It’s hard to imagine a vital September clash between the Yanks and Sox being overshadowed by a rookie’s debut, but Jesus Montero’s arrival has done just that. You all know the 21-year-old. Here are some other 21-year-olds (and a couple of 22-year-old geezers) you know from Yankee history. Bobby Murcer. Roy White. Thurman Munson. Don Mattingly. Bernie Williams. Derek Jeter. Robinson Cano. They came through the Yankee system and made their debuts around this age or younger (Murcer was 19). And not one of them hit as well, as young in the high minors as Jesus Montero. You have to go back to Mickey Mantle to find better teenage minor league stats for the Yankees. (Nick Johnson would have been on this list, but he blew out his wrist at 21 prior to his first AAA season.)
When the trade deadline passed and Jesus was still a Yankee, I was relieved. It meant that the Yankees lost their last chance to trade him before they had to bring him up. There was no way to avoid a September call-up given the Scranton season is all but over and the Yanks are in a divisional title race. The questions raised by not calling him up would have further reduced his trade value which has taken consistent hits from poor defensive scouting reports and an cranky attitude which has surfaced more than once.
In the best case scenario, he hits a ton in September, and plays a few harmless innings behind the plate without costing the Yankees their right to operate a Major League franchise, the Yanks will be in position to do whatever they want with him in the off-season (hopefully that will be grooming him to be their future star attraction). In the worst case scenario, he doesn’t hit and he doesn’t look like a catcher when he gets back there, in which case the Yanks will pretty much be in the exact same position they are right now: sitting on a great hitting prospect who other teams profess to perceive as a non-catcher. He can’t hurt his trade value by playing poorly down the stretch – but he can enhance it by catching without killing an umpire.
Evidence indicates that the Yankees have not come to this call-up entirely voluntarily. They definitely tried to trade Montero for Cliff Lee and it’s possible he was dangled for Roy Halladay, though those rumors flowed both ways. It seems that Cashman’s first choice was to trade Montero at his highest value before displaying his catching skills on the Major League level, and taking the risk that he’d prove he couldn’t hack it. It’s not a knock on a prospect to be traded for the very best pitchers in baseball, and either trade would have been a smart move by Cashman.
But when those top-tier pitchers did not become Yankees, Jesus Montero stayed put. And that’s got to mean the Yanks will try him as a catcher. If the Yankees truly thought Montero couldn’t catch, surely they would have traded him for Dan Haren or Ubaldo Jimenez? Better to get a legit number two starter, and CC opt-out insurance, than to wet-nurse a 21-year-old DH? Russell Martin’s competence gives them the perfect scenario to break Jesus in over the rest of 2011 and 2012 as a secondary catcher and primary DH.
So enjoy this month of Jesus Montero Yankee fans. It’s a wonderful reminder that their are plenty of rewards for rooting for a Major League Ballclub apart from the attention-hogging quests for World Championships.
Oh yeah, the game…
Jon Lester is one reason the Red Sox will likely to be favored to beat the Yankees in the Postseason. He’s Boston’s second excellent pitcher, and though the Yankees have handled him for the most part in 2011, he’s 8-2 lifetime against New York with an ERA close his career average. The Red Sox can throw up a Cy Young candidate where the Yanks are stuck with retreads, unreliable youngsters and a mega-bust. They’ll need someone to step up and keep stride with Lester.
Tonight, it was the mega-bust. The Yanks looked to A.J. Burnett for the rubber game of the series, and then figured to quickly look past him to his younger, more effective teammate in the bullpen. But Burnett was actually quite good. He made relatively short work of the exacting Boston lineup. A.J. Burnett, for all his faults, has an out pitch. And when he’s ahead on hitters, and when his curve ball is sharp – two caveats not to be taken for granted by any means – he can put hitters away with the bender.
He wasn’t ahead of Dustin Pedroia in the fourth however. Holding a fragile 1-0 lead, he was down 3-0 to Dusty with Adrian Gonzalez standing on second after a ground rule double. He threw a get-me-over fastball for strike one. Pedroia measured it and must have been happy to see the same thing coming on the next pitch. He jumped it like a bandit in a blind alley. The ball soared to center and fell just over the wall. Given what we have seen of the Red Sox this year, it was hardly an unforgivable sin, but nevertheless, it put Boston in their natural position, ahead of the Yankees.
Robinson Cano continued his career-long assault on Fenway Park with two ringing doubles. His second shot was a 415-foot screamer over Ellsbury’s head. He stood as the tying run on second base with Nick Swisher at the plate. There was one out. Nick Swisher bunted routinely to Lester for the second out. There can be no mistake, this was not a drag bunt or a good-idea, bad-execution surprise kind of play. He had already shown bunt on the first pitch of the at bat. This was a straight sacrifice.
It would have been an idiotic bunt if there had been no outs. What’s the point of playing for the tie in the fifth in Fenway Park against on of the elite lineups in the game? How did he know Boston was done scoring? Has he not been paying attention for the last 14 games? But there was already an out in the inning, which means that Swisher did not know how many outs there were (a horrible mistake) and thought the no out bunt was the smart move (a just slightly less horrible mistake). Trying to catch this Boston team is hard enough, with plays like that, they might as well run up the white flag and save us all the trouble.
The rest of the Yankees gave better efforts. They pushed Lester beyond the limit in only five innings. Jesus Montero batted with two outs and runners on three times and stranded all six, but at least he didn’t bunt. Robinson Cano was sublime. He had a chance with bases loaded and two outs in the sixth and came through with a bullet – but it was right at the third baseman.
Burnett pitched well into the sixth and battled with David Ortiz with one out and Pedroia on second. A.J. threw one of his best pitches of the night with a full count to Papi, but the ump couldn’t see it as a strike. Perhaps A.J. Burnett doesn’t deserve the call when a gorgeous curve ball hovers over the edge of the outside edge and drops right to the top of the knee, but he certainly needed it. Burnett left the game after five and third with 96 pitches. Be prepared to puke: Along with five decent innings by Freddy Garcia earlier in August and six credible innings by Bartolo Colon in May (both Yankee losses), it was arguably the best performance a Yankee starting pitcher has had against Boston this season.
Boone Logan was good on Tuesday, bad on Wednesday and good again on Thursday. In true Loogy fashion, he whiffed Carl Crawford and left for Cory Wade. Jed Lowrie served a soft sinking liner into center. Curtis Granderson came charging low and hard and dove head first with glove extended. It was at least two runs if it dropped and more if bounced past him. He snagged it and sprawled to the ground. It looked like his right wrist or shoulder might be smarting as he rolled over, but he was OK.
No matter who the Red Sox put on the hill, the Yankees continued to mount pressure. Jesus Montero reached base for the first time in his career when Al Aceves grazed his jersey with a brush-back pitch.
(Forgive a slight digression on the many, many times the Red Sox have beaned the Yankees. Most will say that it was not an intentional HBP, and by all logic of the scoreboard, it would seem it wasn’t. But it sure looked like Aceves was trying to move Montero off the plate to set him up for a slider kill pitch. If the pitcher cannot control his pitches precisely when they throw towards the hitter, a resulting HBP is on the pitcher same as if he wanted to hit him. Roger Clemens did not intend to hit Mike Piazza in the head, but he certainly wanted to bother Piazza up and in. He had complete disregard for Piazza’s safety and knocked him cold. This is what the Red Sox do as an organizational philosophy. They throw inside all the time and don’t worry if they hit anybody in any given situation. It’s why they lead the league in hit batsmen every year and why nearly every single time they drill somebody some witless announcer will prattle on about how it was clearly unintentional given the scoreboard, the time of day, and the unwritten blah blahs. It’s a crock. They’ve beaten the system with their bullshit and the Yankees have every right to treat every single beaning as an act of aggression.)
Terry Francona summoned Daniel Bard to get the last two outs of the seventh, which he did, but not exactly in the order Francona envisioned. Two nasty sliders had Martin in the hole but he battled back full. Girardi decided to put the runners – a pair of rookies – in motion on the full count and Russell made the strategy pay off with a blue dart off a high hard one into right center. The ball found the wall and Jesus Montero chugged all the way from first to score. The young man be many things in his career, but fast is not going to be one of them. Still what a thrill it must have been to work up that head of steam and drive it towards home plate with the go-ahead run. Eric Chavez pinch hit for Eduardo Nunez and singled in an insurance run.
The Yankees needed nine outs from there and had their top three relievers rested and ready. Rafael Soriano got through the seventh on the strength of two strikeouts. David Robertson walked Adrian Gonzalez to lead off the eighth, but appeared to erase the mistake when Dustin Pedroia sent a double play grounder to second. Jeter’s turn was just a touch slow and though he was out at first, Pedroia got the hometown call on a very close play. Robertson rebounded to strike out Ortiz on filth. Should have been the end of the inning, but thanks to the missed call, Crawford had another chance. David Roberstson has a hammer though. And the hammer doesn’t care what inning it is, who’s on base, how many blown calls the umps make or how many foul balls Carl Crawford hits. The hammer just pounds. Crawford flew out to left.
That left three outs and Mariano Rivera. Most days he has it. Some days he doesn’t. Some days he has to face Marco Scutaro. And on some of those days, he even gets beat and we weep until dawn. This day he had to work for it. Three different left handed batters looked at possible third strikes close to the outer edge and the umpire sent two of them to first base. Marco Scutaro got his obligatory cheap hit. But Mariano saved his best pitches for Adrian Gonzalez and after wearing him out on cutters in, he finally got a call on the outside corner to end it and delivered one of the sweetest victories of the year 4-2. A.J. Burnett was reborn, even if it was just for a night. Jesus Montero arrived. But even with Jesus on the team, it’s Mariano who saves.