April 2010

Divine Derek

Let’s face it. Robinson Cano cannot do everything. It just seems as if he can. The second baseman, who has been all-everything for the Yankees this season, got to watch his keystone mate Derek Jeter take control Friday night. Jeter had a shot at the cycle, except that the Yankees’ two-run rally in the seventh, which he himself fueled, robbed him of one more at-bat because there was no bottom of the ninth.

The Yankees rebounded from 3-0 and 4-2 deficits behind Jeter, who tied the score with a two-run home run off Freddy Garcia in the fifth and put them ahead with a two-run triple off lefthander Matt Thornton in the seventh on the way to a 6-4 victory over the White Sox. As he was often in 2009 when he had a 10-1 record, Alfredo Aceves, who pitched the top of the seventh, was in position for the winning decision and is now 2-0.

Jeter singled and scored in the first, so a double was needed for him to get the cycle, but another at-bat was out of the question when the Yankees failed to get to his spot in the order in the eighth. Jeter, with 18 RBI in 22 games as a leadoff hitter, is up to .330, which still puts him 70 points behind Cano, who had 1-for-4.

“I try to keep the same approach with each at-bat, to try and get a hit,” said Jeter, who subscribes to what is known in baseball parlance as the KISS method, as in “Keep it simple, stupid.”

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is enamored with Jeter, saying after the game, “He is God. He’s God all the time. It’s fun to watch him play the game. He’s the number one ambassador in this game. I mean, God bless him.”

Alex Rodriguez’s first hit in 20 at-bats was a double scoring Jeter in the first. The Yankees closed to 3-2 later in the inning and had a shot at tying the score, but A-Rod got a late read from third base on the play by first baseman Paul Konerko, who fielded a grounder by Nick Swisher near the bag, tagged first and threw to second where Cano was caught for the third out of the inning.

Once Konerko touched the bag, the force was removed and Cano had to be tagged at second for a double play. Had A-Rod broken for the plate, he might have scored before Cano got caught. Since Konerko is right-handed, once he turned his back it should have let A-Rod know he was going to second. It would have been close, probably bang-bang for the umpires.

It was another hitless night for Mark Teixeira, who did walk twice and closed out April hitting .136. He will be glad to change the calendar. Teixeira is a .235 career hitter in March/April and a .297 career hitter in the other months.

 

Andy guts it out

Judging from his first two innings, Andy Pettitte didn’t look long for the evening. The White Sox racked him for four runs, three on Paul Konerko’s 11th home run, but Pettitte righted himself after that and got a little help from wayward White Sox base running.

Gordon Beckham opened the fifth with a single and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Alex Rios hit a hard liner that shortstop Derek Jeter stopped on one hop in shallow left field. Beckham got caught in no man’s land between second and third and was tagged out in a rundown. It was not the most stylish of plays because third baseman Alex Rodriguez got rid of the ball too quickly, which allowed Beckham time to allow Rios to get to second.

Pitching carefully to Konerko with first base open, Pettitte walked him, then retired the next two batters and set down the White Sox in order in the sixth before coming out of the game. Jeter’s two-run home run in the fifth took Pettitte off the hook, so he remained unbeaten and watched his ERA go only as high as 2.12 from 1.29. It didn’t hurt that the White Sox had only one hit in nine at-bats with runners in scoring position against Pettitte.

A.J. is A-OK

There is no surprise why the Orioles made Brian Matusz their first selection in the 2008 amateur draft. Baltimore cannot attract free-agent pitchers to their cozy, hitter-friendly Camden Yards layout, so come draft time the Orioles look for arms.

Ever since Mike Mussina bolted the Inner Harbor for the Yankees 10 years ago, the Orioles have been hard-pressed to convince pitchers to wear the orange and black. The spiffy, retro ballpark with the tight power alleys (364 feet) and short fences is a nightmare for pitchers, so the question is, just how does A.J. Burnett do it?

Burnett outpitched Matusz Thursday night in the Yankees’ 4-0 victory over the Orioles with an absolute gem as he yielded three singles and one walk in eight innings. The performance improved Burnett’s career record at Camden Yards to 5-0 with a 3.89 ERA, which makes you wonder why the Orioles didn’t try to outbid the Yankees for his services when he was a free agent after the 2008 season.

Granted, Burnett (3-0, 2.43) had some strong run support in his six previous Camden Yards starts considering he was unbeaten despite a 4.75 ERA. Thursday night, though, the Yankees’ supply of runs was not an abundance of offense in this yard, but as it turned out all Burnett needed was only one of Robinson Cano’s two home runs to win there again.

Marcus Thames is earning himself more at-bats as the DH against left-handed pitching. With three more hits Thursday night, Thames raised his average to .588 — .600 against lefties. Maybe he should bat second.

The Yankees are still searching for someone to be effective in the 2-hole in the batting order. The spot that opened because Johnny Damon declined to re-sign with the Yankees and went to Detroit as a free agent has been a problem all season.

Nick Swisher was 0-for-5 in that role, which dropped the overall batting average of 2-hole hitters to .139. That is also what the Yankees are getting out of the third spot from Mark Teixeira, who is off to another slow start. On top of that, cleanup hitter Alex Rodriguez is mired in a 0-for-19 slump. A-Rod is in one of those droughts that he has experienced closing in on a milestone home run. In 2007, he went 28 at-bats before hitting his 500th career home run. Since coming within one home run of tying Frank Robinson for seventh on the all-time list with 586, A-Rod is 6-for-35 (.171).

All of which means thank goodness for Cano, who remains red hot with a .407 average, tops in the majors. Two home runs, his seventh and eighth, plus a double boosted his numbers during an eight-game hitting streak to 17-for-32 (.531) with a double, a triple, four home runs and seven RBI.

Some people wondered if Cano could handle batting fifth. How about third or fourth?

Slapping leather

Much was made of the Red Sox’ off-season of upgrading themselves defensively with the acquisition of third baseman Adrian Beltre, center fielder Mike Cameron and shortstop Marco Scutaro. The Yankees didn’t make as many changes, yet they are best defensive team in the American League East by far right now.

Certainly, the Yankees’ trade for center fielder Curtis Granderson from the Tigers represented an update defensively in the outfield, since he essentially replaced the below-average Johnny Damon. Granderson compared to Melky Cabrera, who went to the Braves in the deal that imported pitcher Javier Vazquez, is actually a push, but his arrival allowed Brett Gardner to take over in left, which is a big improvement over Damon.

Nothing changed in the Yankees’ infield, however, which was a good thing. The Yankees are slapping leather big time, and there were several good examples in the early innings Thursday night at Baltimore. First baseman Mark Teixeira made two fine scoops of throws in the dirt to secure outs. One was on a peg in the third inning from third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who made a fine, bare-handed pickup of a spinning grounder by Nick Markakis.

Second baseman Robinson Cano got the first out of that inning with what is becoming a patented play of his. He ranged far to his right to back-hand a grounder up the middle by Nolan Reimold and in one motion threw a strike to Teixeira. The play was reminiscent of the kind of play shortstop Derek Jeter makes regularly with a hop, skip and throw after moving to his right in fielding a grounder.

Pitchers appreciate this kind of work, naturally, and A.J. Burnett was no exception. Another alert play was by backup catcher Francisco Cervelli, who pounced on a dribbler on the plate by Miguel Tejada and threw to first while the Baltimore third baseman stood in the batter’s box clearly believing the ball was foul. Cervelli, starting in place of injured Jorge Posada (bruised right knee) knew the plate is in fair territory and never hesitated in making a play.

The Yankees entered play Thursday night with merely eight errors in 20 games. Only the Twins, with three boots in 21 games, were doing better among AL teams. Fielding clearly is among the 2010 Yankees’ greatest assets.

Yankees haters, where are you?

How about this, Yankees fans, your favorite team is not the most hated franchise in baseball. Yankees fans get worn out listening to people elsewhere, including certain parts of New York, complain about the Bombers and their free-spending ways that have built the most successful club in baseball’s history. Yankees haters are so far and wide that is absolutely stunning to find out that a recent survey found that the Yankees are not No. 1 on the can’t-stand list.

According to a report by the Nielsen Company, the folks who have done the television ratings for years, the most despised baseball franchise in North America is – drum roll please – the Cleveland Indians. The Indians? That club in that wonderful ballpark along the banks of Lake Erie? Who answered this survey? All those politically-correct types who want Chief Wahoo removed from the Tribe’s caps and uniforms?

The Nielson “formula,” as it was called, was based on determining whether consumers have positive, negative or neutral reactions to brands in their online messages. And, get this, the Yankees weren’t even runners-up. That distinction went to their rival Boston Red Sox. In fact, the Yankees were no higher than fifth on the hate list behind third-place Cincinnati and fourth-place Houston. The survey was tough on Buckeyes as both Ohio clubs were in the top four of despised franchises.

Just for the record, the two most popular clubs in the survey were the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics. Break up the Bay Area?

Cano can do

It has been 35 years since a second baseman won the American League batting title, which gives Robinson Cano something personal to shoot for. Rod Carew won the fifth of his seven batting titles in 1975, the last time a second sacker had the best batting average in the league. Carew was the AL batting champion again in 1977 and ’78, by which time the future he had moved to first base.

Cano has been on fire of late and is leading AL hitters with a .390 average. He banged out two more hits, including his sixth home run, Wednesday night in the Yankees’ 8-3 victory over the Orioles behind the workmanlike pitching of CC Sabathia (3-1), who improved his career numbers against Baltimore to 10-1 with a 2.62 ERA and at Camden Yards to 6-1 with a 2.91 ERA.

It was an impressive offensive game for the Yankees considering that they got next to no production from their 3-4 hitters, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, who combined to go 1-for-9, although A-Rod did have an RBI on a sacrifice fly. The slack was taken up by Nick Swisher with his second consecutive three-hit game and two hits apiece from Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner and Francisco Cervelli.

Plus, of course, Cano, who is showing every sign of a truly breakout season. He is hardly sneaking up on anyone. A year ago, Robbie hit .320 with 75 extra-base hits and 85 RBI. He drove in as many as 97 runs in 2007 and entered this season with a .309 career batting average and .826 OPS. In his current seven-game hitting streak, Cano is 14-for-28 (.500) with a triple, two home runs and five RBI.

Just the other day, George King in the New York Post quoted Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and a half-dozen scouts  saying Cano is a better all-around second baseman than the Red Sox’ Dustin Pedroia, who won the Most Valuable Player Award in the AL in 2008.

To me, Cano and Pedroia are different types of players who are compared only because they play the same position. Like Carew, Pedroia is a leadoff hitter with limited power, although Boston’s mighty mite is much more of an extra-base threat. Yet no one would ever expect Pedroia to bat fifth in the order as is Cano

Yankees manager Joe Girardi felt Cano could handle the RBI responsibilities. So far he has. Cano has the power potential to remind fans less of Carew than such other Hall of Famers as Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg and his namesake, Jackie Robinson. Rogers Hornsby? Well, let’s not get carried away.

Yanks officially in a slump

Okay, it’s official. The Yankees have hit their first pothole of the season. Tuesday night, they became the first opponent to lose a game at Camden Yards as the Orioles got to 1-6 at home with a 5-4 victory.

Typical Baltimore ineptness in the field nearly allowed the Yanks to pull this one out. Normally sure-handed shortstop Cesar Izturis couldn’t make a play on a Brett Gardner grounder in the ninth inning that gave Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez a chance for late heroics.

Tex made it a one-run game with a single, but A-Rod’s hard grounder up the middle didn’t make it through and the Yankees lost for the fourth time in five games.

The Yankees got a decent start from Phil Hughes (5 2/3 innings, 2 hits, 1 run, 4 walks, 2 strikeouts), but the bullpen work was shabby, particularly David Roberston (0-1), who hit the first batter he faced and yielded hits to the next three in the sixth as the Orioles took command.

It is not a good night for the pitching staff when the opposition’s most productive hitter is the guy batting ninth. Izturis drove in three runs with a pair of singles and a bases-loaded walk.

Usually, the Yankees can make up for pitching shortcomings with their bats, but they have gone as cold as the chill they felt in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Except for Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher, who had three hits apiece, the Yankees’ lineup is suddenly full of outs.

Texeira’s hit was only his second in his past 13 at-bats. He is down to .129. Curtis Granderson is hitless in 17 at-bats, Derek Jeter the same in 11. Rodriguez is in a 1-for-17 funk. Jorge Posada hit his fifth home run but offset that by getting thrown out overrunning second base and throwing a ball stalking a base stealer into center field that led to what proved the deciding run in the eighth.

The Yankees couldn’t even rely on the Orioles’ weak bullpen to impload. Three Baltimore relievers combined for no earned runs in 3 2/3 innings, with the error by Izturis providing the Yankees their only opening. They almost took full advantage of it. Almost.

Around the bases with Jorge

Defying the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, Jorge Posada homered leading off the fourth inning against Kevin Millwood to unlock a 1-1 score. The Yankees managed a run in the second, thanks to an error by third baseman Miguel Tejada, who has struggled making the transition from shortstop. Maybe Miggy ought to have a chat with Alex Rodriguez.

It was part of a shaky defensive inning for the Orioles. First baseman Rhyne Hughes lost a shot at a double play by bobbling a grounder by Jeter and having to settle for one out. The way Baltimore is going Millwood could use all the outs he can get.

Derek Jeter, another SI cover boy, suffered a more familiar fate by extending his current 0-fer to nine at-bats by failing to get the ball out of the infield in his first three at-bats.

Phil Hughes, who did not have the same command as last week at Oakland in his no-hit bid, was lucky to get out of the second inning by surrendering only one run, which came on a bases-loaded walk. Hughes allowed two hits and two walks, but Adam Jones folded in the clutch by grounding into an inning-ending double play. Hughes seemed to get stronger the longer through the cool night retiring 12 of his last 13 batters.

As if Javier Vazquez doesn’t have enough trouble, he was hit in the dugout by a foul liner by Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis. The ball was smoked, but Javy shook off trainer Steve Donohue.

It was good to see Randy Winn get his first hit of the season, a single in the second off his “cousin,” Millwood. Winn has 12-for-20 (.600) against Millwood in his career. This hit ended Winn’s 0-for-10 start.

Posada, never the savviest of base runners, made a mistake in the sixth when he was caught straying too far from second base on a single off Tejada’s glove by Nick Swisher. Tejada recovered and nailed Posada, who should have just stood on the base because he had no chance to cross to third. Maybe there is something to that jinx.

Take cover, Core Four

Uh-oh; just what the Yankees didn’t need, having to contend with the dreaded SI Jinx. The Yankees’ celebrated “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte grace the cover of this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated. As always, it is flattering to be the topic of a cover story, in this case by Tom Verducci, but what often comes afterwards is less than flattering.

And it comes at a time when each of the quartet is off to a strong start. Entering play Tuesday night, Jeter was batting .316 with 3 home runs and 12 RBI and Posada .315 with 4 homers and 11 RBI; Pettitte was 3-0 with a 1.29 ERA and Rivera was 6-for-6 in save conversions and a zero ERA.

Ride it out, guys.

Elsewhere in the media, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling stirred it up on two ESPN radio interviews by saying that Javier Vazquez won’t be any different this year as a starter for the Yankees from the way he was back in 2004.

“It is easier to pitch and be successful in the National League than it is the American League,” Schilling said. “If anyone thinks that Javier Vazquez is going to be different the second time around than he was the first time I think they are fooling themselves.”

Yankees fans have their own doubts about Vazquez, as we heard from the booing at Yankee Stadium in his one start there April 14. But Schilling’s diss could help Vazquez, who will make his next start Friday night at the Stadium against his former White Sox club. Yankees fans might welcome Javy with supportive cheers rather than give the impression they are of the same mind as a Red Sox Nation loudmouth.

Special day rekindles fond memory

One of the coolest rewards for a team winning the World Series is a trip to the White House during the next season. Although other Presidents met with teams and players on a few occasions, Ronald Reagan made it pretty much an annual event during his two terms in office in the 1980s continuing through today with the Yankees set to meet Barack Obama.

It may seem old hat to the Yankees’ famed Core Four of Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada since they will be feted by their third President, joining Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The event has expanded quite a bit over the years with media coverage that is much more widespread these days.

I had a chance to experience such a visit in 1987 with the Mets the year after they won the World Series. It always reminds me of Arthur Richman, a baseball behind-the-scenes legend who died last year after 20 years as a special consultant to the Yankees as part of a 50-year connection with the game first as a reporter and then as a team official.

Arthur was the travel director of the Mets at the time and made the arrangements, which included inviting 10 writers to travel with the team on a charter flight to DC. Unlike today where reporters have to make a separate entrance through the press gate and view the ceremonies from afar, the writers back then were part of the traveling party and got an up-close view of the proceedings in the Rose Garden.

I never got to meet Reagan, but shortly after the ceremony while the players were milling around the President, Arthur came up to me and said, “Follow me. I want you to meet somebody.” We entered this side room and there was the senior George Bush, then the Vice President, with a small group of people around him.

Arthur had known him for years and was so friendly with him that when he brought me up to him he said, “Jackie, say hello to Bushie.”

Bush never flinched and held out his hand, so I was able to shake hands with a Vice President. Quite a memory, and one that flashes through today, a very special one for the Yankees.

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