With a 4-2 lead after seven innings, the Yankees showed off their new “Plan A” bullpen tonight. Rafael Soriano took over eighth-inning responsibilities as David Robertson packed his hammer for the ninth. It was the first close game since Mariano got hurt and I felt another wave of shock and depression as Mariano’s theoretical absence hardened into an actual game situation. It’s not that I’ve never seen the Yankees win a close one without Mariano, it’s just that those games were obviously temporary. A fleeting glimpse at an alternate universe, its otherness reaffirming our reality where Mariano was firmly and safely entrenched. This, as we all know too well, was different.
Ben Zobrist rocketed a triple to left-center gap to greet Soriano. He bounced back to strikeout Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton and was one strike away from stranding Zobrist when he threw a 55-foot slider that glanced off Russell Martin’s chest protector and bounced far enough away for Zobrist to score. Soriano then walked Matt Joyce on a close pitch, another slider, and went 3-0 on Luke Scott. Scott was ripping dead-red on the 3-0 pitch and Martin and Soriano wisely stayed with the slider. Soriano worked the count full and punched Scott out on a nasty, diving slider – the one he meant to throw Joyce.
The lead down to one, the Yankees rallied to give David Roberston a little slack. Alex Rodriguez hit a screaming bastard of a line drive that nearly impaled B.J. Upton in center. They gave Upton an error for letting Alex get to second, but better an error than a hole in the chest. Teixeira finally out-hit the shift and snuggled a double into the right field corner, scoring Alex.
David Robertson faced the bottom of the order in the ninth and did not burst into flames when he took the mound. It took a couple of batters. He got the first out but walked Rhymes. He let up a single to Sean Rodriguez and Tampa sent up Brandon Allen to homer or whiff. He whiffed. The real problem was that the Rays had turned the lineup over and their most dangerous hitter, Ben Zobrist, came to bat as the go-ahead run. Robertson worked him carefully but could not get the umpire to give him even an inch on the outside corner. He walked him on five pitches to load the bases.
Holy shit. Couldn’t we get a nice easy save our first time out there without Mo? It has to come down to the one player on the Rays who can hit it 500 feet at any time? Carlos Pena had had a rough night with three strikeouts coming into the at bat, but I’d like to meet the Yankee fan that was glad to se him up there. Robertson started Pena with two perfect pitches – a curve and a fastball both on the outside corner – for two called strikes. Robertson tried to get Pena to chase a low curve and a high heater, but the count ran even at 2-2. Don’t let it get to 3-2, I thought, with all those runners in motion, any hit might lose the game. Robertson took aim at the outside corner one last time and drilled it with his best fastball of the night. Pena never took his big bat off his big shoulder and the Yanks won 5-3.
Phew. That only counts as one win? Are we sure?
The Yankees scored their first four runs on homers – two by Raul Ibanez, who is a more animated corpse than I thought he would be, and one by Curtis Granderson. Good thing the Yanks hit the ball over the fence, because they can’t buy a hit between the lines. The Rays are employing the shift with such audacity, I think it’s as much gamesmanship as it actual defensive strategy. It’s starting to remind me of how the 1986 Mets were completely spooked by Mike Scott’s scuffed balls. If they’re not careful, they’re going to end up mindfucked against their most dangerous division rival.
For the second game in a row, Joe Girardi pushed Ivan Nova through a trouble spot in the seventh inning. Last week, Nova kept the Yankees close for six innings but it wasn’t close after he pitched the seventh. The rest of the thirteen man staff watched the game get out of hand. This time, through an annoyingly consistent rainfall, the Yankees gave Nova a three-run bulge to work with. He was strong through five, but allowed solo shots in the six and the seventh. Perhaps rattled by the homers, he gave up his only two walks of the night immediately following the dongs. And he looked vulnerable for the first time all night in the seventh.
In the sixth, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter turned a nifty 3-6-3 double play to erase the walk and end the inning. In the seventh, it didn’t look like Nova would be so lucky. After the walk to Jeff Keppinger, Will Rhymes doubled down the first base line. It rattled around the corner, but Keppinger held at third. Sean Rodriguez flew out to shallow right. Swisher caught the ball with his body moving towards home plate and uncorked a very good throw just to the first-base side of home plate. Russell Martin received the ball and spun to place the tag in front of the plate. Keppinger stayed at third. Martin stood in front of the plate with the ball like a kid on a doorstep with flowers in his hand waiting for his date to come down the stairs.
Keppinger would have no trouble winning a Republican primary with such unimpeachable conservative principles.
Mad props to Ivan Nova, who struck out eight Rays with his excellent mix of pitches. I thought the change-up, slipping down, just out of the zone, was particularly promising tonight. He looked so good through most of his outing, it’s hard to reconcile the homers. He let Jose Molina take him deep, which, on a better team might be a punishable offense in Kangaroo court. Nova was up 0-2 in the count and threw a pitch like he was down 2-0. Watching Molina jiggle around the bases I wondered if this game is really as hard as we make it out to be sometimes.
Despite the Molina incident and coming damn close to blowing the lead in the seventh, Nova held on and rewarded his manager’s faith in him. But even though Nova and Ibanez were the stars of the game, the story was new look bullpen. And in life after Mo, we’re going to have to settle for success, even if it’s not quite as beautiful.