Luís Tiant was one of my favorite players when I was eight or nine years old. And why wouldn’t he have been? His cork-screwing windup was absolutely beautiful, perfect for imitating in the backyard. By this point in my life baseball was really the only thing in the world that mattered, which explained my four favorite pastimes, listed in no particular order: playing baseball, watching baseball, reading about baseball, and collecting baseball cards.
One afternoon, apparently a rainy afternoon with no baseball available on TV or the bookshelf, I found myself wondering which of my heroes might share my birthday. Today I can find this answer in the click of a mouse, but in 1978 my only choice was to turn to my baseball cards and flip through them one by one, checking the birth dates listed on the back. I don’t remember if it took me five minutes or five hours, but I found my answer: Luís Tiant. I’ll never forget that thrill. Somehow, he and I were connected.
When the Yankees took on the Reds on Sunday afternoon, it was the first time I had really watched Johnny Cueto pitch. Pitchers today are all the same. The perfect wind up has already been discovered (I read somewhere that Roger Clemens’s motion is the ideal), so young American pitchers all grow up into that model. Gone are the days when a flamboyant hurler might try to kick a hole in the sky like Satchell Paige, stare at the heavens like Fernando Valenzuela, or swing his arms above his head like Bob Feller. But there was Cueto, flashing the #47 on his back as he completely turned his back on the hitter, then uncoiling back to unleash a blazing fastball punctuated by a stylish leg whip that pulled him off the mound towards first base. It was enough to make any pitching coach cringe, but it was beautiful to watch. Somewhere in Cuba, El Tiante was chewing on a cigar and smiling.
For most of the game, all the Yankee hitters seemed to be doing was chewing on cigars. Cueto brought a 1.89 ERA in the game, and he backed that up nicely over the first five innings, allowing just four hits while striking out five and picking up two double plays. Robinson Canó was the one Yankee who looked truly comfortable against Cueto all afternoon, and he started the sixth inning with a booming double to the wall in left center. Two batters later Raúl Ibañez turned on a pitch and hit a moonshot down the line in right field for his ninth home run of the season and a 2-0 Yankee lead.
Cueto had looked so good up until this point that it didn’t feel like the Yankees would get anything more off of him. The good news, though, was that CC Sabathia was on the hill for the Bombers, and he had been even better than Cueto. The Big Fella didn’t allow his first hit until there was one out in the fifth inning, and didn’t see a hint of trouble until the sixth. In that frame Drew Stubbs reached on a bunt single and Joey Votto walked to put runners on first and second with no one out. But CC stiffened, getting Brandon Phillips to bounce into a double play and battling Jay Bruce for seven pitches before striking him out to end the inning.
So when the Yankees got those two runs in the bottom of the sixth, it certainly looked like it would be enough. Sabathia would cruise the seventh, maybe even the eighth, and the bullpen would close it down. But it didn’t work that way.
Ryan Ludwick sampled Sabathia’s first offering of the seventh and found it to his liking. He popped it over the wall in left and the lead was sliced in half. One out later someone named Ryan Hanigan watched two straight strikes before jumping on the third and popping his own home run to left, tying the score at two.
Zack Cozart followed that with a dribbling infield single that Sabathia couldn’t quite get to in time, but when CC recovered to strike out the next batter, things looked less dangerous — but only for a minute. Sabathia threw eighteen pitches to the next three Reds to come to the plate (Stubbs, Votto, and Phillips) and walked them all, giving Cincinnati a 3-2 lead. He struck out Bruce to end the inning, but the damage was certainly done. Sabathia let out a yell as he left the mound and it seemed to be directed at the home plate umpire, but I don’t think the strike zone was the problem; it was CC.
The Yankees had only one shot to get back in the game, and it came in the eighth. Curtis Granderson singled to lead off the inning, and Alex Rodríguez came up with one out. The play-by-play says “A Rodríguez flied out to left,” but that doesn’t tell the story. A-Rod jumped on the first pitch he saw from Cueto and appeared to crush it to left center. He immediately went into his “how you like me now” routine, flipping away his bat and looking into the Yankee dugout, confident he had put the ball into the seats and his team into the lead.
But the ball didn’t even get to the warning track before settling harmlessly into Chris Helsey’s glove. A-Rod posted an OPS of 1.067 when he won the American League MVP in 2007. Since then his OPS has looked like this: .965, .934, .847, .823, .767. (If you feel like your glass is a bit too half-full, take out a piece of graph paper and plot that progression out to 2017.) Through forty games this year Rodríguez has four doubles, five home runs, and 15 RBIs. This particular fly ball probably would’ve been a home run had it not been knocked down by the wind, but it was hard not to wonder. Is this what we have to look forward to for the next five years from our cleanup hitter? Warning track power?
Cueto cruised through the eighth before giving way to the triple-digit heat of Aroldis Chapman in the ninth. The Reds had plated two more runs in their half of the ninth, so nothing the Yankees did in the bottom half scared them at all. Reds 5, Yankees 2.
The Yanks have dropped five of six and now sit at 21-20, much closer to last place than first in the upside down American League East. There will be lots of angst in the papers and on the airwaves, so there’s no need for me to add to that here.
Things will get better. Mark Teixeira will be back on Monday. Brett Gardner will be back soon after that. A-Rod has to get at least a little better. The wins will come soon enough, and everything will look an awful lot better. I promise.
[Photo Credits: Al Bello/Getty Images]