"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Hank Waddles

Looking for an Ace?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yankees 3, Padres 0.

[Photo Credit: Denis Poroy/Getty Images]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: Denis Poroy/Getty Images]

The Flip of a Coin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP Photo]

Seven. It’s Got Caché, Baby!

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

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

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

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

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

He Who Would Be King

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

Nothing better than a little drama in the Wimbledon championship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images]

The Dream Is Always the Same

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bronx Banter. There is no substitute.

Dark Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images]

A Day in the Box Seats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also, it gave me hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Clip

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

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

Once Upon a Midnight Dreary While I Pondered Weak and Weary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A’s 6, Yankees 4.

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

It Gets Wet Early Out There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP]

Gonna Fly Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: Dustin Bradford/Getty Images]

Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead

I live smack in the middle of the N.L. West, but it’s still a complete mystery to me. There’s nothing at all impressive about the San Francisco Giants, except that they’ve won two of the past three World Series. For all the talk of the Dodgers and their cable deal (and their payroll) becoming the Yankees of the West, they’re floundering in last place. There’s no more beautiful city in America than San Diego, and yet the Padres haven’t been able to reel in an interesting free agent since they bagged Garvey in 1983 and added Gossage and Nettles in ’84.

And then there are the Colorado Rockies. With a lineup devoid of superstars, unless you count Todd Helton, who seems to have been playing since the Jurassic era, the Rockies have somehow found themselves at the top of this, the strangest division in baseball.

In many ways, the Rockies must’ve felt like they were looking in a mirror when the makeshift Yankees trotted out onto the field on Tuesday night. Remember when Jim Leyland famously referred to the Yankees’ fearsome 2006 lineup as Murders’ Row and Robby Canó? Well, last night’s group looked like Robinson and the Seven Dwarves, with starter Hiroki Kuroda batting ninth in the National League park.

With Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Alex Rodríguez all in Tampa and Kevin Youkilis also on the shelf, it’s a wonder the Yankees haven’t simply raised the white flag for the season. It’s been an admirable effort, and at times it’s even been fun to watch, as they’ve kept things together through these first six weeks. On Tuesday, though, they raised the white flag.

Kuroda wasn’t exactly brilliant, but he was certainly good enough to win as he cruised through the first five innings, allowing just three base runners over those opening frames. The Yankees, meanwhile, weren’t doing much more than pestering Rockies starter Jorge de la Rosa with more stolen bases (4) than hits (3), and the game was a scoreless tie as Colorado came up in the home half of the sixth.

The inning started innocently enough as Kuroda needed just two pitches for the first two outs, and when he gave up a single to Jeff Rutledge with his fourth pitch of the frame, there was certainly no cause for concern. Some people might have questioned my earlier statement claiming the Rockies had no superstars, and they would’ve cited Carlos González in their argument. But since I wouldn’t have recognized González if he had been watching the game with me from my living room couch, I’m not ready to elevate him to that elite level. Even after he deposited a Kuroda fastball into the right field seats, I still won’t do it. He’s a good player, I’ll give him that.

And that, essentially, was that. Sure, there was some hope when Brett Gardner pinch hit in the seventh and led off with a walk, but that hope started to fade as Gardner sat on first, refusing to steal second even though he had already watched Lance Nix and Chris Stewart (Chris Stewart!) pull off the trick. It disappeared completely when Colorado’s prodigal son ended the inning by grounding into a double play.

There will be games like this for these Yankees, and if we’re really honest with ourselves, we should be less surprised by games like this than when they somehow rack up seven or eight runs. But who knows? Maybe that surprise is coming tonight.

Rockies 2, Yankees 0.

[Photo Credit: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images]

It Didn’t Have to Be This Way

Before we even get started, let me tell you one thing. I’m not going to complain about the Yankees’ lack of hitting with runners in scoring position, mainly because that’s like complaining that the sun is rising in the East. Even without that issue, there’s plenty to discuss here, and several issues to chew on, so let’s get at it…

Things couldn’t have started out better. Derek Jeter quieted the raucous Baltimore crowd with a line drive single to right center off rookie Wei-Yin Chen to lead off the game, and the suddenly dynamic Ichiro followed by reaching on a questionable error to set the Yankees up with two men on, no one out, and the heart of the lineup due.

The papers will be awash this morning with doomsday headlines about Alex Rodríguez and damning statistics on the ineptitude of the offense, but A-Rod came to bat in the first inning and laced an absolute seed just a few feet to the right of second base. The infield defense was pulled around to the left as it usually is for A-Rod, but even positioned close to the bag, second baseman Robert Andino only had time for a quick step and a dive. He snared the line drive, then flipped to second to double off Jeter. Had that ball been just two or three inches to the left, a run would’ve been in and a rally would’ve been rolling with the hottest hitter on the planet due up next.

As it was, there were suddenly two outs and a man on first, A-Rod was still a dog, and the Yankees still couldn’t hit when it counted. It’s a game of inches, you know. But then Robinson Canó dug in and ripped a laser of his own off the base of the wall in right field. Always one to push the edge of the envelope, third base coach Robby Thompson windmilled Ichiro around third, but the relay throw from Andino appeared to have him dead to rights. But as Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters took the throw and lunged to make the tag, Ichiro took a right turn. He avoided the tag, but missed the plate by several feet, skittered counter clockwise around the dish, then leapt in the air like a cat to avoid Wieters’s second attempt before finally tagging the first base side of home plate. It was so much work it probably should’ve been worth two runs, but the score was only 1-0. Even so, it was a start.


This was Game 2, so naturally Andy Pettitte was on the mound for the Yankees, and naturally he was dominant early on. How good was he? He retired the first eight batters like this: fly out, ground out, backwards K, pop out, ground out, strikeout, fly out, ground out. He made a tough pitch to the ninth hitter, but it was too tough, as Andino broke his bat and lofted a base hit over second base. Then things got sticky.

Nate McLouth knocked a clean single to center, then J.J. Hardy walked on four pitches to load the bases for Chris Davis, a left-hander who had struggled against Pettitte in his career. After taking ball one, Davis poked a single to right to score two, and the Orioles suddenly had a 2-1 lead, just as they did in the third inning of Game 1. (An interesting note here: Nick Swisher actually came up with a good throw to third, one that Jeter could’ve cut off but chose instead to let go. He couldn’t have known this, but Hardy had rounded second a bit too aggressively, and had Jeter cut off that throw where he stood atop second base and then looked for the tag, Hardy would’ve been out before McLouth would’ve been able to score with the second run. No shortstop in his right mind would’ve cut that ball off, but it’s the type of play we’ve come to expect from Jeter in October. Not this time.)

And so the inning continued. Adam Jones bounced a grounder deep into the hole at short, forcing Jeter to range far to his right. Jeter and A-Rod, as well as Hardy running from second, probably all realized the only play would be at third. As a result, Hardy was digging hard for the bag and didn’t notice when the ball rolled just under Jeter’s glove. A-Rod was giving his best decoy at third, waiting for a throw that would never come, so Hardy also didn’t notice his third base coach furiously waving him in. He pulled up at third, much to Jeter’s amusement. Wieters popped up the first pitch he saw, and Hardy never scored. The inning was over.

The Yankee hitters, meanwhile, weren’t scoring, but they were making Chen work hard. It looked like that strategy might pay dividends in the top of the fourth when they loaded the bases with one out after Mark Teixeira singled, Russell Martin walked, and Curtis Granderson singled.

(Speaking of Granderson, TBS showed a revealing statistic during his first at bat. (And speaking of TBS, their coverage is bordering on unwatchable. Cal Ripken and John Smoltz have fallen into the trap that awaits most postseason announcers: they make a point and then react as if they’ve discovered penicillin. I watched large chunks of Game 1 with the mute button engaged. During Game 2, Ripken even tried to tell me that switch hitters used to regularly bat left-handed against Pettitte to counteract his power cutter, even though I’m fairly certain this never happened. That was Mo.) But back to Granderson. Peep this: When he puts one of the first two pitches in play, his batting average is .405, slugging percentage .767. After that the numbers drop to .190/.425. Ouch.)

But we were discussing the fourth inning, and the bases loaded buffet awaiting Eduardo Nuñez. He came to the plate needing just a quality out to tie the game, but imagine what a simple base hit would do. With his pitch count mounting, every fan in the park on edge, his entire home nation of Taiwan having called in sick to watch their countryman’s first playoff appearance, this was clearly a critical moment for Chen. A base hit would likely give the Yankees the lead and fill Chen’s head with doubt as the lineup turned over and Jeter, Ichiro, and A-Rod readied for their turns at bat. The game would open up, and the series would close.

But that’s not how it happened. Nuñez popped out, Jeter grounded to third, and the inning was over. Late Monday night Curt Schilling and John Kruk gushed about Chen’s game plan and execution, but I kept wondering if they had watched the same game I did, and I think Jeter’s reaction might’ve been similar. When he was asked about Chen after the game, the Captain was clearly suppressing a grin as he generously allowed, “He was hitting his spots.” It reminded me of an interview Kobe Bryant gave after the Lakers lost a tough playoff game to the Phoenix Suns. When asked if Raja Bell had given him some trouble, Kobe simply laughed. “Raja Bell? Raja Bell?” More laughter. “No.” Jeter was more diplomatic, but the message was the same.

What can’t be denied, however, was that Chen made it into the seventh inning, which is probably more than the Orioles had hoped for. Now trailing 3-1, the Yankees mounted a rally as Nuñez poked a ball into short right center and hustled it into a double, then came home on a Jeter single to cut the lead back to one at 3-2. After Ichiro forced Jeter at second and Darren O’Day came in to strike out A-Rod for the second day in a row, Buck Showalter chose to bring in Brian Matusz to walk the HHOTP and face Swisher with two outs and the tying run on second. I’m guessing Showalter wasn’t worried. Swisher entered that at bat with a 1 for 33 career postseason mark with runners in scoring position, and a career 1 for 19 against Matusz. Predictably, he popped out to left.

And then came the eighth inning, perhaps the most frustrating frame of the night for me. Teixeira led off with a rocket that looked ticketed for the left field corner and a sure double. But McLouth hustled over to cut it off, and the hobbling Teixeira was forced to stay at first. Here’s how the rest of the inning should’ve played out: Brett Gardner pinch runs for Teixeira and remains in the game in left field; Ichiro moves to right field; Swisher comes in to play first. Gardner steals second (because if he doesn’t, why exactly is he on the post season roster?), then Martin can either bunt him over or take a shot to right field. Assuming this works, Granderson needs only produce a fly ball to tie the game.

But Joe Girardi wasn’t interested in any of that, so he let Teixeira sit at first base as Martin and Granderson struck out and Nuñez popped out. The game wasn’t over, but it certainly felt like it. Baltimore closer Jim Johnson worked the ninth inning and smartly set down Jeter, Ichiro, and A-Rod in order, leaving Canó in the on-deck circle.

You have to admit, it was a nice way for 2012′s final game at Camden Yards to end. Orioles 3, Yankees 2.

[Photo Credits: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images (1); Patrick Semansky/AP Photo (2&3); Nick Wass/AP Photo (4)]

Like So Many Sheep In Red Sox Clothing

I spent much of the weekend being pissed off at the Red Sox, who couldn’t win a single game against the Baltimore Orioles. Not one. In my irrational state of mind I even wondered if there might be some foul play at work. After all, what better way for Boston to get at the Yanks than by rolling over three days in a row in Baltimore?

With this poison still working its way through my system, I sat down to watch the Yankees and Red Sox on Monday evening, and it all became clear as soon as the Boston lineup flashed onto the screen: Pedro Ciriaco, Daniel Nava, Cody Ross, Mauro Gomez, Ryan Lavarnway, Jarod Saltalamacchia, Danny Valencia, Che-Hsuan Lin, and José Iglesias made up the Red Sox starting nine, and three of those guys ended the night hitting less than .200.

CC Sabathia was on the mound for the Yanks, and he showed no mercy. As he was slicing and dicing through Boston’s makeshift lineup (Dustin Pedroia was out with an injured hoof, and Jacoby Ellsbury was on the bench suffering from the 24-hour-lefty-on-the-mound flu), I missed the old Red Sox. Do you remember what an event these series were? Do you remember how every pitch carried with it the weight of the world and a world of possibilities?

I miss the swagger of Pedro Martínez, the horror of Manny Ramírez and David Ortíz, the robotic fierceness of Jonathan Papelbon, the impossible smugness of Josh Beckett, and even the nauseating arrogance of Curt Schilling. I miss the way Jason Varitek would tuck his batting helmet beneath his arm as he crossed the plate after hitting a home run, and the way Kevin Youkilis would slide his hand up and down the shaft of his bat as if he were, well, you know.

I hated all of that, but now I miss it like crazy. These Red Sox? About as compelling as milk. So even as CC was busy dismissing one anonymous BoSock after another, I couldn’t help wondering what this series might’ve been like. Worse than that, when the Yankees sent 13 men to the plate in the second inning to score nine runs and put the game on ice, my heart didn’t beat any faster.

Robinson Canó led off the inning with an absolute monster home run that ricocheted off  the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar a mere 446 feet from home plate, becoming just the second player in four years to turn the trick. Three batters later Curtis Granderson laced a two-run homer into the second deck in right, and before the cheering stopped, Russell Martin backed him up with a homer of his own for a 4-0 Yankee lead.

Canó came up later in the inning and rocked a double to right center, scoring two more runs. A quick word about Canó. Even though some have criticized him this season and accused him of playing below his ability, it should be remembered that people whispered the same things about Roberto Clemente, probably for the same reason. Canó finished the game 3 for 5 with a home run and two doubles, giving him a total of 48 two-baggers and 31 homers on the season. Not bad.

Following Canó was Mark Teixeira, playing in his first game in weeks. He had struck out in his first at bat against Boston starter Clay Buchholz, but he liked something he saw from the new Boston pitcher, Alfredo Aceves, and quickly jumped on it. It was a no-doubter; the ball leapt off Tex’s bat and settled in the second deck. If Teixeira can get his swing together in time for the playoffs (or keep it together), the Yankee lineup is suddenly much more formidable.

Nothing much happened the rest of the way — a solo home run from Nava and a sacrifice fly from Saltalamacchia accounted for the Boston scoring — save for the bottom of the eighth. I’ve always loved watching players get their first hit, so I was thrilled for Melky Mesa when his two-hopper found its way into center field for his first career hit and RBI (Eduardo Núñez scored easily from second). Mesa started clapping and smiling half way down the line, and the Yankee dugout exploded behind him as they officially welcomed him to the major leagues with their cheers and good natured ribbing (Eric Chávez jokingly yelled for him to be sure to touch first base). The smile never left his face during that eighth inning.

The 10-2 Yankee win combined with a Baltimore loss gives the Bombers a tie with Texas for the best record in the league and a luxurious one-game lead in the American League East. I expect that they’ll take care of business on Tuesday and Wednesday. You can count on it.

[Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP Photo]

A Work In Progress

During his post game interview following his second start back from the disabled list in Minnesota on Monday night, Andy Pettitte shook his head and laughed. “I’m definitely a work in progress,” he admitted. If you missed the game and just caught that self-deprecating response, you might’ve assumed Pettitte had struggled, something like four runs in five innings and maybe a loss. Not quite.

Pettitte threw 88 pitches over six strong innings, allowing just seven hits and a walk while striking out three. He didn’t allow a run.

Looking at those numbers on the morning after, Pettitte looks brilliant, but he struggled in the first inning. He gave up consecutive singles to open the game, walked Josh Willingham to load the bases with one out, and momentarily fell behind the dangerous Justin Morneau. But he did what we’re used to seeing from Andy Pettitte, what we saw as far back as Game 5 of the 1996 World Series. He battled. He eventually retired Morneau with a 91-MPH fastball dotted on the outside corner, then induced a ground ball from Ryan Doumit to end the inning. It had taken 22 pitches, but he had escaped.

That first inning had been tenuous, but Pettitte had actually been working with a 3-0 lead. Derek Jeter had opened the top of the first with a walk, then raced around to third on a double from the blistering hot Ichiro. Robinson Canó brought one run home with a ground out to short, but then Nick Swisher crushed a ball off the facing of the upper deck in right center field for a muscle-flexing homer and a three-run Yankee cushion. As it turned out, that would be all that Pettitte would need.

Even so, Curtis Granderson gave him another run in the fourth as he rocketed his fortieth homer high into the right field stands. Granderson has become a disturbingly one-dimensional hitter this season, but as frustrating as his all-or-nothing approach can be, it’s hard to criticize a guy who’s hit forty home runs in consecutive seasons, a feat accomplished by only four other players in the long and homer-filled history of the Bronx Bombers. There was Jason Giambi in ’02-’03, and then the three usual suspects: Mickey Mantle (’60-’61), Lou Gehrig (’30-’31), and a guy named Babe Ruth (’20-’21, ’23-’24, ’26-’32). Is it just me, or is it kind of shocking that Alex Rodríguez isn’t on that list?

Pettitte, meanwhile, was straight dealing. After that shaky start, he set down the side in order in the second, used a double play ball to to escape a two-hit inning in the third, watched as Granderson and Russell Martin combined for a phenomenal play to throw out Doumit at the plate to end the fourth, yielded a harmless single in the fifth, then set down three straight in the sixth to finish his scoreless evening. Pettitte just might be the best September call-up in Yankee history, and he definitely looks ready to assume his usual spot starting Game 3 in the playoffs.

Raúl Ibañez and Eric Chávez added solo home runs in the frame after Pettitte’s departure, giving the Yanks a 6-0 lead in the seventh inning and enough of a cushion that the rest of the game seemed unnecessary. There were really just two things of note: things got a bit messy for the bullpen as they yielded three runs in the final two innings, and Derek Jeter singled with one out in the ninth to keep his hitting streak alive at 18 straight games.

At this point in the season, any win makes for a good day, but this 6-3 win meant more than just a half game in the standings. Pettitte has thrown eleven shutout innings since his return from the disabled list, and suddenly the Yankee rotation of Sabathia, Kuroda, Pettitte, and Hughes looks ready to carry the team through these final nine games and into the playoffs. The Yankees won’t clinch the American League East until the weekend, but I think we’ll look back on this game and realize this was the night it was won.

[Photo Credit: Jim Mone/AP Photo]

You Gotta Have Wa

As crazy as it might sound, I don’t get as much pleasure out of watching the Yankees beat up on Josh Beckett anymore. He’s still the bad guy, but it simply isn’t as much fun when you expect him to get rocked, you know? Heck, even Red Sox fans are tired of him, so it’s hard for me to summon the energy to despise him. The cocky, young kid who silenced the Yankee bats to clinch a World Series almost a decade ago has somehow become just another pitcher, kind of like the neighborhood dog that chased you mercilessly when you were a kid, but years later couldn’t rise from his front porch.

And so it was on Sunday night.

Derek Jeter jumped on Beckett’s second pitch of the night and sent it deep over the head of Jacoby Ellsbury in center field for a double, and eventually came home on a two-out double from Curtis Granderson, and the Yanks were off and running. Beckett was stewing.

That one run almost looked like it would be enough. Hiroki Kuroda was on the mound for the Yankees, fresh off his two-hit shutout of the Texas Rangers, and he picked up right where he left off. He set down the first eight hitters without incident before Nick Punto singled, then cruised through the next three innings allowing just another harmless single. Suddenly it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine him starting Game 1 in October.

To give Kuroda a bit of a cushion, the Yankee hitters chipped in a run here and a run there. With one out in the third, Jeter replayed his first inning at bat and crushed another double over Ellsbury’s head, this one bouncing over the wall. Nick Swisher followed that with a walk, and then Jeter and Swisher pulled off a double steal without a throw. Beckett’s next pitch skipped away from Jarod Saltalamacchia, allowing Jeter to score, and it was 2-0.

In the fourth inning, Ichiro came up to the plate with two outs. I always liked watching Ichiro hit, so it hasn’t been hard for me to start rooting for him as a Yankee. You would always here people talk about how he would effortlessly put balls into the seats during batting practice and claim that he could hit twenty or thirty homers a season if he wanted to, and he gave proof in this at bat. Beckett left a pitch up in the zone, and Ichiro jumped all over it, rifling it into the seats in right for a 3-0 Yankee lead. Two innings later he shot another ball into the bleachers, just because he could. I know the Moneyball folks led an OPS-driven backlash against Ichiro early in his career, but as he stepped to the top of the dugout steps, lifting his helmet to reveal his greying hair as he acknowledged the cheering crowd, I could only think that this was one of the best hitters ever to play the game.

Kuroda was still on the mound in the top of the seventh when the revitalized Adrian González homered to right. Since González plays first base for my fantasy team (Mike Pagliarulo Fan Club), I couldn’t get too broken up over it, and neither did Kuroda, though perhaps for different reasons. He finished the seventh, then ended his night by setting down the Sox in order in the eighth. Rafael Soriano untucked the ninth, and the game was over. Yankees 4, Red Sox 1.

[Photo Credit: Jason Szenes/Getty Images]

Chalk Flew Up!

I really don’t know what to say about these Yankees anymore. Deep into the game I was sure this recap was going to be full of doom and gloom. I just knew they’d lose yet another, what would be their third loss in four games in Detroit, and somehow I’d have to put a positive spin on things and convince the Banter faithful that their faith would eventually be rewarded. It turned out none of that would be necessary, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Doug Fister was on the mound for the Tigers. I’m not sure what the numbers are, but it seems like the Yankees tend to struggle against him. In the second inning, though, things were looking good. Eric Chávez sat on first base with two outs when Raúl Ibañez launched a towering fly ball over Quintin Berry’s head in deep left center field, far enough that even the slow-footed Chávez was able to score the game’s first run and the equally challenged Ibañez was able to cruise into third with a triple. Ichiro was up next, and he wasted no time in collecting his daily hit, flicking the second pitch he saw down the left field line for a stand-up double; the Yankees led 2-0.

I must admit that I didn’t have high hopes when Hiroki Kuroda joined the team during the off-season, but he’s quietly become the Yankees’ most dependable pitcher shorter than 6’6″ and weighing less than 290 pounds. Kuroda cruised through the first four innings, nursing that 2-0 lead but looking perfectly comfortable while doing so. Then came the fifth.

Jhonny Peralta hit a booming double to left to open the inning, and a few pitches later Alex Avila laced a home run down the line in right to tie the game at two. These things happen, I suppose, but what happened next usually doesn’t.

Ramón Santiago singled, and with two outs Andy Dirks floated a high fair/foul pop halfway down the line in left. Ibañez was on the case, though, and he hustled in from deep left hoping to make the final out. He came up short, but for a moment it didn’t seem to matter.

Just before the ball dropped, third base umpire Tim Welke threw his arms up, signifying a foul ball. The problem with that is that a split second later the fall ball fell on the chalk, forcing Welke to reverse his call and point correctly into fair territory. Ibañez chased the ball around long enough to allow Barry to score.

Manager Joe Girardi immediately popped out of the dugout and began debating with Welke. His point was that Welke’s initial call — even though it was incorrect — had caused Ibañez to give up on the play, if only for a moment. (For the record, replays did not seem to support this.)

Girardi could be seen to repeat his single claim over and over: “You called the ball foul!” Interestingly enough, Welke admitted as much early in their conversation, saying “I was too quick.” Sometimes an admission like that is enough for a manager, but it only seemed to throw kerosene on Girardi’s fire. He eventually convinced Welke to convene the other three umpires for a conference, but by that point I don’t think there was much that could’ve been done. Had Welke taken away Detroit’s run and pulled Barry back to third, Jim Leyland would probably still be arguing.

When the umpires inevitably held firm, Girardi lost control completely. Fans in the left field bleachers were probably reading his lips easily as he stabbed an index finger into his open palm to illustrate his point: “I’m protesting this game right now!” Welke made note of it and tried to walk away (perhaps because he knew it wasn’t a protestable situation), but Girardi had clearly made up his mind to get himself tossed.

It’s a funny thing. Ninety-nine percent of the time, my emotions run at a fairly even keel, and I almost never get angry. But when I’m coaching a basketball game and an official makes what I perceive to be a bad call and refuses to listen to my argument, everything changes in a Bruce Banner kind of way. If I were to list the ten angriest moments of my life, every single one of them would be the result of an official’s whistle. There’s a feeling that something has been unfairly taken from you in an irrevocable manner, and the feeling of injustice starts in your heart, courses through your veins, and eventually reaches your brain where it drives you insane.

I’ve been in that moment, and that’s where Girardi was on Thursday night. Welke eventually ejected him, but that hardly ended his tirade. He reiterated his protest, fired his hat in disgust, and appeared to make contact with crew chief Bob Davidson (suspension coming?). On his way to the dugout he pantomimed Welke’s error, throwing his hands up in the air, then pointing towards foul territory before pointing back fair. The whole episode lasted just a few seconds short of five minutes, and when Girardi finally turned towards the clubhouse, he paused on the steps long enough to hold his nose while looking in Welke’s direction. He didn’t get what he wanted, but at least he got his money’s worth.

Welke gave his take afterwards: “I started to put my hands up in the air — I was a little quick — then I saw the ball hit the chalk line, and I pointed fair about three times,” Welke said. “I don’t think it had any impact. I’ve watched the replay, and I don’t think there was any impact on the outfielder. I don’t think Ibanez ever even saw me. We got the call right.”

It looked for a while like that was going to be the story of this game. Another creatively painful way for the Yankees to lose.

But in the eighth Mark Teixeira jumped on a 2-0 pitch from reliever Joaquin Benoit and ripped a line drive home run into the stands in right, tying the score at three. Before Benoit could think much about that, Chávez took the very next pitch and lofted a home run of his own over the left field wall, and suddenly the Yankees had the lead again.

Rafael Soriano got the last out of the eighth for the Yanks, then almost threw everything away in the ninth, and it took only three pitches. He gave up a double to Avila to lead things off, then yielded a short single to Omar Infante to put runners on the corners with no one out.

The Yankees surely were hoping to preserve a tie and would’ve been happy just to get to the tenth inning, but somehow Soriano did better than that. He got Santiago to float a soft liner to Canó at second for the first out, induced a pop-up from Berry, then nailed down the third out when Dirks hit a weak fly ball to center. Yankees 4, Tigers 3.

There are questions in Yankeeland, but for one afternoon at least, the answers were adequate.

[Photo Credit: Duane Burleson/AP Photo]

Babe Ruth and the Banyan Tree

There’s one thing you should know about the Banter–we spare no expense in the pursuit of a story, and we are never truly on vacation.

So even as my family and I have been enjoying the tropical breezes, idyllic pace, and pristine beaches of Hawaii this week, I’ve kept my nose to the ground the entire time, searching for a story. I found one on Day One.

Directly outside our hotel on the Hilo side of the Big Island, stood an enormous banyan tree marked with a simple sign, “Geo. Herman “Babe” Ruth, Oct. 29, 1933″. After some serious reporting (a five-second conversation with the concierge), I procured a pamphlet which described the evolution of Banyan Drive. Back in 1933 someone decided it might be a fun idea to have celebrities and local luminaries plant banyan trees along a stretch of road that curved around an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. The Babe was on a barnstorming tour, so he was a natural pick, as was Cecil B. DeMille, who was in town filming a movie.

Banyan trees appear as if they’ve been imported directly the planet Dagobah. They begin as a tree with a single trunk, but as they mature, the branches drop long tendrils which twist downward until they find the ground and take root, eventually thickening to the point where it becomes difficult to identify the original trunk. Mature trees have hundreds of separate trunks encompassing hundreds of square feet.

I took my daughter Alison down to the tree on the morning we left to take a few pictures. Before we left I asked her to put her hand next to mine on the outermost root. It was rough and full of history.

“Can you feel it?” I asked. “Babe Ruth planted this tree. Babe Ruth.”

Game 1: Dogs; Game 2: Dog Pile

One streak died on Friday night in Oakland, another survived, but more important to the overall picture, a losing streak was born.

When last the Yankees visited Oakland, they thumped the A’s in three straight games, and I spent a lot of time making fun of them in the one recap I wrote, comparing them to a minor league team as I shamelessly listed Oakland batting averages from one to nine, laughing all the way.

Things are different now. (For one thing, Yoenis Cespedes was on the disabled list during that series back in May. He’s been healthy and punishing Yankee pitching during this series, but more on him later.)

Early in the game a preposterous graphic popped up beneath Yankee starter Iván Nova. According to said graphic, not only did Nova lead the league in extra base hits allowed, he apparently led by a wide margin — 61 extras compared to the second place hurler who had only surrendered 49.

I was so baffled by this, that I spoke aloud to the television. “That can’t possibly be true.”

And here’s where things got a bit strange. Nova paused during his warm-ups, waited for the camera to zoom tight, then, as if he were Woody Allen or Ferris Bueller, he turned and looked directly into the camera… and answered me. Surely you noticed it, too.

“You don’t think I can give up extra base hits?” he asked. “Just watch me.”

With two outs in the first, he gave up a double to Josh Reddick, but recovered to escape the inning without allowing a run. In the third, there was a leadoff triple yielded to Coco Crisp, who scored the game’s first run on a Jemile Weeks sacrifice fly. The fourth inning opened with a Brandon Moss double, followed by a Brandon Inge double (Double Brandon doubles?) to double the lead to two.

Guess what happened in the fifth? Another leadoff double, this time to Reddick, but Nova survived that inning without allowing a run. He wouldn’t, however, survive the seventh, leaving after two outs with a deceptive line: only two runs allowed, but nine hits — five for extra bases.

Even so, Nova’s night would’ve been good enough for a win in any of the previous forty-three games, but on Friday night the fearsome Tommy “May Day” Milone was on the hill for the A’s, and the Yanks never got a sniff against him. He cruised through the first three innings, allowing just a harmless single to Curtis Granderson in the first.

Only twice in Milone’s seven innings were the Yankees able to put two runners on in an inning. The first instance was in the fourth, but it lasted only about ten seconds. Mark Teixeira singled with one out, and when Alex Rodríguez followed immediately with a soft single to right, third base coach Robby Thompson inexplicably started windmilling Teixeira around second and into third. To everyone in the stadium, aside from Thompson, I suppose, the outcome was never in doubt. The ball arrived two strides before Teixeira did, and the rally was dead.

Milone struck out the side in the fifth, then found a bit of trouble in the sixth. Derek Jeter reached on an infield single with one out, and one out later Teixeira moved him to second on a single of his own. A-Rod came up with an opportunity to change this recap, but instead he bounced into a fielder’s choice to third.

Millone did yield a somewhat questionable single to Robinson Canó leading off the seventh, but he set down the next three hitters — the last two on strikes — to finish off his night.

How good was Milone? He had been pitching well over his previous five starts, but nothing like this. Seven innings, six hits, ten strikeouts, and nothing else. I’m sure you remember the last time an Athletics pitcher struck out ten or more Yankees without allowing a run. It was ninety-nine years ago when Eddie Plank turned the trick.

And so it all came down to the ninth inning with the Yankees trailing 2-1. (Russell Martin had homered in the eighth.) When Canó validated his twenty-three-game hitting streak by leading off with a line drive that barely cleared the wall in left field to tie the score at two, everything seemed possible. There was life in the dugout, and suddenly it looked like the Yankees might steal a win in Oakland… I’ll give you a second to recover after reading that last phrase… and in doing so they’d extend that other quirky streak.

As the game rolled over to the bottom of the ninth, I convinced myself that it would happen. I should’ve known better, and the YES producers quickly reminded me by sliding one cold-water graphic after another up on the screen. First there was this: The Yankees are 0-30 and the only major league team without a win after trailing in the ninth inning or later. Next: The Oakland A’s have 9 walk-off wins, most in the major leagues.

Josh Reddick struck out swinging, but the rest of the night went like this: single, single, single, dog pile. (Cespedes, Jonny Gomes, and Brandon Moss, if you must know.) A’s 3, Yankees 2.

A new streak starts tomorrow.

[Photo Credit: Ben Margot/AP Photo]

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