Results tagged ‘ Alex Rodriguez ’

Hungry hearts

“Anybody know who won?” the guy asks.

I’m on the 4 train minutes after last night’s game, and if you’re reading this I don’t have to tell you what game. Whether you were there among 50,000 or so of us who aged about 30 years and melted off 15 pounds or so at Yankee Stadium — not the new Stadium for me anymore, but finally the Stadium — whether you were there with us or watching at home on television or in a car somewhere on some dark highway listening with the dash radio on, you know what game I’m talking about.

yankees275.jpgAnd here the guy comes aboard the jammed train afterward, pushes in just over to my right, and asks who won.

We turn our wiped out faces his way.  He’s maybe in his late 50s with neatly trimmed gray hair, and though he’s all casual in a tee shirt and jeans tonight, you get the sense that away from the ballpark he’s an exec at some mega-corporation or a heavy-hitter courtroom lawyer, some kind of big shot anyway.

Anybody know? It’s a sucker’s gag. But we’ve all spent the past four and a half hours getting our souls squeezed out of us into that wild, crackling, exhilarating, enervating storm of emotional energy that surrounded the Stadium. We are juiced oranges there in that packed subway car.  We fall for it.

“Just kidding ,” he says with a chuckle after getting  our attention.

And everybody laughs or gives him one of those you-got-me-buddy grins.

“You’ve got my permission to kill him,” says the guy on my opposite side, who I think might be his friend.

I shake my head to let him know I’m too tired for murder.  “I’ll have to do it another time,” I say. “Just don’t have enough strength for it right now.”

The guy nods. “I know what you mean,” he says.  “Geez, what a game.”

What a game, is right. I’ve been at some great ones, but don’t remember being at a better one.

If you were there,  you felt it  from the first ninety-plus-mile-an-hour strike Burnett  threw. And you heard it in the cheers and the smacking of hands around you. I’m talking about the hunger. This crowd was hungry in a way they haven’t been for years, believes in this team in a way they haven’t believed for years, just like this hungry Yankees team believes in itself.

I remember that hunger before 1996. But sometime during the dynasty years, we started taking things a little too much for granted.  By 2001, we’d been so well fed with winning, were so stuffed with it, that we figured even what happened there in Arizona was a tough luck fluke.

 And then in 2002, with Tino and O’Neal gone, and Bernie getting older, and the pitching getting iffier, and the parade of stars coming in, and finally the Angels knocking the Yanks out of the postseason just like that, we were reminded good things don’t last forever, and got to wondering somewhere in our minds if the Yankees team we were watching wasn’t the Yankees team we believed in anymore. Still, though we’d dined well on success for a while — four world championships in five years — we told ourselves another good portion would have to come soon.

We were kidding ourselves.

The team had changed, and something else had changed too. I remember being at the World Series in 2003 days after the great Game 7, the Aaron Boone homer Game 7. All around me, everywhere in the stands, there were people you never saw at the Stadium during the regular season. People sitting around in their seats like they were at a Broadway play or the opera or something. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know why those people who didn’t seem to know or care anything about the game were getting tickets to it. I didn’t know why the faces I saw around me all throughout the regular season mostly weren’t there, and I still don’t.  But too many of them didn’t get in. And too many bodies in the seats seemed like they were there because it was the place to be rather than because it was somewhere they wanted to be. Seemed like they would have rather spent the night at a restaurant dining lobster claws than feasting on a win.

The Marlins noticed it when they came in. After the first game, some of their players chattered how playing at Yankee Stadium wasn’t  a big deal. The crowd wasn’t so loud, nothing about it was too intimidating. They couldn’t figure out what the fuss was all about. Yankee Stadium didn’t have any edge.

The Marlins won that World Series. And then in 2004 the Red Sox came in and won the bad Game 7 in the second round of the playoffs. And after that — even though somebody in the Yanks organization must have wised up  and started getting tickets back into the hands of real fans again — after that, there were all those early exits from October baseball, all those Yankees teams that never really felt altogether like teams, those teams we wanted to love but just couldn’t.  Postseason games didn’t seem the same as they’d used to be. Or they didn’t to me, anyway. Something was missing. A spark, maybe. A swagger. Something.

And then last season October didn’t even happen. All we had at the end was Derek Jeter’s graceful goodbye to a dear old friend, which was something, at least. But it didn’t make the Yanks’ melancholy September exit any easier to take.

The fans were hungry again. We’d been hungry for a while. We’d learned our lesson, been reminded winning wasn’t so easy after all.  But we had an uneasy feeling maybe the team wasn’t as starved for the big, oven-stuffing World Series prize as we were. 

And then we were given this 2009 team.  And slowly, almost reluctantly, we started to believe they wanted it. That they were going after it. We still kept our expectations in check. You get burned enough, you don’t extend your faith that easily.

Last night at Yankee Stadium, in that up and down, tilt-a-whirl nailbiter of an 11-inning thrill ride, the Yanks took us on with the help of a Minnesota Twins team that wouldn’t quit, just like the home team wouldn’t quit; they earned our belief .

I look for pivotal moments, and I have to go back to that ninth inning. Yanks down 3-1. Joe Nathan, one of the best closers in the game on the mound. He’s got to face Teixeira, Rodriguez and Matsui.  Three guys you’d want him to be facing in that spot.  Except Tex hasn’t had a hit in the series, he’s looked a little tight, and it is the ninth inning. There aren’t many outs left.

We’re all standing and cheering up there in the stands. We have fallen for this team and poured everything we’ve got into rooting for them all night. But we are withholding just a little bit of our hearts so they won’t be broken.

yankees275(2).jpgWhen Teixeira hits the single, some big lunk is standing in the aisle next to my seat, bumping into me every couple of seconds and getting on my nerves. I’m like 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, and he’s like, 6’3 and 450 pounds, and I’m way, way too tense to put up with his big fat elbow in my side. Why won’t he just go back wherever he belongs?

And into the batter’s box steps the great Rodriguez and hoists one into the energy field over the park, out to deep, deep center where it will finally return to earth in a place of no return, and the score is tied, and the night is roaring. And I look at the lunk, and he looks at me, and then we’re  hugging each other, jumping up and down in the aisle and slapping each others’ backs like we’ve been best friends our entire lives and one or the other or both of us just became a daddy.  I see hands up everywhere,  above me, below me, everywhere, waiting to be high-fived.

That wasn’t the end of course. We all saw or heard the game from somewhere and know it wasn’t the end of it. We thought it was won in the 10th after Gardner made his crazy steal of third with one out, but had the air taken out of us when Damon hit into that hard luck double play. We thought it was lost in the 11th after Damaso Marte gave up consecutive hits to the only two batters he was supposed to get out, and then David Robertson, the 24-year old rookie who just a few weeks ago looked like he might be done for the year, comes in and gives up a single to load the bases with no outs.

And the kid gets out of it without surrendering a run.

Think about it. Postseason, extra innings bases loaded. Game on the line.

The kid came through.  And then so did Mark Teixeira, four pitches into the bottom of the inning, with the walkoff homer that made the Stadium explode.

Hungry fans, hungry team.  It was a hungry man’s feast.

“That was their baptism,” somebody said to me on the train home. He was talking about Teixeira and Rodriguez in the ninth, but might as well have been talking about this 2009 team.

What happened Friday night in Game 2 of the Division series doesn’t mean the  Yanks can’t be beaten.  Anybody can. But  it means that win or lose, they are going to give the winning everything they have, play any kind of game they need to, do whatever it takes to feed the appetite for a championship shared by Yankees fans and players alike. If this team goes down in October or November, they are going to go down hard.

Man, though, it must be getting tough to bet against them.

Hats off to Skip

angels_275_091509.jpgThere were obvious reasons to earmark Monday night’s Yankees-Angels game in the Bronx — a makeup of a May 3 rainout — as a potential look ahead into the playoffs.

The New York Yankees entered the game with the best record in baseball, the largest division lead (seven games) in the American League, and the near certainty that they will clinch the AL East sometime in the next couple of weeks.

The L.A. Angels of Anaheim came in tied with the Dodgers for the second-best record in baseball and holding a six-game lead over their nearest opponent in the AL West, the Texas Rangers.

The likeliest postseason scenario right now in the American league is that the Yankees will face the Detroit Tigers in the Division Series, with the Wild Card-winning Boston Red Sox matching up against the Halos. It doesn’t take a much figuring to see that the second round League Championship Series could be the Yankees-Angels. If that happens, it will be the third time since 2002 that these teams meet in postseason competition — and Yankee fans are ruefully aware that Anaheim has not only come out on top in both previous series, but has long been bane of the Yankees in the regular season as well.

So these were the obvious hooks to Monday’s game — but it had deeper layers of intrigue. In 2002 and for several years thereafter the Angels built their winning formula on the cornerstones Mike Scioscia’s daringly unpredictable play-calling, and a lockdown relief corps modeled after the Yankee pens during the team’s 1996-2000 dynasty seasons. Their most solidly constructed team overall was arguably 2002’s, with a solid if less than great pitching rotation, a versatile offense capable of scoring bundles of runs, and, very critically, the pen: veteran closer Troy Percival and a supporting cast consisting of pitchers Brendan Donnelly, Scott Schoeneweis, Ben Weber, Scot Shields and others. In September of that year, a Minor League call-up named Francisco Rodriguez was added to the mix. And, of course, K-Rod’s supercharged performances against the Yankees in the ALDS, the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS, and the San Francisco Giants in the World Series helped fire the team to a championship.

Parallels have been drawn between this year’s Yankees and the 1998 version of the Bombers, but the better comparison might be to those 2002 Angels. Beyond CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte, the starting rotation going into the playoffs is loaded with maybes, but the offense is flat-out magnificent and the bullpen is by leaps and bounds the best in the Major Leagues.

Meanwhile, the Angels have changed from what they were in 2002. In terms of how the team is built, its starting rotation is similar — okay but not great, with the exception of Jered Weaver, who’s having a career year, and the fact that ace John Lackey is rounding into form. (Lackey is 2-0 with a 0.35 ERA in his last three starts, allowing one earned run over 26 innings.) There’s less power in the lineup then there was back then, but batters hit for higher average and still run, run, run like crazy. The biggest difference throughout the season, however, has been the bullpen. Although it showed some late improvement, it was among the Major League worst in earned runs allowed for much of 2009. It is no longer a strength for the Angels, but a point of vulnerability.

Scioscia, of course, remains Scioscia. He pushes things. He prods. Chaos is his handprint. He rains it on opposing teams, dares them grapple with it. And for some reason, year after year, the Yankees have been prime victims of his unorthodox strategies.

But Monday night in the Bronx the Yankees beat the Angels, and they did the way the Angels usually beat them. And though it’s September and not October, and it was only one regular season victory, there were signs within the game — signs you can bet nobody on either team missed — that the current Yankee team has the ability to cast off the Angels’ dominance when it really counts.

“They’re definitely not a team that you want to get into a bullpen war with,” the team manager said after the game.

This was Scioscia, not Joe Girardi, talking about a Yankee pen that held his team in check for five innings after Joba Chamberlain’s truncated outing — the most encouraging of the current Joba Rule era. It’s true Phil Hughes surrendered a single run that allowed the Angels to briefly tie the game in the eighth, but it was a single run after he’d loaded the bases with the heart of the Angels order, loaded them with no outs, and the Yanks took those runs back, and more, at the bottom of that inning.

In 2009, the Yankees bullpen is no welcome sight to any other team in baseball. Now, in mid-September, that is hardly a revelation. The pen has proved itself time and again, and its success more than anything has become Girardi’s particular handprint.

But what Girardi showed Monday night — showed Scioscia, his Angels, and thousands of roaring fans at Yankee Stadium — was that he now has chaos at his fingertips too. And has the guts to lock, load and fire away when ready.

Everyone who saw the game knows how it went down. Bottom of the eighth, one out, and Mark Teixeira smashed a line-drive ground rule double to right. And then Alex Rodriguez walked, and Scioscia finally pulled Jered Weaver and went to his bullpen. It was Darren Oliver on the mound to face Hideki Matsui, lefty versus lefty, that was his move and there was nothing wrong with it. It was textbook, it was orthodox, it is what Scioscia or any baseball manager might have been expected to do.

Monday night, it was Girardi who did the unorthodox, pulling a gutsy offensive substitution. Suddenly it was Brett Gardner on the bases to pinch run for Teixeira. This wasn’t a game tied in the ninth inning. This was still the eighth, and if the Yankees didn’t score it would have stayed tied, and Girardi would have lost his potent No. 3 hitter for the remainder of the game. And if the Yanks had gone on to lose the game, you can bet he would have heard about it from the media and fans the next day.

rivera_275_091509.jpgBut they didn’t lose. What happened was the speedy Gardner stole third on a pitch, which was what he was there to try and do. And while he was doing that, running like quicksilver, A-Rod was busy stealing second, and Angels catcher Mike Napoli fired the ball to his third-baseman, and missed, and Gardner came racing home to give the Yanks a 4-3 lead. And then they padded that lead by a run, and in came Mariano Rivera, and it was all over.

Girardi’s Yanks had turned the tables on Scioscia’s Angels, given them a taste of their own medicine, fill in the saying of your choice. What counts is that both teams knew it. And most importantly because they’ve been at the wrong end of things for so long, the Yankees knew, and it gave them a confidence you could see in their faces and hear in their voices after the game.

“We could leave the other guys out there if we wanted to play station to station … so he (Gardner) understood, what we walked about, was to try to get bags. And that’s why we put him out there,” Girardi said. “We also know what it does to the attention of everyone around. Pitcher, catcher, everybody.”

“I think you all should go talk to Skip,” said Nick Swisher, whose two hits in the game included a home run in the third. “Making a great change, putting in Gardy … for him to get that stolen base and then come in to score, hat’s off
to Skip.”

It was one game in September, with postseason ramifications insofar as the team with the best record gaining homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. October may or may not see a rematch between them in which the stakes would be immeasurably higher. Should it occur, however, Monday night’s game gave us a tantalizing hint that this year’s Yankee squad may finally have the manager and players to fly past the Angels toward greater glory.

Reggie uncut

Preisler@jeromepreisler.com

Not so long ago, his bat was the thunder at the heart of the Yankee lineup. In a major league career that spanned two decades, he played in ten postseasons, winning three World Series rings with the Oakland Athletics and two more with the New York Yankees. He was the American League and World Series MVP in 1973, and the 1977 World Series MVP when the Yankees defeated the Dodgers in six games. In the final game that series at Yankee Stadium, on October 18, 1977, he belted three homers on three pitches and three swings in three consecutive plate appearances to propel his team to the championship and earn the famous nickname Mr. October.

When Reginald Martinez Jackson hit those three homers, he became only the second a player in history to do that in a single Series game.  It’s probably no coincidence that the guy who preceded him holding that record also had a nickname that stuck: The Babe.

And, oh yes, Reggie Jackson was no stranger to controversy.

arod_235_062609.jpgIn Friday’s night 9-1 Yankee win over the Mets at Citi Field, Alex Rodriguez hit his 564th Major League homer to move past Reggie into 11th place on the all-time career home run list.  When Jackson retired in 1987 he’d ranked sixth behind Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew. Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro — and now Rodriguez — would later surpass his record.  But for Jackson A-Rod’s upcoming milestone had meant something special. A fellow member of the Yankee organization and friend of Rodriguez, Jackson had traveled cross-country from his West Coast home to hopefully be present when it was hit.

As the media crowded Rodriguez’s locker in the visiting clubhouse for his postgame comments, it was announced that Reggie would be taking questions in the corridor outside. A contingent of sportswriters broke off from the larger gathering to talk to him–and listen as Jackson stood in his trademark ballcap, fielding hugs from Andy Pettitte, waving to other players and clubhouse people, and reflecting on Rodriguez’s accomplishment and other subjects.

Gradually some of the writers filed off to listen to CC Sabathia’s press conference. I stuck around along with a couple of other guys. Though his voice was subdued, I found Reggie as brashly engaging, playful, and appreciative of an audience as ever.

Here’s some pure, unfiltered Reggie, with cuts only to eliminate repetition or because the hubbub in the corridor made some of his remarks unintelligible on playback.

On how A-Rod’s admission that he used performance enhancing drugs will impact his legacy: 

“The negativity that surrounds the steroids is certainly not something that I carry over to him. I do appreciate the fact that he admitted his mistakes. So from here we move forward. Judgment on him will be passed within the next seven and a half years. I don’t vote {on Rodriguez’s eventual candidacy for the Hall of Fame} If he doesn’t make it in the first fifteen years on the ballot, I get a chance.  But this guy’s probably gonna wind up with seven or eight hundred home runs.  I wanna enjoy the night tonight and watch my friend hit number five-sixty-four. And (grinning) maybe you’ll all drop my name in the paper when you’re all going by.”

On whether it is bittersweet watching someone pass his career home run record: 

“Not really.  You know, you get used to it, really. There’s been five or six {players} in the last four, five years.  I think when you see some of the great names fall, you get sad. Like I was watching the game the other night with Willie Mays.  I’m on the phone, Willie’s on the phone for about forty five minutes. We were talking about Alex. He was in a little slump there in Florida and Atlanta, and I was watching the game with Willie. And we talked about homer uns, we talked about steroids, and stuff like that. But today, I think, is a day for me to come and tip my cap, be a gentleman, be a fan. Really, I get a chance up close and personal to say ‘Nice going, congratulations to you and keep hitting home runs for the Yankees, and I’m here rooting for you.'”

On his own legacy:

“I think that I’ve been in such a wonderful position for the last few years, with the places I go . . . I was just at a Corvette show in Illinois, and people walk up to you — eight, ten, twelve, fourteen years old — a and ask for autographs, even though they weren’t born yet when I retired.  And so, I have a lot of friends in the game, and the game has been very good to me. And so thinking about it, re-experiencing it, sharing it . . . I enjoy it.  And I appreciate spending time with people and the fans.”

On why Derek Jeter (with whom Reggie watched last night’s game in the visiting clubhouse) is his favorite player:

“I’ve known him the longest. I’m kinda like a big brother to him . . .  He’s got all the ingredients, man. And he’s my friend.  So I’m certainly prejudiced.

arod_DIR_blog_235.jpgOn his relationship with A-Rod:

“Alex Rodriguez is my friend, so I’m prejudiced, and I don’t have a lot of negatives to say. If  I have negatives to say, I certainly can say them to Alex, I know him that well.  I certainly can get on his butt sometimes if I see some things going on on the field that I don’t approve of. But that’s man to man. That’s pro to pro. “

On Rodriguez as a player:

 “Alex Rodriguez plays as hard as any player I’ve ever seen.  He prepares as hard, and works as hard, as any player I’ve ever seen around the game.  You’ve got to tip your cap. I always say, they used to say about me, ‘Reggie Jackson, love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him.’ Alex Rodriguez goes to the post every day unless he’s in the hospital.  And that you’ve got to tip your cap to. You just have to, with all the adversity that he’s gone through, and all the tough times he’s had, he goes out there. And he’s had some days and some moments and some adversity that have been really tough.  So he’s vulnerable. A big target.  But you’ve got to tip your cap. . . . I look forward to the day that he has success to help this club win a championship.  Until then, we won’t let him up. We’ll keep the thumb on him, the spotlight’ll stay on him, and the critiques will be there till we win. So, as my friend, I would like to see him win . . . I’m a Yankee fan, and I’m proud of it. The places I go, and everywhere I go, I’m proud of it.”

On why he traveled to see Rodriguez top his career home run record:

“I’m more than just an ex-player and a Yankee. I’m part of this organization. I’m part of the franchise. From the Steinbrenner family down to the clubhouse people, I am part of it. So being a Yankee, the right thing to do is to be here. And I wanted to be here.  I’m not here because it’s the right thing to be here. I have a sister that’s very ill, I could be home. I have a child that’s deciding on college.  But I needed to be here.  I’m part of this ballclub. I talked to the owners, I’ve talked to the president of this team, and I’ve talked to the manager, so this is important to me. “

Addressing the press in the clubhouse even as Reggie spoke outside its doors, Rodriguez made it clear Jackson’s prese
nce was also important to him, calling Reggie “a close friend and mentor” and “an American icon.”

For this writer, having a chance to hear him share some thoughts was a gas, plain and simple.

Hope reading them been fun for all of you.

The Fix

nationals_275_061909.jpgPreisler@jeromepreisler.com
It would be tough to pin the Yankees’ home series loss to the Washington Nationals, who are mostly known for being MLB’s current answer to the Bad News Bears, on any particular member of the team. Basically they played lousy in general.
 
If you watched that series, though, and then consider that the Yanks really should have lost two out of three home games to a depleted Mets squad last weekend, and were swept by the Boston Red Sox at Fenway before that — a stretch of nine games during which they’ve stumbled from being one game up on the Sox to three behind them for the AL East division lead — it’s hard not to think that the team needs some fixing.

I’ve been trying to figure out what the fix or fixes might be. And the more I think about it, the more I keep coming back to the deficiencies in right field represented by Nick Swisher, and the spot in the starting rotation occupied by Joba Chamberlain.

Of course, Swisher isn’t responsible for the team’s collective offensive slump. I think that has more to do with Alex Rodriguez not hitting right now than anything. His bat is supposed to be the major noisemaker in the middle of their batting order. When it is silent, the aggregate thunder in Yankee bats goes from a loud roar to isolated rumbles.

Rodriguez has a long track record as one of the most prolific run producers in baseball. You can’t point to age or general physical condition as reasons for his struggles. But he is recovering from serious hip surgery and has played every game since his hurried return. Based on what we’ve seen of him, it’s reasonable to think that with some rest, and recovery time, he’ll round into form.

Or at any rate, he’d better for the sake of his team. He isn’t going anywhere.

Likewise based on track record, however, Swisher is a problem that won’t go away until he does, at least as an everyday player. In a sense it isn’t his fault. With the acquisition of Mark Teixeira, he was supposed to be half of a right field platoon that included Xavier Nady. But Nady got injured, and remains injured, and that has left Swisher a regular starting member of the lineup whose historical weaknesses have become increasingly apparent.

His career numbers aren’t the worst you’ll ever see, but they aren’t good. In 2004, his first year in the Majors, he hit .250. The next year he averaged .236. The next year he hit .254. His best BA was .262 in 2007. His worst was .219 in 2008. He’s now batting .244, a career average.

Yes, I know about the walks. The pitches taken. The slugging and on-base percentages. I’ve read all sorts of numbers.

In fact, I was reading this analysis of Swisher by a hardcore Sabermetrics guy named Peter Bendix. It was written in June 2008 when Swisher was with the Chicago White Sox. A year ago, Bendix wrote how Swisher’s failure to deliver was basically just bad luck. Bendix’s calculations indicated a sharp upturn in his performance was in the offing.

Wrote Bendix of last year’s Nick: “To begin with, Swisher has been very unlucky on balls in play. His 22.5% line-drive percentage produces an expected BABIP of .345. However, his actual BABIP is a miserable .244. If we adjust his batting line to account for the hits he should have, his line becomes .271/.371/.359.”

I looked up the meaning of BAPIP last night, not being familiar with the statistic. A stat-head website called the Hardball Times defines it as Batting Average on Balls in Play, “a measure of the number of batted balls that safely fall in for a hit (not including home runs). The exact formula we use is (H-HR)/(AB-K-HR+SF) This is similar to DER, but from the batter’s perspective.”

I didn’t look up DER. I haven’t checked Swisher’s VORP or PECOTA or any of that stuff. I don’t mean to sound disparaging of the numbers game. Bill James has certainly helped the Boston Red Sox find players who can hit the ball well at their park.
But I have to go with my observational and analytical strengths. For better or worse, I rely on what I see with my eyes and more basic statistics. And when I see Swisher play, I see a guy who plays with a lot of energy, but too often allows that energy to drive him when it his job to harness it. He runs the bases recklessly. He seems to be largely unaware of cutoff men. In clutch situations, he tends to swing for the fences when he simply needs to get on base.

And he’s hitting .244.

I like Swisher on the bench. I’ll take his hustle and energy in small doses and think there are situations when he can be useful to the team.

But the Yanks need to figure out what they are going to get out of Nady this season. My guess is that their expectations are minimal. If that’s the case, they need another solution to the right field problem.

That’s the Swisher part. Chamberlain is next.

I’m weary of the Joba fight. Those who lean toward numbers guys will point to his 3.89 ERA and argue that five innings of that every fifth day is preferable to one or two innings of relief several times a week.

joba_250_061909.jpgMy response is that watching Joba pitch as a starter has become excruciating. He gets into deep counts, he walks batters, he allows droves of them on base,and he depletes the bullpen by failing to give length. He puts his defense on its heels and gives teams like the Washington Nationals the sense that they have a fighting chance.

Opposing teams don’t fear Chamberlain right now, nor should they. Where is his power fastball? His slider? His velocity is now fairly average. It largely has been for a while. The lightning in his fingertips has become erratic, and it’s anyone’s guess whether it will return with any constancy.

Chamberlain has no proven track record as a starting pitcher. Chien-Ming Wang does. Yet Wang is given ultimatums while the Yankee hierarchy continues to disregard Chamberlain’s falling effectiveness and send him out to pitch as a member of the rotation.

Meanwhile, Wang continues to improve and make a case that he should remain in the rotation. And Phil Hughes continues to throw multiple innings of relief with snap and efficiency that suggest he warrants another shot at starting.

If Wang looks good after another start or two, Chamberlain should go to the bullpen. The time when innings restrictions will put him there is approaching anyway, so why wait? Maybe he’ll regain his lightning as a reliever. Maybe next season, with some work, he will become the winning starter the Yankees envision.

Right now the Yankees should be looking to win in 2009 and think about giving Hughes his shot.

We can go by the numbers (assuming they’re being interpreted without skew). Or we can use them wisely to inform what we see. I’d suggest the latter.
 
A lot of us can follow recipes, but that doesn’t make us master chefs.

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.