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The Unbelievables

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Think back to spring training and those lovely days of innocence when all things seemed possible for these New York Yankees. Raise your hand if you thought that the first week of August might see Brett Gardner leading the Yankees in all three slash categories and just one off the team lead in RBIs? Who thought Dellin Betances would emerge as one of the most dominant pitchers in the league, or that he would team with David Robertson to form perhaps the most formidable eight-nine combination the Yankees have had in more than a decade? And even if you had wanted to imagine the loss of 80% of the Opening Day starting rotation, who ever could have dreamed that the team would not just stay afloat but even contend in the American League East?

No one in his or her right mind would ever have predicted any of that nonsense, but all of it has come to pass, largely because of the work of general manager Brian Cashman, who has done some of his finest work this season in cobbling together something that doesn’t remotely resemble the powerhouse teams we’ve grown used to seeing in this Derek Jeter era but still might send the Captain out with one more playoff appearance.

How good has Cashman been? More big names than usual exchanged jerseys in the days leading up to last week’s trading deadline, but the Yankees either chose not to get involved or failed to take advantage of the free for all. We’ll never know if the Yankees ever had a shot at Jon Lester or David Price (probably not) or if they even came close to getting Marlon Byrd, but look at the small pieces that they were able to acquire. Chase Headley, Stephen Drew, and Martín Prado were all in the lineup against the Red Sox on Sunday night, and each player makes the Yankees marginally better than they were a few weeks ago. Cashman didn’t add a frontline starter, but he did get Brandon McCarthy and Chris Capuano and dip into the minors for Shane Greene. Those three don’t look like Lester, Price, and Jon Lackey, but they don’t look much like Vidal Núño or Chase Whitley, either. (Okay, maybe there are some similarities there, but let’s keep this positive.)

But here’s the point. When the Yankees opened this series against the Red Sox, just hours after the Boston Fire Sale saw management jettison their top three starters and one of their best bullpen arms, I felt that anything less than a sweep would be a disappointment for the Yankees. After Esmile Rogers (!), Betances, and Robertson shut down the Sox over the last five innings (no hits, two walks) and allowed the Yankee bats (!) to pound their way back into the game before Gardner rocked a homer that would be the deciding run in an 8-7 win, I changed my mind.

With contributions from their 2014 MVP (Gardner, 3 for 4, 2B, HR, 3 RBIs), a cast-off from Toronto (Esmil Rogers, 3 IP, 0 R, 1 BB, 3 K), and a player the Red Sox gave away as an afterthought (Drew, 2 for 4, 2B, 4 RBIs), this game seemed like a microcosm of the Yankees’ entire season. Yes, I had expected a sweep, but when you look at this lineup and rotation, you realize that maybe it doesn’t make sense even to expect a single win, let alone three in a row. These Yankees have no right to be winning games, and no right to be in the playoff hunt, but there they are.

These Yankees are the Unbelievables.

[Photo Credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images]

The Not-So-Evil Empire

Kelley

Because I’m a teacher by trade, I can’t just sit idly by and allow my children to spend their summer galavanting in the cul-de-sac or staring mindlessly at a television screen for ten weeks. Sure, that was good enough for me, but like all parents everywhere, I want better for my children. Summer is a time for cultural enrichment, so this vacation we’re exploring one of the greatest stories ever told, the Star Wars saga.

We’ve watched three of the movies so far. I started them with Star Wars and Empire, but jumped back to Episode I and we’ll watch Episodes II and III next, saving Return of the Jedi for last. (My youngest daughter, Kate, wasn’t happy about this; she really can’t wait to find out what happens to Han Solo, who’s currently frozen in carbonite, but my son Henry loved the idea of meeting Darth Vader as a little boy and can’t wait to see him next as a teenager.)

I want my children to know the story of Luke and Obi-Wan and Vader not just because I grew up believing in Wookies and trying to turn my lights on and off by using the Force, but because few stories are so ingrained in American culture. When Red Sox president Larry Lucchino invoked Star Wars lore in response to New York’s signing of José Contreras in 2002, famously referring to the Yankees as the Evil Empire, it warmed my heart. Sure, there are lots of heroes on the Yankees — Derek Jeter as the obvious Skywalker figure, Don Zimmer as Yoda, perhaps even Joe Torre as Obi-Wan — but the Yankees are better when they’re villains.

Or perhaps, more accurately, they’re more villainous when they’re better. These Yankees? They’re more like Jar Jar Binks than Darth Vader, and never is that more apparent than when they’re matched against the Red Sox. Late Saturday afternoon, as Masahiro Tanaka (this season’s version of Boba Fett) was cruising through a dominant performance against the Sox, I felt victory was certain and imagined that I might be writing about a sweep on Sunday night.

It didn’t work out that way. The Red Sox scraped out a run in the second inning off of Yankee starter Chase Whitley when Mike Napoli, who makes like Babe Ruth when facing New York, led off with a double and scored two batters later on a Stephen Drew single. An inning later things got a bit uglier when David Ortíz (Jabba the Hutt) launched his 450th career home run (a three-run shot) almost 450 feet (actually, just 424) into the second level of the bleachers in right field.

Overcoming a four-nothing lead for these 2014 Yankees seems almost as daunting as successfully navigating an asteroid field. (The odds, as we all know, are 3,720 to 1.) But Jeter never wants to hear the odds, does he? He came up with two outs in the bottom of the third and Ichiro just ninety feet from home. He battled Boston starter John Lackey (remember the bartender from the Cantina on Tatooine?) for eleven pitches, finally rifling a single between first and second to plate the Yankees’ first run.

In the fourth inning Mark Teixeira hooked a solo homer around the right field foul pole, and two batters later Carlos Beltrán socked a no-doubter into the stands in right, and suddenly the Yankees were down by just one at 4-3.

And then came the fifth inning. Whitley walked Jackie Bradley, Jr., on four pitches, so Joe Girardi lifted him in favor of Shawn Kelley, who walked Brock Holt on four pitches. Kelley finally managed to throw a couple strikes to Daniel Nava, but he walked him anyway to load the bases with none out. Just when it was looking like the Rebel Base was in range, everything was about to explode.

Dustin Pedroia, the cutest little Ewok you’ve ever seen, singled to right to drive in two for a 6-3 Boston lead. After David Huff came in and got Ortíz to pop up to shallow left, it looked for a moment like he might be able to minimize the damage. With runners on first and third and a full count, Pedroia took off for second  – but Huff had him picked off. But for the second time in a week, the Yankees botched the run down. They managed to get Pedroia (1-3-4), but they let Nava score in the process, and the Sox had a four-run lead at 7-3. Naturally, the next pitch was a ball, and Napoli walked, the fourth Boston batter to do so in the inning.

The top of the fifth ended without further incident, and the Yanks gamely fought back in the bottom half. Ichiro led off with a triple, then came home on a double by Brett Gardner, who eventually scored on a Jacoby Ellsbury ground ball. It was 7-5, but the Yankees would get no closer.

Boston plated another run in the top of the sixth. Huff started by walking rookie Mookie “The Wookie” Betts (if it seems like there were a lot of walks, you’re right; Yankee pitchers issued eight free passes) and then consecutive singles to Bradley and Holt to load the bases with none out. Girardi then came to the mound, and any lip reader could tell you that when he handed the ball to the new pitcher, he said, “Help me Dellin Betances, you’re our only hope.”

(A quick side note about ESPN’s coverage. Their field microphones are everywhere and bring fans closer to the game than ever before. On the one hand, I loved hearing Teixeira greeting Betts after his first career base hit: “Congratulations, rookie. Have a great career.” But when the bullpen phone rang during Holt’s at bat, the viewing audience clearly heard bullpen coach Roman Rodriguez tell Betances, “You got the next guy.” It seemed like too much information. Betances’s entry into the game wouldn’t have been a surprise even without this tip, but it still felt like ESPN had crossed the line.)

Girardi needed Betances to strike out the side if they had any shot at getting back into the game, and he quickly dispatched Nava on three pitches. But Pedroia followed that with a short sacrifice fly to right, and the Sox had that extra run and an 8-5 lead — and that was that.

It would be easy to give up on these Yankees. The free agents not named Masahiro have been vast disappointments, and they’re the only American League team over .500 with a negative run differential (and it’s very negative, -32; the Mariners, just for the sake of comparison, are +50).

But let’s not give up on them. Instead, let’s think about CC Sabathia, who should emerge from his carbonite encasement sometime after the All-Star break. No, he probably won’t ever be the old Sabathia, but he has to be better than the new Vidal Nuño. Beltrán and Brian McCann can’t hit .220 and .221 during the second half, can they? They certainly can’t get worse.

Through it all, the Yankees are still essentially in first place, tied with the Blue Jays and Orioles with 39 losses. There’s hope for this team. May the Force be with them.

[Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP Photo]

Lights Out

LightsOut

After winning games with Chase Whitley and David Phelps on the mound, Saturday night’s game with Hiroki Kuroda on the rubber arrived with more than promise. After getting those two unlikely wins, surely Kuroda would provide the win that would stretch the team’s winning streak to five and make the road trip excellent instead of just good.

It didn’t work out that way.

Scott Kazmir was working for the Athletics, and he quickly made it clear that he wouldn’t be giving up much on the evening. You remember Mr. Kazmir, the one-time super-prospect who fizzled and eventually found himself out of baseball. This year he’s finally become more pitcher than thrower, and he’s suddenly one of the best in baseball. If you missed him last night, you’ll surely be able to catch him in July at the All-Star game.

Kazmir set down the first eight Yankees without breaking a sweat, and with the A’s already up 2-0 thanks to the bespectacled Eric Sogard’s two-out, bases loaded single in the second, there was cause for concern even at that early juncture. But Kelly Johnson worked a walk with two outs in the third, and raced all the way around to third on Brett Gardner’s single up the middle. Derek Jeter followed that with a grounder deep into the hole at short. Andy Parrino made the play nicely enough, but he airmailed the throw over Brandon Moss’s head at first base, and Johnson was able to score to split the lead to 2-1.

Early in the game Ken Singleton and Bob Lorenz had noticed a bank of lights in left field that hadn’t turned on correctly, and they had jokingly wondered what might happen if they weren’t fixed and who the unlucky guy was who’d have to climb the tower into the lights. When the lights still weren’t on in the middle of the fourth, we found out. As the Yankees took the field for the bottom half of the inning, Oakland manager Bob Melvin met with the umpires and a stadium official in a scene normally seen before a rainstorm. But instead of peering into the clouds and waiting for raindrops, the group stared into the darkness above left field, looking for light.

Joe Girardi revealed afterwards that there was a moment when the game was about to be cancelled, but the man who climbed the tower was able to solve the problem and it turned out to be only a 38-minute delay before Kuroda returned to the mound and set down all three A’s without incident.

The bottom of the fifth, however, was different. Kuroda walked Sogard to start the inning, which is never a good thing, then allowed Coco Crisp to reach on a bunt single. Catcher John Jaso looked to bunt the runners over, but a passed ball on John Ryan Murphy moved them to second and third without the sacrifice. Jaso gave himself up anyway with a ground out to first, but he got an RBI out of it as Sogard scored and Crisp took third. Three pitches later Crisp scored on another passed ball. The A’s were up 4-1, and after giving up a single to Brandon Moss, Kuroda’s night was over.

The Athletics put together another run in the sixth when Parrino doubled to left to score Craig Gentry all the way from first, but that was just window dressing. The final score was 5-1, but that might as well have been 50-1. The Yankee bats, never impressive on this night, had been essentially silent since the blackout. Kelly Johnson had doubled to lead off the fifth, moved to third on a Gardner ground out, and been thrown out at home when Jeter grounded to first, but that was it for the Yankee offense. After that Johnson double, Oakland pitchers Kazmir, Dan Otero, and Sean Doolittle retired the next fifteen Yankee hitters, and there was nary a hard-hit ball over the course of those five innings. Lights out? Indeed.

Thankfully, a day game awaits.

[Photo Credit: Jason O. Watson/Getty Images]

Road Warriors

Gardy

Dig this stat. Since April 28, the Yankees are pitching to a 2.63 ERA on the road, best in the bigs. Contributing to that on Friday night in Oakland was David Phelps, who turned in a brilliant outing, throwing 6.2 scoreless innings and allowing just two hits and three walks while striking out four to earn the win as the Yankees pounded the A’s, 7-0.

On the offensive side, Derek Jeter continued his hot hitting with two more hits, making him 9 for 16 over his past four games, and Jacoby Ellsbury brushed off those hip issues and extended his hitting streak to 17 games. Eight different Yankees had base hits, six scored at least a run, and all six RBIs were spread across half a dozen players.

Here’s hoping for more of the same on Saturday night.

[Photo Credit: Ben Margot/AP Photo]

Cut to the Chase, Part II

Chase

The last time I was in Seattle — actually, the only time I was in Seattle — my family and I ran past Safeco Field in a desperate (and fruitless) attempt to catch a train for Portland. It’s a beautiful ballpark, even when viewed through a glaze of sweat while carrying a five-year-old. But we really didn’t have time to stop and appreciate the nuances — the warehouse look on the outside, the retractable roof atop the structure. Considering the business-like approach the Yankees took during their three-game sweep of the Mariners, I’m not sure they were much interested in any of that either.

There were three stories in last night’s game, the first being Derek Jeter. He took the first pitch he saw in the first inning and flipped it out into short right field, just like he’s done about a thousand times, and then four pitches later he was trotting around the bases behind Jacoby Ellsbury’s fourth home run. Just when I was starting to wonder about Ellsbury, he’s rattled off a sixteen-game hitting streak, bumping his average from .258 to .290. How good has he been? This month he’s hitting .386 with an OPS of 1.006. The only bad news is that he left the game late with tightness in his hip; there’s not much to worry about, but you might want to keep your fingers crossed anyway.

But the biggest story of the night has to be Chase Whitley. Young Whitley had been good in each of his first five starts, working to a 2.42 ERA and allowing the Yankees to win four of those five games, but he arrived on Thursday night. The 2014 Seattle Mariners will never be compared to the ’27 Yankees, but they’re still a major league ball club, and Whitely navigated their lineup with ease.

This was my first prolonged look at him, and I was impressed immediately. He cruised through the first, but when he left a pitch out over the plate to Logan Morrison in the bottom of the second, the first baseman rifled the ball into the right field seats and split the Yankee lead in half at 2-1. Even at the time, it seemed like a blip; Whitley seemed bothered, but not fazed.

The Yanks put two more runs on the board in the top of the third. Jeter singled again to the lead off the inning (two pitches, two base hits), and Ellsbury walked to bring up Alfonso Soriano with one out. Soriano has been mired in such a slump that I almost felt like Girardi should have conceded his at bat like a six-inch putt in match play, just to keep the game moving. But Sori proved me wrong, rocketing a laser into the gap in left center, easily scoring both runners to boost the lead to 4-1.

For a moment in the bottom of the third it looked as if Whitley might choke on all that prosperity. John Ryan Murphy threw a pickup attempt down the right field line, allowing Brad Miller to race all the way around to third base, and two pitches later Whitley plunked our old friend Robinson Canó to put runners on first and third with two outs. But putting Canó on, regardless of the method, was probably a good thing. Kyle Seager followed, and Whitley quickly dispatched with his fourth strikeout of the night.

Our man Captain Jeter singled in two more runs in the top of the fourth to open the lead to a comfortable 6-1, and then all eyes focused on Mr. Whitley. He faltered a bit in the fifth, yielding a double to Miller and an RBI single to James Jones, but he was rescued when Ellsbury made a spectacular leaping, possibly-home-run-robbing catch at the wall against Canó to end the inning.

You won’t see too many catches like that — unless you happened to watch the rest of the game. Brett Gardner moved over center field in the seventh inning after Ellsbury’s hip flared up, and he made an almost identical play. Mike Zunino blasted a ball over Gardner’s head with one out in the inning, and Gardner raced back over his right shoulder, following the same path Ellsbury had two innings earlier. He leapt at the wall at the last second, and for a moment only he knew where the ball was. Bob Lorenz was on the mike, and he initially called it as a homer for Zunino before we all saw Gardner – who had paused for a moment of drama, standing on the warning track with both arms at his side – casually flip the ball into the infield.

Gardy

Whitley, meanwhile, was still cruising. After that Jones single in the fifth, he retired the next nine hitters. With two outs in the eighth inning, having thrown only 82 pitches, he seemed poised to go for the complete game. That pitch count, after all, wasn’t a concern. In his previous three starts he had thrown 91, 83, and 87 pitches, but with Canó headed to the plate, Girardi came out and pulled him. Considering the four-run lead at the time, Girardi’s decision was more about player development than game management, and I think he made the wrong choice. He had an opportunity to push his young starter just a bit in a relatively safe situation. The experience of facing one of the league’s best hitters in the eighth inning would’ve been an invaluable learning moment for Whitley; instead, he watched from the bench as Matt Thornton came in and walked Canó.

For a moment it looked like Girardi’s decision would completely blow up as Seager launched a ball to deep right. Ichiro had been inserted into right field when the outfield had been reshuffled the inning before, and now he sprinted back, chasing Seager’s drive over his right shoulder just as Ellsbury and Garnder had earlier. Ichiro leapt at the wall, crashed in a heap as Lorenz refused to make a call one way or the other, and emerged with the ball and the final out of the inning.

If there’s been one frustration I’ve had with the Yankees this season, it’s that Girardi has refused to accept the things he cannot change. This team is not going to score a lot of runs. With that in mind, he should take steps to prevent as many runs as possible. Conventional wisdom holds that an outfield of Gardner, Ellsbury, and Ichiro simply won’t provide enough offense. Corner outfielders have to combine for thirty to fifty home runs, right? But that trio would be far and away the best defensive outfield in the game and probably the best in Yankees history. Give in to the DH platoon of Soriano and Carlos Beltrán and be done with it.

But back to the game. Jeter grounded out in the ninth, his bid for a fourth hit coming up just a fraction short, but has he turned and jogged back to the dugout after what was certainly his last at bat in Seattle, the city that saw his first major league hit back in 1995, the home crowd gave him one of the warmest ovations he’s received on this victory tour. The cheers swelled with each step he took, and Jeter acknowledged the crowd with a quick wave of his hand when he reached the steps. It was a nice moment.

Shawn Kelley looked a bit rusty in the ninth and turned a four-run lead into a save situation, but David Robertson came in and quickly restored order, striking out Zunino and Miller to send everyone home. Yankees 6, Mariners 3.

[Photo Credits: Ted S. Warren/AP Photo; Otto Greule, Jr./Getty Images]

Close to the Vest

i

When the Yankees and the Cardinals met in the World Series in 1964, it marked the end of a Yankee dynasty that had stretched back 25 years. Though most favored the Yankees at the time, it wasn’t because they were the superior team, it was just because, well, they were the Yankees. (If you’re looking for a good summer read, by the way, you can’t go wrong with David Halberstam’s October 1964, which chronicles that matchup between the Yanks and the Redbirds. (If you want something with a happier ending, try Summer of ’49, also by Halberstam.))

When the two teams got together again on Monday afternoon in St. Louis is marked the 50th anniversary of that Fall Classic. After an hour-long rain delay, the Yankee hitters came out swinging as Brett Gardner walked, Derek Jeter singled to center, and Jacoby Ellsbury singled to drive in Grdner with the game’s first run.

The Cardinals responded quickly, getting the tying run when Matt Carpenter led off with a triple and then scored on Kolten Wong’s double.

Tied at one, the pitchers took advantage and then took control of the game for a stretch. Michael Wacha coasted through the early innings, retiring all nine men he faced in the second through fourth innings, and the Yankees’ Chase Whitley was almost as good over that same stretch, giving up just a harmless single in the third and two more singles in the fourth. I’ve no idea if this kid has a future with the Yankees, but it’s been fun watching him this month.

The Yankee hitters went to work again in the fifth. Ichiro walked and Brian Roberts singled to right, then Kelly Johnson singled up the middle to score Ichiro. Two batters later Gardner hit a sacrifice fly to score Roberts, and the Yankees had a 3-1 lead.

But that lead didn’t last long. Whitley faltered in the bottom of the sixth. He faced only three batters, and they all reached (Matt Holliday double, Michael Adams single, and a hit by pitch for Yadier Molina). Manager Joe Girardi had no choice but to make a move, and in strolled Preston Claiborne. Bases loaded, nobody out. No pressure at all.

Claiborne did give up two runs to allow the Cardinals to tie the score at three, but the damage was minimal. He had kept the Yankees in the game.

From there the respective bullpens took over, and the hitters went to sleep. The one highlight of those late innings from the Yankee point of view was Dellin Betances. He continues to dominate, but on Monday he was throwing harder than ever, touching 100 MPH on the radar a couple of times. With Bettances, Adam Warren, and David Robertson manning the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, the back end of the Yankee bullpen is as good as it’s ever been.

Ellsbury drew a walk to lead off the top of the twelfth, then challenged Molina and came up with a huge stolen base to put the go-ahead run on second base. Brian McCann was hit by a pitch to put runners on first and second, and Yangervis Solarte dutifully bunted them along to second and third. Ichiro was walked intentionally to load the bases, putting the game in the hands of Roberts.

Roberts fouled off a pitch, then smoked the next one through the left side of the infield to score the go-ahead run. Soriano followed that with a sacrifice fly, Brendan Ryan singled in another run, and the Yankees were suddenly up 6-3.

Robertson allowed a run in the bottom half, but only his ERA cares about that. Yankees 6, Cardinals 4.

[Photo Credit: Dillip Vishwanat/Getty Images]

Time Travel, Brian Cashman, and the Broad Shoulders of Masahiro Tanaka

Tanaka

I don’t think there was ever a time when the Yankees weren’t seriously pursuing Masahiro Tanaka, but no matter how much they wanted him, there’s no way they could have predicted how invaluable he would become.

Let’s imagine you had a time machine. Because you would be ethically opposed to using this machine to make millions in the stock market or to win every sports bet on the board, you’d instead choose to blow people’s minds. Armed with newspapers and magazines and photographs, you’d pop up in various places to give people glimpses of the future, just for fun. For example, you might show up in this photograph and have a conversation with Governor Wallace: “You see, Governor, in my time the President of the United States is Barack Obama.” Or you might check in with Billy Ray Cyrus in 1992, drop off a VHS copy of the 2013 VMAs, and suggest that he keep a close eye on his unborn daughter’s career path.

Or you could simply go back to November of last year and pop in on Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.

Cash: Who let you in here?
You: We don’t have time for that. You MUST sign Masahiro Tanaka.
Cash: Well, it’s not that simple. There’s the posting, the bidding war… And we DO have a budget…
You: You don’t understand. You MUST sign him. He’s our only hope.
Cash: Easy, Princess Leia. Our rotation is pretty solid. Tanaka would be a…
You: I know, I know “a third starter.”
Cash: Right! We expect big things from Nova, Pineda will be healthy, and CC’s our ace…
You: Wrong, wrong, and wrong again.
Cash: Excuse me?
You: Nova will start four times, then have Tommy John surgery on April 29th.
Cash: Well, Pineda will be great — he’ll make everyone forget about Jesus Montero.
You: You’re half right. Everyone will forget about Montero, but let’s stay on topic. Pineda will be great for three starts, then he’ll be suspended for pine tar…
Cash: Pine tar? But everyone uses pine — I mean, our pitchers don’t use illegal substances!
You: And then he’ll go on the DL for a month.
Cash: Well, at least we’ll have our ace, right?
You: Sabathia? He hasn’t been an ace for two or three years now.
Cash: But he’s lost so much weight — he’s in great shape…
You: That just means that instead of looking like Forrest Whitaker, now he pitches like him.
Cash: <silence>
You: And he’ll be on the DL by the middle of May with no estimated return.
Cash: <silence>
You: By Memorial Day your rotation will be Tanaka, Kuroda, Phelps, Nuño, and Whitley.
Cash: Whitley? Who the hell is Whitley?
You: Exactly.
Cash: Dear God.
You: Exactly.
Cash: But what do I do? How do I stop this?
You: Sign Tanaka. Give him whatever he wants. He’s your only hope.

And then you’ll invite Cashman to watch a DVD of Sunday afternoon’s game against the White Sox as your final argument. It’s the only evidence you’ve brought with you, so hopefully it will be enough to convince Cashman to do what he has to do. You crack open a couple beverages, slide the DVD into the machine, and guide Cashman through the game.

After Brett Gardner grounds out for the game’s first out, Derek Jeter comes to the plate and rifles a clean single to right center.

Cash: Look at this guy. He looks the same as he did two years ago. Guess I’m gonna be back at the table negotiating with him in November.
You: Actually he’s going to announce his retirement when Spring Training opens up. This is his last season.
Cash: Are you shitting me?? That’s great! Wait — you’re not a reporter are you? Are you gonna print that?

In the top of the second Yangervis Solarte singles to right to start a Yankee rally.

Cash: I was starting to believe you, but you’re telling me that this guy is our starting third baseman? And he’s hitting over .300? He has 25 RBIs? I call bullshit.
You: I know, I can’t believe it either, but keep watching.

Two batters later Ichiro singles up the middle, then Brian Roberts walks to load the bases for Gardner, who promptly singles in two runs. Jeter is up next, and he singles to right field again to make it 3-0 Yankees.

Cash: You’re sure he’s retiring? Brendan Ryan can be our shortstop now?

After Jacoby Ellsbury scores Gardner on a sacrifice fly, the Yankees have a 4-0 lead.

You: We’re gonna skip ahead to the top of the 4th. It’s still 4-0, but I want you to watch Jeter’s at bat here. Watch how he falls into an 0-2 hole, then takes a ball before fouling off three pitches. Okay, now watch this…

Jeter catches a pitch on the inside part of the plate, but somehow he does what he always does — he pulls his hands in and still manages to get inside the ball and drive it deep to right center field. Center fielder Adam Eaton races into the gap, but his dive is far short, and the ball bounds to the fence. Jeter coasts into third base with his first triple since 2011.

You: Did you see that? He actually broke it down a step before second base. He’s so cool he Cadillacked a triple.
Cash: So Brendan Ryan can really be our shortstop next year?
You: Focus, man. He’s gonna come home on a wild pitch in a minute to make it 5-0, but let’s take a quick look at your boy Tanaka.

In the bottom of the fourth Tanaka strikes out Gordon Beckham, gives up his first hit of the game when Conor Gillaspie singles to left, but rebounds to get Dayan Viciedo to foul out and Adam Dunn to ground out. In the fifth he gets Paul Konerko to ground into a double play and ends the frame by striking out Alejandro De Aza.

Cash: You’re right — he looks really good.
You: But here’s what you’re not getting — even though he’s gonna go 6.2 innings and allow just one run on five hits and two walks with six strikeouts, you’re not seeing him at his best. This is just average Tanaka, and it’s still better than anyone else on the staff. Do you understand what I’m saying?
Cash: But the payroll…
You: NO ONE CARES ABOUT THE PAYROLL!
Cash: Look, after we resign Canó, we’re going to be really limited…
You: We’ll talk about Canó later. Right now, let’s get back to the top of the sixth.

Alfonso Soriano doubles over Eaton’s head in centerfield, but he’s still standing on second with two outs when Jeter comes to the plate again.

Cash: Don’t tell me.
You: I’ll let you find out for yourself.

On a 3-1 count Jeter pounds a ball through the center of the diamond to drive in Soriano and pick up his fourth hit of the game.

Cash: So you’re saying he’s retiring? Do you think maybe I’ll be able to convince him to come back for another year?
You: Maybe you can try to get Rivera back while you’re at it.
Cash: That’s not a bad idea…
You: And Torre?
Cash: Let’s not get crazy.

Tanaka finds himself in some trouble following the seventh-inning stretch. He walks Dunn and gives up a single to Alexei Ramírez, then Konerko ropes a line drive — that Jeter snares and turns into a double play when he catches Dunn straying off second.

You: See? He’s still got that Gold Glove form!
Cash: Let’s not get crazy.

Tanaka walks De Aza, and Joe Girardi pulls him in favor of Adam Warren, who quickly strikes out Tyler Flowers to end the inning. You eject the DVD.

Cash: What are you doing? What about the rest of the game?
You: It’s not important. Brian Roberts hits a solo homer, some guy named Matt Daley gets the final three outs, and the Yankees win, 7-1.
Cash: Still, it would’ve been nice to see. I love when they walk out on the field to shake hands, I love when John Sterling screams out, “Yankees win! Thuuuuuuuuuh…”
You: Look, Cash, stay with me. It isn’t about this game. It isn’t even about Derek Jeter, if you want to know the truth. (Okay, it’s a little bit about Derek Jeter.) But mainly it’s about Tanaka. If you don’t sign him, if you don’t do everything in your power to make sure he’s in pinstripes, this season will be a complete disaster. You need this guy. We need this guy. So much depends on Masahiro Tanaka!
Cash: Okay, okay, you convinced me. I’ll get him. And what were you saying about Canó?

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[Photo Credits: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images & Sim McIsaac/Getty Images]

 

The Last Picture Show

Stadium

ANAHEIM (BB) — I spent much of the past few weeks debating whether or not to spend the chunk of money necessary to get tickets for the whole family to catch the Derek Jeter Show on its last run through Southern California, but only a few days ago a friend offered me four tickets at face value and I snapped them up. The seats were up high in the view level and far down the right field line, but it didn’t really matter. We’d be in the house.

The only real problem with having three children is that the world often seems to be divided into four-person servings. Since we wouldn’t be able to take the whole family, my wife stayed home with our younger daughter, my older invited a friend who’s madly in love with Mike Trout, and we were off.

Back in the early and mid 1990s when the Angels were irrelevant, Anaheim Stadium often felt like Yankee Stadium West as thousands upon thousands of transplanted New Yorkers and adopted fans filled the seats and outshouted fans of the home team. The Angels’ rise since their World Series win in 2002 has mitigated some of that, but on Wednesday night it felt like old times. Yankee fans were out in force to pay their final respects to their hero, and it was beautiful. We heard our first “Der-ek-Jee-ter!” chant before we even spun through the turnstiles.

We found our seats just as the final moments of the Angels’ Derek Jeter tribute video played on the big screen, and we cheered politely as Albert Pújols, Jered Weaver, Howie Kendrick, and Trout presented Jeter with a customized stand-up paddle board that he later promised he’d use in his back yard. This paddle board wouldn’t fit in most backyards.

After Jacoby Ellsbury drew a walk from Anaheim’s Hector Santiago, Jeter came up and drew the first of what would be several ovations on the night. He lofted a lazy fly ball to right center field, but when right fielder Collin Cowgill collided with Trout, the ball fell to the grass and Jeter was aboard on the error. Carlos Beltrán walked to load the bases, Mark Teixeira doubled down the line in left field to drive in two, and suddenly the Yankees were rolling. Alfonso Soriano struck out on three pitches to slow things down a bit, but Yangervis Solarte plated a third run with a sacrifice fly, another run scored when Santiago fielded Brett Gardner’s dribbler and fired it into right field, and Gardner eventually scored on a Brian Roberts single.

The five-nothing lead was nice, but there was more. Jeter came up again in the second inning and looked at a pitch for strike one. A good portion of the crowd was standing, and the sun had dipped below the top of the stadium, letting us see the flashbulbs popping throughout his at bat. Jeter liked the next pitch, and he rocked it out to left field. Perspective can play tricks with you in the ballpark, making you think that lazy fly balls could be game-changing home runs, but there was no doubt that this ball was well-struck. When it cleared the fence by a few feet, I leapt to my feet along with the rest of the 48,000 and temporarily lost my mind.

Derek Jeter became my favorite Yankee on the day he was drafted in 1992. I followed his progress through the minor leagues in the agate type of USA Today’s Baseball Weekly, I bought his baseball cards by the dozen, and his name has always been the first I look for in every Yankee box score since the fall of 1995. On Wednesday night, in the last game I will ever see him play in person, my favorite player — probably my last favorite player — had hit a home run. I thought of all that as he coasted around the bases, then I leaned over to my son Henry and said simply, “You just saw Derek Jeter hit a home run.” I could’ve gone home right then.

Father&Son

After living like monks for so long, Yankee hitters were feasting, and starting pitcher Vidal Nuño was the happy benefactor of that early 6-0 lead. He set the side down in order in the first, but he ran into a little trouble in the second, giving up a run but escaping further damage by getting Cowgill to pop up with the bases loaded.

Henry and I missed at all, though. He had tripped on our way into the park, scraping up his elbow pretty badly, and we spent the bottom of the second inning in the first aid center having the cut tended to. So the Nuño that I saw was dominant all night long. How dominant? I didn’t see an Angel hitter reach base until the top of the seventh, and there really wasn’t much hit hard. Trout hit a ball to the fence in the first inning, Solarte made a nice diving play to rob Kendrick in the third, and Gardner made a diving catch — Kendrick was the victim again — to end the sixth, but that was it. Aside from those plays, it was just one lazy pop up or fly ball after another. When C.J. Cron snapped Nuño’s string of thirteen straight retired with a ringing double leading off the seventh and Erick Aybar followed with a fly ball to the warning track in left, manager Joe Girardi came out and relieved him after the best start of his young career.

By the top of the eighth a vast majority of the Angel fans had left, but almost all the Yankee fans had stayed, no doubt waiting for one last Jeter at bat. With the first five Yankees reaching base in the inning (Solarte double, Gardner single, Roberts walk, John Ryan Murphy single, Ellsbury single), we were all transported to the Bronx. Chants of “Let’s-Go-Yan-Kees” rang around the stadium as fans in pinstripes and road greys stood and celebrated, the type of celebration that tastes a bit different because it’s happening in an opposing ballpark whose fans had already disappeared.

And then Derek Jeter walked to the plate with the bases loaded.

This would definitely be the last time that most of us would have a chance to cheer him, and every one of us stood. I brought my hands to my mouth, chanted his name, and hoped. The at bat lasted only three pitches, and when he bounced harmlessly to the pitcher and barely beat the throw on the back end of an attempted 1-2-3 double play, it somehow didn’t matter. That moment of possibility with the bases loaded was something that I’ll never forget, a brief look back at that childhood optimism that helped you believe your hero would come up with the big hit every single time.

As I settled back into my seat, my daughter turned to me and asked a simple question.

“What if he had hit a grand slam?”

I paused a minute before responding, “My head would’ve exploded, so it’s probably better that he didn’t.”

Yankees 9, Angels 2.

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Radio Radio

Roberts

Tuesday night was a busy one for me. My older daughter’s middle school soccer team played in the city semi-finals at 5:00 (a clean 3-0 win), leaving just enough time for a quick dinner before we had to head back out the door for her basketball practice at 7:30 — all of which made a live watching of the Yankees and Angels fairly impossible. I thought about avoiding the game during the evening so I could watch the DVR’d version when I got home, but I decided against it.

When I was a young, baseball-crazed boy growing up long before the dawning of ESPN and three thousand miles away from my favorite team, there were only two ways I could get a Yankee score. I could wait for the box score in the morning paper, but more often I chose to listen to the Dodger game while lying in bed, waiting for Vin Scully to read the out-of-town scoreboard. It’s become almost passé to point this out, but baseball and radio fit together perfectly. A game’s tense moments force you to focus every ounce of your awareness on every syllable of the announcer, every cheer of the crowd, every crack of the bat, but at other times your mind can drift in and out of the game as desired.

And so it was for me as I turned to my old friends Suzyn Waldman and John Sterling. It was the third inning by the time I found a folding chair in the high school gym and sat down to listen, and the Yankees were already in trouble. Hiroki Kuroda had just been victimized by his defense, specifically Yangervis Solarte, who botched a sacrifice bunt attempt by Colin Cowgill and set the Angels up with runners on second and third and nobody out. Thankfully, Kuroda seemed to be pitching well, but he still give up both unearned runs with back-to-back sacrifice flies from Erick Aybar and Mike Trout, and the Yankees were down, 2-0.

The worst part about these slumps the Yankees fall into from time to time, is that the deficits seem enormous. Down by only two runs with six innings to play, I already felt defeated. How could they climb that mountain? When I listened as the heart of the heartless order (Mark Teixeira, Alfonso Soriano, and Brian McCann) went down meekly in the top of the fourth, I felt the clouds gathering.

In the fifth, though, Solarte singled to left to start the frame and Brett Gardner pushed him ninety more feet with a single of his own. When Brian Roberts picked up the Yankees’ third consecutive hit and scored Solarte, it seemed like a miracle. Two pitches later Jacoby Ellsbury grounded into a double play, killing the rally but scoring Gardner, and the game was tied at two.

Kuroda, meanwhile, continued to cruise, working through a bit of trouble in the fifth by striking out Trout with runners on first and third, then setting down six straight batters as he coasted through the sixth and seventh, all of which set up the top of the eighth.

Derek Jeter was clipped on the heal by Angels starter C.J. Wilson, then Carlos Beltran dribbled a ball up the middle that narrowly missed being a double-play ball but instead pushed Jeter to third, and suddenly I was flashing back to last night. Would they fail again? When Teixeira grounded weakly to third and Jeter was tagged out after a short rundown, I seemed to have my answer. Dark thoughts began to cloud my vision, and I imagined another double play to end the top half and an Angel rally in the bottom half. But Soriano came through instead, rapping a grounder just beyond Aybar’s outstretched glove at third, and Beltran rumbled around third with the go-ahead run.

Kuroda talked his way into the eighth inning and used just three pitches to get the first two outs. My daughter’s practice was over by now, and we were listening to the Angels’ broadcast in the car on the drive home. With Trout walking to the plate and Albert Pújols in the on deck circle, I desperately tried to send a message to Girardi through the radio, hoping he’d pull Kuroda in favor of Dellin Betances, but Girardi wasn’t listening. After battling his way into a full count, Trout golfed a ball high off the wall in right field and sprinted his way to third for a triple. Girardi had no choice now, so he lifted Kuroda for Shawn Kelley, who quickly went to 3-0 on Pújols, raising fears that he hadn’t yet recovered from last night’s affliction. Pújols watched the next two pitches pipe straight down the middle to work the count full, then he roped a soft liner into left center and the game was tied.

Again, cue the dark thoughts.

But I needn’t have worried. I finally sat down on the couch to watch the top of the ninth, and with two outs Brian Roberts (yes — Brian Roberts!) crushed a no-doubter into the stands in right field, snatching the lead back for the Yanks at 4-3. From there the Alabama Hammer pounded three quick nails into the Angel’s coffin and the night was over.

[Photo Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/AP Photo]

A Walk on the Wild Side

Girardi

What I sincerely hope is that you didn’t watch last night’s game. I hope you noted the West Coast start time, weighed it against an East Coast alarm clock, and simply went to bed early.

But of course if you had done that, you would’ve missed David Phelps, who was pressed into service by the recent disintegration of the Yankee starting rotation. With Michael Pineda still suspended and headed for the disabled list, Ivan Nova a distant memory, and C.C. Sabathia drifting into oblivion, the Yankees aren’t far from holding open tryouts in Central Park. But since they were three thousand miles away, Joe Girardi simply put the ball in Phelps’s shoe and hoped for the best. He got more than he could ever have hoped.

I’ve always liked David Phelps. With his darting fastball and precision-based arsenal, he’s always seemed like a poor man’s Greg Maddux, and he almost made that comparison look valid as he skated his way through five and a third innings, allowing just three hits and a walk while striking out three. The Angels scored when Yankee Killer Howie Kendrick led off the fifth inning with a triple down the right field line, then came home on an Ian Stewart ground out, but aside from that Phelps held the Halos in check most of the night.

The game stayed right there until the eighth inning, and that’s when everything went crazy. The tease came with the game tied at one in the top of the eighth. Kelly Johnson took ball one, then singled to right. Brian Roberts jumped on the first pitch he saw and shot one-hopper through the middle that shortstop Erick Aybar could only knock down. Ichiro was up next, and he beat out a perfect bunt. Angels starter Jered Weaver had thrown only four pitches in the inning, but the Yankees had the bases loaded with no one out.

Brett Gardner took the first pitch he saw for ball one, then let the next one go by, thinking it was low. Home plate umpire Laz Diaz, however, called the ball a strike. If we’re being honest, I’d have to say that the pitch was at Gardner’s knees, the type of pitch that can go either way. The problem, though, was that Diaz’s strike zone had been wildly inconsistent all night long, as usual. When Girardi pointed this out from the dugout, he was immediately tossed. Girardi’s been managing this team for seven years now, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen him this angry before. He was at DEFCON 1 as soon as he left the dugout, and he raged nose to nose with Diaz for several minutes before finally picking his hat up from the ground and heading for the clubhouse.

As Girardi explained afterwards, it was the most important pitch in the game up until that point, and he felt Diaz had gotten it wrong. Instead of 2-0 with the bases loaded and none out, Weaver was back in the count at 1-1. Two pitches later Gardner was headed back to the bench after striking out.

Derek Jeter came to the plate, and the large contingent of Yankee fans in the stadium rose to their feet. Jeter had already singled, doubled, and scored his team’s only run, so there was hope. With the infield playing halfway in, Jeter shot a rocket to Kendrick’s left at second base. Kendrick made a nice stab on the one-hopper, turned to make the throw to second, and Aybar’s return throw beat Jeter by about a step. If he hadn’t hit it quite as well, the Captain would easily have beaten it out and driven in a run. If he had hit it a bit to the right, he would’ve driven in two. Instead, it was just a 6-4-3 double play. It had taken Weaver only nine pitches to lower himself into the fire and back out again, and he sprinted off the mound, fist-pumping and f-bombing his way to the dugout.

Ah, but things would get worse. Much worse. Shawn Kelley came in to pitch the eighth and promptly walked the leadoff batter, Collin Cowgill, but recovered to retire the next two hitters, Aybar and Mike Trout. Cowgill had advanced to second on Aybar’s groundout, so acting manager Tony Peña wisely ordered Kelley to walk Albert Pújols intentionally, bringing pinch hitter Raúl Ibáñez to the plate.

Ibáñez put together a long, eight-pitch at bat before working a walk to load the bases, but even then — and even with Kendrick coming to the plate — I had faith. But Kelley walked him on five pitches to give the Angels a 2-1 lead, and my faith was broken.

I wasn’t alone; Peña lifted Kelley in favor of Matt Thornton. Pitching changes are normally uneventful, but Kelley was steamed with Diaz. With a 1-0 count on Kendrick, Kelley had thrown a pitch that Fox Trak said was identical to the 1-0 pitch Weaver had thrown to Gardner, but this time Kendrick saw it low. Instead of climbing back into the count at 1-1 the way Weaver had, Kelley had been crippled at 2-0 before eventually losing Kendrick, and he had a few comments for the home plate umpire as he walked towards the visitors’ dugout.

Instead of understanding the situation and simply turning his head as a frustrated player blew off some steam, Diaz decided to become part of the show. He barked right back at Kelley, then told him repeatedly to “keep walking,” emphasizing his point with the type of dismissive flick of his hand that a princess might use when shooing an attendant out of the throne room. When Kelley snapped back at him, Diaz got what he wanted — an excuse to throw Kelley out of the game that he was exiting.

The Yankees lost this game because they couldn’t hit the ball out of the infield in the top of the eighth and couldn’t throw a strike in the bottom half, but Laz Diaz is part of the story. An umpire’s strike zone sometimes expands and contracts like an amoeba, but that’s part of the game. The bigger issue is how this umpire responded when his strike zone was questioned. His behavior was inexcusable and an embarrassment to baseball. If we don’t hear of a suspension for him, I’ll be disappointed.

But back to the mockery of the bottom of the eighth. To recap: walk, ground out, fly out, intentional walk, walk, walk. So with the Angels now up 2-1 and the bases still loaded with two outs, Matt Thornton faced the mighty John McDonald — and walked him. Peña then brought in Preston Claiborne to face Chris Iannetta — and Claiborne walked him. The merry-go-round would probably still be spinning if Grant Green hadn’t mercifully swung at the first pitch he saw for a fly out to right, but the damage was done.

Three Yankee pitchers had combined to walk six batters — five of them consecutively — and allow the Angels to bat around and score three runs without the benefit of a base hit.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, and Brian McCann went down quickly in the ninth, and that was that. Angels 4, Yankees 1. Hopefully you slept through the whole, damn thing. I didn’t.

[Photo Credit: Chris Carlson/AP Photo]

Nothing a good beatin’ won’t fix.

CC

It being Spring Break in our school district, my wife and I took our two younger children to spend the afternoon looking at fossils at the La Brea Tarpits and fine art at the L.A. County Museum of Art. (The oldest was actually in Boston as part of a school trip, but sadly not at Fenway Park.) I had dutifully set the DVR before leaving home, but I was pleasantly relieved when we walked into a hipster burger bar late in the afternoon and saw that the Yanks were already up 4-0 on the Red Sox. It was 7-2 by the time we finished the burgers, so I was relaxed enough to be a good husband and father as we strolled leisurely up and down Larchmont Boulevard, poking our heads in a dress shop here, a gluten-free bakery there. It was a beautiful California evening, made all the more glorious by the beating going on three thousand miles away.

I had seen only bits and pieces of the early scoring between bites of my burger, so I started the game from the first pitch once we got home. The Yankees scored their first run when Alfonso Soriano uncoiled on a Felix Doubront pitch and blasted it deep into right centerfield for a double that drove in Carlos Beltrán with the first run of the game.  Beltrán had reached on an error by shortstop Xander Bogaerts, the first of five Boston errors on the night.

The Yanks picked up three more runs in the second, and again the rally was keyed by some shoddy Boston defense. With Brett Gardner on first, Brian Roberts grounded to Brock Holt at third. Holt fired to second, looking to start a 5-4-3 double play, but Dustin Pedroia took the throw as he came across the bag and dropped it while making the transfer to his throwing hand. Middle infielders have always been given the out on plays like this, but a new rule this season dictates that these transfers must be sound to earn the out at second base, and Pedroia was charged with the error. Instead of having the bases empty with two outs, Doubront faced Yangervis Solarte with no outs and runners on first and second. After the runners moved to second and third on a wild pitch, Solarte rifled a double down the left field line, scoring both. Three batters later he’d score the game’s fourth run on another wild pitch from Doubront. It would be that kind of night for the Bosox.

There was more of the same in the third inning. First, Mark Teixeira hit a pop-up to left field that cleared the Green Monster by about six inches for the first Text Message of the season, but then the Yankees went back to Plan A — putting the ball in play and letting the Red Sox fielders kick it around. With one out, Gardner hit a dribbler just to the right of the mound. Doubront bounced over with plenty of time to make the play, but instead he let it roll through his legs untouched. Gardner stole second without a throw, took third on the next pitch, then scored when Roberts singled on the pitch after that, and it was 6-0. Roberts would eventually steal second and then score two batters later on a Jacoby Ellsbury single to put the Yankees up by seven.

All of that would’ve been plenty for most pitchers, and it was certainly enough for the reinvented C.C. Sabathia. He coasted through the first two innings and only ran into a bit of trouble in the third when the Sox used a walk, two doubles, and a sacrifice fly to put together two runs that did little more than allow Michael Kay to remind us that no lead is safe at Fenway Park. Even though C.C.’s pitch count was slightly elevated, he was still able to use all the pitches in his arsenal to keep the Boston hitters off balance for six innings. He had a wild pitch, and he hit two batters while walking three, but only yielded three hits and tallied eight strikeouts, five of them looking. On a day when the Yankees got official word of Michael Pineda’s ten-game suspension and Ivan Nova’s impending season-ending surgery, Sabathia’s outing was a welcome relief.

But since five-run leads aren’t safe in Fenway Park, the Yankee hitters went to work again in the top of the seventh, and again the Red Sox helped them out. Brian McCann led off by poking a single through the wide-open left side of the shifted infield, and Gardner followed that with a walk. Roberts came up next and grounded a potential double-play ball to third, but Holt fielded it with his knee for Boston’s fifth error, and the bases were loaded. After that it took just six pitches for the Yankees to score five more runs and suck all the drama out of the game. Solarte singled to right to score two, Ellsbury lashed a ground rule double just past the Pesky Pole for another, and Derek Jeter roped a single up the middle to plate two more. Just like that the Yankees were up by ten, 12-2.

The Yanks got a little sloppy themselves after the seventh inning stretch, giving up three runs, but they got one back in the eighth and it was 13-5.

I can’t imagine too many folks were still watching at this point, but if you were one of those who clicked off the set, you missed some pretty good stuff. We heard about how Al Leiter broke his nose in the minor leagues (a line drive off the bat of Roberto Kelly during batting practice) and David Cone’s lament that his favorite Manhattan bar tender is set to retire on Friday night, but then it got even better.

First, outfielder Mike Carp came in to try out his knuckleball in the ninth inning for the Red Sox. It didn’t go well. He walked Teixeira, but when he somehow got McCann to ground into a double play, it looked like he might have something to brag about for a while. But then he walked Garnder. And he walked Roberts. And he walked Solarte. And he walked Ellsbury to force in the Yankees’ thirteenth run. It looked like the inning might never be over, but Kelly Johnson, pinch-hitting for Jeter, popped up to end the carnage.

Ah, but then it got even better. With David Robertson on to pitch for the fist time since returning from the disabled list, I started thinking about how nice it was that the Yankees had taken five of their first seven games against the Sox, and how satisfied Jacoby Ellsbury must have been after his first three games as a Yankee in Fenway Park (5 for 15, 3 doubles, a triple, 5 RBIs). But then I noticed something — directly behind home plate there was a young couple who had clearly just claimed the best seats in the house. They were both on their cell phones, frantically waving at friends through the television screen, until the gentleman asked the lady to stand and got down on bended knee. As Robertson delivered a 1-1 pitch, the guy presented his girl a ring, she accepted his proposal, and the cluster of fans behind them cheered in appreciation. I don’t share this because I’m some kind of hopeless romantic (well, maybe I am), but because I like thinking about this couple and the idea that one day their children will ask them about how they got engaged. The father will have no choice but to say, “I asked your muthah to marry me on a night when the fuckin’ Yanks kicked our ass, 14-5.”

[Photo Credit: Charles Krupa/AP Photo]

Border Wars

NYYBOS
Growing up in Southern California, I was always struck by how few Angel fans I came across. A big part of this, of course, was the winning tradition the Dodgers had established, appearing in the World Series in 1974, ’77, and ’78 before winning it in 1981. In recent years the Angels have made inroads with increased on-field success, an ambitious marketing campaign, and a handful of flashy (if misguided) free agent signings. It also doesn’t hurt that the future of their franchise (Mike Trout) is everyone’s Golden Child, while the Dodgers’ phenom (Yasiel Puig) is more of a Problem Child.

Even so, this has always felt like Dodger Territory, and now the New York Times confirms that with the coolest interactive map you’ll ever see. Gleaning info from Facebook, researchers examined baseball team preferences in every zip code in the nation, and the result is fascinating. Two things jump out: one, the famous Munson-Nixon line separating Yankee Universe and Red Sox Nation is a bit farther east into Connecticut than previously thought; and two, there are Yankee and Red Sox fans EVERYWHERE.

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

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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

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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]

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