Sunday, June 7, 2009

Rivera Bounces Back

OK Joe Girardi. Let's just call it a learning experience.

Whenever you bring in Mariano Rivera, just stop managing for the inning. Sit back and relax. Forget the numbers and matchups and just enjoy what you're watching. Mo's got it under control.

Rivera got Evan Longoria to ground out weakly to record his 13th save and the Yankees scored three runs in the eighth to beat the Rays 4-3 Sunday at Yankee Stadium for their 20th come-from-behind-victory. Combined with the Red Sox's 6-3 loss the Rangers, the Yankees reclaimed first place in the AL East by a half game.

The Yankees are 20-0 when holding their opponent to three runs or less this season.

A day after allowing four runs in two-thirds of an inning in a brutal loss. Rivera found himself back on the mound with a one-run lead. He easily set down Matt Joyce and Gabe Gross, bring up Longoria as a pinch hitter.

On Saturday, Girardi had Rivera intentionally walk Longoria, who had slightly better numbers against Mo than the following hitter, B.J. Upton. The move backfired as Upton singled in a run, opening up the floodgates.

Rivera after the game was not too happy about walking Longoria, who leads the AL in RBI, but hasn't played the last few games because of a strained hamstring. Rivera let it be known that walking Longoria was Girardi's decision. Rivera said he felt he could have and would have gotten Longoria.

Sunday Mo got his chance to prove his point, jumping ahead of the Rays' young third baseman 0-and-2 before firing a high fastball. On the next pitch, Longoria hit a slow roller to Robinson Cano for the easy out.

Of course, there is a lot of woulda, coulda, shoulda going on here about Saturday, but the real point is that Rivera is a proven veteran. He's the best closer there ever was. He's succeeded in the biggest and toughest spots imaginable and he knows what he's doing, even when he doesn't have his best stuff or lacks his sharpest control.

If he wants to go after a batter, let him. There's no reason not to trust him.

So Joe, when you bring in Mo, just worry about positioning the fielders. Rivera will do the rest.

And on Sunday Rivera's 10-pitch inning was a great way to end a thrilling game.

Joba Chamberlain backed up his brilliant outing Monday with another solid start. He allowed three runs on five hits in six innings, striking out four and throwing 56 of 100 pitches for strikes.

He wasn't as electric as he was Monday, his fastball barely topping out at 95 mph, but he kept the Rays offbalance most of the day, allowing an RBI double to Upton in the third and a two-run single to Gross on a grounder through middle in the sixth, when he lost some command of his fastball.

Chamberlain was backed by some terrific defense with Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Melky Cabrera all making some outstanding plays, though Jorge Posada committed an error in the fifth, giving the Yankees five straight games with at least one error after 18 straight without one.

In 23 career starts, Joba's allowed three runs or less in all but three outings. Of course, that stat is somewhat skewed because of how overprotective the Yankees have been with him, but the main point is he keeps the Yankees in the game and gives them a chance to win.

That's exactly what happened Sunday.

But the Yankees wouldn't have been in position to pull this one out with the work of Alfredo Aceves, who replaced Joba in the seventh and struck out four in his two innings of work.

Ace (4-1, 2.70 ERA) has been a revelation in the bullpen, able to fill a number of roles and, most importantly, get big outs. He's made 11 appearances so far, eight of which have been for more than one inning and only one of which can be considered poor.

Sunday he shut the door on the Rays and allowed the Yankees to mount an ugly, yet effective rally in the eighth against the Tampa's porous bullpen.

With one out against Grant Balfour, Johnny Damon and Teixeira singled to put runners on the corners. Rodriguez then walked to load up the bases and set up the key at-bat of the inning.

Cano likely will never become a high OBP guy. He's an aggressive hitter and that has at times gotten him into trouble in the past.

But this year, Cano's approach at the plate is different.

He's still aggressive, but he's also much more selective. He's walked 13 times this season, an improvement over last season when he walked 26 times and ahead of the pace from 2007 when he walked a career-high 39 times. But what is most noticeable is he's also not striking out much this season, only 16 times.

That new-found plate discipline prove useful Sunday as he refused to chase J.P. Howell's offerings, drawing a five-pitch walk to drive in a run and make it 3-2.

Posada followed with a topper down the third base line that Willie Aybar booted while trying to field and turn a double play, allowing the tying run to score.

Matsui then hit a grounder to second, but beat the throw to first after Ben Zobrist tagged out Posada, giving the Yankees the lead. Nick Swisher, who homered leading off the third, walked and Caberera struck out to end the inning.

It was least impressive rally one could imagine, yet no less effective.

However, the offense again suffered from a lack of clutch hits, going 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and somehow botching a first-and-second, no-out situation in the fifth.

With the scored tied at 1, Swisher and Cabrera led off with walks. Then Girardi, strangely, asked Derek Jeter to bunt the runners over. Jeter had been 5-for-16 (.313) against Rays starter Matt Garza, but Garza is known to be tough on right-handed hitters, and Girardi figured it would be wiser to get the runners over for lefty Damon and switch-hitter Teixeira.

Jeter, however, couldn't get the bunt down and grounded into a fielder's choice to put runners on the corners. Damon followed with another fielder's choice with Swisher being caught off third and getting into a rundown, allowing Jeter and Damon to advance to second and third.

Teixeira followed with a foul pop to catcher Dioner Navarro to end the threat.

With the series against the Red Sox looming Tuesday, you have to be a little worried about this offense which is 22-for-98 (.224) with RISP over the last nine games. One of the big reasons the Yankees are 0-5 against the Sox this season is because the offense has not taken advantage of its scoring chances against the archrivals (8-for-54, .148 with RISP).

The Yankees have to get the bats going again and series finale against the Rays Monday would be a real good time to start.

Runners In Scoring Position
0-for-9 (.000)
140-for-524 (.267)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
74-for-256 (.289)

Up Next
Monday vs. Rays, 7:05 p.m., YES, ESPN
Andy Sonnanstine (4-5, 7.07) vs. Andy Pettitte (5-2, 4.33)

Pettitte needs to show his back is fully healthy and give the Yankees a long start in what is a pretty important game against the Rays. The Yankees are 3-4 against their division rivals and would like to take this series and get to .500 against the defending AL champs.

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