Results tagged ‘ A.J. Burnett ’

World Series Game 1 From a Distance

The first game of the 2009 World Series has Jerome in a dissociative state this morning, which is why he’s referring to himself in the third person. Just to be clear, this is in contrast to, say, Shaquille O’Neal or Rickey Henderson, who refer to themselves in the third person as though they are constantly looking in the mirror and admiring icons too great to be enclosed within their mere mortal frames.

Basically, Jerome doesn’t want to be the same guy who went to bed Wednesday night feeling surly and aggravated over the Yankees’ 6-1 loss to the Phillies. In fact, he doesn’t want to get anywhere close to that miserable, foul-mouthed dude. He prefers to avoid negativity as he starts the day.

hughes_250_102909.jpgJerome realizes there are going to be three or four major storylines surrounding the game as the Thursday media cycle gets on its daily roll. The first is Phillies ace Cliff Lee’s dominance over Yankees hitters.

The second is likely to be the failure of the Yankees bullpen mainstays, most especially Phil Hughes, to hold the Phillies’ offense in check after starter CC Sabathia left the game in the eighth, turning a two-run hole into a bridgeless, six-run chasm in just a couple of innings.

The third will be that the occasionally flammable A.J. Burnett being scheduled to start an all-important Game 2 for the Yankees is a nervous, uncertain, pressure-packed proposition.

Fourth … well, the fourth-place topic, or topics, will be a medley of dire comparisons to the Yankees’ weak 2003 World Series performance against Josh Beckett, concerns about the Alex Rodriguez pressing, and colorful Pedro Martinez highlight clips and quotes.

Jerome won’t feel too sorry for the Yanks as the day wears on. They earned all this chatter for themselves. Yes, one can say Lee had something to do with it, and tip one’s cap to him. But since he as much as tipped his cap to himself non-chalanting a Johnny Damon pop-up in the sixth, Jerome will refrain from doing it here. While Thursday morning’s Positive Jerome may not be anything like Thursday night’s wretched, cussing Negative Jerome, he remains susceptible to temptation by the dark side.

Rather than dissect what others already will be picking apart, Jerome is just going make a few quick points this morning. Get in, get out, and then lay low until tonight’s game.

The goat horns Hughes sprouted in Game 5 of the ALCS have fast grown large and unwieldy. As some may recall, Game 5 was when he followed the Yanks’ dramatic come-from-behind, lead-seizing, six-run rally in the seventh by entering the game at the bottom of that frame with two outs, and immediately coughing up a pair of runs to erase their lead and eventually lose them the game.

Hughes has now been a key factor, and arguably the deciding one, in two of the team’s three 2009 postseason losses. That’s pretty darned awful. One can only hope his coaches are privately telling him it’s time to stand tall and throw strikes — to man up — rather than using coach-speak like “too fine” and “mechanical flaws” and “shortening his delivery” to address his failures, because the latter are not causes, but symptoms. They are happening because he’s showing no confidence in himself. You can see it when he takes the mound. It’s in his face and body language. It has to change, because he is an absolutely vital component of the bullpen, which has itself been vital to the Yanks’ success all season.

Okay, that’s it for Hughes. Next up, Mark Teixeira, who’s hitting .186 for the postseason. This even worse than Damon’s .239 postseason batting average, Hideki Matsui’s .242, and Robin Cano’s dismal .211. For sure, Tex is doing better than Nick Swisher, who presently holds a team-low .114 October average. And yes, he’s got a superb glove at first base, but Tony Clark was no slouch at the defensive end, and neither was Doug Mientkiewicz, and no one ever clamored for the Yankees to go out and sign either of them as their regular first baseman.

Teixeira is the team’s No. 3 batter. He is supposed to be a big bopper in the lineup, supposed to drive in Derek Jeter, who is seemingly always on base, with timely hits. But right now he is not hitting at all, and that is killing the Yanks. If that doesn’t change soon, someone will have to drill horn holes in his batting helmet to prevent it from rising too high off the top of his head.

This is also true for the other culprits mentioned above. Time to wake up, fellas. In fact, it’s past time to wake up. Jeter and Rodriguez can’t be expected shoulder the burden for the entire offense the rest of the way.

But Jerome promised he’d make this short and sweet, and he intends to keep that pledge. He moreover doesn’t want to be anything like the ill-tempered, cussing Jerome of Wednesday night vintage, and get himself or anyone else worked up. So he’s going to end on an upbeat note or two.

burnett_250_102909.jpgJerome believes all the yammering you will hear today about Burnett’s fragile psyche is so much noise. The rap on him is largely unfair. He can be wild, true. And we have seen him rattle. But he’s pitched well overall in the postseason, and has also stepped up in big spots, like when he outdueled Beckett in a pivotal series August series against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.

A.J.’s tough and talented enough for the stopper’s job. And ought to be better than a diminished Pedro Martinez, who should no longer strike fear into the collective heart of a Major League lineup, his seven-innings of shutout ball against a tepid Dodgers squad in the NLCS notwithstanding. The Yankees ought to be able to knock Pedro out early and get into the Phillies own horn-toting bullpen tonight.

It is worth pointing out that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel only elected to start Martinez in Game 2 because he has lost faith in Cole Hamels, last year’s ace of his staff.

The Game 3 starters will be Hamels for the Phillies and Andy Pettitte for the Yankees. Hamels has a 7.20 ERA for the NLDS and a 6.52 ERA for the NLCS. Pettitte’s numbers in the two American League playoff rounds, by comparison, are at 1.42 and 2.84. And forget the stats, he is Andy Pettitte.

So Sunnyside-Up Jerome likes the Yank’s chances in the next couple of games. He is going to continue keeping Sunnyside-Down Jerome at a distance throughout the day, concentrate on his work, and keep the TV and radio off till approximately eight o’clock tonight. Then he may or may not be at Yankee Stadium to watch the game, but will be definitely be watching it from somewhere.

He optimistically expects to be back to referring to himself in the first person tomorrow.

Why, why, why, A.J.?

aj_blog_082309.jpgA.J. Burnett has been awful in his last two starts and nobody can quite figure out who he blames. But some of his postgame comments, with their hints of ambiguity, have created a growing distraction the Yankees don’t need right now.

The questions first arose on August 12th after Burnett earned a no-decision against the Blue Jays, lasting six innings in a bumpy 4-3 extra-inning Yankee win. Asked about Burnett’s three wild pitches during the game, catcher Jorge Posada blamed the problem on cross-ups, saying he got curveballs from the pitcher when calling for fastballs.

“But you gotta be on your toes,” he said. “He’s gonna throw a curveball in the dirt and you just gotta try to put your body in front of it. Most of them I got.”

For his part, Burnett declined to say anything about the wild pitches, although after being pressed  for an explanation, he would comment, “It’s a curveball down in the dirt. I don’t know. I got nothin’ to say on it.”

Burnett’s next start was a 3-0 loss to the Oakland Athletics on August 18th.  In a chaotic fourth inning during which Oakland scored all their runs, he and Posada again crossed up a sign. As a result, Burnett would halt his delivery with runners on second and third, leading to a balk call that scored a run for the A’s.  

Again Burnett fielded questions about responsibility in the clubhouse afterwords. “It’s probably me,” he said. “I mean, he’s (Posada) been doing this behind the plate for a long time. And, I don’t know, I had no way of seeing it. He had the tape {on his fingers}. It’s just the at-bat.  But it’s just one of those mistakes.”

Burnett’s remarks were widely characterized in the media as an unequivocal assumption of responsibility. In his New York Daily News blog, Yankees beat reporter Mark Feinsand wrote, “I’ve covered this team long enough to know that when a player thinks it’s someone else’s fault, they say ‘no comment; to questions like this. Burnett placed the blame on himself for the cross-up, so that’s where it probably belongs.”

With due respect to Feinsand, I didn’t see things quite the same. Burnett’s words were pretty much the right ones, true, although he used enough qualifiers to create lingering questions. And his overall manner frankly had me wondering if he wasn’t so much saying what he really thought as letting everyone know he wasn’t going to say what he really thought.

Which, if it’s the case, meant he was intentionally saying plenty without saying it.
 
I wasn’t alone in being a bit thrown off by Burnett’s remarks — Feinsand blogged about it precisely because my confusion was shared by many others who’d seen the locker room interview on YES.

Interpreting a player’s words is an uncomfortable exercise for me. It’s a bit unfair to parse and analyze what a ballplayer says moments after a tough loss, when emotions — most particularly frustration — are still running high. And the confusion only multiplies when his comments are relayed to his catcher (albeit in summary) for a response.

That’s exactly what happened after Saturday’s 14-1 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway in which Burnett allowed nine earned runs in five innings of work. It was an ugly performance during which little went  right for him. There were walks, pitches getting pounded for doubles, flying over the wall,  you name it.  In the fifth inning, with the Yanks trailing by seven, David Ortiz slammed a badly placed fastball over the Green Monster in left, prompting Burnett to turn toward the wall with his hands outspread. “Why? Why? Why?” he appeared to say. “Why would you throw that?”

This was a mistake for several reasons. First it can be viewed by teammates as showing up his catcher on the field. Not good. Second, it was caught by television cameras on a FOX national broadcast. Worse. Third, and worse yet, it happened in Boston, where the local media would have a field day stirring the pot, even at the price of inaccuracy. Blogger John Haggerty of WEEI sports radio’s official website would go so far as to misquote Burnett when he typed: “As Ortiz circled the bases following his homer to left, Burnett raised his hands up in mock outrage and appeared to ask with incredulity, “Why? Why? Why? Why would you CALL that? Why?”

Which brings me to the worst consequence of Burnett’s display of emotion, namely that he and Posada once again had to answer questions about their functional relationship in the clubhouse.

Burnett again seemed to take responsibility without really embracing it, suggesting he should have shaken off Posada’s calls more often. After saying the main problem with his outing was that he “threw a lot of balls I didn’t want to throw”,  he was asked whether there had been more communication problems with his battery-mate

“I didn’t have a lot of conviction on some pitches,” he replied. “It’s our {pitchers’} job. We throw what we want to throw. He’s (Posada) there to aid, so it’s definitely not him. I had a good hook today and I definitely should have used it more in more counts and more often.”

That’s a pretty wishy washy answer — and hardly a ringing endorsement of Jorge Posada’s pitch-calling behind the plate. Meanwhile, the veteran catcher, who attributed the pitcher’s problem’s to mislocation, seemed less than thrilled when informed Burnett had been “lamenting some of the pitch selection”.

“Well, you know, when the balls leave the park, you’re gonna look back and you’re gonna see the pitches that you call and pitches that he threw,” Posada said with a resigned smile. “That’s about it.”

But it isn’t. Burnett and Posada’s relationship has become a story that will hover over the clubhouse at least until Burnett’s start, and well beyond if it’s another  ineffective one. It’s also a legitimate issue as the Yanks launch into the season’s stretch run and hopefully the playoffs. Stating the obvious, the Yankees’ number two starter and his catcher must be in synch for the team to continue its success.

This season Joe Girardi has shown a dramatic evolution in game management skills. He’s has done an impressive job composing and handling his bullpen. He must now demonstrate that he can also manage his players, put an end to the public back-and-forth between Burnett and Posada, and see that they fall into, if not quite harmony, then an acceptable working relationship.

There’s really no other choice except failure for the Yanks. After everything the team has accomplished this season, both men would surely agree that is unacceptable.

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Swish … Redemption!

swisher_250_072309.jpgI’ve never seen the mid-1990s comedy flick “Dumb and Dumber,” and didn’t have a clue about what it’s about till after Wednesday’s 6-4 Yankees win over Baltimore at the Stadium.

And then Nick Swisher changed that by quoting from it. Leave it to him.

Here’s what I’d find out poking around online: In the story, two guys named Harry and Lloyd get involved in various hijinks while on a cross-country haul to return a valise full of money to a beautiful woman. They’ve got a van that looks like a dog, but then Lloyd sells the Dog Van for a dinky little moped in the middle of nowhere because it’s more fuel efficient, figuring it’ll ultimately get the two of them to their far-off destination. Dumb, get it?

So anyway, when Lloyd rides up to Harry on the scooter, and brags about it getting seventy miles per gallon — thanks, YouTube — Harry has a minor rant that goes: “You know Lloyd, just when I think you couldn’t possibly be any dumber, you go and do something like this…and totally redeem yourself!”

Dumb and dumber, see?

Now, back to where this education all started for me, namely the Yankee clubhouse following the game, which completed a series sweep for the Yanks, boosted them to a season-high twenty games over .500, and would, by day’s end, give them a two-game lead over the Red Sox for the top spot in the AL East.

There at his locker, Swisher, who’d gone from potential goat to hero all in the course of an eventful third inning, and then tacked on even more flashy heroics a little later, was paraphrasing Harry’s line about redemption. Well, actually, he was quoting A.J. Burnett, who’d just earned his fourth win in a row.

What happened was that at top of the third inning, with the Yankees up 4-0, Burnett got the Orioles’ leadoff hitter Brian Roberts to fly out to right field with a serious 95-mph fastball — except Swisher blew the easy catch. He was there, his glove was there, the ball was there … and then the ball was on the ground and Roberts was on second base. Bad, bad error.

Right around that point, I’m in the press box getting set to complain about Swisher right here in this spot, which regular readers know I’ve done in the past. In fact, to come totally clean, I even text my friend the Fellow Author down in the stands with his son, reminding him Swisher’s misplay is the very sort that makes me complain about him so often.

Things got tricky for Burnett from there. The second batter up, center fielder Adam Jones, singled off him to put runners on first and third with no outs. Then Nick Markakis, the third man at the plate for Baltimore, fouled one off to left, where it was caught by Johnny Damon, moving Jones to second base, and putting men on second and third. One out, but with power-hitting Aubrey Huff up next, Burnett was still in big, big trouble because of the bad, bad Swisher error.

When he got Huff to strike out swinging, off-balancing him with two 85-mph curveballs after firing off a couple of 95-97 mph heaters, it looked like Burnett might be on his way out of the big, bad woods.

And then to the plate comes super-utility guy Ty Wigginton, who can put together tough at-bats, and hit the ball hard and deep sometimes. Which is just what he did to Burnett’s sixth pitch to him, an upper-nineties fastball that was actually pretty well located, but got hammered out toward the right field wall nonetheless. Back, back, back, with Swisher racing back too.

And up in the box I’m thinking, no way he can catch that rocket. I’m thinking here it comes, a two-run double, the lead cut in half all because of Swisher’s big, bad error.

And Swisher shows what I know. He makes a spectacular, improbable running catch going all-out for that ball, and then hops up onto the wall for punctuation with the ball in his glove.

Inning over. Yankees heading off the field. Swisher jogging toward the dugout and Burnett with an ear-to-ear grin on his face.

And Burnett hollers, paraphrasing Harry from “Dumb and Dumber:” “You to-tally redeemed yourself!”

There it was. Baseball redemption, Nick Swisher style. He would add to it by making another leaping catch at the wall to save an extra-base hit in the sixth and contributing offensively with two walks, a hit and a pair of RBIs.

Later, Swisher wouldn’t make excuses for his second-inning error. Instead he emphasized that “today as A.J.’s day”, and laughed when I joked about whether he’d felt Ichiro making those two catches out there in right.

“I don’t know. I was pretty [ticked] off I missed the first one,” he said. “So getting the opportunity to redeem myself, to make the catch and end the inning, in the same inning, was definitely a good thing.” Then looking me right in the eye with a big, big smile, he added: “I couldn’t have been more happy about that one.”

Nor could Mariano Rivera when asked about having Swisher for a teammate. “Nick Swisher is crazy,” he said at his locker. “He’s wild, a great personality. You’ve got to have personalities like that when the team is maybe too tense.”

And, seriously, who can argue with Mo? He has been around that locker room a while, you know.

So after all my complaining here in this space, big mouth that I am, I’m ready to eat a dirt sandwich. Not to say I won’t get on his case if he does something boneheaded. But with Nick Swisher, you take the bad with the good, because in the final tally it’s worth it.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Rivera.

A Large, Unsettling Question


Cano-6-22-250.jpgPreisler@jeromepreisler.com

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.

Playing not to lose

burnett_250_061009.jpgA.J. Burnett isn’t the only one to blame. Some of it falls on the Yankees’ absent offense and defense, and some of it’s about giving credit to Josh Beckett and the Boston Red Sox.

But Tuesday night’s loss at Fenway was mostly about Burnett’s haplessness on the mound. He couldn’t throw a fastball for strikes, and he couldn’t throw a curveball for strikes, and since those are his two primary pitches, it follows that he couldn’t throw much of anything for strikes. Less than three innings and eighty-four pitches after taking the mound, Burnett had surrendered five runs, two of which came on a loud David Ortiz homer to deep center. Loud when it happened, loud when it drew a curtain call from the Fenway crowd.

It was only his third home run of the season. Nobody has to be told it wasn’t the Big Papi Yankees fans have come to fear standing there at the plate. This was an Ortiz who hasn’t been Big Papi all season. An Ortiz who’s been getting far more catcalls than curtain calls at his home ballpark. An Ortiz whose batting average has barely scratched .200, who’s hitting .188 against righties, who was dropped from third to sixth in the batting order,  who’s been benched in several series, and who Peter Gammons and others have reported has come close getting acquainted with the bench for a lot longer.

But there he went and did it, hitting one out against the Yankees for old times’ sake, laying into a four-seam fastball Burnett served right over the middle of the plate at 95 mph, right over, which only means that ball wanted to introduce itself to the sweet spot of his bat in a hurry.

Burnett wouldn’t be helped that inning by a fielding error committed by Alex Rodriguez, his fourth of the season. With one out, and outfielder Mark Kotsay having strolled to first after taking four consecutive fastballs that never came close hitting the plate, Red Sox shortstop Nick Green hit a hard grounder to third, and A-Rod seemed caught between going the easy out at first or a double play he wouldn’t have gotten anyway, and held onto the ball too long in his indecision. And then neither Green nor Kotsay were out, and couple of batters later both of them scored on a double.

Four-zip Sox. Second inning. You get them going at Fenway Park, you stake Beckett to that kind of early lead, and you are in serious trouble.

Again, the Yankees defense was complicit in the loss. There was Jorge Posada’s passed ball, and Robinson Cano missing a groundball to second that was ruled a hit but was a play he should have made.

The Yankees play eighteen errorless games, set a Major League record, and now all of a sudden they can’t go a single game without making one. Go figure. At Fenway, you can’t afford that. It helps lose games. Far less importantly, it forces out-of-market fans watching those games on NESN, the television home of the Red Sox, to hear their fill-in color commentator, resident baseball whiz and king of objectivity Dennis Eckersley, try to sell the argument that a record-breaking errorless streaks doesn’t mean a team’s played good defense during that streak.

Again, go figure.

But the big thing is the loss. This one, most of it, the sixth Yankees loss to their archrivals in as many games this season, falls on Burnett.  He began poorly and never got himself straightened out, which is a mystery. This is not some inexperienced rookie pitcher we’re talking about. This is a 10-year veteran. Somebody who never used to lose against the Red Sox and killed the Yankees on his way to winning 18 games with Toronto last season. This is someone the Yankees signed for five years at $82 million to be their No. 2 starting pitcher. And he couldn’t adjust.

Can we throw in one last “go figure?”

In his postgame comments, manager Joe Girardi attributed Burnett’s wildness to too much rest. He hadn’t pitched in seven days as a result of Girardi’s decision to reinsert Chien-Ming Wang into the Yankees’ rotation, and then a rainout last Friday.

“It was control, and I’ll take the blame for that. I mean, it’s hard to pitch on seven days,” Girardi said. “A guy’s used to a routine, and we tried to change our rotation a little bit to separate some people, and insert Chien-Ming Wang, and you can’t have too many expectations of a guy’s command.”

But Girardi was skirting around the widespread perception that he’d largely changed the rotation to avoid leading off the series with Wang, who’s still working back into form, on the mound. Putting it another way, he thought Burnett had a better chance of getting things off to a solid start for the Yanks.

His explanation for Burnett’s lack of command is also based on suspect logic. Monday night at Yankee Stadium, Phil Hughes had no trouble throwing quality strikes for a scoreless seventh-inning after cooling his heels in the bullpen for well over a week. Last Thursday, Wang managed to throw a decent ratio of strikes-to-balls in his first start since returning from rehab. If they weren’t too strong, why was Burnett?

After the game, YES studio analyst David Cone commented that the good pitchers, the really good ones, are supposed to be able to make the adjustments. He ought to know. He once ranked among the best.

beckett_250_061009.jpgAnd let’s add Beckett to the list. As Johnny Damon would point out, he’d also labored through the early innings, struggling with an inability to locate his off-speed pitches. But, said Damon, Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek noticed that Beckett’s four-seamer was working best for him and repeatedly called for it until he could spot it over the plate — and then build off it until he got a feel his curveball.

The Burnett-Posada tandem could accomplish no such thing. And when interviewed in the visiting clubhouse, even Burnett wouldn’t let Girardi’s too-much-rest, too-strong, explanation take him off hook.

“There’s no excuses,” he said. “I mean, I was out of whack, and I don’t think I repeated a delivery the whole two innings I was out there. So that’s just, you know, Skip being Skip.”

Translated: That’s just the manager expressing confidence in his player and casting his poor performance in the best possible light.

Girardi trying to take some of the heat off him is commendable — but it won’t erase Burnett’s ineffectiveness, or change the fact that he’s only won four out of his 11 starts for the Yankees and is carrying a 4.89 ERA into June.

Whatever the reason, Burnett has underperformed to this point. At Fenway Tuesday night, he appeared to be pitching not to lose rather than pitching to win — and to a point that’s how his team appeared to be playing behind him

Six games against the Red Sox, six losses.

If the Yankees are going to win the AL East in 2009, that will have to change.

Tonight would be good time to start.

Plots, subplots and spirit pie

yankeeswin_250_060509.jpgAs someone who earns his bread and butter writing novels, I’m always seeking narrative threads to play with: the plots and subplots that drive a story forward and create its textures and dramatic tension. I generally know where I’m starting out and have a rough idea where I’m heading. But writing a book takes anywhere between six months to a year. That’s a long time to live with characters on a daily basis. As they move within a set of circumstances I’ve thrust on them, they inevitably evolve and do things that surprise me … or do them in surprising ways.

It’s these twists and turns that make a story interesting for me — and hopefully for my readers — even as it moves toward the general resolution I’ve envisioned.

A baseball season’s a lot the same in my eyes. At one end there’s Opening Day, at the other the final pitch of the World Series. But between those fixed points lie constant, fascinating nuances and surprises. Which teams make it to the finish line? Which individual players? How do they get there? What happens to them along the way, and leaves some standing and others casualties of war?

There’s something about baseball that’s more richly textured than any other sport. Something about its pace — nine innings a game, 162 games played out over six long months, the give and tug within and between teams over that period — that heightens a season’s tension as it progresses and gives each one an epic quality. I think it’s no coincidence that most writers I know who are sports fans tend to love baseball above all others. The storylines always fascinating and unpredictable.

I started out for Yankee Stadium Thursday morning meaning to examine Chien-Ming Wang’s reinsertion into the Yankees’ starting rotation and its impact on Phil Hughes, the pitcher whose slot Wang was taking. But the three-hour match between the Yankees and Texas Rangers became a humming tapestry loaded with intriguing, interactive plot threads. Here are my thoughts on several of them, starting with the one I’d meant to write about in the first place.

WANG/HUGHES
The moment Joba Chamberlain took Adam Jones’ hard line drive to his knee on May 21, the seasons of Wang and Hughes irreversibly changed. Wang was headed for Pawtucket where he’d been scheduled to complete an extended rehab assignment when he was ordered to turn around and head back to New York. With Chamberlain’s ability to make his next start in question, the Yanks wanted an insurance policy — and Wang became just that.

It turned out that Chamberlain was able to take his normal turn on the mound. It also turned out that the Hughes, long the gem of the Yankees’ farm system, was pitching well with consistency for the first time in his brief Major League career. With Wang out of options, the Yankees could not send him down to the Minor Leagues without placing him on waivers and giving every team in baseball the chance to acquire him.

Wang consequently went into the bullpen with an indeterminate long-relief role that left his progress stalled. He would need repetitions — regular work, in other words — to sharpen his delivery and rebuild his stamina and confidence. But he wasn’t going to get that doing irregular mop-up duty.

The Yankees did not have a plan, or so it seemed for a while. But five increasingly strong innings of work from Wang out of the ‘pen apparently compelled them to formulate one.

And so the announcement was made less than 24 hours before Thursday’s game. Wang would start in place of the scheduled CC Sabathia and Hughes would be moved to the bullpen.

In his pregame press conference Thursday morning, manager Joe Girardi said this of their decision on Wang:

“He’s won 46 games in two-and-a-half years. I’m not sure how many guys in our clubhouse can boast that. So, I mean, this is not just a guy that we’re trying out. This is a guy we believe in, and {who} has been the ace of the staff here for the last three or four years. “

As has been previously discussed in this column, Wang is also a precious commodity in the new home run-friendly Yankee Stadium — a power sinkerballer who, at his best, can elicit groundballs and strikeouts to combine for a very high rate of efficiency. Besides racking up outs, that efficiency has a fringe benefit of getting him deep into games. In 2006, his first full season in the Majors, he ranked fifth overall in the number of innings pitched (218) in the American League, falling between Roy Halladay and John Lackey. The next year he fell to 21st (199 innings) but was still in the upper percentile of AL pitchers and only two spots behind Josh Beckett.

In fact, Wang’s 2007 drop off in ranking was due more to other pitchers having above-par years than Wang having a below average one. Before Wang’s 2008 season abruptly ended by a Lisfranc injury in mid-June, he was off to a tremendous start, having thrown 95 innings and racked up 54 strikeouts to go 8-2 in the win-loss columns.

As Girardi implied, Hughes, for all the growth he’s shown of late, has achieved nothing close to that success in his young career. Wang has not only earned his chance at a return to the starting rotation, but was in danger of losing arm strength and regressing in the bullpen. This is best for Wang and — in the short term — likely best for the ballclub. So, for now, the rotation is where he’ll be. And it is Hughes to the bullpen … and perhaps to the Minor Leagues upon reliever Brian Bruney’s eventual return from the disabled list.

But it’s an imperfect solution.

“I see using him in any role,” Girardi said of Hughes. “Some distance, maybe. Seventh and eighth, maybe. I could use him for one inning … He could be used at any time.”

Girardi also emphasized that the ballclub considers Hughes its “sixth starter” – a pitcher who can instantly be inserted into the starting rotation should one of its regulars become injured. The drawback of an extended bullpen stay for Hughes, however, is identical to the situation Wang was facing. It would diminish his stamina and make a quick jump back into a starter role difficult.

This is why Yankees GM Brian Cashman suggested on the ESPN radio Wednesday that Hughes might be sent down to Scranton if Bruney comes back to the club healthy. This reasoning is understandable and arguably sound. But while maintaining physical durability, will a return to Triple-A retard Hughes’s mental progress? There’s something that seems to have clicked with him besides more consistent command of his pitching arsenal — and that’s the ability to out-think veteran Major League hitters with his pitch selection. Hughes has advanced far beyond the level of skill need to get out Minor Leaguers. He has broken a barrier that impeded his success for the entire 2008 season. Will returning him to a setting where he’s faces inferior competition turn cause him to lose the edge he’s finally, and so recently, developed?

It remains to be seen. With six legitimate starting pitchers for five spots in their rotation, the Yankees are dealing with the “good problem” of baseball cliché.

Still a problem is a problem.

teixeira_arod_250.jpgTEIXEIRA/A-ROD
In the fifth inning, with the Yankees trailing by three runs, Mark Teixeira hit a double to clear the bases and tie the game at 5, sparking the team’s 19th comeback win of the season. The hit was hardly a blast off his bat, but looked more
like a shot off a pool cue as the ball bounced over third base, hugged the left field line and went rolling on into the outfield as three Yankees runners darted home to score.

“That’s for all the times you hit a ball to the warning track or a line drive right at somebody,” Teixeira said afterward with a grin.

Watching that game-changing play from the press box, it struck me that Teixeira has taken New York by storm with his glove and bat. He seems to do everything right when it counts the most. Two days before, after getting drilled by Rangers pitcher Vicente Padilla, he sparked a lethargic Yankee offense that was trailing 3-2 to a now-celebrated seven-run rally by breaking up a double play with a hard, clean slide into second base. Showing a grit and fire that’s perceived as having been lacking in recent Yankee teams, Teixeira drew well-deserved roars from the stands. He not only took a large step toward defining his identity in pinstripes, but also the spirit of the current group of Bronx Bombers.

It’s more than a slightly interesting footnote that the batter who started the potential double play with a groundout to second base was Alex Rodriguez, who’d been having a terrible series. Rodriguez had not only been striking out, flying out, and hitting into DPs left and right, but he’d been doing it at the worst of times, killing rallies by the bunch rather than starting them.

After Thursday’s game, a longtime clubhouse insider lamented that fans who’d jumped back on the Let’s-Boo-Alex bandwagon weren’t recognizing that his return to the lineup — and specifically his presence behind Teixeira in the lineup — following hip surgery and a hurried rehab are a large part of the reason Teixeira is getting better pitches to hit these days. And that the team’s streaking to the best record in the American League after a depressing start coincided with Rodriguez’s activation from the disabled list.

I disagree with that insider. I think the boo-birds are fully aware of Rodriguez’s importance to the team. I think they realize the Yanks were floundering before he returned, and I think they would gag and clutch their chests if he were to suddenly reinjure himself, opening up third base for the platoon of Angel Berroa, Ramiro Pena and perhaps eventually a healed Cody Ransom.

Because of his salary, and because of his occasional forays from the sports to the gossip pages, A-Rod is simply an easy target of frustrations when things go wrong for the team, and sometimes, maybe, when those anonymously jeering him have had a bad day at work.

I’m glad Teixeira has been welcomed to the Bronx for doing things right. Too bad people won’t get off Rodriguez’s back — and be as appreciative of him as Teixeira has vocally and visibly been in the Yankees dugout and clubhouse.

cabrera_250_060509.jpgMELKY AND THE SPIRITS
After his game winning two-run homer in the eighth inning, Melky Cabrera — who’s gotten more big late-game and walkoff hits than I can count this season and is hitting .483 in close and late game situations — managed to duck an A.J. Burnett pie while being interviewed for the Yankees radio postgame show by Suzyn Waldman.

I’d lingered in the press box to see whether or not a pie would be introduced to Melky’s face, having debated my colleague Jon Lane on whether eighth inning hits were pie-worthy as opposed to walk-offs exclusively. Jon didn’t think so. I did. I won, and hustled down to the Yank clubhouse to boast.

A while after the whipped cream flew, I was standing in front of Cabrera’s locker when a member of the press jokingly asked if he felt he’d become a home run hitter like A-Rod or Teixeira. Smiling, Cabrera modestly replied through his translator, Yankees team adviser Ray Negron, that he was a line drive hitter just looking to put the ball in play.

The reporter followed through by asking how the ball managed to get out of the park the way it did.

Cabrera simply shrugged.

“It’s the spirits,” he said in all earnestness.

Before heading into the elevator up to the press box, and then again inside it , one reporter found Cabrera’s remark amusing enough to launch into what he presumably thought was a derisive comedic routine about it.

“Did you hear what he said? The spirits! Why not the jet stream!” he mocked.

A few occupants of the crowded car chuckled with him. I didn’t. Nor did I bother reminding the reporter — whom I’ve never seen hit a home run — that the jet stream doesn’t blow out to deep left field, where the home run ball landed. Cabrera has been nothing less than magical for his team — a magic for which his commitment and hard work have opened the door.

If he says it’s the spirits, it’s the spirits.