Thursday, August 6, 2009

Game 108: Maybe This Time

It's been just under two months since the Yankees and the Red Sox squared off which, over the course of a baseball season, seems like forever. The last time they played was a month before the All-Star Break and 47 games ago. Now the Yanks get to face Boston in 7 out of their next 17 games and will have a chance to start paying off some of the debt they accrued during the first 8 machinations of the season series.

Regardless of what some financial institutions and Mark Teixeria would like you to believe, Yankees vs. Red Sox is different from any other rivalry in baseball. It's the reason that I could call this site "Fack Youk" and knew people would not only understand what it meant but agree with the sentiment. Aside from liking the Yankees, the next thing that we all have in common is hating the Red Sox. There's more mutual disdain and attention and anticipation, especially this time around. You don't see Cubs bloggers writing open letters to Carlos Zambrano that sound like this when the Cardinals come into town (even though Joba has never actually hit him).

For those waiting to hear the New Stadium sound like the Old House, tonight is the night. For the first time since he was outed for failing the steroid test in 2003, David Ortiz will be welcomed back to the Bronx with a raucous chorus of boos and "STER-OID" chants. For the first time since September 16th, 2006, the Yankees play host to the Sox with a lead in the division. But the desperation from that 0-8 start will be palpable.

It's not a do or die series for the Yanks; they could get swept again and still be just 1.5 games back with 7 head to head games still remaining. But it's most certainly going to feel like it. When a season series is as one-sided as this one has been, it feels like it is due for a correction. We went through it in early June, feeling that with each passing game that the Yanks we just due to take one. It feels that way now more than ever. The Sox are playing .500 ball away from Fenway and the Yankees are 35-17 at home. The Yanks are 20-10 over their last 30 while the Sox are 15-15. Everything but the season series favors the fellows donning the Pinstripes.

The biggest game of the series is tonight's. The Bombers need to get off the mat in the worst way, before the pressure keeps building, the fans start booing and things get ugly. The pitching match up tonight gives us more reason to be optimistic.

The Sox send John Smoltz, who has been disappointing since joining the team in late June. He's made seven starts and given up 29 runs in 36 2/3 IP, which translates to a 7.12 ERA. He's only walked 5 while striking out 30, but has allowed 50 hits and 6 home runs.

The Yanks counter with their hottest pitcher at the moment, Mr. Joba Chamberlain. He's been solid over his past 7 starts (4-0, 3.05 ERA) and downright dominant during his past 3 (3-0, 0.83). He's given up 8 hits in his last 21 1/3 innings while striking out 19. This is the Joba everyone was waiting for when he was struggling earlier in the season. He's made four career starts against the Sox, averaging 6 innings a pop with a 1-1 record. He struck out 12 in just 5 2/3 his last time out against them, but allowed 4 runs in the process. He's a better pitcher away from Yankee Stadium than he is at home, but as a notorious nose for the big moment.

Today is also a special day in Yankee history. As we mentioned last Friday, it's been 30 years since Thurman Munson passed away. Tonight marks the 30th anniversary of his funeral where Bobby Murcer delivered the eulogy and drove in all five runs in a 5-4 victory over the Orioles later that night.

We're bringing out the big guns for the song tonight; this is serious business. Hopefully we'll be hearing more from this gentleman later on tonight.

She's gonna hold me fast,
And I'll be home at last,
Not a loser anymore,
Not like the last time, and the time before.
All of the odds are, in my favor,
Something's bound to begin,
It's gotta happen, happen sometime,
Maybe this time I'll win.

A Few Pitching Moves

The excitement is building as we head towards the first pitch of Yanks-Sox Round 4. Jay will be back in a bit with the preview, meanwhile I'll be hitting the road momentarily so I can watch tonight's action in person.

In the meantime, here are few notes regarding the pitching situation:

The Yanks signed Russ Ortiz to a minor league contract yesterday (I'd link to Tyler Kepner's original Tweet on this, but apparently Twitter is being destroyed by cyber terrorists as we speak). I'm hopeful that this move is only to provide some depth for the beleaguered Scranton rotation. Ortiz was once a good pitcher, but hasn't been for quite some time now. Over the last five seasons, he's posted an ERA+ of 67 over 312.2 innings, almost all of which were spent in the weaker hitting National League. I'm no fan of Sergio Mitre, but if this is the alternative, I say keep running Sergio out there.

In another move yesterday, Paul Byrd, who we pegged as a target Tuesday morning, signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox yesterday. Byrd finished last season with them and Ken Rosenthal has indicated Byrd could be Big League ready by September 1. Knowing Rosenthal, that probably means September 1st of 2010.

Old friend Brett Tomko, who I jokingly identified as a 5th starter candidate Tuesday, signed a minor league deal with Oakland. I'm sure Billy Beane and Bob Geren will treat him far, far better than then mean old Yankees.

And just for the hell of it since I forgot to mention them Tuesday- Tom Glavine and El Duque are both available. Neither has thrown a Major League pitch this year (El Duque hasn't since 2007), but these are two guys I've thoroughly enjoyed watching through the years. Unfortunately either would get lit up like a Christmas tree pitching in the AL East.


With Sergio Mitre starting and a big four game set against the Red Sox looming, Anthony Claggett's recall yesterday was a prudent move. The downside is it returned the roster construction to the absurd 13 man pitching staff (not to mention indirectly caused some baffling substitutions).

That said, Brett Gardner's broken thumb and Alex Rodriguez' semi-regular rest necessitates the presence of a second back-up infielder on the roster beyond Jerry Hairston Jr, so another move will likely be made today.

Cody Ransom was a replacement level player at best, but I can't quite comprehend the level of vitriol directed at him in recent weeks nor the amount of revelry in the wake of his DFA-ing yesterday. Then again, I made bashing Angel Berroa and Brett Tomko a routine part of my schtick, so who am I to judge? I wouldn't be at all surprised if Ransom winds up at Scranton when this all shakes out.

Either way, a replacement is needed for the replacement level player, and indications are that a move may be made today (see the 5:41 update)- which would be wise in my estimation.

Ramiro Pena will almost assuredly be the player to come up and Claggett will almost assuredly be the one to go. Too bad Claggett didn't get a chance to lower his 43.20 career ERA. As for Pena, he was sent down on July 1st following the acquisition of Eric Hinske. Going to AAA for the first time in his career, Pena hit .241/.341/.366 in 134 PA. His AVG at Scranton was actually lower than his career minor league mark, but he showed improvement in both OBP and SLG. The IsoD of .100 is particularly encouraging. The sample size is small, but in one month at AAA Pena received 38 more PA than he did in three months in the Majors. I'm hopeful that his needed time in AAA will prove valuable to his overall development.

Defensively at Scranton, Pena made 19 appearances at SS, 8 at 2B, and 5 in CF. Learning centerfield was one of Pena's main objectives upon his optioning out, but as Cliff Corcoran pointed out at Bronx Banter yesterday, the arrival of Jerry Hairston Jr makes it far less important for Pena to be capable in CF for right now. For what it's worth, he handled 10 chances in CF flawlessly at Scranton, and can still increase his stock over the long term if he's able to play both IF and OF.

As it looks right now, the Yankee bench moving forward will be Hinske, Hairston, Pena, and Jose Molina, with Pena likely being optioned again if Gardner returns this month. That bench doesn't offer much in the way of offense. Hinske, and to a lesser extent Molina, will run into one every now and again, but none of the four have particularly good OBP skills.

However, to a man, the Yankee starters are good to excellent offensively, with Melky Cabrera's OPS+ of 111 ranking last amongst the usual nine. As such, the offensive skills of the bench are of secondary importance to what else the bench can offer.

In Molina there is an excellent defensive catcher who is reputed as one of the best game callers in the league.

In Hairston there is a utility man capable of playing anywhere but catcher. He offers some speed off the bench and has a good baseball pedigree coming from one of the three baseball families to span three generations.

In Pena there is an excellent defensive infielder who also can pinch run and who I hope has made some progress at the plate during his time at AAA - perhaps that's already manifested in his IsoD.

In Hinske you have a good pinch hitting option who has good pop and average OBP skills. He's a risk with the glove, but he won't kill you in RF or at 1B, and could play 3B and LF in a pinch.

As Joel Sherman pointed out yesterday, that's a nice, versatile bench - and that's about the best you can ask for when rolling out a regular line up such as the one the Yankees have. Gardner's return and the September roster expansion will allow the Yankees to augment the bench further and maybe add a little more offensive skill just in case.

Only Cody Ransom...

For those who don't have Google Reader (you should really set one up), this is what individual posts look like, regardless of what blog they come from. You can subscribe to all your favorite blogs, Google Alerts, newspaper topics (i.e. Star-Ledger Yankees) and so forth. It keeps them all in one place and lets you know how many unread items you have, keeps stats on your reading habits and allows you to save posts by starring them. It's probably not as many as some people, but it lets me read over 5,000 posts a month, a number which is probably higher than most everyone who doesn't have an RSS reader of some sort. It will change the way you read things on the internet forever, in a good way, especially since you can use it with an iPhone.

The program also has this function that pretty much no one uses by which you can indicate if you "liked" a post. This one happens to be from MLB Trade Rumors, a feed which has over 3,000 subscribers (we have 89 at last count, woot!) and it was the first post on that feed I can remember seeing that anyone has "liked".

I don't really know what it is about Cody Ransom that made him a Twitter cult legend and a Yankee blog favorite (or anti-favorite?). At the age of 33, he's obviously by no means a prospect and Maybe it was the four homers he hit in 43 at bats last year. More likely it was his ridiculous YouTube jumping video. Either way, Cody Ransom is one of those fringe players that hardcore fans find interesting for whatever reason but the casual observer might not recognize by number.

Something tells me this isn't the last we see of the utility man. If the Mets don't claim him off waivers, he'll be back around soon enough.

Questionable Decisions

Good morning Fackers. Well, all in all that wasn't a bad road trip: 5-4, which after losing three straight against the ChiSox didn't seem like a realistic possibility. Sure, that was an ugly three game stretch last Thursday through Saturday, and the loss in Tampa was brutal all around. But after starting 2-4, the Yanks closed out with a nice three game winning streak, including a two game sweep of the Jays despite having Roy Halladay pitching against them in one game and Sergio Mitre pitching for them in the other. I'll sign up for that every time, thanks. With the Sox loss, the Yanks enter the big four game set with a 2.5 game lead.

Last night's game sure had some head scratching decisions though. Both Jay and I have been critical of Joe Girardi in the past. I've even been accused of having a bias against him. I'll fully admit that I was only able to watch and listen to parts of last night's game. That said, I think there were some poor decisions made.

My second guessing began as first guessing. As soon as the line up was posted, I sent Jay a message expressing my displeasure with it. Despite having DH'd Sunday and then enjoying the Monday off day, Alex Rodriguez was back in the DH spot. Now I'd prefer he be getting regular rest for his hip rather than being ridden into the ground as he was earlier this year. And I can understand the reasoning behind trying to save him from the Rogers Centre turf for a night. However, by any definition, A-Rod was already well rested having played just two games in the last three days, and one of them being at DH.

Meanwhile, the fact that Sergio Mitre was taking the mound prompted the Yankees go back to the ludicrous 13 man bullpen. If ever there is a reason to carry that 13th pitcher, having Sergio Mitre on the mound the night before a huge four game set against the Sox would be it. At the very least, Anthony Claggett's presence last night was a security measure against burning the pen on the eve of the big showdown.

As a result of Claggett's recall, Cody Ransom was designated for assignment. For last night at least, I don't have an issue with this move (more on this later). However, this move left Jerry Hairston Jr. as the primary back-up at 3B, SS, 2B, LF, and CF for last night. But rather than keep his supersub on the bench, Girardi chose to start him at third and give A-Rod yet another half night off as the DH.

The LaRussa-philes of the world would say that this move was good in that it got Hideki Matsui out of the line up against a lefty starter, except Godzilla is destroying left handed pitching this year to the tune of a .576 SLG, and .913 OPS, both marks better than his numbers against righties. He has 8 HRs against both types of pitchers, but only 85 ABs against lefties as opposed to 200 ABs against righties. In short, there's is absolutely no reason to sit Matsui against soutpaws.

Complicating matters, Jorge Posada was given the night off as well, leaving the bottom of the order as Cabrera-Hairston-Molina, far less dangerous than the usual Cano-Swisher-Cabrera or even a Cano-Cabrera-Molina.

This fact came to the fore in the seventh inning. With the score tied at three, and Robinson Cano on second base, Hairston's spot came around. With one out, two weak hitters due, and the go-ahead run in scoring position, Girardi called on Hideki Matsui to pinch hit. The moved paid an immediate dividend, as Matsui drove Cano home and kept the line moving for two more runs to score. However, had Girardi began the evening with a more conventional line up, the move likely wouldn't have been necessary.

As a result of the move, in the bottom of the inning the Yankees needed a new third baseman. Despite having a three run lead, Girardi wasn't comfortable placing defensively-challenged one-time third baseman Eric Hinske at the hot corner. Instead, he opted to sacrifice his DH spot and move A-Rod to third, thereby turning his half day off into a third of a day off which in turn kind of defeats the purpose of trying to give him time off at all.

The eighth spot in the order was now occupied by the pitcher, and it came around again in the top of the eighth. The Yankees led 6-4, with one out and a runner on third. Of course, Phil Coke wasn't going to hit here. So Girardi called on - who else - Eric Hinske. Boggles the mind. If he was going to use Hinske in that spot anyway (rather than say Posada), why not role the dice with him for one defensive inning?!?! Even if he didn't want Hinske in the field long term, he could have saved his DH spot for an additional inning, giving A-Rod additional rest. He still would have had the option to place A-Rod at third for the eighth and/or ninth, when it was no longer a certainty that the #8 spot would come around again.

The Yanks didn't get burned by the move and wound up winning 8-4. But it could have been a disastrous few decisions. The 13 man pitching staff left the Yanks with a 3 man bench for the night. Starting Hairston immediately limited the bench's flexibility. Pinch hitting for him crippled it. Dropping the DH killed it. At game's end Jorge Posada was the only man on the bench, and as the back-up catcher it was no sure thing that he would have been used. What if Toronto had tied the game at some point from the seventh on? What if the game had gone to extras? The Yanks presumably would have been sending pitchers up to hit at some point.

In the end it didn't matter. For a guy who is supposed to be well educated, baseball savvy, and forward thinking, Joe Girardi makes a ton of moves that seem to be done just for the hell of it.

A Two Game Sweep Is Still A Sweep, Am I Right?

When Sergio Mitire took the mound in the first inninng and struck out Marco Scutaro and Aaron Hill to begin the game, it looked like he might be headed for a solid outing. After he proceeded to give up consecutive four base hits including two run scoring singles to Vernon Wells and Alex Rios and it looked like he was destined for a horrible one. Neither of those tunred out to be true.

Mitre settled down and followed the two run first inning with three scoreless ones, working around two more singles and two walks. Meanwhile, the Yankees responded with two runs of their own in the top of the 3rd, staying right on the Jays' heels.

To begin the 5th inning, Mitre got Aaron Hill to ground out but then allowed a huge blast to right field by Adam Lind. It was the only extra base hit he allowed all night. After giving up a single to Lyle Overbay, he was taken out of the game in favor of Anthony Claggett, who had been brought up specifically for this purpose Alfredo Aceves. Four and a third innings is not nearly long enough of an outing for a starter, but he only gave up three runs which isn't all that bad.

Alf got Vernon Wells to pop out before Alex Rios struck out looking to end the inning. He came back on for the sixth and sat down the side in order, two more via strike out.

After playing catch up until that point, the Yanks finally came alive in the top of the 7th. Nick Swisher led off the inning with a homer, which Robinson Cano followed with a double. That was the end for zep-CHIN-ski. The rookie lefty put together a solid effort, striking out 7 in six innings and left when the game was still tied. That didn't last long, though.

Cito Gaston called on Josh Roenicke, who got Melky Cabrera to ground out to second, advancind Cano to third. He was driven in on a single by pinch bitter Hideki Matsui which put the Yanks on top 4-3. Jose Molina walked, Jeter struck out swinging but Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira both tacked on run scoring singles. In all, 10 men batted in the inning and four of them crossed the plate.

Cano doubled and scored again in the top of the 8th, but Aceves gave up a homer to Marco Scutaro in the bottom half of the inning to make it a 3 run game. According to Pete Abe, if Johnny Damon hadn't hit a solo shot of his own in the top of the 9th, Girardi would have called on Mariano Rivera for the third game in a row, after two four out saves, taking him out of the picture for tonight's game against the Sox. To protect a 3 run lead... More on Girardi's questionable decisions in a bit.

For now, we can take comfort in a few things. First, the road trip ended in the black at 5-4. Secondly, the Yanks' margin in the AL East is, as it was when then embarked on the 9 game swing, 2.5 games over the Red Sox. Third, Alfredo Aceves looked to be back to his normal self tonight, throwing sharp breaking stuff and a fastball that was touching 92 MPH. He struck out three in two innings and the only hit he allowed was the homer to Scutaro. These are good notes to head back to the Bronx upon.