A minuscule entry this morning, as I blearily catch up on various deadlines, to congratulate the Yankees on their 40th trip to the World Series.
Thus far 2009 has been a been a year rich in dramatic storylines for the team — a new Stadium’s opening and christening; the arrival of the Big Man, ALCS Most Valuable Player CC “Must-See” Sabathia; the Mark Teixeira show at first base; Derek Jeter breaking Lou Gehrig’s all-time Yankee hits record; Swisher Mohawks; Burnett pie; clubhouse music; ’round-the-clock Joba, Alex Rodriguez finally showing why he’s one of the greatest players in baseball history; Andy Pettitte showing yet again why he’s one of the greatest starting pitchers in Yankee history; Mariano Rivera showing yet again why he’s indisputably the greatest reliever in baseball history, Phil Hughes’ regular season emergence as a deciding force in the bullpen; Joe Girardi’s brilliant crafting and handling of that ‘pen — and occasionally baffling use of it in the postseason; Girardi’s sometimes brilliant, occasionally baffling in-game calls from the bench . . . .
And a whole bunch plot threads I’ve undoubtedly missed here, plus more to come as we launch into the World Series this week.
The disappearance of reliever David Robertson in the ALCS is a question we’ll likely have answered soon, and we can only hope it’s unrelated to the arm problems that sidelined him toward the end of the regular season. Girardi’s use of Joba Chamberlain over Hughes in the seventh inning of the series’ Game 6 — and the warming of Damaso Marte over Phil Coke for a possible lefty-lefty matchup — create questions as to where his trust now extends as he reaches into the ‘pen. And we’ll see have to see whether his itchy, unpredictable finger on the pinch-runner/mound buzzer switch gets him in trouble or, well, stops itching quite as much or erratically as we’ve seen in the first two rounds of postseason play.
Meanwhile, two teams Major League baseball teams are still standing this week, and the Yankees are one of them. It’s been six years.
The team and its fans have reason to celebrate this bright late October morning.
When the American League East-leading Yankees became the first team in the Major Leagues to clinch a playoff berth with a 6-5 win over the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim Tuesday night, the team elected not to celebrate beyond hugs and handshakes.
“Congratulations and let’s keep going,” said manager Joe Girardi of his message to the team. “There’s still a lot of baseball to be played. We have 10 games left, and we know what we want to do. There’s obviously excitement about being in the playoffs. It’s your first goal, but there’s other goals.”
At the time, the combination of Yankees wins and Red Sox losses that would give the Yanks the AL East division championship was four. Two days later in Kansas City, the Sox’s 10-3 win over the Royals reduced their magic number to three for a postseason berth as a second place team. Asked whether they would celebrate if they clinched a likely Wild Card slot at Yankee Stadium — which could happen before the Yankees actually celebrate winning their division — designated hitter David Ortiz replied, “Oh we will, hopefully. So we don’t have to get our clubhouse dirty. It would be great. You get that out of the way and give a welcome to the new Stadium too.”
From the team’s official postgame notes, these are some of the things the Yankees did between the lines Friday night while pounding their way to a 9-5 victory over the Red Sox as they began their three game weekend series in the Bronx:
- Their leadoff man reached based five times, and scored three of the times.
- Six different hitters — Jeter, Teixeira, Rodriguez, Matsui, Posada and Cano — had a multi-hit game.
- Their runners stole seven bases on Red Sox catcher and team captain Jason Varitek, the largest number of bases they’ve swiped in a game since June, 1996, and the most at home in 27 years.
- Alex Rodriguez went 3-for-5 to drive in four runs, tying his season high of four RBI in a single game, and racking up his most at the Stadium this season.
- Joba Chamberlain notched his first win since early August, striking out the first 11 batters he faced.
You think somebody in the Yankee clubhouse got wind of Ortiz’s comments?
Besides bringing the Yanks to within three games of clinching the AL East with the best record in baseball, Friday night’s game went a significant way towards answering one of their biggest questions as they approach the playoffs — namely, could Joba Chamberlain regain enough of his form to be a successful fourth starter in the rotation after having training wheels forced on him since the All-Star break?
There’s no need to recap Chamberlain’s recent struggles here. There’ve been enough words typed about his lousy performances on the mound and at his locker. After he coughed up seven runs over three innings during his previous start in Seattle, Girardi and his coaches challenged him to “step up.” Always protective of clubhouse exchanges between team members and coaches — the “inner circle,” as he characterized it Friday — Girardi refused to be more specific to the press about exactly how he presented this challenge to Chamberlain.
At his locker after throwing an impressive six-innings in which he surrendered three runs and issued only one walk and five hits, Chamberlain described the tone of the conversation as stern.
“You get challenged a lot in life, and it’s something where you gotta look yourself in the mirror and see how to make yourself better,” he would say in response to a question about it. “It was something my teammates and my coaching staff did, and it was something it was good for me to realize.”
Answering a follow-up moments later, he added that it was important to “realize there’s a lot of people in this game that want your job. And when it comes down to it, you have to look like they’re gonna take money off your table.”
An observation or two about Chamberlain:
1. He looked angry last night throughout most of the game. And an angry Joba is more often than not a successful Joba. But inning and pitch limits and all the other constraints placed on him this season in the interest of his career longevity have too often muted that anger for reasons that can only be surmised.
“That’s all over with,” he said about the restrictions. The relief was evident in his voice and expression.
Chamberlain feeds off emotion. It is what made him special when he first stepped on the mound to electrify Yankee Stadium with two years ago, and it is what can make him special going forward. That more than anything was what the Joba Rules seem to have failed to take into account.
2. As frustrating as his defensive reactions have been immediately after his poorer performances, Joba seems to be more able to honestly admit to a lousy performance after a better one. I’ve noticed this twice in the clubhouse. While I won’t attempt to conduct an armchair psychoanalysis, we all know he grew up under difficult circumstances. That isn’t an excuse for a lack of accountability. But public and private accountability are very different things, and it might why he has a hard time letting guard down within minutes of a bad loss.
I believe Chamberlain should be judged by how he responds to adversity on the field rather than at his locker.
For the Red Sox, Friday night’s game may have created, rather than answered, a serious question about their pitching going into the playoffs.
Jon Lester posted a July ERA of 2.60 July, a 2.41 August ERA, and 3.07 ERA in September. With a 14-8 record after last night’s game, he has been the team ace this year and was recently designated Game One starter in a potential American League Division Series appearance.
The hard line drive ball that Lester took to his right leg in the third inning looked at first as if it might end his and the Red Sox’s postseason aspirations, and was a startling reminder of how tenuous such things can be. Watching him sprawled on the infield dirt, it was hard to imagine him walking off the field on his own, let alone standing at his locker answering questions. But he did both.
Lester’s injury has been diagnosed as a muscle bruise. He said in the visiting clubhouse that he would be getting compression wraps to the leg and hopes to make his next start. Sox manager Terry Francona did not rule out the possibility. “He actually might be right on turn for his next start. But we’ll have to see how he feels and figure out the right thing to do.”
Lester’s health nevertheless bears watching. He’s a tough kid and might well be OK. But that right leg is his push off leg. If he isn’t good to go for October, neither are the Red Sox.
And last but not least . . .
Somebody’s gotta say it: Those Boston media people really clog up the works in the press cafeteria.
A little while before the game I went to get a cup of coffee and found a mob of them around the machine. So I went over to the soft ice cream dispenser and found them swarming it too. Finally I gave up and decided to get dinner. More crowding and slowness at the buffet line.
“This happens whenever they’re here,” I grumbled to a venerable fixture of Yankee Stadium after plopping down at his customary table. “They devour all the food, plus they leave the stacks of paper cups a mess!”
“I know, I know.”
“I mean, they seriously get on my nerves,” I went on. “Last time they ate all the ice cream before the stinking fifth stinking inning!”
The Fixture folded his hands across his chest and nodded his head in wizened commiseration. “What’re you gonna do? They come to New York, they finally see what real food is,” he said.
There 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.
But 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
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.
A.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.
And 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.