If you just look at the score, you’ll think the game wasn’t close. If you just watch the highlights, you’ll think the game was played in a time machine set for April of 2009 when every pop fly seemed like it floated into the seats. But if you skipped work and took in every pitch — or if you’ve got the entire summer off, like me — you know the truth. This was a close game, and there were exactly four moments that decided the outcome. Each moment fell in favor of the Braves; things might have turned out differently if even one had gone the Yankees’ way.
Moment #1: Top of the first, two outs. Michael Bourn on first base.
Bourn is one of the fastest men in the major leagues, and has stolen more than 250 bases in his career. Even though he plays in the other league, I’m guessing his name came up in the pitchers meeting this week. Still, Phil Hughes ignored him, and with two outs Bourn was able to take four steps towards second before Hughes even moved. It might’ve been the easiest steal of Bourn’s life. Four pitches later, Dan Uggla singled to left, easily scoring Bourn. If Hughes had paid attention to Bourn when he was still on first, that run wouldn’t have scored.
Moment #2: Top of the first, two outs. Dan Uggla on first base.
Hughes has been so good recently that some people (okay, me) have been thinking that maybe — just maybe — he might still live up to all that hype that’s evaporated over the past couple years. But even as good as he’s been, he still hasn’t been able to get past his home run issues. Facing Freddie Freeman immediately after yielding the Uggla single, Hughes peered in and located Russell Martin’s target, low and inside. I know you have to pitch inside, even in Yankee Stadium, even when you serve up gopher balls like heated towels on a first class flight, but it makes me nervous every time I see a Yankee catcher slide over to the first base side of the plate. Sure enough, the fast ball that was meant to be just a touch inside floated out over the heart of the plate and was quickly deposited into the right field seats. Braves 3, Yankees 0.
Moment #3: Bottom of the seventh, one out. Runners on first and third.
We’ve skipped over several home runs, all solo shots. In order: Derek Jeter in the first, Martín Prado in the third, Jason Heyward in the fourth, David Ross in the fifth, Eric Chávez in the fifth, and Alex Rodríguez and Robinson Canó, both in the sixth. All of that brought the score to 6-4, Braves, when Curtis Granderson singled to right to score Martin and push Jeter to third. The Yankees trailed by only a run, and Rodríguez was headed to the plate. I think it says a lot about the 2012 version of A-Rod that whenever he comes up in situations like this, instead of hoping for a home run or base hit — or even a sacrifice fly — I find myself hoping he avoids the worst-case scenario. The camera zoomed in on him as he dug his cleats into the dirt and rocked back on his heels before coiling in anticipation of Chad Durbin’s first pitch. I took the opportunity to have a quick chat with him. “Please don’t ground into a double play,” I said. “Please.” He hammered Durbin’s second pitch to short for a made-t0-order 6-4-3 double play.
A strikeout or popout would’ve passed the baton to Canó; a fly ball would’ve tied the game; a base hit would’ve tied the game and upped the ante. A home run? That’s the old A-Rod. (Well, actually this is the old A-Rod, and we’d better get used to it.)
Moment #4: Top of the eighth, one out. Runners on first and third.
Still trailing 6-5 (see Moment #3, above), Freeman rifled a ground ball directly at first baseman Eric Chávez. The ball came up on Chávez a bit, and it bounced away from him. He recovered to make the out at first, but the run scored from third. Had Chávez fielded the ball cleanly and started a 3-6-3 DP, the inning would be over. (I know I’m not supposed to, but I just assumed the double play.) Heyward came up next and launched his second homer of the day, a no-doubter into the seats in right. Twenty minutes earlier the Yankees looked ready to tie the game at six; now they trailed 9-5, and nothing else mattered. Final score: Braves 10, Yankees 5.
The good news, of course, is that thanks to their torrid June, the Yankees still sit comfortably atop the standings in the American League East. We could worry about their failure to hit with runners in scoring position, but no one else would shed a tear. We could lament the end of a streak which saw Yankee starters pitch at least six innings in nineteen straight games, but we wouldn’t get any pity.
Here’s the bottom line. Even though yesterday’s recap had a funereal theme and this one focused on what might have been, we just might be talking about the best team in baseball. And that’s never a bad thing.
[Photo Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images]