October 2010

Time to take chances

If the Yankees are guilty of anything in the American League Championship Series other than not winning games is that they have not “taken the game” to the Rangers. Except for that five-run eighth inning in Game 1 that featured vintage Yankees resiliency, they have not displayed much aggression, especially on the bases.

That was what made their third-inning outburst in the second inning of Game 5 so satisfying. Texas starter C.J. Wilson’s leadoff walk to Alex Rodriguez opened the door, and the Yankees simply ran through it to build a 3-0 lead.

After a one-out walk to Lance Berkman, Jorge Posada drew first blood for the Yanks with a ground single to left. Curtis Granderson followed with another single, to right-center, and the race was on.

Berkman scored, and Posada, of all people, got daring on the bases by lowering his head and heading for third. We have all seen Jorgie, one of the slowest runners in baseball, get thrown out on the bases often enough to ruin rallies, so you almost wanted to close your eyes.

This time, his movements helped lead to the third run. Right fielder Jeff Francoeur saw the chance for an easy out and fired to third, but the ball went wide to the right past third baseman Michael Young. Not content just to get to third, Posada kept on going and was off for the plate.

Wilson, backing up the play, got the ball after it caromed off the screen in front of the visitors’ dugout screen and air-mailed a toss home over catcher Bengie Molina.

This is what aggressive base running can produce – pressure on fielders. Down 3-1 in the series entering the game, the Yankees had nothing to lose and everything to gain by putting a bit of daring in their game.

Berkman was at first base in place of Mark Teixeira, who is done for the season after straining his right hamstring in Game 4 Wednesday night. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after the game that Teixeira told him he “heard a pop” in the hamstring. Teixeira said Thursday that he did not hear a pop. Pop or no pop, the prognosis was that it will take from six to eight weeks for the condition to repair.

The Yankees added Eduardo Nunez to the active roster, a move that means Teixeria cannot return to action should the Yankees advance to the World Series.

There was nearly another first base casualty in the fourth when Berkman slipped and fell on the dirt in front of the photographers’ well tracking a foul ball by Ian Kinsler. Berkman lay prone for about a minute, then got to his feet and returned to the field. The Yankees are already running out of games. They don’t want to run out of players, too.

Yanks look to storied past

The Yankees went deep into the well Wednesday for a couple of former players to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium, which had the potential to be the last home game of the season for the Bombers since they trailed Texas 3-1 in the best-of-7 series.

None other than Aaron Boone and Bucky Dent, who hit two of the most dramatic home runs for the Yankees, were called on for the duty. Boone’s 11th-inning home run off Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS at the Stadium won the pennant for the Yankees.

Dent’s three-run home run in the seventh inning of the 1978 playoff game at Fenway Park against the Red Sox’ Mike Torrez gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in a game they won, 5-4, to clinch the AL East title. It was not a post-season home run since divisional playoff games are considered part of the regular season.

Derek Jeter liked to talk about how “the ghosts” would come out late in post-season games at the old Stadium. The Yankees can’t be sure if the ghosts have made their way across 161st Street, so they relied on living examples of the durable past.

The only Yankees team to have rebounded from a 3-1 deficit in games to win a best-of-7 series was in the 1958 World Series against the Milwaukee Braves. The Yankees’ catcher was Yogi Berra, who was also at the Stadium Wednesday. That was only the second time in history that a club had done that in the World Series and the first since the Pittsburgh Pirates came back against the Washington Senators in 1925.

Counting the World Series and the Championship Series, the feat has been accomplished 11 times. The list includes the 2004 ALCS when the Red Sox overcame a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees, the only time that has ever happened, but Yankees fans don’t want to think about that.

The only other time the Yankees trailed 3-1 was in the 1942 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals 3-1, who won the fifth game to take the Series. Yankees fans didn’t want to think about that, either.

Yankees closer Mariano Rivera said that there was a brief team meeting after Tuesday night’s loss at which only manager Joe Girardi spoke. “Whatever happened there, I will never tell you,” Mo said, adhering to the code of the clubhouse.

“We are down 3-1, but we still haven’t lost yet,” Rivera added. “So with that in mind, we just have to play one game at a time. So the message is that we just play hard today and forget about tomorrow. Let’s focus on what we have to do today. And it we do that, I think the team that we have is enough to win today. We haven’t finished yet.”

Yanks facing possible elimination

Give A.J. Burnett a D. I think that is fair. I know it is kind.

He was working on a C Tuesday night in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series before his outing came apart in the sixth inning when he lost the sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium that had been supporting him from the first pitch.

Fans knew the importance of this game and decided to get behind the righthander who had pitched so erratically during the regular season.

In the end, Burnett’s performance was a microcosm of his season. He blew both leads the Yankees gave him and was cascaded with boos as he walked off the mound in the sixth only moments after giving up a three-run home run to Bengie Molina. Last year, another of the Molina brothers, Jose, had been an ally of Burnett’s as his regular catcher.

But not this Molina, whose drive into the left field lower stands was on the pitch after an intentional walk to David Murphy and gave the Rangers a 5-3 lead. Setting up the situation was heads-up base running by Nelson Cruz, who advanced from first to second base tagging up after a flyout to deep center by Ian Kinsler. That opened first base for the intentional walk to Murphy.

Burnett’s line: 6 innings, 6 hits, 5 runs, 5 earned runs, 3 bases on balls (1 intentional), 4 strikeouts, 1 wild pitch, 1 hit batter, 1 home run, 1 stolen base allowed. Doesn’t that all look familiar?

The crowd’s anger toward Burnett seemed to spill over to manager Joe Girardi, whose unrewarded faith in the pitcher put him in the fans’ crosshairs. It didn’t help that he brought in lefthander Boone Logan to pitch to left-swinging Josh Hamilton, who slugged his third home run of the ALCS. His fourth of the series and second of the game would come in the ninth when Texas piled on three more runs off Sergio Mitre in the 10-3 victory that has pushed the Rangers within one victory of the World Series.

Before then, the Yankees came close to having an opening in the eighth inning against the same four pitchers they staged that five-run, eighth-inning rally in Game 1. They loaded the bases on walks, but once again could not come up with the big hit. Nick Swisher popped out behind second base, and Lance Berkman hit a scorching grounder to third baseman Michael Young, who picked it in a way that he did not against Alex Rodriguez in Game 1.

Derek Holland got a well-deserved victory with 3 2/3 innings of impressive relief. He stopped the bleeding in the fourth inning when the Yankees regained the lead against starter Tommy Hunter, pitched out of jam in the fifth and retired the side in order the next two innings before departing after a leadoff walk of Curtis Granderson in the eighth.

The Yankees need CC Sabathia Wednesday in Game 5 to pitch them to Texas. The loss not only puts the Yankees on the brink of elimination from the post-season but also guarantees that the only way they can return to the World Series is to win three straight games, including Game 7 against Cliff Lee.

On top of that, the Yankees will have to proceed through this minefield without Mark Teixeira, who was forced out of the game in the fifth inning due to a pulled right hamstring while running to first base. Tex told Girardi he felt a “pop” in the hamstring. That’s not a good sound. The Yankees can only hope the next sound they hear is not that of a pennant dropping.

Replay cost Yanks early run

For the first time in the American League Championship Series, the Rangers did not score in the first inning, which was an encouraging early sign for A.J. Burnett. The Yankees also took an early lead for the first time in the series, which was an encouraging sign, period.

It was a busy second inning for umpire Jim Reynolds, who was working the right field line. Robinson Cano got the first hit of the game, his third home run of the series, which featured a scene out of Yankees post-season history. As Texas right fielder Nelson Cruz jumped at the wall and reached for the ball, the outstretched hands of two fans in the front row came into view as the ball hit the top of the fence and bounced into the stands.

Cruz claimed interference, and Rangers manager Ron Washington exited the dugout to talk to Reynolds. The exchange was not heated, so Washington apparently accepted the ruling. The situation brought to mind Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS between the Yankees and the Orioles when a New Jersey schoolboy named Jeffrey Maier interfered with a drive by Derek Jeter for a home run. The difference that night was that after the game right field ump Richie Garcia admitted he made the wrong call.

The umpires may now use televised replays on questionable home runs but did not in that case. Two batters later, they did, however. Lance Berkman’s high drive to right kept hooking and from my seat in the press box where the right field foul pole is directly in my view the ball veered foul into the second deck.

I was astonished to see Reynolds signal a home run. The crowd loved it. Pitcher Tommy Hunter and catcher Bengie Molina did not. Washington was out of the dugout again, but he was taking nobody’s word for it until the play was reviewed. The call was correctly reversed to a foul ball. Now Yankees fans were upset, but as the replay plainly revealed the ball hooked in front of the pole and landed in foul territory.

Burnett could have used that extra run, too, because the Rangers came back to score two runs in the third without a ball leaving the infield. After two perfect innings, Burnett had his first burst of wildness. He walked David Murphy and hit Molina with a pitch. Molina was attempting to sacrifice, so Burnett hit a guy who was giving him an out.

After Mitch Moreland bunted the runners over, Mark Teixeira made an excellent, short-hop pickup of a grounder by Elvis Andrus but could not set himself for a throw home. Tex tossed to Burnett covering first instead as Andrus scored the tying run. Michael Young followed with a slow roller to third that Alex Rodriguez had trouble getting out of his glove and beat the throw at first for a single that scored Molina for a 2-1 Texas lead.

The Yankees tied the score in the bottom of the inning with the run also coming on an infield hit. With two out, Jeter missed a home run by inches as the ball hit near the top of the center field fence next to the 408-foot sign. The ball caromed back toward the infield, and Jeter hustled it into a triple.

Curtis Granderson followed with a hard, one-bouncer that ate up second baseman for a single as Jeter crossed the plate with his 32nd run scored in ALCS play. It broke the record he had shared with former teammate Bernie Williams, who just happened to have thrown out the ceremonial first pitch.

Gallant effort from Andy

It was almost déjà vu all over again for Andy Pettitte in the sixth inning Monday night. Following the same pattern as the first inning, Elvis Andrus grounded out on a slow roller fielded by Pettitte and Michael Young singled. Josh Hamilton then hit a fly ball to deep right field.

Unlike the first inning when the ball landed in the stands for a two-run home run, Hamilton’s drive off a hanging slider didn’t have the same distance in the sixth, and Nick Swisher gloved it in front of the wall. Pettitte ended the inning by getting a third strike past Vlad Guerrero, who is having a brutal series.

The Yankee Stadium crowd got excited when Brett Gardner led off the bottom of the sixth by shooting a single through the middle. Fans may have visions of another big rally started by Gardner in the eighth inning of Game 1. With Derek Jeter up, Gardner stole second, thereby becoming the first runner in the game to move into scoring position (Young was on first base when Hamilton homered in the first).

Cliff Lee muscled up and struck out Jeter on a 2-2 fastball. It was the 10th strikeout of the game for Lee, who became the first pitcher to reach double figures in strikeouts in three consecutive post-season games in the same year. The only other pitcher to do that was Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in his last appearance in the 1967 World Series for the Cardinals against the Red Sox and his first two starts in the 1968 Series against the Tigers.

Gardner was able to advance to third base as Swisher grounded out to the right side, but Lee held tough and got Mark Teixeira on a grounder to short. The Yankees were raising Lee’s pitch count, but not in the best way with all those strikeouts. His 100th pitch retired Alex Rodriguez leading off the seventh.

As for Pettitte, he stayed toe to toe with Lee for seven innings in another sturdy post-season performance. But this was beginning to look like Game 6 of the 2003 World Series against the Marlins when Pettitte battled Josh Beckett, who held the Yankees in check as Florida triumphed.

Speaking of post-season heroes, the Stadium crowd got a look at three of them in attendance who were shown on the on the giant video screen in center field – El Duque Hernandez, Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill. Tino also threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Maybe the Yankees’ best chances were to put them back in uniform.

Of Lee and legalities

Let’s clear up the issue about the gunk on Cliff Lee’s cap. Some people in the media seem obsessed with it, which doesn’t make sense. If there was anything illegal about it, don’t you think Lee would have been told by umpires to clean it up by now?

The reason they haven’t is because there is nothing in the rules of baseball preventing a pitcher from using resin on his cap or anywhere else. Resin is not an illegal substance in baseball. It is used to help pitchers keep their hands dry. When mixed with perspiration, which Lee’s often is by sweaty fingers rubbing against resin, the combination can improve a pitcher’s grip.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi has dispelled the notion that Lee is pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes, which is the approach to take because to do otherwise would put an idea in his hitters’ minds that they do not need. Dealing with Lee’s pitches is hard enough.

The suspicion by some is that what is on Lee’s cap is not resin but actually pine tar, which is legal for use on bats but not balls. Come on, why would he put if where everyone could see it? Girardi did the right thing by not taking issue with it. If Lee really is loading up the ball – and I don’t think he is – the gunky cap would only be a diversion as he applied the illegal substance from somewhere else.

The last thing the Yankees needed was to fall behind early again with Lee on the mound, but they did as Josh Hamilton hit his second first-inning home run of the series, this one a two-run shot off a 2-1 cutter from Andy Pettitte, who otherwise was at the top of his game in the early going.

Lee, meanwhile, was perfect through the first three innings, although Brett Gardner might have been safe on another of those slide-into-first-base attempts for a hit, which was successful in Game 1 to start the eighth-inning comeback but did not work this time.

From my way of thinking, Gardy lost a golden opportunity to send Lee a message. The pitcher was covering first on the play and crossed over it to take the throw from first baseman Mitch Moreland. Instead of sliding, Gardner could have run through the bag and knocked the lefthander butt over teakettle. It would have been perfectly legal, too.

Farewell, Freddy

A moment of silence was held before Game 3 of the American League Championship Series Monday night at Yankee Stadium in memory of Freddy Schuman, a familiar figure at Yankees games for more than 20 years, who died Sunday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan at the age of 85.

Since 1988, Schuman was a staple at Yankees games as he rallied fans with handmade signs and his signature frying pan and spoon, clanging them to inspire the team on the field. He earned the nickname “Freddy Sez” from the words that began each message he carried.

The Yankees issued a statement saying, “Freddy ‘The Fan’ Schuman was an iconic Yankees fan who brought life, youthful exuberance and cheers to Yankee Stadium. The energy and excitement that resonates throughout the Stadium during a Yankees game is made that way by our fans, and Freddy was one of the conductors that could be counted on to bring our orchestra of fans together. Freddy endeared himself to all those he came into contact with, and we send our deepest condolences to his family and his thousands of friends.”

To honor Schuman, the Yankees had some of his memorabilia on display inside Gate 4 of the Stadium, which will remain on display throughout the post-season and eventually become part of an exhibit in the New York Yankees Museum presented by Bank of America at Yankee Stadium.

Will stars fall on Girardi?

There was an interesting column in Monday’s editions of the New York Times by Harvey Araton concerning Joe Girardi’s contract situation with the Yankees and the temptation posed by the managerial opening with the Cubs.

Speculation has been heated for some time that Girardi, who is in the final year of his contract with the Yankees, might be persuaded to return to his Illinois roots and take on the challenge of turning around a franchise that last won a championship when Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House.

Yankees fans might think it makes no sense for a manager to forsake a job with a storied team that puts together a championship caliber roster year after year. However, as Araton pointed out and with commentary from former manager Davey Johnson, there is an issue ahead for whomever the future Yankees manager is that makes the role as much of a challenge as there is at Wrigley Field.

Johnson, who led the Mets to the World Series championship in 1986 and went on to run three other clubs, said one of the most difficult decisions he made as a manager was during his time in Baltimore when it became clear to him that Cal Ripken Jr. needed to come off shortstop. This was not a view shared by Ripken, of course, who balked at the suggestion even though he had to be aware that it was inevitable. Ripken eventually accepted the move to third base, but it would not be long after that Johnson’s tenure with the Orioles ended.

I remember talking to a manager about 10 years ago who had a veteran player on the downside of his career and was forced to make hard choices about reducing his playing time. He told me off the record (which is why I will not identify the manager) that the advice he received from an older manager was the soundest he had received. “Never argue with your general manager about the 25th man on the roster,” he said, “and never let a star fall on you.”

It happens. Think back to Casey Stengel and Joe DiMaggio, Ralph Houk and Mickey Mantle, Johnson and Ripken. There are plenty of other examples. It is a real dilemma for a manager.

Now think of what could be ahead for Girardi. He might have not one but four players in that situation – the vaunted “Core Four” of Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. And in Girardi’s case, the situation is further amplified by the fact that each player is also a former teammate.

I am not suggesting in any way that this quartet is ready to be phased out immediately, far from it. But the years are moving forward, not backward, and the day will come when one or all of those guys will have to face the reality of diminished skills resulting in a decrease in playing time or redefinition of duty.

Will Girardi have with Jeter the same situation Johnson did with Ripken, for example? Will he have to break the news to Posada that more time at designated hitter is in store or to determine that pitchers younger than Pettitte or Rivera are ready to supplant them?

“Give my best to Joe,” Davey told Araton, “and tell him to stay in New York.”

Johnson was saying that Girardi’s current job is still his best option, no matter how strong the tug to Chicago. Still, there is food for thought.

Pen, late lightning ignite Yankees

The Yankees are dipping into their 2009 formula in the 2010 post-season. Late-inning heroics characterized their championship season last year, and the Yankees have come from behind impressively in three of the four playoff games this time around.

It doesn’t get better than what they pulled off Friday night in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. Down 5-0 entering the seventh inning and looking as dead as ace CC Sabathia did in falling behind by so much so early, the Yankees showed the Rangers they simply will not fold so long as they have some at-bats left.

They forced four Texas relievers into submission in a five-run eighth inning that featured five hits and two walks. Seven consecutive batters reached base before the Rangers got an out that inning, and the out was a ball caught at the wall in right field that missed by a matter of feet being a three-run home run for Jorge Posada.

The Rangers still have yet to win a post-season game in their handsome ballpark, and the Yankees still haven’t lost a road game in this year’s tournament. They showed Texas how much they will fight to get another trip to the World Series.

The Rangers were not out of the game by any means after the Yankees took the lead. It was still a one-run game, but the Rangers hurt themselves with a huge rock in the bottom of the eighth. Kerry Wood walked Ian Kinsler on four pitches, an open invitation to Texas to get back in the game. Kinsler got himself picked off, which is inexcusable in that circumstance.

The Yankees failed to get an insurance run in the ninth by stranding Derek Jeter, who led off with a double. Texas became the first team to beat Mariano Rivera twice in the same season this year and posed another threat in the ninth when pinch hitter Mitch Moreland led off with a single and was bunted to second. Mo shut the door, however, as the Yankees finished off a victory that can have major consequences on the rest of the series.

They have already accomplished what they needed to do by winning at least one game at Rangers Ballpark In Arlington and have a chance to go home 2-0 if they can win again Saturday. To lose on a night when Sabathia was not his usual self could be a crushing blow to the Rangers, who could have put a ton of pressure on the Yankees by winning the first two games at home and having Cliff Lee start Game 3 at Yankee Stadium.

Game 1 turned into a bullpen game, and the Yankees got five shutout innings combined from Rivera, Wood, Joba Chamberlain and Dustin Moseley. The winning decision went to Moseley, which was appropriate. Too often, such a job gets unrewarded because of the timing of the scoring. Moseley’s two hitless innings with four strikeouts kept the Yankees in position to turn things around, which they did in their usual patient, persistent manner.

Yanks bail out CC

Well, CC Sabathia got his no-decision. The Yankees got their ace off the hook with a stunning attack against an aghast Texas bullpen that spit up the lead for starter C.J. Wilson, who ran out of gas at the start of the eighth inning.

The Rangers would have been better off brining in Nolan Ryan, the team president who displayed old-fashioned heat in throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.

Wilson handled the Yankees for seven innings. Robinson Cano’s leadoff homer in the seventh was all they could get while the Rangers had put up a five-spot on Sabathia, who was toast after the fourth. Brett Gardner beat out an infield hit to lead off the eighth, and that was the opening of a door the Rangers could not jam.

One Yankees batter after another followed and got on base, forcing Texas manager Ron Washington to make a series of processions to the mound searching for a pitcher to get an out. None of the first three he called on could.

Derek Jeter finished off Wilson with a double that scored Gardner. Darren Oliver, the lefthander who had been with the Rangers when they first played the Yankees in the post-season 14 years ago, came in to turn switch hitters Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira around to the right side. Both walked on full counts, loading the bases.

Washington tried righthander Darren O’Day, who threw one pitch that resulted in a two-run single by Alex Rodriguez. Next was lefthander Clay Rapada, who also threw one pitch. Cano lined it into center to drive in the tying run. In came lefty Derek Holland, who at least threw more than one pitch but not before the Yankees went ahead on a broken-bat single to left by Marcus Thames.

The scene was reminiscent of a game at Rangers Ballpark In Arlington back in August when the Yankees wiped out a 6-1, sixth-inning deficit and went on to a 7-6 victory. Mariano Rivera pitched the ninth and gave up a leadoff triple but kept the runner at third to notch the save.