April 2012

Starters’ work improving

Things are looking up for a change in the Yankees’ rotation. One night after CC Sabathia lent eight strong innings to a victory, Hiroki Kuroda provided seven solid innings of his own in a 2-1, nip-and-tuck battle with the Orioles.

Kuroda not only displayed effectiveness on the mound Monday night but also agility off it as he combined with catcher Russell Martin for the defensive play of the game that cut down the potential tying run in the seventh inning.

The Japanese righthander got himself in trouble that inning by giving up a leadoff single to Nick Markakis, hitting Matt Wieters with a pitch and throwing a wild pitch that put runners on second and third with one out. Kuroda recovered nicely to strike out Chris Davis on a splitter.

The next hitter was left-handed-swinging Wilson Betemit. Kuroda had a base open and strikeout machine Mark Reynolds on deck, but the Yankees decided to go after Betemit. A 1-0 splitter bounced off Martin and rolled a few feet to the left of the plate. Markakis made a dash off third base, and so did Kuroda off the mound. Martin retrieved the ball and made a back-handed throw to Kuroda, who blocked the plate and applied a sweeping tag on Markakis in one motion for a stylish third out.

“That was an outstanding play on both sides,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “You get a little worried about the pitcher there because his knees are exposed, but Hiroki was fine. As for Russell, he is as athletic as anyone I have ever seen behind the plate.”

“Tenacity pays off in the end,” Kuroda said. “I have complete faith in Russell.”

The relationship between Kuroda and Martin dates to their time together as teammates with the Dodgers. Kuroda’s comfort level was evident in how trusting he was of Martin in throwing split-fingered fastballs with runners on base.

“He pitched effectively inside,” Girardi said. “He attacked the zone all night.”

Kuroda, who improved his record to 2-3 with a 3.69 ERA, allowed one run, four hits, a walk and a hit batter with three strikeouts in seven innings. David Robertson came on the eighth and struck out the side, and Mariano Rivera finished it off in the ninth for his fifth save. It was Mo’s 1,051st career appearance, moving past Kent Tekulve into eighth place on the all-time games list.

‘Rabbit’ finds Nunez, but he’s ready

“That white rabbit will find you” is a time-honored baseball phrased used by managers when trying to hide a defensively-challenged player. For years before the designated hitter rule, the position most often played by those with faulty gloves was left field, which was where Eduardo Nunez found himself Monday night.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi wasn’t necessarily trying to hide Nunez, an infielder by trade. With Nick Swisher sidelined for several days because of a strained left hamstring and Brett Gardner still on the 15-day disabled list due to a right elbow strain, the Yankees are short on outfielders.

In Nunez’s role as a utility man, playing some games in the outfield is part of the job description, and he got his first taste of it against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium. And, yes, the white rabbit sure did find him.

It started right away as Nunez had two of the three putouts in the first inning. In the second, he made a fine play at the wall to take down a drive by Chris Davis that became a sacrifice fly. The next inning, Nunez made an impressive diving grab of a liner by Robert Andino.

Nunez played some outfield during spring training, but as Girardi pointed out, “When we put him in left field during spring training, nobody hit the ball to him.”

That definitely was not the case this time.

Davis’ sac fly gave Baltimore a brief lead. The Yanks made it 2-1 in the bottom of the second as Eric Chavez drove a first-pitch fastball to right field for a two-run home run. It was the third homer of the season for the injury-plagued Chavez, who had not hit more than two in a season since 2007 with the Athletics.

Swish out of action probably for a week

Nick Swisher says he will be out of the lineup for three days. Yankees manager Joe Girardi says that Swisher will be sidelined for a week.

Go with a week.

Despite Swish’s optimism that his low-grade left hamstring strain is not something that should incapacitate him for as long as his manager believes, the Yankees always exercise caution with injuries, particularly this early in the season when cool weather prevails, certainly not the most conductive climate for a hamstring ailment.

“I had the same injury back in 2007, and I was out for nine or 10 days,” Swisher admitted, “but I feel like we got this early this time.”

True enough. Swisher felt the hamstring tug a bit in his first at-bat against the Tigers Sunday in the Yankees’ 6-2 victory. He stayed in the game because he thought it was minor. He walked in the third inning, but when he came up grabbing the hammy after he dived back into first base to avert a pickoff, Swisher’s guard was down. Girardi and trainer Steve Donohue emerged from the dugout and brought Swisher back in with them.

The plan for Swisher, who is batting .284 with 6 home runs and 23 RBI, is to receive treatment for three days and not do anything on the field. He thinks he could be ready to play when the Yankees go to Kansas City for a four-game series Thursday, but Girardi’s view is that Swisher won’t be ready by then.

The Yankees expect to have Brett Gardner back in time for the KC series. He is eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list from his right wrist injury Thursday. In the meantime, the Yankees will take a look at Eduardo Nunez in the outfield. Nunez was in left field Monday night in the opener of a three-game set against the Orioles with Raul Ibanez moving to right field. Andruw Jones will also be in the mix.

The manager added that the Yankees do not plan to put Swisher on the DL, which means that when Gardner is activated a pitcher will likely have to be optioned.

“I heard people throwing the word DL around,” Swisher said. “That’s not part of my vocabulary. That’s not my style. I pride myself on being on the field every day. You kind of get frustrated with little nagging stuff, this and that. I thank the big man upstairs it wasn’t anything more, but I feel like I try to take care of my body and try to do the right thing and be one of those guys that’s out there all the time.”

On another front, Andy Pettitte had a rough time of it in an extended spring game against Phillies minor-leaguers in Clearwater, Fla. The comeback-minded lefthander gave up 6 runs (5 earned) and 10 hits with no walks and 8 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings. Girardi was encouraged by Pettitte’s being able to throw 96 pitches (71 strikes) than the results.

Levine named to foundation board

Yankees president Randy Levine has agreed to join the board of directors of the Taylor Hooton Foundation, which is widely acknowledged as the leader in the advocacy against performance enhancing substance abuse by the youth of North America.

“I’m honored to join the Board of this outstanding foundation,” Levine said. “With the help of Major League Baseball, the Yankees and other supporters, Don Hooton and his team have done more over the years to educate our kids as well as their parents and coaches about the dangers of these drugs than any other organization.

“Every young person they reach with their message is potentially a life saved. I look forward to being part of their efforts to drive awareness of this problem as well as helping them reach their goal of eliminating steroid abuse.”

“It’s not every day you have the opportunity to bring someone of Randy’s stature into an organization,” Taylor Hooton Foundation board chairman Neil Romano said. “His accomplishments as president of the Yankees for the past 12 years are well-known and considerable, but his abilities go far beyond just the game of baseball. In the increasingly complex world of business and philanthropic endeavors, there are few people better than Randy to have on your team.”

“Having someone like Randy Levine join our board is further validation of everything we’ve been trying to accomplish since this Foundation started over eight years ago,” THF founder and president Don Hooton said. “I’m absolutely thrilled that he has agreed to join us and excited to think about how much more we can accomplish together over the next few years with Randy’s help.”

Levine is in his 13th season as Yankee president, a position he has held since January 2000 when he became the first person in 14 years to hold the post. Prior to joining the Yankees, Levine was New York City’s Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Planning and Administration. He also served as the city’s Labor Commissioner and was formerly Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General and Principal Deputy Attorney General at the United States Department of Justice. Randy and his wife Mindy live in Manhattan.

The Taylor Hooton Foundation, based in McKinney, Texas, is a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to educating North America’s young people about the dangers of anabolic steroids and other appearance and performance enhancing drugs. The Foundation was formed in 2004 by the friends and family of Taylor Hooton after his untimely death.

Groundbreaking for Triple A field renovation

The Yankees joined the Lackawanna County Commissioners Office, Mandalay Baseball, the Multi-Purpose Authority and Pennsylvania state officials from Moosic and Riverside for the ceremonial groundbreaking Monday at the entry plaza to PNC Field, the home of the Triple A affiliate that is undergoing a major renovation for the 2013 season.

“The effects of this project are truly far-reaching on a number of fronts – leisure, family and most importantly, economic expansion,” commissioner Corey D. O’Brien said. “Job creation, further growth in the surrounding communities and an opportunity for wholesome family fun make this a complete package. The stadium will impact our local economy and pay great dividends as we move forward to attract new opportunities, businesses and other ventures to the area.”

“We are delighted to have completed our agreement with Lackawanna County and are excited about having our Triple A team in Northeastern Pennsylvania for a long time to come,” Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said. “I’d like to thank everyone involved for their persistence and collaboration on this project. Along with our partners, Mandalay Baseball, we are committed to providing a great fan experience and believe that the team and the stadium should both be points of pride for the community.”

According to the Lackawanna County Commissioners and Daniel Lispi, President of DRL Consulting and Development of Harrisburg, once the stadium is finished and operating, it will infuse $9.4 million into the local economy and have a yearly economic impact of $47 million. The construction phase alone will generate $23.5 million in one-time revenue for working families and local businesses.

“We are proud of our growing partnership with the New York Yankees and committed to creating a great experience for our team’s fans in Northeastern Pennsylvania,” Mandalay Baseball chairman Peter Guber said. “We believe that this venue will be among the finest field of dreams in professional minor league baseball and an important jewel in Mandalay’s professional sports assets and experiences.”

“We are excited about the stadium’s modifications as it will be the final stop before the Bronx, and it’s important to us that the facilities are top notch,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “Being only a couple hours from the Bronx is the optimal location for our team, and I look forward to our players taking their final steps towards the big leagues there.”

Yankees chief operating officer Lonn Trost added, “We all worked hard to reach an agreement that is both balanced and long-reaching. We’d like to congratulate the Lackawanna County Commissioners and Stadium Authority for the foresight and the enthusiasm that they brought to the project. We’re looking forward to a great long term relationship.”

Battery creates positive sparks

Not that Yankees manager Joe Girardi would ever concede that he allow pitchers to have their favorite catcher, but backup backstop Chris Stewart was again behind the plate Sunday in a game started by CC Sabathia. It marked the third consecutive game Stewart has caught Sabathia. The Yankees have won all three games.

“We’ve been on the same page,” Sabathia said after his sturdy, eight-inning effort in a 6-2 Yanks victory over Detroit. “This is the second straight game that I didn’t shake him off. He has been calling great games. He also catches me on my throw days in the bullpen. It’s a good deal.”

Girardi didn’t get into the issue back in the 1990s when he was the Yankees’ regular catcher but manager Joe Torre allowed Jim Leyritz, then the backup, to work behind the plate regularly with Andy Pettitte. But then, even Girardi has succumbed to that situation when he had Francisco Cervelli work regularly with A.J Burnett the past two years.

Yet the skipper maintained that Sabathia and Stewart is not a permanent battery despite the success. Sabathia was 0-0 with a 6.75 ERA in his first two starts with regular Russell Martin behind the plate and is 3-0 with a 3.47 ERA in his three starts with Stewart catching.

“It has just kind of worked out that way,” Girardi said. “I think it’s easier for a backup catcher who is only going to catch once or maybe twice a week to work with only one or two starters.”

Sabathia’s performance was just what Girardi and the Yankees needed Sunday after the bullpen was spent from working 7 1/3 innings Saturday and 4 2/3 innings Friday night. Except for David Robertson, who pitched the ninth, the guys in the pen had a day off, thanks to CC, who scattered four hits and two walks with eight strikeouts.

Prince Fielder homered off a hanging slider in the fourth inning, and Miguel Cabrera rapped a run-scoring double in the sixth. Considering the damage those two can do, Sabathia had a good day. The Yankees’ offense, which has bailed out so many starters this year with seven comeback victories, stalled for CC somewhat Sunday as 15 runners were stranded, but home runs by Curtis Granderson and Andruw Jones and two RBI from Alex Rodriguez proved sufficient support.

A-Rod moved past Willie Mays on the career RBI list into eighth place with 1,904. Derek Jeter had two infield hits to flirt with .400 again at .396, and Robinson Cano showed signs of coming out of his early-season doldrums with two well-struck singles and an RBI.

On the downside, however, was an injury to Nick Swisher, who has been the Yankees’ most productive hitter (.284, 9 doubles, 6 home runs, 23 RBI) but had to come out of the game in the third inning after drawing a walk. An MRI revealed a low-grade strain of the left hamstring that will keep him out of action for several days.

The Yankees inserted Jones in left field and moved Raul Ibanez to right, an arrangement that may continue during the upcoming three-game series against the Orioles at the Stadium unless the Yanks dip into the minors for temporary help. Brett Gardner (strained right elbow) is not due to come off the 15-day disabled list until Thursday.

Switcheroo for Garcia and Phelps

Yankees manager Joe Girardi made it official after Sunday’s game, a 6-2 victory over the Tigers. Freddy Garcia has landed in the Yankees’ bullpen and with something of a thud. The veteran righthander will be replaced in the rotation by rookie David Phelps, who pitched more innings (7) in relief than Garcia (3 1/3) had in the latter’s previous two starts.

Garcia, who is 0-2 with a 12.51 ERA, indicated his demotion when talking to reporters before Sunday’s game at Yankee Stadium one day after being tagged for 6 earned runs, 5 hits (1 home run) and 2 walks (1 intentional) in 1 2/3 innings in a 7-5 loss to the Tigers.

The Yankees’ rotation for the upcoming series at the Stadium against the Orioles features Hiroki Kuroda Monday night, Phil Hughes Tuesday night and Ivan Nova Wednesday night. Phelps will get the ball Thursday night when the Yanks open a four-game set in Kansas City.

“I’m not surprised,” Garcia said. “You play here; they expect you to pitch good. It’s not like you pitch somewhere else. We try to win here. We don’t try to develop players.”

Phelps nevertheless has been developing fine. The leading winner for the Yankees’ Triple A Scranton affiliate in 2011, Phelps won the James P. Dawson Award this spring as the top rookie in camp and has pitched to a 3.57 ERA in six appearances totaling 17 2/3 innings.

“I have said all along that I envision him as a starter,” Girardi said of Phelps. “He has four pitches, can locate the fastball and has movement. He holds runners on and fields his position well. There’s nothing that tells me that he can’t be a major league starter. It’s one thing to say it and another thing to go out and do it, but I have been pleased with the way he has thrown the baseball for us.”

Taking Phelps’ position as the long man out of the bullpen will be righthander D.J. Mitchell, 25, who was recalled from Empire State Sunday replacing Cody Eppley, who pitched three innings Saturday and optioned to the Triple A affiliate.

“We hope Freddy can find a way to fix things in the bullpen,” Girardi said.

Saturday comeback falls short this time

When the Yankees fell behind to Detroit, 6-1, in the second inning Saturday, I thought back to the previous Saturday when they fell behind, 9-0, to the Red Sox at Fenway Park, a game in which they came back to win, 15-9. Could do they do something like that again?

Thanks to Tigers closer Jose Valverde, that human rain delay on the mound, the Yankees eventually made a game of it with three runs in the ninth inning before falling, 7-5. Those remaining in the Yankee Stadium crowd of 44,686 got one last chance to cheer when Eric Chavez lifted a fly ball to deep right field that died on the warning track.

As riveting as a comeback would have been for the Yankees, I must say it would have been an outright shame if Valverde had blown that game for rookie lefthander Drew Smyly, who earned his first major-league victory with six-plus crisp innings in which he allowed one run and two hits with two walks and seven strikeouts. The Yankees were batting .292 against lefties before Saturday’s game but could not handle Smyly, who is the antithesis of Valverde in that he gets the ball back from the catcher and is ready to deliver the next pitch, a novel concept.

Nick Swisher opened the ninth with his second home run of the game and fifth of the season, a drive to left field. He had gotten the only hit off Smyly over the first six innings, a homer from the right side of the plate in the first. Nick’s 18th multi-homer game also marked the 11th time he has gone deep from both sides of the plate in the same game, tying him with Hall of Famer Eddie Murray and Chili Davis for second place behind teammate Mark Teixeira, the record holder with 13.

Tex made the second out on a foul pop behind first base with Alex Rodriguez on second after a walk and defensive indifference. Curtis Granderson’s single to left on a two-strike pitch knocked in the second run of the inning, and Raul Ibanez got the Yanks to 7-5 with a double inside third. But Chavez couldn’t finish it off.

Granderson also homered in the seventh off lefthander Phil Coke. Since going hitless Opening Day, Grandy has reached base in 19 consecutive games. Derek Jeter also reached a milestone in the third inning with his 1,000th career walk.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi was more preoccupied with Freddy Garcia’s dismal showing as he failed to get beyond the second inning for the second straight start and had his record fall to 0-2 with a 12.51 ERA.

“I didn’t have my pitches,” Garcia said after the game. “It is frustrating for me.”

For Girardi, too.

“I don’t see the crispness in his pitches,” the manager said. “It seems all his pitches are down a few ticks [in velocity]. This is not what we saw in spring training.”

Garcia struggled to get above 80 miles per hour on the radar gun and has no bite on his slider or split-fingered fastball. Girardi would not say whether Garcia will make his next start. David Phelps, who pitched three scoreless innings of relief, just may get a promotion to the rotation.

“He’s our long man in the bullpen,” Girardi said. “The long man is always a candidate to start.”

No day at the beach for Freddy

Freddy Garcia’s history of success in day games has abandoned him this year, just as his history of success otherwise seems to have abandoned him. Saturday at Yankee Stadium was the second consecutive start in which Garcia pitched merely 1 2/3 innings as the Tigers pummeled him for a 6-1 lead.

A week ago in a late afternoon game at Fenway Park, Garcia also lasted 1 2/3 innings and gave up five runs. That’s 11 earned runs in 3 1/3 innings in day games for Freddy, whose daytime ERA is 29.70. Garcia was 6-2 with a 3.20 ERA in day games last year and had a career record in afternoon play of 55-24, a .696 winning percentage, going into Saturday’s game.

Garcia didn’t light up the radar at better than 87 miles per hour (only one pitch was that fast) and tried to fool Detroit hitters with sliders and splitters that were in the 70s. That worked to get first-inning strikeouts of Brennan Boesch and Miguel Cabrera, but Andy Dirks buried a 0-2 slider that was clocked at 78 mph into the right field seats for his first home run and a 3-0 Tigers lead.

The Tigers struck with two outs again in the second on an RBI double by Boesch and a two-run single by Cabrera, Garcia’s fellow Venezuelan who wears him out (.429 in 28 at-bats, including postseason). As Garcia, whose season ERA is a bloated 12.51, exited the game in the second inning, he heard choruses of boos as well as chants if “We want Andy” in reference to Pettitte, whose next scheduled starts in the minors on his comeback trail is Monday night.

Garcia’s outing continued a tough stretch for the Yankees’ rotation in the early going. Starters have combined for a 6.37 ERA with 140 hits allowed in 106 innings. Opponents are batting .314 with 20 home runs in 446 at-bats against the starting unit. One sign of the starters’ ineffectiveness is that David Phelps, the long man out of the bullpen, made his sixth appearance in 20 games.

In Garcia’s prior start, the Yankees came back from a 9-0 deficit for a 15-9 victory, so 6-1 may not be as hard a climb. Still, the offense cannot be expected to come back from big margins too often.

Honors abound around Yankees

CC Sabathia will be among nine former members to be inducted in the Boys & Girls Club Hall of Fame at ceremonies Wednesday in San Diego. The Yankees’ ace cannot attend the induction because the Yankees are home against the Orioles, but accepting on his behalf will be his wife, Amber, and his mother, Margie Sabathia-Lanier.

Others to be honored include Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. (1996 Best Supporting Actor in Jerry Maguire), Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole) and Emmy Award-winning actor Powers Boothe (24). CC can match them with a major trophy of his own – the 1997 American League Cy Young Award.

Also to be inducted are singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, American Ballet Company soloist Misty Copeland, National Congress of American Indians leader/advocate Ernest Stevens Jr., Major General Darren W. McDrew (Commander of Andrews Air Force Base) and Anthony Lee Ervin (winner of seven NCAA swimming titles and 2012 Olympics contender). Actor Courtney B. Vane will be the master of ceremonies for the event at the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego.

Frank Costa, who is retiring after 23 years as general sales representative of the Yankees, was honored before Saturday’s game on the field at Yankee Stadium with his wife, Sylvia, and their four grandchildren. Frank and Sylvia also celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary. Yankees captain Derek Jeter on behalf of the team presented Costa with an autographed baseball that had the inscription, “To Frank, a Yankee forever.”

Longtime Yankees media relations director Arthur Richman will be inducted posthumously into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center in Commack, N.Y., on Long Island. Richman, who died in 2009, was in the Yankees’ media department for more than 25 years after a sportswriting career at the New York Mirror and as the travel director of the Mets. In the latter role, Richman conducted several tours of major-league All-Star teams to the Far East.