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Flying J, the Score Truck, and a Live Arm

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.

Russell Martin

Russell Martin had three hits, scored twice and drove in three runs. (Photo Credit / Getty Images)

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.

Curtis Granderson

Curtis Granderson reached base four times and scored another run Friday. (AP Photo)

Traditionally, the Triple Crown categories have swayed the writers’ vote for Most Valuable Player. If that were to hold true this year, Granderson holds the edge over Gonzalez in both home runs and RBIs. He also has scored more runs than Gonzalez (113 to 81), and has a higher slugging percentage (.596 to .543), and OPS (.973 to .950). Granderson also leads the American League in triples and has 23 stolen bases. His 113 runs scored lead all of baseball, as do his 12 home runs against left-handed pitchers. The only thing Granderson hasn’t done is hit for average. With that in mind, I’ve thought that if Granderson finishes the season within 10 points of .300 on either side, he has a chance to win the MVP.

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).

Delay of Game

AJ Burnett

AJ Burnett is now 31-33 since joining the Yankees.

AJ Burnett is like a golfer who shoots good scores, but has two or three bad holes per round that sully the scorecard. Friday night’s start was indicative of just that. Burnett, for the most part, was solid against a Baltimore Orioles lineup that has some punch. He pitched eight innings, struck out a season-high 10 batters, and walked only two. He ended five of the eight innings with strikeouts. That was the good. The bad: five poor at-bats led to four runs.

In the second inning, Burnett walked Derrek Lee with one out, and then left a fastball on the outer half to Mark Reynolds, who launched it over the right-center field fence into the Yankees’ bullpen. The same part of the order bit him in the fourth inning. Consecutive doubles by Vladimir Guerrero and Lee made it 3-0. In the sixth, Lee victimized Burnett yet again, this time with a home run to right-center. That blast completed the Orioles’ scoring.

Overall, Burnett’s night was the equivalent of shooting 74 or 75, with five or six birdies, but a bunch of bogeys submarining what could have been a fantastic round.

Paul O’Neill summed up Burnett’s night perfectly during the top of the ninth inning on the YES telecast: “AJ Burnett didn’t make too many mistakes tonight — far fewer than in his last game — but the mistakes he did make ended up going for home runs and doubles.”

The loss left Burnett winless in July. It is the third winless month in his Yankees career. How goofy of a season has this been for Burnett? Friday marked the third time this season that he’s pitched into the eighth inning. The Yankees have lost each of those games, and Burnett has been the pitcher of record.

The burden of the 4-2 defeat should not fall squarely on Burnett, though. It was the type of game that if the vaunted Yankees offense did anything to support him, the outcome would have been different. Jeremy Guthrie, a pitcher the Yankees have owned over the last two years, turned the tables and was in complete control. Of the 69 strikes Guthrie threw, 19 were called strikes and 21 were foul balls. He had mid-90s velocity on his fastball with good movement, and he changed speeds effectively to keep the big bats off balance.

Watching the game, the telltale sign that it would not be the Yankees’ night was that the second and third time through the order, usually when they make minced meat of pitchers like Guthrie, the grinding at-bats the Yankees are known for didn’t yield positive outcomes — Mark Teixeira’s solo home run in the sixth inning notwithstanding. When they did put runners on base, Guthrie made a pitch to get the Yankees out. They were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position; a common refrain when analyzing Yankees losses over the course of this season.

A ninth-inning rally against Kevin Gregg fell short when Brett Gardner, who swung through nearly every hittable pitch that came his way in previous at-bats, capped an 0-for-5 performance by striking out swinging to end the game. The key pitch in the at-bat was the fastball Gregg threw with the count at 3-and-1. Gardner thought it was outside for ball four. Gardner turned toward first base and was three steps up the line when home plate umpire Mike Dimuro called the pitch a strike and ushered Gardner back the batter’s box. Replays confirmed the pitch was off the plate by a few inches, but it was too close to take.

Following the whiff, Gardner slammed his bat on the ground in frustration, cracking it in half. Given that the Red Sox lost to the White Sox and another chance to cut into the 2 1/2-game deficit was wasted, they should be frustrated.

Phew!

Russell Martin, Carlos Pena

Russell Martin absorbed heavy contact and kept the Yankees ahead. (Photo Credit / Getty Images)

Former Marlins teammates AJ Burnett and Ryan Dempster squared off in the middle game of the marquee interleague series of the weekend, at Wrigley Field. There was potential for a pitchers’ duel, if the “Good AJ” showed up, and if Dempster maintained the good control he’s shown at home thus far (almost a 4-to-1 K/BB ratio in 52 1/3 innings pitched at Wrigley this season).

That wasn’t to be, though. The game was tight and low-scoring, but more because both teams missed opportunities, rather than Burnett and Dempster dominating. Both pitchers followed the “bend but don’t break” M.O. Burnett allowed two runs, struck out eight and walked three in 5 1/3 innings pitched, while Dempster allowed only three runs while walking a season-high six batters, and struck out six.

The Yankees had their chances. They had base runners every inning, but were only able to push runners across in the third and sixth innings. In the third, Curtis Granderson led off with a single — doesn’t it seem like when the Yankees score, he’s in the middle of the rally? — and later scored on Robinson Canó’s double. Nick Swisher followed with a sacrifice fly to bring in Alex Rodriguez, who singled and advanced to third on the Canó double.

The Cubs tied the game in the fourth, making Burnett pay for issuing a leadoff walk to Blake DeWitt. Two batters later, Carlos Peña hit a laser into the right-field seats.

Sometimes, the most important moment in a game isn’t a timely hit, it’s a baserunning mistake. Following a one-out walk to Kosuke Fukudome, Starlin Castro lined a single to center. On that hit, Fukudome was running on the pitch but did not advance to third. On the FOX broadcast, Tim McCarver said there was “no excuse for Fukudome to not be on third base with one out, or at least get thrown out trying.” The next batter, DeWitt, who figured in the Cubs’ first rally, bounced into a 4-6-3, inning-ending double play.

Eduardo Nuñez carried the positive vibes from the solid turn of the double play into the top of the sixth, lining a single up the middle on an 0-2 count and later scoring on a Granderson sac fly to give the Yankees the lead. (The Granderson RBI was off lefty James Russell. Granderson, versus lefties this season: .277/.341/.651, 20 RBI.) In the ninth, Nuñez drove in what would be the go-ahead run with a double.

Mariano Rivera made things interesting, yielding a leadoff home run to Reed Johnson and a single to Alfonso Soriano. But he needed just four more pitches to record three outs, inducing Geovany Soto to ground into a double play and striking out Jeff Baker.

That would be the high-level overview of the game. Two plays in particular preserved this victory for the Yankees: the first was the double play that ended the fifth. The second came in the sixth inning. Canó missed an easy catch on a force attempt that turned a potential first-and-third, two-out situation into a bases-loaded, one-out scenario. On a full count, Soto lined to left. Brett Gardner made up for his base running gaffe in the top of the sixth by making a nice catch on the liner and firing a one-hop strike to home. A huge collision ensued between Peña and catcher Russell Martin. Martin hung onto the ball, showed it to both Peña and home plate umpire Sam Holbrook.

Sometimes over the course of a season, winning teams win games despite an odd boxscore. Saturday, the Yankees walked 10 times and only scored four runs. They got 11 hits and went 4-for-13 with runners in scoring position yet left 13 men stranded. They committed two errors and ran themselves out of an inning.

Yet in the end, the formula that usually leads to a victory — timely hitting, a few key defensive plays, above average starting pitching and a capable bullpen effort — put a W up for the Yankees. By all accounts, they should have beaten the Cubs about 11-3 in this game. But as the better team, being able to hang on and win the close game is encouraging and should serve them well as the season wears on.

Calfination, the Cubs, and History

Derek Jeter’s calf injury and ensuing DL trip definitely threw a wrench into his reaching the 3,000-hit milestone in the near future. Given Jeter’s flair for the dramatic and the way the Yankees hit Rangers pitching during the first two games, it would have been fun to see what could have been, especially at home.

Jeter’s two most recent milestones occurred at home. he benefited from home scoring when got his 2,000th on May 26, 2006 against the Kansas City Royals, and he broke Lou Gehrig’s franchise record for hits at home on September 11, 2009 against the Orioles.

Another thing that would have been cool: watching Jeter vie for history against the Cubs. Jeter has the most hits of anyone in interleague play, so in a way, it would have been fitting for him to reach 3K over the next batch of games. In addition, Saturday will mark six years to the day that Jeter launched the first and only grand slam of his career to date, a sixth inning shot off of Joe Borowski.

And there is precedent for the Yankees making history during interleague play. A banner year for this was 2003, when first, the Yankees were no-hit by six Houston Astros pitchers in the Bronx. Two nights later, Roger Clemens registered his 4,000th strikeout and 300th win against the Cardinals.

Clemens’ previous start, however, took place in Chicago, against Kerry Wood. It was Clemens’ third chance at 300. It was the marquee game in a series that marked the Yankees’ first visit to Wrigley Field since the 1932 World Series and Babe Ruth’s “called shot”. The Yankees beat Carlos Zambrano in the Friday afternoon opener, and the stage was set for the power matchup on Saturday. Clemens had an upper respiratory infection and there was doubt as to whether he would even start. He did, and he left the game in the seventh inning with a lead and two men on base, giving way to the immortal Juan Acevedo. Acevedo is immortal for what happened next. He delivered a first-pitch fastball to Eric Karros that was promptly returned to Waveland Avenue, and a 2-1 lead was suddenly a 4-2 deficit. That was the final. The following night, the Cubs chased Andy Pettitte after 1 2/3 innings and despite a valiant comeback effort against Mark Prior, it wasn’t enough.

Fast forward to today, where the Yankees head to Chicago coming off a three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers. They’re currently riding their sixth three-game win streak of the season. Only once, though, have they carried that streak past three. They’re not facing Big Z, Wood and Prior in succession; rather, it’s Doug Davis, Ryan Dempster, and Randy “Please don’t call me Boomer or Kip” Wells. With the Cubs struggling as badly as they are, this could be a weekend where the Yankees add to their winning percentage.

Sadly, no history to watch out for in this series. Only the moments to reflect upon. While the feeling of the games might be empty, at least the stands at Wrigley will be full.

Code of Hammurabi? Meh.

Joe Girardi, Gene Monihan, Alex Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez was hit by a pitch for the second time this week. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

An excerpt of the Code of Hammurabi, courtesy of Thinkquest:

Although it follows the practice of “an eye for an eye”, it does not allow for vigilante justice, but rather demands a trial by judges. It also glorifies acts of peace and justice done during Hammurabi’s rule.

What does this have to do with the Yankees? Alex Rodriguez got plunked in the sixth inning of today’s game after Curtis Granderson homered to make it 2-0. Much will be made of Alex Rodriguez getting plunked in the sixth inning after Curtis Granderson’s home run increased the Yankees’ lead to 2-0. There will be much ado because while Mitch Talbot was ejected immediately (wet mound conditions or not), yet again, the HBP went unanswered by a Yankees pitcher. The Yankees have had eight hit batsmen in the last five games. They’ve hit only one. The Boston Red Sox sent a message that teams can hit the Yankees’ batters without repercussion.

To date, despite Joe Girardi’s emphatic stance, the message has gained traction.

Columnists are clamoring for the Yankees to follow Girardi’s lead, to start showing some fight and “protect their own.” David Wells, who was patrolling the clubhouse on Saturday, told reporters the Yankees need to “grow some.”

Perhaps Talbot’s ejection led the Yankees to be more cautious in their retaliation strategy. But a passive-aggressive approach has been the Yankees’ stance for years. The recent beanball wars are reminiscent of 2003, when the Red Sox, more specifically Pedro Martinez, routinely hit Yankees batters, often without repercussion. On July 7 of that year, Pedro and Mike Mussina engaged in a classic pitchers’ duel. Martinez opened the game by hitting Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano on the hands, knocking them both out of the game. Mussina wouldn’t retaliate. Didn’t even buzz anyone. Fans were miffed. Writers were, too.

At the time, George Steinbrenner said of Martinez: “I don’t know what was going through his mind, but if it’s what it looked like, it’s not good. It’s not good for his team, not good for baseball.” Mussina’s response: “It was a situation that was pretty delicate. I think if I go inside to somebody, the umpire’s going to warn both benches. I didn’t want to lose half the plate. It’s a tough spot. You try to do what’s right. I’m not sure what anybody was thinking, but I felt I had to get guys out.” Not until Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, when Roger Clemens threw a fastball to the backstop with Manny Ramirez at the plate, igniting a bench-clearing brawl for the ages, did the Yankees exact revenge according to the common interpretation of Hammurabi’s Code.

If the code glorifies acts of peace and justice, then the Yankees are doing the right thing and should be applauded by being professional, acting above hitting Indians’ batters and winning the game. But do they have to hit someone to demonstrate protection? Pitch inside. Buzz someone. Make the batter uncomfortable. Move his feet. That could work.

Would the umpires allow the Yankees to pitch inside or buzz someone, or would they warn the benches immediately and put the pitchers in a bind, as Mussina feared? It’s a tough call. Joe Torre, who managed the Yankees in that 2003 game, now sits in the League Office and has jurisdiction over this exact issue. He also caught Bob Gibson, who you know full well would have given an opposing batter a shave by now if his teammates were getting hit at the rate the Yankees’ guys are. At what point will Torre get involved? Should he get involved?

It’s unlikely. The Yankees will do what they believe is right. But will they lose players as they consider the appropriate time to punch back?

OH YEAH, THE GAME …
Three solo home runs and a clutch RBI single by Jorge Posada in the seventh inning provided the scoring for the Yankees. The arms of Bartolo Colon, David Robertson and Boone Logan did the rest. The most important juncture of the game was the eighth inning. While it won’t go in the box score as a save, Robertson should get one for his yeoman effort. After allowing consecutive singles to start the inning, and then balking the runners over to second and third, respectively, his strikeouts of Asdrubal Cabrera and Grady Sizemore preserved the shutout and pretty much ensured the Yankees would emerge victorious.

Robertson and Logan combined to allow just two hits and struck out four. Contrast that to Friday night, where in a blowout, mop-up scenario, Kevin Whelan and Lance Pendleton yielded five runs on five hits, and walked five. Their performance led Girardi to pull an “I have no other recourse” move, bringing in Mariano Rivera to end the losing streak.

HAMSTRUNG
Big Bart pulled up lame covering first base in the seventh inning. He had thrown just 83 pitches and was working on a two-hit shutout at the time of his exit. Given his age, weight, and conditioning (or lack thereof), Colon could be looking at a long stint on the disabled list. The only good news from this: if and when Phil Hughes returns, there’s no doubt where he’ll be slotted in the rotation.

NEEDLESS COMPARISON
Granderson’s home run was his 20th. Mark Teixeira’s was his 19th. YES Network’s announcers got homer happy. Ken Singleton brought up 1961, and that the recent home run barrage reminded him of that seminal year in Yankees history. Michael Kay mentioned that Maris had 20 home runs and Mantle 18 on this date 50 years ago. Please stop. Granderson and Teixeira are not Mantle and Maris. Moreover, the 2004 Yankees hold the team record for home runs in a season (242). Granted, they didn’t have two guys going shot for shot the way Granderson and Teixeira seem to be right now, but it’s worth noting that the ’04 group, not the ’61 group, is the most prolific Yankees team in that category.

Yankee Panky: Off the Cliff

We know the following as it pertains to the Yankees in the 72-plus hours since the World Series ended:

* Signing Derek Jeter is the top priority, and the general consensus is that the tennis match being played between Yankees management and Jeter’s agent, Casey Close, is a cover. Jeter will be a Yankee and will get a new contract, it’s just a matter of how long and for how much.

* Mariano Rivera is a free agent also. Like Jeter and Andy Pettitte, the Yankees’ exclusive window to negotiate with Rivera ends Sunday. Like Jeter, it’s hard to imagine Rivera, who it can be argued is an even more iconic figure of the recent-vintage Yankees, in a different set of laundry.

* Cliff Lee is on the market.

A few months ago, many members of the media who cover the Yankees, as well as Yankee fans — I’d include myself in this camp — would say Lee coming to New York was a given. Now, it’s not as certain.

Rob Abruzzese over at Bronx Baseball Daily referenced Joel Sherman’s recent column in the New York Post, where Sherman noted that the Yankees aren’t treating the Cliff Lee Sweepstakes with the same level of aggressiveness — others might say desperation — with which they recruited CC Sabathia two years ago. Sherman cites Lee’s age (32) as being a key differentiator in the Yankees’ thought process. Abruzzese notes that the Yankees, still just one season removed from their last title, aren’t in a position where they feel like they have to have Lee. Lee certainly doesn’t have to have the Yankees. He’s proven that.

Since this is the Hot Stove topic, let’s get to it: Should the Yankees sign Cliff Lee, given the cash they’re going to be spending on Jeter, Rivera, and possibly Andy Pettitte? Three weeks ago, I’d have said, “Yes” in a blink. Now, I’m not sure.

Some other things to consider:

* Lee has been to the World Series two straight seasons with two different teams. He’s been with four teams over the past two seasons. In addition to a monster paycheck, he’s probably looking for some stability. This is likely the last chance he has to sign a huge deal. Being three hours away from his home in Benton, Arkansas, the pull of home and the quality of life improvements are tough to compete with. Do the Yankees want to go there?

* Too many years, too much money. Even at 5 years and $125 million, as some have suggested, that contract will extend him through Age 37. Putting a pitcher on the hook for that long is a huge risk.

* Does winning in New York mean more to Lee than winning in Texas or Philadelphia or San Francisco? We say it does because we’re from New York, have an inflated opinion of ourselves, and with that, a tendency to overdramatize the successes of our sports teams. This debate raged for a year-and-a-half with LeBron James. “He’d be a legend if he won here.” Mark Messier was referenced; how he had won five Stanley Cups in Edmonton but cemented his legacy with the Rangers. Conversely, A-Rod did what many others before him did; came to the Yankees to get his title. I get the sense that Lee doesn’t care, and that he’d be happier beating the Yankees than being a Yankee and winning here.

* On Mike and Mike earlier this week, Buster Olney had an interesting comment about the prospect of the Yankees signing Lee, and more specifically, why it wouldn’t be a good fit. To paraphrase, Olney said Lee did not enjoy answering too many questions from the media, even in a postseason setting, leading to questions about his facility and willingness to deal with the scrutiny of the New York media corps that will light him up if he loses a couple of games to the Rays or Red Sox. We might not be looking at Randy Johnson or Jeff Weaver-caliber surliness, Clemens-level denial or Burnett-ish confusion, more like a miffed, frustrated, impatient “I wanna go home” tone.

* Tuesday, per ESPNDallas.com, Lee said, “There’s a lot to build on,” referring to his stint with the Rangers. “We did a lot of firsts for this organization. We were the second-best team in the big leagues. We should be proud of that. We’re going to use this for motivation and come in next year and try to do better.” Tim McMahon, the article’s author, made a point to mention that Lee’s use of the word “we” shouldn’t be mistaken as a commitment to return to the Rangers, but can give a hint to where he’s leaning. Add that Rangers GM Jon Daniels plans on increasing payroll in a clear effort to go after Lee, and the Rangers may make this decision easy for him.

* Check out Lee’s Baseball Reference profile. The most similar pitcher to him through Age 31 is Mark Mulder. Quick tangent: when Billy Beane broke up the Big Three in Oakland, I thought Mulder was the best of that group and thought he’d be dynamite on the Yankees. Injuries derailed Mulder’s career, and not signing him was a wise move for the Yankees. Mulder is now out of baseball, a near scratch golfer and won two majors on the Golf Channel Amateur Tour this year. Lee has proven more durable than “Agent” Mulder, however.

* The Yankees do not have a pitching coach. Externally, that suggests volatility at the core of the coaching staff. (Never mind the fact that the Yankees’ club policy is to sign all their coaches to one-year deals.) If I was Lee, I’d be observing the current landscape and weighing that into my decision.

Is Cliff Lee a must for the Yankees to win next year? The local media, like the Yankees’ front office, have zeroed in on Lee as the focal point outside the organization to their 2011 success. Given the variables listed above, what do you think? Why do you believe the Yankees shouldn’t sign him? (I ask that question because the other one is obvious.)

Put on your thinking caps and hit me up in comments.

Layoff Payoff?

The Yankees rested comfortably for the second consecutive day Monday, and when the American League Championship Series begins Friday night, either in Arlington or St. Petersburg, they’ll have gone five full days without game action. Not even the All-Star break presented such a respite.

Much has already been written about the long layoff and whether or not it will benefit the Yankees. The consensus is that it could either help them, or hurt them. Well yes, but which one?

The facts are these: CC Sabathia will be pitching on eight days’ rest. Whatever their assignments — we’ll know officially later today — Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes will be pitching on similar rest. Kerry Wood, Boone Logan, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera will be rejuvenated. Joba Chamberlain will be woken up and told he may be called for duty in the ALCS.

As for position players, Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira, Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez, all of whom played through injuries and other struggles in September and collectively helped the team limp into the wild-card position, are using this time to heal. (Based on the latest news from Esquire Magazine, Jeter might be healing the best out of all of them.) For guys like Curtis Granderson, the long layoff may kill the mojo he had going against the Twins.

I thought the layoff would prompt Joe Girardi to consider shelving AJ Burnett and going with a three-man rotation for at least this next round. With three well-rested arms, Sabathia could go on three days’ rest if necessary, as could either Pettitte or Hughes. But alas, my thought — ah, hell, let’s be honest, wish — was that Girardi would take that risk. He did not.

From GM Brian Cashman, on a conference call yesterday, as reported by the locals:

“I don’t think it will be a secret that (a four-man rotation is) probably the best route for us to go. Is (a three-man rotation) the best way to go? I don’t know if it’s the best way to go. I do think we’re deeper than that. I think we need to prepare to go with a four-man and see where that takes us and prove that we’re not just built for a division series with off days that are beneficial to us. In this round and probably the next round, we’re going to have to prove that we’re deeper than that.

“…October can bring out a competitive side in people, and I know AJ’s got a lot of competition in him. I know he’d like to eradicate everything that’s occurred here in the second half. A terrific start would go a long way toward doing that.”

Cashman is right. He’s diplomatically defending a five-year, $82.5 million investment, and he should. The Burnett signing was Cashman’s, and he’s holding himself accountable to the media. Even the AJ naysayers in the Banter community would like to see Burnett eradicate the bomb that the 2010 regular season was. But we also know he can eradicate the playoff run with a “Bad AJ” performance that features a lot of looks over his shoulders, and facial expressions normally reserved for the bathroom. Both Girardi and Cashman seem too conservative to hedge this risky of a bet.

(more…)

Game 2: Idle Threat?

Alyssa Milano might be the only other entity that regrets a four-year relationship with Carl Pavano more than the Yankees. Granted, the beloved Middle School crush of my age group wasn’t with the man George King of the Post dubbed the “American Idle” as long as the Yankees, but neither relationship was successful for the parties on Pavano’s arm. For Yankee haters, the thought of Pavano dominating the Yankees after he stole $39.99 million from the team from 2005-2008, spreading 26 starts, pitching 145 2/3 innings and amassing a 9-8 record and more ridiculous excuses for landing on the DL, is sublime. For the rest of us, well, the nausea hasn’t subsided.

Somewhere down South, a grinning Pat Jordan is polishing off a gun for Alex.

The Yankees’ saving grace, as it has been in seemingly every Game 2 of every playoff series in which he’s appeared as a Yankee since 2003, is Andy Pettitte. Pettitte won Game 2 of every series in ’03. He won the clinching game in every series of last year’s World Series run. He represents the championships, reliability, leadership, and stability in the rotation.

But he also represents the age of this Yankee team. At 38, Pettitte has not shown the ageless superhuman qualities of his bullpen colleague Mariano Rivera. Thursday night will mark only Pettitte’s fourth start since coming off the disabled list. Pettitte admitted his success in Baltimore in his return was based on adrenaline. His next two starts — both against Boston — didn’t feature the command he displayed in that first outing. Will the adrenaline of the postseason, the knowledge of what it takes to win in these circumstances, especially now that he’s been bolstered to a 1-0 lead, be enough to get by?

With all due respect to Banter colleague Hank Waddles, Pavano’s presence on the mound for the Twins has nothing to do with audacity. In fact, there’s precedent for the possibility of him dominating the Yankees Thursday night. Pavano allowed four runs and held the Yankees to a .224 BAA in his two starts against them during the ’09 regular season. In four career postseason appearances (three against the Yankees), Pavano has an 8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a 0.95 WHIP, and has allowed just 22 hits in 26 1/3 IP. Pavano started Game 4 of the ’03 World Series — the infamous “Jeff Weaver Game” — and held the Yankees to one run in eight innings of the pivotal contest. Last year, Pavano and Pettitte engaged in a great duel last year in Game 3 of the ALDS; what proved to be the final game ever played at the Metrodome. Pavano made two bad pitches in his seven innings of work. They resulted in solo home runs by Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada in the seventh inning. Pettitte, meanwhile, also pitched into the seventh, holding the Twins to just three hits in 6 1/3 innings, and he struck out seven. Pavano was a hard-luck loser. A step up from the first-class loser he was as a Yankee.

Spin forward to Thursday’s Game 2, given the current state of affairs with the two starting pitchers, the edge goes to Minnesota (Pavano’s 4.85 ERA since August 1 notwithstanding). Groin injuries can get reaggravated very easily. If there’s a Burnett or Meat Tray sighting within the first four innings, you can almost guarantee a loss for the Yankees.

A quality start from Pettitte will go a long way toward answering not only the questions posed above, but the broader questions regarding the viability of the Yankees’ playoff rotation behind CC Sabathia. I have to see it to believe it, though.

Prediction: Twins 5, Yankees 2

Clinched

When it comes to late-September series in Toronto that carry postseason implications, the Yankees have a mixed history. In 1985, the Yankees entered the season’s final weekend needing a three-game sweep of Bobby Cox’s Blue Jays to force a one-game AL East playoff. They won the first game but lost the second game and watched the Jays celebrate their first-ever playoff appearance. The next day, the season’s final day, Phil Niekro won his 300th game.

Ten years later, the Yankees were the ones celebrating. They swept the Blue Jays to complete a 22-6 September and clinch their first playoff berth since 1981. The image of Don Mattingly pounding his fist on the top step of the Rogers Centre dugout, knowing he was finally getting his chance to play in a postseason series, is ingrained in the memories of Yankees fans.

Tuesday night, Toronto was the site of yet another Yankees playoff clincher. Following Monday’s two-and-a-third degree burn from the Purple Pie Man, there was a sense of confidence and calm with CC Sabathia on the mound. CC was back to his ace-level self, powering through the first eight innings, allowing one run on two hits in that span.

Sabathia was pulled in the ninth inning after putting the first two runners on base and retiring Jose Bautista. With a 6-1 lead, manager Joe Girardi could have summoned anyone to get the final two outs — I’ll be honest, I was ready for any combination of Javy Vazquez, the inimitable Chad Gaudin, even the Meat Tray — but he put one over on those of us who thought he was mailing it in since last Wednesday by calling on Mariano Rivera to close it out. Six pitches later, it was done. If corks didn’t pop, sighs of relief were definitely released.

Two thousand miles to the south, the Rays’ ace, David Price, shut out the Orioles to secure Tampa’s spot in the playoffs and keep them a half-game ahead of the Yankees.

Now the Yankees have a decision to make: Be content with just reaching the playoffs and rest the aging veterans prior to the start of the Division Series, or go for the Division crown and home field? Two games separate the Rays, Yankees and Twins. Only two of those teams will open their first-round series at home.

Girardi has said he wants to win the division. He has four games to prove it. At the very least, though, it’s nice to see that “x” next to the Yankees’ place in the standings.

QUICK GOOFY GAME NOTE
The Yankees did a great job of plating runners with less than two outs. And none of those runners scored as a result of a hit. While the Yankees did muster two hits with runners in scoring position, five productive outs — three sacrifice flies and two groundouts — and a bases-loaded walk provided the six Yankee runs.

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.

We Know Drama (and Twitter)

So much happened in the 25-minute span from 10:30 p.m. ET to 10:55 p.m. ET, in Tuesday night’s Yankees-Rays game. Five plays, specifically, spread over seven outs. All with the specter of a fifth straight Yankees loss and 1 1/2-game deficit in the American League East. Thanks to Curtis Granderson, Jorge Posada, Carl Crawford and Greg Golson, the Yankees earned a split in the first two games of this three-game set in St. Petersburg and vaulted back into first place.

First, Granderson’s incredible diving catch robbed Ben Zobrist of an extra-base hit — possibly a three-bagger or even an inside-the-park homer — to end the ninth inning, bail out David Robertson and send the game into extras. Three pitches later, Jorge Posada repositioned a Dan Wheeler fastball into the restaurant above center field to give the Yankees the 8-7 lead. Posada’s bomb sent the Yankees’ Twitter universe into upheaval as beat writers, columnists and bloggers — myself included — attempted to describe the sudden turn of events in 146 characters.

Mark Feinsand of the Daily News called the shot “ridiculous.” Our friends at RiverAveBlues guessed that Posada’s blast “probably would have hit the restaurant glass in the Bronx.” I wonder if it would have been out at Yankee Stadium I?

Bottom 10, enter Mo to close it against Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce. Crawford reaches on a single. Longoria also unloads to center. “Holy cow, that looked gone. Instead, Granderson catches Longoria’s drive at the track in dead center,” read the tweet from the Ledger’s Marc Carig. Crawford, however, made the first of his two base running gaffes here. Instead of tagging and ending up on second base, Crawford went too far, and was forced to retreat to first. He proceeded to steal second. This set up the second Crawford gaffe: Joyce hit a high fly ball to shallow right field, and if you watched closely, you could see the play developing as Golson sped to circle the ball in order to catch it in optimal position for the throw to third base. Crawford sped toward third and Golson fired what Michael Kay called a “laser” to third. Alex Rodriguez picked the throw on a short hop and tagged Crawford on the shin.

Game over. Arms raised. Fist pumps abound.

Carig later reported via Twitter that Golson didn’t think Crawford was going. Granderson was yelling from center field to alert him. Watching the whole series of events, I can only think of my father’s assessment of Rickey Henderson, and how he used to scoff at broadcasters who lauded his base running skills. Dad was, and is, of the opinion that Rickey was a great hitter, great athlete, great base stealer, but a terrible base runner. He didn’t tag when he was supposed to, he didn’t run hard out of the batter’s box, etc. Crawford’s hiccups are more of the lack of instinct. The Yankees made Crawford pay for his hubris.

It was one of the wildest finishes to what may have been the best regular season game the Yankees played since A-Rod’s walk-off home run beat the Red Sox in 15 innings last year.

* * *

Lost amid the hubbub of the last two innings was how events progressed to that point. Storylines heading into the game were as follows: 1) Four straight losses, two of them coming in disappointing extra-inning fashion, to relinquish control of first place for the first time since August 3. 2) Bullpen question marks. The Meat Tray and Chad Gaudin prominently involved. (To this end, Michael Kay recited a quote during the My9 telecast from pitching coach Dave Eiland: “Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war,” a not-so-subtle metaphor for the Yankees’ long-term thinking and plans to get the main horses for the bullpen healthy in time for the playoffs. Those horses will likely not include the Meat Tray or Gaudin. Back to the recap.) 3) Swisher and Gardner out of the lineup. 4) Tex with a broken pinky toe on his right foot. 5) Perhaps most flagrant, manager Joe Girardi says he’s gunning for the division but acting like he’s gunning to open the playoffs in Minnesota to face Carl Pavano’s mustache.

To add even more reasons to drive fans into a questioning frenzy, Girardi trotted out a lineup that was essentially 5 1/2 deep to support Ivan Nova, who was opposing Matt Garza, ye of the no-hitter.

The way both offenses started the game, though, combining to strand seven runners in the first two innings (four in scoring position), it was only a matter of time before the dam broke and the numbers got crooked in a hurry.

For the Yankees, that time was the third inning, when they exploded for four runs, the rally capped by a frozen rope of a home run by Robinson Canóo. In the fifth, an A-Rod home run and another tack-on run had many Yankee fans feeling comfortable with a 6-0 lead.

That was, until Nova lost the strike zone and coughed up the lead in the fifth. Willy Aybar’s pinch-hit home run — off a good 1-2 pitch by Boone Logan that was just golfed into the seats — cemented the 7-run comeback. The Yankees got the tying run right away, and then both bullpens took over. Before the Posada home run, three Rays relievers combined to retire 11 consecutive Yankees.

The Yankees’ relief arms were equally good. Logan, to his credit, retired four in a row after the Aybar home run and Joba Chamberlain, Kerry Wood and Robertson combined to allow just one base runner. Until he arrived for the ninth, Robertson had warmed up on three separate occasions.

The Yankees needed this win badly. Any shot of confidence will help, the way they’ve literally limped through the last week and a half. And if these two teams meet in the ALCS, we can only hope, as Ian O’Connor tweeted, that it goes seven games and each one resembles the first two games of this series.

Spoiled

And so it is that CC Sabathia, unbeaten at home since July 2 of last year, has now been defeated. After Tuesday’s anemic 6-2 loss, the words “CC Sabathia” and “Cy Young Award frontrunner” are not being used in the same sentence. Sabathia, three times a 19-game winner, saw his ERA jump to 3.14 from 3.02, and he may have blown his best chance to finally hit the 20-win plateau. His next start comes Monday against the Rays. He has one more start against the Orioles before finishing against the Rays and either the Blue Jays or Red Sox.

Sabathia’s problems started immediately. The first five Orioles reached base and three runs scored before he recorded his first out. We could sit here and analyze location and nitpick his mechanics, but to simplify it, he was off.

“Could you have a worse beginning?” John Sterling asked the radio audience. The question, framed in his trademark condescending harrumph, was not rhetorical. Ty Wigginton could have hit a grand slam and the O’s could have scored five runs before making their first out. Sabathia showed his toughness by coming back to retire the 6-7-8 hitters and escape with a disappointing yet manageable 3-0 deficit.

Lost in that initial series was how poor defense led to the craptastic start. Jorge Posada alone cost the Yankees two runs: 1) His passed ball allowed Brian Roberts to advance to second base. Roberts would score two batters later, on Ty Wigginton’s bloop single. 2) His inability to hold on to Brett Gardner’s throw allowed Nick Markakis to slide home safely with the Orioles’ third run.

And yet with all that, there was still a sense the Yankees would find a way to dig back against Jake Arrieta. They had their chances, too. They plated a run in the first inning and seemed primed for more, with runners at the corners and one out, until Nick Swisher bounced into a double play. In the second, Seth Everett doppelganger Lance Berkman led off with a single only to be erased on a Posada double play. That double play began a stretch of nine straight Yankees being retired.

On the other side, Sabathia continued to labor and the defense continued to falter behind him. Wigginton led off the third with a double — a long fly ball to the right-center-field gap that Granderson had a bead on and nearly caught, but it bounded off the heel of his glove. Two batters later, Nolan Reimold launched a first-pitch fastball around the left-field foul pole and into the second deck. Granderson’s seventh-inning error led to the Orioles’ final run of the game.

It was only a matter of time before the Yankees had a stinker like this, especially with Sabathia on the mound. The offense, despite valiant efforts and numerous opportunities created, couldn’t bail him out. The Yankees were 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position; they were hitless in their last nine at-bats with RISP. Perhaps the play most emblematic of the Yankees’ night occurred in the bottom of the seventh inning, when with runners on first and third and one out, Alex Rodriguez, pinch-hitting for Ramiro Peña, ripped a line drive off the glove of third baseman Josh Bell, only to have it carom to shortstop Robert Andino, who fired to Roberts at second to force Granderson. Berkman, watching the play develop in front of him, had to hold at third. He’d be stranded there as Brett Gardner grounded out to end the inning and the last Yankee threat.

The Yankees have now followed their season-long eight-game winning streak with three straight losses. Tuesday’s defeat marked the first series loss at home since the Toronto Blue Jays took two of three August 2-4.

Credit the Orioles, though. These are not the Dave Trembley/Juan Samuel led O’s that mailed in the season before the All-Star break. They’re playing inspired baseball under Mr. Showalter. In fact, in the 35 games since he assumed managerial duties in Baltimore, the O’s have the best record in the AL East at 21-14, one game ahead of the Yankees.

It was previously thought that with the upcoming trip to Texas, and 13 games against the Rays and Red Sox, the two series with the Orioles would not necessarily be gimmes, but chances for the Yankees to pad the win column and keep the Rays at arm’s length. Not so. The former Yankees manager has given the young O’s a reason to play spoiler.

What’s a four letter word that rhymes with Buck?

For the Love of AJ

“I can’t stand AJ Burnett. I don’t like him. I don’t like his face, I don’t like the way he looks, I don’t like his tattoos, I don’t like him at all.”

It’s not some demented baseball version of “Green Eggs and Ham,” it’s my mother’s visceral reaction to Allan James Burnett’s mere appearance on a pitcher’s mound. Mom lives nearly 600 miles away, and I’m sure she was repeating those words when she asked my father, “Who’s pitching tonight” and he likely said, “Burnett. Your favorite.”

My mom’s disdain toward Burnett is shared among many Yankee fans. Turning from the superficial to the baseball-related stuff, Burnett’s 2010 performance provided all cause for whatever disdain, distrust, or dislike is felt. Burnett had allowed at least six earned runs in nine of his 26 starts prior to Wednesday’s outing. As news of Andy Pettitte’s pain-free, 55-pitch bullpen session and Javier Vazquez’s return to the starting rotation filtered through the wires, talk shifted to AJ Burnett potentially pitching his way out of the rotation. ESPN New York’s Andrew Marchand, my fellow Ithaca alum, went so far as to say he was staring at “that Ed Whitson-Hideki Irabu-Kei Igawa abyss,” and gave this start make-or-break status.

(I’d put the “abyss” more on the Kevin Brown level rather than Whitson, Irabu or Igawa — especially when you consider the parallel of Burnett cutting his hand while breaking a plastic casing on the clubhouse door to Brown punching a stanchion in the clubhouse back in 2004 and breaking his left hand, but OK, point taken.)

Burnett has had three discernible trends this season: 1) all-out implosion; 2) early blow-up, then cruises, as he did in Kansas City; 3) cruise early, then have a one- or two-inning hiccup and hang on for dear life. Wednesday, Burnett chose Option 3. Staked to a 4-0 lead after two innings, Burnett had everything working the first pass through the A’s order. He was throwing hard but looked like he had a lot in reserve. Once the fourth inning came around, the inevitable “uh-oh” moment happened. Burnett caught too much of the plate with two fastballs: the first resulted in a line-drive double off the bat of Kurt Suzuki, and the second ended up in the right-field seats, courtesy of Kevin Kouzmanoff. 4-2 Yankees.

The fifth inning wasn’t much better. Rajai Davis led off by scalding a belt-high fastball to left-center that one-hopped the fence for a ground-rule double. He later stole third base and scored on a groundout. As quickly as the Yankees built the four-run cushion for Burnett, the lead was down to one. Burnett then lost a nine-pitch battle with Daric Barton, issuing a two-out walk. He bore down and got Suzuki to fly out to end the inning, and retired the A’s in the sixth, the only blip in that inning being the two-out single by Mark Ellis.

Joe Girardi has fiercely defended Burnett, citing how well he’s pitched in big games — specifically Game 2 of the World Series and the way he dueled Josh Beckett at Yankee Stadium last August — and it’s not too late for him to turn things around and have a good month heading into the playoffs. But he did not take any chances Wednesday night. Girardi pulled Burnett after the sixth with the Yankees holding the slim 4-3 lead, preserving at worst a no-decision. Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan and Kerry Wood made things interesting in the seventh and eighth innings, putting the tying run in scoring position in both frames. However, they were able to escape those jams.

Even Mariano Rivera wasn’t a sure bet. He, too, allowed the tying run to advance to scoring position. After retiring the first two batters quickly, Daric Barton reached on an infield single and later stole second base. But Rivera ended the suspense by striking out Suzuki on a 93 mile-per-hour sinker.

Mark Teixeira continued to wield a hot bat, going 3-for-4 and driving in three more runs.

But the story was Burnett. He bent but didn’t break, tying a season-high with eight strikeouts and walking just two to earn his first winning decision since July 28. More importantly, 65 percent of the pitches he threw were strikes (59 of 91). As there are three trends to Burnett’s starts, there are now three AJs: The Extreme AJ that’s either great or awful, and the AJ that’s in between. Not bad, not stellar, just good enough to win. The Yankees will take that last one every time.

For one more turn through the rotation, at least, Burnett is still a piece to the Yankees’ pitching puzzle.

Gimme Five

Tuesday night’s 9-3 rout of the Oakland A’s was the Yankees’ 82nd victory, thus ensuring their 18th consecutive winning season. That’s a remarkable feat. What’s even more remarkable is that the streak isn’t even halfway to the team’s record of 39 straight winning seasons, done from 1926-64.

Phil Hughes started the game and watching his first few innings over again — isn’t DVR great? — it didn’t look like his stuff was that bad or that he was too far off with location. He wasn’t sharp, to be sure, but he didn’t appear wild enough to have issued five walks. There were some pitches that looked like they painted the outside corner or were within that two- to three-inch window to be called strikes, or were over the plate on the lower border of the strike zone. In short, they were pitches that were close enough that many umpires would have given the benefit of the doubt. The fastball had life, the curveball was good enough to get outs, and the changeups and cutters he mixed in enabled him to pitch out of jams.

More of a concern was the fact that three of the four hits Hughes allowed came when he was ahead in the count. The worst offenses came in the fourth inning, when he grooved an 0-1 fastball to Kevin Kouzmanoff that resulted in a hard single up the middle, and next, after two straight curveballs that kept the bat on Mark Ellis’s shoulder, Hughes threw a belt-high fastball on the outside corner, allowing Ellis to extend his arms and line it to right for a single. This is the same issue, not coincidentally, that has been plagued both of Javier Vazquez’s Yankee tours. A strikeout pitcher has to be able to put away hitters when he’s ahead in the count. Vazquez hasn’t demonstrated that with any consistency this year, and Hughes didn’t on Tuesday.

Michael Kay summed up Hughes’s start in the YES postgame: “When you look at his numbers, 16 wins, how can you complain? But when you watched this game, that’s not the way Phil Hughes wants to pitch.”

Indeed. Despite earning that 16th win, a total which is second-most in the American League, Hughes didn’t do much to instill confidence in Yankee fans that there’s a lock-down guy in the rotation behind CC Sabathia. Hughes seems to be the epitome of why wins can be a misleading stat when rating pitchers. With Andy Pettitte’s injury situation still in flux — he’s throwing another bullpen session before tomorrow’s game — A.J. Burnett as schizophrenic as ever, and any combination of Vazquez, Dustin Moseley, Sergio Meat Tray or even Chad Gaudin behind that, many have been waiting for Hughes to step up and be the No. 2 guy, and he hasn’t. Since the All-Star Break, he is 5-4 with a 4.65 ERA. His performance over the past two starts, particularly the number of pitches thrown — 200 in 8 2/3 innings — is helping to enforce the innings limit. He has thrown 149 1/3 innings now, and figuring he has at least five more starts, if the limit is 175 innings, Hughes is essentially a five-inning starter down the stretch.

Those are the negatives. The positives in this victory were all on the offensive side. The nine runs were scored in the first four innings. Nick Swisher (25th), Curtis Granderson (15th), and Mark Teixeira (30th) all homered for the Yankees, who scored six of those runs with two outs.

Teixeira’s home run marked the seventh straight year he’s hit 30 home runs, and he’s five RBIs away from his seventh straight 100-RBI season. He also scored his Major-League leading 100th run. What a turnaround for Tex. Three months ago, in this space, I wrote a column trying to prove that while Tex’s batting average was hovering near .200 and he was getting a free pass from the mainstream media, we in the blogosphere were not being as dismissive. Now, his average is up to .264 and with a month left, .280 or even .290 isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Tex’s batting average is now just two points behind that of Derek Jeter, who after another oh-fer has just one hit in his last 25 at-bats and is getting summarily hammered at all angles. Is this the beginning of the end? Is the contract on his mind? How can he command $20 million a year if this is the level at which he’ll be finishing his career? I heard one talkie late last week even compare Jeter’s recent slide to Willie Mays with the Mets in 1973. Are we there yet? I don’t think so. The Yankees have been able to cover for him in the same way they did Teixeira earlier this year, but we’ll see what happens in October.

The other positive of the evening: Toronto blasted Tampa, so the eight-day deadlock atop the AL East is broken. The Yankees hand their longest winning streak since the All-Star break to A.J. Burnett. Maybe a new month and a weak-hitting team is what he needs to get on the path to being right.

Nice Job, Ace

Having scored just one run over their last two games despite getting solid pitching from the entire staff — even the Meat Tray has allowed just one hit and no runs over his last three outings, spanning 5 1/3 innings — there was still a sense of unease among Yankee fans heading into Tuesday’s matchup against Detroit. Derek Jeter bounced into a double play to stifle a ninth-inning comeback attempt. The Yankees, as has been the case for what seems like the past 15 years, continue to make pitchers they’ve never faced before look like a combination of Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. Andy Pettitte’s timetable for return remains uncertain; first he suffered a setback in a simulated game, then the news of an MRI following his latest bullpen session “basically to set his mind at ease.” A-Rod was out of the lineup due to a strained calf muscle. Lance Berkman’s still on the shelf with the ankle injury suffered in Kansas City.

And oh yes, there’s that small matter of the Tampa Bay Rays winning two straight while the Yankees lost two in a row, to climb into a first-place tie.

Amid Hope Week, fans were dialing the Batphone.

But the Yankees had two things going for them: 1) They had CC Sabathia, unbeaten in his previous 18 starts at home dating back to last season, on the mound. 2) At least they had faced Justin Verlander before, so there was a chance that their luck would turn, despite their lack of success against him. The fact that he had an ERA of over 7.00 in the first inning was a clue that if the Yankees didn’t get to him early, they might not get to him at all (a point that was beaten senseless by all Yankee commentators, both on TV and radio).

Things didn’t look too good after Austin Jackson yoked CC Sabathia’s first pitch of the game into the left-field seats and then surrendered two loud outs. Curtis Granderson made two tremendous catches to bail him out and minimize the first-inning damage to just one run.

In the bottom half, Brett Gardner (leadoff single) and Derek Jeter (walk), set the table for a two-run inning. The Yankees had a chance to pile on, loading the bases with one out, but Marcus Thames grounded into an inning-ending double play. Granderson’s leadoff home run in the second provided more of a cushion for Sabathia, who cruised through the next five-plus innings, until yielding a solo home run to Brandon Inge in the seventh. After Triple Crown and MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera, there was no one in the Tigers’ lineup to pose a threat to Sabathia. Save for the Tigers’ 13-run explosion on Sunday, they had scored more than four runs in a game only two other times since August 1.

The Yankees’ offense, meanwhile, applied constant pressure to Verlander, advancing runners to scoring position in each of the first four innings. They were as patient as Verlander was wild, drawing five walks and forcing him to throw 114 pitches. There was a prevailing sense of uneasiness, however, because the Yankees didn’t capitalize on many of those opportunities. They had chances to blow the game open and did not. The Yankees did manage to eat up Detroit’s middle relief, scoring three runs against Daniel Schlereth — one in the sixth and two in the seventh — but again missed an opportunity to tack on runs in the seventh. With the bases loaded and one out, they only managed to score one run in that situation, courtesy of a Ramiro Peña’s sacrifice fly. The Yankees finished the night 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

A four-run lead heading into the eighth inning is a little more secure these days, with David Robertson and Mariano Rivera teaming up to shut the door. The tandem did just that on Tuesday to preserve the 6-2 victory and keep the Yankees tied with the Rays for first place in the division and the best record in baseball. CC Sabathia became the American League’s first 16-game winner.

Wins aside, Sabathia has to be considered among the frontrunners for the AL Cy Young Award. He’s in the top 10 in seven major pitching categories, has a 2.34 K/BB ratio, 7.08 K/9 ratio, and has already thrown 181 2/3 innings. Perhaps most impressive, CC Sabathia has pitched at least seven innings in 18 of his 26 starts. That’s an ace.

And that’s what we saw Tuesday night.

MATCHUP LEFTY
At some point, opposing managers will learn that keeping a left-hander in to face Robinson Canó means nothing. Canó’s frozen-rope home run in the seventh inning off Schlereth was his 22nd of the season and 12th off a left-hander. He is now slugging .585 versus lefties this season.

CLASS ACT
Nice move by the Yankees to pay homage to Bobby Thomson, who died Tuesday at the age of 86. Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round The World” on Oct. 3, 1951, put the Giants into the World Series, where the Yankees defeated them 4-2.

Throwaway Game

At first glance, Thursday night’s Yankee lineup — Jeter, Granderson, Teixeira, A-Rod, Canó, Swisher, Gardner, Cervelli, Curtis — gave the impression that Joe Girardi wasn’t treating the game with the utmost seriousness. It was questionable to go with a lineup that was essentially six-deep, since the Rays beat the Tigers earlier in the day for their sixth consecutive victory, and Dustin Moseley was getting the start.

The proof, or so I thought, came in innings 2-6, when the Yankees continually had base runners advance to scoring position, only to have poor situational hitting lead to nine men stranded. Not coincidentally, their success in putting runners on base aligned with Indians starter Mitch Talbot leaving the game due to a back strain. But the Yankees couldn’t capitalize; they were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position until Derek Jeter’s two-out single in the sixth plated Brett Gardner to break a 1-1 tie.

In the seventh, Robinson Canó’s solo home run began a two-out rally and a string of nine straight Yankees reaching base. The Yankees broke the game open during that stretch, scoring six more runs as Francisco Cervelli, Curtis Granderson and A-Rod all had singles and Jeter had drew a bases-loaded walk to score a run. The Yankees stranded two more runners that inning, but at least they finally took advantage of an overtaxed Indians bullpen.

Two more two-out runs were scored in the eighth to pad the lead to 11-1. And again, multiple runners were stranded, thanks to A-Rod’s inning-ending strikeout with the bases loaded.

A-Rod’s strikeout was the last piece of drama to the evening. Six more plate appearances, no home runs. Stuck on 599 for more than a week now. He got on base twice and drove in three runs, though, so while at times it appears that he’s pressing, he’s still managing to contribute.

The real story, though, was Moseley. Girardi had said before the game that he’d be happy to get six innings out of Moseley, and that’s exactly what he got. After a rocky first inning that saw him throw 31 pitches, Moseley settled down and cruised through the next five, striking out four batters, walking only two, and retiring eight via the groundball. If the Yankees do not trade for a starting pitcher between now and next Tuesday, Moseley likely earned himself another start.

The rout improved the Yankees’ record in July to 18-6, tied for the best in MLB with the Rays. The only way the Yankees leave St. Petersburg without being in first place is if they get swept. The only team to sweep the Yankees this season? The Rays, May 19-20 at Yankee Stadium.

Should be a fun weekend. Let’s see if Girardi crafts a lineup card like Thursday’s at any point against Tampa.

NOTES AND NUMBERS
* Ten of the Yankees’ 11 runs were scored with two outs.

* After the 0-for-10 start with runners in scoring position, the Yankees went 7-for their next 11.

* Have you seen anyone get more at-bats with the bases loaded than A-Rod? Three more tonight, one last night; I checked his season splits during the game and was shocked to find that he only had 14 ABs with the bases loaded prior to Thursday.

* Both Mark Teixeira and Brett Gardner walked three times. Gardner reached base in all four of his plate appearances to raise his on-base percentage to .397. Conversely, Jeter, who has batted leadoff for most of the year, has an OBP of .338. At what point will Girardi even consider placing Gardner in the leadoff spot, considering the 59-point OBP differential?

* The two pitching staffs combined to issue 17 walks and throw 386 pitches. The strike percentage: 57 percent. The Indians’ staff WHIP for the game was 2.67.

* WTF: Andy Marte pitched the ninth inning for Cleveland and was able to retire the Yankees in order. On the other side of the ninth, Chan Ho Park, in his second inning of work, gave Girardi and pitching coach Dave Eiland major agita by allowing three runs on two hits, three walks and two wild pitches. Only when Swisher caught Luis Valbuena’s fly ball on the warning track was anyone able to breathe a sigh of relief.

Now That’s Progressive

The Cleveland Indians, stuck in last place in the AL Central, one game behind the Kansas City Royals, inspire such excitement that the following exchange took place during the YES telecast in the top of the fifth inning:

KEN SINGLETON (To John Flaherty): “Take a look a the light towers here. … Look at ‘em! Don’t they look like toothbrushes?”

FLAHERTY (after a long pause): “You know, I see it more looking at the shot on TV. I was looking out there and I didn’t get that feel.”

Oh yeah, exciting stuff. Never mind the fact Singleton had a point: the light towers at Progressive Field do resemble the shape of a flat-headed toothbrush.

Amid the stimulating intellectual chatter, a baseball game did occur, albeit a largely nondescript one save for the eighth inning. In the top half, with the Yankees trailing 2-1 and making Jake Westbrook look like he should be pitching for a contending team before the end of the week, Jorge Posada led off, battling back from an 0-2 count and singled to left. It was only the Yankees’ third hit of the night. Curtis Granderson followed by drilling a sinker that didn’t sink deep into the right-field seats to put the Yankees on top. The 8, 9 and 1 hitters — Francisco Cervelli, Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter — went quietly to hand the lead to Javier Vazquez.

Vazquez had pitched reasonably well through seven innings. Yes, Vazquez benefited from an impatient Indians lineup that swung at anything near the strike zone, which kept his pitch count low, but he threw strikes and when he put runners on base, he did a fine job pitching out of jams and minimizing damage. It was one of those outings that had “hard luck loser” written all over it until the Granderson bomb. Vazquez faltered when handed the lead, though, walking leadoff man Michael Brantley. The hiccup prompted Joe Girardi to bring in David Robertson, who succeeded in his audition for “the 8th inning guy.” Robertson threw a first-pitch ball to Asdrubal Cabrera, but overpowered him with fastballs thereafter. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Cabrera bounced one to short that seemed to handcuff Jeter, who uncomfortably backhanded the ball but quickly fired to Robinson Canó at second. Canó’s quick turn and rocket toss to Mark Teixeira completed the double play and eased tensions. That was until Joe Girardi emerged from the dugout to take the ball from Robertson and hand it to Boone LOOGY. LOOGY did his job, though, striking out Shin Soo Choo to set up the inevitable with Mariano Rivera.

As Yankee fans, we truly are spoiled. Even when Rivera allows a leadoff hit and that runner advances to scoring position, rarely is there a doubt that he’ll pitch out of the jam. Three broken-bat groundouts later, game over.

The Yankees needed this one because Rays won’t go away. They blanked the Detroit Tigers 5-0 paced by Matt Garza finally putting Tampa on the correct side of a no-hitter. The lead is still three games and hasn’t wavered from that number since July 18, when the Yankees took two of three in the Bronx. The Yankees and Rays are the only two teams in MLB with 60 wins and run differentials of more than 100 (the Yanks are at +129, the Rays are +120). Clearly, they’re the two best teams in the game and they’re both treating games at the end of July as if they were being played in mid-September with a playoff spot and seeding on the line.

THE UMPIRES STRIKE BACK
On June 2, Jim Joyce gave Jason Donald a gift call in Detroit and in the process, took a perfect game away from Armando Galarraga. Tonight, second-base umpire Dale Scott gifted two calls to the Indians in consecutive innings. In the top of the fourth, with one out and Mark Teixeira on first base, Alex Rodriguez hit a sinking liner to left field that Trevor Crowe appeared to have trapped. It was ruled a catch, he quickly threw the ball to the infield, where Donald promptly tagged Teixeira to complete the double play. Teixeira, A-Rod, and Joe Girardi protested the call. In real speed, it looked like a trap, and the slow-motion replay confirmed it. The biggest clue was that Crowe slowed up as the ball continued to sink, and then squared up to field the ball like an infielder. If Crowe intended to catch that ball on the fly, he’d have charged it.

In the top of the fifth, with one out and Posada on first, Granderson hit a long line drive to right that caromed off the top of the wall. Choo played the ricochet perfectly, barehanding the ball off the wall and hurling a seed to second base. The throw beat Granderson by about a step, but Granderson’s slide looked to have beaten the tag from the shortstop, Cabrera. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t believe the thought that if the throw beats the runner, the runner will automatically be out.

At least neither blown call changed the complexion of the game.

Yankee Panky: Midway Ramblings

What a weird turn the season has taken through the first 91 games, and specifically over the last two weeks. With the passings first of Bob Sheppard and then of George Steinbrenner and news of the fall that landed Yogi Berra in the hospital, a somber mood has befallen the Yankee Family, which includes us.

There’s a lot on my mind — nothing new there — and I wanted to get it as much of it down as I could, not only for my own cathartic reasons, but also for your reading enjoyment.

Here we go …

* The discussion regarding the fifth starter spot was rendered moot very quickly, Phil Hughes, with an improved cutter and curveball and most importantly, and an Eff-You attitude that he took from his eighth-inning role in ’09, took control in Spring Training and never let go. He won 10 of his first 11 decisions and earned an All-Star appearance. Now, with Andy Pettitte on the shelf and AJ Burnett looking like an extra in “Girl Interrupted” — more on this in a bit — Hughes is effectively the Yankees’ No. 3 starter, maybe even No. 2, depending on your opinion of Javier Vazquez. Yes, even though Hughes got roughed-up last night. 

The question with Hughes now becomes how the Brain Trust wants to handle the Phil Rules. He is supposedly on an innings limit (160 innings? 175? What’s the number?). But what will that do to his effectiveness? Skipping starts to curb innings is likely not the best move, as evidenced by the 10-day break between his home starts in June against the Mets and Mariners. The Yankees need him to be effective in September and October, yes, but they have to figure out a way to do this right.

On WFAN Saturday, Steve Phillips, commenting on the Cardinals’ management of prospective NL Rookie of the Year Jaime Garcia, said Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan are not taking chances with Garcia; they’re not allowing him to start the seventh inning when he has a big lead. The Yankees can learn from that with Hughes. Skipping starts, especially as the pennant race heats up, could be devastating to both the Yankees’ chances and to Hughes’s development. Look what happened to the Tigers and Rick Porcello last year. Porcello was skipped several times over August and September as a means of preservation for the stretch run. He pitched well in the one-game playoff against Minnesota, but then this year had a miserable start and was optioned to Toledo in mid-June. He’s back with the team now amid rumors he’ll be packaged in a trade? Do the Yankees want to take that chance with Phil Hughes? Probably not.

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Bats to the Pelfrey

Heading into today’s game with the Mets, I decided that based on everything I was reading, seeing and hearing, some media trends needed to be stopped:

* Thinking that one or two hits by a player in a slump immediately means he’s broken out of his slump (see Teixeira, Mark; and Posada, Jorge).

* This might anger some Banterers and I know it may upset Cliff — I apologize in advance — but the love for Posada’s offensive prowess needs to be tempered. Aside from the two grand slams he hit last weekend, maybe it’s just me, but I have little confidence that he’s going to drive in a run with men in scoring position. Any opposing pitcher with an above-average slider can throw that pitch at Posada’s back foot, regardless of whether he’s batting lefty or righty, and he’ll swing over the top of it.

* The Yankees’ recent offensive downturn has everything to do with the opposing pitchers. The Yankees beat up mediocre pitching, yes, but pitchers who change speeds give them fits. Neither Jamie Moyer, Kyle Kendrick, nor Hisanori Takahashi light up the radar gun — Moyer barely registers a reading — but they threw strikes early in the count and kept the Yankees off balance by changing speeds.

Mike Pelfrey, the Mets’ starter on Saturday, is a similar pitcher to Roy Halladay, who the Yankees shelled for six runs in six innings on Tuesday. Granted, Pelfrey’s stuff isn’t as good as Halladay, but he’s a hard-throwing, sinker-slider type. As good as he’s been this season, sinkerballers have a propensity to leave pitches up in the strike zone, as Halladay did Tuesday. Pelfrey seemed due for one of those outings. Hence, in my mind, he was the perfect elixir to the Yankees’ anemic bats.

Another factor in the Yankees’ favor: they countered with Phil Hughes, who led the American League among pitchers to have made a minimum of five starts with a Run Support Average of 10.38. In his nine victories, the Yankees scored 88 runs.

The Yankees answered Jose Reyes’s leadoff home run with two hits and a run in the first. In the third, they answered another Reyes home run with a two-run shot off the bat of Teixeira. It was at this point of the YES telecast that a prescient conversation between Michael Kay and Paul O’Neill took place:

KAY: “For a pitcher like Hughes, he’s got to be thinking, ‘I’ve given up two home runs to Reyes and my team has picked me up.’ Now he’s got to pick his team up. He’s got to settle down and put up zeroes.”

O’NEILL: “That’s right. You have to start thinking, ‘I’ve had my bad innings, and if I can get cruising here for three or four innings, chances are my offense swings the bat today.”

That conversation took place in the fourth inning. Hughes put the Mets away on nine pitches. In the bottom half, Posada led off with a walk and Granderson got ahead in the count 2-and-1. Granderson then fouled off a few tough pitches before launching a hanging curveball into the box seats to give the Yankees a 5-3 lead.

Now with the lead, Hughes needed to respond. Reyes stepped to the plate with two outs and a runner on first. Hughes fell behind 1-0 and again 2-1. Hughes fought back with a good fastball that painted the outside corner to even the count. After Reyes fouled off another fastball, Hughes delivered a curveball on the outside part part of the plate that Reyes swung through to end the inning.

The Mets worked Hughes again in the sixth. Angel Pagan hit a one-out single and then advanced on a wild pitch, and Hughes proceeded to walk Ike Davis to bring the go-ahead run to the plate in the form of Jason Bay. Bay, who had seen just four pitches in his two previous at-bats, swung at the first pitch and grounded into a 5-4-3 double play to end the threat. Hughes had no problems working through the seventh inning and holding the two-run edge.

The Yankees’ offense had chances to break the game open in the sixth and eighth innings. In both innings, they had runners in scoring position with less than two outs — in the eighth, they had runners on second and third with no one out — and failed to score. Counting today, the Yankees have two hits in their last 21 at-bats with runners in scoring position. The lack of situational hitting, more than anything, has been the root cause of the Yankees’ offensive slide.

Another positive to take from Saturday: Joba Chamberlain pitched a scoreless eighth. Even better, he struck out David Wright without having to throw a fastball. Mariano Rivera followed by pitching a flawless ninth to close out the 5-3 victory.

The win snapped the Yankees’ three-game losing skid and ended the Mets’ eight-game run. As for Hughes, he didn’t have his best stuff, but he pitched well enough to preserve the lead he was given. He is now tied with David Price for the AL lead in wins (10), and furthered his case to become a member of the All-Star team.

Now it’s set up: Santana vs Sabathia for the series win. Should be a good baseball Sunday.

Burn Notice

The first two games of the series at Camden Yards — the last series the Yankees will play against American League competition for a few weeks — did little to hold the interest of even the Yankees, it seemed. The Yankees believe they will win every game, while the Orioles, a once proud franchise, have become a team that is only “Major League” in name, to paraphrase Vin Scully. As WFAN’s Steve Sommers put it on the Wednesday Schmooze, “You know who’s going to win, it’s just a matter of what the final score will be.”

Yet amid an air of seemingly unfailing predictability, there’s AJ Burnett. In his last two starts he plowed through the Indians’ lineup and then ran into the Blue Jays’ home run machine. The O’s should have been the perfect elixir to get him back on track. Except that with Burnett, in a season and a half of watching him closely, we’re unable to discern that there is a track.

In the first inning, Burnett’s numbers read as follows:

2 R, 2 H, 2 HBP, 2 K, 2.00 WHIP.

Great poker hand, terrible pitching line.

But these were the Orioles, so there was still a sense that the Yankees would come back and win this game without issue. Either that, or the Orioles would find a way to botch things and hand the game in the Yankees’ favor as they did Wednesday night.

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