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August and Everything After

Nova

The Score Truck has been rumbling through the streets recently, and the Yankee bats were out in force again on Sunday afternoon in Chicago, piling up twelve runs against the White Sox to wrap up another series win and a successful 6-4 road trip.

Jacoby Ellsbury got things started when he jumped on the second pitch of the game from Chicago’s Jeff Samardzija and drove it into the stands just to the left of dead center field. Samardzija seemed to settle down as he retired nine of the next eleven Yankee hitters after that, but then the fourth inning happened.

It all started innocently enough. After striking out Mark Teixeira for the first out of the inning, Samardzija fooled Brian McCann enough to induce a weak pop up to the left side. McCann slammed his bat down in disgust, but the ball was headed towards the Bermuda Triangle between left field, center field, and shortstop, and it fell into the grass for a single. Carlos Beltrán followed with a four-pitch walk, and then Chase Headley singled to load the bases with one out.

Stepping up to the plate was Didi Gregorius. If they had an award for Comeback Player of the Year within the year, Gregorius would win it in a landslide. After hitting .206 in April, Gregorius hit a robust .317 in July to bring his overall average up to a more-than-respectable .260. He’d end up hitting .438 on this ten-game road trip, and it’s gotten to the point where I actually expect him to come through in important situations. So I wasn’t surprised at all when he poked a single into left center to plate McCann and Beltrán (with a nifty slide) to give the Yanks a 3-0 lead.

Next up was Stephen Drew (don’t look now, but the average is almost up to .200), who naturally singled to load the bases again for the top of the order. An Ellsbury sacrifice fly to the wall in center field pushed the score to 4-0, but with two outs and runners on second and third, Brett Garnder’s at bat felt huge. Sure, the Yanks already had a four-run lead, but a base hit in this spot would bury the ChiSox, and Gardy provided just that as he shot a single to the second baseman’s right, throwing two more shovels of dirt on the Sox and bringing the score to 6-0.

Those six runs would have been enough, but the Bombers weren’t done. They’d add three more in the next inning on a Teixeira home run (his fifth in the last four games) and a two-run double from Drew, then three more in the seventh on a two-run triple from Drew and an RBI groundout from Ellsbury for an even dozen runs.

But as impressive as that offensive performance was, the story of the game was Ivan Nova. We know that this Yankee team will score runs (the OPS numbers of the top five hitters in the lineup look like this: 729, 824, 918, 958, 789), but with Michael Pineda recently landing on the DL, Masahiro Tanaka showing signs of regression, and CC Sabathia being CC Sabathia, suddenly we’re counting on an awful lot from Nova, Nathan Eovaldi, and a kid who still hasn’t thrown a pitch in the major leagues.

All Nova did on Sunday was dominate the White Sox hitters with a strong fastball, a confident breaking ball, and a diving sinker. The only hint of trouble he faced in the early going came in the third inning, and it wasn’t of his doing. After Adam Eaton singled with two outs, he stole second and advanced to third when McCann’s throw squirted into center field. The score was still only 1-0 at the time, so Eaton carried an important potential run with him, but Nova quickly extinguished the threat with a strikeout, one of seven he’d pile up on the afternoon.

Nova did yield a run in the sixth on a walk, a fielder’s choice, and a ground ball base hit, but he did so with a nine-run lead. He seemed a bit irritated, but he recovered nicely to strike out Avisail Garcia on three pitches (three swings and misses) to end the inning and put a cap on his six-inning performance. Final score: Yankees 12, White Sox 3.

So things are good in the Yankee Universe. They’ll bring their six-game division lead back to Yankee Stadium for three games against the hapless Red Sox, and they won’t have to travel out of the Eastern time zone until a potential playoff game in someplace like Houston, Kansas City, or Anaheim. Better still, only 24 of their remaining 58 games will be played on the road, and three of those road games are against the Mets at Citi Field. While teams all around the league have retooled and traded prospects for a shot at the brass ring, the Yankees just might be in better position than any of the other contenders as we head into August and September… and October.

It’s good to be Yankee, and it’s good to be a Yankee fan. Some things never change.

Walking in the Spiderwebs

ARod

A little over four years ago I wrote a piece here imagining a world in which Ivan Nova had developed into the Yankees’ ace while CC Sabathia had become the team’s fifth starter and even been sent to the bullpen for the postseason. The year I was imagining was 2015, which seems kind of hard to believe, but that future is now.

Has Nova become the ace I once imagined? Prior to his elbow surgery he had had his moments of brilliance, but he never looked like a consistent frontline starter. Now, however, he’s been cast as the savior for a rotation that’s been consistent only in its unpredictability. (In fact, the most dependable starter, Adam Warren, was shipped out to the bullpen on Tuesday, but more on that later.)

Nova sent hopes soaring with his debut outing last week, posting seven scoreless innings with stuff just as electric as we remembered, but things were different on Tuesday night in Anaheim. He found trouble early, giving up two singles in the first inning before getting a strikeout from Albert Pujols and a ground out from Erick Aybar to escape that jam, then loading the bases in the second before wriggling free from that one.

The Yankee offense got started in the top of the second when Mark Teixeira launched a towering fly to left center field for his 19th homer of the season, which seemed like a promising start. After that, however, the bats on both sides started to collect spiderwebs.

The Yankees were facing Andrew Heaney, who was making just his second major league start. If you’ve been following the Yankees closely over the past fifteen years — and I know you have — you know that rookie pitchers are their Kryptonite. I don’t have the stats to support this, and it may very well be that the stats don’t support this, but my memory tells me that the Yankees always seem to go down meekly when facing pitchers they’ve never seen before. And so it was with Heaney.

He retired the Yankees in order in the first, gave up Teixeira’s homer in the second, yielded a single to Brett Gardner in the third, walked Chase Headley in the fifth, and walked Teixeira in the seventh. And that was it. Thanks to a couple of double plays, Heaney faced only 24 batters in seven innings. He was the one who looked like the future ace.

After Nova’s early struggles, however, he was matching Heaney pitch for pitch. He cruised through the third, fourth, and fifth innings, giving up just a single and a walk and never really breaking a sweat. In the sixth, however, the bubble burst. Pujols turned on Nova’s first pitch of the inning and produced a majestic home run deep into the trees that grow beyond the centerfield fence; two pitches later Erick Aybar followed suit with a shot of his own to center, and suddenly the Angels had a 2-1 lead. Nova would get one out in the inning before Matt Joyce hit a ringing double down the right field line and sent our future ace to the showers.

Adam Warren came in to make his first relief appearance of the season, and guess what? He was good. He skated through the final two innings and change, allowing just a hit and a walk and perhaps a regret or two from Joe Girardi. But we’ll never know about that last part.

For their parts, the Yankee hitters didn’t do much the rest of the way. Didi Gregorius reached on an error with one out in the eighth, but he was quickly erased by a Stephen Drew double play ball, and the top three hitters went down quietly in the ninth. Final score: Angels 2, Yankees 1.

There is good news, however. While the Yankees have forgotten how to win, the rest of the American League East has been sputtering as well, and the Pinstripes have lost no ground in the standings. So that’s something. Nova didn’t get the win, but he pitched well, something most of us probably weren’t counting on this year. He might not be the ace yet, but he’s pitching.

Oh, and here’s one more thing. My son and I will be in the stands instead of on the couch tomorrow afternoon, so things are already looking up!

[Photo Credit: Jae C. Hong/AP Photo]

Tragic Kingdom

CC
If you’ve been paying attention, you know that I despise the California Angels, the Anaheim Angels, and the Los Angels Angels of Anaheim in equal measure, so instead of rehashing my usual litany of invectives against Gary DiScarcina and Garret Anderson and Mike Scoscia, I’ll instead focus on the game at hand, the opening frame of a three-game set in Anaheim.

CC Sabathia was on the mound for the Yankees, which means that expectations weren’t too high, but old CC pitched fairly well. Sure, he coughed up a run in the bottom of the first, but it wasn’t anything too awful. Johnny Giavotella, or Johnny G, as the Angels announcers love to call him, singled to lead off the game, then came all the way around to score on a two-out double from the resurgent Albert Pujols. Nothing to worry about yet, right?

The Yankee hitters got that run back in the top of the third, but it could’ve been more than that. DiDi Gregorius walked with one out and moved to second on a single from Brett Gardner, which brought up Chris Young. Young hit a rocket to left center, a ball that would easily have scored both runners for a 2-1 Yankee lead, but Mike Trout raced deep into the gap, reached across his body at the warning track and made the grab for the second out of the inning, sending the runners scampering back to their bases. Alex Rodríguez came up next and punched a ball to right field to tie the game and salvage something of the inning, but Trout’s play still stung.

In the bottom of the third, Trout would sting the Yankees again, this time with his bat, as he slugged a homer just ten feet or so beyond the spot where he had robbed Young in the top of the inning. I can never look at Mike Trout without imagining him in pinstripes, patrolling center field and thrilling a generation of fans who weren’t lucky enough to have followed Mattingly and Jeter before him. If only.

The game stayed at two to one until it looked like the Yankees might tie it up in the top of the fifth. Gardner, the reigning American League Player of the Week, stood at second base after a quirky double down the right field line, and Chris Young stood at the plate. Once again he launched a blast deep into the left center field gap. This ball was fifteen or twenty feet to the left of where the last one had died, but Trout was still coming and coming and coming. Once again he leapt at the last second, and once again he broke Young’s heart, this time with a catch that was even more impressive than the first. Young stared out at Trout for a second, then waved his hand in disgust before heading back to the dugout. After the game he suggested that baseball’s rules be changed to give a team half a run on plays like that, just to make the hitter feel a little better. In the space of three innings, Trout had stolen two runs with his glove and added one with his bat. That’s what greatness does.

If Sabathia had skipped over the odd innings on Monday night, he’d have thrown a shutout, but just as there are no half runs, there are no skipsies in baseball. And so came the bottom of the fifth (an RBI double from Kole Calhoun) and the bottom of the seventh (a towering homer from C.J. Cron) and suddenly the Yankees were down 4-1.

Their best opportunity to get back in the game had come back in the top of the seventh when Brian McCann led off with a walk and Gregorius pounded the Baltimorest chop you’ve ever seen off the front of the plate for an infield single to put two runners on with nobody out. I know that Brett Gardner is about ready to burst into flames, and I know that the Angels were creeping in at the corners, but I just couldn’t figure out why Joe Girardi didn’t send Gardy up there to bunt. It was only 3-1 at the time, and I sure would’ve liked to have seen Young and Rodríguez get shots to drive in the tying runs, but Girardi didn’t see it that way. Instead Gardner popped out to left, Young bounced into a fielder’s choice, and A-Rod grounded out to short. The Yankees felt dead in that moment; Cron’s home run in the bottom half just made sure. Nothing of interest happened after that, but tomorrow is another day.

[Photo Credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images]

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

Lloyd

So what was the bigger surprise, the Yankees torching Felix Hernández on Monday night or Stephen Drew coming through with two clutch hits on Tuesday night? Well, let’s just say that if you were to play that exacta at Pimlico, you’d be buying drinks that night.

CC Sabathia and Seattle’s Mike Montgomery came out strong, trading zeros over the first two innings, but things got a bit crazy in the top of the third. With one out and a 3-2 count, Brett Gardner fouled off four straight pitches before getting fooled by the tenth pitch of the at bat. He tried to check his swing, but his bat clearly broke the plane of the plate. Gardner lowered his head and took two steps across the plate towards the Yankee dugout, but then home plate umpire Mike DiMuro sent him to first. Ball four.

Replays showed what everyone knew to be so. Gardner had struck out, but instead he was trotting to first base, and Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon wasn’t happy. Even amateur lip readers were able to easily make out his loud complaint, “He was going back to the dugout!” Well, now he was standing on first.

Two batters later it was Alex Rodríguez’s turn to stir the pot a bit. A-Rod checked his swing on another 3-2 pitch, and again the Yankees received the benefit of the doubt. It was ball four. (It should be noted that these were two different umpires and that replays seemed to show that A-Rod had checked his swing.) McClendon shot out of the dugout like a George Brett and raced towards first base umpire Will Little. Little listened for about two seconds before tossing him from the game, and somewhere in the commotion someone had also ejected Mariners’ catcher Mike Zunino, so McClendon figured he’d get his money’s worth. He crossed the diamond to engage Randazzo and then had a visit with DiMuro behind the plate, yelling, spitting, and kicking at all three stops. As he finally left DiMuro and headed to the clubhouse, he gestured angrily at the three umpires in question and yelled out, “All three of you!”

It’s easy to see how a young kid like Montgomery, pitching in his first major league game, might be a little rattled by all that, so it came as no surprise when Mark Teixeira jumped on the first pitch he saw and rocketed a double down the left field line to score Gardner. The Yankees led, 1-0, and I’m sure something in the Seattle clubhouse paid the price for it.

Sabathia, meanwhile, was pitching pretty well. He gave up a single run in the bottom of the third when the M’s strung together three hits by Austin Jackson, Robinson Canó, and Nelson Cruz, but that was all. Once again Sabathia was pitching well enough to be winning, but once again he wasn’t. After the bottom of sixth, he’d be losing.

With two outs and a runner on first, CC gave up a single to right to put runners on first and third. Girardi came out and lifted Sabathia in favor of David Carpenter, who proceeded to give up a run-scoring double to Austin Jackson. Mariners 2, Yankees 1.

The score stayed right there until the ninth inning. Facing Seattle closer Fernando Rodney, who’s been fairly awful this season, the Yankees manufactured a rally. But with two outs and runners on first and third, Stephen Drew walked up to the plate with the fate of the game resting squarely on his shoulders.

Drew quickly fell into a 1-2 hole, and Rodney was poised to shoot another arrow into the night. Instead, Drew pounced on the next pitch and roped a ringing double down the line in right to the tie the game at two. A stranger thing I’ve never seen.

Dellin Betances brought his spotless ERA out of the bullpen for the bottom of the ninth, and for a moment it looked like the Mariners might get the best of him. Jackson walked to lead off the inning and then stole second on the first pitch to Seth Smith, but Betances easily struck out Smith and then dominated Canó, ending the at bat with two fastballs, one at 99 mph and the next at 98, that simply overpowered Robby as he struck out. Nelson Cruz grounded out, and the threat was over.

The Yankees had a golden opportunity to jump ahead in the top of the tenth. Garrett Jones singled and Teixeira drew a one-out walk, bringing Chase Headley up to the plate. Headley smashed a one-hopper directly at first baseman Logan Morrison, but the play didn’t unfold as you might have expected. Morrison took a look at second to see if he could cut down Teixeira, but when he reached into his glove for the ball, the ball squirted free and fell to the infield dirt. By the time he picked it back up, Morrison had no play and the bases were loaded.

All Beltrán had to do was lift a fly ball into the outfield and the Yankees would have a 3-2 lead, but he wasn’t able to do that. He rolled a soft bouncer up the middle where Canó gobbled it up to start an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play.

In the eleventh, once again it was Stephen Drew. Ol’ Reliable stepped to the plate and with two outs and two strikes he dug deep and came up with a clean single to right. Gardner followed that with a double to the gap in left center, and suddenly the Yankees were in business. Garrett Jones came to the plate knowing that all he needed was a ball that found the outfield grass, but he ended up getting much, much more. Lefty Joe Beimel had been brought in to face the left-handed Jones, but he gave up his advantage by starting Jones out with two balls to run the count to 2-0. His next pitch ended up in the seats 401 feet away, and the Yankees were finally ahead, 5-2.

In perhaps the most bizarre incident of this crazy night, Andrew Miller actually gave up two hits and a run in the bottom of the eleventh, but he was able to right the ship and bring home the 5-3 win. You know, because that’s what he does.

[Photo Credit: Elaine Thompson/AP Photo]

Butterflies and Moonbeams and Zebras and Fairy Tales

BigTex

My youngest daughter is at a wonderful age. She turns ten years old next week, so even though she’s smart enough and inquisitive enough that she’s rapidly figuring out the way the world works, she hasn’t yet let go of the magic. Every time she sees a rainbow she wonders about the pot of gold, and she was thrilled when she lost a tooth the day before Easter because she wanted the Tooth Fairy to meet the Easter Bunny when their paths crossed in her bedroom that night. In short, she believes.

So Kate surely would’ve believed me if had told her on Monday afternoon that the Yankees were going to jump on Seattle’s Felix Hernández for seven runs in the first five innings. In her world, everything is possible. In our world, what happened in Seattle defies all explanation.

With each team’s best pitcher on the mound, the game started out exactly as you’d expect, with lots of zeroes. In his return to the team that traded him away a few years ago, Michael Pineda was good, holding the Mariners scoreless over the first three innings, but Hernández was even better.

King Felix faced only nine batters over those same three innings, but no one came even close to a hit. Brett Gardner struck out on three pitches, Chase Headley and Alex Rodríguez grounded out, Mark Teixeira struck out on three pitches, Brian McCann lasted five pitches before fanning, Carlos Beltrán popped up the first pitch he saw, and finally Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew, and Ramon Flores all grounded out. It was a 21-pitch clinic that was so impressive that I watched it again in full after the game ended. For the second time on the road trip the Yankees were staring a no-hitter in the face; not a single New York hitter had come close to touching the King.

But then something unexplainable happened. Samson was shorn, the king lost his crown, the jester lost his jingle. Whatever analogy you choose, it falls short. Getting his second look at Hernández, Gardner led off the top of the fourth and put his bat in the way of a fastball, slapping it into left field for a single. On a 3-2 pitch to Headley, Gardner took off for second and cruised into third when Headley’s ball fell in front of centerfielder Austin Jackson. Neither hit was authoritative, so as A-Rod dug in with runners on first and third, there was no reason to believe the Yanks would get another opportunity like this against Hernández. But Felix’s humanity began to show. He bounced a 1-0 changeup through his catcher’s legs for a wild pitch, allowing Gardner to score the game’s first run. Three pitches later A-Rod watched ball four and headed to first; a minute later King Felix issued another free pass, this time to Teixeira, and the bases were loaded for McCann.

The Yankee catcher worked himself into a 2-0 count, but then banged into a 4-6-3 double play. Headley brought in the second run, but the rally was dead. Beltrán worked a seven-pitch walk, the third base on balls in the inning, but Gregorius foolishly swung at the first pitch he saw and grounded out to first.

Hernández had survived the fourth, but the sharks were still circling when the fifth began. Felix started the frame by walking the fearsome Stephen Drew, Flores singled crisply to right, and Gardner walked (the fifth in eight batters) to load the bases yet again. Headley poked a sacrifice fly out to left to score Drew from third, but then A-Rod grounded a ball to left field to load the bases yet again, bringing Teixeira to the plate.

At this point is was clear that we weren’t seeing the real Slim Shady. Hernández had lost the plate, and home plate umpire Tony Randazzo, whose strike zone had been more than generous in the first three innings, was now punishing the King’s lack of control by squeezing the zone tighter and tighter. When Teixeira jumped out to a 2-o count, the urgency was palpable. The Yankees needed a hit in the worst way, to give Pineda some breathing room and to push Hernandez out the door.

The next pitch was a lazy 90 mph fastball, and Teixeira hammered it to right center field. The only reason it wasn’t an obvious home run off the bat was because of who had thrown the pitch; it landed several rows beyond the 380 foot marker, and suddenly the Yankees had a touchdown edge on the best pitcher in the American League. Five pitches later Beltrán shot a double to left center, and after just four and two-thirds of an inning, the King was dead.

As it turned out, Pineda wouldn’t have needed that grand slam. He had struck out three Mariners in the bottom of the fourth, and now with this huge lead he put his foot firmly on the gas, striking out four of the next six hitters while setting the Mariners down in order in the fifth and sixth innings. He faltered in the seventh, yielding a single, a triple, a double, and a walk as the M’s scored twice, but it hardly mattered. Pineda had been the best pitcher in the stadium on Monday night, and it hadn’t been close. Yankees 7, Mariners 2. Dreams, apparently, still come true.

Can You Hear the Sound of Hysteria?

Beltran

As I said, it’s gonna be like this, and the sooner we come to terms with it, the better. The Yankees will lose two or three or eight games in a row, and hysteria will follow. The team  is awful, the general manager is asleep, the manager should be fired! But soon enough, things will look up, and so it was on Saturday night.

After the disappointment of the previous two games, the Yankees hit the ground running in the first inning when Chase Headley and Alex Rodríguez each singled to put runners on first and second with one out. Mark Teixeira struck out, but that brought up Brian McCann, the hottest man in the Yankee lineup. He watched strike one, then laced a single into right field to score Headley, extending McCann’s impressive string of eight straight games with an RBI and giving his team a 1-0 lead.

Nathan Eovaldi was on the mound for the Bombers, and he pitched the way he almost always does, like a tightrope walker in a rainstorm; every step was an adventure. Before we even had a chance to enjoy that 1-0 lead, Eovaldi had worked himself into a first-inning jam with runners on first and second and two out. Josh Reddick singled to left field, but the newest Yankee, Ramon Flores, recently called up to replace Slade Heathcott, charged the ball and fired home to nail the runner at the plate. It must’ve been nice for Flores. The first time he touched a ball in a major league game he turned it into an out at the plate. Sure, McCann helped him out with a nifty diving tag, but when he tells the story to his grandchildren years from now that throw will have become a laser that split the dish and caught the runner by three strides. (In the next inning Flores made a play that won’t have to be exaggerated, as he raced fifty feet to his right to make a diving grab in foul territory. Quite a debut for the youngster.)

Eovaldi’s struggles continued in the third inning. Even though his fastball was consistently in the mid 90s, the Oakland hitters weren’t in the least bit frightened. Billy Burns, Marcus Semien, and Stephen Vogt opened the frame with singles to load the bases, but Eovaldi limited the damage, I guess, by allowing just a sacrifice fly and a run-scoring single before getting the final two outs. Even so, the A’s had the lead, 2-1.

For the fourth straight inning the A’s led off with a single, and this time it was the bespectacled Eric Sogard. In this day and age of lasik surgery and contact lenses, there are few things more rare than a baseball player wearing glasses. Sure, there’s an occasional middle reliever who will sprint in from the bullpen wearing sports goggles, but Sogard’s frames look like something your mother used to wear when she went to Mah-jongg Mondays with the other housewives on the block. All that’s missing is a chain dangling around his neck. I can only assume that he lost a bet at some point and doesn’t realize that he’s playing on national television every night.

At any rate, Sogard singled to center, moved to second on a groundout, and then eventually scored on a single from Marcus Semien. The A’s had their third run, and it looked so easy.

Finally, in the top of the fifth, the Yankee offense began to stir. Jose Pirela started the rally with a two-out single, and the inning stayed alive when third baseman Brett Lawrie (probably still celebrating Friday night’s home run) flat out dropped Brett Gardner’s line drive, putting runners on first and second. Headley took advantage with an RBI singled grounded up through the middle, and the Yanks were within striking distance at 3-2.

Eovaldi got two outs in the fifth before allowing a single to Lawrie. It was the eleventh Athletic hit of the night, and Joe Girardi had finally seen enough. He lifted his starter in favor of Chasen Shreve, who would calmly strike out Mark Canha to end the inning, and then all four A’s batters in the sixth.

The Yankee hitters, meanwhile, struck again in the top of the fifth when Carlos Beltrán socked a two-run homer to dead center field to give New York a 4-3 lead with only six outs to go until the firm of Betances and Miller could turn out the lights.

After Shreve coasted through his inning and a third, Justin Wilson came on for the seventh to retire Semien and Vogt before an anxious Girardi brought in Betances to get the final out.

The game was pretty much over at that point, but the Yankees tacked on another run in the eighth, just to be safe. Teixeira led off with a single, and when he noticed that the A’s weren’t holding him on, the speedy Tex swiped second without a throw. It wasn’t defensive indifference, it was defensive ignorance. Three pitches later McCann grounded out to the right side, allowing Teixeira to trot to third, and then That Man Beltrán slapped a single to left to bring Teixeira home with the insurance run. Speed kills.

Betances cruised through the bottom of the eighth, making you wonder if he’ll ever give up an earned run this season, Andrew Miller took care of the ninth, and the Yankees had their win, 5-3. Tomorrow they’ll get another, just you watch.

My Head Grew Heavy, and My Sight Grew Dim

Gardy

Well, the good news is that it might only take 85 wins to claim the American League East, which means the Yankees just have to keep doing what they’re doing to reach the playoffs. The bad news, of course, is that we’ll have to watch them.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I’m down on this team. There are plenty of guys that I like to watch and love to root for — Brett Gardner, Alex Rodríguez, Michael Pineda, Dellin Betances, and a few others — but more and more it’s beginning to look like these Yankees are who they are. There will be stretches of something less than brilliance, like that three-game sweep in Kansas City, but there will also be dark times when you’ll wonder how they ever managed to beat anyone at all.

Guess where we sit now? Tonight’s matchup certainly favored the Athletics, as they had a true ace on the mound in Sonny Gray, while the Yankees trotted out Chris Capuano, the very definition of a fifth starter.

If you’ve never seen Gray pitch, imagine a 12-year-old boy with a David Cone delivery and a 95-mph fastball, and you’ve pretty much got it. The baby-faced Gray wouldn’t look out of place at an AAU tournament, but he certainly wasn’t intimidated by the Yankee hitters on Friday night. He faced only twelve batters through the first four innings, yielding just a leadoff walk to Gardner before erasing him with a double play.

While Gray was dicing through the Yankee lineup with coldblooded efficiency, Capuano was struggling in the early going. Thanks to some Steve Garvey-like decisions by backup first baseman Garrett Jones, the A’s were able to load the bases in the second inning. Jones fielded a grounder with the plodding Billy Butler on first, but he backed away from the easy throw and chose instead to take the out at first. Two batters later with runners on first and second, Josh Phegley slapped a single to right. Forgetting perhaps that Butler had no shot of scoring from second, both runners behind him took wide turns around their respective bags. Jones could’ve thrown out either man after cutting off Beltrán’s throw (replays showed Brian McCann screaming and pointing towards first base), but he held the ball again. Capuano got Mark Canha to fly out to left to end the inning. Only two innings had been played, and no runs had been scored, but somehow it felt like the Yanks already trailed.

After the next inning, they would. Billy Burns of the Oxford Commas led off with a double and then went to third on a Marcus Semien single. Ben Zobrist then hit a two-hopper to Chase Headley at third for what should’ve been a room service double play, but the second hop didn’t hop as much as Headley expected. The ball dove like a rabbit through Headley’s legs. The A’s had a run and a rally. Butler whacked the next pitch off the wall in left for a double to score another run, and Stephen Vogt rapped the next pitch down the line to right for another double and two more runs. To be fair, it was Headley’s error that opened the wound, but Capuano did nothing to stop the bleeding.

As Gray toed the rubber to start the top of the fifth, I can’t imagine that anyone watching wasn’t thinking about the no-hitter. He had a four-nothing lead, but it might as well have been forty-nothing. He pumped strike one and strike two past McCann, but then the Yankee catcher took the next pitch and pounded it over the wall in right for a home run to spoil the no-no and cut the Athletic lead to 4-1. (Two notes: McCann has now homered in four straight games, and he’s the first Yankee catcher since Yogi Berra to have RBIs in seven straight.)

Capuano, meanwhile, was settling down. He coasted through the fourth and fifth innings, giving the bullpen just a bit more rest. More importantly, he kept his team in the game. In the top of the sixth, Didi Gregorius, of all people, took advantage. He shot a double into the gap in right center, moved to third on a wild pitch, and scampered home on a Gardner groundout, and suddenly the Yankees were down only 4-2.

Esmil Rogers came on in the sixth and was solid in relief of Capuano, striking out three over an inning and two thirds, but rookie Jacob Lindgren ran into trouble in the eighth. He walked the leadoff batter when he lost a ten-pitch battle to Vogt, then things got worse when Brett Lawrie blasted a two-run homer to left to stretch the lead to 6-2. (Quick note about Lawrie: I don’t like him. He was barking all the way around the bases and arrived in the Oakland dugout as if he had just won Game 7 of the World Series. He’s positively begging for a fastball in the ribs.)

The Yankees mounted something of a rally in the ninth, putting two runners on and forcing manager Bob Melvin to bring in his closer, Tyler Clippard, but it didn’t amount to anything. Stephen Drew popped up, and the game was over. Athletics 6, Yankees 2.

It was appropriate that Drew made the final out, because I think it’s time that he’s finally put out. He’s had 152 at bats and he’s hitting .158. Not only is that average the worst in baseball, it’s twenty-four points below the next worst, the Angels’ Matt Joyce. (Gregorius, by the way, is hitting .211, which is eleventh-worst. New York’s keystone combination has combined to hit .183. Go back and read that sentence again.) Meanwhile, Rob Refsnyder is hitting .286 down in Scranton. I think it’s time.

[Photo Credit: Ben Margot/AP Photo]

The Sun Goes Down Alone

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So what are we to make of these Yankees? They race out to a first place lead in April and stay there long enough to make folks think about the playoffs even if there were more than 120 more games to play, then they suffer through the team’s worst run in twenty years, losing ten of eleven, before righting the ship with a three-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals. (And by the way, that was a fun series, wasn’t it? I’ll never get tired of the old clips of Brett and Nettles throwing haymakers; they’d each get ten-game suspensions today for behavior like that, but in the boys-will-we-boys era of 1977? Nothing at all.)

So as the Yankees headed out to the West Coast for four games against the hapless Athletics, there were hopes that the momentum would continue. For a while, that’s exactly what happened. The Bombers got on the board first when Brian McCann laced a homer into the right field seats with one out in the second, staking CC Sabathia to a 1-0 lead.

I don’t think anyone in the organization expected much from Sabathia this season, but still he’s somehow managed to fall short of those low expectations. Tonight, however, he wasn’t bad, not nearly as bad as the box score would indicate. The A’s put together something of a rally in the bottom of the third, and for a while it looked like the type of inning that’s been CC’s undoing over the last few years. With one out Josh Phegley hit a flair to right center, Mark Canha grounded a single up the middle, and Billy Burns blooped a ball in front of Carlos Beltrán in right. Three unimpressive singles had loaded the bases, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if the next hitter had blasted a grand slam. Instead, the old Sabathia showed up for a bit. He struck out Marcus Semien on a high fastball, then painted the inside corner with another fastball to get Ben Zobrist looking to end the threat. Hope?

The Yankee hitters took that momentum and turned it into another run in the top of the fourth. Alex Rodríguez blasted a ground ball through the teeth of the shift for a leadoff single and then moved to second when Mark Teixeira walked. When McCann followed that with a solid single to center, A-Rod came rumbling around third looking to score the Yanks’ second run, but he was called out after the umpire ruled he had missed the plate.

Here’s one thing I like about the instant replay system. A-Rod knew he had touched the dish with his left hand as he had slid by the plate, but he didn’t get angry at all. After being called out he simply turned to the dugout and motioned for Joe Girardi to challenge the play. A minute later his run was on the board. In the old days he would’ve jumped and screamed and nothing would’ve changed; I like this way better.

In the top of the fifth Brett Gardner started a one-out rally with a single to right, then took off on a 3-2 pitch to Chase Headley and coasted into third when the third baseman stroked a single to right center. A-Rod produced a professional at bat, lofting a sacrifice fly to right field to tie Barry Bonds on the all-time RBI list at 1,996 and give the Yanks a 3-0 lead.

There was nothing fancy about any of it, but the workmanlike efficiency was comforting. Sure, there had been some missed opportunities for more, but a three-run lead against this quadruple-A team seemed pretty comfortable. In fact, when a kid named Billy Burns hooked a ball about six inches over the wall and six inches from the left field foul pole for a homer that cut the Yankee lead to 3-1 in the bottom of the fifth, I wasn’t the least concerned. (If you want to know the truth, it didn’t break my heart. I picked up Burns in my fantasy league a couple days ago. That home run might’ve hurt CC and the Yanks, but it helped keep my Oxford Commas comfortably in first place.)

It was the sixth inning when things fell apart. After giving up a ringing double to Zobrist on the first pitch of the frame, Sabathia dug deep again, getting Billy Butler to fly out and striking out Stephen Vogt. But for some reason he altered his delivery to Brett Lawrie, going to a slide step even though Zobrist was sitting firmly on third base with no place to go. The resulting pitch floated up a bit, and Lawrie pounded the mistake into the seats to tie the game. One bad pitch undid six innings of work.

Making things worse, Sabathia opened the seventh by yielding a single to Phegley and a walk to Canha, and that would be all. David Carpenter came in and made a mess of things (single, bases loaded walk, sacrifice fly for a 5-3 Oakland lead), but Sabathia wasn’t nearly as bad as the numbers make him look. In fact, if he could manage to pitch this well every time out the rest of the way, the Yankees would win the division. Sadly, it wasn’t good enough tonight.

The Yankees mounted a two-out rally in the bottom of the ninth against the ex-Yankee Clippard, scoring a run when Brett Gardner rocked a double to the wall to score Garret Jones, but when Burns hauled in Headley’s fly ball on the warning track in left center, the game was over. Athletics 5, Yankees 4.

[Photo Credit: Ben Margot/AP Photo]

Double Your Pleasure

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Remember when Michael Kay used to love trotting out that old nursery rhyme, the one about the little girl with the curl? It seemed that every time A.J. Burnett took the mound, Kay would introduce him with a twist on those lines. “When he is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad, he is awful.” Well, A.J. Burnett is long gone, but in his place we have Nathan Eovaldi, a young pitcher also in possession of an electric arsenal, but also tantalizingly inconsistent.

He opened the game in rather shaky form, yielding a leadoff homer to Curtis Granderson and then a double to Daniel Murphy to score another run, spotting the Mets a 2-0 lead over the Yankees in the third gave of the season’s first Subway Series.

But Alex Rodríguez split that deficit in half when he bounced a solo home run off the top of the wall in right center field in the bottom of the first. It was A-Rod’s 659th career home run, one shy of Willie Mays for fourth place on the all-time list, and the Yankee front office buried their heads in the sand just as Rodríguez rounded third. If they don’t see him hit the home runs, it will be as if he hasn’t hit them. Brian Cashman and the Yankees went down to the crossroads with A-Rod to sign that incentive-laden contract, hoping to capitalize on his march up the all-time home run list, but now that it’s finally happening, they’re hoping to wash their hands of the whole thing. You know. Because they thought he was clean the whole time and were shocked – shocked! — to find out there was something fishy going on.

They say they can’t market this chase, but they know they can. They need only look back to the Barry Bonds Love Fest to see that home town fans will always cheer their heroes. The truth is that they don’t like the contract they forced themselves into offering him seven years ago, and now they don’t want to pay their Six Million Dollar Man. Perhaps they’ll figure it out by the time he catches up to the Babe in 2016.

But back to our game. Eovaldi returned to the mound in the second inning and tucked the curl back underneath his cap. He dispatched the Mets on twelve pitches, retiring the final two hitters on strikes (he’d also strike out the first two batters of the third), reminding us why it’s always foolish to give up on a 25-year-old who can throw 98 miles per hour.

It was in the bottom of the second that the parade of doubles began when John Ryan Murphy ripped a line drive down the left field line with one out. Then with two outs, someone named Gregorio Petit (I still can’t convince myself that Gregorio Petit plays second base for the New York Yankees) doubled to left scoring Murphy. Then Brett Gardner doubled to right to score Petit. After Chris Young squirted a single into shallow right to score Gardner, Rodríguez rifled the fourth Yankee double of the inning into the left field corner, scoring Young and giving New York a 5-2 lead.

After Eovaldi opened the third with the double strikeout mentioned above, he started giving up doubles of his own, one to Michael Cuddyer and another to Daniel Murphy, each scoring a run and cutting the Yankee lead to 5-4. The Yankees picked up another run in the fifth to make it 6-4, and then things got late in a hurry for the Mets.

Eovaldi was pulled with one out in the fifth, leaving 14 outs for the Yankee bullpen, but they were nearly flawless over those final four and two-thirds. Chasen Shreve took up the baton first, and he hit Lucas Duda with his first pitch. No matter. Three pitchers later Cuddyer bounced into an easy 4-6-3 to end the inning. Shreve started the sixth by walking Murphy, but that didn’t matter either. Chris Martin came in to get five easy outs before giving way to Justin Wilson, who got the final batter in the seventh.

The game was essentially over at that point, because all that remained was the double-headed monster at the back end of the Yankee bullpen. Dellin Betances needed just 11 pitches to strike out three Mets in the eighth, but the inning continued because that eleventh pitch, a wicked curve ball to Cuddyer, bounced to the backstop after the swing and miss, allowing Cuddyer to reach first. I was rooting hard for the 4K inning, but Murphy tapped out harmlessly to second to end the frame. How good has Betances been in the Subway Series in his short career? The Mets are 0 for 9 with eight strikeouts. Not bad.

Next in line was Andrew Miller. He plunked Wilmer Flores with one out but then got the next two to send everyone home. Yankees 6, Mets 4.

So both the Yankees and the Mets leave this series as they entered, in first place in their respective divisions. That’s good for the Mets, I suppose, but I’m more interested in what it might mean for the Yankees. Last year every single question mark heading to the season turned into an ellipses. Could it be that this year’s questions might become exclamation points? Sure, it’s only been 19 games, but Mark Teixeira! Alex Rodríguez! Michael Pineda! Andrew Miller! Things are certainly looking better than most expected.

Well, What Did You Expect?

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There are countless statistics that fill out Derek Jeter’s Hall of Fame résumé, and I’ve heard them all on an infinite loop over the past few weeks, the final weeks of the Yankee captain’s career. I know that he is the all-time Yankee leader in games played, at bats, hits, runs, doubles, and stolen bases, and I know that only five players in major league history have more base hits than Jeter. I know that he won five World Series rings and has more postseason hits than any player ever to have played the game.

I know all of that, but none of that begins to explain why he has meant so much to me for so long.

I fell in love with the New York Yankees in the summer of 1977 when I was seven years old. I was already crazy about baseball, so during a family vacation to New York City, I convinced my parents to take me to a game at Yankee Stadium. Chris Chambliss hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning for a 5-3 win over the Royals that afternoon, and my life changed forever. The Yankees would win the World Series that season and again the next, but I looked to the team’s past.

I devoured every baseball biography I could find in the local library, especially those of the Yankee legends — Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, and Mantle. I memorized their statistics, marveled at their World Series success, and wished with every ounce of my baseball-loving heart that I could’ve seen them play or that I could’ve lived in an era when the Yankees were always in the World Series.

And then came Derek Jeter.

The Yankees drafted him in 1992, and I monitored his progress through the farm system, digging through the minor league stats in the back of USA Today’s Baseball Weekly. When he finally took over as the Yankees’ starting shortstop in 1996 at the age of 21, he was already my favorite player. When he helped the Yankees to a World Series championship that season, then three more from 1998 to 2000, the seven-year-old boy in my soul rejoiced. I finally had my Joe DiMaggio.

Baseball is about statistics, and many of the game’s legends are so connected with a particular number (Henry Aaron and 755, Ted Williams and .406, Lou Gehrig and 2130, to name a few) that we’ve actually lost a true understanding of how great some of these players were. They’ve been obscured by one glaring measure of one aspect of their game. This will never be so of Derek Jeter. His career is measured in moments, and the back of his baseball card will never explain the player that he was.

When my grandchildren ask me about Derek Jeter, it’s these moments that will come flooding back, not the numbers, and I’ll weave them a story of greatness one play at a time. I’ll rise to my feet and act out the improbable flip from foul territory to get Jeremy Giambi at the plate, salvaging a playoff win over the A’s in 2001, and I’ll certainly tell them about Game 4 of that year’s World Series, when he lived out every kid’s Whiffle ball dream and hit a game-winning home run on a 3-2 pitch with two outs in the bottom of the tenth inning. I’ll describe his bruised and bloodied face following his dive into the stands in that epic regular season game against the Red Sox in 2004, and I’ll detail the playoff game in 2006 when he capped off a 5 for 5 night with a majestic home run to center field, sending the Old Stadium into delirium. Oh, and I’ll probably mention the day he got his 3,000th hit, a can-you-believe-it home run that was just one of five hits he had that afternoon, the last one driving home the game’s winning run.

Jeter certainly had a flair for the dramatic, as if he were secretly writing the script himself, then jumping in front of the cameras to act out one improbable scene after another. (It should’ve been no surprise, then, when he came up with the game-winning walk-off hit in his last game at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night. Just Jeter being Jeter.)

But as iconic as those moments are, none of them does justice to the player that Jeter has been for these past two decades. What I’ll remember most — and miss the most — are the moments that we saw every day. His last look over his shoulder at his teammates just before leaping up the dugout steps to lead them onto the field for the first inning; the tip of his cap to the opposing team’s manager before his first at bat; his good-natured banter with the media who covered him day in and day out.

I can’t imagine a great player who had as much fun as he did. He never stopped ribbing Alex Rodríguez about his struggles with pop flies, and he never grew tired of giving teammates the stone face when they returned to the dugout after hitting a home run. The game belonged to him, and he knew it.

As I watched his final game in Yankee Stadium with tears in my eyes, my nine-year-old daughter asked me who my favorite player would be now that Jeter was retiring. I’ve know the answer to that question for quite some time now. For me, no one will ever replace Derek Jeter. When he arrived twenty years ago, he was more than just a baseball player to me. He was hope, but he was even more than that. When the cameras found his black father and white mother in the stands, I saw my own parents. When I read about his childhood declaration to one day play for the New York Yankees, I remembered countless birthday wishes from my own youth. When I looked at Derek Jeter, I saw myself if my own dreams had come true.

The thing about growing up, though, is that you quickly realize that the reality is sometimes far better than anything you could have imagined for yourself as a child. When Jeter rifled a line drive through the right side of the infield to win the last game he’ll ever play at Yankee Stadium, I sat on the couch watching with my two youngest children; I’d watch it again an hour later with my wife and older daughter. Tears were rolling down my face, but I couldn’t have been happier.

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[Photo of Jeter/AP]

No Horseplay, Please.

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My glass is always half full, but I had a bad feeling heading into this game. When the news first broke that Jusin Verlander was being pushed in favor of a kid making his major league debut, the prevailing thought was that the Yankees had caught a huge break by avoiding the former Cy Young winner. My first response? “Oh, no.”

I seem to remember seeing some statistics indicating that the Yankees don’t perform as poorly as we think they do against rookies, but my memory tells a different story. Even when the Yankees were regularly running roughshod over the American League, unknown pitchers were their Kryptonite, and so it was on Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park in Detroit.

Hiroki Kuroda, as usual, was good enough to win, even though he didn’t. He pitched seven strong innings, giving up just two runs while allowing only four singles and a walk, an effort the team would clearly have signed up for on Thursday morning.

The problem, of course, is that Detroit’s Kyle Lobstein was just as good — or more accurately, just as effective. He didn’t strike out a single hitter, and Yankee batters were able to hit several balls hard, but it never amounted to anything. He lasted six innings, yielded only four hits, a walk, and two runs (one earned).

As a result, the game zipped into the late innings tied at two, with each team desperate for a win to get closer to a playoff spot, and each team squandering opportunities. Dellin Betances took over for Kuroda in the eighth and eventually found himself facing the best hitter on the planet with two outs and the potential winning run on second base. Demonstrating his growing confidence and maturity, Betances didn’t give in to the temptation to prove his strength by overpowering Miguel Cabrera with a triple-digit fastball. Instead, he froze him with two consecutive 82 MPH curveballs. Cabrera let the first go by without a swing, then waved feebly at the second to strikeout and end the inning.

In the top of the ninth, facing Grizzly Chamberlain, the Yankees mounted a two-out rally. Mark Teixeira walked, Carlos Beltrán singled him to third, and Brian McCann came to the plate needing only a single to put his team in position to win. Joba elevated his second pitch, and McCann absolutely crushed it — but it hooked to the wrong side of the foul pole, leaving the Yankees only inches from what would’ve been a three-run lead. Joba pumped two more pitches past him and the inning was over.

Betances had thrown only 13 pitches in the eighth, so I hoped he’d come back for the ninth, but instead we were treated to Shawn “Horsehead” Kelley. The trouble started immediately. Victor Martínez led off with a double deep into the right field corner, then J.D. Martínez milked a seven-pitch walk and the Tigers had runners on first and second with none out. From there he dug his hole even deeper, working himself into a 3-2 count on Nick Castellanos before recovering with a perfect pitch on the outside corner for a called strike three. Next he toyed with pinch hitter Torii Hunter, overpowering him with 95-97 MPH fastballs and teasing him with marginal sliders before finally finishing him with the heater.

There was hope. As I saw the rest of the game in my mind’s eye, I imagined Kelley overpowering Alex Avila — perhaps striking him out on three pitches — and charging off the mound and into an energized Yankee dugout. His teammates would undoubtedly parlay that momentum into a tenth-inning rally, David Robertson would come in for the save, and the Yankees would escape from Detroit that much closer to the playoffs.

In the time that it took that daydream to wind its way through the corners of my optimistic brain, Avila strolled to the plate, took a hack at Kelley’s first pitch (an inviting slider rather than a crackling fastball), and rocketed it towards the wall in right center. Ichiro raced out towards the gap, but he wasn’t able to make the play (replays showed that perhaps he should’ve made the play), and the game was over.

Kelley was beaten with his second-best pitch, and he seemed to know it. He slammed his mitt to the turf in frustration, and when asked afterwards about how he felt, his answer was direct. “About as bad as I’ve felt walking off a mound in my career. Not good.”

Is this loss worse than any of the other bad losses we’ve suffered through this season? Probably not, but it stings a bit more simply because it reminds of who this team actually is. They simply aren’t going to win six of every seven games they play, but there’s still hope. Masahiro Tanaka is pitching simulated games, Michael Piñeda continues to dominate, Shane Greene has been great, Brandon McCarthy has been much better than anyone could’ve expected, and Hiroki Kuroda has now had three solid starts in a row.

Games like this are frustrating, but it’s not the end of the world. I promise.

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

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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?

Brian+Cashman+New+York+Yankees+Introduce+Masahiro+pcgX2e973ldl

[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]

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