Heading into the bottom of the sixth, the Yankees looked to be in firm control of tonight’s game with the division-leading Tampa Rays. Curtis Granderson had drilled a deep three-run home run off ace David Price and increased the Yankee lead to four runs, 5-1. A.J. Burnett had allowed only three hits and walk and, while not dominating, was in fine form.
In the bottom of the sixth, the Rays struck quickly like a sunburst. A double and home run by slim Sam Fuld tightened the score. Burnett has been pitching to terrible support this year, with the bullpen, defense and offense all taking turns abandoning him. Sometimes all in the same game. When Derek Jeter couldn’t circle a soft grounder to end the sixth, Burnett must have thought, “Screw it, I’ll do it myself.”
After a series of bad pitches and solid contact, the Rays were within one with B.J. Upton at the plate. Burnett’s mechanics were shot and his head was who-knows-where. He whipped a perfectly normal looking fastball three feet into the opposite batter’s box. Uh-oh. Instead of calling for a conference on the mound or a relief pitcher, the Yankees let A.J. straighten himself out. He did just that, straightening out a curve ball on the next pitch. Upton scrabbled it. B trumped A as the J’s cancelled each other out.
What’s so striking about the wild pitch in replay is that Burnett doesn’t stumble, or jerk his arm or even appear to have a major problem with his slot or release point. He just lined up his body to throw it that far outside. Like a “hit-the-bull” moment, without the purpose. At that point in the game, with a parade of red flags trotting around the bases already that inning, I don’t know how you let him throw the next pitch without someone going out there to help him clear his head.
So Burnett had a stinker of an inning; he was entitled given how badly his team has played for him lately. The Yankees trailed by one run and had three big innings left. They went down nine in a row and saw a total of 31 pitches. Even that paltry number is deceiving because rookie Eduardo Nunez worked a ten-pitch at bat to start the seventh. The next eight batters saw 21 pitches. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher saw five pitches combined and not one of them even had the courtesy to take a good hack. The game effectively ended on Upton’s home run, 6-5 Rays.
A long losing streak is always a combination of deficiencies and bad timing. Viewed in a close up, it seems the bats quit on the pitcher once he blew their lead. But in the wide angle, I doubt this is the case. They all wanted to hit the home run that tied the game, hence the first pitch swinging and over-aggressiveness when the opposite was needed. The result is the same – inept offense, but at least their hearts were in the right place.
I will stop short of saying they just need a big hit or a strong pitching performance and everything will be OK. That might end the losing streak, but one-night heroics won’t turn a decent team into a great team. Right now they’re looking up at decent.