Results tagged ‘ Yankees ’

One out of left field

Over the five or so years I’ve written Deep In the Red, I’ve been given the privilege of writing about baseball — most especially the Yankees, of course — from a unique if not wholly singular perspective.

YESNetwork.com has given a virtual free hand that enables me to switch from wearing my well-worn Yankee cap to my press box sport jacket, if not at will, then mostly so, and often at short notice. As a fan I’ve tried to bare my honest thoughts and emotions to the bone in hopes of capturing the passion shared by countless other fans. In the role of journalist and analyst, I’ve tried to write with an unsensationalistic objectivity, respect Stadium275.jpgfor players, and balance I often find lacking in the work of far too many sportswriters who view the game with jaundiced eyes — and, in some cases nowadays, keep those eyes firmly on their Twitter pages rather than the games they’re supposed to be watching and reporting on.

This forum is something for which I am beyond grateful. I consider it a blessing.

When I’m functioning as a member of the working press, I’m given the professional courtesies all media people are afforded. And when I’m in my seat at the games wearing my Yankee cap there are no special benefits. I’m just one of 50,000 or so other paying customers there for a night out at the ballpark.

Saturday night at Yankee Stadium, at a game my wife and I had highly anticipated, the obduracy and thoughtlessness of one security staffer took some of the luster off the thrill we should have taken from an epic postseason win.

I should mention that my wife’s a stickler for preparation. The preparation part is useful when you’re going to a game during which you’ll be sitting out in the left field bleachers on a night when temperatures are in the 40’s, a nor’easter is supposed to be blasting in and rain delays are expected throughout the game.

I can’t tell you how much insulation Suzanne wore under her long winter coat, scarf and hat.  All I know is that it was a lot. And that as we prepared to leave our apartment for the game, she wondered if people would think she was a little crazy in all those clothes. Walking to the subway station, we laughed  because she could hardly bend her knees. It was the double tights, Under Armour and what-not she’d layered on. She was also carrying a rolled up blanket in some kind of tote. Oh, and an umbrella. She’s on the slight side and needs to bundle up in bad weather.

We were fortunate in that the rain held up till late in the game — I think it was around eleven o’clock. It was chilly for most of the night, though. And when it got wet and windy it felt downright cold out in the bleachers.

When I looked over at Suzanne at some point around the ninth or 10th inning, I noticed she was shivering under her umbrella. And that the umbrella wasn’t doing much good in the slanting rain anyway.

I asked if she was okay, and she said she was. But when you see your wife trembling, and her knees knocking, and her lips getting white, even if you haven’t been married forever like I have, you know she’s only saying that because she doesn’t want to ruin your time and make you feel as if you’d better leave early.

I told her that maybe we ought to go home. But she’s as averse to leaving a Yankees game in progress as I’ve always been, especially a playoff game, and insisted she just needed to get out of the cold and rain for a little while, and would find someplace to stand in the concourse, maybe have a coffee to warm her up.  

“You stay here,” she said. “I’ll call you on the cell and let you know where I am.”

I told her not to be ridiculous and went with her.

At this point — I’m guessing it was the eleventh inning — the crowd had thinned significantly out around the left field bleachers. Some were people with kids, others were people with long drives home, and I guess still others were just tired and cold and soaked. Whatever their reasons, they were heading for the aisles in bunches.

There was a section back there that had been designated as Standing Room Only for theStadium235.jpg playoffs. It has a kind of overhang that blocks the rain, and a wall behind it that cuts down the wind stream. The last two holdouts in that section were a guy with no shirt on and a beer sloshing in his hand, and another guy who was kind of prowling around looking shady. Everybody else had departed.

Suzanne had warmed a bit in the concourse. She had gotten some color back in her face and her teeth weren’t chattering. She wanted to try and hang in and root the team on for the rest of the game, just not in the bleachers where the wind was still ripping over and through her coat. So we figured we’d give the SRO section a shot.

Now, I understand about moving into different seats than the ones you’ve bought. It’s one thing moving down to better, more expensive ones nowadays, even if they’re empty. Back in the old days that was okay, but now it isn’t, and I accept it. But you wouldn’t figure somebody would mind your moving to a worse, cheaper section with no place to sit down, let alone one that was now completely deserted except for the two stragglers I mentioned.

We went into the SRO section and had been there about three minutes when the security guard came over and asked if we had tickets.

“We’ve got bleacher seats,” I said, showing my ticket to him. “But my wife’s soaked, and couldn’t take the cold anymore. It okay if we stay here?”

“Unless you have tickets for this area, you have to leave,” he said. “You have bleacher seats. This is Standing Room Only.”

“But there’s nobody left standing here,” I said.

The security guy just shook his head. Meanwhile, the bare-chested guy came running over. He’s completely toasted but, I realize, trying to help.

“This is the shirtless section now,” he tells the security guard. “And me being the only guy here, I say they can stay, man. They can even keep their shirts on!”

The security guard ignored him.

“You have to leave,” he told me again.

“Look,” I said. “My wife and I aren’t causing problems. We’re into extra innings on a miserable night, and she’s freezing, and it’s a playoff game. We just want to see the end.”

Robotman couldn’t have cared less: “You have to leave. I’m just doing my job.”

“But if I went to a customer service desk, and told them my wife was uncomfortable , they’d probably put us somewhere else right now anyway. Since there are all kinds of seats available.”

I don’t know whether or not the part about the moving’s true. I think it might be. But when you’re in extra innings, and it’s one o’clock in the morning, five hours into a game that can end in a heartbeat with an error or a home run, the last thing you want to do is have to seek out customer service at an enormous Stadium and miss that last play.

Meanwhile, for maybe the fifth time, the security guard is repeating his mantra. “You have to leave, I’m just doing my job.”

Stadium3.jpgBehind him, the shirtless guy’s signaling for us to walk away and circle back from the other direction. And behind me, the guy who’s been roaming aro
und looking shifty tries to grab my wife’s tote bag, which she’s set down against the wall. She yanks it out of his hand at the last minute and he takes off running. I don’t find out about this till later. My back is to him, and the security guard, who is facing in his direction, is too busy telling me he’s doing his job to notice.

“Jerome, let’s just go,” my wife says. “It’s not worth it.”

I’m looking at the guard. I’m pretending not to think he’s the world’s biggest jerk as I oh-so-politely ask one final time to give us a break and am again told to move on. I’m also pretending not to think that maybe he ought to stop repeating that he’s just doing his job and instead try using his head.

And I’m thinking one other thing under that cap of mine that I’ll get around to in a second.

First, though, to make a long story short, we moved. We found a bench in the last row bleachers that was entirely vacated, and had a little coverage, and my wife wrapped herself in her blanket, and we watched the end of the game. The security guards there weren’t hassling anyone. Give them credit.

Finally we cheered and clapped when Hairston ran home on that error, and waited for the pie, and then headed out of the Stadium with the crowd.

We were both a little subdued as we left, though. I wasn’t grinning from ear to ear the way I ordinarily would have. I wasn’t high-fiving anyone, or thinking about what a classic game I’d seen. I was glad the Yanks won and glad, too, that I was going home. It had been a great night for the Yanks but not such a great night for me or my wife.

And as for the final thing I thought under my Yanks cap about the uniform in the SRO section:

What I was thinking was that I would write about him today in this column. Write how he showed no discretionary judgment, no human kindness, no wisdom, no common consideration or decency. Write that I hope he reads this, and I hope even more that somebody takes him to task for it. He stunk at his job and frankly doesn’t deserve to have it.

This morning, I mentioned a little of what happened last night to a pal and fellow journalist — one of the guys who actually watches the games he writes about in the newspaper.  He replied that he hoped my wife and I enjoyed the end of the game anyway. I told him we did, but that our enjoyment was a little diminished by our experience.

My memory of Game 2 of the 2009 ALCS will never be an entirely happy one.

Kind of stinks.

CC!

Figure things probably won’t be as easy the rest of the way. It’s hard to believe the LA Angels of Anaheim will continue to bumble and stumble around the field like Ringling Brothers clowns flopping out of a circus train down at the Garden. And most of all, the Yanks won’t have CC Sabathia on the mound every night for the rest of the LCS.

sabathia275.jpgFriday night, though, the first night of the series, that baby belonged to CC.  Somewhere over the Yankee Stadium frieze, and the lights, and the hard, cold wind blowing in from left field, and the wet snow early in the game, and the sheet of gray October clouds spitting that snow down our hooded heads, somewhere high above it all in the New York City sky, the stars and moon and planets were aligned over CC, were shining down on him as he stood there throwing lightning for strikes in the middle of the infield diamond. Even the flags out in left were pointing stiffly at him as if to say, “This night belongs to you.”

Big stage. Big night. Big man, that CC.

And the crowd let him know it once he got to mowing through that Angels lineup. See ya later Figgins, it’s hard to run wild on the bases when you can’t get on. Fuggedabout it Abreu, you can’t draw a walk when the Big Man’s pounding you with strike after strike. Props to Torii for getting the first of those four Angels hits, but a single won’t hurt CC when he’s firing 95 mph heat to get Guerrero to line out, especially when he then spun him and his humongous lumber in a helpless circle after Vlad touched him for that one mistake in the fourth.
 
Tough to remember exactly when the chanting started. With the wind ripping into us up in the frozen stands, we were still getting loose those first few innings, still trying to get our blood circulating under layers of clothing that made us feel like kids dressed for a snow day — our coats and hoodies and thermals and Under Armour, our gloves and double socks.  Those first few innings, couples were still snuggling under their blankets while trying to stay warm.  We’d clap and yell but our brains were too frozen and numb to come up with something special. Something to fit the occasion.

And then we heard it. Maybe from somewhere in the right field grandstand, though you know those Bleacher Creatures will want to take the credit.  But it really doesn’t matter where it started, or who got it going, because the one who counted Friday night was the guy that got everybody on their feet and out from under the snuggle blankets, the guy that growing, rhythmic chant was all for, the big man on the mound, big man in a big game in the Bronx, where some of the biggest in the history of baseball have been played:

“CC! CC! CC!”

Straight on, no frills, and nothing could have felt more right, because that’s CC in a nutshell. He doesn’t showboat and rarely flashes his emotions. He just plants his foot on the rubber and mops that wide brow of his and deals. Seven, eight innings. 100, 115, 120 pitches. It was like that all summer, and here we are in the fall, and now he’s showing the Yanks, who will tell you over and over he’s their horse, that he wants them to ride him into November’s baseball dreamland.

“CC! CC! CC!”

115 pitches last night. 76 strikes, four hits, one run, eight innings. And then the ball to Mo. Figure it won’t be as easy the entire series. But it was Friday night.
 
Must-see CC hurls the Yanks toward a big postseason win.

Big as big can be.

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.

Joba and the Sox

Joba-9-26-250.jpgWhen 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.

Appreciating Jeter

Last Thursday I exchanged emails with my longtime reader and friend Hye Sun Canning, who’d been a little surprised I hadn’t written a column about Derek Jeter’s tying (at the time) Lou Gehrig’s Yankee hit record.

I told Hye Sun that I hadn’t commented because I like to avoid redundancy, and it seemed to me that others had already a done a very good job writing appreciations of Jeter’s achievement — which of course now includes actually breaking the Gehrig record. And make no mistake, his achievement is indisputably a great one, as there’s a small likelihood that Jeter’s franchise record will ever be surpassed.  Its celebration doesn’t ignore or diminish the records set by all-time hit leaders on other teams, as some have argued. That to me is taking a jaundiced view.  Other great players have had more hits in their careers, and some have had more hits with a single team.  But — and I hope you’ll excuse this one lapse into repetitiveness — Derek Jeter now has more hits as a New York Yankee than anyone who has come before.
 
It’s a very big deal, and I’m glad Jeter, his loved ones and Yankees fans have gotten a chance to enjoy and applaud  it.  Like Jeter, we sometimes have to stop and relish these moments when they happen.

But back to Hye Sun. After I wrote her to explain why I hadn’t shared my feelings about Jeter’s feat in this spot, she went and put down her feelings in an e-mail, stating them so beautifully that I asked her permission to share an excerpt here with other readers.  While her words were typed when Jeter had equaled Gehrig’s record, I think they’re no less apt now that he’s gone beyond it.

And so, from Hye Sun to me to you, an appreciation of Derek Jeter:

I was thinking about a baseball fate that allows a good player to shine on a good team. Yogi, for instance, with his ten rings. How is that possible to achieve? Would we have missed a talent like Jeter had he played for the Reds, who could have had him instead of us? How many stars aligned for Jeter, and for all Yankee fans, when a young kid’s dream actually came true after all his hard work. Drafted by the team he rooted for, he was allowed to blossom there along with other rookies, whom established a dynasty through the first years of his professional career. The mind boggles . . . .

Without a doubt, Jeter is my favorite ballplayer. I didn’t know it in the beginning, but there came a time when I would find myself a little disappointed if his name was not in the lineup. Somehow the Yankees didn’t look the same without him in those rare games. I love his single-mindedness in pursuing team wins instead of personal accolades. He seems genuinely embarrassed to be lauded so publicly for an individual accomplishment and I love that about him. Somehow, I feel Gehrig would have been the same way, though I know so little of him. When I saw his parents celebrating, I was wondering if any words could describe how proud they must be of their son. Jeter, in my mind, embodies everything a ball player should be. Bar none.

I was really glad he got over his mini-slump and got it done that one night, and I’ll be really happy if he gets a hit quickly tomorrow night and get this all behind him. There will be time enough after he finally hangs up his Number 2, when we can all gush ad infinitum about him and his achievements, and when all naysayers will have to begrudgingly agree that this ballplayer really was special and really did have those intangible qualities that can never be measured by numbers. When there will be no more games to be won for him and he can finally look at what he did.

May be he will never be able to stand with those players with gaudy numbers, because in the end, people are easily seduced by shiny things, but I think that makes his career all the more special. He has garnered respect from all not by flashy show of power and strength, but by hard work and everyday demeanor that allowed him to shine day in and day out, allowing us to notice him and truly appreciate what rare qualities he possesses. And no amount of home runs can ever overshadow his innate integrity and dignity, which exists in the rarest of baseball players , who have to cope with more failure than success every time they play.

Truly we were all blessed by the baseball gods when he came to us and I, for one, am grateful that I got to watch his wonderful career as a Yankee.

Thank you, Hye Sun.

Why, why, why, A.J.?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Email me

Joba the bust?

Just one day before the Yankees flew out to the West Coast for a three-game set at Angels Stadium, YES Network broadcasters David Cone and Ken Singleton had a conversation about a somewhat undervalued pitching statistic while calling a Yankees-Twins game at the Metrodome.

Cone made the point that the earned run average commonly used to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness versus batters can be deceptive in assessing his overall performance unless his unearned average is also factored in over an extended period. If a pitcher shows a tendency  to give up unearned runs after a fielder commits errors behind him, it isn’t reflected in his ERA. But, those runs count nonetheless — as do the losses to which they may lead. Cone added that a high number of unearned runs over a season, or a career, may show a flaw in the pitcher’s makeup

Singleton agreed with Cone, adding that as a player with the Baltimore Orioles, he had a good idea which pitchers on his team’s staff would give up runs after a fielding error, and which ones would hang tough, pick up his team, and get out of the inning without letting the opposition score.

joba325_071109.jpgAs the Yankees veered toward a 10-6 loss to the Angels on Friday night after their starter Joba Chamberlain blew a four-run lead, Singleton recalled that conversation, mentioning that the 23-year-old righty had the highest unearned run average in the Yankees starting rotation.
Chamberlain’s problems began with a thorny 29-pitch second inning in which he issued a walk, wild pitch and allowed two hits to give up his first run of the game. He’d had trouble putting away batters from the beginning of that frame, when the first Angels hitter at the plate, outfielder Juan Rivera, singled to center after a five-pitch at-bat. Joba then managed to induce a flyball out to first baseman Kendry Morales in two pitches. But he would issue a five-pitch walk to the next batter while Rivera took second on the wild pitch. Gary Matthews would then single and score Rivera after an eight-pitch at-bat. Two batters and nine pitches later, Chamberlain would at last notch his third out of the inning and leave the mound relatively unscathed, having given up only the one earned run.

But, his remaining 3 1/3 innings were a struggle against an Angels lineup that was without its key offensive players, the injured Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero. The box score shows Chamberlain went through a scoreless third inning in 14 pitches, allowing only a single to infield Maicer Itsuris. It does not show that his first recorded out came on a hard-hit liner by Chone Figgins that fortunately wound up in Robinson Cano’s glove. It does not show that his second out was a flyball off the bat of Bobby Abreu that nearly went into the stands for a two-run homer. It does not show that the score could easily have been 4-3, or even 4-4 before Chamberlain left the mound.

It also doesn’t reveal that only an exceptional inning-ending play by Cano saved two runs from scoring in the fourth inning.

Of course, box scores are often deceptive. All pitchers rely on solid fielding and a little luck to make their final lines look better than they otherwise might be. But the good ones capitalize on the defensive plays behind them, the line drives that rocket directly into a fielder’s glove. The good ones know how to win.

In the fourth inning of Friday night’s game, Chamberlain crumbled over the course of throwing 26 pitches. After he surrendered a run on a single to Figgins, who would then steal second,  there would be another stolen base behind him, and later a throwing error by Alex Rodriguez that put two men on base with one out.
 
As Kendry Morales prepared to take the mound, manager Joe Girardi left the dugout to encourage Chamberlain.
 
“Just get the hitter,” Girardi said. “Let’s make sure we concentrate on the hitter and not get caught up with anything else.”

Chamberlain’s next pitch was a hanging curveball that left the park to tie the score at 5-5. A volley of celebratory home-run fireworks later, Angels designated hitter Mike Napoli doubled off Chamberlain, who’d fallen behind him 2-0 in the count. That ended Chamberlain’s outing as he was replaced by Scranton call-up Mark Melancon and the Yankees’ night continued to unravel.
 
This is how Chamberlain evaluated his performance after the loss:  “I’ve come up against some good ballclubs. There’s really nothing else to say. I threw all four pitches for strikes. They just hit the mistakes. That’s what they’re supposed to do.”

Chamberlain would contend that he made “great” pitches throughout the game, including the one that Figgins hit for a leadoff single in the fifth. “It was my pitch that he hit, and you gotta tip your cap to him,” he said.

And the pitch Morales knocked out to center for his mammoth home run?

“Kendry swung the bat well. It was a curveball for a strike, a little up, but it was something we felt confident in throwing it, and he put a good swing on it.”

We felt confident? Chamberlain’s use of the first-person plural was presumably meant to refer to himself and his battery mate, catcher Jose Molina. But it wasn’t Molina who left that hanger over the plate.

Asked if he thought his pitching in that disastrous fifth was different than it had been in preceding innings, Chamberlain replied in the negative. “Not at all,” he said, noting only that the slider Abreu nearly hit for a homer in the third was also “a little up.” A moment later, he would insist to reporters that he’d pitched well overall. “Other than that we were in and out all day, up and down, so it was good,” he said.

Chamberlain would talk about putting the game behind him, learning from his mistakes, continuing to grow. It is a familiar run of baseball clichés that he has readily used when pressed about his struggles, even as he’s become visibly ruffled by suggestions that his performance this season has been disappointing.

And as to those mistakes — has he learned from them?

Chamberlain has only one win in April, one in May, and two in June. Chamberlain allowed 12 walks and 24 hits over the 22 1/2 innings he pitched in May, averaging four innings and change per game over his starts. Over his six June starts Chamberlain gave up 15 walks and 33 hits while averaging 5.8 innings per game. In July, as his ERA has climbed above 4.00, he’s not yet gotten past the fifth inning in either of his two starts.
 
More significantly, Chamberlain’s mound appearances have taken on an awful sameness characterized by his falling behind batters to rack up high pitch counts, failing to recover from errors committed behind him, and ultimately leaving games to be decided by the Yankee bullpen while contributing to its depletion.

“At the end of the day, we got the second half to get better,” he said near the conclusion of his post-game interview.

We, again.  The Yankees began Friday night tied with the Red Sox for first place in their division. They had gone 7-2 in the month of July for a .778 winning percentage, and were a season-high 17 games over .500.

That’s a team that’s collectively done pretty darned well of late.

Perhaps, then, Chamberlain ought to start using the singular “I” when speaking of his own failures. There is something insufferable about his inability to take responsibility for them.
 
“This is not a guy that’s been horrible. Going into tonight he had an ERA of around four,” manager Joe Girardi would say in Chamberlain’s defense after the game. Girardi will always take pains to avoid publicly embarrassing his players.

But Chamberlain’s ERA has bee
n a transparent mask for his deficiencies. Simply put, the numbers lie in his case. And lie dramatically.

The equity Chamberlain once gained as a reliever is long since spent with Yankee fans. Gone are the days of Chamberlain throwing at speeds in the high 90 mile-per-hour range. His velocity is now average, his fastballs lack movement, and the speed differential between his fastball and breaking pitches has leveled off to make the latter less effective. For fans, watching him pitch is a nerve-wracking, arduous test of patience. One can only surmise what it must be like for his manager and teammates.

Unfortunately Chien-Ming Wang’s injury, just as he showed signs of a return to his past winning form, has complicated matters for the Yankees. Already short a starter, they cannot now remove Chamberlain from the rotation, even should they be so inclined.
So, what can be done?

For one thing, the Yankee organization, from the front office to his coaches, must hold Chamberlain accountable for his subpar and poor performances. It can only be hoped that Chamberlain’s self-assessments reflect a young ballplayer’s pride and bravado speaking before throngs of reporters and cameras, and not a real and profound blindness to his own shortcomings. If Chamberlain truly believes he’s been getting better, something is disturbingly wrong with his perspective.
 
This should not be considered an indictment of Joba Chamberlain, but a reasoned appeal to the Yankee organization. They must evaluate what they have with him over the long and short term, and then decide how to proceed moving on. Because there are undeniable signs that Chamberlain is not at all what they once thought they had, and may be rapidly turning into something they cannot live with.
 
Which is to say, a liability. 

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.

Mo on the mend?

Rivera-6-7-250.jpgIn the wet, chilly first week of May, the Tampa Bay Rays swept a brief series at Yankee Stadium that had been shortened from three games to two due to rain. Both were tough losses for the Yanks, coming after they’d fought their way to late game-tying rallies.

On May 7, with the Yanks trailing 3-0 at the bottom of the eighth, Mark Teixeira hit a bases-clearing double to knot the score at 3-3 and force extra innings. But after pitching a scoreless ninth, Mariano Rivera was replaced in the tenth inning by lefty reliever Phil Coke, who surrendered what proved to be the game winning home run to Rays’ firstbaseman Carlos Pena.

At the time I’d written a column asking a question on the minds of many Yank fans: Why hadn’t Rivera, whose workload had been light that week, remained on the mound for a second inning of relief?

I would get my answer the next night following yet another bitter defeat for the Yanks — one that was especially shocking because of the future Hall of Fame closer’s role in giving Tampa a decisive lead.
 
For the second game in a row, the team had come back twice from an early four-run deficit to even things up at the bottom of the eighth. Called on to preserve the tie at the top of the ninth, however, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria tagged Rivera for back-to-back home runs. It was the first time in his career that happened.
 
Crawford hit the first after Rivera shot him a steady stream of cutters with one four-seam fastball mixed in. All were in the 89-91 mph range. The ninth pitch, a 91 mph cutter, left the park in right field.
 
Longoria’s homer came after five pitches. The first four were 90-91 mph cutters. The fifth was an 89 mph four — seam fastball that Longoria smashed into the left field stands with a sound like a thunderclap.

Answering questions from the press hat day, manager Joe Girardi admitted that Rivera, who’d had offseason surgery to eliminate calcification — or a bone spur — in his right shoulder, had experienced some days “where he hasn’t felt the greatest.”

“The velocity is not there,” he’d said of Rivera’s cut fastball, which has in recent seasons typically registered at 93-94mph. “That’s part of it. I still think he’s coming back from the surgery he went through. That’s why we’ve been very careful with him.”

The cutter is of course Rivera’s trademark pitch, the key bullet in his arsenal, its velocity and movement running it sharply in on right-handed batters and away from lefties.

But what happens when some of that speed drops off?

The question remained in the background for almost a full month after Rivera was stunningly bested by the pair of Tampa hitters. Although he’d given up more hits than Yankee fans were accustomed to seeing in that period — and allowed home run in a rocky save against the Baltimore Orioles on May 20 — his strikeout rate was high and most innings thrown scoreless. Overall for the season, he was 12-for-13 in save opportunities going into Saturday’s game — the first in another rain-shortened series between the Yanks the Rays in the Bronx.

But, almost exactly a month after Rivera was stunningly beaten by Crawford and Longoria, bad history seemed to come around and bite him again. The game was uncannily similar to the May 7 loss. The Yanks had twice rallied from deficits, beginning the second with a dramatic Teixeira home run in the eighth. The Yanks went into the inning trailing 5-3. When it ended the game was tied at 5-5.

Rivera entered in the ninth to preserve the tie. When he was pulled from the game after inducing only two outs, the score was 7-5 Rays. He had faced six Tampa batters and left a pair of men on base for his replacement, Phil Coke. Before that inning ended, Tampa would tack on another pair runs to make the score 9-5 and withstand another Yank surge to hang onto a 9-7 victory.

This is how Rivera’s 2/3 of an inning vs. the Rays breaks down:

1) He threw five 90-92 mph cutters to shortstop Ben Zobrist. The fifth was hit out to left field for a triple.

2) He threw two four-seamers to Joe Dillon, one at 92 mph, the second at 93 mph. His third pitch, a 93 mph cutter was singled out to center.

3) He elicited a soft groundout from Dioner Navarro with three 91 mph pitches, a four-seam fastball followed by two cutters.

4) He threw Matt Joyce three cutters that ranged from 89-92 mph for what would appear on the box score as a flyball out — but that, in fact, might well have been an extra-base hit off the right field wall if not for an excellent running catch by Nick Swisher.

5) He issued an intentional walk to Evan Longoria to face outfielder B.J. Upton.

6) He threw three 92 mph cutters to Upton, the third of which was lined into centerfield for a single.

This brought Rivera’s disastrous outing to a close as he was removed from the game to watch the rest of the carnage — and as Yankee fans were left wondering whether this was just another rough spot along the way for the 39-year-old closer, or a sign that time was finally robbing him of his unparalleled effectiveness.
 
I think the answer probably falls somewhere in the middle. Rivera is the greatest reliever in the history of baseball. But he’s also human, vulnerable to the effects of aging — and recovering from shoulder surgery, as Girardi pointed out back in early May.

Yankee pitching coach Dave Eiland would likewise emphasize his return from surgery on Thursday, June 4, after Rivera notched his twelfth save of the season with a scoreless but dicey outing against the Texas Rangers in which he allowed a double to Michael Young and a single to Hank Blalock.

“The guy’s come off shoulder surgery,” he responded to a question about Rivera’s pitch speed, which that day had measured between 91-93 mph on the radar gun. “He’s never had to do that before. But if his velocity doesn’t ever go back up, he still has the command of his fastball — that late movement he has to both sides of the plate. He commands the baseball as good as anybody in the game, so for me his velocity is not a big deal. If it comes back, great. We think it will. But if it doesn’t, we’re still comfortable with what he can do where he’s at velocity-wise now.”

At his locker a few minutes later, I listened as Rivera himself assessed how he felt about the way he’s currently pitching with these words: “I’m okay. I’m okay?” he said. “I don’t have to ask for nothing better, you know what I mean? I’m gonna go there, I’m gonna give my best.”

When a reporter asked if he felt altogether back to himself after some rough early season outings, Rivera replied, “Well, I mean, I’m pitching, more, more. So, I have more opportunities. The longer you keep throwing on these occasions, everything is gonna be good.”

Never one to make excuses, Rivera was hardly unequivocal about his current physical condition.  He is obviously aware he isn’t in top form.
 
So what’s next for him?

Rivera has for years reportedly thrown a changeup in Spring Training bullpen sessions, and he may have to expand his repertoire to occasionally include it in game situations, throwing hitters off-balance, and stopping them from waiting on his fastball when it lacks bite.
  
It’s also important that we remember he is made of flesh and blood that is still in the process of healing–and that we acknowledge the signs that his arm is getting stronger as the season progresses. Though not entirely back up to speed, his fastball has gained a mile or two from earlier in the season and is getting close to its optimum velocity. Also, as Eiland stressed, his comma
nd has been mostly superb.
 
There is certainly reason for concern, nevertheless. Rivera cannot go on eternally pitching at the level to which we’ve been accustomed. We have seen him get hit harder, and more often, this year than ever before. And will likely see more bumps in the road.
 
But even at the latter stages of his career, Rivera remains the best and most consistent closer in baseball.
 
I’d rather have him on the mound closing games for the Yankees than anyone. Bumps and all.