoulda been woulda been coulda been so much more. The suddenly-frisky Derek Jeter led off the inning with a single and stole second base as Curtis Granderson fanned for the first out. After a Mark Teixeira single and an Alex Rodríguez walk loaded the bases, Robinson Canó started the Score Truck rolling with a single to left. Rays starter James Shield was struggling, the vultures were circling, and it looked for all the world that the Yankees would get off to a good start… and then Lance Berkman bounced into a double play.
The Yankees would put runners on in every other inning save the fifth for the rest of the way, and Shields always looked on the verge of destruction, but somehow he wasn’t pulled until the seventh inning and the Yankees weren’t able to score again until he left. Chad Qualls entered the game with one and out and the bases empty in that seventh inning and lined up against Jeter. Jeter spun away from Qualls’s first pitch, but he wasn’t quite quick enough, as the pitch appeared to have ricocheted off his left hand. I was on the phone with Alex at the time, and our conversation screeched to a halt as we both visualized a playoff run with Ramiro Peña playing shortstop. As Jeter was tended to at the plate, we were treated to a replay of the hit by pitch — except there was no hit by pitch. Just as Jeter had dropped his lead hand from the handle in order to spin away from contact, the ball had hit the bat and bounced harmlessly away. The shrewd Captain somehow thought to instantly grimace and grab his arm, convincing home plate umpire Lance Barksdale that he had been hit.
As if all that weren’t good enough, the replay caught a moment that was pure Jeter. As he was spinning and grimacing, eyes squeezed tight to shut out the pain, he opened one eye and peeked from beneath the brim of his helmet to notice that Barksdale was awarding him first base. You know what they say about Jeter. He’s got an edge. (Grandpa Maddon, by the way, was too busy getting kicked out of the game to appreciate any of these theatrics. As it turned out, the ball had dribbled into fair territory after striking the bat, and after instructing one of his players to field the ball and throw it to first, Maddon expected an out to be called. He was disappointed and eventually removed from the game. I’d have loved to have been down the tunnel with him to catch his reaction to what happened next.) What happened next was that Granderson popped a home run to right, scoring Sir Derek Olivier and giving the Yanks a 3-2 lead and a view to a one-and-a-half-game lead in the division. (When asked after the game where the pitch had gotten him, Jeter honestly replied, “In the bat. But the umpire told me to go to first. What am I supposed to do, say no?” All that, and honest too?)
You’ll find the bottom of the seventh cross-listed under J for Johnson and K for karma. Hughes was still cruising, having retired six of seven hitters since the Johnson home run in the fifth, before yielding a two-out single to Matt Joyce. That Man Johnson came up again and caught a 2-1 fastball that drifted a bit and yanked it out to put his club in front for good. Sure, the Yanks would mount a decent rally in the eighth, and even manage to get A-Rod up in the ninth as the potential go-ahead run, but Rafael Soriano took care of things nicely and the game was over. Rays 4, Yankees 3.
So some will have you believe that the Yankees are limping out of town a beaten bunch. Girardi is inept, the Rays are simply too good, the Red Sox are charging, and even the Minnesota Twins are in the hunt for the best overall record. Everything, it seems, is falling apart.
Really? As difficult as this series was, don’t forget that the Yankees played these games without Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner and used the second game — the only game they won — to give Ivan Nova his fifth career major league start. Even so, the Yankees could easily have swept this series given a little luck. The fact that the Rays could also have swept tells us not that the Rays are going in the opposite direction but that these are the two best teams in the game.
This glass is half full. Relax and have a drink.