Beat-up Gregorius gets needed time off

When Didi Gregorius lifted a soft fly ball to left field in his first at-bat Sunday, I said to the person next to me in the press box, “The shortstop could use a day off.”

There is a good chance that manager Joe Girardi felt the same way. Gregorius ended up taking a 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the Yankees’ 4-2 loss to the Rays to continue a slump that has persisted through September. So it was no surprise that he was not in the starting lineup for Monday night’s opener of the three-game, inter-league series against the Dodgers.
“I think it’s just getting beat up over the course of the year,” Girardi said. “Whether it’s the two balls he took off his arm — the hit by pitches, ribs, off his feet, sometimes you get to a point where you just need to shut a guy down for a day or two.”

September is the beat-up month as players who have slogged through the dog days of August try to lick their wounds. For an everyday shortstop such as Gregorius, who has been perhaps the Yankees’ steadiest player, the bumps and bruises can really pile up.

Gregorius’ season heated up big-time in June, a month in which he batted .337. His season batting average remained in the .290s throughout July when he hit .297 overall. He slipped to .268 in August, but that was also his best power month with six home runs and 18 RBI.

Come September, Didi has fallen into his first extended slump of the year with only three hits in 34 at-bats, a .088 stretch that has dragged his average down from .286 to .273. Gregorius has already achieved career-high totals in home runs (17) and RBI (64), but he has not homered in 84 at-bats since Aug. 18.

It comes at a time that he has been moved around the lineup as Girardi seeks to find players who can be productive in the middle of the lineup with the release of Alex Rodriguez and the reduction in playing time of retiring Mark Teixeira.

Actually, Gregorius has been decent as a cleanup hitter, batting .279 with four doubles, one triple, one home run and seven RBI in 43 at-bats but has hit only .231 in 13 at-bats in the 3-hole. He is most comfortable — and productive — hitting lower in the order. His combined numbers from the 7- and 8-holes indicate that: .301 with 14 doubles, seven homers and 32 RBI in 226 at-bats.

Set with Dodgers an inter-league interruption

The Yankees have worked hard to get back into the American League East and Wild Card races. The seven-game winning streak that ended Sunday with a 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay has the Yanks right on the tails of the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles. And at the crucial moment in the schedule they will have an interruption.

That is one way to look at their upcoming series against the Dodgers starting Monday night at Yankee Stadium. When the leagues were divided into 15 clubs apiece three years ago, it necessitated inter-league play on a daily basis. The Yankees’ turn in the inter-league barrel has one last go-round this year, and that will be the next three days against the National League West first-place club. Surely, the Yankees would prefer to play the Dodgers in the World Series and not before.

I remember how Joe Torre once characterized inter-league play as if the games were akin to exhibitions because “the teams are not playing for the same prize,” which is position in their separate league standings.

At this point the Yankees sort of drift out of the way while the Rays go from here to Toronto and the Orioles and Red Sox pair up at Boston. Perhaps that will be beneficial to the Yanks with their AL East competitors beating each other up but only if they can handle the Dodgers.

Sunday’s loss dropped the Yankees four games behind first-place Boston in the AL East and two games back of Toronto and Baltimore for the second Wild Card berth in a tie with Detroit.

Considering that the Rays hit 10 home runs in the series they were bound to win at least one of the four games, which they finally did Sunday behind three home runs off Luis Cessa, who sustained his first major-league loss in five decisions. Of the 25 runs Cessa has allowed, 20 have come on the 13 home runs he has yielded.

The Yankees got a home run as well — Chase Headley’s 14th — but that was all against Tampa Bay starter Matt Andriese. The Yankees’ other run was unearned due to an error by Rays third baseman Evan Longoria in the seventh inning.

It was scored on a single by Brett Gardner, who had a terrific series (7-for-12, three runs, one double, one RBI, one stolen base). Gardner has multiple hits in each of his past four games with a plate appearance and is batting .563 in 16 at-bats over the stretch.

The Yankees got another impressive relief outing from Luis Severino, who pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings with three strikeouts. The righthander has not given up an earned run in seven relief appearances totaling 16 2/3 innings.

Yankees observe 15th anniversary of 9/11

The Yankees observed the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York City Sunday with a tasteful ceremony at Yankee Stadium before the game against the Rays.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi and relief pitcher Dellin Betances lay a wreath at the 9/11/01 Monument in Monument Park in honor of the men and women who lost their lives in the attack of the World Trade Center. In the pregame ceremony, the Yankees recognized servicemen and servicewomen from Walter Reed Hospital and the Fort Belvoir Wounded Warriors.

The New York Police Department’s Emerald Society Pipes and Drums paraded onto the field performing the Armed Forces Medley before a presentation of the colors by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Honor Guard.

Following a moment of silence, FDNY firefighter Frank Pizzaro sang the national anthem while fellow firefighters unfurled a giant American flag. It was the same one that was unfurled at the original Stadium in 2001 when President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to Game 3 of the World Series.

Yankees roll seven, shoot for sweep

Something old, something new.

It is this combination that has sustained the Yankees in their winning streak that reached seven games Saturday with a 5-1 victory over the Rays. Remember about two weeks ago I wrote that the Yankees needed to do more than just win series, taking two of three games here and two of three there. They need to go on a run the way the Royals worked themselves into contention with a nine-game winning streak.

Well, here it is, Yankees fans. This is the Yanks’ longest winning streak since a seven-gamer May 1-9 of last year. They are a season-best 11 games over .500, have won 13 of their past 14 games, 20 of their past 29 and are 24-13 since the non-waiver trading deadline of Aug. 1.

The Yankees got a strong start from Masahiro Tanaka (13-4, 3.04 ERA), who gave up one run and five hits with 10 strikeouts, and a combination of old (Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury) and new (Gary Sanchez and Rob Refsnyder) to remain on the heels of the Orioles and the Tigers in the race for the second Wild Card slot in the playoffs. With Baltimore and Detroit opposing each other Saturday night, the Yanks were guaranteed to be no more than one game behind.

But that is not all. With the Red Sox losing to the Blue Jays, the Yankees are only three games out of first place. Who could have imagined this happening back in that last weekend in July when the Yankees were stuck at .500 (52-52) after getting swept in a three-game series at Tropicana Field.

Sunday the Yankees have a chance to sweep those same Rays, this time in a four-game set. They have swept two others four-game series this year, against the Angels and the Athletics, and have already won their past eight four-game series.

Tanaka gave the Yankees something they have lacked from a starter lately — length. Manager Joe Girardi had used 35 pitchers over the previous six games in the winning streak, an average of nearly six pitchers per game. This is less taxing on the staff at this time of year when rosters have expanded. Girardi used to beef about September games with uneven roster numbers, but you do not hear him complaining now as his team is trying to pull off an epic comeback.

After giving up a home run to Bobby Wilson and hitting a batter in the eighth, Tanaka came out for Adam Warren, who also plunked a batter before getting a huge double-play grounder from Evan Longoria.

Rays starter Chris Archer, who has been tough on the Yankees (5-2 entering play), fell to 8-18 essentially because of the first three hitters in the lineup. Gardner singled leading off the sixth of what was then a scoreless game.

Ellsbury wears out Archer and did so again with his eighth home run of the season. Sanchez followed with another bomb, his 13th. The trio was at it again in the eighth, this time against lefthander Enny Romero. Gardner singled, Ellsbury doubled and Sanchez was able to reach the first pitch of what was supposed to be the start of an intentional walk for a sacrifice fly to the warning track. Didi Gregorius added another sac fly.

Refsnyder was 0-for-3 but made an important defensive play, a lunging catch in right field to keep the game scoreless in the sixth.

The something old-something new formula had worked in Friday night’s marathon with Sanchez hitting his 12th homer and Mark Teixeira crushing his 11th career grand slam.

Tanaka has won each of his past six decisions over a seven-start stretch since Aug. 7. He is 5-0 with a 2.42 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings seven starts against the Rays, with the Yankees winning each of those starts.

Sanchez is one of five players in major league history with 13 home runs in his first 35 games (also Wally Joyner, Mike Jacobs, Kevin Maas and Wally Berger). Ellsbury is a career .559 hitter against Archer in 34 at-bats. Gardner has multiple hits in each of his past three games with an at-bat (6-for-12). The Yankees are 11-1 when Gardner and Ellsbury each collect at least two hits in the same game.

Yankees to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month

The Yankees announced the organization’s continued celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. As part of this year’s initiative, 10-time Grammy Award-winner Eddie Palmieri will be the special guest in the organization’s monthly Spanish-language press conference at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13.

Also on that date and in association with the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Palmieri will engage fans prior to the Yankees-Dodgers game at the Pepsi Food Court on the third-base side of the Field Level, beginning at 5 p.m. Fans will have the opportunity to take part in salsa lessons courtesy of the Lorenz Latin Dance Studios and ¡Retumba!, a multi-ethnic, all-female music and dance ensemble founded in 1981.

Born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx, Palmieri is one of the most regarded pianists of the past half-century. A bandleader, arranger and composer of salsa and Latin jazz, he is known for his ability to skillfully fuse the rhythms of his Puerto Rican heritage with the complexity of his jazz influences. He transcended the genre in the 1960s and ‘70s with his unconventional style that included mixing American jazz into Afro-Caribbean rhythms. In addition to his 10 Grammy Awards, he has earned numerous other recognitions in his career, including two performances that were recorded by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History for its archives in 1988.

For the first time, a special Hispanic Heritage Month supplement in Spanish has been included in the September edition of Yankees Magazine, the club’s official game-day program. Yankees Magazine has served as the team’s official game-day program since 1980 and has strived to exceed the expectations normally associated with a team-based periodical. The unique September edition of Yankees Magazine continues the publication’s dedication to serve its loyal readers in new and engaging ways. The magazine can be purchased online at http://www.yankees.com/publications and http://www.yankeesbeisbol.com/publicaciones or by phone at 800-GO-YANKS [800-469-2657].

Additional on-field ceremonies will include the Yankees honoring the “Little Yankees” from the youth International Baseball League, the New York League of Puerto Rican Women and the ninth annual Hispanic Heritage Month Community Achievement Awards, which recognizes those who proudly serve the residents of the Bronx in the areas of the arts (Glenda Ifill of the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club), athletics (Aureo Cardona of the Sports Foundation), business (Stephen Stritch of the Mercy Center), education (Ramon Gonzalez of MS 223) and social responsibility (Fabio Cotza of Safe Horizon).

Since mid-August, the Yankees Spanish-language Twitter and Instagram accounts have participated in a special Hispanic Heritage Month ticket giveaway contest. Select fans have won tickets this season to home games during September by posting a picture showcasing their “Yankees Pride” using #YankeesHHM. For more information on the contest and to participate while still applicable, please visit the Twitter and Instagram accounts listed below.

To learn more about these and other events, fans can also visit the team’s official Spanish-language website, http://www.yankeesbeisbol.com and click on the special Hispanic Heritage Month section. While there, fans can also participate in an online sweepstakes for the opportunity to win tickets to the final regular season home game at Yankee Stadium Sunday, Oct. 2 against the Orioles.

Girardi’s hunch to stay with Austin pays big dividend

The Yankees had to wait until two out in the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday night for one of the Baby Bombers to make a major contribution. It turned out to be a big one, an opposite-field home run to right by Tyler Austin that produced a 5-4 victory over the Rays.

Prior to that, the Yankees’ offense was powered by veterans. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury both singled in the first inning and scored on a out-single by Didi Gregorius and an errant pickoff attempt by Rays starter Alex Cobb.

Their other two runs were courtesy of two long home runs by Brian McCann, one into the second deck in the fourth inning and one into the suites section between the second and third decks in the second inning. McCann, who was 3-for-4, is enjoying a .455 homestand with three home runs and five RBI in 11 at-bats.

McCann lost his regular catching job to rookie sensation Gary Sanchez and has not made a peep about all the while contributing in his at-bats as a designated hitter. Mac was back behind the plate Thursday night and did his usual solid job, especially in the fifth when rookie Jonathan Holder nearly balked home the tying run. Mac claimed that Holder was merely requesting to go through the signs again in moving his glove, an argument continued by Girardi, who was able to get plate umpire Mike Everitt to confer with the other umps. The group decision upheld McCann’s point of view, and the Yankees caught a huge break.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi had another veteran available in the dugout as a possible pinch hitter for Austin in the ninth after the Rays brought in righthander Erasmo Ramirez with two outs and none on. Mark Teixeira, with 405 career home runs, was on the bench, but Girardi stayed with Austin.

“I like the way he has been swinging the bat lately,” Girardi said of Austin, who has six hits in the past four games, four of them for extra bases. “With that splitter Ramirez has, right-handed hitters sometimes have an advantage over left-handed hitters.”

The switch-hitting Teixeira would have batted left-handed against Ramirez. Girardi played a hunch, and it paid off.

Girardi had a busy night navigating his pitching staff on a night when relievers Adam Warren, Tyler Clippard and Dellin Betances were virtually unavailable because of heavy recent use. Despite that, the skipper did not hesitate to lift an ineffective CC Sabathia with two on and none out in the fifth.

Sabathia had given up two home runs to Kevin Kiermaier and one to Steven Souza Jr. Holder was also victimized by Souza in the sixth that made the score 4-4, which is where it stayed until Austin came to bat in the ninth. The score remained that way because of the ensemble relief effort of Chasen Shreve, Blake Parker, Kirby Yates and Tommy Layne.

The Yanks’ fifth straight victory pushed their record to a season-high nine games over .500 at 74-65 as they leaped over another club, the Astros, in the sweepstakes for the second Wild Card slot. The Yankees had already sped by the Mariners and the Royals and now have their sights set on the Orioles (two games behind) and the Tigers (one game behind). Baltimore and Detroit were not scheduled Thursday night.

Neither was Boston, so the Yankees picked up a half-game on the American League East leader and are only four games out of first place in the division.

Yankees get over the three-game series sweep hump

Finally.

The Yankees found a way to sweep a three-game series — just make sure the other team does not score. Wednesday night marked the eighth time this season that the Yankees went into the finale of a three-game series after having won the first two games and the first time they completed a sweep.

They have had two sweeps of four games and one of two games this season, but it took me them until their 34th three-game series of the season to sweep an opponent, and not just any opponent but the team that came to town Monday night in first place in the American League East.

The Yankees cost the Blue Jays sole possession of the top spot earlier in the series as the Red Sox moved into a first-place tie. A possible Boston victory later Wednesday night at San Diego could have shoved Toronto into second place.

Meanwhile, up, up, up go the Yankees in the AL East standings and the wild card race. Should the Red Sox have also lost, the Yanks would have been only 3 1/2 games out of first place. As for the wild card scenario, the Orioles, Tigers and Astros all lost, so the Yankees trail Baltimore by 2 1/2 games, Detroit by 1 1/2 and Houston by 1/2. Tight, tight, tight.

The Yankees have won 10 of their past 14 games, 17 of their past 26 and are 29-21 since the All-Star break. Not bad for a club that dealt its three best players before the Aug. 1 non-waiver trading deadline and bid three-time AL MVP Alex Rodriguez farewell Aug. 12. The Yankees are 14-9 in the post-A-Rod era.

The vacancies have been filled by energetic pitchers and hitters up from the organization-wide success in the minor leagues. Two of the youth corps, Bryan Mitchell and Luis Severino, combined for eight scoreless innings in Wednesday night’s 2-0 victory.

The Yankees got both runs after two were out in the third off Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman. Starlin Castro slammed his 20th home run of the season. Didi Gregorius doubled into the left field corner and scored following a walk to Mark Teixeira on a single by Brian McCann. Castro’s homer was hits 20th, a career high. He is the fourth Yankees second baseman with a 20-homer season. Robinson Cano did it five times, Hall of Famer Joe Gordon four and Alfonso Soriano two.

Mitchell probably would have broken camp with the Yankees in April, but a left toe tear kept him on the disabled list until last month when he worked his way back with Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The righthander pitched one batter into the sixth and allowed four hits and two walks with two strikeouts before turning matters over to Severino.

Yankees officials still consider Severino a starter, but he has been far more effective as a reliever this year. The numbers do not lie. With three more scoreless, one-hit, one-walk, three-strikeout innings, Severino is 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in 14 1/3 innings out of the bullpen. As a starter, Severino was 0-8 with an 8.58 ERA in 43 innings.

Manager Joe Girardi’s plan was to have Severino available to support Mitchell (1-0), and it worked perfectly. Tyler Clippard worked a perfect ninth with two strikeouts for his second save.

More AL East competition is coming up with the last-place Rays coming to Yankee Stadium for a four-game set starting Thursday night. And just when the Yanks were getting a hand of this three-game series stuff.

AL East title getting within Yanks’ reach

The way the Yankees are playing perhaps a wild card berth is not all they are playing for while they also break in some youngsters. The American League East title is not out of the question for the Yankees, who find themselves only four games behind the first-place Blue Jays in the loss column after Tuesday night’s come-from-behind and sweat-to-stay-ahead, 7-6 victory.

The Yankees have pushed themselves into the divisional race as well as the wild-card chase while at the same time giving vital playing time to a collection of rookies. Luis Cessa had his fourth straight impressive start (two earned runs in 5 2/3 innings), and Tyler Austin celebrated his 25th birthday with a two-run home run into the right-center field bleachers that gave the Yankees a momentary lead in the seventh inning.

Toronto regained the lead in the eighth on a two-run double by Kevin Pillar off yet another Yankees rookie, Ben Heller, one of eight pitchers employed by manager Joe Girardi in the game. He has stayed true to his belief that the Yankees can be contenders and rebuilders at the same time.

Several veterans came through big-time in the bottom of the eighth after Toronto starter Aaron Sanchez turned a 4-3 lead over to Jason Grilli, who opened the door with a leadoff walk to Jacoby Ellsbury. One out later, Didi Gregorius tripled to tie the score. He scored the go-ahead run on a fly ball by Starlin Castro. Another walk by Grilli, to Brian McCann, who had homered earlier, was pivotal because Chase Headley followed with his 13th home run of the season.

And those runs proved necessary because Dellin Betances in trying to nail down his 10th save simply did not have it. He began the ninth with two walks, uncorked a wild pitch and gave up two infield singles that reduced the Yankees’ lead to one run and prompted Girardi to reach out to another reliever.

Blake Parker picked up his first save for the Yankees but had to share it with Brett Gardner. After Parker struck out Pillar looking for the second out, Justin Smoak threatened to break the game open for the Jays with a drive to deep left where Gardner leaped at the wall, crashed into it but held onto the ball, then checked his glove to make sure it did not fall out.

It was an incredible end to an incredible game in a season that the Yankees hope has an incredible finish. They have not swept a three-game series all season. Wednesday would be the perfect time to pick up their first.

Gardner Yanks’ nominee for Clemente Award

Brett Gardner is the Yankees’ nominee for the 2016 Roberto Clemente Award and will be recognized before Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium as part of the 15th annual Roberto Clemente Day.

The award has been presented annually since 1971 and named for the Hall of Fame outfielder two years later after his death in a plane crash while on a mission to Nicaragua to aid victims of an earthquake. The Roberto Clemente Award recognizes a player from each major league club who “best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.”

Gardner was a charter member of the Taylor Hooton Foundation’s Advisory Board to educate youth about performance-enhancing drugs. The left fielder’s extensive community outreach also notably includes heavy involvement with the Ronald McDonald House in both New York and his home state of South Carolina.

Yankees winners of the award were Derek Jeter in 2009, Don Baylor in 1985 and Ron Guidry in 1984.

The Yankees’ top-five minor league affiliates all qualified for the 2016 postseason in their respective leagues: Triple-A Scranton/WB (91-52), Double-A Trenton (87-55), Single-A Tampa (77-58), Single-A Charleston (76-63) and Short-season Single-A Staten Island (44-31). The Yankees are one of two organizations whose minor league affiliates qualified for the postseason at all four full-season levels. The other is the Mariners. The Yankees’ four Yankees affiliates combined for a 331-228 (.592) record.

It is getting awfully tight in the AL East

After playing .500 ball (3-3) on their trip to Kansas City and Baltimore, the Yankees got off to a strong start on the next to last homestand of the season. A 5-3 victory over the Blue Jays kept the Yankees 3 1/2 games behind the Orioles for the second wild card playoff berth and also moved them to 5 1/2 games of first place in the American League East.

That is still a lot of ground to make up with 26 games remaining in the regular season, but all but three of them are against teams in their own division, including six against the Blue Jays, whose hold on first place is teetering. The Red Sox, who had a late afternoon game at San Diego, were in position to tie Toronto for the division lead, and the Orioles are only two games back. It is getting tight in the division in the final month.

After doing the near impossible by failing to get a single extra-base hit in three games over the weekend at hitter-friendly Camden Yards, the Yankees broke out of that spell Monday at Yankee Stadium.

Jacoby Ellsbury ended the 27-inning, 89-at-bat extra-base hitless streak with a two-run home run in the first inning off knuckleballer R.A. Dickey that erased a 1-0 Yankees deficit. That was the first of three hits in the game for Ellsbury, who did not start in Sunday’s series finale at Baltimore.

Rookie first baseman Tyler Austin doubled leading off the third and scored on a one-out single by Ellsbury. Austin got another double with two out in the fourth, and that one sent home two runners and essentially ended the day for Dickey, who got the final out that inning but did not return for the fifth.

The return of extra-base power provided sufficient support for Masahiro Tanaka, who improved his record to 12-4. Although he told reporters after the game that he did not have his best stuff, Tanaka allowed only two runs over 6 1/3 innings. He did give up seven hits and three walks, but the Blue Jays were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position against him and 2-for-9 for the game.

Toronto also ran into some outs. Catcher Gary Sanchez threw out Melvin Upton Jr. trying to steal second base in the fourth. Jose Bautista inexplicably tried to go from first to third on a single to left by Edwin Encarnacion the next inning and was easy prey for Brett Gardner for the third out.

The Yankees sweated through the seventh inning when the Jays loaded the bases on three walks, one by Tanaka and two by rookie Jonathan Holder. Encarnacion’s third hit of the game was a single to right off another rookie, Ben Heller, that scored two runs. Tommy Layne, the Yanks’ fourth pitcher of the inning, prevented further damage by retiring pinch hitter Russell Martin on an infield fly.

Tyler Clippard retired the side in order in the eighth, and Dellin Betances did the same in the ninth for his ninth save in 10 tries since becoming the closer July 31. Betances has allowed only two earned runs in 30 1/3 innings (0.59 ERA) at the Stadium this year.

In 21 appearances since the All-Star break, Betances has given up two earned runs in 22 innings (0.82 ERA) with eight hits allowed, 10 walks and 34 strikeouts. He leads major-league relievers in K’s with 114. Betances led all relievers in strikeouts the previous two seasons with 131 last year and 135 in 2014. This is the first season in Yankees history in which three pitchers had at least nine saves apiece. Andrew Miller, now with the Indians, also had nine, and Aroldis Chapman, now with the Cubs, had 20.

Three walks were unusual for Tanaka, considering that he walked only one batter total in six August starts covering 39 innings. The Japanese righthander is 5-0 with a 2.08 ERA over his past six starts and has won five consecutive decisions for the first time since May 25 through June 17, 2014. Tanaka, who has a career record of 6-3 with a 2.34 ERA against the Blue Jays, is 4-1 with a 2.14 ERA in nine starts totaling 59 innings against AL East clubs this year.

The Yankees have scored exactly five runs in five of their past seven games and nine of 15 since Aug. 20.