September 2010

Vazquez comes up small

If Javier Vazquez was pitching Wednesday night for a spot on the Yankees’ post-season roster – and he almost certainly was – it was not an ideal audition in Toronto. The Yankees showed they placed value on the game by starting an 80-percent A-list lineup on the night after clinching a playoff berth.

Manager Joe Girardi decided to hold Andy Pettitte back to Friday night at Boston and handed the ball to Vazquez, who began the season in the rotation but eventually pitched himself into the second tier of the bullpen because of too many outings that resembled this last start. The Blue Jays jumped on Vazquez for seven runs and 10 hits, including three home runs, in 4 2/3 innings. Javy walked two batters, threw a wild pitch and had no strikeouts, but at least he did not hit any batters as he did in his previous appearance Sunday night when he plunked three Red Sox in a row.

Girardi still has decisions to make about his post-season staff, but it would appear the locks are starters CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett and relievers David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, Kerry Wood and Mariano Rivera. Assuming that the Yankees will go with an 11-man staff, that would leave two openings with the candidates being Vazquez, Chad Gaudin, Sergio Mitre, Dustin Moseley, Ivan Nova and Royce Ring.

Perhaps I am making a big assumption about Burnett, who has been horrid in the second half, but the Yankees will need four starters. There has been some good talk about Nova, but he is a rookie with no post-season experience. As inconsistent as A.J. has been, his track record is superior to the others, including Vazquez, who did not advance his case in the 8-4 loss to the Blue Jays.

There is a good chance the Yankees will take several looks this week at Ring, who spent most of the year at Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre but has big-league experience and would give Girardi a second left-handed option out of the pen along with Logan, an option most managers would love. Ring retired the only batter he faced Wednesday night. The most impressive inning from an auditioning pitcher was by Mitre, who struck out the side in the eighth.

Vazquez needed to prove he can be an effective innings soaker but was little more than a punching bag and put the Yankees in a 7-0 hole in the fifth. Like many other games this September, the Yankees had to go uphill throughout the evening.

Toronto lefthander Brett Cecil shut them down for five innings before making the mistake of hitting Robinson Cano with a pitch after Alex Rodriguez had homered leading off the sixth. That’s 14 seasons of at least 30 homers and 100 RBI for A-Rod. The Yankees tagged Cecil for two more runs, but the rally died on a double play. The Jays hung on to improve Cecil’s record against the Yankees this year to 4-0 with a 2.67 ERA, which is Roy Halladay territory.

The loss ruined the Yankees’ opportunity to move ahead of the Rays in the American League East standings. Tampa Bay maintains a one-game edge in the loss column.

No hangover lineup for Yanks

Yankees manager Joe Girardi kept good his pledge to go for the American League East title. The starting lineup Wednesday night at Toronto was proof positive that clinching a post-season berth was not an end all.

It was not your usual hangover lineup on games following a clincher when regulars normally are on the bench and backups fill most of the slots. The only regulars sitting were catcher Jorge Posada and outfielders Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner, primarily because the Blue Jays started a lefthander, Brett Cecil.

The only difference from prior plans was to skip Andy Pettitte and go with Javier Vazquez on the mound. Pettitte was pushed back to Friday night at Fenway Park. A.J. Burnett will start Saturday against the Red Sox. Girardi was non-committal beyond that saying only “Mr. TBA,” as in “To Be Announced,” will start Sunday’s season finale.

There was also no indication from the manager about a post-season rotation except that CC Sabathia will definitely start Game 1. Girardi said he could not be more forthcoming because it is still not known who their opponent will be in the Division Series. That won’t be decided until the AL East standings are settled. They will play one of the other two division winners, the Twins (Central) or the Rangers (West), because teams in the same division cannot oppose each other in the ALDS.

The Yankees have an uphill climb to finish first in the East and have a shot at home-field advantage throughout the ALDS and the AL Championship Series. They were a game behind Tampa Bay in the loss column entering play Wednesday night. The Yankees will have an open date Thursday while the Rays, who ended their home schedule against the Orioles, open a four-game set against the Royals in Kansas City.

Tampa Bay won the season series against the Yankees, 10-8, so the Bombers essentially need to run the table and hope the Rays lost at least two of the next five games to get back into first place by season’s end. It is not out of the question, but it will not be a cakewalk, either.

At least they are giving it a good try.

One goal achieved, one to go

Okay, now Yankees manager Joe Girardi can rest all the regulars he wants and not have to hear any questions about it. The American League East title is still the Yankees’ ultimate goal, but they have clinched a playoff spot, which is the first step.

Now it’s strictly between them and the Rays, who also clinched a post-season berth and remained a half-game ahead of the Yankees in first place, to determine the division championship. The Red Sox are officially out of the picture after having threatened to get back into the wild-card mix as recently as last Saturday night.

All year long, Girardi has said the Yankees and Tampa Bay would take this race down to the wire, so here they are. The Yankees placed their foot on the accelerator Sunday night by starting Phil Hughes over Dustin Moseley and overcoming a blown save opportunity by the normally invincible Mariano Rivera by returning the favor to Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon.

After hitting a pothole Monday night in Toronto, the Yankees rode the reliable left arm of AL Cy Young Award candidate CC Sabathia Tuesday night to win handily against the Blue Jays with Rivera returning to form by nailing down the final two outs.

An indication of how much the Yankees wanted to erase that magic number came in the third inning when Nick Swisher, who has whacked 28 home runs this season, laid down a sacrifice bunt that moved Derek Jeter to third base. The captain led off the inning with a walk and advanced to second on a wild pitch by Kyle Drabek. Swish’s bunt made it possible for Mark Teixeira to score Jeter with a fly ball.

Up by four runs in the ninth and with runners on first and second with none out, Brett Gardner bunted down the third base line for a single that loaded the bases. It led to a score on Greg Golson’s first career run batted in.

This was 1960s National League stuff. The Yankees were not going to rely on the long ball, not against a Toronto club that leads the majors in home runs. In fact, the Yankees did not have an RBI hit in the game. Their six runs were the result of three sacrifice flies (Teixeria, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano), a fielder’s choice (Jeter), an infield out (Golson) and a bases-loaded walk (Rodriguez).

Sabathia personified the staff ace with 8 1/3 innings of one-run, three-hit, eight-strikeout pitching to improve his record to 21-7 with a 3.18 ERA. Travis Snider’s 12th home run was the lone blemish. No other Blue Jays hitter got to second base until the ninth inning when Snider singled and Yunel Escobar walked. CC kept Juan Bautista in the yard for the first out before Girardi brought in Mo to finish it off.

Rivera had said last week that he didn’t think the Yankees would overdo it celebrating clinching a post-season berth. Wrong. The champagne and beer were spraying in the visitors’ clubhouse at Rogers Centre after the game. It was only a sip, however. The rest of the week will determine whether the Yankees will be able to gulp by taking the AL East title.

Yanks got last licks on Ted

There were reminisces aplenty about Tuesday’s 50th anniversary of Ted Williams’ final at-bat in the major leagues in which he hit a home run, career No. 521, which at the time was the third highest total in history behind only Babe Ruth (714) and Jimmie Foxx (534). A lot has changed in half a century. Teddy Ballgame now stands in a three-way tie with Willie McCovey and Frank Thomas for 18th place, and Barry Bonds (762) and Hank Aaron (755) have long since passed the Babe.

As for what Williams did his last time up in the big leagues, thousands of words have been written about the grand style in which he ended his career by lofting one into the right field seats at Fenway Park. That is all well and good, but for me that is just the usual batch of Red Sox Nation tripe.

I have a personal beef about the whole matter from the mindset of a pre-teen who got stood up by the guy they called the “Splendid Splinter.” He wasn’t much of a splinter by then, nor at 42 did he fit his other nickname, “The Kid,” and from my point of view he damn sure wasn’t splendid.

Here’s why. Do you know what little piece of information all those Boston boors leave out of their Teddy’s last at-bat stories? How about this: nobody in the yard knew it was Williams’ last at-bat until after the game. That’s right. The Red Sox still had three more games to play, at Yankee Stadium, but after the game Williams told the writers that he wasn’t going to New York. The Yankees had already clinched the American League pennant, the Red Sox had been dead meat for a month, so there was no point in his making the trip.

Now doesn’t take a bit of the bite out of that story. I mean, it would have rung truer if he had told the press before the game that he wasn’t playing any more. To Red Sox fans, this was the perfect ending to a Hall of Fame career by admittedly one of the game’s greatest hitters. But to Yankees fans holding tickets to games that weekend, it was a big gyp. The only allure of the series was to see Williams bow out, not watch Carroll Hardy in left field.

My uncle, Bill Gallagher, had gotten tickets for the Friday night game Sept. 30, 1960, and we talked about Williams on the ride to the Stadium. I was really into baseball in those days and was amazed at how vital the two great aging stars of that time, Williams and Stan Musial, still were. Musial, in fact, would play three more seasons, and I would get to see him three home runs in one game at the Polo Grounds in 1963 when he was 42.

God bless Casey Stengel, then in his last year as manager of the Yankees. Although the Yankees were already set for the World Series, ‘ol Case started his regular lineup. Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and the rest. The Red Sox? No Ted Williams. What?

Unlike today’s 24/7 media whirlwind, information from out of town came slowly in those days. A man sitting in the seat next to Uncle Bill said that he heard that Williams decided not to accompany the team to town. Truth be told, I had not been much of a Yankees fan to that point in my life, but I cheered my head off for them that night. To make matters worse, the Red Sox almost won the game.

What follows comes from my old, pencil-scribbled scorecard, boys and girls (I still score in pencil).

Bill Monbouquette, a wonderful guy whom I would get to know more than 20 years later when he was the pitching coach for the Mets, was Boston’s best pitcher and took a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but he was replaced by lefthander Tom Brewer after Bobby Richardson led off with a single. Brewer gave up a single to Gil McDougald, and the Yankees had a rally going.

Tony Kubek, another terrific person I would get to know years later, flied out, but Hector Lopez and Maris followed with singles to tie the score and put runners on first and third. Mantle had come out of the game earlier, and his spot in the lineup was taken by Bob Cerv, the thickly-built, right-handed hitter.

Boston manager Pinky Higgins brought in a right-handed pitcher I had never heard of, but a year later he would almost be a household name – Tracy Stallard, the guy who gave up Maris’ 61st home run. On this night, Stallard would be done in by his second baseman, a September callup named Marlan Coughtry. Thanks to him, I learned something important about the game – the need to remain calm in a crisis.

Cerv hit a grounder to Coughtry, who considering Cerv’s lack of speed should have thrown to second base to start a double play. Instead, he decided to tag Maris in the base path and then throw to first. Maris, who never got enough credit for being a heads-up player, put on the brakes and went into reverse. Coughtry took the bait. Lopez broke for the plate. The rookie tagged Maris eventually for the second out but in hesitating lost any chance to get the third out as Lopez scored the winning run.

Talk about a satisfying finish! It made me forget all about Ted Williams, who insulted baseball fans in New York so that he could have all his Beantown acolytes wax poetic about his going deep in his last big-league plate appearance.

Burnett unfixable at this point

The drill has been going on since June when A.J. Burnett’s season began to come apart. His stuff is too good for him not to be able to turn it around, so many people around the Yankees kept saying. Except for a brief period in June, it has been the same, tortuous trek for a pitcher the Yankees have invested $82.5 million over a five-year contract that is in its second year.

It’s a good thing the Yankees pulled out that victory Sunday night against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium or there would have been a lot more hand wringing around the team Monday night at Rogers Centre while watching Burnett get torched often and early in another horrible outing.

About the only positive for Burnett was keeping fence-buster Juan Bautista in the yard, although the slugger knocked in Toronto’s first run with an infield out in the first inning. A leadoff home run by John Buck in the second was an ominous sign, and matters got really ugly in the third.

A.J. opened the inning with a walk and a hit batter, and one out later surrendered a bomb of a three-run home run to Vernon Wells, the first of four straight well-struck hits that knocked Burnett out of the game. It continued a messy string of 11 starts for the righthander over the past two months in which he had pitched to a 6.98 ERA allowing 46 earned runs, 70 hits and 26 walks in 59 1/3 innings. He is 1-7 and the Yankees 2-9 in those starts.

The Yankees didn’t do much but strike out early on. Blue Jays starter Marc Rzepczynski, who was racked by the Yankees in two previous starts (14.14 ERA), had nine punchouts over the first four innings. A two-run home run by Curtis Granderson in the fifth off Rzepczynski and a three-run shot by Mark Teixeira in the seventh off Brian Tallet were still not enough to lift the Yankees out of the seven-run hole in which Burnett dumped them.

You hear people say that the Yankees need to straighten Burnett out, but isn’t it a bit late for that? What can possibly happen in one more start to make anyone think that the team won’t be walking a tightrope with Burnett in the post-season, which is just around the corner?

The Yankees will not have the luxury of a year ago in getting away with three starters for the duration. They will need four this time. Burnett was one of the three lasts year and had a huge victory in Game 2 of the World Series after the Phillies had beaten CC Sabathia in Game 1.

Monday night was a big game, too. The Yankees could have moved back into first place over the Rays, losers at home to the Orioles. Burnett came up small again. It is almost unfathomable to believe a starter on this team can have a 10-15 record, but only if you have not watched Burnett pitch.

Jeter is all about winning

Sunday night’s victory, one of the biggest of the season for the Yankees, provided Derek Jeter yet another milestone in his remarkable career. The captain was hitless in four at-bats as his season-high, 14-game hitting streak came to an end.

But when Brett Gardner touched the plate on the bases-loaded walk to Juan Miranda in the 10th inning to give the Yankees a 4-3 decision over the Red Sox, Jeter became the winningest player in the history of the winningest team in baseball.

Jeter, who already has the distinction of having the most hits for a player in a Yankees uniform, the most hits of any player at the old Yankee Stadium and the most hits of a player on any of the New York City teams, has been on the winning side of 1,377 games with the Yankees. That broke the tie he had shared with Mickey Mantle, who went to the World Series in 12 of his 18 seasons with the Yankees.

In 1968, his final season in the majors, Mantle broke the previous mark of 1,323 winning games with the Yankees by Lou Gehrig, who had held the record for nearly 30 years. The Mick ended up holding it for almost 42 years.

I did a lengthy interview in 1982 with Mantle, who told me that he considered his greatest achievement was playing in more games than anyone in Yankees history: 2,401. Monday night’s game at Toronto was Jeter’s 2,291st. There is an excellent chance that he will overtake Mickey in that category sometime next season.


Yanks turn to Hughes

Let’s not go so far as to call it a panic move. It is fair to call it recognition by Yankees manager Joe Girardi that his team is in trouble. It does not take a Rhodes Scholar to figure that out. Having lost 13 of their past 19 games, falling out of first place and having the Red Sox breathing down their backs, the Yankees needed a quality pitching effort more than anything Sunday night, and Phil Hughes is certainly a safer bet than Dustin Moseley.

Hughes was originally skipped in the rotation and pushed back to Wednesday night at Toronto. That was before the Yankees lost four straight games, however, and started watching the regular season get away from them. A playoff berth is all but assured, but the American League East title remains the stated mission. The Yankees need to get back on track, so never mind for now about Hughes’ innings total.

If he can pitch the Yankees to victory in the regular-season finale at Yankee Stadium and pick up game on the Rays, who lost to the Mariners in the afternoon, Hughes can take the rest of the week off.

Yanks clinched trying to clinch

For so long we heard about how the Yankees were playing not for the American League East title and not just to clinch a post-season berth, which seemed inevitable only four short days ago. Mariano Rivera was even quoted in the New York Post as saying that the players would not celebrate clinching a playoff spot but to wait until they had clinched the division title.

It is beginning to look as if they wait that long the Yankees would sip any champagne at all.

That was the situation they found themselves in Saturday night after a second straight loss to the Red Sox following two straight losses to the Rays, who have overtaken the Yankees for the AL East lead and are amid playing a string of games against last-place teams while the Bombers are matched against their hated rivals this weekend and next with a stop in unfriendly Toronto in between.

Saturday’s game followed the same pattern as Friday night’s. The Yankees fell behind by a lot early and had to claw back into the game while counting on the second tier of the bullpen to keep matters close. It didn’t work either time.

Not even a pep talk from Tony Dungy could help. I must say that I was a bit skeptical about that. Yankees manager Joe Girardi is a long-time admirer of Dungy and was gratified to have the former NFL coach and current TV analyst say a few words, which centered on the attributes of family, faith and sticking together as a team when the going gets rough.

I admit I don’t know all that much about pro football, but I seem to remember that Dungy was the coach of a Colts team that had a chance to run the table a few years ago but tanked the last game to have players fresh for the playoffs. Was that justified when they won it all? Not to me. Did the Colts win the Super Bowl because they had rested players or BECAUSE THEY HAD PEYTON MANNING?

At least Dungy’s Indianapolis football players had their playoff berth clinched before taking a blow in the final game. The Yankees haven’t clinched anything, although we all know it would take a miracle for the Red Sox to get back into the wild-card mix. Despite winning the past two nights, they are still 5 ½ games behind the Yankees with eight to play.

Yet the reason for that partially has been the Yankees’ lack of going for the jugular by using lineups minus resting veterans and not over-taxing bullpen arms. Sunday’s starting pitcher is Dustin Moseley, not Phil Hughes. Girardi defends his maneuvering by saying that he has managed the same way all season. On that score he is correct, and on that defense the Yankees’ case rests.

Yankees fans surely remember the September collapse the team had in 2000 when a pitching staff breakdown led to their losing 15 of their last 18 games and wheezing to the playoffs with 87 victories. That they ended up winning the World Series has been used as a sign of encouragement for the fans.

But this is a different team – older at many of the positions and a pitching staff with as many growing question marks. The wild card may not be the Yankees’ only ticket to the post-season, which would mean needing to have CC Sabathia win two games on the road rather than giving him the luxury of starting at Yankee Stadium where he has been mostly dazzling for two years.

CC won’t like this, by the way, but Red Sox lefthander Jon Lester improved his Cy Young Award credentials with seven shutout innings in improving his record to 19-8 with a 2.96 ERA.

What seems missing in this series from the Yankees is the passion and grit of a team trying to nail down a playoff spot.

Who knows? Maybe it’s contagious. In the seventh inning, Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli leaned over the railing of the Red Sox dugout to try for a foul ball. Cervelli would have crashed to the floor but was held up by Boston pitching coach John Farrell, catcher Victor Martinez and outfielder Daniel Nava. Martinez then lifted Cervelli back onto the field unharmed.

Somehow, I don’t think the Red Sox of old would have done that for Thurman Munson.

Bruising inning for Kearns

The sixth inning Saturday was an adventurous one for Austin Kearns, who heard equal measures of cheers and boos from the sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium.

Back in the lineup after missing five games because of a bruised left elbow, Kearns played left field and had the crowd on its feet when he crashed into the auxiliary scoreboard in hauling down a drove by the Red Sox’ Lars Anderson. The play saved at least one run as Boston had runners on first and second at the time.

Following the old baseball cliché of a player who makes a dazzling play in the field leading off the next at-bat for his team, Kearns was first up in the bottom of the sixth against Jon Lester, who was still working on a no-hitter. Kearns drew a walk and moved across to second on Curtis Granderson’s slow grounder to the right side.

Francisco Cervelli then got the Yankees’ first hit, which put Kearns in a quandary. He was midway between second and third bases as Red Sox left fielder Daniel Nava raced in attempting to catch Cervelli’s dying quail. Nava slid on the grass trying for the catch, but the ball bounced off his glove for a single.

Kearns, fearing the ball might be caught, had headed back to second base so as not to get doubled up when the ball fell free. He had no time to make a U-turn and try to get to third as Nava got the ball back to the infield promptly.

Derek Jeter followed with another single, a hard grounder into left field. Nava again charged the ball quickly and made a strong throw to the plate to throw out Kearns by a wide margin. The same player who was embraced loudly by the crowd only a few minutes earlier was dissed as he headed back to the dugout.

Same guys, different time

Friday night’s pairing of Yankees lefthander Andy Pettitte and Red Sox righthander Josh Beckett was a rematch of Game 6 of the 2003 World Series. That was during Pettitte’s first tour with the Yankees, and Beckett was then a young turk with the Marlins.

The Yankees have had their way this year with Beckett, who was 0-2 with an 11.17 ERA in four starts against them. It would be a different story Friday night. Beckett took a 9-7 career mark against the Yankees into the game despite a 6.23 ERA. Those numbers do not reflect post-season play.

Beckett’s shining moment against the Yankees came in that Series showdown with Pettitte. Beckett pitched a five-hit shutout to close out the Series for Florida. The third baseman for the Marlins that night was playing first base for the Red Sox Friday night – Mike Lowell, who took a nasty shot in the head on Curtis Granderson’s single in the fifth but stayed in the game. With the Red Sox comfortably ahead at that point, Lowell left the game the next inning.

Pettitte wasn’t shabby, either. He gave up two runs (one earned), six hits and three walks with seven strikeouts in seven innings in what at the time was his last appearance in a Yankees uniform.

Andy moved on to the Astros in 2004. I recall a one-on-one interview I had with him that spring training on a hot afternoon in Kissimmee, Fla. He told me that he never had better stuff than he had that night and that it was his greatest disappointment that he could not get the Yankees to a Game 7. It was a far better Game 6 for Pettitte in 2003 than it had been in 2001 when the Diamondbacks cleaned his clock and forced a Game 7 that the Yankees lost in the ninth inning.

Beckett was a pretty cocky guy in those days, for someone so young. Much was made in that Series about how green the Marlins were compared to the veteran Yankees. It was suggested that the youngsters would be intimidated by the ghosts of Yankee Stadium.

When asked about having to pitch on the same ground where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle all played, Beckett shrugged and said, “I ain’t pitching against those guys; they’re dead.”

That was then, and this is now. Pettitte’s outing Friday night was more reminiscent of 2001 than 2003. The Red Sox battered him for seven runs (six earned) and 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings. Andy gave up hits to six of seven hitters in the fourth when manager Joe Girardi decided to get him out of there.