August 2012

Orioles breathing down Yankees’ necks

Ready to panic yet? Yankees manager Joe Girardi says no. Yankees player say no. Yankees fans? Now that is a different story.

You could tell by the moaning sounds coming from the Yankee Stadium crowd of 42,352 Friday night that Yankees Universe may be falling into a panic mode. The Orioles’ 6-1 victory reduced the Yankees’ lead in the American League East to two games over Baltimore. If the Yanks don’t get their game together, they might lose all of that 10-game lead they had back on July 18.

Girardi has made a rotation change to try and stem the tide. Freddy Garcia was supposed to start Saturday but has been pushed back to Monday night at St. Petersburg, Fla. David Phelps will go instead Saturday and Phil Hughes Sunday against an Orioles squad that has been the surprise of baseball this year.

Baltimore’s record is 15 games above .500 for the first time in 15 years. Not since the last week of the 1997 season have the Orioles been this high above par. It has been an amazing season for the Orioles, considering they have been outscored by 39 runs. My old pal, Gary Thorne, the O’s television play-by-play announcer, explained that the reason for that is because the Orioles are winning a ton of one-run (24-6) and two-run (22-12) games.

Friday night was no one- or two-run game for the Orioles. They struck for three runs in the second inning off Hiroki Kuroda on a sacrifice fly by Chris Davis and a two-run home run by Mark Reynolds and made all that stand up. Kuroda, who lasted one out into the ninth, gave up a solo home run to J.J. Hardy in the sixth. Baltimore added two tag-on runs in the ninth off Derek Lowe, one on Reynolds’ second homer of the game. Curtis Granderson’s 34th home run with one out in the ninth off reliever Brian Matusz prevented the Yankees from being shut out.

It was the next worse thing to that, though. The Yankees once again failed to give Kuroda ample run support. In this case, no run support at all. Kuroda has the fourth lowest run support total of any starting pitcher in the AL. The Yanks managed four hits, all singles, off O’s starter Miguel Gonzalez (6-3), who had a sneaky fastball that resulted in one walk and nine strikeouts in seven innings.

“His fastball was quicker than we expected,” Girardi said, “and he got his breaking balls over behind in the count.”

A dangerous combination, to be sure. The Yankees struck out 11 times in the game, including Nick Swisher taking the golden sombrero with four Ks.

The Yankees threatened to get back into the game in the sixth. Trailing, 4-0, they got the first two batters on base, but Derek Jeter, Swisher and Robinson Cano could not get the ball out of the infield. The next inning, they had two on and two out but Ichiro Suzuki grounded out. So their offense turned out to be nothing more than Granderson’s dinger.

Girardi called what the Yankees are going through “a little rut.” Perhaps, so, but it has also led to a little gap between them and the Orioles.

A-Rod begins injury rehab assignment

Alex Rodriguez will get his first taste of live pitching in five weeks Friday night when he serves as the designated hitter for Class A Tampa at Lakeland in a Florida State League game while on an injury-rehabilitation assignment. Rodriguez has been on the disabled list since July 25 due to a broken bone in his left hand.

The Yankees will travel to Tampa following Sunday’s series finale against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium and are hopeful that A-Rod may be activated for the three-game series against the Rays.

Andy Pettitte, disabled since June 28 because of a fractured left fibula, is expected to throw a bullpen session sometime over the weekend in his rehabilitation toward a possible return to the mound in September.

Pedro Feliciano, who is recovering from left rotator cuff surgery, was scheduled to have his rehab assignment transferred to Class A Staten Island Friday night. The lefthander has pitched 6 1/3 combined innings in seven outings – four with the Gulf Coast League Yankees, one with Class A Tampa and two with Double A Trenton. He has allowed two earned runs, six hits and three walks with eight strikeouts for an ERA of 2.84.

With little more than a week to play in the minor-league season, the Yankees’ top two affiliates have secured postseason berths. Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre clinched the North Division of the International League Thursday night. Double A Trenton has clinched a playoff berth and has a magic number of two to clinch the Eastern Division title of the Eastern League. Class A Tampa is one game out of first place in the North Division of the Florida State League with three games to play.

Trenton’s Tony Franklin was named 2012 Eastern League Manager of the Year for the first time in his career. His victory came a few days after SWB’s Dave Miley was named 2012 Manager of the Year in the International League.

The Yankees will be in first place in the American League East Saturday when the calendar turns to September. They have made postseason in each of the past 15 times they were first at the start of play Sept. 1 since divisional play began in 1969. According to Stats LLC, the Yanks finished first in 39 of the 43 seasons when they led the division Labor Day.

Yanks to stay on WCBS radio through 2013

The Yankees and WCBS-880AM radio reached agreement to extend their current radio broadcast agreement through the 2013 season.

The radio station, which provides nighttime coverage to more than 30 states, will carry all regular and postseason games as well as select spring training games. WCBS has been the team’s flagship station since 2002.

John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman, who have called games together since 2005, are expected to return to the booth. Sterling has been the radio voice of the Yankees since 1989.

WCBS is owned and operated by CBS Radio, one of the largest major-market operators in the United States, reaching nearly 70 million over-the-air listeners on a weekly basis. CBS Radio operates 127 radio stations across 28 markets, including all of the Top 10.

Yanks hurt by errors, lack of clutch hitting

Whether the Yankees like it or not, they are going to be in a division race. The 10-game lead in the American League East that they had July 18 is ancient history. The Orioles went into their game Wednesday night against the White Sox trailing the Yanks by only two games in the loss column and are due at Yankee Stadium Friday night to open a three-game series that could have ramifications on what kind of a September is in store.

Yankees fans must hope their team will play better than it did against the Blue Jays in losing two of three games to the division’s cellar dwellers. Wednesday’s 8-5 setback was a messy affair. CC Sabathia, the staff ace, failed to hold leads of 2-0 and 4-3, although his defense betrayed him in spots.

The biggest spot was in the third inning. An error by third baseman Jayson Nix opened the doors to a three-run rally. The Yankees appeared to have escaped danger in a bases-loaded, none-out situation with Nix fielding Mike McCoy’s grounder, tagging third and throwing home for a twin killing.

Broken-bats by Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind tied the score before Yunel Escobar got the first of his four hits, three doubles and five RBI with a shot to left that put the Jays ahead. The only reason the Yankees were able to regain the lead with two runs in the third was because left fielder Rajai Davis misplayed Curtis Granderson’s line drive into a two-run double, one of six two-baggers the Yanks had in the game.

The one big mistake by Sabathia was hanging a full-count slider in the sixth to Escobar, who crushed it into the left-field bleachers for a two-run home run. Escobar had actually attempted to bunt earlier in the at-bat. Six of Sabathia’s eight strikeouts in seven innings were on sliders, but the one to Escobar in that situation was too fat.

Still, the Yankees had chances, loads of them, to get back into the game. Nix doubled to lead off the sixth and never got past second base. Robinson Cano doubled with one out in the seventh and ditto. Successive doubles by Raul Ibanez (6-for-18 as a pinch hitter) and Russell Martin in the eighth got the Yankees within 6-5, but Martin was stranded.

The Yankees had 3-for-17 (.176) with runners in scoring position. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays had 5-for-13 (.385) in the clutch in sending Sabathia to his first loss in 10 starts since June 7. It also ended an eight-game winning streak Sabathia had against the Blue Jays dating to May 1, 2007 and marked his 10th loss in 42 decisions at the current Stadium.

“I was falling behind in counts and wasn’t making pitches with two strikes,” said Sabathia, who did not resort to excuses.

Asked about the broken-bat dunks, CC said, “They are hits that score runs, it doesn’t matter. I have to pitch better. We have to play better.”

Keep an eye on the scoreboard

September is just around the corner, so it is time to start watching the scoreboard regularly. And never believe it if you read or hear a player say that he doesn’t pay attention to the scoreboard. Of course, they do. As Dennis Eckersley used to say, “That’s why they put the scoreboards out there, right?”

So with a little more than a month left in the season, scoreboard-watching becomes a sport of its own, especially now that there is an additional wild card team in each league, a wrinkle that puts a premium on finishing first in your division. The wild cards will face off in a one-game playoff game to qualify for the Division Series. You can be sure that the Yankees and the other division leaders have no desire to be involved in a one-game win or go home scenario.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi has been somewhat defensive about his managerial philosophy in September and maintained that he would never ease off the pedal regardless of circumstances. It did seem, however, that in 2010 he rested players quite a bit knowing that the Yankees despite being in a division race with the Rays were guaranteed a postseason berth anyway and preferred to get there without being exhausted. That is not an option anymore. Finish second, and you need to win another game to go to the postseason dance.

First place is the Yankees’ goal. Girardi has emphasized that since the start of spring training. With the Yankees playing within the American League East for three weeks, close attention will be paid to the scoreboard.

Tuesday night’s 2-1 victory over the Blue Jays was an antidote the Yankees needed after Monday night’s extra-inning loss. Rafael Soriano atoned for his blown save with a clean ninth inning for his 34th save, but the main pitching contribution came from starter Phil Hughes, who limited Toronto to one run and four hits over seven innings.

Matters got a bit wobbly in the sixth when Hughes walked the first two batters and nearly had Adam Lind take him deep before the drive off a changeup died on the right field warning track. Yunel Escobar hit the ball much harder, a liner on which Robinson Cano made a leaping catch and topped it off with a strong throw to third base that doubled up Colby Rasmus.

“I thought he had no chance to catch the ball, and then he gets a double play for icing on the cake,” Girardi said. “I’m not sure any other second baseman could have made that play.”

The only run Hughes allowed, not surprisingly, came on a home run, the 30th he has yielded this year, and the first career jack for rookie third baseman Adeiny Hechavarria, in the fifth. Hughes needed to be sharp because the Yankees had as weak a batting order as Girardi could have put together with newcomer Steve Pearce, who has bounced between the majors and minors, in the cleanup spot and .195-hitting Russell Martin in the 5-hole.

Ironically, Pearce and Martin helped build the run in the fourth inning that proved the difference maker. Pearce drew a leadoff walk and advanced to second on a wild pitch by hard-luck loser Ricky Romero. Martin moved Pearce to third with a ground ball to the right side, which enabled Curtis Granderson to score Pearce with a fly ball to center.

The Yankees’ other run was on a single in the third by Swisher off Romero, who lost his 11th consecutive decision. The lefthander opened the season with an 8-1 record and is now 8-12. The Jays have scored merely 17 runs over Romero’s past 10 starts. Jayson Nix, who played for the Blue Jays last year, had two hits and is batting .400 in 25 at-bats this season against his old team.

It was the second of 22 straight games for the Yankees within the AL East, which will include 13 games combined against their closest divisional competitors, Baltimore and Tampa Bay. The Yankees could see that the Orioles shut out the White Sox to remain 3 ½ games behind them in the standings. The 6-0 final was right there on the scoreboard.

New man is Yanks’ new cleanup hitter

The Yankees did not waste any time integrating Steve Pearce into the framework. Pearce, who was acquired from the Astros for cash considerations Monday, arrived at Yankee Stadium late Tuesday afternoon and discovered he was batting cleanup in his first game for them.

It may seem a strange spot for a .237 career hitter in part of six major-league seasons, but the Yankees are pretty beaten up these days and are lacking in right-handed hitting with third baseman Alex Rodriguez on the disabled list and switch-hitting first baseman Mark Teixeira expected to be sidelined the rest of the homestand while nursing a strained left calf muscle.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi noted that Pearce has a reputation for hitting left-handed pitching. Toronto started lefty Ricky Romero Tuesday night. Pearce took the roster spot of Casey McGehee, who hit .186 in 13 games and 43 at-bats for the Yankees since his trade from Pittsburgh July 31 for pitcher Chad Qualls. McGehee, who was optioned to Class A Charleston, had two hits in his past 24 at-bats (.083).

Teixeira said he felt just as sore Tuesday as he did Monday night when he hurt the calf breaking out of the batter’s box in his first-inning at-bat and aggravating it scoring from second base in the fourth inning on a single by Russell Martin. Tex said he hoped to be sidelined for only a week. A similar injury shut Derek Jeter down for the full 15-day DL period last year.

“I don’t think my injury is as severe as Derek’s was,” Teixeira said. “I don’t expect to be out as long.”

The Yankees decided to gamble on not disabling Teixeira by playing a man short until Saturday when rosters can expand beyond 25 players. With Thursday an open date, it means the Yankees will be in that situation for only three games. Of course, it someone else gets hurt, a roster move would likely be made.

One piece of good news is that Rodriguez took a regular session of batting practice to test his left hand, which sustained a broken bone when he was hit by a pitch July 24 at Seattle. “I am hoping to come back as quick as possible,” A-Rod said.

SWB’s Miley International League’s top manager

Dave Miley, who has guided a nomadic Scranton/Wilkes Barre franchise to an 81-47 record this season, was named the International League Manager of the Year for 2012 as voted upon by the league’s managers, coaches and media and club representatives. It is the second time that Miley has received the honor. He also won in 2007, his first season as skipper of the Yankees’ Triple A affiliate.

Despite having to play its entire season without a true home stadium while PNC Field in Moosic, Pa., undergoes a $43.3-million reconstruction project, the SWB Yankees have the second best record in the league and are 12 games over .500 both in “home” games (40-28) and road games (41-29).

“It is really difficult to describe adequately the job Dave Miley has done in the 2010 season,” Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said. “Dave has met the extraordinary challenge of leading a team playing 144 games on the road with extraordinary success. No one could be more deserving of this award.”

Miley previously won the award five years ago after capturing the first of four consecutive North Division titles for the SWB Yankees. SWB is poised to win its fifth division title in six years as a Yankees affiliate with a magic number of one with six games left in the regular season.

“It has always been about the coaches and players surrounding me,” Miley said. “Just as it has been every year, once again this season the Yankees have given me great coaches to work with and great players to manage.”

Miley picked up the 1,600th victory of his minor-league managerial career with a victory April 13 over the Buffalo Bisons and his 500th victory as the Yankeees’ Triple A manager May 12 over the Durham Bulls. In 21 seasons as a minor-league manager, Miley has posted a record of 1,678 victories and 1,271 losses for a .569 winning percentage. He has been the only manager in SWB Yankees history and in seven seasons as skipper of the Yanks’ top affiliate is 563-430 (.567). He has totaled 19 winning seasons in 21 years as a minor-league manager.

“What Dave has done with his team would be impressive in a normal situation,” SWB Yankees president and general manager Rob Crain said. “With the challenges he and his staff encountered this year, his efforts have been nothing short of remarkable.”

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre as a franchise now ranks third all-time in the International League with five Managers of the Year in its 24-sesaon history. In addition to Miley’s two victories, other manager honors for SWB went to Lee Elia in 1992, Marc Bombard in 2002 and John Russell in 2006.

Wednesday is Special Olympics Day at Stadium

The Yankees, along with Special Olympics New York, will feature Special Olympics Day at Yankee Stadium Wednesday. Prior to the Yankees’ game against the Blue Jays that starts at 1:05 p.m., approximately 20 Special Olympics athletes, all from the Bronx, will take part in a “Field of Dreams,” joining Yankees players at their respective positions on the field for the playing of the national anthems of Canada and the United States. A pregame ceremony with Neal Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Special Olympics New York, will be held at the plate.

The Special Olympics movement began in the early 1960s, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver saw how unjustly and unfairly people with intellectual disabilities were treated. Her vision of helping these individuals took shape when she held a summer day camp for young people with intellectual disabilities in her own backyard. The goal was to focus on what these children could do in sports and other activities without dwelling on what they could not do.

Established in 1969 by Dorothy Buehring Phillips, the Special Olympics New York Program is dedicated to providing year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-style sports for all children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Through their participation in the program, athletes gain confidence and build a positive self-image, which carries into the classroom, the home, the workplace and the community.

Today, Special Olympics New York serves more than 55,000 athletes, which makes it the largest such program in the U.S. and the sixth largest in the world. Funded primarily by donations from individuals, corporations and foundations, the organization never charges athletes, their families or caregivers for training or competition.

More information on the program and how to sponsor an athlete can be found on the Special Olympics New York website: http://www.specialolympicsNY.0rg.

Uganda’s 2012 Little League World Series team, the first from Africa to participate in the annual competition at Williamsport, Pa., will also be guests of the Yankees Wednesday. As part of their visit, the Ugandan team will be on the field for the Yankees’ batting practice and participate in the roll call with the Bleacher Creatures in Section 203 at the start of the game. Uganda finished with a 1-2 record at the Little League World Series with losses to Aguadulce, Panama, 9-3, July 17 and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, 12-0, July 18 before defeating Gresham, Ore., 3-2, in its final game July 21.

Pitcher’s mound a disaster area

The pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium was a rough place to be Monday night. Baseballs seemed to be aimed at the area all night. Two Toronto pitchers were removed from the game after being hit by line drives. Rafael Soriano, who was struck in the right hand by a liner Sunday at Cleveland, had the roughest time on the mound, however.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi kidded reporters before the game when asked about Soriano’s condition. “I just shook hands with him, and he’s fine,” Girardi said.

The skipper didn’t get to shake Soriano’s hand after the last out, which is customary after a relief pitcher notches a save. Soriano blew a save for only the third time in 36 opportunities this year as he gave up a three-run home run to Colby Rasmus with two out in the ninth inning that turned a 6-4 Yankees lead into a 7-6 deficit.

Fortunately for Soriano and the Yankees, Derek Jeter led off the bottom of the ninth with a home run off Casey Janssen that sent the game into extra innings. It was not a good night for closers.

And it was from the mound that Derek Lowe made a costly error as pinch runner Mike McCoy went all the way to third base after a wild pickoff attempt at first base. Excellent base running by McCoy on a slow roller by Adeiny Hechavarrria resulted in the deciding run. Third baseman Jayson Nix made a fine, charging play, and McCoy broke for the plate the moment Nix released his throw to first base. Eric Chavez playing first base threw home but had no shot at McCoy.

The Blue Jays stopped a seven-game losing streak with the 8-7, 11-inning victory. The Yanks had their lead in the American League East shrink to 3 ½ games over the Orioles, who jumped over the Rays and into second place.

Even worse news for the Yankees was the possible loss of Mark Teixeira for the remainder of the homestand and perhaps even longer. Tex came out of the game after scoring a run in the fourth inning because of a left calf strain.

“I’m concerned,” Girardi said after the game. “It is hard to replace middle-of-the-lineup guys, especially a switch hitter who helps to break up our lefties.”

On the positive side, Alex Rodriguez, another middle-of-the-order guy who has been disabled since July 25 with a broken bone in his left hand, got the okay to take batting practice Tuesday.

Soriano’s failure took a deserving victory away from David Phelps, who had another solid if not spectacular outing for the Yankees as a spot starter. Phelps was victimized by the long ball as home runs by Adam Lind and Yorvit Torrealba accounted for three of the four runs he allowed in 6 1/3 innings.

The ball was carrying well in the humid air. Robinson Cano smacked two home runs and Nick Swisher one. Yet in the eighth the Yanks played some small-ball as Russell Martin sacrificed Chavez into scoring position. Chavez had singled on another ball off a pitcher. An insurance run there would have been nice, but Andruw Jones and Ichiro Suzuki both grounded out.

Cano’s slump is ancient history

Remember that slump Robinson Cano was in during the last homestand when he had only one hit in 17 at-bats and looked lost at the plate? Well, he is definitely out of it.

Back at Yankee Stadium Monday night for the opener of a three-game set against the Blue Jays, Cano homered in his first two at-bats off righthander Henderson Alvarez, who was knocked out of the game the fourth inning.

Cano got himself back on track during the trip to Chicago and Cleveland last week when he hit .381 with four doubles, four walks and two runs in 21 at-bats. He did not drive in a run on the trip but made up for that with the dingers his first two times up Monday night. That lifted Cano’s season home run total to 27, two shy of his career high established in 2010. And to think, he had only three home runs in his first 38 games this season.

Alvarez, who lost his previous four starts, failed to survive the fourth as the Yankees wounded him figuratively and literally. He was hit on his pitching hand by an Eric Chavez liner in the second inning that became a single but remained in the game. After giving up Cano’s second homer, Alvarez walked Mark Teixeira and allowed a one-run single to Chavez before Russell Martin hit a liner that struck Alvarez on the left shin. The ball rolled all the way to right field for a single that scored Teixeira.

Alvarez, who has pitched to a 7.77 ERA over his past five starts, came out of the game at that point. The Yanks got another run on a fielder’s choice by Raul Ibanez. X-rays on Alvarez’s shin were negative.

The Yankees were hoping for positive news on the condition of Teixeira, who was also forced out of the game after he raced home from second base on Martin’s single. Tex has a left calf strain and was to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging test later Monday night.