My glass is always half full, but I had a bad feeling heading into this game. When the news first broke that Jusin Verlander was being pushed in favor of a kid making his major league debut, the prevailing thought was that the Yankees had caught a huge break by avoiding the former Cy Young winner. My first response? “Oh, no.”
I seem to remember seeing some statistics indicating that the Yankees don’t perform as poorly as we think they do against rookies, but my memory tells a different story. Even when the Yankees were regularly running roughshod over the American League, unknown pitchers were their Kryptonite, and so it was on Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park in Detroit.
Hiroki Kuroda, as usual, was good enough to win, even though he didn’t. He pitched seven strong innings, giving up just two runs while allowing only four singles and a walk, an effort the team would clearly have signed up for on Thursday morning.
The problem, of course, is that Detroit’s Kyle Lobstein was just as good — or more accurately, just as effective. He didn’t strike out a single hitter, and Yankee batters were able to hit several balls hard, but it never amounted to anything. He lasted six innings, yielded only four hits, a walk, and two runs (one earned).
As a result, the game zipped into the late innings tied at two, with each team desperate for a win to get closer to a playoff spot, and each team squandering opportunities. Dellin Betances took over for Kuroda in the eighth and eventually found himself facing the best hitter on the planet with two outs and the potential winning run on second base. Demonstrating his growing confidence and maturity, Betances didn’t give in to the temptation to prove his strength by overpowering Miguel Cabrera with a triple-digit fastball. Instead, he froze him with two consecutive 82 MPH curveballs. Cabrera let the first go by without a swing, then waved feebly at the second to strikeout and end the inning.
In the top of the ninth, facing Grizzly Chamberlain, the Yankees mounted a two-out rally. Mark Teixeira walked, Carlos Beltrán singled him to third, and Brian McCann came to the plate needing only a single to put his team in position to win. Joba elevated his second pitch, and McCann absolutely crushed it — but it hooked to the wrong side of the foul pole, leaving the Yankees only inches from what would’ve been a three-run lead. Joba pumped two more pitches past him and the inning was over.
Betances had thrown only 13 pitches in the eighth, so I hoped he’d come back for the ninth, but instead we were treated to Shawn “Horsehead” Kelley. The trouble started immediately. Victor Martínez led off with a double deep into the right field corner, then J.D. Martínez milked a seven-pitch walk and the Tigers had runners on first and second with none out. From there he dug his hole even deeper, working himself into a 3-2 count on Nick Castellanos before recovering with a perfect pitch on the outside corner for a called strike three. Next he toyed with pinch hitter Torii Hunter, overpowering him with 95-97 MPH fastballs and teasing him with marginal sliders before finally finishing him with the heater.
There was hope. As I saw the rest of the game in my mind’s eye, I imagined Kelley overpowering Alex Avila — perhaps striking him out on three pitches — and charging off the mound and into an energized Yankee dugout. His teammates would undoubtedly parlay that momentum into a tenth-inning rally, David Robertson would come in for the save, and the Yankees would escape from Detroit that much closer to the playoffs.
In the time that it took that daydream to wind its way through the corners of my optimistic brain, Avila strolled to the plate, took a hack at Kelley’s first pitch (an inviting slider rather than a crackling fastball), and rocketed it towards the wall in right center. Ichiro raced out towards the gap, but he wasn’t able to make the play (replays showed that perhaps he should’ve made the play), and the game was over.
Kelley was beaten with his second-best pitch, and he seemed to know it. He slammed his mitt to the turf in frustration, and when asked afterwards about how he felt, his answer was direct. “About as bad as I’ve felt walking off a mound in my career. Not good.”
Is this loss worse than any of the other bad losses we’ve suffered through this season? Probably not, but it stings a bit more simply because it reminds of who this team actually is. They simply aren’t going to win six of every seven games they play, but there’s still hope. Masahiro Tanaka is pitching simulated games, Michael Piñeda continues to dominate, Shane Greene has been great, Brandon McCarthy has been much better than anyone could’ve expected, and Hiroki Kuroda has now had three solid starts in a row.
Games like this are frustrating, but it’s not the end of the world. I promise.