Baseball mourns shocking death of Jose Fernandez

Major League Baseball awakened Sunday to the tragic news that Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, one of the most talented and popular young players in the game, was among three young men who were killed in a boating accident in Miami Beach. Fernandez was only 24 years old but had already put his stamp on baseball.

I remember when he was the National League winner of the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award in 2013. In my role as secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, I conduct the telephone conference calls of the award winner to the writers. Working mostly in the American League, I did not know much about Fernandez other than his pitching record and that he was born in Cuba. I asked MLB publicist Mike Teevan if we needed a translator on the call.

“Are you kidding?” Mike said. “He speaks better English than we do.”

Fernandez, who I found out came to the United States as a 15-year-old and went to high school in Tampa, turned out to be an absolute delight that night both on the MLB Network cablecast of the awards show and the conference call. It was the beginning of a fine career for the righthander who came back from Tommy John surgery in 2014 to go 6-1 with a 2.92 ERA in 11 starts last year and have an All-Star season this year (16-8, 2.86 ERA). His career record was 38-17 with a 2.58 ERA.

Former Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, now manager of the Marlins, was near tears when he spoke of Fernandez Sunday at Marlins Park where the scheduled game against the Braves was canceled.

“When I think of Jose, it’s going to be thinking of that little kid,” Mattingly said. “I see such a little boy in him with the way he played. There was just joy with him when he played. When he pitched, I think that’s what the guys would say, too, as mad as he would make you with some of the stuff he’d do, you’d see that little kid you see when you watch kids play Little League or something like that. That’s the joy that Jose played with and the passion he felt about playing. That’s what I think about.”

The Yankees released the following statement:

“On behalf of Hal Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees, we offer our deepest condolences to Jose Fernandez’s family and loved ones, and to the entire Miami Marlins organization he so joyfully and proudly represented.”

The only negative note in Fernandez’s career was a dust-up he had in 2013 with Yankees catcher Brian McCann, who was with the Braves at the time. Fernandez did an animated bat flip after he hit a home run and took a long stroll around the bases, which McCann reacted to by getting into his face. Fernandez apologized for his behavior, and he and McCann eventually became friends.

“Beyond devastating,” McCann said. “I woke up this morning and saw the news. It’s sickening. One of those competitors you loved competing against because you knew he was going to bring his best. He was one of the best pitchers in the game. What he did in a short amount of time was incredible.”

Yankees infielder Donovan Solano was a teammate of Fernandez in Miami. “When I played over there, we were very close,” Solano said. “[Adeiny] Hechavarria, Jose and me were very close; all the Latins over there were very close. I know his family; his mom, his grandma, his uncle. I’m so sad. I’m just so sorry for the family. I’m still in shock from the news.”

So are we all.

Yankees’ offense has completely stalled

The Yankees cannot say they have not gotten help elsewhere in the American League wild card race. Now they have to start helping themselves.

Friday night, the Angels scored six runs in the ninth inning to stun the Astros, 10-6. Saturday, the Royals scored five runs in the ninth inning to upend the Tigers, 7-4. These results were music to the Yankees’ ears because the losers were clubs in front of them in the wild card hunt.

So what did the Yanks do for themselves? Absolutely nothing.

They failed to score either night and have now been shut out in three straight games for the first time in 41 seasons. The 1975 Yankees did not make it to postseason play, either, although there was no wild card entry in those days.

The Yanks did not lose ground because of Detroit’s loss, but they wasted an opportunity to gain ground rather than stay four games behind the Tigers with the 3-0 loss to the Blue Jays, who have a firm grip on the first wild card spot. Furthermore, the Yankees lost another day on the schedule and wasted a strong start from CC Sabathia, who remained winless in six starts since his most recent victory Aug. 23 but not for lack of effort. He has pitched to a 2.83 ERA over that period but all he has to show for it are two losses and four no-decisions.

Sabathia matched Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman in throwing zeroes for seven innings. The lefthander scattered four hits and three walks and had only two strikeouts, which was fine because it prevented his pitch count (91) from being an issue.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi reacted sharply to reporters who questioned his bullpen usage in the previous game when he let Blake Parker pitch with a 3-0 deficit and watched it soar to 7-0. Where was Adam Warren or Tyler Clippard, some writers wanted to know, in the late innings of a three-run game?

Well, there was Clippard (3-5) in the eighth inning of a tie game Saturday, and what was the result? He got two quick groundouts before Josh Donaldson singled in front of Brett Gardner playing no-doubles defense in left field.

A wild pitch put Donaldson in scoring position. After Edwin Encarnacion walked, Clippard fell behind 2-0 to Jose Bautista and came in with a fastball that was crushed to left field for the only runs of the game.

On the Yankees side, there was more anemic offense. They had three hits, one of which was a two-out triple by Ronald Torreyes that threatened to end the scoreless streak, but Jason Grilli (7-5) struck out pinch hitter Billy Butler.

The Yankees have gone 27 innings without scoring and are hitless in 16 at-bats with runners in scoring position over that stretch. Other contending clubs have opened lanes for them, but the Yankees continue to stand still

Zeroes follow Yankees from Florida to Canada

At a time when losing is not an option, the Yankees suddenly cannot score. Their precarious position in the chase for an American League wild card slot only grew worse with their second straight shutout loss Thursday night on a long trip that now seems headed for nowhere.

One night after losing a 2-0 game to Tampa Bay when they left 11 runners on base, the Yankees had only seven base runners total in a 9-0 bashing by the Blue Jays. The Yankees had merely three hits in the game, and if not for the phenomenon called Gary Sanchez they would have had only one hit. Sanchez doubled and singled to jeep his torrid hitting going, but he could use company if the Yankees want to move into serious contention.

The loss made it official that the Yanks cannot win the AL East division title as they were eliminated. The Red Sox, who won again to extend their winning streak to nine games, are pretty close to wrapping up the division. Boston has a 5 1/2-game lead over Toronto with eight games remaining.

So the wild card is the Yanks’ only remaining playoffs entry, and they are still at the bottom of a six-club scrum. The Blue Jays maintained their lead for the first wild card berth, and the Yankees are behind the Tigers, Orioles, Astros and Mariners for the second position. 

The Yankees’ series is a hot ticket in Toronto with 47,016 people in attendance at Rogers Centre Thursday, but there was nothing hot about Yankees’ bats. They threatened with two outs in the first inning against lefthander Francisco Liriano (8-13) on the Sanchez double and two walks, but Chase Headley struck out.

An error by Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and a single by Jacoby Ellsbury was a promising start to the third inning, but Sanchez flied out to deep center, Billy Butler struck out and Didi Gregorius popped out.

After that, the Yankees had only two base runners with neither getting beyond first base.

Yankees starter Bryan Mitchell gave up three runs, but only one was earned due to an error by Butler at first base. Mitchell also hurt himself in his six-inning stint with four walks, one of which forced in a run.

The Jays unloaded on the Yankees’ bullpen with four runs in the seventh inning against Blake Parker on a two-run double by Jose Bautista and Tulowitzki’s second two-run single of the game. The next inning, Ben Heller was burned on a double by Devon Travis and a two-run homer by Josh Donaldson.

Heller then drew a warning from plate umpire Tom Hallion after hitting Bautista with a 0-2 pitch. I have no idea what Hallion was thinking. Heller had control problems throughout the inning, and the pitch that struck Bautista was a breaking ball. It was a case of a rookie pitcher struggling and not some sort of headhunting.

It was a loss that underscored two troubling issues for the Yankees this year — their play in games started by lefthanders and within their division. The loss dropped the Yanks’ record to 21-26 against lefty starters and 30-37 against AL East opponents.

It was also the Yankees’ sixth straight loss at Rogers Centre, their longest losing streak in that building in 23 years. Earlier this month, the Yankees began their stretch run by getting their first three-game sweep of the season, over the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium. They have to find a way to regain that momentum.

Tanaka’s forearm injury will cost him next start

Just when they were shaking off the negative effects of being swept in a four-game series by the Red Sox with two victories over the Rays to pull to 2 1/2 games of the second American League Wild Card slot, the Yankees were dealt a blow before Thursday night’s series finale at St. Petersburg, Fla., a 2-0 loss to the Rays.

Masahiro Tanaka will not be able to make his next scheduled start, which would have been Monday night at Toronto, the last road game of the season for the Yankees against the club now holding the first Wild Card position. Pitching that night would have put Tanaka in place to make one more start the final weekend of the regular season against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium. Now if Tanaka recovers in time as he is expected to, that start in the last homestand will be his last of the regular season as well.

Tanaka reported tightness in his right forearm after Wednesday night’s 11-5 victory in which he gave up four home runs in a game for the first time in his career. The victory improved his record to 14-4 with a league-leading 3.07 ERA that has him in consideration for the AL Cy Young Award, but being sidelined hurts his chances.

An MRI exam revealed that Tanaka, who has pitched 199 2/3 innings this season in his 31 starts, has a small flexor mass strain in his right forearm. Yankees manager Joe Girardi termed the ailment “slight” and that it had no connection to the righthander’s ulnar collateral ligament.

Tanaka will not throw at all for five days. The Yankees are hopeful that a rested Tanaka will be on schedule to start one of the final three games of the season against the Orioles. Girardi did not name a starter to take Tanaka’s place Monday night at Toronto.

It certainly puts a crimp in the Yankees’ late-season charge to lose the staff ace for an important start. The Yankees are 23-8 in Tanaka’s starts.

The 11th shutout loss of the season hurt the Yankees’ chances to continue to move up the standings. Luis Cessa gave up a first-inning run on three singles and not another until Corey Dickerson homered with two out in the sixth.  The Yankees kept leaving runners on base in every inning but one and stranded 11 overall while going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position.

Sanchez continues to make history

The Yankees’ hopes for a postseason berth grow less frail as long as Gary Sanchez keeps making history. They climbed to 2 1/2 games of the Orioles for the second American League Wild Card berth Wednesday night by riding once again the rookie catcher’s coat tails.

The Yanks have rebounded nicely from that four-game sweep at Fenway Park with two victories over the Rays at Tropicana Field. Wednesday night, they build a 7-0 lead in the second inning off Alex Cobb, a pitcher who has given them trouble in the past (5-2, 2.13 ERA entering the game) and waltzed to an 11-5 decision.

Cobb made the same mistake Brad Boxberger did Tuesday night by challenging Sanchez with two runners on base and first base open, and the result was the same, a three-run home run. With that blow, Sanchez got to 18 home runs faster than any player in major-league history. Four innings later, he got to 19 home runs quicker than anyone in major-league history with a solo shot off a 0-2 pitch from Joe Marks.

Sanchez had driven in the Yankees’ first run of the game with a single through the middle. The two-homer, five-RBI was just a continuation of a sweet ride that has put him in the AL Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award discussion. In the six games on this trip, Sanchez is batting .423 with two doubles, five homers and 13 RBI in 24 at-bats.

It has been an extraordinary run for Sanchez, who now has hit one more home run in his six weeks with the Yankees than he ever hit in a full minor-league season. He has also been first rate behind the plate working well with the pitching staff and helping to control opponents’ running games.

Masahiro Tanaka, who ran his winning streak to seven games, had a most unusual outing. Armed with a seven-run lead, the righthander was stung for four solo home runs in the third inning. He had never before given up four home runs in a whole game.

Bobby Wilson began the attack with a leadoff homer. Two outs later, the Rays went back-to-back-to-back on big flies by Evan Longoria, Brad Miller and Corey Dickerson, the last two coming on consecutive pitches.

Sanchez responded with his sixth-inning homer. Miller added a fifth solo shot for Tampa Bay, his second, in the eighth off Adam Warren, but the Yankees answered with three runs in the ninth, two on a homer by Starlin Castro fill-in Donovan Solano. The Yankees finished with 17 hits, including four by Brian McCann, who played in his 1,500th career game. McCann, who has been displaced by Sanchez as the regular catcher, has gravitated well to the designate hitter role.

Tanaka (14-4) surrendered his ERA lead as it rose from 2.97 to 3.07. He has pitched to a 2.28 ERA over his past nine starts with seven victories. He improved his season record against the Rays to 4-0 with a 2.88 ERA, his career mark against Tampa Bay to 6-0 with a 2.82 ERA and is now 6-1 with a 2.27 ERA this year against AL East competition. The Yankees are 23-8 in his starts.

While the Yankees gained ground against the Orioles, they still have three other clubs between them. The Astros and Mariners won while the Tigers were rained out at Minneapolis. Baltimore’s lead for the second Wild Card is down to one game over Detroit and Houston and two over Seattle, which is a half-game ahead of the Yankees.

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre captures Triple-A championship

The Yankees’ Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre affiliate won its second championship of the season Tuesday by defeating the Padres’ El Paso club of the Pacific Coast League, 3-1, to win the 2016 Gildan Triple-A National Championship at AutoZone Park in Memphis. 

It was the RailRiders’ first Triple-A title since the game’s inception in 2006. Friday, SWB won the 2016 Governors’ Cup to become International League champions. In his first year as manager, Al Pedrique led the RailRiders to an overall record of 98-53 (.649) and was named IL Manager of the Year. It was an impressive showing for the RailRiders considering so many of their players are up with the Yankees.

First baseman Chris Parmelee, who had 2-for-4, drove in all of SWB’s runs with a three-run home run in the first inning and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Right fielder Clint Frazier and center fielder Jake Cave also had two hits apiece. Lefthander Jordan Montgomery allowed one run and six hits with no walks and five strikeouts in five innings to earn the winning decision. Three SWB relievers combined to retire all 12 batters they faced with three strikeouts.

During their postseason run, RailRiders pitchers threw shutouts in four of eight games, posted a 1.13 ERA in 72 innings and limited opponents to a .191 average in 262 at-bats.

Sanchez does it again as Yanks end 5-game skid

For the first time in nearly a week, the Yankees gained ground in the American League Wild Card race. After spending four games in Boston giving up leads in getting swept by the Red Sox, the Yankees did the opposite Tuesday night by overcoming a 2-0 deficit and beat the Rays, 5-3, to end a five-game losing streak.

It would have been a tough no-decision if that Tampa Bay lead held up for Yankees starter Michael Pineda, who struck out 11 batters and walked only one in 5 1/3 innings. But the two-out jinx struck him again when he gave up a two-rub triple to Brad Miller in the third. Pineda now has 195 strikeouts, the most for a Yanks righthander since A.J. Burnett had the same total in 2009.

Mark Teixeira got a run back the next inning with his 13th home run, off Rays starter Drew Smyly, the only run the lefthander gave up in six innings. Fortunately for the Yankees, the Rays are like every team in the major leagues these days who cannot wait to take out a starting pitcher in the middle innings. Tampa Bay went with Brad Boxberger in the seventh, and the Yanks clocked him for four runs and four hits.

The big blow came from — who else? — Gary Sanchez. One out after Brett Gardner singled to tie the score, Sanchez crushed a first-pitch changeup for a three-run home run. It came right after Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey came to the mound to discuss the situation with Boxberger. First base was open so surely the message was not to give Sanchez anything near the plate, a message that obviously went unheeded.

It was the 17th home run of the season for the Yankees’ rookie catcher and came in his 44th game. The only other rookie in big-league history to do that was Wally Berger of the Boston Braves in 1930. Sanchez has six home runs in his past 11 games after a 10-game homerless drought. Of his 53 career hits, 28 have been for extra bases (11 doubles, 17 homers), including eight of his past 13 hits (two doubles, six homers).

The winning decision went to Luis Severino (3-8), who kept up his quality pitching in relief with 1 1/3 hitless innings. Tyler Clippard allowed a run in the eighth on a triple by Logan Forsythe and a wild pitch.

Dellin Betances, who had not pitched since Thursday night after sustaining two straight losses, hopped back on the bicycle and fashioned a clean ninth inning for his 12th save.

With the victory, the Yankees picked up a game on the Orioles, who lost at home to the Red Sox, and trail Baltimore by 3 1/2 games for the second Wild Card berth. The Yanks also still trail the Tigers, Astros and Mariners, however.

There was good news for another Yankees rookie. Through fan voting, Rob Refsnyder was selected as the AL East winner for the 2016 Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award presented annually by the Major League Players Association for community involvement.

Refsnyder partnered with Athletes Brand to design a T-shirt that benefits A Kid’s Place, a Tampa-based organization that works to provide stability and care for children removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect or abandonment. His name will appear on the 2016 Players Choice Award ballots for league-wide voting to determine this season’s award winner.

Two former Yankees players were among the other division winners, relief pitcher David Robertson of the White Sox (AL Central) and Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson (National League East). Also voted onto the final ballot were Astros pitcher Lance McCullers (AL West), Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (NL Central) and Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner (NL West).

Yanks to honor Teixeira before regular-season finale

The Yankees will honor Mark Teixeira in a ceremony prior to their 3:05 p.m. game Sunday, Oct. 2, against the Orioles. Teixeira, 36, will retire as a player at the end of the 2016 season.

He joined the Yankees as a free agent Jan. 6, 2009 when he signed an eight-year contract. In that time, Teixeira has batted .248 with 530 runs, 183 doubles, five triples, 203 home runs, 615 RBI, 472 walks, a .343 on-base percentage and .820 OPS in 948 regular-season games and 3,494 at-bats. The Yankees’ record during Tex’s tenure is 542-406 (.572).

With the Yankees, he earned three Gold Gloves (2009-10, ’12) and a Silver Slugger (2009), and was named to two American League All-Star teams (2009, ’15). As part of the Yankees’ World Series-winning team in 2009, Teixeira finished second in American League Most Valuable Player Award voting. He led the AL with 122 RBI (including a league-leading 31 go-ahead RBI) and tied for the league lead with 39 home runs. He also hit an 11th-inning “walk-off” home run to win Game 2 of the AL Division Series against the Twins.

In franchise history, Teixeira is tied with Roger Maris for 15th place in home runs, trailing only Lou Gehrig (493), Don Mattingly (222) and Jason Giambi (209) among players whose primary position was first base. Along with Maris, Babe Ruth and Alex Rodriguez, Tex was one of four Yankees all-time to hit at least 30 home runs in each of his first three seasons with the club.

Originally drafted by Texas as the fifth overall pick of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, Teixeira has played 14 seasons in the majors with the Rangers (2003-07), Braves (2007-08), Angels (2008) and Yankees (2009-present) and batted .268 with 1,096 runs, 406 doubles, 18 triples, 406 home runs, 1,291 RBI, 914 walks, a .360 on-base percentage and an .869 OPS in 1,852 games and 6,908 at-bats. He is a three-time All-Star (also 2005), five-time Gold Glove winner (also 2005-06) and three-time Silver Slugger winner (also 2004-05).

Only four switch-hitters in baseball history have more home runs than Teixeira (Mickey Mantle-536, Eddie Murray-504, Chipper Jones-468 and former teammate Carlos Beltran-419) and only four players have more home runs since his debut in 2003 (Albert Pujols-519, David Ortiz-479, Miguel Cabrera-441, Adam Dunn-417).

A Maryland native who now lives on Greenwich, Conn., Teixeira has been actively involved in charitable endeavors throughout his career, including participation on the Board of Directors of Harlem RBI, supporting a scholarship fund at his alma mater, Georgia Tech, and creating a scholarship at his high school, Mt. St. Joseph, in the name of his friend Nick Liberatore, who passed away in a car accident while the two were in school together.

Injuries piling up down the stretch for Yankees

Yankees manager Joe Girardi had something of a makeshift lineup for Sunday night’s finale of the four-game series at Fenway Park where they hoped to avoid a sweep. Three of the players in the Yankees’ batting order were not even on the club a week ago.

Injuries to second baseman Starlin Castro and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury sustained in Saturday’s 6-5 loss to the Red Sox forced Girardi to improvise. Mason Williams, who was recalled from Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last week, started in center field. At second base was Donovan Solano, who was called up Sunday morning. At first base was Billy Butler, who was released by the Athletics two weeks and signed by the Yankees last week.

Also out of the lineup was third baseman Chase Headley, who has a stiff lower back. Ronald Torreyes started in his place.

Castro’s injury is the most serious, a Grade 1 strain of his right hamstring. He pulled up lame while running out a double in the fifth inning. Such ailment often takes two weeks to recover from, and that is all that is left of the Yankees’ season. His loss comes at a time when he has been hot with 12 hits, including a home run and three doubles, in his past 24 at-bats.

Ellsbury bruised his right knee sliding into the fence in right-center field while tracking a double by Xander Bogaerts that started the two-run rally in which the Red Sox overtook the Yankees and knocked them behind four clubs in pursuit of the second American League Wild Card slot in the playoffs. Luis Severino was charged with his first earned run in 20 innings as a reliever as the Red Sox tied the score. They got the winning run on a wild pitch by Adam Warren.

Castro and Ellsbury underwent MRI exams Sunday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and were treated by Dr. Christopher Ahmad, the team physician. Both players are expected to rejoin the club in St. Petersburg, Fla., by Tuesday night when the Yanks open a three-game series against the Rays at Tropicana Field.

Sanchez lone highlight in lost weekend at Boston

If not for Gary Sanchez, there would not have been much for a Yankees fan to cheer about this weekend. Sanchez kept up his remarkable productivity in his first full month as a major leaguer by going 7-for-19 (.368) with two doubles, two home runs and five RBI in the four games at Fenway Park.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, all of that was for naught as they lost all four games to mark their first sweep of a series of at least four games in Boston since June 4-7, 1990. That was the series where Stump Merrill succeeded Bucky Dent as manager in one of the lowest points in franchise history.

This Yankees team was a far better bunch that the cellar dwellers of 26 seasons ago and entered Red Sox Nation on a high more after a 7-3 homestand put them in solid contention for a Wild Card berth in the playoffs. Thursday night, the Yankees were two outs from being only one game away from the second Wild Card slot and just three games out of first place in the American League East.

But a five-run ninth inning climaxed by Hanley Ramirez’s three-run home run off Dellin Betances knocked the Yankees off course and set the tone for a devastating weekend. Ramirez was it again Sunday night as he slugged two more home runs in yet another Red Sox comeback victory. Just as they had done in the series opener, the Yankees squandered a 4-0 lead in the finale as well.

The Yankees failed to hold leads in three of the four games. CC Sabathia cruised through four innings and nearly got through the fifth as well until his own glaring error opened the gate for the Red Sox. Boston had runners on first and second with one out when Mookie Betts hit a scorching liner to the center of the infield that was gloved by Sabathia. He tried to double Xander Bogaerts off first base but threw wildly past Billy Butler. That play gave a free at-bat to Ramirez, who socked a three-run homer over the Green Monster to make it a one-run game.

Sabathia surrendered the lead in the fifth by yielding successive singles to Travis Shaw, Aaron Hill and Jackie Bradley Jr. Blake Parker did a tremendous job keeping the score 4-4 by striking out David Ortiz, who did not start and came up as a pinch hitter, and retiring Dustin Pedroia on a fielder’s choice and Bogaerts on a strikeout.

Ramirez struck again the next inning, however, by driving a Tyler Clippard changeup over the Monster for his second homer of the game and 28th of the season. Ramirez terrorized the Yankees all weekend by going 9-for-16 (.538) with a double, four homers and nine RBI.

The Yankees’ losing streak has reached five games and leaves them four games behind the Blue Jays for the second Wild Card spot. In addition, the Yankees are two games behind the Tigers and the Mariners and one game back of the Astros, all teams the Yanks had passed during a seven-game winning streak. They get a needed day off Monday before continuing the trip with a three-game series against their Rays at Tropicana Field.