July 2012

July almost like two different months

July was a schizophrenic month for the Yankees. Halfway through it, they were riding high with a 10-4 record and bound to extend their major-league record for winning Julys to 20, five more than any major-league team.

They then went into a tailspin that resulted in nine losses over the last 13 games of the month to finish at 13-13, their first non-winning record in July since 1992. Tuesday night’s game was the month in microcosm. The Yankees blew a 5-0, first-inning lead and lost to the Orioles, 11-5.

At the end of play July 18, the Yankees had opened a 10-game lead in the American League East, the widest of any first-place club in the majors this season. Over the past two weeks, 4 ½ games of that lead have been shaved off as Baltimore trails now by only 5 ½ games. The Yanks did not have a four-game losing streak for three months and have had two in the past two weeks. The four-game losing streak at home is their longest since a six-gamer May 11-20 last year.

“We’re not playing well; there’s no doubt about it,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We’ve come back from these stretches before and need to do it again.”

Normally, a 5-0 lead is pretty safe in the hands of Ivan Nova, but not the way he has pitched lately. The righthander gave it all back and then some as the Orioles responded with a seven-run second inning on the way to taking a 9-5 lead by the fifth, Nova’s last inning. It was an ugly line for Nova (nine earned runs and 10 hits in five innings), whose ERA bloated from 4.08 to 4.53.

“Most of the year he has been good with runners on base but not this time,” Girardi said. “He just didn’t have good stuff.”

Nova, who won five straight starts from late May into mid-June, has won one game in eight starts since June 17. Over that stretch, he is 1-3 with four no-decisions and a 5.29 ERA in 47 2/3 innings. He is winless in his past four starts with two no-decisions and a 7.54 ERA in 22 2/3 innings.

The Yankees have done a solid job all year overcoming injuries to Brett Gardner, Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Andy Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez. Chamberlain returned to duty Tuesday night, and the Yankees received good news on Mark Teixeira, who is nursing a painful left wrist but could be back in the lineup sometime this weekend.

Without Tex and A-Rod, the lineup looked pretty short yet the Yankees batted around against career pin cushion Chris Tillman for a five-spot in the first inning. Tillman got off the canvas, however, and held the Yankees to two hits over the next four innings to come away with the victory and leaving the Yanks to sigh, “Bring on August.”

Orioles have swift answer to Yanks’ 5-spot

What a bizarre beginning to Tuesday night’s game. The Yankees have been in need of an offensive outburst, and they got it by putting up a five-spot in the first inning only to be trumped by the Orioles, who came back to score seven runs in the second against Ivan Nova.

The Yankees had three runs home before they made an out in the first against righthander Chris Tillman, whom they have regularly roughed up in the past but who has pitched very well since coming back from Triple A. He entered the game with a 1.66 ERA. In three previous starts at Yankee Stadium, however, Tillman pitched to a 12.27 ERA. It is hard to believe that could go up, but it did after the first inning to 14.25.

Just like rapid fire, the Yankees jumped on Tillman with a double by Derek Jeter, a RBI single by Curtis Granderson and a two-run home run by Robinson Cano, who shook off a 0-for-14 slump. Nick Swisher, back on the field at first base after recovering from a strained left hip flexor, kept up the rally with a single. One out later, Eric Chavez singled Raul Ibanez to third base. Tillman cost himself another run when he couldn’t handle a slow roller to the box by Ichiro Suzuki. Ibanez scored on the play. Russell Martin, who is finally starting to hit with authority, knocked in the fifth run with a single.

The spread proved very short-lived. After giving up two singles at the start of the second, Nova struck out the next two batters and seemed headed to a scoreless inning. Then everything came apart. Mark Reynolds doubled in a run, and Omar Quintanilla singled in two. Nick Markakis singled before Nova walked .225-hitting J.J. Hardy on four pitches, surely the biggest glitch of the inning, to load the bases.

Chris Davis made Nova pay for that mistake by driving a 0-1 curve off the top of the fence and over the wall in left-center for the first grand slam of his career. Just like that, it was 7-5 Orioles, and the Yankees were again in need of more offense. Doubles by Lew Ford and Wilson Betemit produced Baltimore’s eighth run in the third inning, by which point all but one of the Orioles had gotten a hit and all but one had scored a run.

Yanks’ ‘Heart & Hustle’ nominee: Granderson

Curtis Granderson received the Heart and Hustle Award from another Yankees center fielder, Mickey Rivers, before Tuesday night’s game at Yankee Stadium. Granderson, the Yankees’ current center fielder, is the team’s representative for the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association’s annual award to honor active player who demonstrate a passion for the game of baseball and best embody the values, spirit and tradition of the game.

The MLBPAA formed 30 committees comprised of alumni players with established relationships to each club. One player from each major league team is chosen by the committees based on the passion, desire and work ethic demonstrated both on and off the field. As the season draws to a close, fans, all alumni and active players will vote to select the final winner from the 30 team winners.

Previous overall winners were Craig Biggio in 2006 and ’07, Grady Sizemore in 2008, Albert Pujols in 2009, Roy Halladay in 2010 and Torii Hunter in 2011.

The final winner for 2012 will be announced Tuesday, Nov. 13, at the 13th annual Legends for Youth Dinner in New York. The event is the primary fundraiser for the series of free Legends for Youth Baseball Clinics, which impact more than 10,000 children each year. Two of my favorite people in the game, Dave Winfield and Rusty Staub, will be honored at this year’s dinner. To purchase tickets for the event, visit http://ow.ly/ch395.

Tex OK; Joba back; Yanks get McGehee

For a change, the Yankees received good news on the health front. First baseman Mark Teixeira, who was forced out of Monday night’s game because of a sore left wrist, underwent a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam Tuesday at New York Presbyterian Hospital that revealed no structural damage.

Yankees team physician Dr. Christopher Ahmad and Dr. Melvin Rosenwasser diagnosed the condition as inflammation in the left wrist. Tex was treated with a cortisone injection and will be reevaluated in three days.

“Huge relief” was manager Joe Girardi’s reaction to Teixeira’s situation. “I was preparing for the worst. For Tex to come out of a game you know it had to be painful. We’ll know a lot more about when he can play again Friday.”

The Yankees were concerned enough about Teixeira’s condition that they traded for a corner infielder, Casey McGehee. The Yankees acquired McGehee, 29, from the Pirates in exchange for relief pitcher Chad Qualls. McGehee was in Chicago Tuesday and not expected to arrive in New York in time for the Yankees’ game against the Orioles Tuesday night.

The Yankees were also hoping Joba Chamberlain would get to Yankee Stadium in time for the game. The reliever was supposed to pitch on injury rehabilitation at Double A Trenton but was notified en route to head back to the Bronx. He will replace Qualls in the bullpen.

“McGehee can play some first base for Tex who will be lost for a few days and some third base for Alex [Rodriguez] who will be lost for a few weeks,” Girardi said. “Having him here will help us have more flexibility at DH.”

Derek Jeter was in the designated hitter role with Ramiro Pena getting a start at shortstop. Nick Swisher took over for Teixeira at first base with Eric Chavez playing third. Ichiro Suzuki, who will eventually move to left field, remained in right field for Swisher, who was in the field for the first time in a week after recovering from a strained left hip flexor.

McGehee (pronounced ma-gee) was batting .230 with 13 doubles, one triple, eight home runs and 35 RBI in 265 at-bats for the Pirates. He played in 77 games at first base and nine at third. A right-handed batter and thrower, McGehee finished fifth in the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the year voting 2009 when he hit .301 with 16 home runs and 66 RBI for the Brewers. He drove in 104 runs the next year and hit .285 with 23 home runs but slumped to .223 with 13 homers and 67 RBI last year. Pittsburgh acquired him from Milwaukee Dec. 12, 2001 for pitcher Jose Veras, who pitched in 106 games for the Yankees from 2006-09 and compiled an 8-4 record with a 4.43 ERA in 103 2/3 innings.

Qualls, 33, is 2-1 with a 4.89 ERA in 43 relief appearances combined with the Phillies and the Yankees. The righthander came to the Yankees July 1 in a trade for a player to be named and cash considerations and was 1-0 with a 6.14 ERA in 7 1/3 innings.

Teixeira bothered by sore left wrist

Not another one. Well, let’s hope not.

The Yankees have overcome a slew of injuries this year and now have to contend with another. Mark Teixeira, who was having a strong July, was forced out of Monday night’s game against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium and probably won’t play Tuesday night, either.

The problem is a strained left wrist. X-rays were negative, but Teixeira will undergo a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) Tuesday. He said after the Yankees’ 5-4 loss that he considered his level of concern to be low. His manager, Joe Girardi, felt differently, saying his level of concern was “big.”

And why not? The Yankees can ill afford another major injury to a core player. They are already without third baseman Alex Rodriguez and have played all but two months of the season without left fielder Brett Gardner. Right fielder Nick Swisher is still relegated to designated hitter duty only while nursing a strained left hip flexor. The pitching staff has taken a hit with the losses of Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain and Andy Pettitte.

“This club has responded positively to adversity,” Girardi said. “We’ve got the guys still capable of getting the job done.”

Teixeira considers himself in that group, although he hardly looked that way Monday night as he struck out in each of his three at-bats. He hurt his wrist Sunday night swinging through a pitch while batting right-handed against Red Sox lefthander Felix Doubront. Tex batted left-handed in his three at-bats against Orioles righthander Miguel Gonzalez and felt pain each time.

The last straw came in the seventh when he landed on the wrist while trying to stop J.J. Hardy’s line single that drove in the second run of the inning to give Baltimore a 5-2 lead. The Yankees cut the deficit to 5-4 on back-to-back home runs by Eric Chavez and Ichiro Suzuki in the bottom half but could not get over the top.

The loss was the Yanks’ eighth in the past 11 games and another one-run setback, which is getting to be a nasty habit. Their lead in the American League East has been reduced by four games during this stretch and is down to 6 ½ games over Baltimore.

Since 4 p.m. Tuesday is the trading deadline, the Yankees will have the Teixeira MRI done early so they know whether they need to be in the market for a first baseman. General manager Brian Cashman indicated before the game that the Yankees would likely not be busy, but that could be different if Tex is hurt more than even he thinks he is. Chavez moved from third to first after Tex came out of the game. Chavez is already sharing third base with Jayson Nix to spell A-Rod while he is on the disabled list.

Chavez drove in two runs with his ninth home run and a two-out, RBI single that scored Raul Ibanez, who later homered (No. 14). Suzuki’s home run was his first for the Yankees and the 100th of his major-league career. He continues to play right field while Swisher is the DH. Swish led off the ninth inning with a double off Orioles closer Jim Johnson, but the Yankees failed to get the run home.

Teixeira tried to remain upbeat and expressed hope he would be sidelined a couple of days at most. He understands the team cannot afford to lose another big bat. He is hitting .298 with five doubles, one triple, seven home runs and 27 RBI in 84 at-bats in July.

“That’s why I played today,” he said.

On the double

The Yankees have gone double-play crazy the past two nights. Through the first four innings of Monday night’s game against the Orioles, the Yankees turned three double plays behind Freddy Garcia.

Entering the game, the Yankees were tied with Detroit with the fewest double plays (82) in the American League, and that was after a 5-DP game Sunday night against the Red Sox. Eight double plays in 14 innings are quite a few and much appreciated by the pitching staff. After all, the double play is a pitcher’s best friend.

Pettitte still on pace to return in September

Despite what Yankees fans may have read or heard in various media outlets, Andy Pettitte did not suffer a setback in his rehabilitation from a fractured left fibula. At the time of his injury June 27, it was noted that Pettitte’s recovery would take six to eight weeks. I wrote that day that the most generous timetable would be that he might be back around Labor Day.

None of that has changed. Pettitte had been throwing off flat ground and was told recently by doctors to hold off on that to allow more time for the bone to heal. Andy was overenthusiastic about a quick comeback when he rejoined the Yankees on their previous homestand, but that was just wishful thinking.

Pettitte is 40 years old. His bones are 40 years old. It takes more time for any injury to heal at that age. The healing process isn’t always smooth. There can be detours along the way, which is where Andy is right now.

“I would not call it a setback,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “It is just part of the healing process. We are still looking at the same timetable.”

The press crew tends to go overboard with these injury updates. Recently, Mariano Rivera said in a radio interview that he would be back on the mound before this season ends. Rivera at 42 is even older than Pettitte. That is not going to happen, either. Rivera is recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. The operation took place June 12, a full month after Mo was taken off the field at Kansas City writhing in pain. Rivera says he wants to pitch again, and there is a good chance that he will but not in 2012.

The most positive news involving a disabled Yankees player is that of Joba Chamberlain, who is scheduled to pitch again Tuesday night for Double A Trenton and could be back with the Yanks as soon as next week. Then again, he is not in his 40s.

Once again, Yanks fight back but can’t close the deal

The Yankees had a chance over the weekend to bury the Red Sox but failed to do so. Boston took two of the three games to get back to .500 (51-51). While the Sox are still in last place in the American League East they got the deficit below double figures (9 ½ games).

The Yanks were able to overcome a 2-0, second-inning deficit and push Sunday night’s game into extra innings. The way the Yanks’ offense has hummed this season, two runs is almost like being shut out. Russell Martin drove in both Yankees runs with his 12th home run and a single. The Yanks stranded 10 base runners in losing a series at home for only the fourth time this year.

Nine of the Yankees’ past 10 games have been decided by three runs or less, including five by one run, and they have lost all of those. For the second straight game, they came back in the eighth inning to tie the score only to lose the game eventually.

Typical of almost any Yanks-Red Sox match-up, there was some weirdness going on. After David Robertson got himself in trouble by walking Jarrod Saltalamachia to open the 10th, Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks attempted a sacrifice on a fastball from Robertson that ran in on the batter. The ball appeared to hit Middlebrooks on the right hand. Plate umpire Brian O’Nora fell to the ground because the ball ricocheted off Middlebrooks’ bat and struck him in the left knee.

The ump then pleased the Yankee Stadium crowd of 48,526 by ruling the play a foul ball. That brought Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine out of the dugout to argue what he thought was a foul call. Bobby V. put on a pretty good show and earned his ejection. What got to Valentine was O’Nora’s explanation, which is where the weird part comes in. After all, how can ump call a play when he is on the ground?

“Heard it,” Valentine said. “That’s what I take exception with. No one saw anything. He just heard it. What are you going to do?”

What Middlebrooks did was even better than bunting over the runner. He singled on a 0-2 pitch. Robertson got an out as Ryan Sweeney grounded into a force play, but new Yankee killer Pedro Ciriaco hit a bloop single to right field to drive in what proved the winning run.

Ciriaco, 26, who has bounced all over the majors and minors the past 10 seasons, is hitting an even .500 with two doubles, one triple and six RBI in 22 at-bats against the Yankees this year.

So the Red Sox picked up some hope. They still have to climb over four teams, but there are two months left in the season and nine more games against the Yankees, who now turn their attention to the second-place Orioles, who come to town for a three-game set beginning Monday night.

Martin takes Kuroda off the hook

Hiroki Kuroda continued his success at Yankee Stadium Sunday night, although he was not involved in the decision. Kuroda ended up with a no-decision thanks to his catcher, Russell Martin, who homered leading off the seventh inning and singled with two out in the eighth to drive in Andruw Jones from second base to tie the score.

The Red Sox had taken a 2-0 lead in the second inning on a two-run double by Ryan Sweeney. After that, Kuroda shut down Boston on five hits through the eighth and was supported by four double plays.

With the no-decision, Kuroda’s record at the Stadium this season remained 7-3. He lowered his ERA in home games to 2.63 and has held opponents to a .222 batting average with seven home runs and 23 RBI in 82 innings. Over his past 12 starts, Kuroda is 7-1 with a 2.46 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 84 innings.

Martin has had a miserable time of it this season at the plate, but before a national television audience on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball he had one of his best offensive games with two walks, the home run and the RBI single.

Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine should have done some homework before bringing in his closer, Alfredo Aceves, to pitch to Martin. The catcher had 3-for-5 (.600) with a home run off Aceves in his career before that at-bat. So make it 4-for-6 (.667) now.

Swisher back at DH; Ichiro still in right field

Nick Swisher returned to the Yankees’ lineup Sunday night after having not started six straight games due to a strained left hip flexor. Swish was the designated hitter. Manager Joe Girardi said he wanted to get him some at-bats before returning him to the outfield.

That meant Ichiro Suzuki was again starting in right field, even though the Red Sox starter was a lefthander, Felix Doubront. The left-handed Suzuki was expected to be benched against some lefthanders. He is batting .238 against lefties this season. Last year when he hit .272 overall, Ichiro batted .281 in 192 at-bats against lefties.

Suzuki seemed overmatched in his first two at-bats against Doubront. On each occasion, Ichiro batted with runners on first and second bases with two out. He hit a broken-bat ground ball to second base to end the second inning and a pop to shortstop to end the fourth. Suzuki’s strength has always been more in scoring runs that driving them in. He has scored more than 100 runs eight times but has never had more RBI in a season than the 69 he had as a rookie in 2001.

Some members of the press corps seem perplexed that Girardi continues to bat Ichiro eighth in the order. The first day Alex Rodriguez was out of the lineup Girardi moved Suzuki into his familiar leadoff spot and had Derek Jeter bat second, but Ichiro was back in the 8-hole for all three games of the Red Sox series.

I must say I have no real quarrel with that, although I would prefer he bat ninth. I like the idea of Suzuki and Jeter batting back-to-back, not as 1-2 in the order but rather 9-1. I just don’t feel that Suzuki is an ideal leadoff hitter anymore. He just does not get on base enough to justify batting in the top third of the order. Ichiro had one hit in each of his first five games for the Yankees but had yet to walk. His .289 on-base percentage does not warrant consideration of him as a leadoff hitter.

Still, Suzuki can be a catalyst at the bottom of the lineup provided he gets back to hitting with the consistency he once did.