McCann thwarts Maddon’s strategy

Yes!

Give Brian McCann a hearty cheer.

The catcher got the Yankees off to a quick, 1-0 lead in the first inning Thursday night at Tropicana Field by crossing up Rays manager Joe Maddon’s over-shift with a line single to left field, a big, two-out hit that gave CC Sabathia a run before he took the mound against longtime nemesis David Price.

Regular readers are probably weary of listening to me moan about hitters not taking what the defenses are giving them. More than any other manager Maddon has made use of the infamous Boudreau Shift to thwart dead-pull hitters.

The macho mentality that exists today among hitters is such that many believe it is cheap to hit the ball the other way and take advantage of an empty portion of the field for a single. They would rather try for home runs and simply hit into an area filled with fielders.

Ken Singleton of the YES Network pointed out during McCann’s at-bat in the first inning that he watched the catcher take batting practice and noticed him hitting balls to the left side frequently. Taking that approach into the game, McCann came up with two out and runners on first and second and punched Price’s first pitch on a line over the vacated shortstop spot and into left field for a run-scoring single.

Very nice to see.

Yanks’ 4th & 5th starters pitching like aces

It would be hard to get better starting pitching on a long, chilly day at the park than what the Yankees got Wednesday in the split-admission doubleheader at Yankee Stadium.

Granted, those were who-are-they? lineups the Cubs rolled out in each game, but by the same token Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda are the fourth and fifth starters in the Yankees’ rotation. However, if they can keep up this type of performance moving up the food chain is definitely possible.

After Tanaka pitched eight scoreless innings of two-hit, 10-strikeout ball in the matinee game, Pineda followed with six more zeroes of work in the nightcap. The combined effort by the two newcomers: 14 innings, 6 hits, 0 runs, 2 walks, 13 strikeouts.

Referring to Pineda as a newcomer is in terms of pitching. He has been in the Yankees organization since 2012 but did not pitch at the major-league level for them until this month while recovering from shoulder surgery.

The 6-foot-7 righthander has gone to a strong start in his first long look with the Yankees. Three starts into the season, Pineda is 2-1 with a 1.00 ERA in 18 innings. He has walked only three batters and struck out 15. Wednesday night he became the first Yankees pitcher to allow one or fewer runs in each of his first three starts with the team since Kevin Brown in 2004. The last pitcher to do that in his first four starts with the Yankees was Tommy John in 1979.

It was not the kind of weather that serves hitters well. That much must be said. How Carlos Beltran homered on a blustery day when the ball did not carry at all was astonishing. The Yankees had only four other hits and were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position. They touched up Cubs pitching for 12 hits in the night game but scored only two runs.

But with the type of pitching the Yankees got, not much offense was needed to produce a sweep.

Tanaka proving a wise investment for Yankees

For a while there Wednesday, it appeared that Masahiro Tanaka might have pitched a tainted no-hitter. The Cubs’ only hit through the first six innings off the Japanese righthander came in the second inning on a bunt single by Junior Lake, which originally had been called an out but was a single after a replay review.

Except for Lake himself, the happiest guy in the yard about the hit may have been Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who did not have to wrestle with himself later in the game about keeping Tanaka in an early-season game with a mounting pitch count working on a no-hitter. Managers do not like to put stress on pitchers this early in the schedule, but pulling a pitcher during a no-hitter is something they know fans dislike.

It all became academic when Anthony Rizzo dumped a bunt single down the third base line leading off the seventh inning against an over-shift. I for one was glad to see some hitter take what the defense is giving him in this year when over-shifting in the infield has become so prevalent.

It drove me crazy in the Yankees’ sixth inning when Brian McCann led off and made no attempt to hit the ball to the left side where one player was stationed. I know, I know, hitters do not want to mess up their swing by going the other way, but in a low-scoring game why not go for the easy hit and get a really started?

The over-shift was first employed in the late 1940s by Indians shortstop-manager Lou Boudreau against Ted Williams. The Splinter stubbornly refused to change his swing and always tried to hit through the shift, but he was Teddy Ballgame, a career .344 hitter and six-time American League batting champion. These guys that won’t attempt to cross up the defense are good hitters, but they are not Ted Williams. How many outs are hitters going to make on ground balls to right field before they wake up?

I have been harping on this since Jason Giambi was with the Yankees and have kept it up watching Mark Teixeira make outs into the shift. A Chicago writer told me that Rizzo has bunted for hits against the shift three times already this year. Good for him, not that it do him much good Wednesday because the Cubs did not get anyone else on base that inning. Another challenge by Cubs manager Rick Renteria on an out at first base was not reversed.

Tanaka certainly had no-hit stuff. Two bunt singles were all the Cubs could muster against Tanaka, who walked one batter and struck out 10 in his eight innings to improve his record to 2-0 with a 2.05 ERA.

“He had outstanding command of his splitter and slider and threw some curves to get ahead in the count,” Girardi said. “He was tremendous.”

The Cubs got only three runners as far as second base and none beyond. Shawn Kelley pitched the ninth and earned his fourth save.

The only run the Yankees would need came in the first inning on Carlos Beltran’s fourth home run. The Yankees added a run in the fourth on a sacrifice fly by Dean Anna and another in the fifth in an unusual way.

With Brett Gardner at third base and one out, Jacoby Ellsbury hit a dribbler in front of the plate. Cubs catcher John Baker collided with Ellsbury while fielding the ball and was called for interference as he threw the ball to first base while Gardner crossed the plate.

Plate umpire Jim Reynolds originally sent Gardner back to third base and instructed Ellsbury to stay on first base before Girardi came out of the dugout to point out a seldom-seen rule. In such cases, the manager has the option to take the completed play. That meant Ellsbury was out at first base and Gardner scored.

Girardi remembered a game in 1990 when he was catching for the Cubs and the Pirates’ Bobby Bonilla hit a three-run home run. Girardi was called for interfering with Bonilla’s swing but was told the home run counted because the Pittsburgh manager had the option to accept the play.

“Had there been no outs, I might have let the call stand,” Girardi said, “but with one out, I thought it would be better to take the run.”

It certainly was not needed by Tanaka, whose 28 strikeouts are the most for any Yankees pitcher in his first three career starts, surpassing by three the total Al Leiter had in 1987. Leiter was in the YES television booth for Wednesday’s game. Tanaka also became the first Yankees starter to pitch at least eight innings while striking out at least 10 batters and allowing two or fewer hits since Randy Johnson July 26, 2005 at the Stadium against the Red Sox (8 innings, 2 hits, 11 strikeouts).

Yanks to honor Mandela with plaque

Nelson Mandela Plaque
Nelson Mandela Plaque (NY Yankees)

The Yankees will honor the late Nelson Mandela with a plaque in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park in ceremonies prior to Wednesday night’s game against the Cubs as part of the Jackie Robinson Day tribute in which all players will don uniform No. 42.

The plaque will celebrate the former South African leader and commemorate his June 21, 1990 visit and address at the Stadium. On that historic day, Yankee Stadium was opened to fans, who were treated to musical performances from Richie Havens, Tracy Chapman, Mighty Sparrow and Judy Collins.

Mandela arrived at the Stadium at the end of the concert, following a day of meeting and addressing New Yorkers in various locations around the city. He spoke to the assembled crowd, then donned a Yankees cap and Yankees jacket and said, “You know who I am. I am a Yankee.” At the time of his appearance, Mandela was just four months removed from having spent 27 years in prison.

Scheduled to be on hand for a late-afternoon press conference at the Stadium were Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, team president Randy Levine, entertainer-activist Harry Belafonte, Zondwa Mandela (grandson of Nelson Mandela), George Monyemangene (South Africa Consul General), Sharon Robinson (daughter of Jackie Robinson) and Rev. Al Sharpton. Commissioner Bud Selig was to have attended the news conference, but he returned to Milwaukee after the originally scheduled ceremony was postponed due to Tuesday night’s rainout.

The Yankees’ first African-American player was Elston Howard, who made his major-league debut 59 years ago this week. He had 1-for-1 with one run batted in April 14, 1955 in an 8-4 loss at Boston.

Jeter plenty rested for Wednesday night game

Do not panic, Yankees fans. Derek Jeter’s absence from the lineup in Wednesday night’s matinee portion of the split-admission doubleheader against the Cubs was not injury-related. Jeter did not play Saturday or Sunday night against the Red Sox while resting a tight right quad. The Captain was not in the lineup for the afternoon game because manager Joe Girardi wanted to limit him to one game and preferred to start him in the night game against a lefthander, Travis Wood.

Girardi has made no secret of being cautious with Jeter, who at 39 and coming off an injury-riddled 2013 season is past the time when he can be expected to play every day. Jeter has not lost his sense of humor. The Yankees had their first off day Monday and with Tuesday’s scheduled game rained out Jeter said he felt that with four straight days off it was like an early All-Star Game break.

The Cubs were playing at Yankee Stadium for the first time since 2005 and became the 25th different opponent to play in the current Stadium. The Yankees are 19-5 in an opponent’s first-ever game at the Stadium since its opening in 2009. They won all three such contests in 2013 — April 16 over the Diamondbacks, 4-2; June 19 over the Dodgers, 6-4, and Sept. 20 over the Giants, 5-1.

The Yankees and Cubs will play each other again at Wrigley Field May 20-22 as a part of a weeklong trip to Chicago that includes a stop at U.S. Cellular Field May 23-25 against the White Sox.

The Yankees played their first doubleheader of the season today. They swept one doubleheader and split two last year. Since 2000, the Yanks have swept 15 doubleheaders, split 18 and were swept once (Sept. 17, 2006 by the Red Sox at the Stadium.

Yanks’ bench growing short with injuries

The Yankees went with an eight-man bullpen to get through the four-game series against the Red Sox, but it left them with a shallow bench that was pretty hollow in Sunday night’s finale when injuries mounted.

Francisco Cervelli, who started at first base, had to come out of the game in the fourth inning when he hurt his right hamstring trying to avoid hitting into a double play. A DP call was overturned through replay, which so infuriated Red Sox manager John Farrell that he was ejected for arguing the call, the change of which gave the Yankees a run for a 3-1 lead.

Meanwhile, Cervelli was exiting the field as Ichiro Suzuki took over as a pinch runner. Suzuki stayed in the game in right field with Carlos Beltran, who hit a two-run home run in the third inning, coming in to play first base for the first time in his major-league career. Other than an occasional game as a designated hitter, Beltran has only played the outfield.

With Mark Texeira on the disabled list, Kelly Johnson has played first base, but he was needed at third base Sunday night because Yangervis Solarte had to play second base with Brian Roberts nursing a sore back. Dean Anna was at shortstop for Derek Jeter, who was out with a tight right quad.

Once Ichiro got in the game, it left the ailing Jeter and Roberts as the only position players on the bench. And with Cervelli gone, the Yanks were without their backup catcher. Manager Joe Girardi told the ESPN crew that his third-string catcher was Anna, “although he doesn’t know it yet.”

Aggressive play on bases proves costly

The Yankees ran themselves out of a potentially big inning in the first Sunday night and did so with two of their best base runners. Carlos Beltran, who singled with one out, was at third base and Jacoby Ellsbury, who followed with a double, was on second when Alfonso Soriano hit a fly ball to center field.

It appeared to be a routine sacrifice fly as Beltran trotted toward the plate. As it turned out, it would have been better if Beltran ran a bit harder. Ellsbury also tried to tag up, and that was where the run was lost.

Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. made a strong throw to third base that cut down Ellsbury before Beltran crossed the plate, nullifying the run the Yankees thought they had. In hindsight, Ellsbury might have been better off staying at second base. That way, Beltran would have scored easily with Bradley throwing to third base. Yet aggressiveness on the bases is a big part of Ellsbury’s game. It took a perfect throw to get him. Bradley unfortunately unleashed one.

While the Yankees were playing without Derek Jeter, the Red Sox were without their spark plug, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who returned to Boston to have his painful left wrist examined. Pedroia jammed the wrist last week. The condition worsened to the point that he could not complete batting practice before the game and was scratched from the lineup.

Jeter riding the pine again

Yankees fans coming to see Derek Jeter play Sunday night at Yankee Stadium were disappointed again. For the second straight game, Jeter was on the bench as rookie back-up infielder Dean Anna was the shortstop for the Yankees in the four-game series finale against the Red Sox on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi intended to play Jeter Sunday night but decided to be caution because the Captain has a strained right quad. The area tightened up on him Friday night. Jeter did not play Saturday. Girardi reasoned that with an open date Monday Jeter will have sufficient time for the injury to heal and be ready to play Tuesday night against the Cubs in an inter-league game at the Stadium.

“He’s not real happy,” Girardi said of Jeter, who is batting .286 in 35 at-bats. “I told him missing one game is better than missing four to six weeks, if something were to happen.”

Jeter has a history of hating the bench, and with this being his final season following an injury-riddled 2013 season that reduced his output to 17 games he is all the more anxious to play.

“He has been that way since Day 1,’ Girardi said. “He used to fight Joe [Torre]. ‘How am I going to break Cal’s [Ripken Jr.'s] record if you keep doing this to me?’ he would say. It is never a real comfortable situation when you tell him you are going to give him a day. I think he understands what I’m trying to do. In his heart he just wants to be out there. He’s 39 years old. I think you have to be smart about it. There are times where you are going to have to give him a day off.”

Bronx Bombers are back

Welcome back, Bronx Bombers!

The long ball returned to Yankee Stadium Saturday on a sunny, breezy afternoon. The Yankees launched five home runs, nearly matching their season total prior to the game, in a 7-4 victory over the Red Sox. Four of the blows came off Boston starter John Lackey, who had allowed only one home run previously in 13 innings of his first two starts when he was 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA. That ERA took a hit Saturday in jumping to 3.86.

As recently as two years ago, the Yankee set a club record in home runs with 245. This year has been a different story. They did not hit a home run in 2014 until the season’s sixth game. Entering play Saturday, the Yanks’ home run total was seven through 11 games, which put them on pace for a measly 103 over the 162-game schedule. In one game, they increased that season pace to 162.

It was good to see Brian McCann break out of an early-season slump. The catcher clouted two home runs, a solo shot in the fourth inning and a two-run blast in the sixth. They were the first extra-base hits this season for McCann, who went into the game batting .162.

“Every day he has come to the park with a smile on his face, but I am sure he was storing up some emotions, although he never went over the top,” manager Joe Girardi said. “When you come to a new place, you want to get off to a fast start and show why the club signed you in the first place.”

McCann had already drawn rave reviews for his handling of the pitching staff, a quality that marked his success in Atlanta. That is one element of the catcher’s role on a team. He works so closely with the pitchers that taking batting practice is often the last thing on his mind.

“I stayed the course,” McCann said. “I’ve tried to stay positive. That first home run felt pretty good. Absolutely.”

Carlos Beltran started the home run derby with a two-run rocket to right field in the first inning. Alfonso Soriano, making his first career start in right field, followed McCann’s fourth-inning jack with a solo tater of his own to take the club lead at three. Kelly Johnson tied Soriano with his third home run of the season in the eighth off Burke Badenhop.

It was McCann’s 10th career multi-homer game and first since May 28 last year at Toronto. His and Soriano’s back-to-back showing was the first for the Yankees since June 6 last year by Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira at Seattle.

Soriano’s only previous appearance in right field was in Game 5 of the 2003 World Series for the Yankees at Miami when he played one inning. Girardi thought he would give Sori a break from the tough sun field in left at the Stadium. Soriano made an error in the sixth when he dropped a fly ball Xander Bogaerts, but it caused no damaging effect other than embarrassment.

Hiroki Kuroda (2-1) benefit from the homer onslaught to notch the winning decision. He was touched for a two-run homer in the second by A.J. Pierzynski. Kuroda came out in the seventh after walking two batters, both of whom later scored, but Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and Shawn Kelley (second save) did a strong job in relief.

Girardi’s toughest job is keeping Jeter fresh

Memo to Yankees fans: Do not expect to see Derek Jeter in the starting lineup just because you bought a ticket.

That was the message Saturday from manager Joe Girardi, who gave Jeter a day off and started rookie Dean Anna at shortstop, which must have been a disappointment to most people in a sellout crowd of 48,572 at Yankee Stadium for the afternoon game against the Red Sox.

This will be Jeter’s final season in the major leagues, and many a fan will want to get one more look at the Captain in person. But as the manager in charge of the lineup and keeping his players fresh, Girardi feels the need to give his aging shortstop (DJ turns 40 in June) a blow now and then.

“I have to manage him with a focus of winning games and keeping him healthy, not being a farewell tour,” Girardi said before the game. “I wasn’t hired to put on a farewell tour.”

And yet, this is the second consecutive season that Girardi has had to oversee a star player in his final season. Jeter follows Mariano Rivera’s swan song from 2013. But in Mo’s case, fans could never be sure they would see him in a game because of his role as closer. There was no guarantee that Rivera would get into a game whereas the absence of Jeter as a regular position player is more noticeable.

“There is not a whole lot I can do about that,” Girardi said. “When you start running guys out there too much, you risk injury. I think people would be a little bit more upset if he were out two weeks or a month or something like that. I understand that fans want to see him play. I want to see him play. I would like to run him out there 162 times. But I have to do what is best for him and the team.”

Let’s face it; Jeter cannot start every game at his age, and Girardi is taking the correct approach in trying to ensure that the Captain stays healthy enough to start as many games as possible.

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