Whenever the Yankees and Cubs hook up, which is every three years, I suppose, it’s hard for me not to think about how difficult it is to suffer through long championship droughts. The Yankees haven’t won the World Series since 2009, and I can’t help but feel for all the babies who have been born since then, all of them crying helplessly into the cold night, yearning for a mother’s love, a warm bottle of milk, and a World Series ring.
Will 2011 finally be the year to silence those cries? If Sunday night’s game in Chicago’s Wrigley Field was any indication, it just might be. CC Sabathia was on the mound for the Yanks, and although that’s usually a good sign, the Big Man didn’t have his usual easy outing. Brett Gardner had given him an early cushion with his leadoff home run, but Sabathia gave up a ringing double to Chicago’s Reed Johnson to lead off the bottom half of the first, and the game was tied after a sacrifice fly and a ground ball chased Johnson home.
CC slipped again in the third inning. Young phenom Starlin Castro singled to right, Aramis Ramírez singled to center, and our old friend Alfonso Soriano came up to the plate with two outs. Every time I look at Soriano I think of two things: first, I remember that home run he hit off Curt Schilling in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, the one that should’ve won that Series and etched Soriano’s name into Yankee history; second, I think of the player I hoped Soriano would have become with the Yankees, a perennial all-star at second base on his way to the Hall of Fame. Thankfully, though, the Yankees didn’t waste too much time replacing Soriano with another perennial all-star at second base on his way to the Hall of Fame, so I’m only bitter about the first memory.
But back to our game. Just seconds after the good folks at ESPN flashed some stats about Soriano’s success against Sabathia, Sorry unleashed that beautiful swing — too long for consistent success, but beautiful when it connects — and ripped a long blast into the left field bleachers to open a 4-1 Chicago lead. Bitter.
In the top of the fourth, however, the Cub defenders faltered a bit and let the Yanks creep back into the game. (The defensive problems in this inning were just the tip of the iceberg, but more on that later.) With Alex Rodríguez on first base after having drawn a walk, Robinson Canó tapped a dribbler out in front of the plate. Catcher Geovany Soto pounced out of his crouch, plucked the ball from the grass, and split the diamond with a strike to second where Castro waited at the bag for what looked to be the first out of an inning-ending double play. But Castro didn’t wait long enough. He skipped off the base just before the throw arrived, losing that out, then threw late to first, losing that one as well. Nick Swisher accepted Castro’s charity, grounding a ball through the right side of the infield to score A-Rod and cut the Cub lead to two. Russell Martin kept the train moving by drawing a walk to load the bases, and then the Cub defense gave the Yanks another run. Eduardo Nuñez hit a grounder to third. The ball was softly hit, certainly not hard enough to turn a double play on the speedy Nuñez, but not so softly to prevent Ramírez from coming home to cut off the run. As it turned out, Ramírez chose poorly. He went to second for the out, Canó came in to score, and the Yanks were only down by a run.
Two innings later the game was tied. A-Rod led off with a single and got to second on a Canó groundout. With A-Rod on second base, ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine spent about five minutes explaining what anyone who’s ever played the game (except A-Rod, apparently) already knew — A-Rod’s lead off second base put him directly in the baseline rather than a few feet towards left field to give him a better route around third base on his way to the plate. When Swisher singled to right, Valentine’s words seemed prophetic; Rodríguez had to stop at third. No matter, though. Russell Martin lofted a sacrifice fly to right to score him and tie the game at four.
Two innings after that, the game was essentially over, and again it was the middle of the lineup doing the damage. A-Rod singled again to start the inning (he’s got the average up to .289, by the way), Canó pushed him to third with another single, and Swisher stepped on a 2-o fastball from reliever Sean Marshall, dropping it into the stands in right for a 7-4 Yankee lead.
The Cubs had given us a taste of poor defense in earlier innings, but the main course was served in the ninth. Gardner led off by flipping a ball down the line in left, and as soon as the ball hit the grass I expected the speedy Gardner to have a shot at a double. Soriano, who’s never been confused with Tris Speaker as a defensive outfielder, obviously wasn’t thinking the same thing. He jogged after the ball and seemed legitimately surprised to see Gardner rounding first. He realized his error, but it was too late, and Gardner slid in safely with a double. This, however, wouldn’t be Soriano’s worst play of the inning.
Curtis Granderson ripped a line drive down the line in right, good for a standup triple and another Yankee run, then Mark Teixeira drove Granderson in with a booming double — or at least that’s what the box score would have you believe. In reality, Teixeira hit a soaring pop fly to right field. Jeff Baker, just switched out to right field from first base in the ninth inning, tracked the ball deep into the corner but somehow allowed it to drop at his feet. By the time Baker corralled the ball and fired it back into the infield, a confused Teixeira was standing on second base and the Yankees were up 9-4. A couple pitches later A-Rod rocketed a double off the wall in left — or at least that’s what the box score would have you believe. In reality, Rodríguez hit a towering fly ball to the gap in left center. Soriano and center fielder Johnson converged on the ball, with Soriano appearing to have the ball measured. And then the ball fell between them, bounced in and out of the ivy as the two fielders watched, and A-Rod’s “double” scored Teixeira with the game’s final run. Yankees 10, Cubs 4.
Those three ninth-inning runs were important, as they gave Mariano Rivera the night off, and Brett Gardner was the key. Gardner had three hits on the night, and is hitting .404/.481/.553 in the month of June, leading to all sorts of speculation about where Derek Jeter might fit in the lineup upon his return from the disabled list. I’m not overly concerned about lineup positions, but if Gardner keeps hitting and Jeter keeps struggling, Girardi’s handling of the situation will go a long way towards determining whether or not this Yankee team will be the one to end the championship drought. Something to watch for this summer.
[Photo Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images]