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Tanaka Time

Masa

It started early on Tuesday night as the Yankees found themselves in Fenway Park for the first time this young season. After being greeted with more boos than cheers, Jacoby Ellsbury reintroduced himself to his old fans by lashing John Lester’s third pitch of the game high off the wall in center field. A fan in the front row was so intent on making the play that he reached three feet below the top of the Green Monster, nearly tumbling over in the process, and deflected the ball back towards left field. Ellsbury raced all the way around the bases for what might’ve been an inside-the-park homer, but the umpires rightly sent him back to third, ruling that the Sox wouldn’t have been able to hold him to a double had the fan not interfered.

Manager John Farrell argued the point, but Derek Jeter rendered that point moot, lacing a line drive into center field and scoring Ellsbury before Farrell could even sit back down. After moving to second on a wild pitch, Jeter then scored the game’s second run on a sharp single from Carlos Beltrán.

Lester wriggled off the hook without further damage and escaped a bases loaded, one out jam in the second with a double play, but he found himself in trouble again in the third. Alfonso Soriano pounded a ball of the wall in center and Cadillacked a triple into a double, Mark Teixeira floated a soft double halfway down the rightfield line, and Brian McCann shot yet another double into the left centerfield gap. Lester hadn’t yet retired a batter in the third inning, and already he was down 4-0. The Yanks seemed poised to deliver the knockout blow when they again loaded the bases with one out and Ellsbury headed to the plate, but for the second consecutive inning Lester was able to induce a ground ball double play.

Meanwhile, Masahiro Tanaka was toying with the Boston batters. He gave up a double to Dusty Pedroia in the first and a single in the third, but there was never a hint of trouble. In the bottom of the fourth, however, Tanaka appeared to pitch to the situation as he stared in at David Ortíz with one out and a four-run lead. With Ortíz sitting in a hitter’s count at 3-1, Tanaka chose to challenge him instead of risking the walk, and he threw Papi a fastball that did nothing at all. We know what Ortíz does with pitches like that; this one ended up in Williamsburg, 482 feet away. Three pitches later, Mike Napoli laced a ball that might have been hit even harder but on a lower trajectory. This one barely cleared the wall in left, and suddenly the Yankee lead was cut in half. Two batters later A.J. Pierzynski doubled for the third extra base hit of the inning, but Tanaka struck out Xander Bogaerts to end the frame. He’d have little trouble with the Sox the rest of the night.

By all rights Lester should’ve been knocked from the game much earlier, but he trudged out to the mound to start the fifth with new hope. Hadn’t he kept his team in the ball game? Wasn’t there a chance they could get another two or three runs off Tanaka? Teixeira and McCann reached with a walk and a single, immediately putting Lester’s feet to the coals once again, but once again it looked as if the Yankees would miss their opportunity when Yangervis Solarte and Ichiro both struck out. (And by the way, if you’re wondering who’s to blame for Solarte’s slide, look no further than your author; I inserted him into my fantasy lineup this week. The results have been predictable.)

The game turned on Brian Roberts’s at bat. If you look at the Yankee lineup most nights, the batting averages are impressive with almost every player close to or above .300 — every player except for Roberts, whose average hasn’t been north of .200 since the first week of the season. But Roberts came through. Sort of. He roped a line drive that was a bit to the left of Napoli at first base, but Napoli wasn’t able to make the play. The ball glanced off his glove for an error, dropping Roberts’s batting average lower still, but allowing Teixeira to score an important run. Ellsbury followed that with an another ball off the monster, this one a double to score McCann and Roberts, and Jeter drove in Ellsbury with another single up the middle, this one hit #3333. The Yankees led 8-2, and the game was essentially over.

Beltrán crushed a homer to right in the eighth, and the Red Sox slapped together a rally for a run against reliever Dellin Betances in the ninth, but all that did was give us our final score, Yankees 9, Red Sox 2. The real story of the game was Masahiro Tanaka. After faltering in that fourth inning, Tanaka shifted into another gear. With a fastball that touched 95 a few times and once 96, a biting curve that floated in the low- to mid-80s, and that devastating power splitter, Tanaka looked absolutely nothing like a #3 starter. He coasted through the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings, then came back to start the eighth even though he had a seven-run lead and had already thrown 98 pitches. (Again, this is something aces do, not number three starters.)

He ended his night with a strikeout of Grady Sizemore and walked to the dugout after cruising through 7.1 innings, allowing two runs and seven hits, striking out seven, and not walking a batter. In four starts, his numbers look like this: 29.1 IP/22 H/8 R/35 K/2 BB/0.82 WHIP/2.15 ERA. It will be interesting to see what happens once the league gets a second look at him, but right now things are looking pretty good. This might be a fun summer.

[Photo Credit: Elise Amendola/AP Photo]

Masa-Hero

Tanaka

It used to be that Michael Kay was as willing to cross the Canadian border as Snoop Dogg with a suitcase full of herb, but tonight’s game was big enough to pull even the reluctant Kay from New York into Toronto. A big game on April 4th? Not normally, but with Masahiro Tanaka on the mound for the Yankees, he being the splashiest Yankee acquisition since A-Rod, the most mysterious since Hideki Irabu, all eyes (and two Japanese networks) were on the Rogers Centre as the Yankees and Blue Jays met for the second series of the season.

If Tanaka was nervous about his debut, the Yankee offense gave him just what he needed with two runs in the top of the first. Jacoby Ellsbury led off with a booming double off the centerfield wall, then moved to third on a single through the hole by Brett Gardner. (I love Derek Jeter like we all do, but it sure is nice having those two speedsters atop the lineup.) A bloop single by Carlos Beltrán plated Ellsbury with the game’s first run, and two batters later Mark Teixeira poked a single into left to score Gardner. When Kelly Johnson singled sharply to load the bases with only one out, the Rogers Centre crowd grew restless, and it looked like the Yankees might break the game open before Tanaka even took the mound. But Ichiro struck out and Yangervis Solarte popped out down the right field line; even though any starting pitcher would happily take two first-inning runs, there was a sense that there should’ve been much more.

But it wouldn’t really matter, would it? Tanaka, after all, is unhittable. Reports from spring training were beyond phenomenal — hitters couldn’t identify his pitches, manager Joe Girardi raved about his poise, David Cone proclaimed his splitter the best on the planet — but how would he fare in a regular season game?

The answer came quickly. Our old friend Melky Cabrera led off for the Jays and watched two pitches, a strike and a ball, as if taking the measure of Tanaka. The next pitch came in flat and belt-high, and the result was predictable; Cabrera hammered it into the seats for a home run that split the lead and raised a few Yankee eyebrows. But Tanaka recovered to get Colby Rasmus to ground out before striking out José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación, and it looked like he had settled down.

Or perhaps not. Cabrera’s home run was the result of just a single bad pitch, but the next inning was more than that. Adam Lind grounded out for the first out, but the rest of the inning played out like this: single, single, error, two-run single. Tanaka again recovered, this time striking out Cabrera and Rasmus to get off the field, but the inning merits a second look.

It’s tempting to give Tanaka the benefit of the doubt. All three singles, as well as the ball that Teixeira gobbled up and fired into left field, were hit on the ground. Perhaps Tanaka was just unlucky. But take a closer look. Dioner Navarro was down 0-2 when he started the rally with the first single of the inning, Brett Lawrie was in a 1-2 hole before his single, and Ryan Goins was at 0-2 before watching a pitch for a ball and eventually grounding to Teixeira. With huge advantages over three consecutive hitters and an otherworldly splitter in his pocket, Tanaka failed to put away any of them. He paid the price and lost the lead.

It didn’t take long for the Yanks to get the lead right back for him. Ichiro came up with two outs and Brian Roberts on second. He grounded the ball to second and was signaled out, but even to the naked eye it looked like a missed call. Girardi bounced out of the dugout, challenged the call, and the umpires took just ninety seconds or so to get it right. So instead of getting off the field with a 3-2 lead, Toronto pitcher Dustin McGowan had to face one more hitter. It would be his last.

Solarte, who is making Eduardo Núñez rather forgettable, crushed a double to right center, easily scoring both Roberts and Ichiro to give the Yankees a 4-3 lead and send McGowan to the showers.

The Yankees pushed the advantage to 5-3 in the fourth (Brian McCann singled home Ellsbury, who had led off the inning with his second double of the game), but the real story was that Tanaka was finding his groove. He yielded a ringing double to Encarnación with one out in the third, but he worked around that easily, set down the Jays in order on just six pitches in the fourth, and cruised through the fifth, finishing off that frame with a strikeout of Bautista, the eighth consecutive Blue Jay to go down.

It was more of the same for Tanaka in the sixth and seventh. Encarnación reached to lead off the sixth but was promptly erased on a double play ball, and Tanaka skated the rest of the way, retiring the final five batters he faced.

The Yankee hitters also had a nice night, and they added a run in the eighth and another in the ninth to make the final score Yankees 7, Blue Jays 3. Ellsbury went 3 for 4 with two doubles, two runs, and two stolen bases; Gardner picked up two hits and a stolen base; Ichiro followed up Thursday’s two-hit night with three more singles; and Solarte had two doubles and three RBIs, but the story of the night was obviously Masahiro Tanaka. Yes, he struggled a bit at the outset, but he was dominant over his final five innings. He ended up pitching seven strong innings, giving up just two earned runs on six hits while striking out eight. One start does not an all-star make, but considering his stuff, his mound presence, and his demeanor, Tanaka looked like an ace on Friday night. I’m already looking forward to his next start.

[Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images]

The Bitter and the Sweet

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During my freshman year of college there was a girl down the hall who happened to be dating one of our RAs. The RA’s birthday was coming up, and the girl — we’ll call her Caroline — had a brilliant idea for the perfect birthday gift. Since the RA — we’ll call him Neil — loved to sing, Caroline decided to make a donation to one of the campus a cappella groups, which would then allow Neil to sing a song with them. Ah, but here’s the beautiful part. Caroline chose a love song, knowing that Neil would end up serenading her in front of the entire dorm. Needless to say, it worked like a charm. So Caroline got a gift for Neil that was actually a gift for herself.

All of this came flooding back to me as I watched the Red Sox fumble their way through the pre-game ceremony meant to honor Mariano Rivera. Mo’s been getting gifts at every stop this season, so I knew there’d have to be something special at Fenway, but I had no idea the Sox could screw it up so badly. (I should’ve been paying attention; the Sox can’t do ceremony. Exhibit A: Pedro Martínez and Kevin Millar completely butcher Fenway’s 100th birthday celebration; exhibit B: Big Papi’s F-bomb during the Boston Strong ceremony.)

As the festivities began, Master of Ceremonies Dave O’Brien directed the crowd’s attention to the video board where they showed a clip of the sarcastic cheers Mariano received on opening day at Fenway Park in 2005 after blowing those two saves in the 2004 ALCS. I have to say that I’m curious to know how long it took them to come up with that angle.

“Okay, so we have to plan something for the Rivera ceremony. Any ideas?”
“Sure, why don’t we just give him something cool and talk about how great he is?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay, well why don’t we tie it into the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry?”
“That sounds better, what do you have in mind? Maybe Rivera’s greatest moment?”
“Yeah, I was thinking about that three-inning relief stint in the ’03 ALCS. That was wicked awesome.”
“No, that won’t do. Why don’t we tie it into one of our greatest moments? Like ’04?”
“You want to honor him by reminding him of one of his greatest failures?”
“No, I want to honor the Red Sox while we give him a cheap painting!”

I wish I could say that I’m making that up, but they really did choose that moment as the one that said the most about Rivera. To his credit, he simply smiled and played along.

But things got worse. As Dustin Pedroia presented Rivera with the #42 placard which was slid into the Fenway scoreboard each time he took the mound, O’Brien couldn’t just introduce little Pedroia, he had to sing his virtues. “Presenting that gift is another Red Sox player who, like Big Papi, might join you one day in Cooperstown, our brilliant second baseman, Dustin Pedroia.” Who was the ceremony for again?

The next gift was presented by Koji Uehara, whose brilliant 2013 season stands as a reminder of how great Rivera has been for so many years. He really said that.

The ceremony closed with a video montage. I’m not sure if it was produced by the Red Sox and shown in the park, or if it was something that ESPN put together for the viewers at home, but it was more of the same. The first clip — the very first clip of the video meant to honor Rivera — showed Dave Roberts stealing second base in that ’04 ALCS, and the next highlight was the line drive going back through the middle past Rivera, bringing home Roberts. The rest of the video focused on the Rivalry and included Pedro throwing Don Zimmer to the ground and Jason Varitek punching A-Rod in the face. You know, all the touching, emotional stuff you’d expect to see when an organization is honoring a retiring athlete.

Stay classy, Boston. Stay classy.

If you think I sound bitter about that, imagine how I felt once the game got started. When I wrote the recap for last Sunday’s game against the Red Sox, I referenced the Boston Massacre. What happened in Boston this weekend could hardly be called a massacre. It was nothing so dramatic as that. This was a slow death, a syringe in the arm, the victim left to bleed out over the course of several hours — or in this case, three days.

It wasn’t long ago that I believed the Yankees were actually better than the Red Sox. I can’t imagine how I ever thought that.

The Yankees picked up an early run in the first inning after Granderson walked, went to third on an errant pickoff attempt, and scored on Alex Rodríguez’s ground out. It was meek, but it was a run.

Fifteen minutes later, the game was over. It seems pretty clear that Ivan Nova isn’t healthy, but that’s not the way Orel Hershiser sees it. The Ol’ Bulldog believes that Nova simply isn’t trying hard enough, isn’t bearing down, isn’t emotional enough. I don’t want to stir things up, but comments like that sound an awful lot like the criticisms Latino players have been hearing for the past fifty years. But perhaps Hershiser knows better than I do. Maybe Nova simply stopped caring after being the best pitcher in the league in August.

Either way, Nova isn’t right. He was hit hard in the first inning, giving up a double to Daniel Nava, a single to Ortiz, and a homer to Mike Napoli. The score was only 3-1 and there were eight innings left to play, but the hole felt a lot deeper than it might’ve a few weeks ago.

The Yankees couldn’t do a thing against Clay Buccholz after that gifted run in the first. Buccholz was having serious trouble with his control, but the Yankees could never take advantage. The Red Sox, meanwhile, kept adding to their lead in quirky ways, one run at a time.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia was credited with a steal of home in the fourth when Brendan Ryan, the defensive specialist, dropped a throw to second on the double steal, then kicked it around long enough to allow Saltalamacchia to score. In the fifth, Nova plunked Mike Carp with the bases loaded, making it 5-1, then they scored two more in the 6th and two more in the 7th to stretch the lead to 9-1.

The Yankees scraped together a run in the ninth, but it hardly mattered. The game and the series were over. Red Sox 9, Yankees 2.

Of all the games I’ve watched this season, there is no question that this one was the most difficult. The backhanded ceremony, the irritating ESPN announcers, the dominance of the Red Sox, and the increasing possibility of a postseason without the Yankees was simply too much to take. Monday’s off-day couldn’t come at a better time, and not just for the Yankees. I could use a break, too.

Oh, and that song that Neil sang for my friend? Wouldn’t it have been fitting if he had sung “Sweet Caroline”? Thankfully, that wasn’t it. “Only You,” by Yaz. It was absolutely adorable.

[Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images]

Dodging the Bullet

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Thirty-five years ago to the day, as the Yankees were busy reeling in the Boston Red Sox, they stopped in Fenway Park and thrashed the Sox so  soundly that the series will be forever known as the Boston Massacre. The Yankees were four games behind the Red Sox when they arrived in town, but after sweeping the series (and outscoring the Sox 49-26) they left in a flat-footed tie. We all know how that season ended up.

The Yankees would rip out Boston’s heart again in August of 2006, taking the field in Fenway with a slim game and a half lead over the Sox but leaving four days later with commanding 6 1/2 game advantage after an unprecedented five-game sweep in which they outscored Boston by an identical 49-26 margin.

On Sunday afternoon in the Bronx, the Yankees looked to avoid being on the other side of one of those season-ending, soul-crushing, series sweeps. After inexplicable losses on Thursday and Friday, followed by an old-fashioned beating on Saturday, the Yankees took the field on Sunday as a desperate team.

Hiroki Kuroda was on the mound for the Yanks, and he was probably just as desperate as the Yankees were. He had been excellent through the first three months and dominant in July (3-0, 0.55 ERA, 0.88 WHIP), but he was a completely different pitcher in August as he finished the month 1-4 with a 5.12 ERA and 1.42 WHIP. He was a man in need of redemption, and Sunday looked like a good place to start.

He seemed to struggle a bit early on, as consecutive doubles in the second inning (David Ortíz and Mike Carp) produced a run, but he was lights out after that as he cruised through the next three innings before coughing up another run in the sixth.

Mark Reynolds doubled in a run for the good guys in the fourth, and Robinson Canó plated two more with a double of his own in the following frame, but it wasn’t until the eighth inning that the game really started to get interesting.

Did I mention that the Yankees were desperate? Clinging to a 3-2 lead, Joe Girardi brought in Mariano Rivera and hoped for a six-out save. Rivera worked around a harmless single in the eighth, but anyone who had watched the first three games knew that nothing — not even a Mariano save — would come easily in this series. In fact, the save wouldn’t come at all.

Rivera’s third pitch to Will Middlebrooks leading off the top of the ninth looked like it produced a lazy fly ball to right and what would be the first out of the inning. Ichiro slowly floated back on the ball, and no one seemed overly concerned — until it landed in the stands. The camera caught the normally placid Rivera in utter disbelief.

The game was tied, and — with Phil Hughes warming in the bullpen — all appeared lost. But Rivera recovered to finish out the ninth. The bottom half wasn’t exciting, except for the end result. Ichiro singled with one out, stole second, advanced to third on a sacrifice fly from Vernon Wells, then scored when the next pitch from Brandon Workman got past Jarrod Saltalamacchia for a walk-off wild pitch. Yankees 4, Red Sox 3.

Sure, it was an ugly weekend, but the bottom line is this. Even after three straight heart-breaking losses (who’d have thought they could score 25 runs and still lose all three games?) and a litany of injuries (Jeter’s ankle is injured yet again; David Robertson and Boone Logan are also out) the Yankees are still – still — just 2.5 games behind Tampa Bay for the wild card spot.

There’s hope, people. There’s hope.

[Photo Credit: Seth Wenig/AP Photo]

Shit Just Got Real

CC

The problem with the hole the Yankees dug during the first four months of the season is that games like Friday and Saturday, games that could be easily dismissed if the year were going the way it normally does for the Yanks, sting all the more. The days on the calendar are dwindling, and the optimism that built slowly over the course of eleven wins in fourteen days against the Tigers, Angels, Red Sox, and Blue Jays evaporated like morning dew in the desert after two disheartening losses in two nights to the Tampa Bay Rays.

After swallowing the bitter pill of Hiroki Kuruda’s loss on Friday night, my hopes were not high as CC Sabathia took the mound for the Yanks against David Price. Early on, though, there were signs that the Yankees might be able to steal a victory. Price didn’t look as sharp as he usually does (all four Yankee hitters to come to the plate in the first inning hit the ball on the screws, but only Robinson Canó managed a base hit), and Sabathia seemed to be in control. In fact, over the first five innings CC looked better than we’ve seen him in ages. He yielded only a double to Evan Longoria in the first and a walk to Desmond Jennings in the third, nothing else.

The game was scoreless through the first four innings, but then the Yankees started a modest rally when Alex Rodríguez and Vernon Wells each singled to lead off the top of the fifth. After Curtis Granderson struck out and Mark Reynolds singled, young Austin Romine came up to bat with one out and the bases loaded. After working the count full, Romine fouled off three straight pitches before finally taking ball four and pushing in the game’s first run. It was a professional at bat.

Ichiro was up next, and Romine earned his team another run, but this time with some quick thinking on the base paths. Ichiro hit a slow grounder to Ben Zobrist at second base. Knowing that a double play would end the inning, Romine stopped dead in his tracks instead of running into an out, and Zobrist was forced to throw to first to get Ichiro. By the time James Loney threw to second to try to complete the 4-3-6 double play, Romine had already arrived safely and Wells had scored to give the Yanks a 2-0 lead. One more base hit would’ve been nice, but Eduardo Núñez fouled out to end the inning.

Sabathia did what he always used to do — that is, he shut down the Rays following that inning — but he veered off the tracks in the top of the sixth, probably just six outs before he could’ve handed the ball to David Robertson and Mariano Rivera. Sabathia had allowed just a single and a walk while striking out five and inducing nine ground ball outs over the first five innings (even Longoria’s double was just a well-struck grounder down the third base line), but a different pitcher came out for the sixth inning. Sadly, it was Average Sabathia, not Ace Sabathia.

Sam Fuld pounded a single to left field, but it wasn’t time to worry. When Sabathia walked Desmond Jennings on four straight pitches and then fell behind 2-0 to Ben Zobrist, it was time. When Zobrist hit a turf double through the gap in left center field to score Fuld and Jennings and then came home two pitches later on a Longoria single, it was over. Just like that.

Jake McGee cruised through the seventh, Jose Peralta did the same in the eighth, and the ninth inning brought Fernando Rodney to the mound to get the final three outs. He put an arrow through the moon, and that was that. Rays 4, Yankees 2.

When your highest paid pitcher takes the mound in the sixth inning with a two-run lead, there is an expectation of victory, but if we’re being honest we cannot pin this loss on CC Sabathia. He gave up only three runs in six and a third innings, but the Yankee hitters didn’t do much to help him out. The trio in the middle of the lineup, Canó, Soriano, and Rodríguez, has cooled off considerably (those three hitters are a combined 3 for 24 so far in this series), and aside from that fifth inning, the Bombers were never able to put more than one runner on base during any given inning. Quite simply, that isn’t good enough.

The good news, though, is that these losses haven’t eliminated the Yankees from contention. Tomorrow, after all, is another day. I still believe.

[Photo Credit: Chris O'Meara/AP Photo]

Rooting for the Bad Guy

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We moved four months ago, but the process still isn’t over. We never quite finished clearing out the garage and attic at our old place, but since new renters were set to move in on Sunday, we spent Saturday packing everything out and all day Sunday trying to find space in the new garage for all the stuff we had left behind. We still aren’t done, but at least we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

So as the Yankees and Red Sox were squaring off for the final game of their three-game set at Fenway Park, I was knee deep in a sea of boxes and assorted debris covering my driveway. I had hoped to be done by the first pitch, hoped to be lying down on the couch enjoying a nine-inning reward for the day’s work, but as it was I was stuck listening to John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman.

Listening to a baseball game on the radio (or an iPhone, in this case), is a completely different experience than watching on TV. Baseball’s languid pace fits perfectly with radio, as most radio announcers are comfortable enough to let the game breathe and take on a life of its own. The twenty-second gap between pitches allows for choices; an announcer can weave elaborate stories with history and anecdotes in and around an at bat, or he might simply choose to let the ambiance of the ballpark filter through to the listener.

With Sterling and Waldman, there isn’t much ambiance. They tend to prattle on throughout the game, sometimes talking about the action on the field, other times remembering Broadway musicals from the 1950s, and so it was on Sunday night. F.P. Dempster was on the mound for the Red Sox, and although he gave up a double to the smoldering Robinson Canó in the first inning, the game didn’t get interesting until CC Sabathia toed the rubber in the bottom half.

Sabathia was good his last time out, but even at the time that looked more like an aberration than a correction, and the CC we’ve grown used to seeing was back on Sunday. He walked Jacoby Ellsbury to start the inning, then gave up a single to Shane Victorino before finally walking David Ortíz to load the bases with one out. After a sacrifice fly from Johnny Gomes and a single off the bat of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Sox were up by two.

But the game really started in the top of the second when Alex Rodríguez walked up to the plate. A-Rod has always been a polarizing figure, and he’s been accustomed to hearing boos in every ballpark, including his own, for the majority of his career, but it’s never been anything like this. With everything that’s been going on off the field for Alex (and things got even crazier on Sunday as general manager Brian Cashman revealed that he no longer talks to A-Rod because of legal concerns), his on-field appearances over the past two weeks (and the past three days in Boston) have been met with the loudest and most sustained booing that any baseball player has ever had to endure.

And so it was as A-Rod strode to the plate for his first at bat on Sunday night. With the boos raining down, F.P. Dempster threw his first pitch behind Rodríguez, and the boos immediately turned to cheers. Everyone in the park (except, apparently, home plate umpire Brian O’Nora) knew what was probably going on, and when F.P.’s next two pitches were aimed at A-Rod’s belt buckle, it was clear that he was doing his best to send a message. His fourth pitch was a bit higher and a bit tighter and drilled Alex in the arm.

As Fenway exploded with glee, O’Nora flew into action, warning F.P., the Boston dugout, the New York dugout, and a peanut vendor in the front row. Remember when George Brett flew out of the third-base dugout after being called out in the Pine Tar game? Joe Girardi’s reaction to O’Nora’s warning was pretty much identical. He sprinted out to engage O’Nora and was thrown out almost immediately. Sterling and Waldman were in complete disbelief over the entire scene, and they wondered aloud about why Girardi would’ve been ejected so quickly. “We know he didn’t swear at O’Nora,” explained Sterling, “because Girardi does not swear.”

When I finally got to watch the recording hours later, the video told a different story. Girardi was furious that F.P. hadn’t been thrown out, and even a novice lip reader would’ve had no trouble deciphering his words for O’Nora before and after being tossed: “You fucked up! You fucked up!” Next Girardi turned on Dempster and reviewed his performance: “That’s bullshit! You’re a fucking pussy!” (Buster Olney reported on Monday morning that Girardi probably tripled his career profanity total in those five minutes.)

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I’ve never seen Girardi so angry, and I can’t say that I blame him. Not only did O’Nora fail to act, but he essentially condoned F.P. Dempster’s moral crusade. Apparently it’s now okay for a pitcher to throw at a player because he doesn’t like what he’s doing and saying off the field, but it’s no longer okay for a manager to defend his player. As several members of the media said in the moment and afterwards, if baseball doesn’t suspend F.P., they’ll be just as guilty as O’Nora.

So Rodríguez stood at first base, but even more important than that, his team stood united behind him. Players from both dugouts and bullpens had wandered out onto the field during the dispute, but it was clear that Yankee players were just as angry as their manager. A-Rod eventually came around to score after Curtis Granderson doubled him to third and Eduardo Núñez singled him home, and he received a hero’s welcome when he returned to the dugout. Even as members of the front office continue to distance themselves from Alex, his teammates seem to have embraced him. Just another item on the long list of contradictions concerning Mr. Rodríguez.

But back to the game. Lyle Overbay tied the game with a sacrifice fly, Sabathia had a quick and easy bottom of the second, and the Yankees went ahead 3-2 when A-Rod extracted a tiny bit of revenge (there would be more later) with an RBI groundout in the third.

Things started to look bleak almost immediately after that. Sabathia gave up a run to tie the score in the third, two more in the fourth, and then he walked in a sixth run in the fifth. I really don’t know what to say about Sabathia anymore.

In the top of the sixth, drama walked to the plate in the form of Alex Rodríguez. With F.P. Dempster still on the mound, A-Rod put a good swing on a 1-0 fastball and the boos suddenly went silent. It was the type of ball we’ve seen countless times from A-Rod over the past ten years, launched towards center field by a vicious swing but deceptive in its length. Ellsbury drifted back, but it quickly became clear that he wouldn’t have a play. He looked up and watched it soar deep into the night before settling several rows back in the bleachers, 446 feet from home plate.

It was a monster home run, but it meant much more than just a single run. The ball landed in the stands just as A-Rod rounded first, and the cameras caught him screaming in triumph and stealing a glance towards the mound. It wasn’t just about cutting the lead to 6-4; this was something personal. He sprinted around third, looked into the Yankee dugout, then paused for an extra second at home and did his best Big Papi impression, standing at the plate with two index fingers pointed skyward, either completely oblivious to the boos or soaking them in like warm sunshine. Needless to say, he was mobbed when he arrived back in the dugout. When asked afterwards about how he felt while rounding the bases, A-Rod didn’t hide behind any cliché about helping the team. His response was short and sweet: “It was awesome.”

But the Yankees didn’t stop there. It wasn’t long ago that a 6-3 deficit heading to the sixth inning would be too much of a mountain for the Yankees to climb, but no longer. They would load the bases with one out after Núñez and Overbay singled and Chris Stewart worked a walk, finally pushing F.P. Dempster from the game and bringing Brett Gardner to the plate. Gardner had been one of the more animated Yankees on the field after A-Rod’s beaning, so he might’ve been disappointed to be facing a reliever instead of the starter, but he still managed to punish F.P. He launched a shot to the gap in right center for a bases clearing triple that might’ve been an inside the parker if he hadn’t had to come to a complete stop near second when it looked like it might be caught, and suddenly the Yankees had a 7-6 lead.

Just as A-Rod had done at the beginning of the inning, Gardner let loose a scream as he dusted himself off at third. His triple might’ve come off of Drake Britton, but all the runs were charged to F.P. Dempster, a point that Gardner made after the game. “There’s no doubt what the guy was trying to do, but it is what it is, and he gave up seven runs today.” Those seven runs shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. F.P. has a career record against the Yankees of 0-6 and 7.57 — that’s not an airplane, that’s his ERA.

The Yanks added a run in the seventh (Mark Reynolds rapped a single to center to score Granderson) and another in the ninth (Stewart singled in Jayson Nix), and Mariano Rivera closed things down for a 9-6 win, but Sunday night was about Alex Rodríguez. As clueless as he sometimes can be, right now he seems to understand exactly what’s going on. (When a reporter asked afterwards if he thought F.P. should be suspended, Rodríguez chuckled and said, “I’m the last guy you should be asking about suspensions!”) He’s sitting in the eye of the storm that he created, but somehow he seems more comfortable than he ever has. Coming off a severe injury and an invasive surgery, fielding endless questions after every game, enduring barbs from his team’s front office, and facing hostile crowds every night, A-Rod is somehow playing the best baseball we’ve seen from him in two years.

Alex Rodríguez is the villain, and he likes it.

The Prodigal Son

Soriano

I would never try to tell you that I was disappointed when the Yankees traded away Alfonso Soriano for Alex Rodríguez before the 2004 season. Rodríguez was the best player in baseball back then, so it would be hard to argue with that deal even knowing what we know now, but I was definitely sorry to see Soriano go. He should’ve been the hero of the 2001 World Series, he was coming off two spectacular seasons in ’02 and ’03, and even though there were holes in his swing and questions about his work ethic, it was hard to argue with the numbers on the back of his baseball card.

So when my summer tour of the Midwest was interrupted by the news that the Yankees had reacquired Soriano, I was thrilled even if Brian Cashman wasn’t. Even if you accepted that the odds of hanging a twenty-eighth banner this October were slim, it still felt like a good deal to me. Any extra bat added to the anemic attack we’d suffered through over the first four months would have to be a good thing, right?

Of course, no one could’ve imagined what happened over the past two days against the Angels. Soriano had hit two home runs and driven in six runs on Monday night, with all of that damage coming in the final four innings, and he picked up right where he left off on Tuesday.

Jered Weaver was on the mound for the Angels, and I don’t particularly like Jered Weaver. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because he always looks like he’s absolutely miserable. Remember when your dad used to tell you stop crying or he’d give you something to cry about? Well, the Yankees gave Weaver something to be miserable about, but quick. After Brett Gardner and Ichiro made the first two outs of the first inning, Robinson Canó laced a single right back over Weaver’s head, then A-Rod promptly doubled him over to third. The right-handed Weaver played the percentages and gave the left-handed Curtis Granderson four straight balls to load the bases for our boy Soriano.

Statistically, it was the right move, but it didn’t work. Weaver left a fastball right over the heart of the plate, and Soriano did his job. He absolutely crushed it to straightaway center field for a grand slam and a 4-0 Yankee lead.

The heart of the lineup — and this lineup actually has a heart now — did more two-out damage in the second inning. With runners on first and second, Canó ripped a single to right to push the score to 5-0, and after a walk to A-Rod, Granderson singled in another run, making it 6-0. This brought up Soriano, who crushed another ball, this one just a double to score two. 8-0.

An eight-run cushion would be enough even for a fifth starter, but when it’s your ace on the mound as it was on Tuesday, you might as well send everyone home. Ivan Nova didn’t have his best stuff, but he labored through 7.1 innings and only gave up three runs.

As I said, the eight runs would’ve been enough for Nova, but they weren’t enough for the Yankee hitters. When Soriano led off the fifth inning with another home run, his fourth in two games, he elevated himself into some fairly exclusive company. With six RBIs on Monday and seven more on Tuesday, Soriano became just the seventh player in history to total at least thirteen RBIs in consecutive games and only the third player to have six or more RBIs in each of two consecutive games.

The Angels finally wised up and walked Soriano in his fourth and final at bat of the night, but he scored along with Granderson on a Chris Stewart single for the game’s final runs. Yankees 11, Angels 3.

The only downside that I can see to all this is that the Yankees have me believing again. Maybe this lineup is good enough to score on a consistent basis. Maybe Ivan Nova will continue to string together quality starts. Maybe Hiroki Kuroda (the team’s other ace) will do the same. Maybe Derek Jeter will finally get healthy and add even more depth to the lineup.

Maybe this team will make the playoffs. And after that? Who knows.

[Photo Credit: Rich Shultz/Getty Images]

Looking for an Ace?

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There is a sentiment within and around the Yankees that if they are to make the playoffs, they need CC Sabathia to pitch like CC Sabathia. This is a rather short-sighted point of view. The Yankees have five starting pitchers, and like most staffs, those pitchers can be easily ranked from one through five; the names shouldn’t matter. Contending teams need an ace, a pitcher they can count on to win big games down the stretch, and the Yankees happen to have two of them — Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova. Their third and fourth starters are Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes, which, in the event that the Yankees make the playoffs, would leave Sabathia as a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen.

So instead of worrying about Sabathia, we should instead be thankful for Nova. He was on the mound for the Yankees on Saturday night, and he did what aces do: he shut down the opposition to give his team a much-needed victory.

With bad news bookending the game (the Yankees pulled Derek Jeter from the lineup to rest his ailing leg and announced that he’d likely miss a game or two, and ESPN reported after the game that Alex Rodríguez will be suspended on Monday through the end of 2014), the nine innings in between were a welcome respite.

Nova took a few innings to find his groove, but he was able to work out of minor trouble early on. He gave up consecutive singles with one out in the first inning, then yielded a lead-off double in the second, but in each case he emerged unscathed. After that second-inning double off the bat of Alexi Amarista, Nova retired fifteen consecutive Padres and never really broke a sweat. Only one of those fifteen batters was even able to work a three-ball count; that was Chase Headley in the sixth, who then struck out on the next pitch.

The problem for the Yankees, though, was that San Diego starting pitcher Tyson Ross was just as good. Ross set down the first thirteen hitters he faced, and did so in fairly dominant fashion, striking out seven of them with a strong fastball, a quality changeup, and a devastating slider. Lyle Overbay broke the spell with a clean single in the fifth, but it wasn’t until the seventh inning that the Yankees were able to make any headway against Ross.

Alfonso Soriano lifted a fly ball that floated just over the infield and landed just in front of center fielder Amarista for a single. Soriano had given up on the play immediately and jogged to first, costing himself a double, but Curtis Granderson erased that minor mistake two pitches later when he launched a home run to right field to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. Consecutive walks to Overbay and Eduardo Núñez pushed Ross from the game, but the Yanks weren’t able to do any more damage that inning.

Will Venable doubled to lead off the Padres’ seventh, but once again Nova simply bowed his neck against the yoke. He struck out Jedd Gyorko on three pitches, got Amarista to ground out, then followed his first walk of the game with his eighth strike out to end the threat. He had only thrown 85 pitches on the night, but he was done. His final line was impressive (7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 K), but it was really just more of what we’ve come to expect from him. Over his last five starts — a significant sample size — Nova’s numbers look like this: 38 IP, 25 H, 7 R, 10 BB, 37 K, 1.66 ERA, 0.92 WHIP. If it looks like an ace, and walks like an ace, it must be an ace. He’s 3-2 over those five games, but only because the Yankees managed just a total of five hits in his two losses.

David Robertson pitched an efficient eighth inning, the Yankees scored another run in the ninth with a Granderson single, stolen base, and an RBI single from Jayson Nix, and then it was time for Mariano Rivera.

Each of Rivera’s appearances now are bitter sweet. It’s as if you’re eating the most delicious piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever had. Even as you’re delighting in each heavenly bite, you can’t help but feel a bit of sadness as you watch the piece on your plate growing smaller and smaller. And so it is with Rivera. How many more times will we get to see him take the mound? Fifteen? Twenty? Each one now is precious.

As chants of “Mar-ee-ah-no!” were filtering down from the San Diego crowd, the Great One produced another masterpiece. Venable and Gyorko were retired on fly balls that wouldn’t have scared anyone in a slow-pitch softball game, and Amarista struck out swinging on three pitches. All three men will tell their grandchildren about those at bats.

Yankees 3, Padres 0.

[Photo Credit: Denis Poroy/Getty Images]

Toto, I don’t think we’re in 1998 anymore.

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Nineteen ninety-eight was a lifetime ago. Personally, I had only just started dating my wife, and we were still just imagining the three children we have now. The Yankees, meanwhile, won every single night and coasted through the first two rounds of the playoffs before sweeping the Padres in the World Series. It was all a lifetime ago, and last night’s game in San Diego was a harsh, harsh reminder.

For one thing, CC Sabathia used to be an absolute stud. Even when things were going well for the Yankees — and I’m not thinking back all the way to 1998 anymore — CC’s games stood out on the schedule. He was the horse who would always pitch seven or eight innings, and even on the nights when he didn’t have his best stuff, you’d still look up in the end and he’d have made it through seven innings while allowing just three runs and earning a hard-fought win. He was that rare quantity — the pitcher on the staff with the best stuff and the most heart.

Because of that, the fall of Sabathia has been perhaps the most unsettling part of this incredibly unsettling season. He was good in April, stringing together three straight quality starts, but it’s been all downhill since then. His monthly ERA numbers have looked like this: 3.35, 4.14, 5.11, and a whopping 6.60 in July. He has been the worst Yankee starter this season, it hasn’t even been close. If his name weren’t CC Sabathia, there would be talk of removing him from the rotation. But since his name is CC Sabathia, he will almost certainly take the mound ten more times this season, and there’s nothing to indicate that those starts won’t go like it did on Friday night.

The Padres didn’t waste any time, as they sent seven men to the plate in the first inning and scored two runs. The first run came on a bases-loaded walk, the second on a ground out to the pitcher. Sabathia made a highlight reel play to get that out, otherwise the inning might have lasted forever.

The Yankee hitters gamely answered with two runs of their own in the top of the second when Eduardo Núñez poked a double down the right field line to score Ichiro, then scored two batters later on a Sabathia ground out. There was reason for hope at that point, but the Bronx Bombers managed only three lousy singles over the next seven innings. Sure, there were at least three or four blistered line drives that died in Padre gloves, a horrific call at first base that robbed Núñez of a hit in the fourth, and another blown call at second in the fifth, but what you see in the box score tells the sad truth. Three San Diego pitchers named Andrew Cashner, Luke Gregerson, and Tim Stauffer held the Yankees to two runs on only seven hits.

Sabathia began to crumble in the top of the fourth. He gave up a long home run to Logan Forsythe with one out, then instead of covering first on Cashner’s ground ball to first, Sabathia stood on the mound like a statue and allowed the opposing pitcher to reach base without a throw. (As egregious as this mental error was, it shouldn’t have been a surprise; Sabathia has not recorded a putout at first base in more than two years.) Cabrera capitalized on CC’s non-error by launching a triple over Brett Gardner’s head in center field to score Cashner and give the Padres a 4-2 lead.

There was more of the same in the sixth inning. Nick Hundley drew a one-out walk, and Cabrera singled him to second two batters later. After Chris Denorfia singled to drive in Hundley, Joe Girardi had no choice but to pull his starter. Sabathia’s line on the night: 5.2 IP, 11 H, 5 ER, 3 BB, 4 K.

Joba Chamberlain gave up a home run to Jedd Gyorko in the seventh, and Adam Warren coughed up another to Will Venable in the eighth, and soon enough it was all mercifully over. Padres 7, Yankees 2.

It can’t be worse on Saturday night, can it?

[Photo Credit: Denis Poroy/Getty Images]

The Flip of a Coin

You remember what your algebra teacher told you about coin flips, don’t you? The coin has no memory. The probability of each result is always the same, regardless of what has come before. If a certain coin comes up heads, say, six times in a row, the odds on the seventh flip do not change. Only a fool would bet on heads thinking the coin was hot, and you’d be equally foolish if you bet on tails because it was due. A coin, after all, is just a coin.

More and more, these Yankees are starting to look like that coin. Remember when they won six straight and looked to be turing the corner as Mariano Rivera jogged in from the bullpen in the ninth inning of what would’ve been their seventh-straight win? And what about when they forgot how to win and lost three straight, the last two to the lowly Kansas City Royals? Recently it just seems like the Yankees are a .500 team, and the record bears that out. Since emerging from that soul-crushing four-game sweep at the hands of the Mets, the Yanks have come up heads just as often as tails — 19-19. At this point, perhaps they are who they are.

As depressing as that idea is, Wednesday’s game with the Royals was just the opposite. The other side of the coin, if you will. The Yankees scratched out a run in the first without benefit of an RBI as Brett Gardner made a daring dash home on a wild pitch that bounced only two or three yards away from Kansas City catcher George Kottaras. (Ichiro also tried to score on the same play when Kottaras’s throw skipped into the infield, but he was thrown out.) At the time the whole thing reeked of desperation. Gardner had no faith that anyone would drive him in, so he took a chance. Ichiro was thinking the same thing, so he took a bigger one. Heads you score, tails you’re out. 1-0 Yanks after one.

Iván Nova was on the mound for the Yankees, and after yielding two harmless singles in the top of the first, he mowed through the next twelve Royals hitters without allowing a base runner, allowing the Yankee offense to put a few things together. The first big moment arrived in the bottom of the third when Robinson Canó came to the plate with two outs and runners on first and second. Canó’s season has been up and down, but considering that he’s really the only frightening hitter in the lineup, it’s quite amazing what he’s been able to do — or what opposing pitchers have allowed him to do. Why he ever gets anything to hit, I’ll never know.

He got something to hit when Kansas City’s Wade Davis left a pitch out over the plate. Canó stayed with the pitch and drove it out towards the deepest part of the ballpark for a 419-foot home run to left center. It was the first home run by a Yankee starter in eight days, and the Yankees were up 4-0.

(That was probably the most important Canó moment of the night, since it essentially sealed the win, but there was a moment an inning earlier that will stick with me longer. With one out in the top of the second David Lough popped up a ball in the infield. Eduardo Núñez immediately began calling for it, as it looked to be heading towards the shortstop side of second base. But as the ball drifted across the bag into Canó’s territory, Núñez kept tracking it. As Canó realized Núñez wasn’t going to be called off the play, he brought his glove down and crossed his arms in mock indignation. After the out was made, he made a show of pointing out where the play had been made and playfully chided the youngster for overstepping his boundaries. It was the type of thing that of all sports happens only in baseball, and it was the type of thing that we used to see routinely from Derek Jeter — the stone-faced response to every single Hideki Matsui home run or the barely-controlled laughter each time Alex Rodríguez struggled with a pop-up. I can’t imagine Canó would’ve put on such a show had Jeter been the shortstop to wander into his domain, and perhaps Jeter’s absence thus far has allowed Canó to test his leadership skills a bit. Then again, it might simply have been two friends having a little fun. Either way, I enjoyed it.)

But back to our game. Those four runs exceeded the total production of the previous three games, but the bats weren’t done. They doubled that output in the sixth inning, and it only took four batters: Canó single, Vernon Wells pinch single, Zoilo Almonte walk, and a grand slam for Lyle Overbay.

But better than all that was Nova. He wasn’t just getting the Royals out, he was dominating them. He gave up a run in the eighth after walking Alcides Escobar with two outs and then giving up a double to Eric Hosmer, but that was it. Aside from those two mistakes, the last nine batters he faced went down like this: seven groundouts, a strikeout, and a fly out. He was great all night long.

Two years ago I wrote a piece in this space making several predictions about the future of the Yankees, and one of those was the development of Nova into the ace of this staff. I was recapping a game between the Yankees and the Reds that day, and after watching last night’s game with the Royals, I was immediately reminded of that night back in Cincinnati. Please note the similarities in Nova’s stat lines:

6/20/2011: 8.0 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 7 K
7/10/2013: 8.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6 K

Last night’s performance, of course, comes on the heels of what he did his last time out, that complete-game gem against the Orioles. Even more important than that, it stopped a Yankee losing streak and gave them a much-needed 8-1 win. We can only hope that the coin won’t remember any of this tomorrow afternoon, and that the Yanks will come up with another win.

[Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP Photo]

Seven. It’s Got Caché, Baby!

I can’t quite believe I’m typing this, but this afternoon the Yankees are going for a sweep of the Orioles and their seventh-straight win. Remember when we used to take these winning streaks for granted? Remember when we only checked the standings occasionally, more out of politeness than anything else? Ah, the good old days.

But some of the good old days might be coming back. Derek Jeter played his first rehab game last night and accomplished his goal — the ankle didn’t break. (Michael Pineda also pitched well; it will be nice to see him in New York finally, perhaps some time after the All-Star break.)

For now, though, let’s focus on the game. We play today, we win today. Dat’s it.

Brett Gardner, CF
Ichiro, RF
Robinson Canó, 2B
Travis Hafner, DH
Zoilo Almonte, LF
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Luís Cruz, 3B
Eduardo Núñez, SS
Chris Stewart, C

Hiroki Kuroda (7-6, 2.95, 1.06) vs. Jason Hammel (7-5, 5.19, 1.40)

He Who Would Be King

Will this be the day that Andy Murray finally finds his destiny and brings home the Wimbledon title for the British masses? (It’s probably been at least a decade since I really cared about tennis, but I have to admit that I’m rooting hard for him.) Early on it certainly looked like it would be Murray’s day, as he jumped out to a two-set and lead and broke the Joker in the first game of the third — then looked to be on the verge of breaking him again two games later — but the tide just might be turning. Djokovic won four straight games to take a 4-2 lead in the third set.

Nothing better than a little drama in the Wimbledon championship.

Stop Me If You Think That You’ve Heard This One Before

Amidst all the unpredictability and chaos that has welled up this season, Saturday afternoon’s game was stunningly normal. It was a game we’ve all seen thousands of times, and there was something soothing about it, like a tall glass of lemonade on a hot summer day.

As it started out, it looked more like lemons. Andy Pettitte was on the mound for the Yanks, and he retired the first two batters quickly before giving up a single to left by Adam Jones. As Chris Davis dug in at the plate I wondered if there had ever been a hitter whose reality differs so much from the perception. Davis’s name and appearance are as plain as Peoria, but when his bat lifts off his shoulder he’s suddenly as dangerous as Detroit. After working the count full, Davis produced a high fly ball that concerned no one — not Pettitte, who stood on the mound patiently, not Michael Kay, who calmly described the lazy arc of the ball, not Brett Gardner, who cruised calmly back to the wall in center field, and not even Davis himself, who shook his head in disgust as he trotted out of the box. But then a funny thing happened — the ball just wouldn’t stop carrying, no doubt because of the 100° air, until it landed a few feet over the wall for a two-run homer.

The Orioles scored a third run in the second inning, and this one was also questionable. Nolan Reimold dribbled a ball down the third base line, and Pettitte had no option other than the Jeter Jump Throw™. But Pettitte is not Jeter, and the ball ended up down the right field line, allowing Reimold to make it to second. Alexi Casilla doubled two pitches later, bringing in Reimold and his unearned run.

The old Yankees — and by that I mean the Yankees from a week ago — would have curled up into a ball when faced with a 3-0 deficit against Chris Tillman in the top of the second, but these are the New Yankees! Travis Hafner led off the bottom of the second with a walk, then crisp singles from Zoilo Almonte and Lyle Overbay loaded the bases with none out. Luís Cruz then looped a base hit just in front of Reimold in left field, and the Yankees were on the board, 3-1. Eduardo Núñez stepped to the plate for the first time since May 10th and responded with a sacrifice fly to give the Yanks another run, but Overbay foolishly tried to advance to third on the play. He was thrown out easily for the second out, and the rally was essentially over. Chris Stewart made it official when he struck out looking.

The O’s picked up another run in the fourth when Taylor Teagarden cashed in a J.J. Hardy double to make the score 4-2, but the Yanks came back in the fifth with their new station-to-station offense. Núñez and Stewart opened the inning with singles, then moved over to second and third on Gardner’s sacrifice bunt. Ichiro flipped a looping liner over the mound that was flagged down by Brian Roberts at second; as good as the play was, it saved one run, not two, and the Yanks were within one at 4-3. Canó was up next, and he dumped an excuse-me single in front of Reimold to bring home Stewart to tie the game at four.

Pettitte rolled through the sixth, and the Yanks played some more small ball in their half. Overbay picked up his third hit of the game to lead off the inning, then moved to second on Cruz’s bunt, setting things up for Núñez to be the hero in his first game back. Nuney took the first pitch for a strike, then grounded the next one up the middle for a base hit. When third base coach Robby Thompson sent Overbay chugging around third to challenge Jones’s arm in center field, I was certain it was the wrong decision, but Jones’s throw was a bit up the line and Overbay scored the go-ahead run.

Nothing else really mattered except for the ninth inning and Mariano Rivera. If you look at the play-by-play, you’ll read about two ground balls, a single, and a strikeout, but that hardly tells the story. J.J. Hardy, Nate McClouth, Ryan Flaherty, and Chris Dickerson were all so overmatched that they couldn’t have been faulted had they each asked Rivera for his autograph before leaving the field. Hardy looked at one pitch, then squibbed a ball that barely made its way out to Canó, who flipped to first for out number one. Pinch hitter McClouth then hit another ball out to Canó, this one so soft that the play at first was close. Flaherty managed a base hit, but only because Rivera’s cutter so overwhelmed him that even with a full swing the ball only travelled about ninety feet before fluttering to the grass like a wounded bird in front of second. No matter. Rivera struck out Dickerson on three pitches to end the game. Yankees 5, Orioles 4. Same as it ever was.

It was Rivera’s 29th save of the season (and his 72nd save of a Pettitte victory), putting him on a pace for 54, which would be his career best. Here’s what I wrote about Rivera back on May 9th after he recorded his twelfth save:

Here’s something to watch for. It’s early, but the way this team is constructed, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Rivera actually topped his career high of 53 saves from back in 2004. Then he’d walk off into the sunset with a Cy Young Award, just like Koufax. Wouldn’t that be poetic?

The Cy Young Award seems less likely at this point, but here’s something else that would be poetic. After Saturday’s game we found out that Rivera had been named to the American League All-Star game, but that’s not good enough. Mariano Rivera should be the starting pitcher for the American League. I’m not the first to come up with this idea — I seem to remember Michael Kay suggesting this for the 2008 ASG in Yankee Stadium — but this would be the perfect year to do it.

There’s no need to have an actual starting pitcher start the game, since most pitchers only throw an inning or two anyway, even some of those who start the game. (Max Scherzer would be the starter most likely to start, but Detroit manager Jim Leyland has already indicated that Scherzer probably won’t be available to pitch that day.)

Rivera is having a phenomenal season and could end up with the highest single-season save total of his career. There’s no real guarantee that he would get into the game in the ninth inning, nor is there any guarantee that those final outs would be meaningful. So why not send him out to start? It might seem counterintuitive to have Rivera, the greatest closer of all-time, appear in his final all-star game as a starter (and Rivera might not even want to do it), but what better way is there to honor the greatest pitcher any of us will ever see?

[Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images]

The Dream Is Always the Same

So Alex is on assignment — or perhaps on the run — and he’s left me the keys to the place. You’re all welcome to stop by whenever you like, just don’t act like a bunch of animals. I’ll be in and out myself, but I trust you. Don’t steal anything. If I come back here and anything’s missing, I’m going straight to the police. I mean it.

So now that that’s out of the way, on to the Yankees. Not much going on there, eh? Suddenly a five-game winning streak, capped last night with the Wells Walk-off (though I must admit that I prefer pie to Gatorade), and things are looking a lot different than they were a week ago. Some fans might even be looking with hope towards the top of the standings rather than dread towards the bottom.

Oh, another thing — a guy named Jeter is scheduled to make his first rehab start down in Scranton tonight, and there are whispers that we might see him in the Bronx next week. It won’t be too soon.

And finally, the lineup, featuring the recently recalled Eduardo Núñez (David Phelps was sent down):

Brett Gardner, CF
Ichiro, RF
Robinson Canó, 2B
Travis Hafner, DH
Zoilo Almonte, LF
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Luís Cruz, 3B
Eduardo Núñez, SS
Chris Stewart, C

Andy Pettitte (5-6, 4.40, 1.36) vs. Chris Tillman (10-2, 3.68, 1.30)

Bronx Banter. There is no substitute.

Dark Days

ESPN analyst Orel Hershiser summed things up nicely towards the end of Sunday night’s death march: “The players who should be on the bench are in the starting lineup, and the players who should be in the lineup are on the disabled list.” It’s nothing new, but if Mariano Duncan were still around, he’d probably print up t-shirts with that explanation emblazoned across the chest. Admitting the problem is the first step.

At first glance it seemed as if the Yankees might have had the edge in Sunday night’s matchup in Baltimore, with Hiroki Kuroda going up against Chris Tillman, but Tillman’s been pretty good this year. In fact, the Orioles had won Tillman’s last seven starts, and Tillman had gotten the win in all but one of those games. Any American League pitcher with a 9-2 record and an ERA under four must be doing something right, and Tillman’s doing something right.

Regardless of how good Tillman might be, the Orioles have been carried by their hitting, and it didn’t take long for the Baltimore bats to make themselves heard. With one out in the first inning, third baseman Manny Machado hit a clothesline into the left field bleachers to give the Orioles a 1-0 lead and send a dagger into the heart of Yankee Universe. Even with all the talk we hear about Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, Machado just might be the best of the three, and as he circled the bases I couldn’t help but wonder where the next Yankee hero might come from. The prospects we’ve waited patiently for over the past few years (Jesus Montero, Austin Jackson, Austin Romine, Eduardo Nuñez, Slade Heathcott, Brandon Laird, etc.) have either been traded away, failed to make the majors, or simply evolved into interchangeable parts. In Machado, the Orioles have the face of their franchise for the next fifteen years. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The Yankee hitters weren’t thinking about any of that, though, as they managed to scrape together enough offense to tie the game in the top of the second. With runners on first and third and two outs, David Adams walked to load the bases, and Brett Gardner followed that with another walk to force in a run. It wasn’t exciting, but it was a run!

Just a few minutes later the Orioles struck back with yet another home run from Chris Davis, his 31st of the season and third of the series, and Nate McLouth homered in the next inning to give Baltimore a 3-1 lead.

The Yankees, meanwhile, were hitting as if their bats were made of apple sauce instead of ash. Only nine hitters came to bat in the third, fourth, and fifth innings (Hafner singled in the third but was thrown out at second trying to stretch), and except for a ten-pitch at bat by Brett Gardner in the fifth, Tillman never once had to work hard.

Canó led off the sixth with a solo home run to right center, giving the Yankees just a glimmer of hope, but that hope never amounted to much more than a glimmer, even when they put two runners on in the seventh and again in the ninth. Somehow those two rallies never felt like rallies.

After the 4-2 loss, the Yankees now find themselves in fourth place in the five-team American League East, and it won’t be long before they’re in the cellar. These are dark days, my friend. Dark days.

[Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images]

A Day in the Box Seats

We drove up to the Angels Stadium parking lot, and we weren’t asked to pay for parking. Our tickets were scanned at the turnstile, and we were directed down instead of up. When we found the entrance for Section 113, the usher politely asked us to walk down the steps to the fifth row, and then turn left. My son and I took seats 6 and 7, and my wife and oldest daughter sat directly behind us. We were high rollers, at least for a day. As I stood blinking in the sun, only twenty feet or so from the infield grass, a line from a Talking Heads song popped into my head. “Well, how did I get here?”

I teach 7th grade English. Last Thursday was the last day of school, and it was a sad day. Not only was it my last day with the amazing group of seventh graders that I had taught since September, it was also the last day I’d see the graduating eighth graders I’d taught the year before. Included in that graduating Class of 2013 was a group of ten girls who ate lunch in my room every day this year.

We had our final lunch last Tuesday, and they surprised me with a few gifts — a framed photograph that they had all signed, a book I’ve been wanting to read for years, and a fistful of my favorite candy bars. That was already more than generous, but then they gave me one more present — four box seats to see the Yankees on Father’s Day. All of my students know of my love for the Yankees, so these girls certainly knew it would be the perfect gift: something I’ve always wanted but would never have bought for myself.

I thought of those girls as we sat on the third base side, five rows up, about midway between the mound and home plate. The best seats I’ve ever had for a game. An anthropologist could probably do a fairly in depth study comparing and contrasting the different social groups in the different corners of a major league ballpark, and it took only a few minutes to gauge the folks in Section 113. There were other tourists like us, people who took photos of everything because they’d never been there before and doubted they would ever come back. They looked around with wonder, first marveling at how close they were to their heroes, then sneaking glances to the upper reaches of the stadium where they knew they belonged.

And of course, there were the locals — the season ticket holders who sat in these seats 81 games a year and had lost sight of how special this section really was. They arrived casually, an inning or two late, and walked to their seats without direction. One family of six sauntered in with drinks in hand, sat down in the front row, and simply started chatting amiably amongst themselves as if they were picnicking in the park. Imagine Dorothy stepping into Oz and simply saying hello.

I’ve been going to watch the Yankees in Anaheim for more than thirty years now, and the biggest difference between now and then is that Angels fans actually care about their team now. They wear the red, they swing rally monkeys over their heads, and they cheer for their favorite players. They just aren’t as loud as Yankee fans.

When Brett Gardner rifled a double down the left field line to start off the game, I stood and shouted out to him as he stood at second. “There you go, Gardy!” When that rally fizzled, and two innings later another one looked to be headed in the same direction, I worried that this game — that these amazing seats — might not have a happy ending.

But then Travis Hafner did the improbable. With two outs and two strikes, he launched a home run to center field, and suddenly the Yankees were up 3-0. Before the inning was over they had scored five runs, and it felt like fifty. Two older men in their sixties, one wearing a Yankee cap and the other an Angels cap, returned to their seats in front of us after missing the third inning. The Yankee fan turned to me and asked with a smile and a wink towards his friend, “Hey, did we miss anything?” We laughed.

The next five innings were delightfully uneventful. CC Sabathia looked like an ace on the mound for the Yanks, and his dominance combined with the Southern California sun to slowly send Angels fans home. By the seventh inning at least a dozen of the actual ticket holders in our section had gone home and had been replaced by interlopers, always a father and one or two boys. A Yankee fan and his four-year-old son, both in pinstripes, slid into our row for a while, then bounced from one seat to another as they saw fit. When the entitled family in the front row got up to leave in the eighth, they weren’t out of the aisle before their seats were filled. Some things never change.

When Sabathia struck out Peter Bourjos to end the eighth inning, there was a mass exodus of Angels fans — because no one rallies from a 6-0 deficit in the ninth — but Yankee fans stayed put, clearly hoping to see Mariano Rivera record the final three outs. When Sabathia came back out to start the ninth, I was momentarily disappointed, but then I realized I was being greedy to hope for that on what had already been a near-perfect day.

It didn’t make much sense to my wife. “Isn’t it a bit odd that he’s their best pitcher, but they aren’t letting him pitch?” Indeed.

And then it happened. Mike Trout led off with a double to left, and Albert Pujols walked. There was no cause for concern, of course, but it was enough to force Girardi out to the mound. The lower level from the visitors’ dugout to the right field foul pole has traditionally been filled with Yankee fans, but at this point in the game they outnumbered fans of the home team by about ten to one. The second Girardi raised his right arm to signal the bullpen, every Yankee fan in the park stood to give CC an ovation, including that huge contingent across the field from me. It gave me goosebumps.

Also, it gave me hope.

As Robertson was having trouble throwing strikes and looked ready to load the bases after allowing the Angels’ first run, I leaned over and told my son, “I’m not sure if I’m rooting for a walk, or an out.”

As Robertson threw ball four, my eyes immediately found Girardi in the dugout. He didn’t hesitate, and the buzz began as soon as he hit the top step. Everyone knew what was coming.

The bullpens in Anaheim are staggered, with the visitors’ pen elevated and behind the Angels’, so it took longer than usual for Rivera to appear after Girardi signaled for him. When the gate opened up and Mariano broke into his familiar trot, the entire stadium — even those wearing red — rose to give him a standing ovation. I got my son’s attention and then turned to my daughter. “Watch everything he does,” I said. “If you watch baseball for another fifty years, he will still be the best pitcher you’ll ever see.”

Erick Aybar grounded out weakly to first base for the second out, but a run scored from third, cutting the lead to 6-2. My son noticed this. “Daddy, it’s six to two now!” Don’t worry, I told him. It’s Mo.

Four batters later, after three of the cheapest hits you’ll ever see and a walk that loaded the bases, everything had changed. The stadium was in a frenzy as Albert Pújols, the greatest hitter of his generation, came up to face Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all-time. With the score suddenly 6-5, any base hit would almost certainly win the game for the Angels. There was a woman in her sixties standing four seats to my left. We were both wearing identical Rivera t-shirts, and we looked at each other for the first time all day. You know the look.

I watched as Pújols walked slowly towards the plate, and the words “rock bottom” started swimming around my head. It would be bad enough to lose this game, a game that would be their sixth loss in a row, but to lose a six-run lead in the ninth inning with Rivera on the mound? A loss like that could potentially destroy the entire season.

But then I looked away from Pújols and focused on Mariano. In that moment I knew everything would be okay. Who else, I thought – in the history of the game — would I rather see on the mound for the Yankees right now than this man? He had yielded four consecutive base runners, something I’m guessing he’s done less than ten times in his nineteen-year career, but nothing about him had changed. He looked in to Chris Stewart to get the sign, bowed slightly as he came to a set, then placed the ball exactly where he wanted for strike one. His next pitch was fouled off for strike two, and the volume turned up a notch as Yankee fans begged for the strikeout.

Rivera’s third pitch to Pújols was meant to tantalize. It was well above the letters, but by the time Pújols realized it was up out of the strike zone, it was too late. He wasn’t able to stop his mighty swing, and the game was over.

The texts started coming in almost immediately. First, a report from New York saying I could be seen celebrating in the background of the YES replay of the final pitch, then two more from people who had seen me on the local Angels broadcast. My brother-in-law sent along a clip of the video, and there we were, all four of us. As Pújols swung and missed, I could be seen pumping my fist in the air in celebration.

Video Clip

We lingered in the stands a bit and eventually took a few photos down by the rail as evidence that we had actually been there. As we finally made our way up to the concourse and walked out of the stadium, I thought about the dozens of Yankee games I had seen in the past. I had seen Don Mattingly hit a pinch-hit home run to beat the Angels in that same stadium, I had travelled to New York for Don Mattingly Day, and I had been lucky enough to take my entire family to see a game in New York in the old Stadium’s final season.

None of those games, though, compared to this one. The game itself was phenomenal, and it was an added bonus to see Mariano, but there was so much more to it than that. I was with my family on Father’s Day, sitting in unbelievable seats courtesy of ten students whom I’ll never forget. I’m sure I’ll be watching baseball for the next fifty years, but I know I’ll never see another game like this one.

What You Don’t See Can’t Hurt You

As the West Coast correspondent for Bronx Banter, it’s my duty to write the recaps for the games that end long after East Coast fans have snuggled under the sheets. I like to imagine that legions of New York fans wake up the next morning and log onto the site before cracking a single egg or frying any bacon. They breathlessly read my thrilling account of the game, then curse themselves for falling asleep in the third inning.

Sadly, there’s nothing thrilling to report here. You can go back to your bacon and eggs.

The Angels are a team that the Yankees — even these Yankees — should handle, but it seems they never do. (The Angels’ announcers delighted in informing us that Halos have a winning record against the Yanks since 2000.) They couldn’t handle them on Friday night.

Andy Pettitte was on the mound for New York, and he ran into trouble immediately. The Angels strung together a few hits, the last being a booming double from Yankee killer Howie Kendrick that scored the game’s first run. Kendrick is a decent player, but if he were able to play against the Yankees every day, he’d be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

The Yankees struck back with two outs in the top of the fourth. Robinson Canó and Vernon Wells singled, and Thomas Neal walked to load the bases. Rookie David Adams bounced a ground ball up the middle to score two runs and snap the Yankees’ 20-inning scoreless streak.

Five minutes later, Pettitte was in trouble again. He gave up singles to the first two batters of the inning, then yielded the tying run on a sacrifice fly from Chris Ianetta. The game was tied.

Ianetta struck again in the sixth, this time delivering the go-ahead run on a two-out single to center. The Yankees still had nine outs and they were down only a run, but there was a clear sense that the game had slipped away. Somehow that single run seemed like too high a mountain for this sputtering offense to climb. Reid Brignac, Austin Romine, and Brett Gardner were due in the top of the seventh, but Angels starter C.J. Wilson made quick work of them, striking out all three.

And here’s where things got ridiculous. Peter Bourjos, rhymes with gorgeous, skied an infield pop-up that looked to be the first out of the seventh inning. Brignac and Adams drifted onto the infield dirt behind second base, looked at each other, then watched as the ball fell between them. Brignac and Adams haven’t played quite as many games together as Trammell and Whitaker, but this was a play two Little Leaguers would’ve made.

Pettitte rebounded to strike out the next two hitters, but then he gave up a single to Albert Pujols and fell behind Mark Trumbo 2-0 before losing a pitch up in the strike zone. Trumbo grounded it into left field, and it was 4-2 Angels. (The run, of course, was earned. Since neither Brignac nor Adams touched the ball, the rules say the official scorer can’t give either player an error. This is one rule that needs to be changed. While I understand that only Brignac and Adams know who should’ve made the play, someone should’ve. There’s no way a batter should be awarded a hit on a play like that, and there’s no way a pitcher should be charged with an earned run when that batter scores, as Bourjos did. What we need, obviously, is a team error. That would fix everything. But I digress.)

Down by two runs in the eighth, the Yankees looked they finally might do something. Reliever Kevin Jepsen replaced Wilson and promptly lost his handle on the strike zone. Jayson Nix led off with a single, then Teixeira battled back from a 1-2 hole to earn a walk, and the Yanks were set up with runners on first and second, nobody out, and Robinson Canó digging in. When Canó worked the count to 3-0, it wasn’t hard to imagine him turning on an inside pitch and yanking it into the seats in right.

But it didn’t happen that way. Canó flew out to short left field, Wells popped up, and Inchiro put on the finishing touches by fouling out down the right field line.

The Angels answered that failure with a run of their own, stretching the lead to an insurmountable three runs, then the Yankees went down like lambs in their half of the ninth. Angels 5, Yankees 2.

[Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images]

Once Upon a Midnight Dreary While I Pondered Weak and Weary

This was a cruel game to watch if you were on the east coast (or if you were working with a serious sleep debt on the west coast, like me). Bartolo Colón was on the mound for the A’s, but he was far from his usual strike-throwing self. He had come into the game having yielded only six walks all season long, but he issued two in the first inning alone as he loaded the bases with one out. Even though Kevin Youkilis and Lyle Overbay popped out to end the threat, it still felt like an effective inning. Colón had thrown 27 pitches, and he didn’t have his typical command. With CC Sabathia on the mound for New York, surely it would be good night for the Yanks.

The first warning that the evening might not go as planned came two pitches into the bottom of the first. Coco Crisp lashed a Sabathia pitch into the seats in left field, and the A’s were up 1-0. It didn’t seem fair, to be honest. The Yankee hitters had worked so hard and been so methodical in the scoreless top half, and here Crisp walked into a fat pitch and Oakland had the lead. CC needed seven pitches to retire the next three hitters, and order was restored.

In the top of the second, Sabathia was simply unlucky. If you just read the play-by-play of this inning, you probably imagined that Derek Norris lashed a long double off the wall in right field to score Josh Reddick all the way from first, but that’s not what happened. Reddick sat on first base with two outs, so he was able to take off immediately as Norris popped the ball out towards right field. The ball was headed for no-man’s land as Mark Teixeira, Robinson Canó, and newbie right fielder Overbay converged. It landed untouched in front of Overbay, who bobbled it a bit, allowing Reddick to score just ahead of his throw. As Michael Kay noted on the telecast, it was the first time that the Yankees had paid a price for putting Overbay in the outfield. It was a ball that Ichiro would likely have caught, and even if he hadn’t, he certainly would’ve held Reddick at third. But Ichiro watched the play from centerfield, and A’s were up 2-0.

Derek Norris struck again in the fourth. The A’s had runners on first and second with two outs when Norris came to the plate. Sabathia’s first pitch was a lazy curve ball that seemed to bend right into Norris’s wheelhouse, and Norris sent it deep into the night over the high wall in left center. That 2-0 lead built on a lucky homer and a botched play by a guy playing the outfield for the fourth time in a decade was suddenly a five-run deficit. I fell asleep on the couch soon after this, so I didn’t see Oakland’s sixth run score on a Sabathia wild pitch in the sixth, but that’s probably for the best.

Colón, of course, cruised through his six innings. After that scare in the first, the Yankees never threatened, never even made him sweat. I simply don’t understand how this guy can still be this good. (At this point, the working title for this post was “Colonoscopy.”) When I woke up five hours later and picked up the game where my wife had clicked it off in the top of the eighth, Colón was gone, and suddenly the Yanks decided to make the night interesting. Brett Gardner, reigning A.L. Player of the Week, continued his hot hitting as he led off the inning with his second hit of the night. Canó then singled him to third, and when Teixeira followed that with a single of his own, the Yankees were finally on the board. Two outs later pinch hitter Vernon Wells somehow squeezed a line drive between short and third to score Canó, and it was 6-2.

When Chris Stewart singled with one out in the ninth, there was a spark of hope. When Canó followed that one out later with a double grounded down the left field line to put runners on second and third, that spark had grown into a flame large enough to force Oakland closer Grant Balfour into the game, a small victory in and of itself. Teixeira fell into a 1-2 count but roped a line drive just inches over Jed Lowrie’s leap at second to plate both runners and bring Travis Hafner to the plate as the tying run.

Hafner also got behind 1-2, but he stroked the next pitch to deep left field. The Oakland outfielders had all been standing on the warning track, and I remember thinking that they were playing ridiculously deep, giving away so much of the field, but it turned out they were positioned correctly. Left fielder Seth Smith only had to spring along the track towards left center where he leaped at the wall and caught Hafner’s ball for the final out of the game.

A’s 6, Yankees 4.

[Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images]

It Gets Wet Early Out There

Just two weeks ago the Yankees were the surprise story of the 2013 season as they defied all odds and expectations and put together one of the best records in baseball, injuries be damned. Suddenly they’ve lost seven of their eight games and nine of their last twelve, and there could be any number of reasons for the slide.

This could be a simple regression to the mean. There’s no way a team can sustain injuries to Alex Rodríguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis, and Andy Pettitte — not to mention Francisco Cervelli, Eduardo Nuñez, Joba Chamberlain, and Chris Stewart — and expect to be competitive for 162 games. If you believe this theory, then you believe the collapse was due.

Or this could be a case of a team relaxing when it shouldn’t. After pedaling so hard for so long to keep things going while they waited for those injured players to get healthy, there would have to be a tendency to relax once some of the marquee names started coming back. But if you looked at the lineup that Joe Girardi sent out on Sunday night, you saw a nine that wouldn’t strike fear into the average American League pitcher. When the opposition is sending an elite pitcher to the mound, as the Red Sox were in Clay Buchholz, well, things can get ugly.

Hiroki Kuroda has been the most consistent Yankee starter over the past two seasons, and early on he appeared to be equal to the challenge of facing Boston’s ace as he cruised through the first three innings before finding trouble in the fourth. The Red Sox come up with something new every year, which is nice of them, so my feelings for them don’t get stale, and this year’s gimmick is the beard. Ryan Gomes, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, and Dustin Pedroia are all sporting them, probably as some type of Brony ritual. Anyway, the beards came out in force in the top of the fourth as Pedroia singled to lead off the inning, went to third on a single by David Ortíz, then scored on soft groundout from Napoli.

The Yankee offense was already done for the night, having notched a single from Ichiro in the second and another from Austin Romine in the third, so it didn’t really matter that José Iglesias homered in the fifth and Big Papi hit one in the sixth. (It might matter that Ortíz posed a bit after his blast, making with his signature bat toss, then pointing into the Boston dugout as he rounded third. Why he gets away with this shit, I’ll never know. I don’t hate Ortíz, but I hate that people think it’s okay for him to act like a jackass.)

And really, that was about it. The rains came two batters after Ortíz, forcing a long rain delay. Boone Logan took the mound when the tarp came off, but the rain came back after four minutes and that was that. Red Sox 3, Yankees 0. (One interesting note. After Logan got the final out of the top of the sixth, Andrew Miller jogged onto the field to take over for Buchholz. But since the game was called before he was able to throw a pitch, he only gets credit for a game played, not a game pitched, and Buchholz gets credit for a complete game and, I assume, a shutout.)

So where do the Yankees go from here? In just a week they’ve gone from first place to a tie for third, and there’s a certain air of desperation in the Bronx. The Cleveland Indians come to town tonight, and they might be just what the doctor ordered. The Yanks have beaten them three out of four games this season, outscoring them 32-8 in the process. It sure would be nice to see the Score Truck show up on Monday night.

[Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP]

Gonna Fly Now

Prior to the game the buzz was all about Joe Girardi and that funky, Tony LaRussa lineup he threw out for Wednesday’s tilt with the Rockies. Starting pitcher David Phelps was in the eighth spot, and catcher Austin Romine was ninth. Girardi’s explanation made a little bit of sense — he anticipated using a left-hander to pinch-hit for Phelps at some point, and with Brett Gardner and Robinson Canó at the top of the lineup, he didn’t want to have three lefties in a row. Also, he said he liked that after the lineup turned over, he’d have two hitters in front of Canó. Of course, he could simply bat Canó third like any sensible person would, but none of it really seemed to matter as much as the media wanted it to.

What did matter, was that the top of the lineup produced two runs early and young David Phelps pitched one of the best games of his brief career. Gardner led off with a bloop single down the line in left and — brace yourself — stole second on the first pitch to Canó. Canó later flied out, but when Vernon Wells followed with a shot into the seats in left, the Yanks were up 2-0.

As for Phelps, he found some trouble in the second inning when rising star Wilin Rosario (the loan bright spot on my struggling fantasy team, by the way) smacked the first pitch he saw into the gap in right center for an easy double and first baseman emeritus Todd Helton followed that with a homer to right to tie the score at two. After that? Smooth sailing for Phelps as he retired thirteen of the next fifteen batters, yielding just a walk and a single to finish six strong innings. No one will ever see Phelps as a top of the rotation guy, but I’d love to pencil him as the fourth starter for the next five years.

I have to admit that I fell asleep for the bottom of the seventh and top of the eighth, so wasn’t until a few minutes ago when I looked at the play-by-play that I missed something eventful. First, the Yankees have someone named Preston Claiborne; he pitched a scoreless seventh. Second, and this is the big news, the Rockies took the unorthodox step of using two pitchers at once, bringing in the Rex Brothers for the eighth. Not surprisingly, they used their advantage to set the Yankees down in order.

The ninth inning was all about Vernon Wells. He led off with an infield single, then took for second a few pitches later on what looked to be a busted hit and run. He should’ve been out by about a yard, but shortstop Juan Herrera dropped Rosario’s throw, and Wells was in scoring position with no one out. Lyle Overbay worked a walk, Ichiro bunted them over to second and third, Lance Nix walked to load the bases, but Travis Hafner struck out, leaving things to pinch-hitter Brennan Boesch with two outs. Boesch hit a grounder to third, apparently ending the threat, but Nolan Arenado double-clutched before making the throw, and Boesch was able to beat the play by an eyelash, allowing Wells to score the go-ahead run.

The Great One came on to pitch the ninth, which means the recap would normally end here, but Girardi was up to his old tricks again. When he sent Hafner to hit for Chris Nelson in the top of the ninth, he lost his third baseman. He could’ve kept Hafner at third, except that the Pronkster hasn’t thrown a ball in a major league game since 2007, nor has he played anywhere in the field aside from first base. So with Jorge Posada retired and Francisco Cervelli on the disabled list, Girardi did the only thing he could do — he put Wells at third. (If he doesn’t play Rivera in center before the year is out, I’ll be sorely disappointed.)

Naturally, the second batter of the inning bounced a ball to third. From the upper deck, I’m sure Wells looked like any other third baseman as he ranged comfortably to his left, fielded the big hop, and fired to first for the out. Perhaps he’ll get the start on Wednesday afternoon.

Rivera did the rest, notching his twelfth straight save. Yankees 3, Rockies 2. (Here’s something to watch for. It’s early, but the way this team is constructed, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Rivera actually topped his career high of 53 saves from back in 2004. Then he’d walk off into the sunset with a Cy Young Award, just like Koufax. Wouldn’t that be poetic?)

[Photo Credit: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver