Friday, July 10, 2009

We'll Miss You, Metrodome

Make fun of the baggie, the folded seats, the artificial turf and the Homer Hankies, but make no mistake, the Homer ... make that Metrodome has been very good the Yankees.

And this season was no exception.

Alfredo Aceves got the spot start and combined with five of his bullpen mates to beat the Twins 6-4 Thursday to complete the season sweep and move the Yankees into a tie atop the AL East with the Red Sox, following their 8-6 loss to the Royals.

The Best Bullpen in Baseball has four losses in Boston's last nine games and the Red Sox have gone 5-5 in their last 10. Meanwhile the Yankees have won 13 of 15, including eight straight on the road for the first time since 1998. (Just reporting the cold, hard facts, Dave.)

For a change, the Yankees didn't have to rely on the home run in this series -- ironic in a stadium that is known for yielding homers. Instead the Yankees went 13-for-37 (.351) with runners in scoring position and hit just one homer in winning all three games.

"The last couple of days here prove that we don't have to do it with the homer," Brett Gardner said.

But as usual, that hitting would mean nothing if the team didn't get good pitching and on Thursday, they needed their bullpen to come up big.

After throwing 43 pitches over four innings and earning a save Sunday, Aceves was handed the ball in place of the injured starter Chien-Ming Wang. They Yankees were hoping to squeeze five inning out of Ace with an ambitious pitch count of 65. A jump of 20+ pitches is a lot to ask of a pitcher and that showed in the fourth as Ace wore down.

The Yankees spotted Aceves a lead in the second, scoring three runs on two walks, a hit batter, an error and one hit. Cody Ransom walked with the bases loaded, Gardner brought in a run on a fielder's choice and Derek Jeter added an RBI single.

The inning ended when, with runners on the corners, Jeter was picked off first, but Twins first baseman Justin Morneau read the play and caught Gardner at the plate, trying to steal home.

Spotted a 3-0 lead, Aceves ran into trouble he could ill afford in the bottom half of the inning. After allowing a leadoff homer to Jason Kubel, Ace walked Michael Cuddyer and then sent him to second with an errant pickoff throw.

He settled down to get Brian Buscher to pop to short. Mike Redmond then topped a grounder to third that Ransom, starting in place of Alex Rodriguez, who was the DH, fielded cleanly but misfired to first for an error, allowing Cuddyer to score to make it 3-2.

Aceves got Nick Punto and Denard Span to end the inning, but the extra out Ransom gave the Twins cost Ace pitches he couldn't afford to throw. He got through the third unscathed, his pitch count at 52.

The offense provided a little more cushion for Aceves in the fourth. He'd need it.

Jorge Posada led off with a single and Robinson Cano ripped double to put runners on second and third with one out. After Melky Cabrera popped to left, Ranson and Gardner delivered RBI singles to make it 5-2.

That meant the eighth- and ninth-place hitter had driven in four of the Yankees' first five runs.

There might not be a Yankee who will miss the Metrodome more than Gardner. The rookie center fielder went 5-for-13 with six RBI in the three games, and watching him play, I couldn't help but wonder what Gardner's numbers might be like had he played in the era when artificial turf was more common in baseball.

Unfortunately for Aceves, he ran out of steam in the bottom half and lost his command. After getting Kubel to ground out to lead off, Ace allowed a double to Cuddyer and a single to Buscher before hitting Redmond with his final pitch of the game. David Robertson came and finished the inning, but not before walking two to bring in two runs, making it 5-4

In all Aceves allowed four runs -- three earned -- on four hits and one walk. He struck out two and threw 41 of his 65 pitches for strikes. And while Aceves would have allowed just one run with some more support from the defense and Robertson, the short outing put a heavy burden on his bullpen mates.

After Mark Teixeira homered with one out in the fifth against Twins starter Francisco Liriano to snap a 95 at-bat homerless streak, the bullpen went to work.

Jonathan Albaladejo replaced Robertson with one out in the fifth and pitched the next 1-2/3 winnings allowing just a walk a striking out two to earn the victory.

Phil Coke got two outs in the seventh and Phil Hughes went another 1-1/3 dominant innings to hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, who closed it out for his 23rd save of the season.

All told, the bullpen, not including Aceves, went 5-2/3 shutout innings, allowing two hits, four walks and two inherited runners to score, while striking out seven.

It was a terrific performance for this unit, but one that left it taxed. Aceves, Albaladejo and Hughes won't be available when the Yankees begin their three-game series today. Coke and Mo are questionable. That leaves Brian Bruney and Brett Tomko fully rested and available out of the pen.

As a result, the Yankees will recall Mark Melancon today. It's expected that Robertson will be sent down.

Still it was a sweet way to say goodbye to the Metrodome, where the Yankees went 77-64 since it opened in 1982. Next year the Twins open Target Field, a new outdoor stadium that the Red Sox will have the honor of opening in April.

I hope that stadium will be as good to the Yankees as this one was.

Runners In Scoring Position
3-for-10 (.300)
209-for-795 (.263)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
143-for-523 (.273)
Vs. Red Sox
11-for-82 (.134)

Up Next
Friday at Angels, 10:05 p.m., YES
Joba Chamberlain (4-2, 4.04 ERA) vs. Joe Saunders (8-5, 4.44)

Joba's best outings have come on the road this year and the Yankees needed him to come up big with a depleted bullpen. He's coming off his worst outing, allowing eight runs (three earned) in 3-2/3 innings against the Jays and his average of 5-1/3 innings per start simply won't do.

Meanwhile, Saunders has been struggling, allowing six runs on seven hits in 5-1/3 innings in his last outing against the Orioles. In three starts against the Yankees in his career, he's 1-1 with 7.63 ERA.

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