Wednesday, June 17, 2009

First In War, First In Peace, Last In The NL East

Thank goodness the Yankees were playing the Nationals.

You know what they say about Washington: "First in war, first in peace, last in the NL East."

OK, OK, that originally was said about the Washington Senators and it was, "First in war, first in peace, last in the America League," but hey, it still works for the Nationals, so I'm running with it.

Against any other team the Yankees might not have been so fortunate to escape this game with a win.

But maybe I'm expecting too much. After all it was a day that started with the Yankees activating Brian Bruney and designating Jose Veras for assignment (FINALLY!), and ended with a victory.

Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano hit RBI doubles in the seventh inning and the Yankees rallied for a 5-3 victory over the (g)Nats Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, remaining two games behind the Red Sox in the AL East.

It was the Yankees' major-league best 22nd come-from-behind victory this season. They are also the only team to win every game (23) in which they've allowed three or fewer runs.

But what's eating me is the fact that the Yankees even had to rally against the Nationals, who have 16 wins ... which isn't even half of the Yankees' 37.

They let too many opportunities slip by, going 3-for-13 with runners in scoring position and stranding 10. They should have crushed this team.

Nats starter Sharion Martis came into this game with a 5-1 record, but on this night he was not sharp. He threw 106 pitches in six innings -- and only 53 were strikes. A team such as the Yankees should be able to crush any pitcher who issues five walks and is putting only about 50 percent of his pitches in the strikezone.

The missed chances started in the second inning. Cano had the first of his four hits on the night, lacing the first pitch he saw for a single. Jorge Posada followed with a single and Hideki Matsui moved the runners to second and third with a weak grounder to first. Nick Swisher walked and the Yankees were set to pounce on the Nationals and Martis.

Melky Cabrera lifted a sacrifice fly to get one run in and give the Yankees a 1-0 lead, but Derek Jeter grounded to second to end the threat.

The Yankees mounted another threat in the third. Damon reached second on an error by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to lead off. Teixeira then grounded weakly to first to advance Damon before Alex Rodriguez walked. Cano's single brought in Damon to make it 2-0, but the Yankees couldn't get anything more. Posada flew out to left and Matsui struck out.

That meant in those two innings alone, the Yankees had nine plate appearances with a runner in scoring position and managed to go only 1-for-6 with two walks, a sac fly and two RBI. Against any major league team that's not good enough, but against the Nationals, that's just asking for trouble.

And that's exactly what the Yankees got.

CC Sabathia was strong, pitching 7-2/3 innings and allowing six hits and walking two. He threw 75 of 109 pitches for strikes and fanned two. But the Yankees' inability to put away the game early gave the Nationals life and they made the Yankees pay by taking the lead when Sabathia and Posada made a poor decision on pitch selection.

With one out in the fifth former Yankees Alberto Gonzalez and Wil Nieves singled. That brought up Anderson Hernandez, who in third inning ripped an inside fastball for a two-out, ground rule double.

Sabathia and Posada got ahead of Hernandez 1-and-2, making Hernandez look awful on some outside pitches. He wasn't close on those pitches and it was painfully obvious that Hernandez liked the ball inside and was looking inner-half of the plate.

So what did Sabathia and Posada decide to throw next? Well, how about an inside slider that Hernandez crushed over the wall in left for a three-run homer, his first homer since Sept. 19, 2006, giving the Nationals a 3-2 lead.

When a guy is looking that bad handling a pitch on the outer-half of the plate, why come back inside? Don't get too cute. Keep pounding the outside until the guy proves he can hit the pitch. Especially a guy such as Anderson Hernandez, who has spent most of his career in the minors, has little power and is hitting .277 with a .358 slugging percentage.

Well the Yankees were lucky they were playing Washington.

There is a reason why the Nationals don't even have as many wins (16) as their cleanup hitter Adam Dunn has homers (17). They just don't have talent, and on most teams, that lack of talent manifests itself in the bullpen.

The (g)Nats lifted Martis after the sixth and turned to former Yankee Ron Villone, who actually is having a good season with a 1.83 ERA.

Damon greeted Villone with a single and Teixeira followed by barely missing a homer, crushing a shot off the top of the wall in left-center right above the 399 mark for a double that tied the score at 3.

It sure seems as if Teixeira is coming up with every big hit the Yankees need right now.

But slumping Alex Rodriguez couldn't bring in Tex, striking out. A-Rod has played every game since he returned from the DL, either starting at third or as the DH. He went 0-for-3 Tuesday and is now 8 for his last 48, dropping his average to .224.

A-Rod loves to play and wants to be out there everyday, but it he need a break. And playing the Nationals would be a great time to give him one.

Jeter did leave Tuesday's game with a stiff left ankle and is listed as day to day. If Jeter can't play Wednesday, start A-Rod, but even if Jeter can't go Thursday, the Yankees should rest A-Rod anyway, though that would mean starting Ramiro Pena and Angel Berroa. Put winning that game on a good start from Joba Chamberlain.

A-Rod was lucky Tuesday that Cano has become red hot. Cano picked up A-Rod by lacing a double to give the Yankees the lead. However, Cano was thrown out trying to stretch to third and Posada grounded out to end the inning.

Somehow, someway the Yankees have to get their base running straightened out. It seems that starting with that nightmarish Red Sox series, the Yankees have either had someone thrown out running the bases and/or doubled off in nearly every game.

It has to stop. NOW! The Yankees are giving away outs and costing themselves runs. It's not good baseball and I can't remember the Yankees ever running the bases like this since the early 1990s. It's basic fundamentals and poor decision making, and Joe Girardi has to get it fixed immediately.

But the Yankees had the lead and the victory was in sight. Bruney came on to get the final out of the eighth, throwing four of six pitches for strikes. And after Ramiro Pena's single gave the Yankees a little more breathing room, Mariano Rivera finished up by converting his 11th straight save opportunity, giving him 15 saves on the season.

The Yankees can play like this against the (g)Nats and win. Washington would struggle against Triple A teams.

But that type of play doesn't bode well for the near term.

The Yanks are coming off a stretch in which they haven't played their crispest ball. Right now they have an opportunity get correct a lot of their problems and get back on that roll they were on in May.

Let's see them start playing that brand of ball today.

Now That Veras Is Gone...
Let's see pitching coach Dave Eiland go, too. If this pitching staff gets better, it will be despite him.

Recently Eiland discussed the staff's problems throwing strikes and pointed out the biggest issues are at home, where the pitchers are afraid of making a mistake that would become a homer.

"It's easier said than done," Eiland was quoted as saying in the Journal News. "When you're on the mound and every time the ball goes up in the air you're holding your breath, you try to make a perfect pitch instead of just trusting your stuff and not worrying about what's going to happen if you don't."
So, the answer is to not throw strikes, walk people and turn solo shots into three-run homers?

Here are some numbers. At home, the Yankees have a 5.03 ERA (worst in the AL), allowed 137 walks (worst), have allowed a .800 OPS (worst) and a 1.49 WHIP (13th).

It doesn't matter how small the ballpark or if there is a wind tunnel to right, the only way to win is to throw strikes and pitch to contact -- and the Yankees' starters have the stuff to do that and succeed. And if Eiland can't pound that into his pitchers' heads, he needs to go.

Runners In Scoring Position
3-for-13 (.231)
158-for-597 (.265)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
92-for-329 (.280)
Vs. Red Sox
11-for-82 (.134)

Up Next
Wednesday vs. Nationals, 7:05 p.m., YES
John Lannan (3-5, 3.51) vs. Chien-Ming Wang (0-4, 14.34)

Congratulations Wang, you're the proud new papa of a baby boy born Tuesday.

Now your starting job is on the line.

Girardi has told Wang that this is a huge start for him. He needs to pitch well or he'll be coming out of the rotation. Wang's been give a soft landing spot, but don't be fooled, the Nationals can hit. Dunn, Zimmerman and former Yankee Nick Johnson are all dangerous, so Wang had better be sharp.

The offense also has to give Wang some help. Lannan is not a bad pitcher, as his 3.51 ERA indicates, and he's also capable of firing a gem. When the Yankees get an early opportunity against him, they had better take advantage and take some pressure of Wang.

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