April 2011

Yanks keep game under control

The groans in the Yankee Stadium crowd of 42,460 started from the moment Juan Rivera’s bat made contact with a 93-mph cutter from Rafael Soriano and the ball made its way toward the outer reaches of right field. With a runner on first base and the Yankees clinging to a one-run lead in the eighth inning, fans were fearful that the Blue Jays just might take control of the game.

Rivera’s fly ball didn’t have enough legs, however, as Nick Swisher gloved it on the warning track. Disaster averted. Soriano’s adjustment from closer with the Rays for whom he had a league-high 45 saves last year to setup man with the Yankees has been closely scrutinized, to the point that already it has been suggested in some media circles that maybe manager Joe Girardi should find somebody else for that job.

Yet it is hard to argue with the skipper’s logic that if Soriano is going to get comfortable making the adjustment from ninth-inning specialist to eighth-inning specialist he is going to have to keep pitching in the eighth inning.

Soriano’s scoreless eighth Saturday was one of the important elements of the Yanks’ 5-4 victory Saturday over Toronto. This was one of those games where the Yankees seemed to allow the opposition back into the game.

A.J. Burnett didn’t have much of a breaking ball and had to gut his way through six innings in which he allowed four earned runs and nine hits. He didn’t walk a batter, however, and while the Blue Jays again ran rampant (three more stolen bases, giving them 30 in 27 games), A.J. got one huge out with a pickoff of speedy Rajai Davis at first base.

This came in the fifth inning when it appeared Toronto was working itself back into the game. Rookie second baseman Mike McCoy hit his first major-league home run leading off the inning to trim the Yanks’ lead to 5-3. One of the best plays after a long home run is a bunt, which Davis pulled off nicely.

Burnett is among the easiest pitchers to run against and is not known to have much of a pickoff move, but he looked like a right-handed Andy Pettitte by catching Davis leaning and getting an important first out. The Blue Jays helped the Yankees again in the sixth, A.J.’s last inning, by running into trouble. Rivera got greedy trying to steal third and was gunned down by catcher Russell Martin to complete a strike-‘em-out’-throw-‘em-out double play.

Joba Chamberlain, Soriano and Mariano Rivera (ninth save) took over from there. The Yankees prevailed in that rare game when they did not hit the ball over the fence. This was only the fourth time they have not homered in a game, and they are 2-2 on those occasions. They took advantage of a wild Kyle Drabek (four walks in 2 1/3 innings) and showed some aggressiveness of their own on the bases.

A break-up slide at second base by Eric Chavez in the second inning avoided a double play as the Yankees grabbed the lead with three runs on singles by Martin and Curtis Granderson and a sacrifice fly by Derek Jeter. Robinson Cano, who led off the third with a single, stole second and scored on a single by Chavez.

“I love it when the guys play hard,” Girardi said. “I don’t care how we get runs so long as we get them.”

Free skin cancer screenings at Stadium

Ever since having a lesion removed surgically from the area near my right temple two years ago, I have been acutely aware of the dangers of skin cancer. The Yankees are, too, which is why fans attending Sunday’s game against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium can benefit from a protective measure against the disease.

The Yankees will offer a free La Roche-Posay Skin Cancer screening for all ticketed fans from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the Main Level behind the plate between Sections 217-223. Dr. Darrell Rigel and his team of dermatologists and medical assistants will conduct the screenings, which cover exclusively the arms and face and take less than a minute to complete.

In conjunction with the free screenings and in support of its 2011 SOS – Save Our Skin – campaign, La Roche-Posay will sponsor a sunscreen giveaway to the first 30,00 fans in attendance Sunday. Come on, it’s only a minute, do the healthy thing.

Got it…got it…can’t see it!

Welcome to Yankee Stadium in the late afternoon of a sunny day. These 4 p.m. starts not only can play havoc with hitters as shadows engulf the plate but also outfielders trying to track fly balls with the sun glaring into their eyes.

Both center fielders have adventures in the first inning of the Yankees-Blue Jays game Saturday. The Yankees’ Curtis Granderson lost sight of Rajai Davis’ drive that became a leadoff triple. He scored the first run of the game on an infield out by Yunel Escobar.

The sun struck back in the Yankees’ favor in the bottom of the first when Davis, playing center field, lost a high fly by Mark Teixeira that fell on the warning track for a double. It did not cost the Jays a run, however, as Robinson Cano struck out.

Cano was in the cleanup spot Saturday because Yankees manager Joe Girardi decided to give Alex Rodriguez the day off. A-Rod had a tough time of it Friday night in the Yankees’ 5-3 loss. He went 0-for-5 and stranded seven base runners.

Rodriguez has slumped since returning to the lineup after missing one game due to a tight left oblique. Although he did have a six-RBI game in Baltimore during this stretch, A-Rod overall had 5-for-30 (.167), which dropped his season average from .366 to .290. He said before the game that he had become conscious of not re-injuring the muscle and fell into bad habits. Rodriguez was out for early hitting Friday night and Saturday to try and regain his early-season form.

April 30: Lou’s career beginning to end

The date April 30 was a memorable one for the Yankees and Lou Gehrig at both the start and finish of his Hall of Fame career.

It was on this date in 1923 that Gehrig, 19, a native New Yorker and a pitcher-first baseman at Columbia University, signed a professional contract with the Yankees. At that time, Gehrig was the second greatest player in Columbia’s baseball history. Already a star in the major leagues at that time was White Sox second baseman Eddie Collins, then in his 18th season.

On this same date in 1939, Gehrig played in the last of his 2,130 consecutive games. He went hitless in four at-bats in a 3-2 loss to the Washington Senators at the original Yankee Stadium. The next day was an open date for the Yankees, who traveled to Detroit. Before the May 2 game against the Tigers, Gehrig asked manager Joe McCarthy to remove him from the lineup.

It was later learned that Gehrig was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The man known as “The Iron Horse” never played another game in the major leagues. The difficult to pronounce disease would soon bear his name as it does today and remains incurable.

At the 1939 Winter Meetings in Cincinnati, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America held a vote to elect Gehrig into the Hall of Fame. The proposal was passed unanimously, but Gehrig was never officially inducted.

Although he is usually listed in the class of 1939, the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies were during that summer when Gehrig was still on the Yankees’ roster. One of those 1939 inductees was Eddie Collins, along with Willie Keeler and George Sisler.

There were no Hall of Fame elections until 1942 when Rogers Hornsby was voted in by the BBWAA. By the time of that induction, however, Gehrig had already died of ALS June 2, 1941 at the age of 37.

The Major League Baseball schedule is made up annually without regard to such coincidences, but this May 2, which is Monday, the Yankees will once again find themselves in Detroit where one of the greatest careers in their franchise’s storied history came to an end.

Cano the Yankees’ ‘Silver’ lining

Robinson Cano received his 2010 Silver Slugger Award Friday night in pre-game ceremonies. The award goes annually to the top offensive player at his position. The second baseman then went out and showed why he will be a strong candidate to repeat in 2011.

Cano hit two home runs to take over the club lead with eight and keep heat on Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista, who also homered to push his American League leading total to nine. The only time Toronto retired Cano was the last out of the game, a fly ball to center. He also walked twice and scored all of the Yankees’ runs in a 5-3 loss to Toronto.

With the weather heating up, expect Cano to do the same, particularly at Yankee Stadium. Cano has homered in five of the past six games at the Stadium and had knocked in runs in eight of the past 10 games overall. His consistency has been remarkable. Cano has hit in 20 of the Yankees’ 23 games and 17 of the past 18.

Cano seemed to have to do everything for the Yankees last night because the rest of the offense failed repeatedly in the clutch. They had excellent chances to break the game open with bases-loaded situations in the fifth and eighth innings and came away empty each time. The Blue Jays almost seemed to be giving the game away with shoddy fielding and seven walks. The Yankees were hitless in eight at-bats with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on base. Toronto also stranded 11 base runners and was only 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

Part of the problem was that Cano never came up with anybody on base. He led off four innings and batted with two outs and the bases empty in the ninth. That is the best way for an opponent to keep Cano from doing major damage.

Foiled case of entrapment

The play that never works finally worked, and then it didn’t work.

Huh?

Stay with me on this one. You have seen the maneuver many times when there are runners on first and third. The pitcher goes into the stretch, then fakes a throw to third base and quickly turns toward first base prepared to throw. The idea is to trap the runner off first base by giving him the idea that the pitcher is going for a pickoff attempt at third base.

The play works about, oh, once a decade. It also looks bad, yet there are some pitchers who like to try it. David Robertson is apparently once of those pitchers. What was weird about his use of the maneuver in the sixth inning Friday night against the Blue Jays is that it actually did what it was designed to do, but Robertson lost the out anyway and let in a run besides.

With Rajai Davis on third base and Jose Bautista on first with one out, Robertson tried the fake-to-third play, which older Yankees fans will recall was resorted to often by another right-handed reliever, Jeff Nelson. Bautista bought the bait and headed to second. Robertson had him dead to rights, but he threw the ball into the outfield. That allowed Davis to score and Bautista to make second. He eventually scored on a two-out single to left by Juan Rivera.

In Robertson’s defense, he was attempting to control the running game, which the Blue Jays have stepped up under new manager John Farrell. Toronto entered the game with 24 stolen bases – twice as many as the Yankees – in 25 games. Yankees manager Joe Girardi had said before the game that keeping an eye on Jays base runners was vital. Robertson tried and almost succeeded.

Freddy’s string of zeroes snapped

Freddy Garcia’s scoreless string came to an abrupt end in the third inning Friday night at Yankee Stadium. He had pitched 14 innings without yielding a run before Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista creamed a 3-2 slider into the second deck in left field for his ninth home run.

There is no shame for a pitcher to be damaged by Bautista, who led the majors in home runs last year with 54 and is proving that 2010 was no fluke with a continued display of offensive muscle in 2011. Bautista entered the game leading the American League in batting average, home runs, runs, times on base, walks, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS (on-base plus slugging).

Bautista’s two-run shot wiped out a 1-0 Yankees lead achieved on Russell Martin’s two-out double in the second that scored Robinson Cano, who led off the inning by working a walk in a nine-pitch at-bat off Toronto lefthander Ricky Romero.

Garcia struggled with his control. He walked two batters in the second but worked out of a jam and also walked the hitter in front of Bautista in the third. Considering how regularly Bautista loses baseballs, walking the guy ahead of him is not smart. What is smart is walking Bautista on purpose with a runner at second if first base is open. That was what Garcia did in the fourth. It was the 27th walk in April for Bautista, setting a Blue Jays club record for the month.

Quite unintentionally, Garcia walked Adam Lind, which loaded the bases. The Jays already had a run in that inning on the leadoff home run by J.P. Arenicibia. Garcia held the damage to that by striking out Juan Rivera looking at a cut fastball on a 3-2 count. The Blue Jays may have had a 3-1 lead, but it could have been worse. Toronto was hitless in seven at-bats with runners in scoring position and stranded eight runners in the first four innings.

Girardi stays with hot hands

Yankees manager Joe Girardi tinkered with his lineup again for Friday night’s game against the Blue Jays, here in town this weekend for a three-game set. Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira were back in the order after having been rested Thursday night. This time, Jorge Posada was given the night off.

It was a case of the computer biting Jorgie a bit. With Toronto starting a left-handed pitcher, Ricky Romero, Andruw Jones was expected to be in the starting lineup, which he was but this time at designated hitter and not in left field. Normally, Girardi sits down one of his left-handed hitting outfielders, Curtis Granderson or Brett Gardner, when a left starts against the Yankees to get Jones in the lineup.

The skipper was reluctant to go without Granderson, who leads the Yankees in home runs with seven and is batting .318 with three home runs and five RBI in 22 at-bats against lefties this year. Girardi then noticed that Gardner had good numbers against Romero, batting .444 (4-for-9) with a double and a home run. Gardner was also off a big game against the White Sox in which he homered, doubled, stole a base and scored three runs.

In addition, one of the unwritten rules for any Yankees manager preparing for games at Yankee Stadium is to be careful about taking left-handed hitters out of the batting order.

So the switch-hitting Posada was the odd man out this time. Jorgie is still familiarizing himself with the DH role after nearly 15 years of catching on a daily basis. Catchers normally consider a day at first base or the outfield a holiday, so imagine what the DH role feels like. Posada has put up big power numbers (six home runs, 12 RBI) but has only three other hits and is hitting .130.

Girardi has made it clear that Posada’s catching days are over. The Yankees welcomed back Francisco Cervelli Friday as Gustavo Molina was optioned to Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Cervelli, who was disabled because of a fractured foot, will start Sunday behind the plate with Ivan Nova pitching.

One thing about baseball that never changes is that you go with the hot hand. It seems as if the manager did precisely that Friday night.

Yanks make large donation to tornado relief effort

The Yankees have joined the relief effort for victims of the vicious tornadoes that struck across the southeastern United States this week by donating $500,000 to two national organizations that are part of the recovery process and are already working in the affected areas. The Yankees have designated $250,000 to the Salvation Army and $250,000 to the Red Cross.

“On behalf of the entire New York Yankees organization, we would like to express our deepest condolences to all those affected by the devastating storms in Alabama and throughout the South,” Yankees general partner and vice chairperson Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal said. “During the most difficult of times, the resiliency of the American spirit brings people together. We are eager to join so many others in helping to rebuild those proud and vibrant Southern communities. In the days, weeks and months ahead, we will continue to keep everyone in our hearts and prayers.”

Yankees relief pitcher David Robertson grew up and still lives in the off-season in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where damage was extensive, but he was gratified to learn that his family was safe.

A re-’cycle’-ed lineup

The Yankees’ lineup seemed awfully short Thursday night without Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter in it. Manager Joe Girardi had no second thoughts about giving Jeter a blow even after knowing that Teixeira would be better served with a day off to give his jammed right shoulder time to heal.

Girardi is committed to making sure that Jeter and Alex Rodriguez not wear themselves out with overuse. They are getting to an age (DJ is 36, A-Rod 35) where a day away from the grind is a necessity to keep them fresh for the latter part of the season. As for Teixeira, he is responding well to treatment, but the shoulder is still sore. He said after Wednesday night’s game that it is very uncomfortable to swing a bat, so Girardi did the right thing to play it safe.

Moving into Jeter’s leadoff spot was Curtis Granderson. Brett Gardner had begun the season as the leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching, but the left fielder was fighting a 4-for-41 (.098) slump, so Girardi kept him lower in the order, in the 8-hole ahead of Eduardo Nunez, who got a start at shortstop.

Taking over the 3-hole for Teixeira was Robinson Cano, whom many consider a classic 3-hitter. Girardi was asked throughout spring training about whether he would move Cano, who usually bats fifth, into the 3-spot, but the manager has resisted and for what I think is good reason.

For one thing, what ain’t broke don’t need fixin’. Cano proved a reliable RBI man in the 5-hole last year, and there are worst places to put a switch hitter with power like Teixeira than third in the lineup. Cano has also been effective in the cleanup spot when A-Rod is out of the lineup. The second baseman’s versatility is a great strength for the Yankees.

They have struggled offensively in the series against the White Sox, who have gotten some solid pitching. The Yankees managed to take a 2-0 lead in the finale of the four-game set before they had a hit. Chicago starter Edwin Jackson experienced a bout of wildness in the third inning and walked four batters in a row, the last (Nick Swisher) driving in a run. Cano got the second run in with a fly ball.

The Yankees ended the hitless spell when Gardner opened the fifth with a home run to right. Nunez followed with a double off the left-field wall. Suddenly, the batting order had gained some length. Granderson tripled and Swisher singled as the Yankees hit for the cycle in four successive at-bats. You don’t see that every day.

And that was just the beginning. Cano and Rodriguez made it six hits in a row with a single and a double, respectively, off reliever Tony Pena. The Yankees didn’t make an out that inning until the 10th at-bat, a strikeout of Gardner, after a run-scoring single by Russell Martin and a bases-loaded walk to Jorge Posada had pushed the lead to 8-0.

Did CC Sabathia ever love this? The big guy has been pitching with very little wiggle room all year and enjoyed his first real cushion. Long innings can often work against a pitcher as he waits to get back on the mound. Sabathia started the sixth after a 32-minute bottom of the fifth with a walk to Carlos Quentin but recovered quickly with strikeouts of Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn.

Things got a bit sloppy in the seventh. Nunez’s second error and a balk by Sabathia fueled a three-run White Sox rally, but the Yankees got the runs back in the bottom half on a sacrifice fly by Gardner and a two-run homer by Swisher, his first ending a drought of 89 plate appearances.

That may settle Swish down. He admitted recently that he was trying to hit home runs because he was conscious of not having one yet. That is a dangerous mistake for a hitter. Now he can get back to focusing in on quality at-bats, of which he and his teammates had an abundance to earn a split in the series.

The runs off Sabathia were not earned, so the latest turn through the Yankees rotation was a manager’s delight – three earned runs in 35 1/3 innings (0.76 ERA) and an average of seven innings per start – a combination of quality and depth.

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