May 2011

A most satisfying CG for CC

Not to make any excuses for CC Sabathia, but he sort of got dinked to death in the fourth inning Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium when the Blue Jays first-and-thirded their way to a three-run rally that at the time appeared to put the big lefthander in a ditch out of which the Yankees would be sore-pressed to emerge.

The Yankees managed to make the game close with some late-inning fire but were 1-18 in games in which they trailed after eight innings. Their track record suggested that despite his impressive get-back-on-the-bike performance Sabathia was destined for a tough-luck loss. Make that stat 2-18, which tells you all you need to know about how big that 5-4 Yankees victory was Tuesday night.

That Sabathia was still in the game and eligible for the winning decision as the Yankees scored two runs in each of the eighth and ninth innings was a credit to his ability and stamina. After being blooped into a 4-1 deficit, CC kept moving down the Blue Jays and ended up with the first complete game for a Yankees pitcher this season.

Of course, it would have been a complete game for Sabathia even if the Yankees hadn’t rallied in the ninth against Blue Jays closer Frank Francisco and gave A.J. Burnett the chance to smash a pie in Mark Teixeira’s face after his game-winning hit. Pitchers love those W’s even more than complete games.

And how terrific was it that Jorge Posada, on the bench because the Blue Jays had started Ricky Romero, a lefthander, made a huge contribution as a pinch hitter from the left side with a double off the right-handed Francisco. Curtis Dickerson, pinch running for Posada, took third on Derek Jeter’s grounder to shortstop for the second out and scored the tying run on Curtis Granderson’s fourth hit, a single to right.

Granderson’s home run hitting (16) this year has obscured the fact that he is a speedster on the bases, which he reminded everyone with a steal of second base that put him in position to score the winner on Teixeira’s hard single off first baseman Juan Rivera’s glove. The euphoric spirit of the victory was not wasted on Sabathia, who was as important to the outcome as anyone.

Go back to that fourth inning. Rivera’s double that began the inning was a legitimate blow, a well-struck liner to right-center that might have been a triple for a faster runner. Then the dinking began.

J.P. Arencibia’s single to left-center that scored Rivera was of the flare variety. So were the one-out singles to right by Edwin Encarnacion and Rajai Davis, the latter driving in the second run of the inning. The third run scored on a squeeze bunt by John McDonald, who had pulled the same maneuver against the Yankees April 19 at Toronto to tie the score in the ninth of a game that the Blue Jays won in extra innings.

The Yankees lost an out at first base as well when Robinson Cano dropped Sabathia’s throw to first base for an error. It was the fifth error this year by Cano, two more than he committed all of last season.

Blue Jays manager John Farrell liked the result so much that he had Yunel Escobar do the same thing, but his bunt went right to Sabathia, who held Davis at third before throwing out Escobar at first. Escobar had batted cleanup Monday night when he bunted for a sacrifice in a key spot, but he was the leadoff hitter Tuesday night so a bunt from him wasn’t as surprising.

What was surprising was Sabathia walking Corey Patterson, which loaded the bases for major-league home run leader Jose Bautista, who is by no means a dinker. The game was on the line at that point, which was decidedly a turning point for Sabathia. He got Bautista on a ground ball to shortstop that ended the inning and was the first of 16 consecutive outs by Sabathia that kept the Yankees in the game provided their offense would wake up.

Russell Martin’s home run (No. 9) in the second inning accounted for the Yanks’ only run until the eighth after Romero had departed. The Yankees got nowhere with the lefthander but made it a one-run game with two runs off the Toronto bullpen. Cano, who had driven in Granderson three times Monday night, made it a fourth with a two-out double. Martin’s second RBI hit, this time a single, got the Yankees to 4-3.

Sabathia went out for the ninth and set down the Blue Jays 1-2-3 for the fifth straight inning. He then sat back and watched his teammates construct a victory that he richly deserved.

YU members can query the Cap and A.J.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask Derek Jeter or A.J. Burnett? Of course you do. As an exclusive membership benefit, the Yankees are providing Yankees Universe members the opportunity to ask a question of the Captain and the staff’s leading winner.

The Yankees will randomly select questions and conduct interviews with Jeter and Burnett. The answers will be posted on the members-only section of yankees.com the week of June 20. Please submit your question by 5 p.m., EST, Friday, June 3.

Relievers adjusting to shifting roles

Get used to seeing Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson combining for the late-inning setup role out of the Yankees’ bullpen. They have done a fine job since Rafael Soriano, the free-agent acquisition who was to have handled the eighth-inning prelude to closer Mariano Rivera taking over in the ninth, went on the disabled list because of right elbow inflammation and will have to continue to do so.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said before Tuesday night’s Yankees-Blue Jays game at Yankee Stadium that Soriano had to be shut down after experiencing soreness while throwing on flat ground. Girardi emphasized soreness, which is a chance in the righthander’s condition because his problem had previously been descried as stiffness. There’s a big difference there. Stiffness does not always equate with pain; soreness always does.

Soriano, who has a 1-1 record with 1 save and a 5.40 ERA in 16 appearances totaling 15 innings, underwent an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) Tuesday. A previous MRI did not reveal structural damage. The results of the latest MRI were not disclosed, but Soriano will travel to Birmingham, Ala., to be examined Wednesday by Dr. James Andrews, the noted orthopedist. The Yankees can only hope that Dr. Andrews’ opinion matches that regarding another Yankees reliever, Pedro Feliciano, who had been expected to need surgery on his left rotator cuff but is now on a rest and conditioning program of treatment.

“I’m more concerned now,” Girardi said. “I thought we would have him getting ready to go on a rehab assignment soon. But that doesn’t seem to be the case now.”

Girardi has weathered this bullpen situation by merely pushing Chamberlain and Robertson back one inning. Robertson or lefthander Boone Logan get the call in the seventh inning depending on matchups, and Chamberlain is summoned for the eighth. The previous of each in those roles has proved helpful as the Yankees navigate their way through the Soriano-less scenario.

Robertson and Chamberlain have made three appearances apiece since Soriano went on the DL May 17 and have held opponents scoreless. Robertson has allowed one hit and two walks with six strikeouts in three innings and Chamberlain two hits with no walks and three strikeouts in 3 1/3 innings.

Also added to the mix has been the work of Luis Ayala, who since coming off the DL May 11 has allowed no runs, three hits and one walk with three strikeouts in three outings totaling 3 1/3 innings. The veteran righthander, 33, missed 24 games due to a strained right shoulder and has worked back to the point that Girardi has gained confidence in Ayala late in games in non-save situations.

More ‘small ball’ at Stadium

The sacrifice as an offensive weapon has made a big comeback this week at Yankee Stadium.

Sunday, it was Curtis Granderson, the 16-home run hitter, asked to lay down a bunt to move runners to second and third. It worked, too, as the Yankees broke open the game with an eight-run seventh inning to beat the Mets, 9-3.

Monday night, Blue Jays manager John Farrell followed Joe Girardi’s plan and had his cleanup hitter give himself up in the sixth inning with the score 1-1 to push up runners and fuel a rally that resulted in a five-spot as Toronto took a 6-1 lead against Bartolo Colon, who had been pretty strong up to that point, on the way to a 7-3 victory.

The only blemish in Colon’s first five innings was Jose Bautista’s 19th home run with two out in the first. Next time up, Bautista walked in the third. Colon had learned his lesson. Colon also put Bautista on with a walk in the sixth. This one was intentional, which made sense considering that first base was open after a leadoff double by Corey Patterson.

Toronto shortstop Yunel Escobar, who granted is not your normal cleanup hitter, then bunted the runners to second and third. Farrell has had to play around with his lineup since Adam Lind went on the disabled list last week with a lower back injury. Escobar has never hit more than 14 home runs in a season. Still, it is not every day you see a guy batting cleanup asked to sacrifice.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, it worked this time, too. Aaron Hill singled in a run. Colon then shot himself in the foot with a four-pitch walk to Eric Thames to force in a run. J.C. Arencibia, who had been called out on strike his previous two times up, jumped on a first-pitch fastball and doubled to center, clearing the bases.

That one bad inning kept Colon winless in five starts since April 27. The Yankees managed only one run and two hits off Carlos Villanueva, whose previous 13 appearances this year had been in relief and who was making his first start since Oct. 3, 2009 for the Brewers against the Cardinals. Farrell hoped to get five innings out of the righthander, which he did.

Granderson and Robinson Cano collaborated on all three Yankees’ runs. Granderson had three walks and was driven home each time by Cano on a sacrifice fly, a fielder’s choice and a single. The Yankees had another rough game in the clutch (2-for-15 with runners in scoring position).

Positive signs included two hits apiece for Alex Rodriguez and Brett Gardner that raised their batting averages to .289 and .274, respectively. Gardner also had two stolen bases. Hector Noesi took over for Colon and allowed one run in three innings in another effective performance.

The American League East tightened up even more. Only 1 ½ games separate the top four clubs – the Yankees, Red Sox, Ray and Blue Jays. Even the last-place Orioles are just 3 ½ game out of first. This is looking like quite a dogfight.

Swish takes a seat

Running Nick Swisher out there game after game hasn’t done much to get him out of a month-long slump, so Yankees manager Joe Girardi is giving the right fielder a couple of days to take stock in his situation and work on his swing. Swisher did not play Sunday against the Mets and was not in the starting lineup Monday night against the Blue Jays.

Girardi took the same approach last August to Curtis Granderson, who made a major turnaround after working closely with hitting coach Kevin Long. Granderson is still reaping the benefits of that period by leading the Yankees in home runs and runs batted in 45 games into the season.

Swisher was out early Monday taking extra batting practice. The availability of Chris Dickerson is one of the factors that allowed Girardi to make the move with Swisher now. The Yankees had opened the season with only one extra outfielder, Andruw Jones, who bats right-handed. Swisher is a switch hitter who has had more problems batting from the left side. Having Dickerson, who bats left-handed, afforded Girardi the option of giving Swisher time off without losing a lefty in the lineup against a right-handed starting pitcher.

“I’m trying to get him going,” Girardi said of Swisher, who is batting .214 with two home runs and 19 RBI in 145 at-bats. “I told him to take a couple of days – to take a deep breath and try something a little bit different. Players don’t like sitting down, but in the end this is the best for him at this time.”

In 26 games since April 20 when he was batting a respectable .273, Swisher has hit .178 in 90 at-bats as his season average has fallen 59 points.

“His leg kick has been off,” Girardi said about Swisher’s approach at the plate. “When that’s off, your timing is off and you don’t pick up the ball as well. That has been the case with Swish, especially left-handed.”

As a left-handed hitter, Swisher is batting .170 in 106 at-bats. He is a .333 hitter in 39 at-bats from the right side but with not much power (no home runs, .385 slugging percentage). Swisher hit 29 home runs in each of his previous two seasons with the Yankees but is on a pace this year to hit only eight. He made the All-Star team for the first time in 2010. That seems like a real long shot this year.

Swisher evened up his home-away totals last year (.287, 15 HR, 47 RBI at home; .289, 14 HR, 42 RBI on the road) after a lop-sided 2009 when he batted .268 with 21 homers and 55 RBI on the road but only .226 with 8 homers and 27 RBI in the first year of the new Yankee Stadium.

His numbers this year are the other way around. Swisher is batting .231 at home and .185 on the road, although the power numbers are about even (1 homer and 9 RBI away; 1 homer and 10 RBI at home). The Yankees go on a 10-day, 9-game trip to the three West Coast cities after this homestand ends Wednesday afternoon.

“Sometimes other people know what’s best for you,” Swisher said. “I’m a competitor. I expect a lot out of myself.”

Maybe the time away is what Swisher needs. In the meantime, the Yankees will go with a hot hand in Dickerson, the Triple A call-up who entered play Monday night batting .500 (4-for-8) with three RBI.

Late life in Yankees’ bats

I don’t want to sound like a broken record here (does anyone remember what that was?), but I have been concerned all year about the Yankees’ relative silence at the plate in the late innings.

You have read it here more than once that the franchise that was responsible for the coinage of the phrase, “five o’clock lightning,” (yes, I’ll explain that, too) had become so meek offensively in the latter third of games.

That is what made the seventh inning rally in Sunday’s Subway Series finale against the Mets at Yankee Stadium so uplifting and encouraging and game winning.

This was beginning to appear as one of those games where the Yankees hit a ball over the fence and nothing else. Curtis Granderson homered in the first (his 16th, unbelievable; he didn’t get to 16 home runs last year until Sept. 2) off Mike Pelfrey, who tamed the Yankees after that through the sixth and seemed well in control of a 3-1 lead.

The Yankees’ track record in such situations had been grim. They were 1-14 in games when they trailed after six innings. Not much five o’clock lightning. OK, what that is all about is this: back when the Yankees were called “Murderers Row” and the “Bronx Bombers,” back in what my kids used to call the “black and white days,” the starting time for games at the Stadium was 3 p.m. (no night games back then, remember). Come 5 o’clock, or sometime in the sixth or seventh inning, the Yankees would start unloading against a tired pitcher, hence, five o’clock lightning.

Sunday’s game, the first in daylight for the Yankees after 12 consecutive night games, had a 1:05 p.m. start, so the seventh-inning resurgence was more like “3:30 lightning.” And how about this: not a home run in sight.

The Yankees banged around Pelfrey and three Mets relievers with another commodity that has been lacking – hits with runners in scoring position, five in seven at-bats, including 4-for-4 with the bags juiced. Over their previous five home games, the Yankees were 4-for-33 (.121) in clutch situations.

It was a beautiful sight for the sore eyes of manager Joe Girardi, who before the game had said, “I don’t care how we score runs.”

This time, the Yankees did so in bunches, beginning with Derek Jeter’s bases-loaded single that tied the score and ran his career hit total to 2,975, just 25 away from as magic a number as there is in baseball. Then, get this, the slugger Granderson, the left-handed version of Jose Bautista, put down a bunt to advance the runners. Let’s see Bautista do that when the Blue Jays come to town Monday night.

“I was trying to get a lead,” Girardi said. “I thought it was a good time to put the bunt on.”

That prompted the Mets to walk Mark Teixeira, filling the bases for Alex Rodriguez and hoping he would hit a double-play ball. As Pete Seeger wrote, “When will they ever learn?” Instead, A-Rod hit a dribbler to third for a hit that scored the go-ahead run.

Rodriguez is 6-for-8 (.750) with three home runs and 19 RBI when batting after Tex has been intentionally walked. Mets manager Terry Collins said he wasn’t aware of those numbers and would have walked Tex anyway even if he knew. Cue Pete Seeger.

Now the Yankees had the Mets where they wanted them. Robinson Cano singled in a run to keep the line moving that was briefly interrupted when Jorge Posada was called out on strikes on a questionable third strike on a pitch in the dirt. Brett Gardner, who began the rally with a single, doubled in two runs, and Chris Dickerson plopped a well-placed single to left for two more runs.

Rodriguez had his second four-hit game in a week and is batting .481 with three homers and 10 RBI in 27 at-bats over his past six games. Jeter continued feasting on Mets pitching, running his hitting streak against the Mets at the Stadium to 25 games. The Captain has the highest batting average (.381) against the Mets of any opponent with a minimum of 150 at-bats. DJ’s run in the seventh was career No. 1,713, pushing him past Hall of Famer Cap Anson into 23rd place on the all-time list.

The result was that the Yankees won bragging rights in New York until the teams meet again in July at Citi Field. Mets fans can whine about playing without David Wright and Ike Davis, but the Yankees didn’t have Phil Hughes or Rafael Soriano, either. What the Yankees had was late life in their bats, a modern, Technicolor, high definition version of five o’clock lightning.

Scoring position is wherever homer hitters stand

When a team is having trouble hitting with runners in scoring position, as the Yankees have, the best thing for it to do is to hit the ball over the fence, which the Yankees did regularly Saturday night in evening up the Subway Series. They used the long ball in overcoming an early 2-0 deficit against the Mets and won, 7-3, to set up a rubber match Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees didn’t have an at-bat with a runner in scoring position until the eighth inning, by which time the game’s outcome was hardly in doubt, thanks to four home runs that accounted for all but one of their runs. Two-run homers by Russell Martin and Mark Teixeira and solo shots by Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez provided the Yankees a victory without worrying about hitting in the clutch.

The Yankees are batting .242 with runners in scoring position for the season and .223 at home. In the six-game home losing streak that ended Saturday night, the Yanks hit only .148 in 54 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

Home runs have been a major part of the Yankees’ offense this year. They are up to 70 now and are on a pace to his 258 for the season. The Yankees have homered in 34 of their 44 games and have scored 52.2 percent of their runs via the long ball.

All four home runs were off Mets lefthander Chris Capuano, who has yielded nine homers in 48 2/3 innings. The victory got A.J. Burnett his first victory in four starts since April 30 and got him off the winless May merry-go-round.

The Yankees ended up 0-for-1 with runners in scoring position Saturday night. Runners were on first base when Martin and Teixeira connected. Derek Jeter, who singled twice and has 2,973 hits in his career, was the first Yankees player to get into scoring position when he stole second base in the eighth. That steal was the 326th of his career and tied Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson for the Yankees’ career club record.

Granderson flied out to right field, which sent Jeter to third from where he scored on a flyout by Teixeira, who has homered in three straight games. Even though Granderson didn’t get a hit with Jeter in scoring position, it was still a productive out. Granderson’s home run, off a slider on a count of 0-2, was his 15th of the season and eighth in 47 at-bats against left-handed pitching.

This has given manager Joe Girardi a dilemma when filling out lineups. His original plan was to rest Granderson or Brett Gardner against lefties and use Andruw Jones, but Granderson has done so well against lefthanders that Gardner has been the odd man out more often. Girardi considers it a nice dilemma to have.

God bless ‘God Bless America’

Some nights, the seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium devoted to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America is truly moving. The Yankees are the last team that still does this since the 9-11-01 terrorist attacks, and it has become a wonderful tradition.

Yet like all others, there are times when the practice seems rote. People stand and listen to the Kate Smith recording and applaud politely afterward. Then there are nights like Saturday when the Stadium is packed with military personnel and a live rendition is delivered by someone like Master Sgt. Mary Kay Messenger of the West Point Band that is truly inspiring.

The Stadium crowd of 48,286, Yankees fans and Mets fans shoulder to shoulder, stood and did not just listen this time but accompanied the Sarge throughout the song, as feel-good a moment as you will find in this town.

Wet and wild start in Round 2

It didn’t take long for the wet grounds at Yankee Stadium to come into play Saturday night in Round 2 of the Subway Series. Rain forced the cancellation of the Mets’ batting practice two hours before game time. About 40 minutes before the scheduled first pitch, another heavy rain shower hit the area.

The infield was covered each time, but not the outfield, so it was not surprising to see right fielder Nick Swisher slip and fall down while fielding a liner to right-center by Jose Reyes for a leadoff double in the very first inning.

The Mets loaded the bases with none out against A.J. Burnett on a single to left by Daniel Murphy and a walk to Carlos Beltran. A flyout to right by Jason Bay got Reyes home from third base. It looked as if Burnett might get out of the inning with no more damage when he struck out Fernando Martinez on a killer knuckle curve.

Justin Turner, who had three hits Friday night and was robbed of a fourth by a nifty pickup at first base by Mark Teixeira, proved a tougher challenge. Turner, a Triple A Buffalo call-up who has done a terrific job in place of injured All-Star third baseman David Wright, worked the count full before lining a single to right field that made the score 2-0.

It marked the seventh consecutive game in which Turner drove in a run, which set a Mets rookie record. Turner had shared the previous mark with Ron Swoboda, who had an RBI in six straight games in 1965. Later in his career, Swoboda played in 152 games for the Yankees from 1971-73.

The pre-game downpour did nothing to deter the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team that completed its drill by landing in shallow center field. All 10 jumpers did a magnificent job navigating their way through the rain to land safely. Equally impressive was Steven Voigt Jr., son of a Navy SEAL team member who lost his life in the Persian Gulf, who threw a perfect strike with some mustard on it for the ceremonial first pitch.

Russell Martin, who caught Voigt’s pitch, drew the Yankees even in the second inning with a two-run home run to left. It was his eighth homer, the most of any catcher in the majors this year.

Cano supports educational initiative

Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano spoke Saturday afternoon at Univision’s multi-platform educational initiative Es el momento (The Moment is Now).

At a later date, the network will broadcast a special on Latinos and higher education titled Camino a la Universidad (The Road to College) with Teresa Rodriguez of Univision as moderator. The special will feature education experts, parents and students to address the challenges and identify the best practices for ensuring educational success. Segments of the special will be available on http://www.eselmomento.com.

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