For the past two years, in mid-August the Minnesota Twins have been competitive enough to defuse the inevitable Brett Favre melodrama. Favre is out — supposedly — Donovan McNabb is in, and Republican presidential hopefuls who win straw polls in neighboring Iowa and confuse celebrity birthdays and deathdays are providing the melodrama. The Twins, they entered tonight’s game 15 games under .500, 11 games behind the division-leading Detroit Tigers, almost irrelevant in the AL Central.
But for the Yankees, the Minnesota Twins are relevant. They’re on the list of “teams we should beat whenever, wherever” en route to the postseason. Thursday night, with C.C. Sabathia on the mound, mission accomplished. Friday night, with Phil Hughes going, the team performance was even more impressive.
First let’s take the offense. The first time through the batting order, Derek Jeter, Robinson Canó, Nick Swisher and J Martin were the only Yankees to swing at the first pitch against Kevin Slowey, who was making his first start of the season for the Twins (his previous six appearances had been in relief). None of the four first-pitch swingers put the ball in play. Martin was the only one to keep his in fair territory, however. He crushed a hanging curveball into the leftfield seats not unlike someone named Trevor Plouffe did in the first inning for the Twins.
Martin’s solo home run tied the game and allowed the offense to collectively exhale and get into the rhythm. They scored a run in the fourth and in the fifth, which Martin led off with a single, the top of the order wore out Slowey. With Gardner on first base (he reached on a fielder’s choice), Jeter squibbed a single up the middle on an 0-2 pitch. The at-bat may have been the turning point in the game. It set up first-and third with one out, and Curtis Granderson followed with a double that tightroped the first base line and skidded off the bag before barreling into the rightfield corner. Gardner scored, Jeter to third. Mark Teixeira followed with a sac fly to make it 4-1 and the Score Truck had a head of steam. The coup de grace came in the sixth, as J Martin unloaded again. This time, it was a two-run shot to left that broke the game open. With Scott Brosius doing a guest spot in the YES booth in that same half-inning, it seemed fitting that the best No. 9 hitter in recent Yankee memory observed the current No. 9 hitter have arguably his best offensive night as a Yankee. The Yankees posted another two-spot in the ninth inning to complete the rout at 8-1.
Now, let’s take the pitching, specifically Phil Hughes’s outing. Despite Freddy Garcia’s placement on the disabled list and what that means for the temporary settlement of a five-man rotation, Hughes still has pressure on him. Every start is an audition to present his case to remain in the rotation through September and into October. Given what happened in Boston when he appeared in relief, perhaps Hughes has readjusted his brain chemistry to be a starting pitcher.
Hughes cruised much the way he did in Chicago on August 2. He pounded the strike zone with his fastball, changed speeds effectively, and maintained his aggressiveness with two strikes. That aggressiveness didn’t manifest itself in strikeouts as it had in Hughes’s previous two starts against Chicago and Tampa Bay, but it did lead to weak contact and routine outs. Between the home run he allowed to Plouffe in the first inning and the walk he issued to Plouffe to lead off the seventh, Hughes only allowed one Twin to reach base.
Joe Girardi allowed Hughes to start the eighth, and pitcher rewarded manager by retiring the first batter. The next two at-bats didn’t go quite as well. Luke Hughes (no relation) singled to left on a 1-2 curveball and Tsuyoshi Nishioka followed with a screaming liner that caught Gardner in left more than Gardner caught the ball. That was it for Hughes.
Credit Girardi for relieving Hughes when he did — not because of the pitch count, but because in the last eight batters he faced, Hughes issued two walks, a hit, and a loud out. Overall, Hughes was as dominant as he was in the rain-shortened effort against the White Sox. He is 3-0 in his last three decisions as a starter and his fourth straight quality start. Since returning from the DL on July 6, he’s lowered his ERA from Chien-Ming Wang (13.94) to Sergio Mitre (5.75).
All signs point to Hughes being on the right track.
J Martin said of Hughes, “He’s progressing late in the season. You’d rather have somebody peaking late than peaking too early.”
CURRYING FAVOR FOR GRANDY
Curtis Granderson figured prominently in the Yankees victory, yet again. Midway through the game, Jack Curry joined Michael Kay and John Flaherty in the YES broadcast booth and Curry asked Kay if he had an MVP vote, who he would vote for. Kay believed that Adrian Gonzalez would win, because his batting average entering Friday’s action was more than 60 points higher than Granderson. Curry said he’d vote for Granderson.
But there’s a catch.
Six years ago, I wrote a column arguing that Baseball Prospectus’s VORP statistic should be the primary determinant in MVP voting. If that were to hold true this season, Jose Bautista would win, as his VORP total is 69.2 to Granderson’s 57.6. Bautista’s batting average is .314 to Granderson’s .284, he leads the American League in home runs (35), on-base percentage (.455), slugging percentage (.638) and OPS (1.093). The Sabermetricians would put Bautista as the MVP. In terms of VORP, Gonzalez ranks fourth on his team.
So where’s the line? Granderson, compared to Gonzalez and Bautista, is a different offensive player. Not better, but different. Speed adds that other dimension. Perhaps the speed makes Granderson a more complete offensive threat. That completeness is what swayed Jack Curry.
The bottom line: the decision will be subjective, and bias will be involved. If Granderson isn’t the league MVP this season he’s definitely been the MVY (Most Valuable Yankee).