Believe it or not, everything started out well for the Yanks on Sunday night, better even than the most optimistic amongst us could’ve expected. Even though I usually look forward to the Yankees and Red Sox playing on ESPN on Sunday nights, I have to admit that I wouldn’t have been disappointed with a rainout. Everything was stacked against the Bombers: the four-game losing streak, the robotic Jon Lester on the mound, and the Jorge Posada Drama* looming over everything. The division standings were tighter than a six o’clock uptown train, and there was a sense that the Yankees had failed to take advantage of slow starts by their main competition, the Rays and the Sox. (Of course, fans of those teams might be saying the same thing, but I don’t really care about fans of those teams.)
But then something strange happened. In the opening innings Lester looked less like the T-1000 and more like the solution to the Yankees’ problems. Derek Jeter opened the first by reaching on a hit by pitch and advanced to second on a Curtis Granderson groundout. Then the Yanks did what they don’t usually do when Mark Teixeira simply grounded a ball through the infield and scored Jeter for 1-0 lead.
The Sox tied it at one in the second when Jed Lowrie’s sacrifice fly cashed in the first of two huge Yankee mistakes on the night. Kevin Youkilis had led off the inning by striking out, but he reached base when Russell Martin allowed the tailing breaking ball to bounce all the way to the backstop. Youkilis would get to third on a David Ortíz single and a walk to J.D. Drew, but it was the passed ball that started the whole thing.
No problem, though. Andruw Jones (in for Posada) snatched the lead right back with a no doubter into the bleachers in left, and four batters later Granderson, the only consistent hitter in the entire lineup this season, launched a laser into the right field bleachers with Martin on base to push the lead to 4-1.
After just two innings, it looked like this game was going exactly as the Yankees would’ve drawn it up. They had gotten the timely hit from Teixeira, the home runs from Jones and the Grandy Man, and Lester had already thrown well over forty pitches. What we didn’t know at the time, though, was that the Yanks would only manage two more hits the rest of the way, Lester would return to his usual dominant self, the Yankee defense would make a critical error, and the bullpen would falter. Aside from that, everything would be fine.
When the Red Sox came to bat in the top of the third, they did so against Freddy García, who had looked shaky in the second but still seemed confident enough to hold on to that three-run lead, at least for a while. He held it for four batters. Jacoby Ellsbury doubled to right, Adrian González followed a Dustin Pedroia strikeout with a walk, and everyone’s favorite meathead, Kevin Youkilis, came up. Youkilis fell into an 0-2 hole but quickly worked the count full before lifting what appeared to be an easy fly ball out to left. The pitch had run into him a bit, sliding down towards the handle of the bat at contact, so I fully expected Brett Gardner to settle under it easily, but instead he kept drifting back and drifting back until he ran out of room and watched the ball settle into the stands for a three-run home run that erased the lead and added a layer of trepidation to the proceedings. Given a new life, Lester worked efficiently the rest of the way, allowing just a hit and a pair of walks but never really letting the Yankees back in the game.
(There was one moment in the bottom of the fourth that didn’t have much to do with the outcome of the game but certainly has significance in the larger view of the season. Gardner was on first base with two outs, having reached on a fielder’s choice. With Jeter up, it seemed like a perfect time to steal, and when Jeter pushed the count to 2-1, everyone in the house knew Gardner would be going. He went, but he misread Lester’s move, the pickoff throw came to first, and Gardner was eventually caught in a rundown. I’m pretty sure a play like this is officially labeled a caught stealing, but the ESPN box score is a bit mysterious here. Here’s what is says:
CS: B Gardner (6, 3rd base by J Lester/J Saltalamacchia)
Picked Off: B Gardner (2nd base by J Lester)
The second part of that seems accurate, but the first part never happened. Either way, it underlines a disturbing trend with Gardner. Here are his stolen base numbers (SB/CS) from 2008 through 2010: 13/1, 26/5, and 47/9 for a total of 86/15. That’s a Tim Raines-like success rate, and we probably shouldn’t have expected that to continue, but this year Gardner has five stolen bases and his been caught six times. I suppose you could argue that his offensive struggles over the first month prevented him from getting in any sort of rhythm on the base paths, but that number is still a complete mystery to me. I’d love to hear a plausible explanation.)
So back to our game. With one out in the fifth Ortíz looped a short home run around the foul pole in right, giving the Sox a 5-4 lead and pushing manager Joe Girardi towards and interesting strategy decision. Still facing a one-run deficit in the top of the seventh, Girardi went against the book and brought in David Robertson. Typically managers use their “winning set” of pitchers only when they’ve got a lead, but Girardi trotted out Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, and even Mariano Rivera in succession, all to pitch with a deficit. Anyone would agree that you should try to use your best pitchers in high leverage situations, but there is a school of thought that holds that a one- or two-run deficit is just as high leverage as a one- or two-run lead. The point is to hold down the opposition in a game that is winnable. I tend to agree with this theory, even if it didn’t work this time.
Robertson pitched well enough in the seventh, but he was undone by a stunning error by Alex Rodríguez. Robertson started out by whiffing Ellsbury, but then walked Pedroia who eventually stole second, necessitating an intentional walk to González. Youkilis followed by dribbling a ball directly down the third base line, and it appeared Robertson might’ve wriggled free of yet another jam. A-Rod waited patiently for the grounder just a step away from third base, but he wasn’t patient enough. Hoping to field the ball, step on the bag, and fire across the diamond for the inning-ending double play, he started towards the base a bit early and the ball trickled between his legs, allowing Pedroia to race all the way home. It was a play a Little Leaguer could’ve made, and it turned into a play you’d only expect to see on a Little League diamond. Robertson recovered to strike out Ortíz and Lowrie, but the damage was done.
Girardi stuck with his plan, though, and brought Joba in for the eighth down by two. Joba was dominant, getting two ground outs, a strike out, and a short fly ball to right. The problem, though, was that Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s short fly ball travelled 332 feet. Had it travelled only 331, it likely would’ve settled into Nick Swisher’s mitt for an out; as it was it bounced atop the wall and bounded into the stands for a home run. (For his part, Rivera would retired the Sox without incident in the ninth. I’d love to know the last time he entered a game trailing by two.)
Jonathan Papelbon avoided his usual Yankee Stadium drama by retiring Granderson, Teixeira, and Rodríguez in order in the ninth, and it was over. There will be much hand-wringing over the sweep, the five-game losing streak, and the tightness of the divisional race, but I’ll leave that to others. Instead I’ll just give you the final score: Red Sox 7, Yankees 5. It will get better, I promise.