Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Escape From L.A.

Don LaFontaine (R.I.P.): After dropping the first game against Joe Saunders and the Los Angeles Angels of Whereverthefuck, the New York Yankees had their work cut out for them if they wanted to escape the City of Angels with a series win. It took every last ounce of their strength they could muster, and a little bit of good fortune, too...

Nine inning getaway games with a total of 5 runs scored don't usually last 3 hours and 37 mins. Then again, the two pitchers on the mound in L.A. today both tend to record strikeouts by the bucketful and toss more than their fair share of pitches. There was also a lot of pride at stake in this one, which also contributed to the Yanks vs. Red Sos type of pace. Joe Girardi did his part to slow the pace down by using 6 pitchers as well.

Both Scott Kazmir and A.J. Burnett brought the best stuff in the early going. Kazmir worked his way through three scoreless innings, dancing around a walk to Jerry Hairston, Jr. (who is scheduled for an MRI) in the first and erasing a single by Brett Gardner by getting Derek Jeter to ground into a double play in the third.

The Yanks finally got to Kazmir in the 4th, starting with a one out double by Mark Teixeira. Hideki Matsui worked a walk, bringing Shelley Duncan to the plate. The Forearm Basher turned out a fastball, lining it right just over Chone Figgins' head. It hit his glove, but glanced off into right field, trickling towards Juan Rivera. Since Teixeira thought the ball was going to be caught by Figgins, he had taken a step back towards second and didn't get a great jump on his way home. Rivera's throw was on the money and Teix slid feet first and Mike Napoli applied the tag. A better jump or a head first slide might have been enough to score, but the Yanks blew a good chance to pick up a run.

They still had runners on 2nd and 3rd for Robinson Cano, however. Robby's struggles with RISP have been well documented, but he laced a single to right, scoring both Matsui and Duncan to put the Yanks ahead 2-0. Melky Cabrera followed that with a double to the gap in left center driving in Cano for the 3rd run of the frame, all scoring with 2 outs. That hit snapped a 1-20 slide for Melky, dating back to their last game against the Angels 9 days ago. In the process, the Bombers drove Kazmir's pitch count up to 69. By the end of the fifth inning it was already at 92.

Burnett's dominance lasted a bit longer. Although he gave up at least one baserunner in each of the first four innings (3 hits and 2 walks), Burnett also struck out 8 during that span, including striking out the side in the 2nd and 4th.

In the fifth, the Angels got one across against Burnett. Napoli and Figgins began the frame with a single and a double, putting runners on second and third with no one out. Burnett struck out Eric Aybar for the second time in the game, temporarily stalling the assault. Bobby Abreu ripped a grounder but Cano snagged it and limited the damage to one run before Burnett for Torii Hunter to fly out to end the inning.

Burnett tallied his 10th and 11th strikeouts in the 6th but again allowed a single and a double, this time bringing the game to 3-2. After A.J. walked Mike Napoli, and with Chone Figgins who had recorded a hit in each of his three previous at bats on deck, Joe Girardi pulled him in favor of Damaso Marte. Burnett was visibly perturbed but Marte got Figgins to fly out to right, ending the inning and preserving Burnett's shot at picking up the win.

Marte came back out for the 7th, and started by giving up a single to Eric Aybar. He then got Bobby Abreu to ground into a 4-6-3 double play. With no one one base, Girardi called on Jonathan Albaladejo to face Torii Hunter. His mixing and matching finally backfired, as Hunter ripped a double to right. Girardi again tinkered by brining Phil Coke in to face Kendry Morales. Coke uncorked a wild pitch that allowed Hunter to move up to third but ultimately struck out Morales to escape trouble.

The parade of pitchers continued into the 8th inning, but the next to take the hill was a bit of a surprise. Ian Kennedy made his first appearance of the year after recovering from an aneurysm in his shoulder and pitching briefly in the playoffs for Scranton. IPK didn't look too hot. Ramiro Pena made a spectacular diving grab which saved an extra base hit while Kennedy also hit and walked a batter. But, he recovered with a strikeout and a fly out, then turned the ball over to Mariano Rivera.

Mo give up a flare to Abreu to begin the bottom of the 9th, which found some green area in short, left and center. But Mo being Mo, he struck out Hunter and Morales before getting Juan Rivera to line out to center. Case closed. Yanks won 3-2 and took the first series in Anaheim since the one that ended on May 20th, 2004. The magic number is down to 5 for now, as the Sox vs. Royals game will begin shortly.

The Yanks won two close games and got three pretty solid pitching performances out of their starters. As we mentioned coming into the series, there was going to be the temptation to make too much out of these three games one way or another. The last two games were good wins against a good team, on the road, in a relatively big spot. Taking two out of three against the A's while the Sox dropped two to the Royals was the best case scenario in the hopes for HFA. The Yanks get another day off tomorrow and can enjoy it after heading into it on a high note.

Game 153: Growin' Up

It's getaway day at the Big A, and I can't imagine the Yankees are too sad to leave it behind for the time being. With a playoff berth clinched and a win in Anaheim finally to their credit, Joe Girardi is giving some of the regulars an extra day off heading into tomorrow's off day. Jerry Hairson Jr subs for Alex Rodriguez at third. Jose Molina catches his second game of the series and will try to control the Angels' running game. Johnny Damon gets a day off, with Melky Cabrera in LF and Brett Gardner in CF. And with a lefty on the mound, Shelley Duncan gets his first start of the year as Nick Swisher grabs some pine. Wisely, Hideki Matsui, who has been destroying left handed pitching this year, remains in the weakened line up as the DH.

Old friend Scott Kazmir takes the hill for the Halos today. He's 2-0 in two starts against the Yanks this year, with a 2.63 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and a 10:1 K:BB in 13.2 innings of work. Those two outings aside, Kazmir was having a downright bad season for the Rays. He has battled injuries throughout his career, including missing a month this season, prompting some to question the wisdom of the Angels making a deal for him on August 29th.

It's been a great deal so far. Though he's just 1-1 in four starts since the trade, each outing has been a quality start. He's pitched to a 1.42 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, and held opponents to a .540 OPS. The sample size is small, and he's benefited from a very pitcher friendly .247 BABIP, but for the time being at least, it would seem that the 25 year old Kazmir is back on track.

Looking to stay back on track for the Yankees is A.J. Burnett. Since the start of August, he's had some very bad starts. However, last Friday in Seattle, Burnett allowed just one run in seven innings of work, sparking hope that he's corrected whatever issues were causing his recent poor performances.

Prior to his start last Friday, Burnett had this to say: “I’m throwing the ball where I want to for the most part. You eliminate a couple of mistakes and everything’s great.” At the time, it was a bit of a tough statement to hear. Chris H at The Yankee Universe took him to task over it, and I included it in a link around here with a snide comment of my own attached to it. One start certainly doesn't prove Burnett prophetic, but if he is in fact back on top of his game, it wouldn't be the first time he's proven somewhat clairvoyant.

The low point of Burnett's season came in Boston on June 9th, when he lasted just 2.2 innings, allowing 10 baserunners and 5 runs (3 ER). After the game, Burnett copped to his struggles to that point in the season, saying his season to date was:

“Terrible. Glimpses of greatness but I’m not very consistent right now. I’m not a negative guy, so I’m not going to beat myself up over it. But when I do get on that run, it’s going to be impressive. I promise you that.”
It was a boastful, bold, and potentially risky statement at that point, but he backed it up, going on a tear that saw him go 7-1 with a 1.68 ERA and 1.17 WHIP over his next eight starts. Hopefully his statements last week and his start last Friday are indicative of another stretch of him putting his money where his mouth is.

Early in his career, Burnett had a reputation as a bit of a malcontent, culminating with the Florida Marlins excusing him from the team in late September 2005, following remarks he made that were critical of the organization. 28 years old at the time, it ended Burnett's Marlins career and prompted him to issue a fairly mature apology. That off-season, he signed with Toronto, where he had three good seasons. But more importantly, Burnett became a teammate of Roy Halladay, who Burnett credits with helping him mature as a pitcher and a professional.

By all accounts, Burnett has been an outstanding teammate and a positive influence in the clubhouse. Aside from his role as resident pastry chef for the littany of Yankee walk-offs this year, he's credited with being a big part of the team building that's happened over the course of the season, dating back to spring training. Burnett's chief protege has been Joba Chamberlain, who is seemingly always at the side of Burnett and/or CC Sabathia in the dugout. While the trio is likely talking pitching most of the time, young Joba should take some notes on poise and public relations from the two consumate professionals.

Chamberlain has spent much of the season making comments not all together different than what we heard from Burnett in June and again last week. While there may be some sort of double standard at play, there are two key differences here. First, Burnett has a track record that Joba has yet to develop. Second, and more importantly, Burnett backed up his comments with an extended stretch of dominance. Chamberlain had a three start stretch in late July where he was excellent and has been decidedly and frustratingly inconsistent otherwise. Yet start after start we get the same canned comments alternated with excuses: he had too much rest, there was a hitch in his delivery, etc.

I've not given up on Joba Chamberlain. 23 year old pitchers struggle. On top of that, he's being put through a very public experiment right before our eyes as it relates to his innings limit. It's been a unique and difficult situation to handle. The extra rest and truncated starts probably haven't helped him at all. The hasty transition to the rotation last year may or may not have contributed to the shoulder injury that may or may not still be impacting Joba this year. Some of Joba's off the field issues may or may not be creeping between the lines with him. His meteoric rise to the Majors and instant celebrity may have stunted his development as both a pitcher and a professional.

But the bottom line, as Brian Cashman laid out yesterday, is that Joba has to produce. And when he continues to fail to produce while trotting out the same wooden answers time and again, it becomes very frustrating to listen to as a fan.

Anyway, this preview has gone well off the rails. I'll finish by saying this. I can accept the inconsistencies better if there were more accountability. At some point in his career A.J. Burnett decided to grow up. Joba Chamberlain now has more than two years of Major League service time on his resume. He turns 24 today. He'd be wise to take the advice of fellow birthday boy Bruce Springsteen and to follow the example of fellow pitcher A.J. Burnett, and get to growing up soon.

I stood stone-like at midnight suspended in my masquerade,
I combed my hair till it was just right and commanded the night brigade,
I was open to pain and crossed by the rain and I walked on a crooked crutch,
I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and came out with my soul untouched,
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said "Sit down" I stood up.
Ooh-ooh growin' up.

I Don't Need No Doctor

Via Pete Abe, we got the news that David Robertson threw a bullpen session prior to last night's game and all went well. DRob hopes he needs just one more bullpen session before he gets back to into game action. That's great news for the Yankees, as Robertson was becoming a key cog in the bullpen prior to his elbow issue shutting him down following his September 5th appearance.

As you may recall, Robertson went to visit Dr. James Andrews and was told he didn't need any medical treatment, just rest and rehab. That of course is good news. The bad news is that the last time a highly effective Yankee righty reliever went to see Dr. Andrews and needed rest and rehab, he turned into an absolute turd upon his return.

Ray Charles would have turned 79 today. In honor of his birthday and the good news on David Robertson, I wanted to embed a video of Charles' "I Don't Need No Doctor", but I can't seem to find any. So here's a link to a sweet version from Humble Pie. This one is more true to the Charles version, and features John Scofield (who I like) and John Mayer (who I loathe). But we have to have a video from the birthday boy. So since I've alluded to Brian Bruney in this post, here's a Charles tune that summarizes the feelings many Yankee fans have towards Bruney at present.

Giant Steps

Ok, maybe it wasn't a giant step. It was probably more of a baby step. Nevertheless, the Yankees have their first victory of 2009 at The Big A, and just their fifth there since the start of the 2006 season. They have a chance to take the rubber game of the series later this afternoon.

It certainly could have gone smoother last night. Eight Yankee runners were left on base and the Yanks went just 1 for 10 with RISP. There was some sloppy defense. Chad Gaudin flat ran out of gas with two outs in the fourth, Alfredo Aceves was a bit rusty thanks to inactivity, and Phil Hughes had a rare rough outing. Even the mighty Mo, coming off a blown save in his last outing, was having a rough go of it until the big strike him out, throw him out double play. And the Yankees benefited from a missed call on Brett Gardner's critical stolen base in the top of the ninth.

But the bottom line is the Yankees won, and won after the pesky Angels had clawed their way backed into the game. They officially clinched a post-season berth before the game was even over, and the victory reduced the magic number for both the AL East and homefield advantage to six with a week plus to go. Maybe it wasn't just a baby step after all.

John Coltrane would have turned 82 today. Giant Steps was one of his greatest works and was recorded during perhaps the most creative stage of his career. While he was recording the album Coltrane was still working with the other giant of post-bebop jazz, Miles Davis, and had just finished recording Davis' ingenious Kind of Blue. The work the two artists did in that time frame would influence musicians for years to come, jazz or otherwise. Unfortunately live recordings of Giant Steps' title track are hard to come by. But in the interests of shining the spotlight on Coltrane today, here's the John Coltrane Quartet performing "Naima", another track from Giant Steps that became a jazz standard.

My Back Pages

We say this every morning in the form of the typical greeting, but today truly is a good morning, Fackers. The Yankees clinched their first playoff berth under Joe Girardi. Sure it had been a virtual inevitability for a good month or so, but it feels a lot different now that it's locked up. It didn't hurt that they won a back and forth game against a potential postseason opponent to do their part of it, either.

The Yankees did it the right way, and didn't go for the over-the-top champagne celebration, or really any celebration at all, actually. Joe Girardi gathered the team and simply said "Congratulations, and let's keep it going". He acted like he had been there before, even though he hadn't as a manager. You've gotta respect that.

Make no mistake, the reason that this is even remotely satisfying as fans is because of last year. Had the Yankees just clinched their 15 consecutive postseason berth, no one would have batted an eyelash. In '08, I remember watching the odds of the Yankees qualifying the playoffs dwindle down to 10 and then 5 percent and trying to talk myself into believing that a miraculous late surge, coupled with a Rays' collapse was in store. Needless to say, it was not.

A lot of the post season magic and luster was lost in 2004, but it wasn't until last year that the Yanks truly hit rock bottom. Simply playing out the string last September and watching the Old Stadium close down was humbling in ways that I didn't expect.

I think before that, most Yankee fans, especially my age, thought of a playoff bid as something of a birthright. The last time they actually missed the playoffs before '08 was 1993 (they were the best team in the AL in 1994 before the strike hit). I was 9 years old at that point and obviously wasn't yet a Saturday Package holder and a daily reader of Yankee blogs.

This year, it seems like a new experience. The twenty four months that have passed since the Yanks lost the Bug Game and were unceremoniously bounced three nights later by the Indians is an eternity in baseball years. The Yanks might not want to stop to enjoy this moment, but we will, at least momentarily. There are bigger and better things in store for this team, but the significance of this moment is not lost around these parts.

Yanks Win Thriller, Clinch Playoff Spot

Like they did on Monday night, the Yankees began the night by stranding multiple runners on base. This time they had loaded the bags, but Jorge Posada flew out to deep left to end the threat. As noted on the broadcast, the Yankees have left at least two runners on base in the first inning 27 times this season, which is the most in the Majors. Robinson Cano doubled to lead off the second, but the Yanks stranded him too.

Ervin Santana recorded four strikeouts (all swinging) in those first two innings, and in those at bats, 12 of the 18 pitches he threw were sliders. The breaking ball was a little wild though, as catcher Jeff Mathis repeatedly had to block balls in the dirt, including the one Jeter struck out on.

Santana got away from the slider in the third inning, giving up a single on a change up to Mark Teixeira and then a prodigious blast into the face rocks in straightaway center to A-Rod on a 3-0 fastball he left right in the middle of the plate. Hideki Matsui then reached on a catcher's interference, advanced to second on a wild pitch and watched from there as Jorge Posada was the first Yankee to finally conquer Santana's slider, lofting it sky-high, just over the tall wall in right field.

After striking out two times in his first two at bats Derek Jeter flared his 200th hit of the season into shallow right field to lead of the 4th inning. In the top of the 5th, Hideki Matsui got in on the tater party as well, launching a shot into the bleachers in right-center.

Meanwhile, Chad Gaudin worked his way through four scoreless innings against the Angels. A five run margin seemed comfortable at the time, but it started slipping away. In the bottom of the fifth, Chone Figgins jacked a solo homer to right. Then Vlad Guerrero singled in Macier Izturis with two outs.

An inning later, after Alfredo Aceves had replaced Gaudin and stopped the bleeding, the wound was re-opened. Five men reached base in the 6th via four singles and a bases loaded walk. Two men scored, but it could have been much worse were it not for A-Rod's diving stab and throw to get Vlad Guerrero for the third out.

Joe Girardi let Aceves face Torii Hunter in the 7th inning, brought in lefty Damaso Marte to get the switch hitting Kendry Morales around to his weaker side. When Marte served up a double, Joe promptly went back to the well for Phil Hughes, who induced two grounders and got out of the inning.

Hughes did not escape the 8th similarly unscathed, although by little fault of his own. Cano failed to field a hot shot from Howie Kendrick, and the play was scored an error. Then, Kendrick took off for second, Jorge Posada's throw escaped into centerfield and Kendrick was a third with no one out. Hughes got Figgins to pop out, but Izturis singled home the tying run in the next at bat. Bobby Abreu worked a work, but Hughes buckled down and struck out the heart of the Angels order, Hunter and Guerrero to keep the game tied.

Things were looking pretty grim for the Yanks, but the bats got off on the right foot in the 9th inning. Brett Gardner singled and stole second (although replays indicated he was out), Derek Jeter walked and all of a sudden they were back in business. Johnny Damon moved the runners over with a successful sac bunt and Darren Oliver walked Mark Teixeria, bringing A-Rod to the plate.

At this point, it was tough to feel too confident. A double play or a strikeout would have felt like a severe blow to the Yanks' chances, but A-Rod came through, ripping a line drive to centerfield that Brett Gardner just barely scored on. Had it been another runner on third, there's a good chance they would have been out.

The game was turned over to Mariano Rivera for the first time since his blown save in Seattle. Kendry Morales led off the inning with a walk and was replaced by pinch runner Reggie Willits. Juan Rivera came to the plate, and in between three pick off attempts, the intensity was built throughout the at bat. Maraino scattered cutters around but not in the strike zone and Juan fouled a couple of the closer ones off. It ended with a beautiful strike 'em, throw 'em out double play, changing the momentum entirely. Next up, Eric Aybar grounded out to end the game and the Yanks finally came away with one in the Big A.

They also clinched their playoff berth, although technically that had already happened when the Rangers lost to the A's earlier in the night. The Red Sox were shutdown by Zack Greinke, who allowed two hits and walked three over six scoreless innings at Fenway, lowering his ERA to an incredible 2.08. The magic number is now at 6, opening the possibility of clinching against the Red Sox this weekend.

For the moment, we can put aside the questions and soak this one up. Feels pretty good, doesn't it?