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Category: Hank Waddles
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The Ghost of Phenoms Past

Whenever I think of Homer Bailey, I’m reminded of how treacherous it is to anoint a pitching prospect as a future star. Sure, things worked out with Clayton Kershaw, but we don’t have to look beyond our own backyard to remember the trials and tribulations of Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. According to Baseball Prospectus, the top five pitching prospects in 2008 were Clay Buchholz, Joba Chamberlain, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, and Homer Bailey. That group has produced a first-ballot Hall of Famer, an occasional All-Star, a middle of the rotation innings-eater, a flash in the pan, and Bailey.

Homer’s had a nice career, if you allow that any eleven-year stint in the major leagues is a nice career, but he appears to be nearing the end of the road. He’s only made six starts this year, but they’ve been forgettable. In 27.1 innings he’s allowed 26 runs (I’ll spare him the embarrassment of calculating that ERA) along with 43 hits and 13 walks. He did manage two wins in his first two starts of July, allowing a total of two runs over 12.1 innings, but his last two starts have been abject disasters — 14 runs in 4.2 innings. (That sound you hear in the background is Gary Sánchez starting up the Score Truck.)

It seems perfect that the Yankees have their own phenom on the mound today. Luís Severino has been exactly what you’d expect from a young pitcher with a huge future. He hasn’t been Dwight Gooden, but no one has, really. There have been bumps in the road, but in general he seems to be getting better over the course of the season. At his worst he tends to lose focus and make mistakes; at his best he is virtually unhittable, carrying his 100-MPH velocity deep into his starts. His spot in the rotation is the one that I look forward to the most. Each dominant outing pushes my memories of the misguided handling of Hughes and Chamberlain deeper into my subconscious. Severino will be a star.

All of this, of course, points to a huge win and a series sweep for the Yankees, so relax and enjoy!

As Alex would say, Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Gardner, LF
C. Frazier, RF
Sánchez, C
Holliday, DH
Gregorius, SS
Headley, 1B
Triple Play Frazier, 3B
Ellsbury, CF
Torreyes, 2B

Severino (6-4, 120.2 IP, 136 K, 30 BB, 104 H, 3.21 ERA, 1.11 WHIP)

Wrestling with the Reds

When I think of the Cincinnati Reds, I will always and forever think back to the Big Red Machine of the 1970s. I’m not old enough to remember watching those teams, but after a fortuitous trip to Yankee Stadium when I was seven years old transformed me into a Yankee fan for life, I vividly remember flipping through a pack of baseball cards and painfully reading about the Yankees’ sweep the previous year at the hands of the Reds in the 1976 World Series. Sure, that was decades ago, and the Reds have since given us players like Paul O’Neill and Aroldis Chapman, but the little boy in me still holds that grudge.

Tonight the Reds come in to town for a brief two-game series. It would behoove the Yankees to win both games, because these Reds aren’t big, and they aren’t a machine. Only three teams in baseball have worse records than Cincinnati, and if it weren’t for Scooter Gennett’s four-homer game from a few weeks ago or the trade rumors surrounding shortstop Zack Cozart, they’d be completely irrelevant.

Our young Jordan Montgomery takes the mound against the equally young Luís Castillo. The Yankees have historically struggled against rookie pitchers (Castillo will be making just his seventh career start), but hopefully that won’t be case tonight. Perhaps the Score Truck will even make an appearance. As Alex would say, “Let’s Go Yank-ees!”

Gardner, CF
C. Frazier, LF
Judge, RF
Holliday, DH
Gregorius, SS
Headley, 1B
T. Frazier, 3B
Wade, 2B
Romine, C

Montgomery (6-5, 101.1 IP, 93 K, 32 BB, 4.09 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, .247/.305/.413)

The Little Things

The Yankees have had lots of disappointing losses over the past six weeks, so many that after a while it became pointless to label one or another as the “worst loss of the season.” Saturday night’s game in Seattle certainly doesn’t fit into that category, but I’m certain that several different Yankees went to bed wondering about what might have been, about all the small ripples that could’ve bent this game in New York’s favor.

Things begin nicely enough with a run in the second, but the manner in which the run came across is a bit troubling. Todd Frazier may have been acquired more to keep him from the Red Sox than for any benefit he may give the Yankees – so far that benefit is minimal – but he’s been struggling. He came to the plate in the second inning with no one out and runners on first and second, and wasted little time in killing the rally. After swinging through two pitches to dig an 0-2 hole, he bounced into a 5-4-3 double play. The run scored, but a big opportunity was missed. Todd Frazier likely did not sleep well last night.

Masahiro “Box of Chocolates” Tanaka was on the mound for the Yankees, and after two uneventful innings, things unravelled for him in the third. Mike Zunino led off the inning with a homer to tie the game at one, and two batters later Ben Gamel whacked a dinger of his own to give the Mariners a 2-1 lead. Tanaka rebounded by striking out Robinson Canó for the second out, but then there was an infield single by Nelson Crúz, a splitter that landed on Kyle Seager’s foot, and then consecutive RBI singles from Danny Valencia and Mitch Haniger. Tanaka threw 39 pitches and allowed four runs in the inning, adding to the confusion which swirls around the most enigmatic pitcher on the Yankee staff.

But then things got even more confusing for Tanaka. He set down the side in the fourth on just six pitches, then did the same in the fifth with only eight. He had to work just a bit harder in the sixth, but he still managed a one-two-three inning on thirteen pitches. If you happened to duck away from the game for some reason during the third inning, you probably think Tanaka had a brilliant outing, and except for that third inning he did. In his other five innings he faced just seventeen batters and allowed only two singles. In that fateful third frame, however, the Mariners sent all nine batters to the plate and produced three singles, two homers, and a hit batsman. Were it not for that inning, this would’ve been an easy win for the Yankees. Masahiro Tanaka likely did not sleep well last night.

After Tanaka righted the ship, the Yankee batters began to chip away at Seattle’s Ariel Miranda. They cut the lead to 4-2 in the fifth inning when Garrett Cooper tripled and came home on a sacrifice fly from Ronald Torreyes, and Aaron Judge lofted a ho-hum homer to right to make it 4-3 in the sixth.

In the eighth, another opportunity was missed. Brett Gardner singled with one out, bringing up Clint Frazier. (Yesterday, by the way, I campaigned for Frazier to continue playing over Jacoby Ellsbury; I can only assume that Girardi reads the Banter, because before Saturday’s game, the manager said he’d continue to play the youngster, and revealed he’d explained this to Ellsbury.)

Frazier looked at the first pitch he saw from Seattle reliever and former Yankee David Phelps and hit a laser that looked like it might make its way into the stands in left field. Instead the ball hit the yellow line that marks the top of the wall and fell to the turf for a double that pushed Gardner to third. Only two inches, perhaps, separated the Yankees from a 5-4 lead, but they’d at least get the tying run two batters later when Matt Holliday came up with the bases loaded and produced a sacrifice fly to right, scoring Gardner and moving Frazier to third.

Next up was Gary Sánchez. Last year’s phenom hasn’t matched the obscene numbers from his rookie campaign, but it could be because he seems to hit rockets into fielders’ gloves at least once or twice a game. Batting with two out and runners at the corners here in the eighth, he did it again. He sampled a 2-0 pitch and sent a rope out to right field that seemed certain to be an RBI single (or perhaps more), only to watch Haniger race in to snare it for the final out of the inning. An inch here or there and this would’ve been a huge inning. Clint Frazier and Gary Sánchez likely did not sleep well last night.

As the game moved into the bottom of the eighth, all signs seemed to favor the Yankees. With a relatively fresh holster of flame-throwing relievers, Girardi would be able to bring one in after another, casually putting zeroes up on the scoreboard as confidently as a riverboat gambler laying aces on the table. All he’d have to do was wait for the Yankee offense to scratch out another run before playing his final card and securing the win, right?

That idea lasted about thirty seconds. Fresh off Friday night’s dominant performance, David Robertson came in to face Canó as he led off the eighth. Robertson put a fastball exactly where he wanted it – at the knees and on the black – a perfect pitch that would’ve crippled any ordinary left-handed batter, producing a ground ball to second if he swung or an 0-1 count if he didn’t. Robinson Canó, however, is no ordinary hitter. He reached out across the plate with his smooth-as-molasses swing and served the ball out to left field. The ball carried deep and deeper until it finally settled into the stands for a home run and a 5-4 Seattle lead.

After following the path of the ball into the bleachers, Robertson immediately snapped his head back towards Sánchez in disbelief. The replay of Canó’s swing showed Sánchez equally surprised, turning his empty glove and his bare hand up to the heavens in the universal symbol for “what the hell just happened?” Robertson easily mowed through the next three batters, but the two continued discussing the pitch as soon as they got to the dugout. Afterwards Robertson admitted that he had put the pitch exactly where he wanted, but acknowledged he had simply been beaten by a great hitter. David Robertson likely did not sleep well last night.

So after scraping their way back into the game and looking poised to win, the Yankees were suddenly three outs away from defeat. Didi Gregorious led off the ninth with a walk, but when Todd Frazier fouled out, dropping his average to a lusty .201, and Chase Headley (batting for Cooper) flied out to center, the Yanks were down to their final out, and this is when the gears started turning.

Ronald Torreyes was headed to the plate, and Girardi could’ve pinch hit Ellsbury, but instead he chose to use Ellsbury to run for Gregorious, explaining afterwards that he felt like he needed to steal a base. I suppose the marginal upgrade in that spot outweighed what would be (sadly) a similarly marginal upgrade had he hit for Torreyes.

You probably already know that it worked out, and Torreyes drove in the tying run, but unless you were watching you don’t know how it happened. Torreyes, naturally, fell into an 0-2 hole, putting the Yankees even deeper into the jaws of defeat, but when Ellsbury stole second on the next pitch, suddenly there was a glimmer of hope. On a 1-2 count, Seattle closer Edwin Díaz threw a slider that darted away from Torreyes and into the opposite batter’s box. Having already committed to his swing before realizing he couldn’t possibly reach the pitch, Torreyes did the only thing he could do; he threw his bat at the ball, barely clipping it to stay alive. The bat came to rest just behind the pitcher’s mound, and Díaz politely retrieved it for him, only to have his next pitch rudely laced into left field, easily scoring Ellsbury with the tying run.

The bottom of the ninth inning was interesting for two reasons. First, all of Girardi’s maneuvering had left him with a makeshift infield: Todd Frazier was still at third, but Torreyes had moved over to short, Headley was placed at second for the first time in his major league career, and Austin Romine came in to play first. (Part of the problem was that Starlin Castro had been put on the disabled list earlier in the day, and his replacement, Tyler Wade, hadn’t been able to get to Seattle in time for the game; the Yankees were playing a man short.) The second interesting thing was Tommy Kahnle, who continues to be dominant. Guillermo Heredia reached on a hit by pitch (the play was upheld by review, but I still don’t believe the ball hit him), but Kahnle struck out the other three hitters he faced, something I think we’ll see a lot of over the course of the summer.

Home plate umpire Pat Hoberg decided to insert himself into the game during the tenth inning, and a disgruntled Yankee fan could easily argue that Hoberg decided the game. Clint Frazier led off the tenth against Tony Zych and worked his way into a 2-2 count. The next pitch came in low, probably an inch or two below the knees, but Hoberg saw it as a strike, and Frazier returned to the bench. Judge was up next and pushed the count full before taking a pitch and immediately tossing his bat back towards the Yankee dugout. He had taken three steps towards first before Hoberg rung him up for strike three. Perhaps more than any Yankee, Judge has a firm understanding of the strike zone, and this pitch was a clear ball, even a touch lower than the one which had victimized Frazier. So instead of having runners on first and second with no one out in the top of the tenth, the bases were empty with two outs. Holliday followed all that with a grounder to short, and the inning was done.

Adam Warren came in for the bottom of the tenth and was promptly touched for a loud double by Ben Gamel, and suddenly the game was there for Seattle’s taking. After an intentional walk to Canó, Nelson Crúz stepped to the plate looking to be the hero. The real hero, though, would be Hoberg. With the count 1-1, Warren threw a pitch at the knees, a pitch that appeared to be even a hair or two higher than the strikes to Frazier and Judge, but Hoberg didn’t flinch. He saw it low, and Gary Sánchez wasn’t happy about it. His body slumped in disbelief when he didn’t get the call, and he turned his head to bark at Hoberg twice before returning the ball to Warren. Still not satisfied, he got up from his crouch and said a few more words before finally sitting back down. I’d like to think that Hoberg gave him some leeway because he knew he had missed the call.

Ten seconds later the game was over. Swinging aggressively at a 2-1 pitch (instead of defensively, had the count been 1-2), Crúz lashed a single to right, and Gamel scored easily. Mariners 6, Yankees 5. I’d like to think that Pat Hoberg did not sleep well last night, but I’m guessing he probably slept like a baby.

If Friday night’s game was the blueprint for future success, Saturday night was the ghost of failures past. It was the fifth time the Yankees had been walked off, something that happened only four times last year, and it lowered their mark in one-run games to an abysmal 9-19.

The good news, of course, is that tomorrow is another day and another chance to win the series. It won’t be the most important game of their season, but it’s certainly a big one. Don’t worry, though, I feel a victory coming on, as likely as hot coffee on a rainy day in Seattle.

The Face of Things to Come

If the Yankees are going to track down the Red Sox and make a push towards more meaningful games in September and October, Friday night’s game in Seattle will serve as the blueprint, starting with the pitching.

After Luís Severino set the tone in the series opener and laid to rest any thoughts that he might not be the Yankees’ ace, the elder statesman of the staff came out and reminded fans that he’s far from done. CC Sabathia has battled well-publicized issues on and off the field over the past few years, so this season has been something of a revelation. He pitched to a 4.54 ERA from 2013-16, but on his 37th birthday, Carsten Charles earned his ninth win (matching his nine wins in 2016 and his total from ’14 and ’15) and lowered his ERA to 3.44.

In the first inning, however, it didn’t look like Sabathia would be in the mood to celebrate anything at night’s end. The first two batters went down harmlessly enough, but Robinson Canó singled and went to third on a booming single off the bat of Nelson Crúz. (How Crúz could end up at first after hitting a ball to the base of the wall is completely beyond me. Cadillac much?)

Sabathia did his best to get out of the jam by getting a ground ball from Kyle Seager that should’ve ended the inning were it not for the inexperience of Chad Headley at first base. The ball was hit hard to Headley’s right, but instead of leaving the ball for Starlin Castro, who was pulled over and deep in a shift for Seager, Headley took a dive and missed. When Castro fielded the ball easily, Headly had to scurry back to first to take the throw on the run while searching for the bag with his foot, something he’s likely never done at third base. He missed the bag, and the Mariners had a 1-0 lead.

Seattle had Andrew Moore on the mound, and in the third inning the Yankees began to take his measure. It was the bottom of the lineup that started things off. Headley set about redeeming his earlier misplay with a leadoff double to center, then came home on rocketed double to right center off the bat of Clint Frazier. A quick word about Frazier – there’s no way this kid should be going anywhere. Whether you want to believe the numbers or what you see with your eyes, he has the résumé of a major league ball player. In addition to this RBI double, he also produced a diving catch in left that would fit comfortably on any outfielder’s highlight reel. I understand that Jacoby Ellsbury is making roughly forty times Frazier’s salary, but is there anyone out there who thinks Ellsbury is the better player? Anyone?

But back to our game. That Frazier double tied the game at one, and after a fly out from Brett Gardner and a walk to Gary Sánchez, Aaron Judge came to the plate with runners at the corners. Judge got a good pitch to hit from Moore, but he just missed squaring it up – and lofted a sac fly to the wall in center field. It was 2-1, Yanks, but there would be more from Judge later on.

Sabathia, meanwhile, was fighting through his start. He wouldn’t allow a run after that first inning, but there was a loud double from Ben Gamel in the second, and then a walk and a hit batsman in the third. It wasn’t easy, but then suddenly it was. After hitting Seager, Sabathia coasted through the next eight batters, striking out four of them.

Normally, that would be the story of the game, but Aaron Judge simply isn’t normal. Judge came to the plate in the fifth inning with one out and runners on first and third and watched the first two pitches sail outside the zone. He fouled off a 2-0 fastball and was clearly frustrated that he had missed his pitch, possibly also frustrated that it had been ten games since his last home run.

He didn’t miss the next pitch. Moore left a slider up around the belt and on the inside half of the plate, and Judge hit a ball as hard and as far as any he hit during last week’s Home Run Derby. Everyone in the park knew it was gone immediately, so Judge took a glance towards left field during his followthrough, but his head was down before leaving the batter’s box, and he didn’t look up again until rounding first, long after the ball had been caught by a fan in the upper reaches of the upper deck. Another ten feet and it would’ve left the stadium, a feat not accomplished in the eleven-year history of Safeco Field.

How prodigious was this home run? It was too big for Statcast, which couldn’t track the blast. (The Twitterverse ate this up, by the way.) With no high-tech data, people were forced to do it the old-fashioned way, with Mariners’ PR people offering a ludicrous estimate of 415 feet before someone, somewhere, settled on 437, a guess which calls to mind our President’s estimates of his Inauguration crowd.

But as many have said, it’s probably better this way. The Legend of Judge grew a few sizes on Friday night, and on Saturday people will take selfies in the seat where the ball landed and an intern will no doubt be dispatched with a tape measure, just like the days of Jimmy Foxx and Mickey Mantle.

Oh, and another thing – don’t worry too much about Judge and his second-half slump. The big fella appears to be just fine.

The scoring was done for the night, thanks mostly to the Yankee bullpen. Sabathia walked the leadoff batter in the sixth inning, and Joe Girardi didn’t hesitate, jumping at the chance to unwrap the back end of his bullpen, gifts that just keep on giving. First up was Tommy Kanhle, who touched 100MPH on the gun while setting down all three batters he faced, and then David Robertson and his high socks took the seventh and struck out the side. (Welcome back!)

Dellin Betances had the eighth and worked around a double and a single before giving way to Adam Warren who faced just three batters in the ninth. In total, the bullpen logged four innings and struck out six while yielding just three hits.

So this 5-1 Yankee win is the blueprint for how the team might climb over the Red Sox and back into the division lead. Of course, before we start thinking about division flags and playoff rotations, these Yankees have to win a series, something they haven’t done since early June. This is the time.

Out of the Wilderness

Sevy

My son and I went to see the Yankees play in nearby Anaheim on the night of June 12, and it couldn’t have been better. Angels Stadium was overrun with Yankee fans, a boisterous group who came to praise Aaron Judge and bury the past few seasons of Yankee mediocrity. All of us got what we came for as Judge launched a homer to put the game away (eliciting chants of M!V!P!, right there in Mike Trout’s house) and the Bombers won their fifth straight game, reaching a high-water mark for the season at 38-23.

What’s happened since has been well documented. The seven-game losing streak that began on June 13 was just a taste of the slide yet to come. The Yankees have won neither a series nor consecutive games since then, wandering through the wilderness on a 10-22 streak that threatens to erase all the hard work and good fortune of April and May, and eliminate any hope for October.

Thank the Ghosts for Luís Severino. Feel free to fall in love with Aaron Judge if you haven’t already, keep holding that torch for Gary Sánchez, and lament all you want about Clint Frazier’s impending demotion, but Severino deserves as much hype as those three. (The next Core Four? Dare we dream so big so soon?)

Severino opposed the Mariners’ Felix Hernández, who is somehow already 31, and the two of them traded zeroes through the game’s first five innings. The Yankee hitters offered little resistance, earning just a second-inning walk, a third-inning single, and a walk that produced a fourth-inning double play. Early on, it was just another one of those games where you sat wondering how they’d ever manage to score.

Thinks weren’t quite that easy for Severino, but he rose to the occasion when challenged, aided by a fastball that’s rapidly become one of the best weapons in the league. (By the way, here’s an interesting article in which Tom Verducci explains that even though Yankee pitchers have the highest average velocity on their fastballs, no staff in baseball throws as few fastballs as they do, a trend that seems to be spreading throughout baseball.) But back to Severino. He blazed a 99-MPH fastball past Kyle Seager with runners on first and second to end the first, induced a pop-up from Mike Zunino to end the second with a runner on third, and wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth by victimizing Jean Segura, showcasing 100-MPH heat just off the plate before using a curve to induce a feeble ground ball to short.

The spell was finally broken in the top of the sixth. Five minutes before midnight Eastern Stadium Time, Brett Gardner crushed King Felix’s ninetieth pitch, launching it deep into the Seattle night for a 1-0 Yankee lead. It still seems odd to see Gardner hitting no-doubters, as he occasionally does, but that’s what this was. Hernández was cursing himself before finishing his follow-through, Gardner was in his home run trot just a step out of the batter’s box, and Robinson Canó immediately began examining the dirt between his feet at second base. No doubt.

But would that single run be enough? Severino came back out and immediately took the game by the throat, retiring the Mariners on ten dominant pitches in the sixth and just eleven in the seventh. How good has Severino been lately? In his last two starts, opposing Chris Sale in Boston and King Felix in Seattle, his numbers are impressive: 14 IP/12 H/1 R/3 BB/12 K/1.07 WHIP/0.64 ERA. The Yankees may be sliding, but Severino is riding a personal three-game winning streak.

In the top of the eighth the Yankee hitters scratched out another run, but that single run should’ve been so much more. Aaron Judge found himself at the plate with the bases loaded and only one out, and I found myself irrationally hoping for a grand slam that would ice the game and soothe any concerns about Judge’s current slide. Instead it was a soft liner into right that moved everyone along ninety feet. If it were a fish you wouldn’t throw it back, but you wouldn’t mount it on the wall either. Matt Holiday came up next and grounded into a third-to-first double play, and the inning was over. (Side Note #1: Seattle’s Tony Zych faced the final three batters of that inning, and to confirm what you’re wondering, I looked it up. Assuming they still publish a hard copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia, Zych would be on the very last page. Side Note #2: On the first page of that volume you’ll find one-time Seattle pitcher David Aardsma, meaning that the Mariners are the alpha and omega of Major League Baseball. Kind of.)

Severino had thrown an easy 100 pitches over seven frames, and even though it might’ve been nice to send him out for the bottom of the eighth and squeeze another inning out of him, it seemed the perfect time for Joe Girardi to take advantage of his shiny new bullpen (The Embarrassment of Pitches?). I expected to see our old friend David Robertson in the eighth inning role, but Delin Betances came in instead. Even though the boxscore makes it look like he struggled, it wasn’t that serious. Sure, the hit by pitch was concerning, but the single that followed was just a harmless ground ball that found its way between Castro and Headley, and were it not for a botched double play, the inning could’ve been over a batter earlier than it was. (It also could’ve been much worse; that botched double play went to review, and I was ready for them to rule that Castro hadn’t actually secured the (wild) throw from Betances and put the runner back on second, loading the bases with just one out, but the ruling came down in favor of the Yankees.) The inning ended uneventfully.

Even after Double Agent Cano gift-wrapped two runs with a throwing error in top of the ninth, doubling the Yankee lead to 4-0, Girardi still sent Aroldis Chapman out to pitch the ninth, no doubt hoping to get his closer straightened out. That didn’t happen. If you weren’t watching, you still know exactly what it looked like. The fastball was live, but there was no control. He walked Mike Zunino to lead things off, then two pitches later he missed his target by about four feet, blazing a fastball past a lunging Sánchez for a wild pitch that sent Zunino to second. Chapman recovered to strike out Jean Segura and Ben Gamel, but it took 14 pitches for him to slog through those two at bats, and it didn’t seem that much had been straightened out. Due next was Canó, who reached to his shoes to slash at a slider and lace a double to the gap in right center, driving in a run and shrewdly maintaining his cover. The next batter popped up harmlessly to the right side, and the game was done. Yankees 4, Mariners 1.

Ah, but tomorrow night brings the question the Yankees haven’t been able to answer since that night in Anaheim more than five weeks ago. Can they win two games in a row? Tomorrow night they will. Book it.

A Day to Remember, A Moment to Forget

Fowler

Imagine for just a minute that you’re Dustin Fowler. As the 2017 season unfolds, you watch as one of your former minor league teammates becomes the biggest star in baseball, and as spring ripens into summer, one prospect after another climbs through the ranks and debuts in New York. Undaunted, you continue to grind at AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, putting together a season that turns heads and has many observers wondering when you might join the rest of the Baby Bombers at the major league level.

In late June your hard work pays off. On Wednesday night your manager pulls you aside and tells you that tomorrow will be your day. Instead of riding the team bus to Thursday night’s game in Syracuse, you’ll be hopping a plane to Chicago and the major leagues. To make the day even more special, you get word on Thursday afternoon that you’ve been named an International League All-Star. For a moment you wonder about the league All Star Game, but it only takes seconds before you realize that you’d trade twenty minor league all star games for just one game in the show.

Your parents can’t make it to Chicago for the game, but when you arrive at the stadium and see your road jersey hanging in a locker marked “Fowler,” your parents are the only thing you can think of. Just as it still is for millions of kids across America, your baseball journey began with your parents. Games of catch with your father in the waning twilight after work, countless rides to practice and games, rolls of quarters and trips to the batting cages, and on and on and on. Because they were there then, you are here now.

It doesn’t take long for the media to find you during warm ups, and you answer different versions of the same question with different versions of the same answer. “It’s hard to put into words how excited I am,” you explain, “but it’s great to be here. It’s what I’ve worked for my whole life, and I’m just excited to get my career started.”

Before you know it the game arrives. A two hour and fifty minute rain delay does nothing to dampen your spirits, and when you sprint onto the field to take your position in right field before the bottom of the first inning, you float. After two quick outs Jose Abreu flicks a fly ball in your direction down the right field line. You take off after the ball in a flash, just as you’ve tracked thousands upon thousands of fly balls. There’s no thought, only reaction laced with twenty-two-year-old adrenaline, and before you know it the stands are rushing towards you far faster than they should. The ball you’ve been chasing curls harmlessly into the seats just as your body slams into the restraining wall. You’ll shake it off like you’ve shaken off so many bumps and bruises, but then your right foot hits the ground and you collapse in a heap.

Before you realize what’s happening, you’re surrounded by teammates and coaches and trainers. Steve Donohue crouches down and examines your knee while Joe Girardi buries his face in his hands, wiping tears from a face that’s seen fifty years of baseball. Veterans and rookies who had celebrated your arrival only hours before, form a circle of sorrow around you. Their words are positive and encouraging, but you see something different in their eyes. When they look at you they see Moonlight Graham, a player who came and went on this very day in 1905.

And then you’re on a cart driving out of the stadium with your knee in a splint and your heart in your mouth, the day your whole life has been pointing towards suddenly crashing down around you.

The game, of course, continues without you. Your team had taken advantage of an error to grab a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, but the White Sox jump back with two runs in the second, a rally made possible when your replacement, Rob Refsnyder, simply drops a fly ball. Your Yankees never lead after that, and nothing much of interest happens the rest of the away aside from a spotless performance from the much maligned bullpen (3.1 innings pitched, one hit, zero runs, zero walks, five strikeouts), and the curious case of Aaron Judge.

You know Judge well and nothing he’s doing surprises you, but as you listen to the end of the game while being prepped for surgery on your torn patella tendon, two things strike you as odd. First, with two outs in the seventh and the bases empty, Judge draws an intentional walk, making him only the third player this season to get a free pass with no one on board. That’s certainly strange, but in the ninth inning something happens that doesn’t fit the game you’ve grown up with.

After getting the first two outs of the inning, White Sox closer David Robertson gives up a clean single to Brett Gardner, setting up a showdown with Judge, and this is where things stop making sense. Even though the speedy Gardner carries the tying run in his pocket, the White Sox choose not to hold him on. Even though the speedy Gardner carries the tying run in his pocket and isn’t being held on by the White Sox, the Yankees choose not to have him steal second. The White Sox want Girardi to send Gardner, which would open up first base and allow them to walk Judge, but Girardi doesn’t take the bait. Judge eventually strikes out to end the game, but it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.

The final score of the game is White Sox 4, Yankees 3, and the Yankees have fallen out of first place, but as the anesthesia creeps into your lungs and begins to fog your mind, your last conscious thought is for yourself. Again you see Abreu’s fly ball slicing off his bat, but this time it stays in play, this time you easily gather it in, this time you trot down the line towards the dugout, your adrenaline rising as each step brings you closer to your first major league at bat.

Good Bye, Alex

ARod

I was at a baseball card show in the winter of 1996, and I crossed paths with Alex Rodríguez. He had just spent a few hours signing autographs, and was wandering the floor of the convention hall, sifting through baseball history laid out on 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inch pieces of cardboard.

I didn’t like him. He wasn’t a Yankee, but more importantly, he wasn’t Derek Jeter. In those early days of the late 90s, Jeter and A-Rod were intertwined (along with Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra) as the glamour shortstops of the day. You couldn’t read a feature article about one without seeing references and comparisons to the other, and they were often side by side on magazine covers ranging from Sports Illustrated to GQ. (Looking at one of those covers in April of 2000, my wife casually mentioned that A-Rod was better looking. What’s interesting is that I wasn’t bothered that she was saying this about another man, I was bothered that she had chosen him over Jeter.)

But it didn’t take me long to come around once he inevitably arrived in New York, so I’m sad to see him go. No story about Alex Rodríguez will ever be written without mention of his PED issues, both his admission to use in Texas and his season-long suspension in 2014, but those high profile scandals were only the most egregious missteps of a career fraught with controversy. Whether he was posing shirtless on the rocks in Central Park, commissioning a portrait of himself as a centaur, or dating Madonna, he was as bad at publicity as he was good at hitting a baseball.

But there was baseball drama as well — he scuffled with Jason Varitek, he slapped a ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove, and even yelled (“Ha!“) at two infielders who were trying to field a pop-up — and those childish antics couldn’t have endeared him to his bosses. What other elite player in the prime of his career would ever be slotted eighth in the lineup in a playoff elimination game? Only Alex. What other elite player would force his general manager to publicly tell him to “Shut the fuck up“? Only Alex.

He was the most talented player in baseball, and probably the most insecure. Four or five years ago, back when he was still one of the most feared hitters in the game, rather than posing after hitting a majestic home run, A-Rod would instead snap his head to the right and look immediately into his own dugout, preferring to watch the celebration of his teammates rather than the flight of the baseball. Even with hundreds of home runs on the back of his baseball card, he still needed the approval of his peers.

Somehow all of this made me love him. His tragic flaws could’ve been penned by Shakespeare, and just as Hamlet and Othello were doomed, A-Rod’s destiny was always written in the stars, and once again that destiny was intertwined with Jeter, now his teammate. When the Captain notched his 3,000th hit with a home run, the world stopped and grown men cried; when A-Rod matched that feat with a home run of his own a few years later, his teammates stood on the top step and applauded politely. When Jeter left the game he did so with a season-long parade; A-Rod’s announcement on Sunday morning put an end to what had been a month-long march into oblivion. Yes, Rodríguez was always a superstar, but he was never beloved.

But as you might expect from a player as complicated as this, there’s much more to A-Rod’s legacy. We’ve always heard about his ability as a teacher of the game, and on Sunday morning manager Joe Girardi credited Alex for elevating Robinson Canó from an average hitter to a superstar. We’ve seen A-Rod laughing with the younger players on the bench, and Girardi talked about that also, remembering the sound of their laughter echoing from the clubhouse down the hall to his office. And the general manager who publicly feuded with his all-star third baseman? When asked about A-Rod’s legacy as a Yankee, Brian Cashman didn’t mention any of the controversies. Instead he pulled an enormous championship ring from his finger and dramatically slapped it down on the podium. “That’s the ’09 ring. That doesn’t come along to this franchise’s trophy case without Alex’s contributions, significant contributions.” (A-Rod slashed .365/.500/.808 and hit six home runs during that postseason.)

This is the way it is with retirements. We gloss over or choose to forget the negatives and instead accentuate the positives. Not even in your line of work do people stand up and complain about the boss who made them stay late on a Friday night. But there was something genuine in the voices at the podium on Sunday. The tears that welled in Girardi’s eyes weren’t manufactured, and Cashman wasn’t exaggerating when he threw down that ring.

Somehow A-Rod had mended those relationships, and somehow he made me a fan as well, even though I know that doesn’t make sense. He cheated and lied, he squeezed every penny he could out of the Yankees, and he embarrassed the franchise on several occasions, but there was still something about him that allowed me to overlook all that. More accurately, I was able to accept all of that as well as his other weaknesses. He was human, and he gave proof of that humanity with each misstep. His personality flaws were on display for all to see, but he never shied from the spotlight.

It will likely take decades for baseball fans and historians to reconcile A-Rod’s momentous statistics with the reality of this Steroid Era, but right now I can say two things. I’m glad he was a Yankee, and I miss him already.

Sunday in the Park

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[Yesterday was no good, so let’s join our man Hank from two days ago instead.—AB]

Because it’s summer, and because it’s baseball, my son Henry and I hopped on a train from Anaheim to San Diego to catch the Yankees against the Padres in a Sunday afternoon matinee. The drive from L.A. to San Diego can be painless or soul-crushing depending on traffic, so I felt like I was already ahead when we settled into our luxuriously large seats on the top deck of Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner headed down the coast. It would be the most relaxing two-hour drive imaginable.

Folks on the East Coast probably take the train regularly or even daily, but in California it will always be a novelty, with the trip as much fun as the destination. The first family we saw on the train was a young Amish couple with an infant and two toddlers. They sat facing each other across a table with a deck of cards to pass the time. It was as if Amtrak had hired them to enhance the already quaint atmosphere. We were headed to San Diego, but we’d taken a detour through Lancaster County.

As the train rumbled down the California coast, sometimes only inches from the sand, we sped past children building castles, couples flying kites, and surfers riding waves, and my son asked the questions he usually asks. Who is my favorite Yankee now that Derek Jeter has retired? Who is the best player on the team? Who do I hope hits a home run today? Difficult questions all.

We walked off the train in downtown San Diego at 10:15, giving us just enough time to grab breakfast (chilaquiles and pancakes for me, chorizo and eggs for Henry) before heading to the ballpark. Petco Field is absolutely amazing. I had been there once before for a night game, but it simply must be seen during the day, when it sparkles like the jewel that it is. The stands weren’t yet open when we arrived at 11:30, but the grounds were already buzzing. Children played whiffle ball in a mini-Petco, families laid out picnic blankets on a large green overlooking the field, adorable dogs and cats sat waiting for adoption, and to complete the carnival atmosphere, a man on stilts walked through the crowd giving directions.

A bronze statue of Mr. Padre himself, Tony Gwynn, stood atop a hill overlooking it all, and as Henry and I made the short climb to pay tribute, I explained to him that Gwynn was not just the greatest Padre ever, he was probably the best pure hitter of a baseball I had ever seen.

When the attendant finally raised the gate and allowed the patrons into the park, we walked the concourse and headed to our seats — Row 21 behind the Yankees’ first base dugout. Always the rule follower, Henry wanted to find our seats and immediately sit down, but I guided him instead towards the field, pointing out players that he knew — Michael Pineda here, Masahiro Tanaka there. But then I saw someone that he didn’t know but who had been larger than life in my childhood — Reggie Jackson. He stood on the dirt in front of the dugout wearing a blue golf shirt and a white Yankee cap, having a conversation with an official while casually catching baseballs from fans, scrawling out his signature, and tossing them back.

“That’s Reggie Jackson, Henry. He’s one of the best players ever to play for the Yankees.”

“Can we get his autograph?”

I didn’t know. I had nothing but a scorebook for him to sign, and that didn’t make much sense, so we sprinted up the steps and looked for a souvenir stand with a baseball. We bought a San Diego All-Star Game commemorative ball for nine bucks, headed back, and found that the crowd had more than doubled in size. I stood behind two or three rows of people and noticed that Reggie was more involved in his conversation than he had been before. He was talking, only signing occasionally. It didn’t look hopeful.

“Will he sign it?”

“I don’t know. Keep your fingers crossed.”

“Hey, Reggie,” I called down to him. When he looked up, I held the ball in my hand and shook it, like a pitcher asking the umpire for another ball. He pointed directly at me, I threw him a strike, and he returned it with his autograph, just as Henry had hoped. (Not until typing that last sentence did I realize that I played catch with Reggie Jackson, which is pretty cool.)

“You da man, Reg! You da man!”

And he kept signing, working his way down the left field line for thirty minutes or so.

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The game was still an hour away, but we’d already gotten our money’s worth, especially considering my expectations were rather low. These have been troubling times for the Yankees, but I still watch. This team doesn’t deserve to be in the playoffs, and as we sat in the park where the All Star Game will be held, it was hard to find a Yankee who deserved a return trip next week.

But there will always be hope. The 28th World Series win is always on the horizon, it just seems like that horizon is farther away than most would like. Even so, as we settled into the stands we were surrounded by Yankee fans. To my left was an older gentleman from the Bronx wearing a Staten Island Yankees cap and spinning stories of players from fifty years ago. “Mickey Mantle, Moose Skowron, Tommy Tresh… The good ol’ days!”

Rookie Chad Green gave us a peek at the good ol’ days that might lie ahead as he dominated the Padre hitters with a fastball that sat in the low to mid 90s and a brand new cutter that produced eight strikeouts over six innings. (The Yankee rotation has been a train wreck all season long, so it was no surprise that Green was given Nathan Eovaldi’s slot the morning after this performance.)

Meanwhile the Yankee hitters were showing minor signs of life while allowing Padre starter Andrew Cashner to wriggle off the hook time and time again. Didi Gregorius (one of Henry’s favorites) delighted the Yankee crowd with a laser that slipped just inside the foul pole for a home run and a 2-1 lead in the fourth, and for the next three innings it looked like that was all the offense would be able to muster.

As Mark Teixeira walked to the plate to lead off the eighth inning, a chorus of grumbling rippled through the crowd. He had struck out three times already, and at no point in any of those at bats did he look remotely comfortable. It wasn’t just that he was swinging and missing, he was flailing and missing. My friend from the Bronx was disgusted.

“Here comes Teixeira to strike out again.”

I wasn’t as pessimistic as he, but I couldn’t argue. As if on cue, Teixeira swung at the second pitch and popped up a ball to short right field. We thought. It was a towering fly, but for some reason right fielder Matt Kemp kept drifting back and drifting back and… finally the ball settled into the seats for a home run. I stood with outstretched arms as if I had witnessed a miracle.

Joe Girardi sent Alex Rodríguez to pinch hit to lead off the ninth. (A quick word about the lack of the DH. This was my first time scoring a game in a National League park, and it makes for a messy scorebook. Just another reason to bring the DH to the senior circuit.)

But back to A-Rod. Love him or hate him, he’s the ultimate lightning rod. He hopped out of the dugout as soon as the Yankees came off the field, and the show began. Yankee fans recognized him right away and stood to get photos on cell phones and iPads, but it wasn’t until his name was announced that the Padre fans began their booing. More than at any point in the game, the park was alive, and each of his mighty swings drew a surge of electricity from the crowd until he finally grounded out harmlessly to first for the first out of the ninth.

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After Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner reached base with a walk and a single, it looked like the Yankees might be rallying, but my friend wasn’t hopeful. “Teixeira will probably ground into a double play.”

“Don’t worry, he’s hot now!” I was obviously joking, but the words had only just escaped my mouth before Teixeira pounded the first pitch he saw deep to right center for a three-run homer and a 6-1 lead. I could only doff my cap in respect as Big Tex rounded the bases celebrating his 401st career home run, those three helpless strikeouts a distant memory.

Coming into the game I had hoped to get an up close look at the Big Three. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller had pitched the seventh and eighth, but now Aroldis Chapman wouldn’t be needed. Until he was. Anthony Swarzak yielded a two-run bomb to Alex Dickerson, and Chapman was in the game before the ball landed in the stands. After a fly ball to center, a strikeout, and a weak ground out to third, the game was done. Yankees 6, Padres 3.

Even in this dark season, there is still hope. Rookies still dazzle, sluggers still hit homers, relievers still hurl hundred mile per hour fastballs, heroes still sign autographs, and fathers still take sons to the ballpark. Baseball is still baseball.

As we walked from the park to the train reviewing all that happened, Henry asked what my favorite part had been.

“That’s easy. Spending the day with you.”

“Yeah, me too.”

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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

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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

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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

CC

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

659

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.

No Horseplay, Please.

KelleyHorse

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

Kelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP Photo]

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