Results tagged ‘ Mark Teixeira ’

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.

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.

The Greatest, without question

<![CDATA[ortiz_250_080709.jpgWord hit the press box long after former heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali — for me, always, The Greatest — appeared at Yankee Stadium for a stirring pregame ceremony. This was sometime during Thursday night’s Yanks-Red Sox series opener, and the news I was hearing up in the box was that that Red Sox slugger David Ortiz and incoming MLB players’ union head Michael Weiner would make a special appearance of their own before Saturday’s game.

It will be anything but a ceremony for them. Instead they will be addressing reports that Ortiz tested positive for using performance enhancing drugs in 2003.

Over a week has passed since Ortiz name was leaked as being among 104 others on the list of players who drew positive results — a list that was supposed to be anonymous when the union agreed to testing and now under a court seal that’s obviously looser than the waistband of the trousers that were always slipping down below Harpo Marx’s knees in all those old movies.

A real Harpo Pants list we’ve got here. It makes me feel wonderful about how our legal system protects your and my constitutional rights in the US of A. But I’m not writing about the leaks now, the injustice and basic moral wrongness of those names getting out to the public one by one despite binding guarantees to the contrary. That’s for another time, maybe.

This is about how far we’ve come from when I was a kid who watched so many of Ali’s fights with my father on our huge black and white living room console television, and loved Ali for what he did in boxing ring and his larger-than-life personality, and never had to wonder whether his accomplishments were aided by some kind of doping.

Clean it up. That’s the slogan on the sleeveless red T-shirt David Ortiz wore at his locker over an hour before Thursday’s game in the Bronx. It’s in the middle of this immense chest, right below the Red Sox logo. Ortiz wore the same shirt during warm-ups in Baltimore a few days after it was revealed he was on the Harpo Pants list. When a news story revealed his name was on it, Ortiz said he was “surprised” to find out he’d tested positive for anything.

Of course that doesn’t jibe with what we’ve heard before from the Feds, namely that all the players on the list were notified they were on it. Who knows if that’s true, or exactly true. I don’t.

I don’t know that to believe from David Ortiz, just like I didn’t know exactly what to believe from Alex Rodriguez when his name slipped off the non-anonymous anonymous list a few months ago. Throw our Harpo Marx government into the pot, too, since I definitely don’t know what to believe from them. Everybody’s got an agenda.

“You know me — I will not hide and I will not make excuses,” Ortiz said over a week ago. And since then there’s been nothing but silence.

Clean it up. Ortiz has advocated more thorough testing and stiffer penalties for PEDs, and maybe that’s what the slogan on his T-shirt is about. Again, I don’t know. All I do know is that in the visiting team clubhouse at the Stadium before Thursday’s game, he joked around with friends at his locker, and then got serious with the reporters around him, said he’d soon “let them know” whenever he was going to about his testing positive. And then he cranked up the music on whatever mini sound system he had in his locker and didn’t say anything else.

A little later, when the Sox were taking BP, I was hanging around the visiting dugout, and happened to find myself between Ortiz and the field. As he made his way to the batting cage Ortiz passed me, put a huge hand on my shoulder, squeezed it warmly, and smiled.

I’ve never met David Ortiz. I don’t know him any more than I knew the network TV cameraman who pushed me out of his way trying to get to Mark Teixeira’s locker about five, six hours later for some postgame footage.

“Hey c’mon, outta my way I gotta get in here!” the cameraman yelled as he bulled through from behind me, swinging around his video contraption.

Compare and contrast. Ortiz the besieged baseball superstar giving me the shoulder squeeze when I’m getting in his way near the steps of his dugout, and the cameraman who’s got no business telling anybody anything in the Yankee clubhouse acting like a jerk when a simple “excuse me” will do the trick.

Ortiz got booed loudly every time he came up to bat Thursday night. There were a few “Steroid!” chants mixed in for most of the nights. Comes with the territory, I’m not crying for him. Personally, though, I’d have liked to hear the cameraman getting booed out of the clubhouse.

Which is to say that Ortiz makes it easy to like him, and hard to want to see him go down as just another name on the list, even for this diehard Yankee fan.

I was at a Portland Sea Dogs game in Maine once when I noticed all the Big Papi merch in the team store. The Sea Dogs are a Double-A Red Sox affiliate, and they sell out on a regular basis. But go into the store, and you won’t see a fraction as many T-shirts and jerseys with the names of Sea Dogs on them as you’ll see the Ortiz stuff. At least that’s how it was a couple of years back. Ortiz stuff was clearly outselling everything else, especially in the kids’ sizes. The store’s mascot was even a gigantic Ortiz bobblehead.

I remember thinking back then that I was glad those Maine kids had a big, loveable athlete who’d captivate their imaginations and make them proud of their team. You have to want that for kids, even if you’re a diehard Yank fan. It isn’t as if they’re going to be rooting for Derek Jeter up in Maine anyway.

That’s why I’m sad David Ortiz is on the Harpo list. One by one by one, we hear the names. One by one by one, the careers and records are tarnished. No matter what Ortiz says on Saturday, which I have a hunch is going to be irresolute at best.

ali_250_080709.jpgWatching Muhammad Ali being honored on the field before the game, I was glad he fought his game before any of us ever heard of PEDs and leaky government lists. As he was driven around the warning track in a golf cart, everybody was on their feet. The fans, the players in both dugouts, on their feet as he waved and pointed to them with the one arm that seemed easiest for him to move. I stood in the press box, pretending it was for a better look, but really to show my own respect for this man, the best heavyweight fighter of a generation, and maybe ever, who stood up for his principles even though it stripped him of a title and almost sent him to jail. Who has not only kept his dignity while enduring the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, but enhanced his reputation with countless humanitarian efforts.

When that old chant — “Ali! Ali! Ali!” — broke out from the stands, I felt a shiver run through me. And I wasn’t alone.

“I got chill bumps, to tell you the truth,” said Jorge Posada, who’d jogged up to shake the fighter’s hand. “I didn’t know what to say. It was a good feeling to see him at the Stadium.”

One day, a long time from now I hope, Ali will be gone, but his magnificent accomplishments as a man and athlete will remain with us forever.

Sad, really sad, about steroids and leaky lists. For we are helpless as they leach our tomorrows of moments such as the one everyone shared at the Stadium on Thursday, Yankee and Red Sox players and fans, all briefly standing together to recognize a man’s unassailable greatness.
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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.

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.