August 2010

Yanks, Rays have safety net

Fans seem to like the wild-card system in baseball because if gives more teams a chance to reach the playoffs.  The powers that be in the game certainly approve it of it because the more teams involved in races the greater the interest there is in the sport in the final month of the season.

There is one downside of the system that was adopted in 1994 by which the second place team with the best record qualifies for post-season play as a wild card, and that is it can ruin an old-fashioned race for first place.

Take what is going on this year between the Yankees and the Rays, for example. These two teams entered play Tuesday night tied for first in the American League East for the eighth straight day. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that marks the most consecutive days that a pair of teams has been tied for first this late in a season. The previous record was seven straight days by the Dodgers and the Astros in the National League West Sept. 10-16, 1980.

That season featured one of the wildest finishes in major league history. The Dodgers swept the Astros in a three-game series at Los Angeles to force a one-game playoff that also took place at Dodger Stadium the day after the regular season ended. The Dodgers’ bubble was burst by Joe Niekro’s knuckleball as Houston won the playoff to qualify for the NL Championship Series against the Phillies.

Had there been a wild-card system, there would have been no need for a playoff because both teams would have made it.

Something similar happened in 1993, the last year there was no wild-card in the majors. In fact, the finish in the NL West that year was a major reason the wild-card supporters got what they wanted. The Giants won 103 games but finished one game behind the Braves (then in the NL West) and went home.

It was as wild a race as every existed. Atlanta trailed San Francisco by a season-high 10 games July 22 and by 9 as late as Aug. 7. A seven-game losing streak Sept. 7-15 brought the Giants back to earth as they fell 3 games behind the Braves, who were amid a 9-1 run. It came down to the final weekend. The Braves swept a three-game series from the Rockies, but the Giants lost to their arch-rival Dodgers on the final day of the season.

There was no fallback position for the Giants without the wild card. As tight as that race was, it does not compare really to what is going on between the Yankees and Tampa Bay. The Braves and Giants were tied on the same day only eight times total in 1993, only as often as the Yanks and Rays have been for a little more than the past week.

Over the past 30 days, the Yankees and the Rays have been tied for first place 12 times and have had the same share of the top spot 23 days during the season. But with the third-place Red Sox having fallen seven games behind them and the second-place teams in the other divisions nowhere near contention for the wild-card berth, the juice is missing from the Yanks-Rays race because whoever doesn’t win the division will make the playoffs anyway.

Sure, there is home-field advantage in the Division Series and Championship Series at stake, which is sort of a carrot but not as appetizing as eliminating a foe altogether.

Pettitte targeted for Rays, Sox?

The Yankees will be rooting for Andy Pettitte to have a good bullpen session Wednesday because it would set into motion a scenario that could benefit them greatly against their American League East challengers.

Pettitte, who has been disabled since July 18 because of a strained left groin, was encouraged by his sideline work Sunday in Chicago when he threw at about 75 percent without feeling any discomfort. He’ll try to get closer to 100 percent Wednesday.

If all goes well, Pettitte may be in line to be back on the mound against major-league competition in about two weeks after some injury-rehabilitation assignments or simulated games. That would allow Pettitte to make four starts, all against either the Rays or the Red Sox for the remainder of the season in a theory proposed by WFAN Radio’s Sweeney Murti, to which I subscribe.

If Pettitte can start Sept. 14 or 15 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., then he would be in line to start against the Rays Sept. 20 at Yankee Stadium, against the Red Sox Sept. 25, also at the Stadium, and Oct. 1 at Fenway Park. Yes, I am getting way ahead of myself here, but if Pettitte continues to progress there is reason to believe that schedule could become reality.

Alex Rodriguez, out with a left calf strain, is not eligible to come off the disabled list until Sept. 5, which is Sunday. That means there will be no return engagement with Athletics pitcher Dallas Braden, who will start Thursday’s finale of the four-game series at the Stadium. Remember the firestorm that was created back in April when Braden berated A-Rod for trotting on the mound at the Oakland Coliseum while returning to first base after a foul ball?

Braden, who pitched a perfect game May 9 against Texas at Oakland, was on the DL when the Yankees returned to the Coliseum in July. By then, the bitterness was defused somewhat as both player signed “Get Off My Mound” t-shirts for charity. Braden still thinks Yankees fans will let him have it Thursday.

“It wouldn’t New York if they didn’t,” Braden said. “They have had awhile to think of some good stuff, so I’m sure they won’t disappoint me.”

Captain needs to get home

The Yankees return home Monday, and no one should be happier about that than the team captain. Derek Jeter suffered through a tortuous trip on the personal level as all things considered the Yankees were fortunate to come away with a 3-3 record on the trek through Toronto and Chicago.

More than in any other season, Jeter appears lost on the road in 2010. He was hitless in four at-bats with a walk Sunday and grounded into his 20th double play of the season. Jeter was 2-for-23 (.087) with one home run and two RBI on the trip and is stuck on a .270 batting average for the season.

The discrepancy between home and away is alarming. Jeter is batting .230 with three home runs and 24 RBI on the road, compared to .314 with seven home runs and 35 RBI at Yankee Stadium. His career numbers are .322 at home and .307 on the road, so this year is clearly out of the ordinary for Jeter.

To win two close games against the White Sox the past two days was huge for the Yankees, who are already without Alex Rodriguez and had Mark Teixiera (bruised right thumb) for only one at-bat. Marcus Thames came up big-time for the Yankees, a sort of anti-Jeter on the road by going 8-for-17 (.471) with one double, five home runs and eight RBI. Two of his home runs were off right-handed pitchers, a very encouraging sign.

The Yankees’ other RBI came from Brett Gardner, who hit leadoff with Jeter dropping to No. 2, on a single in the third inning in what was a strange at-bat. Francisco Cervelli led off with a double, the first of four hits in the game that raised his average from .240 to .253. Gardner did not show bunt on the first pitch and took a strike. He made a sacrifice attempt on the second pitch and bunted it foul. Swinging away on 0-and-2, Gardner singled up the middle to score Cervelli with a second run that held up.

The Yankees found a new starting pitcher on the trip in rookie righthander Ivan Nova, who earned his first major-league victory Sunday. In his two starts on the trip, Nova allowed three earned runs and 11 hits with two walks and 10 strikeouts in 11 innings. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Nova will get another start, although it will not come up at the expense of A.J. Burnett, who will remain in the rotation. The odd man out remains Javier Vazquez, who is likely to be used as a backup for Phil Hughes in his starts to keep his innings down.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen went so far as to say Nova was the Yankees’ best pitcher in the series, quite a statement considering Mariano Rivera had two saves. Guillen did not have a good day. He lifted his best hitter, Paul Konerko, in a one-run game in the eighth for a pinch runner who tried to steal on the first pitch and was thrown out trying to steal second base.

Perhaps Ozzie’s mind was clouded by watching one of his least favorite players, Nick Swisher, have a great series against his former team. Swisher, who hit .219 for Guillen in 2008, was 5-for-13 (.385) with a double, two homers and five RBI in the series. Over the past two years for the Yankees, Swish is hitting .333 with one double, five home runs and 11 RBI in 45 at-bats against the White Sox.

Why Joe D. had to wait

I need to take issue with a discussion on YES between Michael Kay and Ken Singleton on Sunday’s telecast of the Yankees-White Sox game. It is not a criticism but rather an explanation or, better put, an attempt at one.

Former White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas, a two-time American League Most Valuable Player, was honored Sunday at U.S. Cellular Field and had his uniform No. 35 retired. In reviewing Thomas’ career, Kay and Singleton fittingly talked about his credentials as a candidate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There was even a text-message question to viewers on the topic.

Thomas retired after the 2008 season and will be eligible for consideration by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on the 2014 ballot. I have no dispute here about Thomas’ legitimacy as a candidate for first-ballot election. Interestingly, the result of the text poll was 71 percent yes and 29 percent no, which means that according to texters the “Big Hurt” is not first-ballot worthy, since 75 percent of ballots cast is required for election.

But in the discussion about the writers’ vote, Kay and Singleton save some examples of first-ballot electees and questioned why Joe DiMaggio isn’t among them. At one point, Singleton said, “What were the writers thinking?”

Well, here goes. First off, the rules were different when DiMaggio, an obvious choice for the Hall of Fame if there ever was one, first went on the ballot, which was 1953. He had retired after the 1951 season when he was only 37 years old (the 1952 ballot had already been formed by the time of the announcement, which is why he was not on it).

Unlike today, there was no five-year waiting period before a player become eligible for the ballot. DiMaggio went on the ballot one year after he retired. Remember, no one had been elected on the first ballot up to that time since the original class of 1936 (Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson). Lou Gehrig was elected by acclamation by the BBWAA in 1939.

According to veteran writers I talked to over the years, it was not uncommon for voters at that time to dismiss first-year candidates out of the thinking that the player might un-retire. There was no five-percent rule at the time, either, which came about in the mid 1980s requiring candidates to get at least five percent of the vote to stay on the ballot.

There was apparently some feeling at the time that DiMaggio, still in his 30s, might get himself back in shape and return to the Yankees. This was a period not too far removed from World War II when former players, most notably Jimmie Foxx, did precisely that.

In fact, that is one of the reasons the five-year rule came into being in 1954, which was DiMaggio’s second year on the ballot. Joe D. was actually the first test case. The writers allowed anyone who had received more than 100 votes on a previous ballot to be grand-fathered onto the ballot without having to wait five years. The only player to which that applied was DiMaggio, who came close to being elected in 1954 (69.4 percent) before making it in 1955 (88.8).

Another rule of thought in voting in those years was that players had to “wait their turn.” One writer once told me that he could not vote for DiMaggio while Joe Cronin and Hank Greenberg, who preceded Joe D. to the majors by quite a few years (10 for Cronin, six for Greenberg) were not yet in. They were elected in 1956, the year after the “Yankee Clipper.”

I am by no means saying that I agree with the thinking of that time, only that it was different. I am fairly confident that if DiMaggio did not go on the ballot until 1957 in satisfying the five-year waiting period he would have been elected on the first ballot. As it was, he got into the Hall two years earlier than that.

Another rescue mission for Mo

U.S. Cellular Field played like Wrigley Field Saturday night. Illinois native Joe Girardi knows all about nights like this, which should give him pause if he is tempted to go home next year and manage the Cubs. Remember, Joe, you can’t bring Mariano Rivera with you.

Such games as Saturday night’s 12-9 slugfest are why Yankees fans celebrate having Rivera as their closer. He should have been cooling his heels in the bullpen, but relievers Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson had their first off nights in quite a while as the White Sox kept creeping back into the game. Mo was summoned in the ninth after Robertson gave up a home run, a triple and a single to the first three batters.

Rivera got two quick outs inducing a grounder from Carlos Quentin that was turned into a double play. Ramon Castro kept the inning alive with a single, and Andruw Jones, who turned back the clock with a perfect night (home run, double, single, two bases on balls, two RBI) worked out a walk, which brought the potential tying run to the plate. That was Mark Teahen, who finally ended it with a soft liner to second baseman Robinson Cano.

In the middle of the eighth inning, this looked like a piece of cake for the Yankees, who had an 11-5 lead with CC Sabathia becoming the first Yankees starter in eight games to pitch beyond the sixth inning. Sabathia almost let all of a 6-1, third-inning lead get away as a pair of two-run home runs by Paul Konerko and Jones got the White Sox to 6-5 in the fourth.

Two-run homers by Nick Swisher in the first, Eduardo Nunez (career No. 1) in the second and Marcus Thames (the first of two bombs for him in the game) in the third fashioned the early lead. For all that power, the biggest hit of the game for the Yankees was a two-out, two-run double by Jorge Posada in the fifth. It unnerved reliever Tony Pena, who walked the next two hitters and gave up a two-run single to Nunez, the rookie third baseman who had a game worthy of Alex Rodriguez.

Sabathia sort of sauntered his way over the first four innings, but after Jones’ home run CC struck out seven of the next 11 hitters and got through the seventh without yielding another run. His fifth straight victory raised his season mark to 18-5 with a 3.14 ERA, which are surely Cy Young Award numbers. Other impressive figures for Sabathia are a 38-10 career mark in August with a 3.14 ERA, a 16-4 lifetime record against the White Sox with a 3.72 ERA, including 9-1 with a 3.33 ERA at the Cell.

Still, he had to sweat through the later innings as the bullpen struggled until you know who did what he does best.

Swisher torments Guillen

It is fairly well known that there is no love lost between the Yankees’ Nick Swisher and White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. In his one season in Chicago, Swisher batted .219 and was banished to Guillen’s bench. When the Yankees traded for Swisher after the 2008 season, Guillen was not sorry to see him go.

Swisher has been able to garner a healthy measure of satisfaction the past two seasons by making life uncomfortable for Guillen in games between the Yankees and the White Sox. The latest dose of pain to the colorful manager came in the first inning Saturday night when Swisher slammed a two-run home run in the first inning. Swish also homered and doubled Friday night for the Yankees’ only two extra-base hits in a 9-4 loss.

Remember, Swisher wasn’t able to play Wednesday night at Toronto because of a swollen left knee, the result of his fouling a ball off it the night before that knocked him out of the game. An open date Thursday gave Swisher added time to rest the knee because there was no way he was not getting into the lineup at U.S. Cellular Field, not when he had another opportunity to torment Guillen.

The home runs Friday and Saturday nights raised Swisher’s total against the White Sox the past two seasons to five in 38 at-bats. Take that, Oz.

More rotation woes

No matter how you look at it, Andy Pettitte is not close to returning to the Yankees’ rotation, which has unraveled without him. Javier Vazquez has already pitched himself into the bullpen. Can A.J. Burnett be far behind?

Pettitte threw a 25-pitch bullpen session before Friday night’s game in Chicago and estimated his effort was 75 percent and that he did not push off his left leg very hard so as not to aggravate his left groin strain. What all that means is that Pettitte, who was shut down completely a week ago, is still a ways from returning to the mound.

He would have to make at least two starts on injury rehabilitation, but with the minor league season nearing a close Andy might be able to make only one rehab start and perhaps a simulated game or two. Any kind of setback would jeopardize his chances to get back in shape before the end of the regular season.

And do the Yankees ever need help in the rotation? Burnett’s miserable August continued Friday night in a 9-4 loss to the White Sox. He quickly lost a 1-0 lead in a 33-pitch first inning in which Chicago scored four runs. Burnett failed to get through the fourth inning and was charged with nine runs (eight earned). He yielded nine hits, walked three batters and unleashed two wild pitches.

In his five starts this month, Burnett is 0-4 with a 7.80 ERA. He has given up 38 hits and 13 walks in 30 innings and has watched his ERA rise from 4.52 to 5.17. The Yankees have a .609 winning percentage, yet Burnett’s record is 9-12 (.429).

The righthander’s 3 1/3 messy innings were part of an usually sloppy game overall for the Yankees. One of his wild pitches scored a run. Sergio Mitre also wild-pitched a runner home in an otherwise strong relief effort (no runs, one hit in 4 2/3 innings). Burnett failed to back up the plate when Nick Swisher airmailed a throw home from right field. Francisco Cervelli committed his 10th error on a wild throw of his own. The Yankees were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and grounded into two double plays.

The Yankees remained tied for first place in the American League East with Tampa Bay, which lost at home to the Red Sox. Boston has moved to 4 games of the Yankees and Rays. Despite all their injuries, the Sox simply will not go away.

The Yankees will not have to contend with Manny Ramirez this weekend. The White Sox were awarded the claim on Ramirez from the Dodgers, who have until Tuesday to work out a deal with Chicago or pull Ramirez back. Los Angeles began play Friday 11 games behind in the National League West and five games out of the wild-card race.

As expected, the Rays also put in a claim for Ramirez. So did the Rangers, which was somewhat surprising because Texas has a full-time designated hitter in Vlad Guerrero. Waiver claims are based on the reverse order of standings, so the White Sox, with the poorest record of the three, got the shot at Ramirez, who would fit in nicely as their DH.

With the AL wild card likely be the second-place finisher in the East, the White Sox’ chance for the playoffs will be to win the Central Division. They were three games behind the Twins, who made a major pickup by obtaining relief pitcher Brian Fuentes from the Angels.

Yankees/JAY-Z items for sale starting Monday

The Yankees announced Friday that limited-edition, co-branded Yankees/JAY-Z merchandise will be sold exclusively at Yankee Stadium beginning Monday. The merchandise will be available at the Stadium through the JAY-Z / Eminem concerts scheduled there Sept. 13 and 14.

All items will feature the presence of Yankees and JAY-Z logos and have been seen and approved by JAY-Z. Merchandise will include men’s and women’s T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts – all by Majestic – along with New Era 59/50 fitted Yankees caps with the album logo from JAY-Z’s The Blueprint 3.
 
The merchandise has been created to commemorate the Stadium’s first official concerts Sept. 13-14, when JAY-Z and Eminem will co-headline in the Bronx. The concerts make up the second half of the artists’ “Home and Home” tour and will follow their joint performances at Detroit’s Comerica Park Sept. 3 and 4.
 
Beginning Monday, Yankees/JAY-Z merchandise can be purchased in-Stadium during games or seven days a week at the Yankee Stadium Great Hall Team Store near Gate 6, located on the northwest corner of 161st Street and River Avenue. The hours of operation for the Gate 6 store are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. On all days or nights that the Yankees play home games, the store stays open until one hour after the game ends.
 

Sheppard family grateful

The family of the late Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard expressed their gratitude to the people, many of them Yankees fans, who mourned his passing last month.

“Our family would like to thank everyone for the outpouring of condolences and support,” the statement read. “We continue to be touched by the kind words and wonderful memories that so many people have shared with us.

“We are humbled that Bob holds a special place in the hearts of so many individuals – from fans of the New York Yankees and New York football Giants to former students at John Adams High School and St. John’s University. Your kindness has inspired us during this difficult time.”

Hughes keeps innings down

The Yankees didn’t have to worry about limiting Phil Hughes’ innings Wednesday night at Toronto. He did that to himself.

Hughes failed to get through the fourth inning in his briefest outing of the season, although he did throw a full complement of pitches with 102 in a 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays. A 30-pitch first inning set the tone for Hughes, who fell to 15-6 and had his ERA climb to 4.12.

Vernon Wells had three of the six hits off Hughes, who also walked five batters. Wells got three-quarters of the way to a cycle with a triple in the first inning, a two-run home run in the third and an infield single in the fourth for his fourth RBI of the game. In his fourth and final at-bat in the sixth, Wells flied out to the warning track in left field.

The strangest hit for Wells was the home run, his 23rd of the year. A high fastball from Hughes on a 0-2 count was well above the letters and would have been called a ball but Wells somehow got around on it and drove it into the left field seats.

Even though he had six strikeouts, Hughes didn’t seem to have finish-off stuff getting to two strikes on 18 hitters only to have 12 avoid strike three by making contact. The usual offensive support for Hughes – the best in the majors at 7.93 runs per start – was not there Tuesday night.

A two-run home run by Marcus Thames, who was 5-for-8 (.625) with a double, two home runs and four RBI in the series – was the best the Yankees could do against Blue Jays starter Brett Cecil, who pitched eight innings. The Yankees rallied with two outs in the ninth and got another run but left the bases loaded.

Other than Thames, the other positive for the Yankees was the bullpen-saving work of Javier Vazquez, who gave up only one run, on a home run by Aaron Hill, in 4 1/3 innings, and got his fastball back up into the 90s.

The loss foiled the Yankees’ opportunity to take over first place in the American League East as they remained tied with the Rays, who lost in the afternoon to the Angels. Thursday will be a welcomed day off for the Yankees, their first in three weeks.

It will give Nick Swisher more time to recover from a swollen left knee that forced him to be scratched from the lineup Wednesday night. Swish fouled a ball off the knee in the seventh inning Tuesday night.

The Yankees’ next stop will be Chicago, which is a return home for manager Joe Girardi but one that could prove uncomfortable. With the recent retirement of Lou Piniella, speculation as to his replacement as Cubs manager has focused on Girardi, an Illinois native, Northwestern University graduate and former Cubs player. Joe is in the last year of his contract as Yankees manager, fueling speculation even more.

When I was in Cooperstown late last month, I spoke with Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, another top candidate who is manager of the Cubs’ Triple A Iowa affiliate. Ryno told me that he has received no indication that he is a favorite for the position, which many people believe. Out of deference to Piniella, Sandberg did not want to elaborate, but he added that anyone who thinks he’s a lead-pipe cinch for the job is mistaken.

Girardi told reporters the other day that he will answer media queries in Chicago before Friday night’s game and leave it at that. Joe has said he is very happy with the Yankees and won’t let the Cubs talk be a distraction.

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