The top two teams in baseball faced off in the opener of the heaviest series of the year. The Yankees own the slimmest margin conceivable in the standings, but Rays fans would probably argue that their head-to-head record and tougher schedule thus far makes them more deserving of the title “the best team in baseball.” If one of these teams can win this four game series, that might settle the regular season argument right there. To recap this game, Alex chose me, because he either really wants to play the Twins or nobody else was available.
And if the drama surrounding the game wasn’t enough for you, the Yankees unveiled George’s monument tonight. Some might object to the fact that it’s roughly the size of Texas. Others might not, because, hey, it could have been the size of Alaska.
Through five innings, the Yankees cruised along like a team possessing focus and purpose – a first place team with every intention of staying there. After jumping out to a four-run lead Curtis-y of a two-run bomb and an old fashioned rally with hits, walks and a sac fly, the Yankees seemed poised to blow it open. In the bottom of the fifth, with two outs, bases loaded and Matt Garza’s pupils dilated, Lance Berkman waited in the batter’s box for the 3-1 meat ball that might put the game out of reach.
Hitting with a 3-1 count is a hitter’s dream. The hitter imagines both the type and location of the pitch and if he gets what he’s looking for, takes an aggressive cut looking to do serious damage. And if he doesn’t get what he’s looking for, he spits on it. Lance, pressing to get an important hit for the Yankees after his catastrophic gag job on Sunday in the eleventh versus Baltimore, couldn’t execute this simple strategy. Garza unleashed ball four up and in on Berkman’s hands.
With two strikes, it was a tremendous pitch. A ball, but maybe it was too close to take. And it was in a location that is only hittable by the fastest hands. But there weren’t two strikes, and thus Berkman should have doused it in saliva and trotted down to first base, extending the inning for Gardner and the Yankee lead to 5-0. Instead, Lance swung blindly, and the ball dug into the handle of his bat like an earwig. The bat exploded while the ball floated harmlessly to Ben Zobrist at second. Circle that pitch, I thought. These days, the path to defeat, no matter how obscure, could start anywhere.
Lo and behold, it did start right there. Ivan Nova, on the precipice of a five-run lead with the prospect for more, promptly surrendered three base runners to start the sixth before a catcher’s interference plated the Rays’ first run. A double play ended Nova’s night, but unfortunately for him, the Rays kept hitting. They tied the game on a blooper and their own bases-loaded walk. Nova was brilliant for five and bad for two-thirds, and paid the price for his bad timing with his victory. It was an echo of his previous start versus Tampa, when he faltered after being staked a big lead and what seemed like an easy W.
The Yankees answered immediately, shoving it in this pessimist’s face with a quickness. Gardner used the Force to confuse Bartlett on a routine grounder, Cervelli rolled a perfect hit-and-run, and Jeter rapped one up the middle to reclaim the lead. One measly run? That’s not going to be enough to overcome my negativity. I’ve been stewing it in brine for several weeks now – it’s pickled. Enter one Curtis Granderson, exit one Official American League Baseball. I had the volume down on the TV, or else I’m sure I would have heard the launch code and the countdown.
Granderson’s second homer of the night made it 8-4 headed into the seventh. Phew…wait a minute. This is where we were an inning ago. Robertson picked up where Nova, Logan and Gaudin left off in the sixth, allowing base runners by the bucket. After Robertson gave a run back, Kerry Wood replaced him and walked Dan Johnson on a pitch that cleaved both the plate and the batter in near-perfect symmetry. It was the worst “missed-strike” I’ve seen this year. Shortly after that, Wood came within three feet of losing the lead again as Matt Joyce hit a moon-scraper to the right-field wall.
The Rays pitching staff was rotten up and down tonight. Every pitcher was in trouble; every pitcher flirted with allowing the game to get out of hand. In the bottom of the seventh, in fact, they recorded only one out of their own volition. Luckily for them, the Yankees provided the the other two. I would love it if Brett Gardner developed a game like Brett Butler’s, with patience, speed, and annoying little bunts dropped here and there. Because that way he’ll be annoying the other team, instead of annoying me. He muffed yet another bunt and erased Swisher from second base in the process.
The other problem here is that bunting for Cervelli is a bad play no matter the execution – his good game tonight not likely to be repeated anytime soon. Gardner’s speed makes him an unlikely double-play candidate, so let him swing away and slap a single and step on the Rays’ throats. Instead, he bunted into two outs, and the Rays continued breathing. Jeter ended the inning by swinging at ball four on a 3-1 count and tapping to Zobrist.
Kerry Wood remained in the game to blitz the eighth inning. He worked so quickly that Girardi couldn’t get to the mound in time to lift him. Kidding aside, I’ve noticed that Wood gets a little bit more run than I would have thought. This was the sixth time he’s recorded more than three outs for the Yankees. I wonder if Girardi using him kind of like Milwaukee used CC in 2008: “We’ve only got this guy for a few months, let’s use him up.”
The Yankees best hitters failed to cash in an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth, abandoning Curtis Granderson on second without so much as a productive out. This left Mariano Rivera with a three-run lead to protect. I decided to watch him live for once, but chickened out as soon as Zobrist’s stupid curling bloop nicked the right-field line and bounced into the seats. Click. I’ll check later….
Ah hell, Mariano let up a run. He hit a guy. Had to face the go-ahead run. He had a bad inning. But the Yanks won 8-6. They survived missed opportunities, bad decisions, poor execution and a shaky outing from Mariano. They beat the second best team in baseball behind a rookie. And they own first place for today and tomorrow. A good start to the biggest series of the year.