September 2012

Perfect timing for Yanks to collect timely hits

Technically, it was not a save situation for Rafael Soriano in the ninth inning of Sunday’s game at Toronto’s Rogers Centre. The closer was summoned to pitch with the Yankees up by four runs, one more than the qualifying total in one inning for a save. Yet in ways other than technicalities, it was a save situation because the Yankees needed to save their season.

After a debilitating 3-2 loss to the Blue Jays Saturday, the Yankees’ season was on a precipice. With the Orioles having already defeated the Red Sox, the Yankees needed to maintain that lead to remain tied with Baltimore for first place in the American League East. It was a shaky outing for Soriano as the Jays loaded the bases with none out, but a couple of ground balls, one a big double play, later, the Yanks had what they needed, a hard-fought, 9-6 victory to salvage a split of the four-game set against one of the division’s also-rans.

The Yankees showed an abundance of resiliency in coming back from the 5-1 deficit Phil Hughes put them in over a struggling 4 2/3-inning performance. Derek Lowe brought order to the pitching side for the Yankees, who one day after being shut out for six innings by the Toronto bullpen came back to score seven runs with eight hits and three walks in three innings against seven relievers.

And the Yankees did all that damage without a home run. Their lone homer was a solo shot by Eric Chavez (No. 16) in the third inning off starter Henderson Alvarez, who limited the Yankees to two runs over the first six innings. The Yanks got some help with two runs coming on wild pitches, but for the most part they kept the line moving with timely hitting.

Robinson Cano, who got hot on this trip, had three hits – two of them doubles, including a gapper to right-center in the seventh to drive in one of the three runs the Yankees scored that inning to tie the game. Eduardo Nunez, who began that rally with a pinch-hit single, drove in the go-ahead run in the eighth with a sacrifice fly. Derek Jeter added an insurance run with a single, one of his three hits that raised his major-league-leading season hit total to 213.

Cano contributed a well-placed bunt single to a two-run ninth inning. The Blue Jays were employing an over-shift on Cano, who was batting with none out and Alex Rodriguez on first base after a leadoff single. It was a good idea by Cano. I have often wondered why more hitters don’t do this. Take what the defense will give you. The rally-fueling bunt hit preceded a walk to Nick Swisher that loaded the bases and a two-run single by Curtis Granderson, who pushed his season RBI total to 100, which is pretty impressive for a guy hitting .226 (of course, 40 home runs helped him get there).

With six straight multi-hit games, Cano is batting .625 with five doubles and five RBI in 24 at-bats. He hit .343 with 18 doubles and 11 home runs in day games this season. The Yanks’ remaining three games of the season will be at night, at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox. Meanwhile, the Orioles will finish up at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., against the Rays, who have won 10 of their past 11 games and are still in the wild-card hunt.

So after 159 games, the Yankees’ season comes down to the final series. A Yankees-Red Sox series usually has dramatic implications, but it will be decidedly one-sided this time.

Yanks more than umps at fault for one-run loss

Some questionable decisions by umpires Saturday went against the Yankees, but they really had no one but themselves to blame for a 3-2 loss at Toronto that cost them the opportunity to be in a position to clinch a postseason berth. Instead, the Yanks faced the possibility of falling back into a tie for first place in the American League East with the Orioles, who were scheduled Saturday night at home against the Red Sox.

If the Yankees had broken the game open when they had the chance in the early innings, then the calls that went against them later on would not have mattered. Their record in one-run games fell to 21-25, but this should never have been a one-run game for the Yankees.

They had the bases loaded with none out twice and came away with their only two runs, both on sacrifice flies in the first inning by Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. When they filled the bags with none out in the third, they failed to score at all. Eduardo Nunez in making the third out at least hit the ball hard, but Blue Jays second baseman Adeiny Hecchavarria made a diving grab.

The Yankees even caught a break when Jays starter Ricky Romero was forced out of the game with an aching left knee, but five Toronto relievers combined to shut them down on three hits and two walks over the last six innings. The Yankees had 2-for-11 (.182) with runners in scoring position and stranded 10 runners – eight over the first five innings and five in scoring position.

Andy Pettitte gave up his first run in his third start since returning from a fractured left fibula in the first inning on a home run by Rajai Davis, who is on fire in this series (7-for-8). Pettitte had problems working hitters inside and was not as sharp as his previous two starts but got his pitch count up to 94 and appeared perfectly healthy, both positive signs.

The bad calls? Toronto tied the score in the fifth on an infield hit by Davis that looked to be a foul ball. Both plate umpire Mike Everitt and third base ump Paul Schrieber signaled “fair” on the chopper down the third base line that Alex Rodriguez gloved while charging. It seemed to me that A-Rod caught the ball in foul ground, but obviously the umpires thought otherwise. It might have been better for Rodriguez to have let the ball go past him and into foul territory, but that is hindsight, which is always 20-20.

Pettitte came close to working out of a first-and-second, none-out situation by getting two fly balls to Granderson in center. Yanks manager Joe Girardi decided to lift Pettitte to have Joba Chamberlain face Hechavarria, who put the Blue Jays in front with a double off the right field wall. First baseman Nick Swisher made an alert play as the cutoff man and threw to A-Rod at third base to nail Yan Gomes, who had rounded the bag too far.

The second umpires’ decision that hurt the Yankees came in the ninth when Brett Gardner, pinch running, was caught attempting to steal second base. Video replays indicated that Gardner’s left hand hit the bag before shortstop Yunel Escobar tagged him, but second base umpire Tim Welke called him out.

Those are calls that are killers in one-run games, but this was a one-run game that the Yankees brought on themselves.

Nunez back in utility role with Nix injured

Considering his career record against Toronto lefthander Ricky Romero, the Blue Jays’ starting pitcher Saturday, Jayson Nix would have been expected to be in the Yankees’ lineup. Nix had 7-for-14 (.500) with a double against Romero. Not only was Nix not in the lineup, he was not even in Toronto.

The Yankees sent Nix back to New York so that he could have a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) examination on a sore left hip flexor which he incurred while playing third base Thursday night on the Rogers Centre artificial surface. Nix played for the Blue Jays last year and had a big year against his former teammates by hitting .353 with five doubles and three RBI in 12 games and 34 at-bats.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi in wanting to give Derek Jeter a day off the turf had to use Eduardo Nunez instead of Nix at shortstop. Girardi indicated to reporters before the game that Nix could be sidelined for some time, which means that Nunez becomes the utility infielder, the role he failed to handle earlier in the season when he was optioned to Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Nunez’s erratic defense was behind Girardi’s decision to put Jeter on the field in the sixth inning and thereby losing the designated hitter for the rest of the game, although that is not as much a detriment in September with rosters expanded past the 25-man limit. The bench at this time has no shortage of pinch hitters.

Eric Chavez’s 15th home run of the season in Friday night’s 11-4 victory gave the Yankees nine players with at least that many, which established a franchise record. The others are Curtis Granderson with 40, Robinson Cano 30, Nick Swisher 24, Mark Teixeira 23, Russell Martin 20, Raul Ibanez 18, Alex Rodriguez 18 and Jeter 15. One more home run by Andruw Jones, who has 14, and the Yankees would set a major-league record.

They are currently tied for the big-league mark of nine 15-plus homer hitters with two American League clubs that did it in the 2005 season, the Indians (Travis Hafner 33, Jhonny Peralta 24, Casey Blake 23, Grady Sizemore 22, Victor Martinez 20, Ben Broussard 19, Ronnie Belliard 17, Aaron Boone 16, Coco Crisp 16) and the Rangers (Teixeira 43, Alfonso Soriano 36, David Dellucci 29, Hank Blalock 25, Ken Mensch 25, Michael Young 24, Rod Barajas 21, Gary Matthews Jr. 17, Richard Hidalgo 16).

Yanks supply Kuroda plenty of run support

Hiroki Kuroda had some sloppy Toronto base runners to thank for helping him get through an important start for the Yankees Friday night. Their 11-4 victory kept them one game ahead of the Orioles, 9-1 winners at home against the Red Sox, in the American League East standings.

Brett Lawrie and Yunel Escobar led off the first two innings with doubles, and both were erased on dumb moves on the bases. Nick Swisher, who had given Kuroda a 2-0, first-inning lead with a two-run double, fielded a grounder by Colby Rasmus at first base and noticed Lawrie had broken off the bag at second too far and quickly threw to shortstop Derek Jeter covering for a big out.

In the second inning with the Yankees ahead, 3-0, Escobar was at third base after a wild pitch by Kuroda. As Kelly Johnson struck out, catcher Russell Martin noticed Escobar drifting off the bag and fired a strike to Alex Rodriguez for another huge out.

Kuroda thanked his teammates by not giving up a lead in the game for the first time in six starts. The Blue Jays loaded the bases later in the third inning with two out, but Kuroda got a major out himself by striking out Rasmus with an inside fastball on a full count.

It was not vintage Kuroda, who spent most of his 5 1/3 innings pitching out of the stretch what with all the runners he put on base. The righthander allowed 10 hits and two walks, but the Jays had only one hit in eight at-bats with runners in scoring position off Kuroda, who gutted his way through a victory that improved his record to 15-11.

The Yankees, who have not always supported Kuroda with a lot of runs this year, fortified him throughout this game. Of the Yankees’ 11 runs, nine were scored after two out. The crucial hit was Russell Martin’s three-run home run in the sixth that turned a tight 3-1 score into a comfy 6-1.

Martin’s 20th homer of the season came off righthander Jason Frasor, who entered the game after lefthander Brett Cecil had struck out Curtis Granderson and Raul Ibanez with runners on first and second. Frasor then walked Eric Chavez and allowed singles to Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki to make it 7-1.

In 19 games since Sept. 3, Martin has batted .299 with three doubles, six home runs and 19 RBI in 67 at-bats to raise his batting average from .195 to .212. With his career-high total, Martin is the fifth Yankees player to reach the 20-homer plateau, joining Granderson (40), Robinson Cano (30), Swisher (24) and Mark Teixeira (23).

It was truly an ensemble offensive effort for the Yankees. Everyone in the starting lineup had at least one hit. The last to join the hit parade was Chavez with a two-run home run in the ninth. He had contributed earlier with two walks and a run. The Yankees had 6-for-15 (.400) with runners in scoring position.

Nova could pitch his way out of rotation

Ivan Nova’s hopes of being in the Yankees’ rotation in the postseason were probably dashed Thursday night when he could not get through the fifth inning at Toronto’s Rogers Centre. Of course, the Yankees have to get to the postseason first, which was not helped by their losing to the Blue Jays, 6-0.

Nova gave up four earned runs, six hits and two walks with four strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings. He was wounded by a two-run home run by Brett Lawrie in the third inning and a two-run double by Edwin Encarnacion in the fifth. The extra-base hits raised the season total against Nova to 87, the most yielded by any pitcher in the majors this season and by any Yankees pitcher in their history. The previous club mark of 86 was set in 1989 by Andy Hawkins, but he pitched 38 more innings than Nova.

The struggling outing came on the heels of a start five days ago when Nova pitched only 2 1/3 innings against the Athletics at Yankee Stadium and allowed three earned runs and five hits. The righthander’s earned run average has bloated to 5.02. Over his past 11 starts, Nova is 2-5 with a 7.05 ERA. He has allowed 75 hits, including 11 home runs, in 60 innings over that stretch.

Toronto starter Brandon Morrow was in complete control in his seven innings as he got 13 outs in the infield to go with three strikeouts. Brad Lincoln and Darren Oliver supplied a scoreless inning apiece as the Yankees were shut out for the sixth time this year. Robinson Cano had three hits and Russell Martin two, but the rest of the batting order went 0-for-22.

The Yankees wasted an opportunity to gain ground in the American League East on the Orioles, who were not scheduled. The Yankees’ lead over Baltimore is down to one game again with six games remaining for each team. The Blue Jays are doing a good job of playing spoiler. Toronto split a four-game series with the Orioles before beginning a four-game set against the Yanks with a victory.

With the race as close as it is, the Yankees cannot speak openly about postseason play. If they do qualify for the playoffs, the Yanks are likely to go with a four-man rotation. Nova’s recent starts would appear to put him behind CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte.

Socks for Soldiers initiative in final Stadium series

The Yankees announced Thursday the launch of Socks for Soldiers, an initiative that supports the organization’s Veterans Day project. Fans with tickets to the Yankees’ final three regular-season home games against the Red Sox Monday, Oct. 1, through Wednesday, Oct. 3, will be asked to bring new cushion-soled socks that can be worn in combat boots. The socks will be collected and sent to U.S. servicemen and servicewomen stationed overseas.

More than 70 collection boxes will be set up throughout Yankee Stadium where fans may drop off the socks between the hours of 5 to 8 p.m. In-stadium collection boxes will be placed at the Yankees’ Main Lobby and Gate 2 entrance (both on 164th Street and Jerome Avenue), the Gate 4 suite and main entrances (161st Street and Jerome Avenue), the Great Hall (between Gates 4 and 6 on 161st Street), the Hard Rock Cafe at Gate 6 (161st Street and River Avenue) and the Gate 8 entrance (164th Street and River Avenue).

Each pair of socks collected will be one component of care packages that will be assembled for military service members at the Stadium Thursday, Nov. 8.

On Veterans Day 2011, more than 140 volunteers, including Yankees manager Joe Girardi, gathered in the Stadium’s Great Hall to assemble approximately 5,000 Big Apple Packs, which were distributed during the holiday season to deploying troops and those serving in Afghanistan.

Yankee Stadium’s care package event in 2011 was one of 11 civilian-military service projects which were held across the United States on Veterans Day. The events were intended to bring attention to civilian-military integration and highlight the importance of volunteerism and community service for our nation.

CC & fellow lefties make things right in Minnesota

Yankees fans can stop worrying about CC Sabathia. There were times this season that concern was raised about the lefthander, especially when elbow issues placed him on the disabled list twice. Sabathia is peaking at the right time, however, as the Yankees close in on qualifying for a playoff berth.

Sabathia had his second straight eight-inning start Wednesday at Minneapolis as the Yankees rebounded from a hard loss the night before for an 8-2 victory. It was CC’s first winning decision in six starts since Aug. 24. His fastball rarely got above 91 miles per hour, but his hard-breaking slider was a huge weapon. Go ask Joe Mauer, who struck out three times on nine pitches and also grounded out in four at-bats against Sabathia.

Over his past two starts, Sabathia has pitched 16 innings and allowed two earned runs (1.13 ERA) and nine hits with three walks and 21 strikeouts. That is the performance line of an ace, which the Yankees need CC to be.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi stacked up a mostly left-handed lineup against Twins starter Samuel Deduno, a righthander, only to see lefthander Brian Duensing enter the game in the second when Deduno had to be pulled because of left eye irritation. It mattered little to the Yanks’ lefty batters. They clobbered Duenisng for five hits and six runs in the third inning.

Of the Yankees’ 11 hits in the game, nine were by left-handed batters – two apiece by Robinson Cano (two RBI), Raul Ibanez (one run), Chris Dickerson (home run, two RBI) and Ichiro Suzuki (10-game hitting streak) and one by Curtis Granderson (two-run triple). The right-handed hits were by switch hitter Nick Swisher batting righty against Duensing and Chris Stewart. Derek Jeter took a 0-for-4 collar and had his 19-game hitting streak halted, but he walked and scored in the six-run third.

Another left-handed batter, Brett Gardner, returned to the field for the first time since April 17 after coming back from left wrist surgery. He played left field in the ninth inning but did not bat.

It was an important bounce-back victory for the Yankees, who moved two games ahead of the Orioles in the American League East standings. Baltimore was home Wednesday night against the Blue Jays, who will return to Toronto to open a four-game set against the Yankees Thursday night.

Wednesday’s victory was the Yankees’ 90th of the season. It marks the 60th season that they have won that many games. The team with the next highest 90-victory seasons is San Francisco with 41. The Giants, who have won 89 games and are shooting for their 42nd 90-victory season, as a franchise are 18 years older than the Yankees.

Pitching moves continue to backfire

How about the pitching moves in the Yankees-Twins series?

Tuesday night, Yankees manager Joe Girardi lifted starter Phil Hughes in the seventh inning for Boone Logan, who failed to protect a 3-1 lead in a game the Yanks eventually lost, 5-4.

Wednesday, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire lifted starter Samuel Deduno in the second inning because the righthander had left eye irritation. Lefthander Brian Duensing retired his first two batters and then allowed the next seven Yankees reach base on five hits and two walks with a wild pitch thrown in for good measure as the Bombers turned a 1-0 deficit into a 6-1 advantage.

The Yanks’ lineup had a different look as Ichiro Suzuki batted leadoff and Derek Jeter second, a reverse of recent games. Absent from the batting order was third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who sustained a bruised left foot Tuesday night on a foul ball in his eighth inning at-bat.

Robinson Cano, who had three hits Tuesday night, continued to swing the bat with authority as he doubled in two runs in the six-run third inning. Nick Swisher extended his hitting streak to nine games with an RBI single, and Curtis Granderson tripled in two runs. Duensing, who gave up hits to five left-handed batters, gave the Yankees a free run as well with that wild pitch.

Part of the rally was a single by Suzuki, whose hitting streak has reached 10 games.

The Twins’ run off CC Sabathia in the second inning was driven in on a single by Matt Carson. Yankees fans who pay attention to players in the minor leagues may recall the name. Carson was a fifth-round pick of the Yankees in the First Year Player Draft of 2002 and spent six seasons in the organization before he was released after the 2008 season. Carson, an outfielder, played in the Oakland and Tampa Bay organizations over three seasons before coming to the Twins and their Triple A Rochester affiliate this year at age 30 still pursuing the major-league dream. Good for him.

Move to the pen proves costly

A perfect example of how managerial moves are based on players’ execution was on view in the seventh inning Tuesday night. Yankees manager Joe Girardi made a pitching change that seemed to make a lot of sense at the time only to have it explode in his face.

Phil Hughes cruised through six innings and had a 3-1 lead with a relatively low pitch count. He gave up a leadoff single in the seventh to Ryan Doumit and then lost Chris Parmelee to a walk in a 10-pitch at-bat in which Parmelee fouled off six pitches. Hughes didn’t appear gassed, however. He got an out on a popup before an infield single by Jamey Carroll loaded the bases. Hughes got a huge second out on a strikeout of Pedro Florimon on a high fastball.

This is when Girardi made his move to Boone Logan. Although Hughes was only at 99 pitches (like it or not, pitch count for starter plays into such moves), Girardi’s decision had merit. Logan is a lefthander, and the next four Minnesota batters were left-handed. This was as book a move as they come. It was also as disastrous a move as they come, which was because of Logan’s failure to execute pitches.

He got off to a bumpy start while pitching to Denard Span by throwing a wild pitch through the legs of catcher Russell Martin that scored Doumit to make it a one-run game with the other two runners advancing as well. Span worked the count full before lining a slider into right-center field for a two-run double that cost the Yankees the lead.

Logan continued to struggle against the lefty hitters as Ben Revere walked and Joe Mauer singled for his third hit to score Span for an insurance run that proved necessary when the Yankees scored in the ninth on a pinch home run by Andruw Jones.

The 5-4 loss was a tough one for the Yankees and an excruciating one for Hughes, who instead of improving his record to 17-12 fell to 16-13 and lost the chance to equal his career high in victories of 2010 when he was 18-8. If nothing else, though, Hughes probably cemented his position in the Yankees’ postseason rotation, assuming they get there, of course.

That would have been more of a cinch had the Yankees won Tuesday night. The Orioles had lost at home to the Blue Jays. A Yankees victory would have pushed Baltimore 2 ½ games away (and three in the loss column) in the American League East, but they had to satisfy for another calendar date turnover.

It was a disappointing turnaround for the Yankees, who used the long ball once again with a two-run home run by Nick Swisher and a solo by Martin. Jones’ 14th home run of the season was his first in 49 at-bats since Aug. 16. The Yankees continued to find Target Field to their liking with 17 home runs in nine games there over the past three seasons.

Swisher is heating up at a good time with an eight-game hitting streak in which he has 11-for-30 (.367) with four home runs and 11 RBI. Another good sign was Robinson Cano reaching base four times on three singles and a walk after coming into the game with three hits in his previous 25 at-bats, a .120 stretch.

Derek Jeter had 1-for-5 to extend his hitting streak to 19 games, matching the third longest of his career. The other was in 2007, the same year that he also had a 20-game streak. The longest streak of DJ’s career was a 25-gamer in 2006, the year he finished second to Twins first baseman Justin Morneau for the AL Most Valuable Player Award.

Pettitte keeps putting up zeroes

Just as he did five days earlier, Andy Pettitte pitched with a lot of runners on base Monday night at Minneapolis. And just as he did five days earlier, Pettitte made sure none of them scored.

It was another shutout effort for the lefthander after missing 11 weeks because of a fractured left fibula. Pettitte has put up a zero for each of those weeks – 11 scoreless innings in his two starts back. Buoyed by a 3-0, first-inning lead, Pettitte worked out of the jams he got himself into and notched another victory against the Twins, which is pretty common for him.

Things looked shaky in the first inning when Minnesota loaded the bases with one out, but Andy stunned Justin Morneau with a fastball on the outside corner for a called third strike and retired Ryan Doumit on a fielder’s choice. The Yankees supported Pettitte with two double plays to get out of innings, and his catcher, Russell Martin, made a sensational tag for an out at the plate after taking a strong throw from center fielder Curtis Granderson to end another inning.

Over six innings, Pettitte scattered seven hits and a walk and struck out three in improving his season record to 5-3 and earning his 245th career victory to tie Dennis Martinez for 49th place on the all-time list. He is undefeated over his last 12 starts against Minnesota (regular season and postseason combined) dating to May 2001 with a 10-0 record and a 2.53 ERS in 80 2/3 innings. Over his past 17 regular season and postseason starts against the Twins since 1999, Pettitte is 13-1 with a 2.38 ERA in 117 innings and has held them to three runs or fewer in 14 outings.

Now what is all this about Target Field being a tough place to hit home runs? Not for the Yanks. They pounded four of them, including three absolute moon shots, against Twins righthander Liam Hendricks and have clubbed 14 home runs in eight games at the Minneapolis yard that opened in 2010.

Nick Swisher got the home run derby going in the first inning with a two-run shot to right that measured 428 feet. Granderson went nearly 10 feet farther with his solo shot in the fourth that was his 40th home run of the season, one shy of his 2011 total. Granderson joined Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Jason Giambi as the only Yankees players to homer 40 times in consecutive seasons. It should be mentioned that the Babe did it eight times while the others did it once apiece.

Raul Ibanez continued his smoking hot streak with a drive into the second deck in right field leading off the seventh inning for his 18th home run. Eric Chavez homered to left (No. 14) two batters later. Ibanez has 7-for-12 (.583) with two doubles, three home runs and five RBI since breaking out of a 0-for-18 slump.

Ichiro Suzuki, last week’s American League Player of the Week, doubled his first time up, and Derek Jeter with a single in his final at-bat in the ninth inning extended his hitting streak to 18 games.

The Yankees also gained ground in the AL East standings over the Orioles, who divided a doubleheader against the Blue Jays at home. The Yankees’ lead is 1 ½ games (two in the loss column) as the magic number for clinching a postseason berth is down to four.