Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Game 97: Sun, Rain, and Waiting on 600

Yep, I'm blogging on a Wednesday about Sunday's game, but the rain delay really took the energy out of me Sunday night, and the pictures were just too good not to post. Seventy-plus hours after Game 97, the Yanks have added a win and a loss, and Swish and Granderson have added home runs, but Alex is still idling at 599 homers as the Yanks continue on a road trip that will take them from Cleveland to the Trop en route to their return to Yankee Stadium just after the trade deadline. The deadline looms large because, even though the Yanks have the best record in the majors, they don't look like the a complete enough team to stand pat on the trade market.

Back to Sunday's game. Mostly, I'll let the pictures do the talking here:

Phil Hughes, Sunday's starter, is either praying or communing with the rosin bag before throwing his first pitch. Either way, I hope he's asking the powers-that-be that he not turn out like Joba did.

Opposing Phil would be the Kansas City Royals, the miserable ruins of a once-proud franchise. Here's KC's catcher, the twice-washed-up Jason Kendall. He batted second in the lineup. Batting third? Wilson Betemit. Yes, that Wilson Betemit!

The bright point in the Royal's lineup was Scott Podsednik, another player who's had a few major league lives before winding up in KC. He had a career day, matching his high marks with two homers and 4 RBI. He would also make a spectacular catch in the eighth inning, which sadly I didn't catch on virtual film. Here, he's on base after his first-inning single, wearing some sort of sliding mitten on his left hand.

Royals pitchers focused on throwing inside all day. Here's newly-acquired Royal Sean O'Sullivan getting up close and personal with Derek Jeter in the first inning.

Of course, the big draw of the game was Alex Rodriguez's ongoing quest for his 600th career home run. Before each A-Rod at bat, we had the following scene of the ump trading in his regular set of balls for special marked balls, which could be used to verify the authenticity of homer number 600 should Alex manage to launch it in that at-bat.

During the game, Brother Jeff asked if the 600 milestone still meant anything. The answer is yes and no. It used to be that 600 homers meant you were closing in on Willie Mays--undisputed, authentic immortal, with only undisputed authentic immortals ahead of him. These days, it means you're closing in on Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. No disrespect to those two, but that air is not so rarified as it once was. Same thing with 500--it used to mean inner-circle Hall of Famers, now it's joining a club that has kinda-greats like Eddie Murray, Gary Sheffield, Rafael Palmeiro, Jim Thome. Sure, some of that has to do with steroids, but a bit of it is just the normal dilution that happens to once-"unreachable" sporting achievements.

On the other hand, as we saw a few years back, even with Palmeiro and Thome et al, 500 still matters. On Sunday, 600 mattered: people were obviously there hoping to see history. Every time Alex came to bat, you could see flashes popping, even though the early innings were played in bright sunlight.

Down 2-0 in the third, the Yanks ripped out a four-run outburst, started by a Curtis Granderson homer and RBI doubles by Jeter and Rodriguez. The weirdest play of the inning was this little squibber off the bat of Mark Teixeira.

It was a weak little grounder, but the Teixeira shift and Jeter heading home from third combined to make this an RBI single. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Royals' infield was basically three utility guys (Chris Getz at third, Mike Aviles at second, and Betemit at first) and Yuniesky Betancourt. (Want to make a Royals fan angry? Bring up Yuniesky Betancourt.) All the infielders had a bit of Bad News Bears in them on Sunday--bad throws, bad catches, butterfingers moments.

But even with the lead, Phil Hughes didn't put much pressure on the Royals. He didn't walk anybody, but he did allow a second home run, a blast from ex-pitcher Rick Ankiel that looked like it might have damaged the third deck. Sure, the first homer he allowed was a cheap foul pole job to Podsednik, but all game long, it didn't look like Hughes had his good swing-and-miss stuff.

Luckily, Granderson responded to Ankiel's homer with a second dinger of his own. In the fifth, with the score 5-3 Yanks, Rodriguez came to the plate again, with the Captain on first and two outs. What followed was a pretty good demonstration of what pressing looks like. The ball was going everywhere but fair.

There were foul balls off the ankle guard...

...there was some falling down...

...there was an awkwardly rinky-dink foul nearly straight up that luckily went out of play. All while the crowd was waiting with bated breath to see history happen. On the 2-2 count, Jeter got bored and stole second. All this ended with a weak grounder to Betancourt.

By this time, clouds had been gathering all game long, and now the sky was steel gray.

Hughes got one batter into the sixth, and suddenly the wind kicked up, and the groundscrew leapt to roll out the tarp.

Luckily, the big rainstorm came on umbrella day at Yankee Stadium. J&R got big bang for their promotional dollar. There were no umbrellas for the grounds crew though, who had their hands full.

Sadly, during the rain delay, the Yankee Stadium screen's entertainment: (c) Failed miserably. Don't blame Swish, whose cooking segment was pretty decent, but it was sandwiched between obnoxious informercials for Yankee Stadium's various food stands and a freakin' documentary about Yankees fantasy camp. No one wants to watch scrubs with too much money play rec-league baseball--as Brother Jeff said, it's like watching watching someone's vacation photos, just you don't know them, and could give even less of a damn than you usually would. Did I mention, that as this was happening, Andre Dawson was at Cooperstown, being inducted to the Hall of Fame? Think a bunch of baseball fans would rather watch that, or a 48-year-old stock broker trying to turn two? Or any of the half-million documentaries in the YES network library? Three days later, I'm still steamed about this.

Two-plus hours later, the tarp came off. Only a small fraction of the crowd was still in the house, but those who stayed had one thought in mind: 600!

Before Rodriguez could get to the plate again, Brett Gardner worked some of his slappy opposite field magic to plate Robinson Cano in the sixth. Gardner, along with Cano and Swisher, has been key in picking up the slack left in the lineup by the Jeter, Teixeira, and Rodriguez's subpar performances. This season he's hit almost exactly what he hit in the minors; which was pretty much what he had to do to justify a regular place in the lineup.

The Yanks added what looked like an insurance run in the seventh, when Rodriguez hit a hard grounder to Aviles that spun the second baseman like a top, scoring Swisher. Sadly, the insurance would be necessary because the hollowed out shell of Joba Chamberlain came into the game in the 8th inning, and gave up a couple of runs on a long homer by Scott Podsednik. To give this some context, Podsednik's hit a homer about once every 100 plate appearances for his career. This is not a power hitter, but he raked Joba for a no-doubter into the right field stands. Aside from that, and walking the number nine hitter to set up that two-run shot, two of the three outs Chamberlain recorded were hard-hit.


Just when it looked like the Yankees would have to summon Mariano Rivera to close things out, the Royals bullpen spit the bit. Improbably, reliever Blake Wood, with a healthy assist from his thirdbaseman and manager, brought A-Rod to the plate for one more shot at the milestone. With the bases loaded and one out, Rodriguez was swinging easier than he had in his previous at bats. The faithful who were still in the stands could taste milestone coming...

...but it was not to be. In a huge anticlimax, Woods came up and in to Rodriguez hitting him on the hand. Alex was down on the ground for a while, and the remaining crowd let Woods and the Royals feel the hate. Ultimately, the Yanks put up a five-spot, though, meaning that instead of Enter Sandman, we got Chan Ho Park.

Or as I like to call him, Exhibit B in why the Yanks can't stand pat coming to the trade deadline. Park only managed to give back one run of the lead--and he had a helping hand from Jorge Posada's face mask and Rule 7.05(d)--but the righthander showed no velocity and just plain refused to throw strikes. Dave Robertson can only throw so many of the non-Mariano innings, and unlike the situations with the Yankees DH spot, there just don't seem to be any reliable internal options to make up for the way Joba and Park have stunk this season.

Anyway, so that was the game. Here's hoping that Alex can get the monkey off his back against grounballista Fausto Carmona tonight.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Game 80: Blue Jays at Yanks

Wow. It's been a while since we've spoken (a quarter-season, to be precise) and there's a lot of catching up to do. Unfortunately, this is not the time for a wide-ranging discussion of all things Bronx Bombers (that'll be later in the week). This is the time for...photoblog:

It's not Fourth of July without baseball, the Yankees, and Freddy.

The pitching matchup for George Steinbrenner's 80th birthday was geared more toward the future--Phil Hughes for the Yanks and Brandon Morrow for the Blue Jay could spend a lot of their time crossing swords in the AL East between now and the Boss's 90th birthday. They're both power pitchers who established themselves in the bullpen before taking regular rotation slots. Morrow's a harder thrower (getting up to 97 on the stadium gun) than Phil, but also more prone to wildness (5.3 BB/9 for his career).

Phil the Phenom, coiled to attack. Has he been Joba'd?

Sadly for the Yanks, Phil's been in a bit of a phunk since the Yankees skipped him in the rotation a couple of weeks ago, the latest manifestation of their continuing experiment in limiting wear-and-tear on young arms. In his first start after the layoff he looked like he was throwing batting practice to the Mariners, allowing a career-high 10 hits in less than seven innings. Today he started strong, striking out the game's first two batters, but later he was Big Fly Hughes, allowing Lyle Overbay a cannon blast to dead center in the third, an excuse-me popup off the right field foul pole to Dwayne Wise, and another scorcher to star underperformer Adam Lind. Hughes' struggles were particularly galling since he was facing a true Sunday lineup: backups starting at second, catcher (Jose Molina for John Buck), and center (Wise for Vernon Wells).

Teixeira achieving full extension for his 5th inning double.

Wise's three-run homer was in the top of the fifth, and it really took the wind out of the crowd, erasing what had been a 3-1 lead. It looked like the Yanks were storming back in the bottom of the frame. Nick Swisher, fresh off his "Vote for Swish" pitch on the Jumbotron, singled to lead off the inning, then Mark Teixeira unleashed a massively promising drive to center...and, I'll let the pictures tell the story.

"Vote for Swish!" heading home! A-Rod says slide!

Sliding didn't work out so well. JoMo stonewalls Swish!

Yankee fans can give great dissertations on Jose Molina's failings, but an inability to block the plate has never been among them. If you click on the above picture, you'll see that the entirety of the plate is safely underneath Molina's ample backside--so long as he holds on to the ball, Swish is dead meat. Now, that was a bummer, but we still have a man on third, just one out, and the cleanup hitter at bat. Feelin' good, right?

Then the whole thing happens again. A-Rod hits a fly to Wise in mid-center. Teixeira heads home to score on the sac fly. Dead at the plate, again. Two hits, only one batter makes an out, no runs. Devastating.

At this point, Dwayne Wise--a guy who's only known because he made a gorgeous play to save Mark Buehrle's no-no last year--has dominated the game. His dinky little foul-pole homer was the leading margin; with Molina's help, his sharp throwing killed the Yankee rally in the fifth. Then, with the score 5-3 Jays in the sixth, here comes Wise again. Two outs, the team's slowest runner on first, and Brett Gardner hits a fly to fairly deep center, but it hangs up and Wise is under it. Should be an easy play. Then he loses it in the bright July 4 sun, something you can't do with Gardner running the bases. Tie game.

Now, as far as I can recall, I've never seen a Yankee hit an inside-the-park homer in person. Despite what the official scorer said, I still haven't seen one. Most inside the park homers involve some sort of blunder on the part of the fielder, but this fly ball hit Wise on the glove. As Brother Joe said on Twitter (mas o menos): if that's not an error, then there is no such thing as an error.

Brett Gardner trots home on his game tying...big mistake by the other team's fielder?

In the seventh, the Yanks took the lead, with Jeter scoring on another Teixeira double. Again, the inning meets a premature end because of a baserunner kill at the plate. (And again, it's Swisher. This is not how you get us to Vote for Swish!) Wise wasn't involved in that play at the plate, but that doesn't mean he was done...

Usually, the opposing team sees this, it's time to make sure you have dinner reservations.

Ninth inning, Enter Sandman, and the folks who've been melting in bright sunshine start heading toward the exits and the shade. The Jays got a couple of ground singles wrapped around a Jose Molina whiff, but it looked like Rivera had gotten out of it when he got Fred Lewis to ground one to Ramiro Peña for what looked like the game-ending double play. Rather than flipping to Cano for the 6-4-3, Peña took a page out of the Jeter playbook, going to the bag so that he could make the throw to first. Interesting idea, but it looked like Peña had a hard time finding the bag, so instead of the game-ending DP, he was only able to record the force.

Even though Peña had scored and knocked in a run earlier, Brother J, my wingman at the game, was livid. Channeling Boss Steinbrenner on his birthday, he wanted Peña immediately pulled off the field and put on a bus to Scranton before the inning was over. Either way, that made it Wise time again, and the center fielder blooped a single to center to get his fourth RBI.

The way the Yanks have been rolling lately, extra innings was bad, bad news. Under very similar circumstances, Dave Roberts and Chan Ho Park collaborated to blow Friday night's game against the Jays, and the bullpen overall has not been one of the team's strong suits (they're ninth in the AL in WXRL). Roberts, pitching the tenth, immediately looked Chan Ho-riffic, putting the first two batters he faced on base. Luckily, he was bailed out by some heads-up defense by Alex Rodriguez, who turned Edwin Encarnacion's sac bunt into a 5-4-3 double play.

In the tenth, it looked like Joe Girardi might have super geniused himself out of a win. Lefty Dave Purcey walked Robinson Cano to lead off the inning, and Francisco Cervelli, who replaced Jorge Posada due to injury, was at the plate. I'm not a Cervelli believer--I like him, but not as much as everyone did when he had a .390 batting average in mid-May--but having him bunt, against the lefty with Granderson and Gardner coming up...I have my qualms. Granderson's brutal against lefties (.514 OPS), Gardner's much better (.742 OPS) but still not wonderful. Splendid chance to see a runner stranded in scoring position. Luckily for Girardi, after Curtis made his out, Gardner was able to work a walk against the lefty, which brought up newly-reactivated Marcus Thames, who, as we all can remember, loves pie as much as he hates fielding. Marcus sent us home happy.

Marcus Thames says "Mmmm, pie!"