When in doubt, hit a runner on wayward path

The bullpen is supposed to be a major strength for the Yankees this year. The trade for Aroldis Chapman from the Reds added the game’s fiercest flame thrower to a back end of the pen that already featured last year’s 1-2 punch of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. Chapman is serving a suspension until May, but the Yankees feel protected in the interim because of the presence of Betances and Miller.

So it was a decided downer that a shaky inning by Betances in the eighth Tuesday sent the Yankees to their fifth straight Opening Day defeat. The Astros came back from a 2-0 deficit against Masahito Tanaka for a 5-3 victory. Betances was tagged with the loss, but this one probably should have an asterisk. The three runs he allowed that inning were all not earned, although that was because of an error that Betances himself committed. But that errant throw occurred on a disputed play yet one that is not reviewable by observing video replays.

You have seen this play plenty of times. A runner heading from the plate to first base runs on the grass, which forces the pitcher to elevate his throw to first base. In this case, Betances’ high toss sailed past first baseman Mark Teixeira, which allowed Jose Altuve, who led off the inning with a single and stole second base, to score the tie breaking run. Betances walked a batter and struck out another subsequently but gave up a single to Luis Valbuena that sent home two more runs.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi got into a heated argument with plate umpire Dana DeMuth, who at least agreed to confer with his fellow umps,but the safe call on Carlos Correa’s dash to first on the squibling grounder fielded by Betances stood.

As I watched the play unfold, I though that the best thing Betances could have done was just throw the ball at Correa. Had the ball hit him while he was clearly on the grass, Correa almost certainly would have been called out. I have advocated this for years and even suggested it should be practiced in spring training (with runners wearing protective gear naturally).

Girard even acknowledged that had Betances done that Correa would have been called out, “but is that what we want?” the manager wondered.

Well, you want an out in that situation, and spearing the runner apparently is the only way to get it if a video replay is not available for a second look. Girardi said DeMuth told him he did not think Correa’s path impeded the first baseman’s ability to make a play. Really? With the height of Betances’ throw over Correa, the only chance for the Yankees to get an out there would have been if Wilt Chamberlain was playing first base.

Correa, the American League winner of the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award last year, was all over this game. He mishandled a grounder that had the potential for an inning-ending double play that opened the door to the Yankees’ first two runs on Starlin Castro’s two-out double in the second. Correa’s home run off Tanaka in the sixth, the righthander’s last inning, tied the score at 2. And there was Correa in the middle of all the commotion in the eighth.

The winning decision went to 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, who had a 23-inning scoreless streak against the Yankees stopped but got 12 consecutive outs from the fourth through the seventh to keep Houston in the game. Didi Gregorius made it 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth with a leadoff home run, but the Yankees did not get a base runner after that.

Johnny Barbato, the James P. Dawson Award winner as the top rookie in the Yankees’ spring training camp, made his major league debut in the eighth. He hit Astros designated hitter Preston Tucker on the right wrist with his first pitch, then settled down and retired the next four hitters, three on strikeouts.

The Yankees’ offense had a subdued game. The first three hitters were a combined 0-for-10, although Alex Rodriguez managed to steal a base on those 40-year-old legs.

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