April 2011

Tornadoes hit close to Yanks reliever’s home

Yankees reliever David Robertson had his eyes focused on television screens most of Thursday. He wasn’t looking for baseball results. Robertson was engrossed in the media coverage of the tornadoes that caused death and devastation throughout the South, including his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“I received text messages from friends, but the cell phone service down there was affected by the storms,” Robertson said before Thursday night’s Yankees-White Sox game at Yankee Stadium. “There really wasn’t a lot of communication. Once I reached my parents and found out they were all right and nothing major happened to them I was relieved.”

Robertson found himself watching the video coverage closely, particularly that of Tuscaloosa, where the University of Alabama is located. Robertson said he recognized some of the areas along 15th Street, the main thoroughfare.

“But there were some spots where I expected to see a certain landmark or tree, and they weren’t there anymore,” he said. “They showed one area that is only a few blocks away, and the entire neighborhood was hit pretty hard. We’ve had tornadoes before where you’d see trees downed and some damage to houses but nothing like this.”

Robertson said that because of the Yankees schedule he did not expect to get home until after the end of the season.

“I was just glad to hear everyone in the family was all right,” Robertson said.

Trying to remain optimistic about Hughes

The Yankees remain hopeful that Phil Hughes can make a meaningful contribution to the team in 2011 despite the fact that he will be examined by a specialist Monday in St. Louis to determine if he has a case of thoracic outlet syndrome.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman emphasized before Thursday night’s game that the club has made no diagnosis on its own. For all the Yankees know, Hughes does not have the rare condition that causes pain in the neck and shoulder, numbness in the fingertips and a weak grip, which could be at the bottom of his dead arm.

Could be is the pertinent phrase. On his drive home to Connecticut from Yankee Stadium after the Yanks’ 3-1 victory over the White Sox Wednesday night Cashman got the idea listening to radio reports that Hughes is already a goner for the year, which is not the case, at least not yet. After the game, Yankees manager Joe Girardi had said that one of the battery of tests underdone by Hughes revealed a low-level risk of the condition.

“The more I listened the more I was led to believe it was a done deal,” Cashman said. “We did not come up with any kind of diagnosis. That’s why Phil is going to see the specialist.”

What the Yankees want to find out from Dr. William Thompson is whether Hughes has the condition or not. They are still hoping he does not.

Thoracic outlet syndrome has affected other players, notably Tigers pitcher Jeremy Bonderman and Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The Bonderman case is most sobering. Once a hard thrower as part of the Detroit team that went to the World Series in 2006, the righthander was limited to 20 games over the 2008 and ’09 seasons and was 8-10 with a 5.53 ERA last season.

Bartolo Colon has done a splendid job substituting for Hughes in the rotation. The Yankees also have Kevin Millwood pitching in the minors and must make a decision about him soon. He has a May 1 opt-out clause in his agreement with the Yankees. If they do not add him to the 25-man roster by then, Millwood can become a free agent.

Despite Hughes’ absence, the sturdy work of Colon and fellow veteran Freddy Garcia, plus the return to form in his last start of Ivan Nova, the Yankees’ rotation is not really ailing. Over the past four games, Yankees starters each held their opponent to one earned run or fewer for a total of three runs in 28 1/3 combined innings (0.95 ERA).

The Yankees may consider adding Millwood for long relief. Millwood has pitched in 414 games over 14 big-leagues seasons, all but eight as a starter. The righthander’s most recent appearance as a reliever was in 2002. But if he wants to wear pinstripes, he may have to become acquainted with the bullpen.

“Sometimes, a guy has to make adjustments,” Girardi said. “This is a team that is not afraid to ask a guy to make an adjustment.”

Colon getting stronger as Phil fill-in

More good stuff Wednesday night from Bartolo Colon, who has been a lifesaver for the Yankees in the rotation filling in for injured Phil Hughes. The Yankees may need Colon to keep up his effective work because the other side of the good news-bad news night at Yankee Stadium was the latest word on Hughes’ condition.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after the game, a 3-1 victory over the White Sox, that one of the myriad of tests on Hughes, who has been on the disabled list since April 15, revealed a low level risk of thoracic outlet syndrome. He will see a specialist, Dr. William Thompson, in St. Louis at a time not yet specified.

The thoracic outlet is the area between the ribcage and collar bone. Thoracic outlet syndrome is a rare condition that causes pain in the neck and shoulder, numbness in the fingertips and a weak grip. Hughes went on the DL because of right shoulder inflammation because of arm fatigue.

“Whenever you’re talking about a circulation problem, there’s always a concern,” Girardi said.

Nevertheless, it is early yet. The extent of Hughes’ circulatory issues won’t be known until he sees Dr. Thompson, but it is doubtful the Yankee can count on the righthander returning soon.

That is where Colon comes in. The 2005 American League Cy Young Award winner hit 95 mph on the radar gun and held his stuff throughout eight innings, the longest he has thrown in a game since Sept. 22, 2007 for the Angels against the Mariners. He even reached 96 mph at one point in the eighth.

“One thing I remember from my playing days when I faced Bartolo is that if he was still in there in the seventh and eighth inning, his velocity went up,” Girardi said. “It was that way tonight. He seems to have an extra gear.”

Colon won his second consecutive start to improve his record to 2-1 with a 2.77 ERA, which is pretty good for a pitcher who was out of the majors for all of 2010 because of knee and elbow injuries.

He was especially excited about having won his first start as a member of the Yankees at the Stadium. Colon used his two-seam fastball primarily to work out of a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the second inning after the Yankees had given him the lead on Robinson Cano’s three-run home run in the bottom of the first.

Colon’s only other troublesome inning was the sixth. Chicago scored on successive singles by Carlos Quentin, Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn, but the damage was kept to a minimum by Colon, who made it through eight innings one shy of 100 pitches. Mariano Rivera worked the ninth for his eighth save.

“Bartolo has been our biggest surprise because we didn’t know what we could expect from him,” Girardi said. “He has been very consistent.”

In addition to Hughes, another health issue that bears watching is the right shoulder of first baseman Mark Teixeira, who jammed it making a diving stop Tuesday night and aggravated it Wednesday night to the extent that is adversely affected his swing. Eric Chavez pinch hit for Teixeira in the eighth inning and remained in the game at first base.

Still Bronx Bombing half a century later

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Yankees’ championship team of 1961, a club that is particularly associated with the home run. Merely 20 games into the season, the 2011 Yankees are also linking themselves with the long ball.

Entering play Wednesday night, the Yankees were leading the majors in home runs (38) and multi-homer games (12). They are averaging almost two home runs (1.9) per game. Both of their runs in Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the White Sox at Yankee Stadium were on homers, solo shots by Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner.

Of the Yankees’ 111 runs, 68 (61.3 percent) have been the result of homers. Half of the top 10 home-run hitters in the American League are Yankees. Curtis Granderson’s seven are the most on the team and tied with Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre for second in the AL only to the eight by Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista. Mark Teixeria, Jorge Posada and Russell Martin are among those in a seven-way tie for fourth place with six apiece.

The Yankees are on a pace to hit 308 home runs this season, which is unfathomable.

Half a century ago, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chased the ghost of Babe Ruth, whose home run record for a season of 60 in 1927 was outdistanced by Maris’ 61 in ’61 while Mantle finished second with 54. As a team, the Yankees bashed 240 home runs in 1961 that remained the major-league record for 35 years.

The ’61 Yankees were the first team to have as many as six players hit more than 20 home runs, including all three catchers – Yogi Berra with 22 and Elston Howard and Johnny Blanchard with 21 apiece. In truth, that was nothing more than a trivia question. Howard was the regular catcher with Blanchard the backup in 48 games. Yogi actually platooned with Hector Lopez in left field and caught only 15 games. The Yankees’ sixth 20-homer hitter that season was first baseman Moose Skowron with 28.

That was also the first season of the 162-game schedule, which is why there was a controversy about whether Maris broke Ruth’s record or not. The American League expanded by adding the Angels and a replacement franchise in Washington, D.C., after the original Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. Eight games were added to the previous schedule of 154.

In the last season of pre-expansion, the Yankees set the AL record for home runs with 193. In a preview of ’61, Mantle and Maris also dueled for the home run title with the Mick winning, 40-39.

The major-league record of 221 was shared by two National League clubs, the 1947 Giants and the 1956 Reds. That was the record the Yankees shattered in 1961. Their 240 bombs remained the standard until 1996 when all hell broke loose in slugging.

Three teams topped the ’61 Yanks total in ’96 with the Orioles eclipsing the standard with 257. The Mariners had 245 and the Athletics 243. Baltimore’s mark didn’t last long. One year later, Seattle slugged 264 homers, which remains the big-league record. The old NL mark of 221 was tied by the Rockies in 1996 but went by the board when the 2000 Astros bashed 249, still the NL standard.

The 240 homers the Yankees hit in 1961 stood as the club record until 2004 when the team had 242, once again powered by six players with more than 20 (Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield 36 each, Hideki Matsui 31, Derek Jeter 23, Bernie Williams 22, Posada 21). In the first year of the current Stadium, the Yankees pushed the mark to 244, this time with seven 20-homer guys (Teixeira 39, Rodriguez 30, Nick Swisher 29, Matsui 28, Cano 25, Johnny Damon 24, Posada 22).

Who knows how high they can go in 2011?

All-Star Game ballot released

The ballot for the All-Star Game was released Tuesday, and the Yankees will be relying on their fans to make sure they get proper representation on the American League squad.

Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, who were elected to the AL starting lineup last year, will compete again at their respective positions of shortstop and second base, with first baseman Mark Teixeira and third baseman Alex Rodriguez trying to make it an all-Yankees infield.

That was very nearly the case in 2010, but Tex and A-Rod were overtaken late in the voting by the Twins’ Justin Morneau and the Rays’ Evan Longoria. Rodriguez has been the Yankees’ most consistent hitter in the early going, and Teixeira is off to a much better start this year than last, so the vote totals should be strong.

That, naturally, is up to the fans, who will decide which players will qualify as starters for the All-Star Game July 12 at Chase Field in Phoenix. Fans may cast votes for starters up to 25 times each at Yankees.com online or through their mobile devices by using the 2011 All-Star Game MLB.com Ballot Sponsored by Sprint until 11:59 p.m. June 30. Fans will also be able to vote at Yankee Stadium starting May 10.

Rosters will be announced during the 2011 All-Star Game Selection Show July 3 on TBS. Fans around the world will then be able to select the final player on each team via the 2011 All-Star Game Final Vote Sponsored by Sprint. Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher made the AL team through that route last year.

Swish is hoping to win a starting nod through the fans ballot this time around as one of the three Yankees outfielders on the ballot, along with Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner. The other Yankees players on the ballot are catcher Russell Martin and designated hitter Jorge Posada, who was a five-time AL All-Star as a catcher.

Martin was on the National All-Star team twice during his years with the Dodgers. Teixeira is a two-time All-Star who represented the Yankees in 2009 at St. Louis and the Rangers in 2005 at Detroit. Granderson was also a 2009 All-Star for the Tigers. Rodriguez has played in 13 All-Star Games, Jeter 11 and Cano two. Gardner is the only Yankees candidate on the ballot who has yet to make an All-Star team.

Nova bright spot in tough loss

Ivan Nova worked himself back into the good graces of the Yankees rotation Tuesday night with a solid performance. Too bad he couldn’t get credit for a victory. The Yankees couldn’t, either, as they lost consecutive games for the first time this season, the last team in the majors to do so.

Nova was cuffed around in his previous two starts covering only 8 2/3 innings (9.35 ERA) and exhibited a tendency to falter the second time through batting orders. Not this time, however. The righthander nearly made it through the White Sox order three times before departing in the seventh after having walked A.J. Pierzynski with one out.

David Robertson picked Nova up by completing the seventh without incident. Alas, the same could not be said for Rafael Soriano, who continues to struggle in the early going. Soriano came on in the eighth inning and hit Carlos Quentin with a pitch before giving up a home run to Paul Konerko that shaped a 3-2 White Sox victory.

Brent Lillibridge, who stayed in the game after having pinch run for Quentin in the eighth, saved the game for Chicago more than its bullpen by making two consecutive circus catches in right field in the bottom of the ninth. He banged against the fence to glove a drive by Alex Rodriguez and followed it with a diving grab of a low liner by Robinson Cano.

“Well, I think that I have found my new closer,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said of Lillibridge.

What has been troublesome about Soriano is that he was known to be a control pitcher, but he has gotten himself in trouble this year by letting hitters reach base without earning their way on. The righthander has walked nine batters and hit one in 10 1/3 innings.

“He has had trouble with his command,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi conceded. “You have to fight your way out of it. I haven’t lost any confidence in Soriano.”

Nova was a bright spot for the Yankees. He scattered five singles and two walks. The only run he allowed was a bit tainted. Alex Rios led off the fifth inning with a liner to center that glanced off a charging Curtis Granderson’s glove for a single, which seemed a generous scoring decision by Howie Karpin. Rios stole second with one out and scored on a single to by Gordon Beckham.

Had Granderson been charged with an error, which might have been the appropriate call, the run against Nova would have been unearned. Thanks to solo home runs by Cano and Brett Gardner, Nova was in a position to win the game as he came out with the Yankees up, 2-1. As he walked off the mound, the Yankee Stadium crowd of 40,785 gave Nova a standing ovation.

“I remember Damaso [Marte] told me they will do that here if you do good, so you have to tip your cap or waive or something,” Nova said. “I told him it’s the first time that has happened for me!”

And he deserved it.

Shift deviation

The Yankees displayed an interesting variation on the old Lou Boudreau Shift in the sixth inning Tuesday night. When he was the shortstop-manager of the Indians in the late 1940s, Boudreau devised the shift against Ted Williams by stationing three infielders to the right side of second base because the Splinter was such a dead pull hitter.

The shift has become commonplace in the game. Yankees fans surely remember that it was used regularly against Jason Giambi. The Yankees also use it regularly against Jim Thome. But here was the twist in the Yankees’ deployment against White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn. They kept shortstop Derek Jeter to the left of second base and moved third baseman Eric Chavez to the right. Normally, the shortstop moves right to leave the third baseman to cover the left side.

I hadn’t noticed it until Dunn hit a foul ball that fell in front of the third base dugout with Jeter giving chase. I thought it was weird that Jeter came so close to catching the ball, since I assumed Jeter was all the way on the other side of second base. I looked around for Chavez and noticed that he was where I thought Jeter had been.

It is an intriguing concept. It sort of makes sense to leave the shortstop in his usual spot, but I checked with a lot of my colleagues in the press box and none could recall having seen that alignment before. I later learned that some other clubs such as the Rays and Red Sox have used the same maneuver.

Meet Curtis and other cool stuff

Fans that can get to Yankee Stadium early for Wednesday night’s Yankees-White Sox game will be in for a real treat if they go into the Yankee Stadium Museum Presented by Bank of America.

Center fielder Curtis Granderson will greet fans at the Museum from approximately 5:30 to 5:45 p.m. The Museum is one of the must-see stops for fans attending games at the Stadium. Its popularity is such that attendance during the 2010 season actually doubled that of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Fans may also consider taking in a meal at NYY Steak, a four-star restaurant within the Stadium that features a varied menu not limited to red meat. There are plenty of fish and chicken entrees as well as an assortment of salads, soups and sandwiches, plus a full bar.

Take note of the platters used there. Each features the Yankees’ inter-locking NY logo along the edges with a retired number of a Yankees star in the center. Platters are available as souvenirs at a price of $50 apiece. Not a bad idea for a Mother’s Day gift, or even Father’s Day.

At this point, only eight of the retired numbers are available on the platters. Take your choice of 3 (Babe Ruth), 4 (Lou Gehrig), 8 (Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra), 15 (Thurman Munson), 16 (Whitey Ford), 32 (Elston Howard), 49 (Ron Guidry) and 54 (Goose Gossage).

The New York Yankees Foundation will conduct the inaugural New York Yankees/New Era Pinstripe Bowl Charity Golf Tournament Monday, May 9, 2011 at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe Township, N.J. Net proceeds for the scramble format event that begins at 1:30 p.m. will benefit the Tourette Syndrome Association of New Jersey, the Public Schools Athletic League, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Pediatric Cancer Center and the Boomer Esiason Foundation Fighting Cystic Fibrosis.

Registration is closed, but fans may make a donation to this very worthy cause by visiting http://www.yankees.com/golf.

Garcia’s Chisox replacement stymies Yanks

Freddy Garcia has pitched so well for the Yankees it makes one wonder why the White Sox did not re-sign him. Phil Humber may have supplied the answer Monday night in the opener of the four-game set between the Yankees and Chicago at Yankee Stadium.

Humber, the pitcher who replaced Garcia in the White Sox rotation, was every bit as good against the Yankees as Garcia has been for the Yankees. It is hard to imagine a batting order as potent as that of the Yankees going six innings without a hit, but that’s what happened Monday night in the 2-0 loss.

The Yankees did not have a base runner until the fourth inning when Curtis Granderson walked with one out. Nick Swisher was hit by a pitch in the fifth but was erased on a double play. The Yankees got only two balls into the outfield against Humber until Alex Rodriguez made it three with a single through the middle with one out in the seventh following a walk to Mark Teixeira.

Humber put down the threat, however, by striking out Robinson Cano on a high fastball and retiring Swisher on a ground ball to first. If Humber’s name sounds slightly familiar, it should. He was the Mets’ first-round draft choice in 2004 and went to the Twins in the Johan Santana trade two years later. He was released by both the Royals and the Athletics within a month’s time after the 2010 season before signing with the White Sox.

The Yankees were happy to see him go after the seventh inning and still had a chance to pull this one out because A.J. Burnett was being nearly as stingy as Humber. This might have been A.J.’s best outing thus far of what has been a good start for him this year. He held Chicago to three hits and two walks over eight innings. Burnett did not throw a wild pitch nor allow a stolen base, two areas of concern when he is on the mound.

The only run A.J. allowed came in the fourth inning. Carlos Quentin doubled to center on a ball on which Granderson tried for a diving catch. Quentin came around to score on two groundouts.

That was it. Burnett was pretty strong all game long. He put two runners on in the second and seventh innings but worked out of trouble each time. Burnett still had a chance for a winning decision or at least a no-decision if the Yankees could have taken advantage of a White Sox bullpen that has been vulnerable. Chicago relievers were 1-for-7 in save opportunities before Monday night.

After lefthander Chris Sale got the first two outs in the eighth, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen switched to righthander Sergio Santos after Andruw Jones had been announced as a pinch hitter for Brett Gardner. Yankees manager Joe Girardi trumped the move by sending up Eric Chavez, who singled to right. Pinch runner Eduardo Nunez got into scoring position by stealing second, but Derek Jeter could not a ground ball past Santos.

The White Sox added an insurance run – a somewhat tainted one at that – in the ninth. An infield pop by Alexei Ramirez fell among Rodriguez, Jeter and reliever Rafael Soriano for a single. One out later, pinch runner Brent Lillibridge swiped second, which allowed him to score on a single by Paul Konerko.

Granderson tried to get the Yankees going with a leadoff single in the ninth, but another double play defused the potential rally. In the end, it came down to Burnett losing for the first time in April as a Yankee in a pitching duel with the guy that replaced Freddy Garcia in Chicago.

No change for Hughes

It’s a good thing for the Yankees that veterans Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have stepped up big time because the team is now faced with a problem regarding Phil Hughes. The righthander had to shut down a throwing session after only 20 pitches before Monday night’s game against the White Sox at Yankee Stadium.

The next step for Hughes is an examination by team doctors to determine if there is a medical reason is for his arm fatigue. He has been on the disabled list since April 15 with right shoulder inflammation. Monday was a decided blow for Hughes, who had a breakthrough season in 2010 with an 18-8 record.

“He just felt like there was nothing there when he threw,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “He said he felt like it did before.”

The Yankees had hoped for progress in Hughes’ condition by this time, but while it does not appear that he has suffered a setback it is clearly evident that he has made no progress. To this point, Hughes has reported no pain, but he is still unable to get any meaningful velocity in his fastball.

The Yankees monitored Hughes closely throughout the 2010 season and kept him on a tight pitch count. His 176 1/3 innings were 90 1/3 more than he had pitched the previous seasons, and he threw an additional 15 2/3 innings in the playoffs for a total of 192 innings.

Girardi said he detected a severe drop-off in the velocity of Blue Jays pitcher Brett Cecil last week at Toronto. Cecil was lights out (4-0) against the Yankees last season but was nowhere near as effective against them in last week’s start. Cecil also made a big jump in innings pitched from 93 1/3 innings in 2009 to 172 2/3 innings in 2010.

“Some guys have taken steps backward after a season of being extended,” Girardi said.

The Yankees can only hope this remains a temporary condition for Hughes. For the time being, they will continue to rely on Colon (1-1, 3.50 ERA), whose next start will be Wednesday night against the White Sox, and Garcia (1-0, 0.69 ERA), who will most likely start Friday night at the Stadium against the Blue Jays.

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