Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Defense Comes Through

Andy Pettitte had just delivered 7-1/3 sterling innings, but the Yankees found themselves tied with Orioles and in quite a jam Monday.

After striking out Matt Weiters to lead off the eighth, Pettitte allowed a single to Cesar Izturis and a double to Brian Roberts to put runners on second and third.

Joe Girardi went to lefthander Phil Coke with left-handed Nick Markakis and the defense responded by cutting down two runners at the plate to propel the Yankees to a 2-1 victory on Hideki Matsui's one-out, walk-off homer in the ninth at Yankee Stadium. The win was the Yankees' fourth in a row and moved them back into a tie for first with the Red Sox in the AL East.

The Yankees have gone 42-22 since Alex Rodriguez returned to the lineup on May 9.

Coke got Markakis to hit grounder to first baseman Mark Teixeira, who fielded the ball cleanly and fired home. Jose Molina caught the ball on the first base side, but was able to reach back across the plate in time to tag Izturis.

Then, Coke's first pitch to Adam Jones bounced in the dirt and squirted away from Molina. After hesitating just a split second, Roberts made a dash for the plate, but Coke got there in time to take the throw from Molina, apply the tag and keep the score knotted at 1.

It's not often when defense makes such an obvious difference in a game, and after three games during which we've seen outfielders struggle with the sun in left, take bad routes to balls and get caught in-between on a sinking liner, it was great to seen the Yankees' defense come through in a huge moment. It preserved what was yet another strong outing from a Yankee starter in another delightful, though increasingly stressful, pitchers' duel.

Andy Pettitte struck out a season-high eight and allowed just one run -- a first-inning homer to Markakis -- on six hits and two walks, throwing a terrific 76 of 109 pitches for strikes. He worked out of a jam in the fifth and got double plays to escape the sixth and seventh. He looked like the old Pettitte.

The Yankees have now gotten a quality start in each of their four games since the All-Star break.

That they've won all four isn't a surprise. What is a surprise, though, is that they've need those kinds of efforts because the offense, which ranks first or second in most offensive categories, has gone cold, relying on homers to score.

Facing David Hernandez for the first time, the Yankees had a chance to knock the rookie about in the first inning, but couldn't get the clutch hit with runners in scoring position. They got three hits out of their first seven hitters, but scored just one run.

With one out, Johnny Damon singled and went to third on Teixeira's single, bringing up Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod, however, watched a third strike go by and after Matsui walked to load the bases, Robinson Cano flew out to left to end the threat.

Even though he's no longer in the fifth spot, big run-scoring situation still seem to find Cano.

Eric Hinske tied the score by leading off the second with a homer, but that would be the Yankees' last hit until the ninth, when Matsui took the first two pitches from Jim Johnson for ball and fouled off the next three before crushing the final pitch, a 95 mph fastball, into right center, giving the Yankees their ninth walk-off homer of the season.

And another shaving cream pie celebration.

Runners In Scoring Position
Monday
0-for-2 (.000)
Season
221-for-843 (.262)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
4-for-24 (.167)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
155-for-571 (.271)
Vs. Red Sox
11-for-82 (.134)

Up Next
Tuesday vs. Orioles, 7:05 p.m., Local TV (check your listings).
Rich Hill (3-2, 7.22 ERA) vs. Sergio Mitre (No record)

If this game gets played, and that looks doubtful, the Yankees will try to catch lightning in a bottle, hoping Mitre becomes the next Aaron Small. Mitre is 10-23 in his major league career, but is 2-1 with a 2.40 ERA at Triple-A Scranton this year and is the Yankees best option at the moment. Chien-Ming Wang had a set back as he tries to recover from a shoulder strain and it is unlikely he'll be back by early August.

That means unless Mitre can show he can actually pitch well, the Yankees will be looking for a pitcher at the trade deadline -- just don't expect it to be Roy Halladay. Brian Cashman against reiterated that he is not willing to give up the farm for Halladay and that given the poor market for starting pitchers, he is more likely to try to find a reliever and move Alfredo Aceves into the rotation. Phil Hughes is expect to remain in the eighth-inning role where he has become dominant.

Keep an eye on the Reds here. They are four games under .500 and 5-1/2 games out of first. If they decided to give up the chase and become sellers, Bronson Arroyo might be a feasible option -- if the price is right.

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