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Rays-ing to the Occasion

On my way home from work, I flipped on ESPN Radio as Michael Kay was interviewing Andy Pettitte. Midway through the conversation, Kay asked Pettitte which was the bigger priority: simply making the playoffs, or winning the division.

Pettitte’s answer was telling.

“Obviously, you just want to get to the dance,” he said. “But as for me, I want to win the (American League) East. I think we’re the best team in the East, so why not go out and win it?”

Pettitte has been a part of 11 playoff teams, including 8 Division winners, in his Yankee career. Certain Yankee players, and definitely manager Joe Girardi, would not be as candid as Pettitte in their replies to a similar question. So to hear that level of honesty was refreshing.

And for the first part of this four-game grudge match against the Tampa Bay Rays, Pettitte’s teammates have answered the call to push for a division title. Tuesday’s 8-3 win increased the Yankees’ AL East cushion to 2.5 games, thereby guaranteeing that they’ll be in first place when the Red Sox enter town this weekend to close out the home schedule. The Orioles’ 9-1 romp at Fenway put the Red Sox a little further in the rearview mirror.

Speaking of the Red Sox, these Yankees-Rays series are bearing a strong resemblance to the classic Yankees-Red Sox battles in the late 1990s through the middle part of this past decade, aren’t they? The games are long, action-packed, loaded with playoff-level intensity. You could sense that even games like this one, where the Yankees sprinted to a 5-0 lead after one inning, would have its share of nerve-wracking moments. The Rays have made a habit of coming back from big deficits, home-run prone Phil Hughes was on the mound, and Mariano Rivera was likely unavailable after throwing 25 pitches Monday.

I’ll admit it: I’m still not sure what Hughes will provide on a per-start basis other than throwing a lot of pitches, give up a home run or three, and maybe last five or six innings. Based on his last few outings, what I wanted to watch closely on Tuesday was his handling of batters once he got ahead in the count, specifically 0-and-2. He had six 0-2 counts, and allowed two walks, a loud flyout to right, and had three strikeouts. Hughes struck out six overall.

Hughes demonstrated a level of guts that proved why he will likely be in the starting rotation come October. There were three specific occasions where Hughes went into “grind” mode:

1) Top 3, Yankees up 5-1, two out. After Hughes issued a wild pitch on ball four to Carl Crawford that allowed the lead runner to advance to third, Evan Longoria delivered an RBI single to cut the lead to three. That brought the tying run to the plate in the form of Dan Johnson, who hit two prodigious home runs off Hughes last Thursday in St. Petersburg. Hughes won this battle, getting Johnson to ground out to Mark Teixeira to end the threat.

2) Top 4, Yankees still up 5-2, one out. BJ Upton bounced back to Hughes for what should have been an inning-ending 1-6-3 double play, but they only got the force at second, thanks to a gross miscommunication at second base between Robinson Canó and Derek Jeter. Knowing his trusted middle infield tandem gave the Rays an extra out, Hughes had the demeanor of Dante from “Clerks” for the next two batters (“I’m not even supposed to BE here today.”), loading the bases on a single to Jason Bartlett and a walk to John Jaso. Two pitches later, Hughes got out of the jam by inducing a soft grounder to first from Ben Zobrist.

3) Top 6, Yankees still up 5-2, two out. Hughes reared back and fired a 92-mph, Eff-You fastball right down the pipe that Upton swung through.

That pitch had the look of being Hughes’s last one of the night … until Girardi sent him out there for the seventh. My first thought: “Bad Idea Jeans.” Sure enough, Bartlett led off with a single and advanced to second on Jaso’s groundout. Girardi then removed Hughes for Javier Vazquez. My first thought: “Bad Idea Jeans.” And sure enough, Carl Crawford floated a single to left to drive in Bartlett and bring up Longoria with Vazquez and his intimidating array of whiffleball pitches keeping the lead intact. It should be noted that at this point, I was mentally prepared to scrap my original angle and rewrite the recap featuring an all-out assault on Girardi’s bullpen management, but Vazquez got Longoria to hit the ball on the ground. Inning over. Quality start preserved, lead preserved.

The offense responded with two more runs, only to have Vazquez and Joba Chamberlain do their best impressions of John Wettleand circa 1996 on the Rays’ next turn at bat. Chamberlain, with the bases loaded and one out, Houdinied his way out of it by striking out pinch-hitter Brad Hawpe and getting Jaso to fly out to center.

An extra insurance run in the eighth courtesy of back-to-back two-out doubles by Brett Gardner and Jeter provided the final margin, as Chamberlain pitched a stress-free ninth. Not until that last out was recorded, though, was there any relief.

Pettitte believes the Yankees have the best team in the division. They may be, provided they maintain the level of production in clutch situations they showed Tuesday — 5-for-10 with runners in scoring position, seven runs scored with two outs — continue to receive quality starts through the rest of the rotation and get capable relief pitching.

A sweep, which is still in the offing, would almost solidify Pettitte’s theory.

Hey Mac, Take Us to the Playoffs and Step on it

Big Game James. I’m not buyin’ it, man. There’s only one Big Game James to my way of thinking and he didn’t play baseball.

Hughesie needs a good outing and a win.

Let’s Go Yan-Kees!

[Picture by Bags]

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