"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: russell martin

Dollar Dollar Bill Y’all

The Big Bopper goes…

Miami Marlins v Washington Nationals

Cha-Ching.

And a little something something for Monsieur Martin aussi. 

[Photo Credit: Scott Cunningham]

Dollar Sign on the Russell?

How much is Russell Martin worth?

[Photo Credit: Thomas A. Ferrara]

Wait a Minim

According to George King, Russell Martin and Ichiro Suzuki are willing to wait on the Yankees. So? Bring ‘em both back, just one of them? Which one of these?

And how would you feel if Nick Swisher signed with the Red Sox?

[Photo Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images]

A Love Supreme

 

David Waldstein has a long profile on Russell Martin and catching in the New York Times:

The physical penalties paid by the catcher, of course, are not often characterized by the spectacular violence of a wide receiver clotheslined by a safety. Neither are they frequently accompanied by the angry acoustics of a crunching hockey check into the boards.

The price paid, as much as anything, is one of plain, penetrating exhaustion, both mental and physical. It is about enduring a grinding, dirty routine, where, in St. Louis or Arlington, Tex., in August, a catcher can shed 10 pounds in a game. In 2007, when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Martin started 143 games behind the plate.

Three times this season, Martin has caught at least six games in six days. From May 11 to 17, he caught seven consecutive games, and once, from June 5 to 13, he caught nine in a row.

“When you’re going through it, you don’t notice it,” Martin said of the grind. “It’s when you stop for a day or two and then the aches from the foul tips and the fatigue kind of bubble to the surface and you’re like ‘Whoa, did I get hit by a train?’

“Sometimes I’d rather just plow through and keep playing, just soldier on, because it almost feels harder when you’ve been off for a day and you come back.”

Worth your time.

[Photo Credit: Jyekn; Thomas Ferrara/Newsday]

Gitcher Brooms (Hold the Pie)

In the second inning of today’s ballgame the Mets’ law firm of Hairston, Rottino,Quintanilla, Nickeas, and Valdespin–you forgot a Hungadunga–put together three runs against Andy Pettitte.

The bases were loaded when Pettitte struck out Jason Bay and David Wright to avoid disaster.

In the bottom of the inning, Alex Rodriguez walked and Robinson Cano singled to left and then Nick Swisher decided to be clever and show off his baseball acumen. He laid down a bunt going for a hit only it was a lousy bunt and Rodriguez was thrown out at third. Jonathan Niese struck out Andruw Jones and Russell Martin to end the inning.

I stayed mad at Swisher for most of the afternoon as Neise threw a fine game. Pettitte recovered and was terrific as well. He made the defensive play of the game in the sixth when Scott Hairston hit a ground ball up the middle. Pettitte, as if by reflex, stuck his hand out, fielded the ball and threw to first for the out. He had to throw several warm-up pitches to rid himself of the tingling sensation in his paw and then retired the next two batters.

The Yanks took advantage of an error by David Wright in the seventh as Russell Martin hit a two-run homer to make it 3-2. The ball hit off the top of the right field wall–it was line drive–and just above the glove of Hairston. Once it hit the wall it popped in the air. A Yankee fan reached out and snagged it. He was close to leaning over the fence but it was ruled a homer.

Another error, this one to start the eighth, put Derek Jeter on second. He moved to third on a base hit by Curtis Granderson and scored on a ground ball single by Mark Teixeira. Then a little bit o luck blessed the Yankees as Rodriguez ballooned a single to short right field. The ball would have been caught if the infield hadn’t been playing in. And so the Yanks had a 4-3 lead and two men on with nobody out. But they could not plate another run and that proved costly because Raphael Soriano gave up back-to-back doubles to start the bottom of the ninth and with it went the save.

Quintanella hit a ball to shortstop and Jason Nix threw it to Rodriguez at third who tagged Ike Davis for the first out. It was a close play, a gamble for Nix, but one that paid off. Then David Murphy, pinch-hitting, slapped a 3-2 pitch into right field, putting runners on the corners. And that was the end of Soriano’s afternoon.

Boone Logan came in to pitch to Josh Thole and struck him out looking on a slow breaking ball that looked low. Thole was not at all pleased with the call and had a few cherce words on his way back to the dugout. Which left it up to the Hungadunga that we didn’t mentioned earlier, Kirk Nieuwenhuis. The latest Mets pinch hitter got ahead 3-0 then took a fastball for a strike. He slapped the next pitch toward right field. Cano, who moves to his left as smoothly as any second baseman in the league, got to it, reached down and gloved it–not an easy play at all–and tossed to Teixeira for the third out.

Jon Rauch, he of the big shoes and garish neck tattoo, hung a 3-2 slider to Russell Martin who hit a high fly ball to left field.

Martin hesitated as he moved out of the batter’s box, and watching on TV, it was hard to tell if he’d gotten under the ball. That went against the initial feeling that he had plenty of it. As they tell you in high school before you take the SATS always trust your first answer.

The ball drifted over the fence, the Yanks got the win and a sweep of the Mets. It was the first “walk off” homer the Yanks hit since September 8th, 2010. Martin jumped into the air as he approached the mob surrounding home plate, landed on his right leg and fell to the ground. Thoughts of Kendry Morales and his broken leg flashed through our heads but Martin appeared to be okay as he braced himself against the celebratory slaps and slugs of his teammates.

Final Score: Yanks 5, Mets 4.

The Pleasure Pain Principle

Laz Diaz offers up some cruel and unusual punishment. Craig Calcaterra gathers the story over at Hardball Talk.

[Image Via: Von Trapper Keeper]

Frame Job

Over at ESPN, Anna McDonald has a piece on Russell Martin and the art of framing pitches.

Here’s more over at Hardball Talk.

[Photo Credit: Ron Vesely]

感 謝

When I heard that Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers’ veteran right-hander, refused a trade to the Yankees last summer, my first thought was “Fine, we don’t want you anyway.” If he didn’t want to play in New York, his loss. Better for him to stay away than become the next Ed Whitson. God knows we’ve seen turkeys in pinstripes, from Britt Burns and Denny Neagle to Jeff Weaver and A.J. Burnett.

So I was surprised when I read that Brian Cashman was pursuing Kuroda this off-season. This after trying to sign him as a free agent last winter as well. What was I missing? Then last month, there it was: the 37-year old Kuroda signed a 1-year, $10 million contract to pitch with the Yankees. Coming on the heels of the trade that sent Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for Michael Pineda, the signing was pushed off the back page, yet drew rave reviews from baseball analysts. I e-mailed my pal Jon Weisman, who runs the Dodger Thoughts blog, and he said that Kuroda “was one of the classiest guys to wear a Dodger uniform. A good pitcher who might have the occasional stumble but can usually be counted on to pitch seven good innings. He goes right after hitters.”

Okay, the guy’s a pro. But there’s more to him than that. As Jon said, “It’s hard to feel too low when you’ve got Hiroki Kuroda on your side.”

Last year, his fourth year in the major leagues, Kuroda was having his finest season when he met with Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti in mid-July. Kuroda had gotten little run support and had a 6-11 record (from May 12 through July 27, Kuroda went 1-10 with a stellar 3.38 ERA), but as the trade deadline approached, he drew interest from several teams, particularly the Yankees and Red Sox.

Colletti told Kuroda how much he liked and respected him. He’d signed Kuroda three-and-a-half years earlier and admired how well the pitcher adapted to the major leagues. “He takes everything so seriously,” Colletti told me over the phone recently. “He has tremendous focus, even to a greater extent than most players.” The general manager told Kuroda, “I want to give you a chance to experience a pennant race again,” all the while understanding that being traded is not considered an honor in Japan.

“He is someone who takes his time and contemplates every major decision,” Colletti said, “but I could tell that day that his heart wasn’t in it.”

Kuroda liked L.A., where he lived with his wife and two daughters. He appreciated his time with the Dodgers and got along with his teammates. Under the visor of his cap were the characters 感 謝, which mean ‘thankful’. For Kuroda, being thankful isn’t a glib daily affirmation; it is a reminder of where he came from and who he is.

Unlike most other Japanese pitchers who played in the United States, Kuroda was not a star in high school. In fact, he spent most of his time on the bench. Kuroda’s father had been a professional player though he never pushed his son. His mother, however, supported the old school brand of discipline practiced by his coach. Kuroda was strong and durable but wild and was often relegated to pitching in practice. During bullpen sessions, his coach Hidemasa Tanaka told the catcher not to catch any pitch that wasn’t a strike. Kuroda had to retrieve each errand toss and then sprint back to the mound to make the next pitch.

“Pro scouts frequently came to watch our teams play,” Tanaka told Dylan Hernandez of the L.A. Times. “But no one bothered with Kuroda. There was no point.”

Kuroda wanted to quit many times but he stuck with it, pitching at Senshu University in Tokyo without achieving stardom. It was no surprise he wasn’t a high draft pick in 1997 when the Hiroshima Carp, a losing small-market team, signed him to the customary 10-year Japanese contract.

“The team had a lousy defense and he had to pitch in a small park,” says Robert Whiting, author of “You Gotta Have Wa”. “It was hard for him to put up the numbers he might have if he had played for the Yomiuri Giants, and accordingly, he did not get as much attention as he might have.” Nevertheless, Kuroda developed into an accomplished pitcher with good control.

“Kuroda earned everything by merit, including his chance to take the mound,” says Mike Plugh a professor of communications in Akita City who has written about Japanese baseball for Baseball Prospectus.

Alex Ochoa, the first base coach for the Red Sox, played against Kuroda for 4 years in Japan. Last week, Ochoa told David Waldstein of the New York Times, “He pitched like an American. He got ahead with his fastball and then used his breaking stuff and his splitter to get you out.”

Plugh says that Kuroda was appreciated by baseball fans in Japan, but adds, “The Carp are notoriously stingy. When he became a free agent, even after he showed himself to be one of the best pitchers in Japan, they didn’t want to pay him at first.” When they finally came around, Kuroda signed a 4-year deal. He was a rarity. Since the advent of free agency in Japan in 1992, players have changed teams at will. “Players move about quite a lot these days, usually from less influential teams to more influential teams like the Giants,” Whiting told me. “In this sense, Kuroda was an exception.”

Kuroda wisely had a clause written in the contract that allowed him to leave if the majors came calling. After one more season with the Carp, he declared free agency and signed 3-year, $35.3 million deal with the Dodgers. He was in tears at his farewell press conference.

“I made the decision because I wanted to go one step forward as a baseball player,” said Kuroda. “I would’ve been fine finishing my career with the Carp, but my feelings of wanting to challenge myself in a different kind of baseball grew stronger.”

Perhaps his decision was not necessarily compatible with the need to stay loyal to the Carp. He may have felt the need to repay the debt in full and then take a step up the ladder. Only after he was freed by a sense of obligation was he able to concentrate on personal ambition.

Kuroda arrived in the States with none of the hype that accompanied Dice K in Boston. “He didn’t have superstar baggage,” said Dylan Hernandez. Kuroda was open to changing his approach to fit the American game. In Japan, pitchers only throw once a week and they don’t face the same level of hitters they do in the States. With the help of an interpreter, Kuroda talked with Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and catcher Russell Martin. He also watched a lot of video. “The first year it wasn’t so much spring training as the long season,” Honeycutt told me last week. “We tried to give him a day off when we could.”

The most difficult adjustment was cultural. “You think about it, it’s a very lonely existence,” Joe Torre, the Dodgers’ manager told Andy Kamenetzky who profiled Kuroda for ESPN Los Angeles in 2010. “When you’re changing countries, it’s a little overwhelming.”

In Japan, players don’t seek out coaches so Kuroda was honored when Torre eventually approached him with a friendly pat or a few words. He spent some time on the DL with tendinitis that first year but he had a solid season. He took a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Braves in July before Mark Teixeira broke it up with a single. What made Kuroda’s transition to the majors impressive is that he continued to strike batters out while maintaining the same fine control he had in Japan.

He came into his own in the playoffs. Kuroda had never pitched in postseason with the Carp, yet there he was throwing 6.1 shutout innings against the Cubs in the clinching game of the NLDS. The Dodgers lost the first two games of the NLCS against the Phillies. In Game 2, Phillies starter Brett Myers threw a ball behind Manny Ramirez. After the Dodgers jumped all over Jamie Moyer in Game 3, Russell Martin was hit twice. In the top of the third, with two men out, Kuroda threw a fastball over Shane Victorino’s head. The benches cleared (and Kuroda was later fined $7,500) but he allowed just two runs over 6 innings and the Dodgers won the game. “That was a big turning point,” Torre told Kamenetzky. “You knew he was a competitor, but I think at that point and time you realized what kind of competitor.”

The next season, Kuroda had an oblique strain and missed most of April and all of May. Then, in August he suffered a concussion after getting hit in the head with a batted ball in Arizona. The ball ricocheted all the way to the Diamondback’s on deck circle. “I didn’t know if he was going to get up,” said general manager Colletti. Kuroda went to the hospital and only missed a few starts. “That tells you everything you need to know about him, ” said Colletti. Kuroda didn’t pitch in  the NLDS due to a bulging disk in his neck and gave up six runs against the Phillies in the NLCS without making it out of the second inning.

The next 2 years, Kuroda was healthier and he improved incrementally. He went from 183 and 117 innings to 196 and 202; his ERA went from 3.73 and 3.76 to 3.39 and 3.07. His walks stayed low and he continued to strike hitters out.

“He is a nice, no bullshit pitcher who pitches deep into games and is economical,” said Jay Jaffe from Baseball Prospectus.

Honeycutt calls Kuroda a true professional: “He commands the fastball in the lower part of the zone with movement. He’s a groundball pitcher, an attack guy, especially from the wind up, who looks for contact early in the count. With two strikes he will use a hard split finger, 86-88 mph that goes straight down and is lethal. But last year, he also challenged guys up in the zone when he was ahead and surprised them.”

“When he’s really on, his splitty is on,” Russell Martin told Anthony McCarron of the Daily News last week. “It gets him out of trouble. He can throw his fastball at 94 or 95 (miles per hour), though he’s mostly at 92 or 93, so it’s impressive. His slider is different, a really short break. It’s not a strikeout pitch, but it gets a lot of balls off the end of the bat, and his splitty is nasty against lefties or righties.”

Kuroda also became more comfortable with his English and was popular with teammates who appreciated his droll sense of humor.

Kuroda may come across as stoic or reserved but Clayton Kershaw thought he was “a goofball.”

What stood out to me in Kamenetzky’s ESPN piece is this quote from Kuroda: “There’s so much that you can understand about a person beyond words. And since I can’t really express myself, I’ve noticed a lot more, I’m tuned to notice the quality of a person without speaking. There’s a definitely a lot more importance in trying to understand a person without words.”

One Dodger teammate recalled how Kuroda comforted pitcher Jamey McDonald after Macdonald had a bad outing. Mcdonald refused to speak to reporters and Kuroda approached him and touched his shoulder as if to say, “I’ve been there.” It was a seemingly innocuous gesture but one that conveyed empathy and sensitivity.

Which brings us back to the meeting with Colletti. Kuroda thought about accepting a trade but he valued the commitment the Dodgers made to him when they signed him to a 1-year deal that spring. Would the champagne taste as sweet if he won a championship with a team that he didn’t start with in spring training? For Kuroda, the answer was no. A sense of loyalty—or ningen-kankei, the Japanese term for human relations—far outweighed the lure of moving to a contender. He stayed with the Dodgers.

“I wanted that feeling to remain important to me,” Kuroda told Hernandez last summer. “I think your self-identity is defined by certain decisions you make. If you go back on them, you lose a sense of who you are.”

The more I learned about Kuroda, the more I saw how narrow my thinking was last summer. Colletti called Kuroda’s decision to stay with the Dodgers “honorable” and I agree. When the season was over, Kuroda was expected to return to Japan and end his career with the Carp.

“I was surprised that he didn’t go back,” says Dylan Hernandez. “On the last day of the season he was crying in the clubhouse and I thought ‘this is it.’” Takashi  Yamakawa, a Japanese baseball writer for Kyodo News said that Kuroda “changed his mind after deep consideration. Kuroda is not young in his spirit. He is an adult.”

The chance to pitch for Yankees meant not only pitching for a contender but pitching for the most famous team in the world. It is the challenge of playing for a perennial favorite, something that Kuroda has never experienced. “My feeling is that he made an exception for the Yankees,” said Hernandez. “They are the best, most visible team in the world. You just don’t say no.”

Kuroda will pitch in a new league, against a DH, and work in smaller ballparks than he did in the NL West. He’s coming off his two most durable years and is at his peak just when physical decline is set to take effect. Oh yeah, he’s also pitching for the Yankees, where the pressure to win is unrelenting.

“The pressure is more than double,” says Yamakawa, who told me that Kuroda went to a doctor last summer when he was having trouble sleeping at night. Unbeknownst to his teammates Kuroda spent two nights in the hospital. The doctor said that stress was keeping him awake. “But he is good at switching his mind when he’s on the mound,” Yumokura said.

Although Robert Whiting predicts that “Kuroda will suffer from the Yankees weak infield defense on the left hand side of the diamond and the home run jet stream to right center,” the pitcher will be reunited with his old catcher Russell Martin. “He was sad when Martin left,” says Yumokura. He said that ‘Martin is the only catcher for me.’”

“Without a doubt it’ll help pitching to Russell,” said Honeycutt. “That’s a huge positive for the Yankees and I have no doubt that Kuroda’s qualified to handle the change.” He is almost certain to get more run support, too. “He might have won 17 games last year with that offense,” said Colletti.

Kuroda is not expected to be an ace but a workhorse. Maybe he’ll have a higher ERA but should also win more games. Kuroda wanted an opportunity to be the best in the world and it seems as though he owed himself the chance to take a shot at it. And while winning a World Series is all that matters in certain quarters in the Bronx, there are some of us Yankee fans who appreciate toughness and effort no matter what the result.

“He is a humble man and not afraid,” said Yamakawa. “But he’s never had that great fame and he is ambitious to be successful.” The reporter thought for a moment before adding a small request: “Please help him.”

Click here for William Juliano’s statistical analysis of Kuroda.

[Photo Credit: ESPN, SI; Kuroda meal via Rico and Coco]

Hot Stove – Easy Bake Oven Edition

When the Yankees contemplate the 2012 roster, Russell Martin’s name is going to come up – for about five seconds. He’s going to be on the team and, if healthy, the opening day catcher.

He’s cheap, requires only a one-year commitment, and he said something heartwarming about the Red Sox. All this and he was a slightly above average catcher last year, too. Of catchers with 400 PAs, he was top ten in fWAR, and just below top ten in wOBA (.325) and wRC+ (100). That 100 wRC+ means, after adjusting for park effects, Russell Martin was exactly average offensively in 2011.

There are no likely circumstances in which the Yankees are better off in 2012 without Russell Martin. Even if the Yankees somehow acquired Joe Mauer for Jesus Montero and some magic beans, they might as well keep Martin on board for 2012 as an expensive but high quality back-up.

A Mauer trade isn’t going to go down, however. So what variables should the Yankees consider when it comes to Martin?

Cost. He made four million last year and is under team control for one more year. They must tender a contract to retain their rights and at least head to binding arbitration. But that should be no problem. Martin could command a significant raise and still be cheap for a decent starting catcher.

Length of commitment. The Yankees could try to negotiate a long-term contract with Martin, but why? He’s not good enough and the Yanks have cheaper, perhaps better, options on the horizon. The risk of losing him after 2012 while none of their other catching prospects pans out to replace him is far less damaging than the scenario of signing him long term only to have his adequacy block the development of the prospects.

The Yankees can control one more year of Martin’s career and that’s all they should sign up for at this point. Maybe a two-year deal would be even better, but I don’t see why Martin would want to delay his impending free agency to help the Yanks. If it so happens that Martin is also their best option for 2013 and beyond, they can address that with their wallet after they win the 2012 World Series.

Other Options. Despite blistering the ball for a month at the Major League level, the Yankees were scared to let 21 year old Jesus Montero catch more than a couple of pitches in September. Whether this was because they thought he would cost them vital games in their quest for the AL East crown or because they thought he’d hurt his trade value by exposing his poor defensive skills, neither indicates he’s storming to the top of the depth chart by opening day.

I don’t think it’s going to be a widely held opinion, but certainly there are some fans who think the Yanks should adios Martin to give Montero a trial by fire to become the next Mike Piazza. A trial by fire only works if you’re prepared to allow the prospect to burn. Montero’s bat is too promising to be used for kindling in that experiment.

The Yankees may someday pencil Austin Romine’s name into the opening day lineup, but in 2012, he should start in Scranton, not the Bronx. He’s got two seasons of AA under his belt, and he’s hit enough to stay on the radar screen, but not enough to skip a level. There’s no way either of those guys is going to be a better option at catcher than Russell Martin before next April.

Francisco Cervelli is right out.

Crazy Ideas. The DH slot opens wide if Montero wins the starting job. Which configuration gives the Yankees the best chance at the 2012 title? A catcher-DH-3B medley of Martin, Montero, Arod and Nunez? Or one of Montero, Cervelli, Arod, Nunez and David Ortiz?

Imagine this lineup: Jeter, Granderson, Cano, Arod, Ortiz, Teixeira, Montero, Swisher, Gardner. Swap Gardner and Jeter if you want. DH Arod against lefties if you want.  Ortiz was among the top ten hitters in baseball last year by wOBA (.405) and wRC+ (153); he’s going to be good next year too.

But Jesus Montero could prove within two weeks that he cannot handle the full time catching responsibilities. He could be the next Johnny Bench and, at 22, still struggle with full time duty in the Show. And if Montero fails completely, like we’ve been warned he will by 29 other teams and the scouting community at large, then Cervelli is the guy. Due to Arod’s fragility, he appears unable to play 140 games at third base. To keep him around all season in something resembling top form, he needs a lot of days at DH.

If this crazy idea worked out perfectly, the Yanks would be upgrading from Martin to Ortiz on offense while downgrading from Martin to Montero defensively. And if the plan fell apart, they’d be downgrading from Martin to Cervelli on both offense and defense while Montero, Arod and Ortiz shuttled between DH, the bench, the DL and AAA.

So the risk of cutting Martin loose so that David Ortiz could pepper the right field stands just isn’t worth it. If Montero improves over the year and the Yankees have an opening at DH, they will have another chance to acquire one at the trade deadline.

Martin’s ALDS performance was disappointing, and he’s a lousy hitter if his power returns to pre-2011 norms. But with Montero in the lineup and playing some catcher to boot, Martin’s offense should be even less relevant than it was last year. It’s possible that by the time Yankees are contemplating their next playoff roster, Montero could be the starting catcher.

Martin’s adequacy is exactly what the Yankees need right now. On the cusp of better options from within, he’ll do more than keep the spot warm; he’ll give the 2012 Yankees the best chance to win.

Be Here All Week

From George King in the Post:

Russell Martin was ejected by plate umpire Paul Schrieber in the fifth inning after Hughes believed the ump missed a couple of pitches.

“I said to (the umpire), ‘Did you stretch before the game?’ He said ‘What?’ I asked him again. Then I said, ‘I believe you are kind of tight right now.’ And he threw me out of the game.

“He wanted to hear what I was going to say because why else would he take off his mask and walk around me. I kept my mask on my face, nobody knew what was going on. I thought this was a game it should be fun. I was just trying to loosen things up a bit because he wasn’t having a good time. I didn’t say he sucked, I didn’t say he was the worst umpire in the league, I didn’t say any of that stuff. I just made a joke and he threw me out. No warning. Nothing.

“He said my antics were tired. Me walking to the mound kind of slowly. But it’s frustrating when you are not getting calls. I got thrown out for being funny, I guess. I got thrown out for having a sense of humor. I had Joe [Girardi] laughing. I can’t wait to see the report he is going to write. I felt it was the perfect time to do it. I was just trying to lighten up the mood. It just popped up in my head. I think he took it the wrong way. I just thought of it on the way back from seeing Phil. Phil was getting frustrated. a My standup days are over, shortlived. We can’t talk anymore. I was shocked I got thrown out. I was just trying to get him to laugh.”

Tough room, huh?

[Drawing by the great Drew Friedman]

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).

Chicago, Seven

Ivan Nova

Ivan Nova is the Yankees' third 10-game winner this year.

Twenty-six years ago, on August 4, the Yankees and White Sox played the third game of a four-game set at Yankee Stadium. It was Phil Rizzuto Day at the Stadium, and his number 10 was retired during a pregame ceremony that featured an appearance by a Holy Cow. A few hours later, Rizzuto’s future broadcast partner on WPIX, Tom Seaver, jumped into the arms of Carlton Fisk in celebration of his 300th career victory. Seaver handed the Yankees their fifth loss in six games. They proceeded to win 14 of their next 15 to gain on the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East standings.

No such historical significance defined the lead-up to Thursday’s Yankees-White Sox tilt at US Cellular Field. Derek Jeter passed Lou Brock on the all-time hits list last night. No member of past White Sox teams was enjoying a number retirement ceremony, although manager Ozzie Guillen was the White Sox’ starting shortstop in the Rizzuto-Seaver game.

The only questions were:

  • Would the Yankees extend their win streak to seven?
  • Where would the Yankees stand heading into the Boston series?
  • Regardless of the outcome, how would Ivan Nova pitch?
  • The answers were “Yes,” “Tied,” and, “Anything would have been better than Burnett, but in a word, awesome.”

    The offense didn’t need to give Nova a 12-run lead and hope he held onto it. He did just fine with a one-run advantage, save for the bizarre hiccup on the pitch-out in the third inning that led to the only run he allowed. He was even better when the game was tied in the middle innings. Nova faced the minimum number of batters in each of those innings, and benefited from great defense.

    The White Sox mounted a minor threat with one out in the sixth, shortly after the Yankees regained the lead. Juan Pierre reached base on arguably the cheapest hit ever, which brought Alexei Ramirez at the plate. Nova maintained his aggressiveness throughout the Ramirez at-bat, and also did a good job holding Pierre at first. With the count 2-and-2, Pierre took off for second base. Nova got Ramirez to swing at a high, inside fastball for strike three, and Russell Martin quickly threw to second. Robinson Cano fielded the ball on a short hop at the bag and tagged Pierre first on his left arm and then sweeping up to the brim of his helmet to complete the double play.

    That play was the turning point of the game. The Yankees tacked on two more runs in the seventh and three in the ninth. Nova made good on the insurance runs, as did the Yankees’ bullpen. Final score, 7-2.

    Martin called Nova’s stuff “electric” in his postgame interview with YES Network’s Kim Jones.

    “His fastball, he’s reaching up to 95, 96 when he needs it,” Martin said. “He’s working his slider off his fastball and he’s got a good curveball to go with that.

    “He’s got four pitches and they’re all working well for him right now. So when you throw 96 and you’ve got four good pitches, you’re going to be a stud, and he’s exactly that.”

    “Electric” has been the adjective of choice to describe AJ Burnett’s stuff through the years, almost as a defense mechanism to explain away his inconsistency. It is Nova, though, who a night after Burnett had an outage, lit up Chicago. His performance was not a statement but an exclamation that he should be in the majors to stay and perhaps be an integral part of the Yankees’ October plans. Nova’s victory means in one night, he has earned more wins in the month of August than Burnett has in two previous Augusts as a Yankee. In his last two starts, Nova has beaten more American League teams than Burnett has since June 1.

    There’s no decision to make anymore. Nova should be in the rotation. Joe Girardi’s decision may just be which veteran gets bumped come October.

    HONORABLE MENTION PLAYER OF THE GAME
    J Martin. The Canadian catcher is proving to be one of Brian Cashman’s shrewdest acquisitions last winter. The catch and throw on the double play in the sixth inning preserved the lead in what was then a tight game. He also drove in the last four runs of the game, the capper being a mammoth three-run home run in the top of the ninth. His quiet competitive grit is the perfect balance to Francisco Cervelli’s ebullience. And he’s healthy again.

    QUICK RECAP
    The Yankees outscored the White Sox 34-11 in the four-game series. They have outscored the opposition 63-19 (average score of 9-3) during the seven-game win streak. … Adam Dunn’s home run in the bottom of the ninth off Hector Noesi was the only run allowed by Yankees’ relievers in the series.

    QUICK PREVIEW
    The Yankees meet their White Whale in New England starting tomorrow. They’ll send Bartolo Colon, CC Sabathia and Freddy Garcia to the mound against Jon Lester, John Lackey and Josh Beckett. We know the Yankees’ history against Boston this season: 1-8 and perhaps singularly responsible for the Red Sox’ rise. Since getting their first win of the season against the Yankees, the Red Sox have won nearly two thirds of their games.

    Two items of note:

    1) CC Sabathia continues to stake his claim for a second Cy Young Award, but if he does not pitch well Saturday, or if he loses, he has almost no chance. Sabathia is 0-3 with a 6.16 ERA against the Red Sox this season. He’s averaged slightly more than 6 IP per start, 8 H, 4 ER, has a 1.67 K/BB ratio, and the BoSox are batting .308 against him. In his 21 other starts, Sabathia is 16-2 with a 2.11 ERA, averaging more than 7 IP per start, has a 4.08 K/BB ratio, and holding opposing hitters to a .223 average.

    2) Josh Beckett. The Yankees have done next to nothing against him this season. Beckett dominated the Yankees like he did in the 2003 World Series, to the tune of 25 strikeouts in 21 IP, and just 10 hits allowed.

    It should be a fun weekend, and a worthy playoff preview.

    Phil-in’ Good …

    Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira

    Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira bolstered the Yankees' offense.

    The general consensus heading into Tuesday night’s matchup with the Chicago White Sox was that Phil Hughes, ye of the 8.24 ERA and 1.90 WHIP, would be the odd man out of the Yankees’ newfangled six-man outfit. In his last two starts, he chumped his way through the Oakland A’s lineup in a way that Ivan Nova didn’t when being given a huge lead, and then struggled through six innings against a Seattle Mariners team that is redefining feeble.

    Hughes was seen throwing in the bullpen during Saturday’s Game 2 blowout, and later confirmed it was a scheduled throw day and he was still trying to find his mechanics. Maybe something clicked in that session and he didn’t leave it all on the range, so to speak.

    Hughes barreled his way through the White Sox lineup, allowing just three base runners in six innings, and throwing only 65 pitches before rain halted play prior to the bottom of the seventh inning. It was the hardest Hughes had thrown all year — he was consistently in the mid-90s with his fastball and spotted it as well as he has all year. He was aggressive when reaching two strikes on hitters. Hughes ended the first inning with a 95-mph fastball on the outside corner to strike out Carlos Quentin looking. In the second, he struck out A.J. Pierzynski on a nasty 0-2 curveball and later blew away Gordon Beckham with a letter-high fastball clocked at 94 mph. We haven’t seen Hughes at that level of attack mode since 2009, when he was Mariano Rivera’s setup man.

    In addition to being aggressive, Hughes, who had averaged 15 pitches per inning and slightly better than 5 1/3 innings pitched over his first seven starts of the season, was efficient. He needed only 65 pitches to get through his six innings. Hughes had also entered the game with a decidedly higher ratio of flyball outs to groundball outs (2.23-to-1). He balanced that out to an even 1-to-1, inducing seven groundball outs and seven flyball outs.

    On the YES telecast at the start of the rain delay, Michael Kay opined, “If someone said to Brian Cashman, ‘Hey Brian, if you could acquire a 25-year-old All-Star, would you take it?’ He might get that back right now.” Is Kay’s praise overstated? Hughes looked an awful lot like the pitcher who earned an All-Star selection in 2010, won 18 games and was the No. 2 starter in the playoffs before his mysterious deadarm period. It was his best outing of the season to date. It was also the third time in his last four starts that he completed six innings, so perhaps Hughes’ stamina is increasing along with his arm strength.

    Perhaps Hughes’ success coming on the road should not be viewed as a surprise. Last year, in 13 road appearances, Hughes’ ERA was more than a run lower (3.47 to 4.66), his BAA was 10 points lower (.238 to .248), opponents’ slugging percentage was more than 100 points lower (.336 to .443), and his K/BB ratio was better than 3-to-1, compared to 2-to-1 at home.

    What to make of this? We need to see a larger sample size to get a true gauge of what Phil Hughes is, and what he will be. The Yankees like their “proven guys” heading into the playoffs. That he didn’t lose his spot in the rotation after his DL stint, despite numbers that resembled Chien-Ming Wang circa, well, since he injured himself running the bases in Houston in 2009, proves the Yankees want Hughes to be one of their guys down the stretch and beyond.

    Hughes still has some proving to do, but the initial signs are encouraging.

    BIG BATS, BIG TEX
    Hughes benefited once again from great run support. Sixteen times last year the Yankees scored 6 runs or more for him, and they’ve now done it in two of his last three starts.

    The Yankees jumped on lefty John Danks early, scoring in each of the first three innings. They broke the game open with two more in the sixth. Mark Teixeira homered from both sides of the plate to come within one of Jose Bautista’s American League lead. The two home runs were also historic: his first home run, a two-run shot in the fourth off Danks (batting right-handed), marked the eighth straight season Tex has hit at least 30 home runs. His solo shot in the sixth off Jason Frasor (batting left-handed), marked the 12th time in his career he’s homered from both sides of the plate in the same game. Teixeira is now the all-time leader in that category.

    In another under-the-radar note, Derek Jeter’s first inning single moved him past Rafael Palmeiro for 24th on the all-time hits list. His next hit will tie him with Lou Brock. At his current pace, he should pass Rod Carew (3,053), Rickey Henderson (3,055), and Craig Biggio (3,060) and finish the season at No. 20.

    Final: 6-0 (7 innings).

    Yankee Panky: It Didn't Take Long …

    … for the new Yankees to make an impact, both on the field and in the media.

    Case #1: Russell Martin has proven, at least through one week, to be the kind of stopgap pickup the Yankees needed in order to transition Jorge Posada to the Designated Hitter role, and allow Jesus Montero to develop further in the minor leagues. He’s shown a deftness at handling the pitching staff — in particular AJ Burnett — and is hitting well enough to give opponents pause when reaching the 8th or 9th spot in the batting order.

    [And on a side note (Emma Span will appreciate this), am I the only one relieved that the Yankees don’t put their players’ last names on their jerseys? The Dodgers, like the Red Sox, do not embroider last names their home whites but do so for their road greys, and the “J Martin” on Russell Martin’s #55 always confused me until I reviewed his profile page on Baseball Reference. He did it starting in the 2009 World Baseball Classic to honor his mother’s maiden name, Jeanson, and then carried that through to the Dodgers. Here, no last name on the jersey, no confusion.]

    Case #2: Rafael Soriano. There were reported warnings over the winter about Soriano’s volatile personality, but take that with a grain of salt, since the Yankees have employed award winners in that category like Raul Mondesi, Jeff Weaver and Kevin Brown, to name a few. After Soriano’s first blown hold — I’m waiting for that stat to become a boxscore staple — he pulled a Boomer Wells and left the ballpark Monday without talking to the media. He apologized the next day, but that kind of behavior, in New York especially, is like throwing live bait into a shark tank. Fans allowed Wells to get away with it because at least there was a track record of success with the Yankees: a perfect game, World Series titles, etc. Soriano had one strong setup outing for Mariano Rivera to that point.

    Perhaps he got squeezed a bit on the calling of balls and strikes. Some umps will do that. Own up to the fact that you didn’t make the pitches, be accountable and man up. Talking to the media is part of a professional athlete’s job, same as going down to the clubhouse to speak to players and coaches after the game is part of a reporter’s job. Soriano placed more of a focus on himself and extended the news cycle for really, two more days, due to Wednesday’s rainout. Until he proves otherwise, questions abound whether he’ll ditch the media again after another implosion in the future.

    It’s right for reporters and columnists to draw that conclusion. Soriano brought it on himself.

    IN OTHER NEWS…

    * Congratulations to friend of the Banter Larry Koestler, whose insightful post at YankeeAnalysts on Phil Hughes’ cutter landed him a guest spot on ESPN.com’s SweetSpot podcast, with Eric Karabell and Keith Law.

    Let’s see what happens with that pitch against the winless Red Sox.

    * Mark Teixeira is a 3-run homer machine.

    * Strange-but-true stat: AJ Burnett is 7-0 in April since becoming a Yankee. Not that that means much, considering he was winless in both June and August last year. Just an interesting nugget. Thursday’s win put him over .500 (25-24) as a Yankee.

    * The rainout pushed Freddy Garcia’s season debut to Friday, April 15.

    * In case you missed it, Derek Jeter passed Rogers Hornsby on the all-time hit list and is now 69 hits from 3,000.

    Ka-Snooze!

    Sure, it was only the third game of the season and there was no lack of excitement–plenty of home runs, some nice fielding–but it was also a tedious affair, and for long stretches, boring. Phil Hughes struggled and threw 60 pitches before recording the seventh out of the game; Miguel Cabrera hit two long home runs against him. Max Scherzer wasn’t much better though a couple of the dingers he allowed were aided and abetted by the wind and a short right field porch.

    Jorge Posada hit two home runs against Scherzer. Here’s the second…

    Bartolo Colon ate innings and gave up runs. The Yanks kept scoring too, Russell Martin, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira (who hit another home run), all had good days at the plate. But they couldn’t manage more than a touchdown and came up empty in the 8th and 9th. Yup, there was plenty of bang at the Stadium on Sunday afternoon but the game itself was soporific.

    Final score: Tigers 10, Yanks 7.

    Billy Crystal stopped by the YES booth for half-an-inning and after the third out, just before they cut to commercial, he said to Kay, “You still married?”

    “Seven weeks and one day,” said Kay. Ken Singleton laughed.

    “Seven weeks and one day,” Crystal repeated, imitating Phil Rizzuto. “Holy cow…I’m on the Bridge.”

    The Catch

    Photo from The Star-Ledger

    After all the playing time he got this spring, I figured Jesus Montero was likely to start the season with the Yankees while Francisco Cervelli (you remember him) was on the DL. But the Daily News talked to Brian Cashman and, well, it doesn’t sound like that’s the case:

    “He hasn’t played well recently,” Cashman said after watching Montero catch in Tuesday’s 6-2 loss to the Orioles. “He’s better than what he’s shown recently, catching-wise.

    “He’s been struggling with the bat, and I don’t know if it’s cause-and-effect. I just know that last year he didn’t start catching well (in Triple-A) until he started hitting. And from June on, both went through the roof.”

    I’d say this continues Cashman’s offseason pattern of being just a liiiiiittle bit too honest with the media; but if the Yankees were planning on having Montero start with the major league team, this wouldn’t seem to be a particularly helpful thing to say. Austin Romine may be better defensively but he has even less experience than Montero, and Gustavo Molina was an afterthought to even Cervelli, so to me this says that Montero must REALLY not be able to catch, at least not yet. Which is what most non-Yankee scouts and prospect experts have been saying all along, after all.

    The team now has a few more eggs in the Russell Martin basket than I would personally be comfortable with. And while I have to assume they have reasons for not having Posada catch even a single game this spring, I don’t feel like I really know what those reasons are. Not that Jorge is any defensive whiz himself, of course, but after all he was their catcher as recently as October. (Concussion concerns would be an absolutely valid justification, but the Yankees haven’t confirmed that as their reasoning).

    No easy answers here, apparently. What would you do? What Would Jesus (Montero) Do?

    Catch as Catch Can

    Pitchers and catchers don’t officially report for a few days still, but Russell Martin and Jesus Montero are already working out in Florida. Here’s John Harper, writing in the Daily News about the kid Montero:

    Baseball America editor Jim Callis, who ranks minor-league prospects based on seeing them himself and talking to more scouts and minor-league evaluators than just about anyone, says he would have a hard time dealing Montero.

    “To me he’s the best all-around hitter in the minor leagues,” Callis said recently. “He might be another Mike Piazza, the way he hits for average and power. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t have a great career as a hitter.”

    …But can Montero catch? Callis says the answer might be a matter of how much a team is willing to sacrifice defense for offense at the position.

    “It’s not like he’s a total butcher back there,” Callis said. “He has a strong arm, but his transfer when he throws is slow, and he’s not the best receiver in the world. He’s not real athletic, but he has worked hard to become more flexible behind the plate.

    “Overall he’s a little below average defensively, and I’m not sold that in five years Montero will be a catcher.

    Yeah, the Yanks have issues with their starting rotation but there is plenty to be excited about and it starts with the Jesus.

    Where's The Party At?

    Russell Martin, who may be doing quite a bit of catching for the Yanks this year, is skirting the subject, in fairly vague terms, of his disappointing last few seasons. From Canada’s National Post:

    Russell Martin says he knows why he has skidded from stardom to mediocrity in the prime of his career.

    But beyond vague allusions to “frustrations” and “distractions,” he politely declines to explain.

    “There’s some things that you keep for yourself,” Martin said. “Those distractions, they’re personal — personal issues in my life that not everybody needs to know about.” …

    …His performance faded during the past two seasons. By his standards, he says, he got lazy.

    “I had some distractions that maybe led me not to have that same drive that I’ve had in the past,” he said. “Really, that’s all it is, honestly. I didn’t train quite as–I trained hard, but before, nobody trained as hard as I did.”

    Martin made similar comments in the beginning of the 2009 season – though that’s not quite what he told the LA Times last month; it’s more or less common knowledge that Martin liked the LA nightlife quite a bit, possibly to the detriment of his on-field performance. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see him (sort of) acknowledge it, and if Martin has actually figured out how to focus now, than that’s encouraging – better to think he has some issues he may be able to correct than that he’s simply not a very good ballplayer anymore. On the other hand, he said similar things in 2009 and doesn’t seem to have made much progress since then — and New York is not known for its lack of distractions. Like many of you I hesitate to evaluate a player based on things like this that can’t really be measured, but the Yankees would’ve been naive not to at least take this into consideration. Presumably they’re not too concerned.

    Martin’s had an interesting life, or at least an unusual one by baseball player standards; he grew up in Quebec, where his mother was an actress and singer, and his father played the saxophone in subway stations to earn money for Martin’s baseball gear and training. He was poised for superstardom when he first came up, which is why so many more people have heard of him than his stat line would suggest, and few people in that time span have disappointed Dodgers fans more.

    New York has a long tradition of great players who can stay out boozing and courting all night and still kick ass the next day – Babe Ruth, of course; Mickey Mantle, for many years; most recently, David Wells threw a perfect game while still tipsy from the previous evening. I love players like that, who do everything wrong and then perform anyway. But of course that kind of thing will catch up with most people sooner or later — and apparently caught up with Martin on the “sooner” side.

    It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez certainly seem like they’ve enjoyed the entertainment options New York offers, so to speak, but I’ve never gotten the sense that either of them is a big drinker and certainly they both take care of themselves and come ready to play. Martin will be surrounded by stars and veterans in the New York clubhouse and perhaps a few of them can take him under their wing; I imagine that at the very least, if  Jorge Posada feels Martin is not playing his best, he will club him unconscious with his own bat.

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