A Large, Unsettling Question
If you are a baseball fan, and you woke up feeling good about your team today, that team probably isn’t the New York Yankees.
Entering the twelve-game stretch that began when they were swept by the Boston Red Sox at Fenway on June 9-11, the Yankees were 34-24, ten games over .500 and tied with the Sox for first place in the AL East. They had a game-and-a-half lead over Toronto, and a six game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Today they are 38-31, seven games over .500, four games behind the first place Red Sox, hold a one game lead for second place over the Toronto Blue Jays, and are only two games ahead of the fourth place Tampa Bay Rays.
They have lost three out of the last four series, and would have lost all of them if it hadn’t been for Mets second baseman Luis Castillo dropping a pop flyball that would have closed out Game One of the Subway Series for his team had it landed in his glove. Two of those series losses have been against National League East teams with losing records, one of them the worst in baseball. They also come as the Red Sox and Tampa Bay are busy beating up on their NL counterparts.
Despite an elite roster bolstered in the offseason by the costly acquisitions of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira and currently dormant reliever Damaso Marte, they are doing just slightly better than the 40-35 record they held last season at this time, remain only one game closer to the Red Sox in the standings, and are exactly the same number of games behind them in the loss column.
As of right now, this makes the 2009 New York Yankees a tremendous, expensive disappointment.
If you are a Yankee fan this morning, and you watched our team lose the rubber game of last weekend’s set against the Florida Marlins on Sunday, you might recall hearing former Yankee, and current YES broadcaster, Paul O’Neill, comment that this was an extremely important series for the Florida franchise. As young team, he said, they needed to prove they could play against the Yankees.
But it was arguably a far more important game for the Yankees, who suffered yet another series loss to a team that had no business beating them, and have gone south in more ways than one heading into Atlanta for an interleague series with the Braves.
If you are a Yankee fan this morning, it leaves you wondering a few things.
After stalwart long reliever Alfredo Aceves had thrown almost three innings in scoreless relief of CC Sabathia, who left the game in the second inning with a sore left bicep, manager Joe Girardi pulled him from the game at the bottom of the fifth, replacing him with the unreliable Brett Tomko. At the time, the Yanks held a 3-1 lead.
Aceves currently boasts a sparkling 2.32 ERA and had thrown 43 pitches before leaving the mound. His final, hitless inning of work was his most economical; he’d needed only 9 pitches to get through it. Prior to Sunday’s game, he had last seen action on June 18th in a scoreless nine-pitch outing against the Washington Nationals. The day before, June 17th, he had pitched a scoreless 2/3 of an inning against the Nats, dispatching them with only five pitches.
Tomko’s ERA for the season stands at 7.20. With the Yanks leading the Nationals 5-1 in the series opener, he threw a scoreless ninth inning to preserve the victory, while Mariano Rivera tossed in the bullpen, ready to close out the game if he ran into trouble. His previous appearance–on June 12 against the Mets–didn’t go as smoothly, as he surrendered 4 runs on three hits and two walks in a horrific 2/3 of an inning. Before that, he’d given up a run to the Red Sox on two hits and a couple of walks on June 9th, when he threw a total of 47 pitches in 2 1/3 innings of relief.
The Marlins scored 3 runs against him in 2 innings to tie the game. Two of their hits were homeruns. Tomko would leave it to fellow relievers Phil Coke and David Robertson to give up the lead, with the assistance of a throwing error from Melky Cabrera.
But let’s get back to Aceves a moment. A converted starter, he threw a season-high 70 pitches against the Red Sox on May 4, 50 pitches against Baltimore on May 21, and has since had several outings when he threw over 30 pitches.
On Sunday, with the Yanks needing a series victory before an off day on which Aceves would be guaranteed rest, his manager’s decision to pull him is at the very least problematic. It appears that instead of considering how fluidly Aceves was throwing the ball, Girardi opted to be cautious with his pitch count. The result was a Yankee loss.
Recently, a reader of this column asked my assessment of Joe Girardi’s performance as the Yankees’ manager. I told him that I thought it would take a full 2009 season before I could fairly evaluate it.
I still believe that. But if Girardi has shown one serious and noticeably recurring managerial flaw, it is a seeming tendency to have his eyes in his notebook when keeping his head in the flow of the game would better serve the team’s cause. It is a negative that has proven costly on more than a single occasion.
The bad little things I detailed in a previous entry–errors, base running gaffes, and walks to opposing batters–have continued to hurt the Yanks since they lost their winning ways in Boston. Their bats have been sluggish, their pitching spotty, and their overall play lackluster at best.
How much of this falls on Joe Girardi is still an open question, and will remain so for a while.
But on a grey Monday day in 2009 in which the Yankee record and position in the standings is uncomfortably similar to where they were last year–Girardi’s first season as manager, and the first in 13 years that did not see the team make the playoffs–there is no doubt that question has begun to take a very large, unsettling shape.