What I sincerely hope is that you didn’t watch last night’s game. I hope you noted the West Coast start time, weighed it against an East Coast alarm clock, and simply went to bed early.
But of course if you had done that, you would’ve missed David Phelps, who was pressed into service by the recent disintegration of the Yankee starting rotation. With Michael Pineda still suspended and headed for the disabled list, Ivan Nova a distant memory, and C.C. Sabathia drifting into oblivion, the Yankees aren’t far from holding open tryouts in Central Park. But since they were three thousand miles away, Joe Girardi simply put the ball in Phelps’s shoe and hoped for the best. He got more than he could ever have hoped.
I’ve always liked David Phelps. With his darting fastball and precision-based arsenal, he’s always seemed like a poor man’s Greg Maddux, and he almost made that comparison look valid as he skated his way through five and a third innings, allowing just three hits and a walk while striking out three. The Angels scored when Yankee Killer Howie Kendrick led off the fifth inning with a triple down the right field line, then came home on an Ian Stewart ground out, but aside from that Phelps held the Halos in check most of the night.
The game stayed right there until the eighth inning, and that’s when everything went crazy. The tease came with the game tied at one in the top of the eighth. Kelly Johnson took ball one, then singled to right. Brian Roberts jumped on the first pitch he saw and shot one-hopper through the middle that shortstop Erick Aybar could only knock down. Ichiro was up next, and he beat out a perfect bunt. Angels starter Jered Weaver had thrown only four pitches in the inning, but the Yankees had the bases loaded with no one out.
Brett Gardner took the first pitch he saw for ball one, then let the next one go by, thinking it was low. Home plate umpire Laz Diaz, however, called the ball a strike. If we’re being honest, I’d have to say that the pitch was at Gardner’s knees, the type of pitch that can go either way. The problem, though, was that Diaz’s strike zone had been wildly inconsistent all night long, as usual. When Girardi pointed this out from the dugout, he was immediately tossed. Girardi’s been managing this team for seven years now, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen him this angry before. He was at DEFCON 1 as soon as he left the dugout, and he raged nose to nose with Diaz for several minutes before finally picking his hat up from the ground and heading for the clubhouse.
As Girardi explained afterwards, it was the most important pitch in the game up until that point, and he felt Diaz had gotten it wrong. Instead of 2-0 with the bases loaded and none out, Weaver was back in the count at 1-1. Two pitches later Gardner was headed back to the bench after striking out.
Derek Jeter came to the plate, and the large contingent of Yankee fans in the stadium rose to their feet. Jeter had already singled, doubled, and scored his team’s only run, so there was hope. With the infield playing halfway in, Jeter shot a rocket to Kendrick’s left at second base. Kendrick made a nice stab on the one-hopper, turned to make the throw to second, and Aybar’s return throw beat Jeter by about a step. If he hadn’t hit it quite as well, the Captain would easily have beaten it out and driven in a run. If he had hit it a bit to the right, he would’ve driven in two. Instead, it was just a 6-4-3 double play. It had taken Weaver only nine pitches to lower himself into the fire and back out again, and he sprinted off the mound, fist-pumping and f-bombing his way to the dugout.
Ah, but things would get worse. Much worse. Shawn Kelley came in to pitch the eighth and promptly walked the leadoff batter, Collin Cowgill, but recovered to retire the next two hitters, Aybar and Mike Trout. Cowgill had advanced to second on Aybar’s groundout, so acting manager Tony Peña wisely ordered Kelley to walk Albert Pújols intentionally, bringing pinch hitter Raúl Ibáñez to the plate.
Ibáñez put together a long, eight-pitch at bat before working a walk to load the bases, but even then — and even with Kendrick coming to the plate — I had faith. But Kelley walked him on five pitches to give the Angels a 2-1 lead, and my faith was broken.
I wasn’t alone; Peña lifted Kelley in favor of Matt Thornton. Pitching changes are normally uneventful, but Kelley was steamed with Diaz. With a 1-0 count on Kendrick, Kelley had thrown a pitch that Fox Trak said was identical to the 1-0 pitch Weaver had thrown to Gardner, but this time Kendrick saw it low. Instead of climbing back into the count at 1-1 the way Weaver had, Kelley had been crippled at 2-0 before eventually losing Kendrick, and he had a few comments for the home plate umpire as he walked towards the visitors’ dugout.
Instead of understanding the situation and simply turning his head as a frustrated player blew off some steam, Diaz decided to become part of the show. He barked right back at Kelley, then told him repeatedly to “keep walking,” emphasizing his point with the type of dismissive flick of his hand that a princess might use when shooing an attendant out of the throne room. When Kelley snapped back at him, Diaz got what he wanted — an excuse to throw Kelley out of the game that he was exiting.
The Yankees lost this game because they couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield in the top of the eighth and couldn’t throw a strike in the bottom half, but Laz Diaz is part of the story. An umpire’s strike zone sometimes expands and contracts like an amoeba, but that’s part of the game. The bigger issue is how this umpire responded when his strike zone was questioned. His behavior was inexcusable and an embarrassment to baseball. If we don’t hear of a suspension for him, I’ll be disappointed.
But back to the mockery of the bottom of the eighth. To recap: walk, ground out, fly out, intentional walk, walk, walk. So with the Angels now up 2-1 and the bases still loaded with two outs, Matt Thornton faced the mighty John McDonald — and walked him. Peña then brought in Preston Claiborne to face Chris Iannetta — and Claiborne walked him. The merry-go-round would probably still be spinning if Grant Green hadn’t mercifully swung at the first pitch he saw for a fly out to right, but the damage was done.
Three Yankee pitchers had combined to walk six batters — five of them consecutively — and allow the Angels to bat around and score three runs without the benefit of a base hit.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, and Brian McCann went down quickly in the ninth, and that was that. Angels 4, Yankees 1. Hopefully you slept through the whole, damn thing. I didn’t.
[Photo Credit: Chris Carlson/AP Photo]