Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Coke And A Smile

Slowly, we can see the Yankees' confidence starting to rise.

Melky Cabrera had a tie-breaking single, Ramiro Pena drove in his first career runs and the Yankees batted around for the third consecutive game in the three-run eighth of a 7-4 victory over the Angels Thursday at Yankee Stadium. The Yanks have won three straight after their four-game losing streak.

And while the Yankees offense finally seems to have figured out what it takes to drive in runners in scoring position, the unsung hero of this game was Phil Coke.

The young lefthander was impressive in his short stint with the Yankees last season and the team had high hopes for him when they broke camp, but Coke got off to a rough start, allowing seven runs (four earned) in 3-2/3 innings in his first four outings.

Since then, however, he has been brilliant.

Thursday Coke (1-1, 3.72 ERA) pitched a perfect eighth, striking out one and throwing 13 of 18 pitches for strikes. A.J. Burnett was shaky allowing four runs on eight hits and blowing another lead in his seven innings of work, but Coke kept the score tied and gave the offense a chance to take advantage of the weakened Angels' bullpen.

Coke has now gone seven straight outings without allowing a run, pitching six innings and giving up just two hits and one walk while striking out four. As the Yankees try to stabilize the bullpen in Brian Bruney's absence, Coke is emerging as the most composed and reliable way to get to Mariano Rivera.

It's a scary situation, but Joe Girardi is going to have to rely on rookies out of the bullpen in some big spots. So far, Coke is showing he is more than capable of handling them. And if Mark Melancon can continue to impress as he gets more opportunities in bigger spots, once Bruney returns (assuming he's 100 percent), the Yankees might finally have the reliable bridge to Rivera they have been trying to rebuild since the Mike Stanton-Jeff Nelson days.

But those are big ifs. Coke and Melancon have a lot to prove. We just have to hope they have the mettle to succeed.

The Good
Cabrera started his fourth straight game in center and won't be coming out of the lineup anytime soon. After losing the starting job to Brett Garnder in spring training, Cabrera has been on a tear and is hitting .327 with four homers and nine RBI. He's had a number of big hits and Thursday's was no exception.

Tied at 4 in the eighth, Robinson Cano singled to extend his hitting streak to 17 after Hideki Matsui led off by flying out to left. Jorge Posada followed with a ground rule double and after Nick Swisher was intentionally walked to load the bases, Melky sent the first pitch from Justin Speier to right to break the tie. Pena followed with a drive into the right field corner to plate Posada and Swisher and the Yankees had all they needed, though they could have had more, leaving the bases loaded.

The offense was clutch all night, coming up with big hits and battling back from a two-run deficit. Mark Teixeira had a two-out double in the first and scored on Matsui's single to tie the score. Burnett, however, gave the lead right back, allowing two to score in the second.

Damon got one back with a homer in the third and the Yankees grabbed the lead in the fourth, plating two when Bobby Abreu booted Derek Jeter's two-out single, allowing Pena to score from first.

Speaking of Abreu, his defense is the one thing that is not missed. Further, Swisher showed why he is a major upgrade, make a running catch in the right field corner on a sacrifice fly and later amade diving attempt near the wall in right on a foul ball. Abreu would never have gotten even close to either of those balls.

In all, the win allowed the Yankees to finish April at 12-10, their best first month since 2006. If not for the bullpen, they would have had a few more wins, but two games over .500 is still a step in the right direction.

The Bad
Burnett was not terrible, but the Yankees were hoping for more. He struggled to keep the Angels off the board in the first five innings, but did settle down after allowing the Angels to tie in the fifth. But after that run crossed the plate, he seemed to pitch with a little more anger and his pitches had a little more bite. Hopefully that will continue in his next scheduled start against the Red Sox Tuesday.

What We Learned
Allowing four runs is too much for any starter to give up, but by pitching seven innings, Burnett still gave his team a chance. It's not a recipe for sustained success, but when the Yankees get length, if not quality, they still can pull out wins, especially against weaker teams such as the 9-12 Angels.

Runners In Scoring Position
Thursday
5-for-11 (.455)
Season
54-for-215 (.251)

Up Next
Friday vs. Angels, 7:05 p.m., YES
Jered Weaver (2-1, 2.45) vs. Andy Pettitte (2-1, 2.96)

Pettitte had his worst start of the year in his last start against the Red Sox (though his line was similar to Burnett's on Thursday), but he's been the Yankees' most consistent pitcher.

Sox Bounce Back

I think it is fair to say that things were looking a little...bleak last night.


Jon Lester looked decidedly average, giving up five runs on seven hits in six innings. Even his seven strikeouts were overshadowed by those two dingers and his flubbing of that bunt in the first.*


Youkilis didn't play last night, leaving a gaping hole in the lineup. Bay was pushed into the cleanup slot, where he almost never hits, and went 0-4 with a walk. Pedroia went 0-4 with a walk as well and is 3-15 in his last four games.


The upshot was that the Sox were down 5-2 going into the eighth inning. And then the Indians made their mistake.


Carmona was holding his own against the Sox and Cleveland's first reliever, Rafael Perez, held the lead. But then Wedge decided to take Perez out for the eighth and insert Betancourt, who has been decidedly average this year. He could only get one out and allowed a run to cross before leaving with the bases loaded. At which point Wedge made his second mistake and put in Jensen Lewis. Lewis should be closing for the Indians as opposed to late-inning setup. He has already blown two games in 2009 as of last night. And over the past two years (2008-09) Lewis has a cumulative 5.79 ERA and a whopping .455 BAA against Boston.


You see where this is going, right?


Three batters and two runs later, the Sox had tied the game up at five. The Sox got some solid relief from Delcarmen and Oki to make it to the 10th inning. And for some reason, Wedge left Jensen in the game. Which set the stage for Van Every's game-winner homer.


The Red Sox have had great results so far in 2009 from their call-ups, be they hitters or pitchers. Van Every is a journeyman bench player who spent most of his career in the Cleveland system. He came to Boston in 2008, started in Pawtucket this year and...he wins the game last night. Such has been the fortune of the Red Sox by-and-large this year.


Another good thing last night was Papelbon throwing a good 10th for his sixth save of the year. He has been shaky in his performances to some extent this year. So to see him strike out a pair and walk just one batter was pretty encouraging. Hopefully he follows this track and gets back to his usual dominant self.


Outside the game itself, the big news was that the Sox are shutting John Smoltz down for a week. The brass says it isn't serious, but even a minor setback gives one pause. The exact reason for the slowdown isn't known; the Sox are good at keeping this kind of thing under wraps. I'd guess it is his shoulder, but who knows. Once again, though, it's situations like these that demonstrate the importance of having an abundance of pitching.


First Pitch Strikes


Lester has been improving his control over the past year-plus. But last night he only got first-pitch strikes/outs on 10 of 27 batters. That works out to just a 37% rate, which is abysmal and a large reason why he left after six innings. You won't win a lot of games when you consistently fall behind in the count like that. Hopefully Lester can get back on track in his next start.


Next Game


April 30 / Away against Tampa / Beckett vs. Garza / 7:08 PM : What's with the 7:08 time? Back against Tampa...this could go either way. Tampa is falling fast and the Sox had success in the Dome last year. On the other hand, Tampa gives the Sox fits on a regular basis. Beckett could be great or stink the joint out. So who knows what will happen.


* And you thought I was kidding when I said yesterday that the pitching staff needed extra fielding practice. That's two fielding errors from pitchers in two days. Not so funny now, is it?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Feel Not-So-Good Win

Joba Chamberlain, Nick Swisher and the offense had the Yankees on their way to a second straight feel-good victory.

The bullpen turned it into an stressful, angst-ridden thrill ride.

Clearly, no lead is too big for this team right now.

Joba allowed one run on three hits and three walks in seven innings, Nick Swisher homered from each side of the plate and the offense had a seven-run fourth inning in an 8-6 victory over the Tigers in Detroit Wednesday.

For the second straight game, the Yankees were on their way to a dominant victory against the AL Central's first-place team. They got a strong start from Joba, clutch hitting with runners in scoring position and two big homers. They appeared to have the Tigers put away.

But the bullpen nearly turned into the night of the living dead.

Actually, to blame the entire bullpen is not fair. Phil Coke relieved Joba in the eighth and was perfect, striking out one. He's been the one middle-reliever who has been consistenly getting outs. (I won't count Mark Melancon based on two outings). And that's when the trouble started.

Joe Girardi turned to Jonathan Albaladejo to close out the game. Albaladejo, like nearly every other Yankee pitcher, was hit hard in his last outing against the Red Sox Saturday. Giradi put in Albaladejo to get him some work and help rebuild his confidence. It was a chance for Albaladjo to show Saturday's outing was just a blip in his development as a reliable reliever.

It wasn't a blip. Albaladejo was hit hard, allowing four runs on three hits and a walk in two-thirds of an inning. He left with the Yankees leading 8-3 and two runners on. Girardi had a choice between a warmed-up David Robertson and Mariano Rivera, who had just started loosening up. Neither were great choices at that point, but Girardi went with Mo over the inexperienced Robertson. It didn't matter as Curtis Granderson sent Rivera's second pitch over the right field wall. Rivera settled down to get the last out and the Yankees were able to finally breath easy.

It's unfortunate that the bullpen takes the focus away from the good things to come out of this victory, but until Brian Cashman and Girardi figure out a way to solidify this group, no lead will be safe, the Yankees' ability to come back will be hampered and the team's fortunes will remain solidly in doubt.

The Good
There was a lot in this game, but let's start with Joba.

Chamberlain (1-0, 3.13 ERA) was shaky in the early going, throwing first-pitch balls to five of his first seven batters and eight of his first 12. He ran into trouble in the third when he loaded the bases with one out on two walks and a single. He escaped the inning allowing only one run by striking out Miguel Cabrera on a nasty curve, and once the Yankees' offense gave him a big lead, he seemed to settle down.

Joba, who has allowed only two earned runs in his last 12-1/3 innings, threw 88 pitches, 50 strikes, touching 96 mph with his fastball. He struck out six, kept hitters offbalance by effectively mixing in his slider, curve and change, and avoided getting into deep counts, making this one of the more efficient starts of his short career.

More importantly, it was the Yankees' second consecutive quality start, coming on the heels of Phil Hughes' brilliant outing Tuesday. The Yankees need their starters to get rolling, and Thursday A.J. Burnett will get then chance to build upon what Hughes and Joba started.

Meanwhile, the offense picked up where it left off Tuesday, maintaining the relentless attack it had discovered.

The fourth started with Swisher's three-run homer with runners on second and third and one out, and the Yankees continued to pound away at Tigers starter Rick Porcello. Melky Cabrera and Ramiro Pena followed with singles. After Jeter grounded into a fielder's choice, Johnny Damon doubled in Cabrera to knock out Porcello. Mark Teixeira was walked intentionally to load the bases and Hideki Matsui cleared them with double before Robinson Cano lined out to end the threat.

In the fifth, Swisher became the 10th Yankee to homer from both sides of the plate and Cano singled in the seventh to extend his hitting streak to a career-high 16.

And the most encouraging part of this is that Alex Rodriguez could be back in 10 days to bolster the lineup and solidify what has been a very weak third base. He's scheduled to play in a minor league game Thursday.

What We Learned
The best way the Yankees can overcome their bullpen deficiencies is to keep getting quality starts (six innings, no more than three runs allowed). They've received one in each of the last two nights and won both, and for the season, they've won eight of nine quality starts.

Runners In Scoring Position
Wednesday
3-for-7 (.429)
Season
49-for-204 (.240)

Up Next
Thursday vs. Angels, 7:05, YES
Anthony Ortega (0-1, 7.20) vs. Burnett (2-0, 5.47)

Burnett will try to bounce back from his meltdown in Boston Saturday and a strong start will go a long way to helping the Yankees forget about that miserable experience. Of course, the Angels have long been the Yankees' nemesis, but these Angels are a few notches below their teams of recent years. Their starters are injured, their offense is weak, Yankee killer Garrett Anderson is now on the Braves and the Angles are 9-11, a game out of last in the AL West. The Yankees need to beat up on this team while it's down and hopefully end their troubles against the Angels once and for all.

All Good Things...

Look, I knew Boston's win streak had to come to an end eventually. And complaining about the end of an 11-game tear seems a bit spoiled. With that in mind...


Welcome back, Julio. That RBI single you had was great and all. But that hardly makes up for your bonehead error in the third that let the Indians rally to tie the game at seven. Now I remember why I was so thrilled when you went on the DL. At this point I want to see Nick Green full-time or some random guy off Brookline Ave. starting at short before you get back in there. One game back and you already have an error on your sheet. What a big surprise.


And while it'd be just as easy to blame Javier Lopez for dropping the ball and allowing the winning run to cross, the truth is that the Sox had a ton of opportunities to break this game wide open. They stranded 11 runners. Yes, Cleveland stranded 12 but they are supposed to do that; it's why they're still five games under .500 right now. Boston is supposed to seize those chances and last night they simply didn't do it. So all those hits and all those runs meant nothing. The final result was watching an inferior team beat you on a catching error. Such are the wages of lost opportunities.


Brad Penny looked shockingly bad last night, not even making it through three innings. Granted, three of the seven runs that crossed on his watch were the result of someone's boneheaded error. But he had control issues as well. Last night was not good for Penny. I wonder how many eyes in the organization are looking toward Smoltz and his June return this morning. The only bright spots last night in pitching for the Sox was Hunter Jones continuing to impress, Okajima looking more like his old self and the consistency of Ramon Ramirez. The truth is that the bullpen wasn't atrocious last night, but Lopez's error tends to overshadow that fact.


What makes it worse is that the Yankees actually won a game last night and so Aviv gets bragging rights for now. Nothing is more insufferable than a Yankee fan feeling his oats. Still, the Sox are two games in front and I think this game is an aberration as opposed to a harbinger of things to come. But a little extra fielding practice for the pitching staff today wouldn't hurt, either.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Hughes Lift

Phil Hughes gave the Yankees exactly what they needed, and in the process announced his intentions to remain in the majors.

Hughes allowed two hits and two walks in six shutout innings, and the Yankees' bats awoke from their deep slumber in the seventh inning of an 11-0 victory over the Tigers in Detroit Tuesday, breaking a four-game losing streak.

It had been exactly a week since the Yankees received a quality start and in that time, they won only one game. Hughes, 22, was in a tough, pressure-filled spot. Last season he struggled with ineffectiveness and injuries, and he failed to win a game in the majors. He went to work in the offseason and was impressive throughout training camp.

His maturity showed when despite starting the season in the minors, he continued to pitch at a high level, earning this start in place of Chien-Ming Wang.

It looks like something has clicked with Hughes. He battled hitters, making tough pitches and escaping a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the fourth. That was his only real trouble of the game. He effectively mixed a two-seam fastball that touched 94 mph with a big curve, while spotting an effective slider and changeup. He threw 58 of 99 pitches for strikes and I expect that efficiency to improve as he settles into the rotation.

This was the kind of pitcher the Yankees were expecting to see when they gave Hughes a spot in the rotation last season. Of course, it is not unusual for a starter to struggle in his first season in the majors. Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery all had terrible first seasons before they became the backbone of the Braves' dominant teams of the mid-1990s. More recently the Mets' Mike Pelfrey was awful in his rookie season in 2007 before bouncing back with a strong 2008. The hope is Hughes will follow that path of development.

But let's not get overly excited. It's only one game and he has to show he can pitch like this consistently. Still Hughes gave Yankee fans a reason for hope at a bleak point early in the season. And that just might be what the Yankees needed most.

The Good
The offense finally showed some life. And it started with two at-bats by Robinson Cano against Tigers starter Edwin Jackson in the fourth and sixth innings.

The toughest part of the Yankees' slump was that the offense lacked life. It had stopped battling and grinding out pitches. It was getting poor at-bats in run producing spots and the hitters' approach became anxious as they appeared to be pressing. And when the Yankees would fall behind, there seemed to be little hope of a comeback.

Sometimes all it takes to change all that is a quality at-bat, and Cano gave them two. In the fourth Cano battle Jackson through 11 pitches before hitting a single on the 12th. In the sixth with a runner on third and two outs, Cano struck out in a 10 pitch at-bat.

While efforts did not directly lead to any runs, you could see some life come into the Yankees' dugout at the at-bats wore on. It seemed the attitude was changing and then they exploded in the seventh with a 10-run outburst, highlighted by a sacrifice fly (and an error), four singles with a runner in scoring position and a grand slam by Jose Molina, of all people. Nick Swisher scored three runs and homered in the ninth.

The big test now will be for the offense to carry that production to Wednesday's game.

The bullpen even produced a positive, closing out the last three innings without giving up a run. Yes, the game was out of reach, but for this unit, scoreless innings are important as it tries to rebuild its confidence. Mark Melancon also made his second appearance with a flawless seventh.

The Bad
There wasn't much as it all came together. It was a pitching duel and once the Yankees got Jackson out of the game after the sixth, they beat up on the Tigers pen.

What We Learned
Hughes looks like he's on a mission and ready to prove he belongs in the majors. The hope right now is that he makes it impossible for the Yankees to send him down once Wang gets back. That would be a tough decision and a great problem to have.

Hey Dave...
You'll like this. The geniuses who set the Yankees' ticket prices (ie Lonn Trost and Randy Levine) have decided to slash prices to fill those seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. Seats that were $2,500 will now be sold for $1,250. And those ... I'll be kind here and just say ... ticket holders who actually paid full price for those seats will receive an equal number of free tickets for the remaining regular-season games. Talk about being late to the dance. I guess seeing all those empty seat on YES was just too much for them to take.

Runners In Scoring Position
Tuesday
4-for-9 (.444)
Season
46-for-197 (.234)

Up Next
Wednesday at Tigers, 7:05 p.m., YES
Chamberlain (0-0, 3.94 ERA) vs. Rick Porcello (1-2, 4.50)

The pressure is on for the Yankees to back up Tuesday's victory with another after that four-game skid. But this start is particularly intriguing for Chamberlain. With each strong start by Hughes, there will be pressure on Joba to match that or exceed it. Otherwise the chants for him to be moved back to the bullpen will grow louder and stronger. Of course, if Joba responds positively, this kind of competition could really bolster the rotation. It will interesting to see how this all plays out.

Enjoying The Ride

I don't even know what to complain about anymore. The Red Sox keep winning, one way or another. The win streak now stands at 11, thanks to their 3-1 win over the Tribe last night on the warm banks of the Cuyahoga.


What was a pitchers' duel was broken open in the ninth inning thanks to the bat of Jason Bay, who's about as popular a player as there is in Boston these days. He has demonstrated a remarkable knack for getting the key hit in a game. Last night it was his three-run blast off one-time starting phenom Kerry Wood that made the difference. Bay is now batting .344 for the year and has a 1.211 OPS. If it wasn't for Youk's insanely hot start, Bay would be the front runner for Player of the Month.


Actually, here's a little comparison you may find interesting:


Jason Bay: 19 G .344 BA 1.211 OPS 5 HR 19 RBI


Player XXX: 19 G .342 BA 1.127 OPS 6 HR 20 RBI


Player XXX is Manny Ramirez over his first 19 games of 2008. The Sox have lost little if anything in the production they get from left field and have improved their defense. Trading for Jason Bay (provided Theo signs him to an extension, hint hint) may prove to be one of Theo's better moves in hindsight.


What was really enjoyable about last night's game was the starting pitching. A dual shut-out through eight innings and some fine pitching from both starters. But Tim Wakefield is going through a late-career Renaissance so far in 2009. In four games he has given up just six earned runs. He has allowed a total of nine hits in his last three games (23 innings total). Using the Bill James Game Score metric*, Wakes' performance last night is one of the 10 best pitching performances in the AL so far this year. It's a shame he didn't get the win last night (not that Delcarmen didn't deserve it). Wakefield is 2-1 on the year with a 1.86 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP. By comparison, a certain expensive "ace" starting pitcher located in a rather large city is currently 1-2 with a 4.73 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP. Now, is it fair of me to make that comparison this early in the year? Perhaps not...but who cares? The fact that a $4M per year knuckleballer is out-pitching Moneybags Sabathia is freaking hilarious.


There was some bad last night. Papelbon got his fifth save in an ugly fashion, giving up three hits and a run before locking it down. He has a tendency to do this from time to time. And that makes the emergence of Daniel Bard an interesting thing to watch. He is currently rolling in Pawtucket (3 SV, 1.69 ERA, 18 K, 3 walks) and he did the same in Portland last year. Bard gives every sign of being a reliable closer in the near future in the majors. If Papelbon continues to look shaky or demands too much money in free agency (which he insists he is going to try three years from now), do not be surprised to see Bard become the new closer for the Sox.


That was really the only bad spot. You can't hate on players for not hitting much when the opposing pitcher just has his groove going. And Papi went 2-4, making his re-emergence look more solid. Although a home run from his bat wouldn't hurt either.


But how much can I really complain? The Sox have won 11 in a row and are tied for first with two games in hand on the Jays. The Yankees are mired in third with a sub-.500 record. And so far I haven't caught the swine flu. Life is good!


First Pitch Strikes


I went into this expecting a low percentage because, let's be honest, not even the pitcher always knows where a knuckleball is going. Out of 27 batters, Wakefield got a first pitch strike/out on 15 of them. That is a 55.5% success rate. Normally, that is average at best. But with the knuckleball, that's a good number. If you are locating a knuckleball on over half of your initial pitches to batters, you have your stuff working that night. There are a lot of conventional pitchers that would love to have that kind of rate.


Next Game


April 28 / Away against Cleveland / Penny vs. Reyes / 7:05 PM : The undefeated Brad Penny, it should be noted.


* Here's how it works (from ESPN): Start with 50 points. Add 1 point for each out recorded, (3 points per inning). Add 2 points for each inning completed after the 4th. Add 1 point for each strikeout. Subtract 2 points for each hit allowed. Subtract 4 points for each earned run allowed. Subtract 2 points for each unearned run allowed. Subtract 1 point for each walk.

Monday, April 27, 2009

It's Deja Vu ... Only Different

We've seen this story before. The script seem oh so familiar. But unlike years past, there is doubt about the ending.

The Yankees would struggle through April, maybe even through May and into June, but sure enough they would kick into high gear, surge through the second half and into the playoffs.

It was a given. It always seemed to happen and we became confident that it always would.

Until last season, when finally it didn't.

We thought the Yankees learned their lesson. They haven't.

CC Sabathia pitched eight solid innings, but was outdueled by Justin Verlander and the Yankees lost to the Tigers 4-2 Monday in Detroit, their fourth straight loss to drop them to 9-10.

And so with three games left in the month, it appears the Yankees will finish the first month no better than 2 games over .500 and possibly four games under. It is far too early to panic, but that confidence that things are guaranteed to turn around is shaken after missing the playoffs last season.

I can't help but suspect that in a different era, when The Boss still ruled the South Bronx with a big stick and a booming voice, Joe Girardi would find himself on a very hot seat. He may still if they Yankees don't start playing a better brand of baseball.

Monday the Yankees needed Sabathia to be the horse who carried the Brewers and Indians to the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. He was certainly much, much better than in his first three starts, but still not a dominant force, the ace, the guy who would pull them out of their slide.

On many nights, Sabathia's outing would have been good enough to win, but not against a sharp Verlander and not with an offense that continues to struggle to score runs. Sabathia allowed four runs on six hits with out a walk. His control was sharp and he struck out nine while throwing 99 pitches, 70 for strikes. It was a step forward.

Sabathia was able to give the beleaguered bullpen a much needed night off. And that in and of itself was important with Phil Hughes set to make his season debut Tuesday. But without any support from the bats, Sabathia couldn't give the Yankees what they needed most: a win.

The offense continues to plod along, struggling to push across runners when they get into scoring position. Monday it was 1-for-9 and stranded seven. Some of the credit for the Yankees' struggles has to go to the pitchers, but the Yankees can't use that as an excuse.

This slump is going to come to an end at some point and I still believe the Yankees will get on a hot streak and return to playoffs -- a belief bolstered by the Rays' bad start. The problem is that once the Yankees get there, they will constantly be facing this kind of top-notch pitching. If they can't figure out how to score against the likes of Verlander, Lackey, Lester and Papelbon, it will be another short postseason trip.

When Girardi was hired, he promised a return to the small-ball ways of the championship Yankees. We have yet to see that in his 1+ years. It's about time he starts delivering on that promise.

What We Learned
In years past, the Yanks have gone to the minors to infuse some youth and enthusiasm into the team. Chien-Ming Wang and Robinson Cano came up to shake up the team in '05. In 2006, it was Melky Cabrera. Of course in 2007, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Shelley Duncan helped spark that second half surge. The Yankees already have called up Mark Melancon and Hughes is getting what might be his make-or-break shot this season.

But as the offense continues to struggle, there were be calls to end the Cabrera-Brett Gardner center field experiment and call up Austin Jackson. He's hitting .340 in the early going at Triple A Scranton, but this will be a test of discipline for the front office. Jackson may not be ready for the majors yet and as tempting as it might be to call him up, the Yankees can't afford to set back his development.

Runners In Scoring Position
Monday
1-for-9 (.111)
Season
42-for-188 (.223)

Up Next
Tuesday at Tigers, 7:05 p.m., YES
Hughes (debut) vs. Edwin Jackson (1-1, 2.77 ERA)

It's a tough spot for Hughes, but if he ever could snap this losing streak, it would go a long way to restoring the fans' confidence in him and justifying the Yankees' faith in him. Fortunately for the Yankees, Jackson is only 2-4 with a 5.72 ERA in 13 games against them.

Sweet, Sweet Victory

Ellsbury stole home.


That sums up the win yesterday. The first straight steal of home by a Red Sox player since Billy Hatcher did it 15 years ago. With the bases loaded. With two outs. In a 2-1 ballgame.


Would Joe Girardi ever, ever make that call? I'll leave that to Aviv to decide. But Tito, sensing an opportunity, gave the green light to Ellsbury to take the chance (see correction at bottom of page). And it ended up being the stake through the Yankees' heart.


At every opportunity in this series, when the Red Sox needed a clutch hit or catch or play, they got it. And that steal of home was the best example of their resilience and determination.


A close second was the pitching performance of Justin Masterson. Going up against Pettitte, a veteran pitcher with a record of success at Fenway, Masterson never flinched. He went 5.1 innings giving up six hits and just the one run while striking out four. He never lost control of the game and, in the end, outpitched Pettitte. As I said he was capable of doing, despite the doubts of some who also write on this site. Masterson is the real deal and seems to excel as either a starter or a reliever.


To stay focused on the pitching, I must acknowledge the good performance from Yankee callup Mark Melancon. Two innings and just one hit at Fenway is impressive. Luckily, Sox callup Michael Bowden matched him with two scoreless innings, no hits and two strikeouts. And the game was finished off in the ninth by Saito for his second save of the year. I wish it didn't take him almost 30 pitches to get there, but he made it. But once again, the Boston bullpen was solid.


There was some good and bad from the lineup. Papi looks like he may be coming into form, going 1-3 with two RBI and a run scored. Ellsbury got on base twice and scored two runs. The bad...Pedroia was 0-4 and got picked off first on another baserunning blunder. And J.D. Drew - surprise, surprise - left the game with a tight left quad. Mike Lowell plays on a practically non-existent hip but Drew goes to the bench because his quad hurts. Jesus wept. The real problem is that Rocco Baldelli is out right now as well. The next start in right is supposed to go to Jeff Bailey and then Drew is supposed to reappear on Tuesday. I'll believe it when I see it.


But why dwell on the negatives? The Red Sox swept the Yankees out of Fenway and are three games ahead of them. Boston is riding a 10-game win streak into Cleveland tonight. And Ellsbury stole home! Life is good indeed...


First Pitch Strikes


Masterson has pretty good control and the game yesterday showed that. Out of 24 batters faced, Masterson was able to get first pitch strikes or outs on 15 of them. That is a rate of 62.5%, which is right where you want to see that number. Anything at 60% or higher shows the pitcher is locating his spots and keeping in front of the batters. Another good outing from Masterson.


Next Game


April 27 / Away against Cleveland / Wakefield vs. Lee / 7:05 PM



Correction: I assumed, quite logically, that Tito gave Ellsbury the green light for that steal of home. Turns out I was wrong; Ellsbury made that call himself. Wow. That takes nerves of steel and makes it even more amazing. I'm guessing Tito couldn't decide whether to hug him or slug him and chose the headlock since it kind of does both at once. Still, my point between Tito and Girardi is valid; Tito has engendered a team attitude to take those kind of calculated risks. I am guessing Girardi has done nothing of the sort in New York.

Yanks Don't Stack Up ... Right Now

After being embarrassingly swept by the Red Sox, any reasonable Yankee fan would have to conclude that our team's flaws have been exposed and we just don't measure up to the Sox ... yet.

Andy Pettitte got stung by the bad defense of third baseman Angel Berroa and a rough fifth inning as the Yankees dropped the series finale 4-1 to the Red Sox in Boston Sunday.

This was a series in which the Yankees had leads in all three games and had many opportunities to score more. Sixteen runs is not bad for a three-game series, until you consider that the Sox actually scored 16 in one game. It's even worse when you consider that with runners in scoring position the Yankees went only 7-for-42 (.167). With 42 at-bats with runners in scoring position, you'd think the Yanks would score a few more runs just by accident.

But here's the good news. The Rays are off to a terrible start, it's only April and the Yanks are only four games behind the first-place Jays and three behind second-place Red Sox. We all know it's a long season and there is plenty of time to turn it around. The Yankees just can't afford to wait for that to happen and can't afford to fall into a losing streak right now.

Here's what GM Brian Cashman, manager Joe Girardi and Co. must do to get things fixed, hopefully before the Sox come to town on May 4-5:

Fix The Bullpen
OK, that one is about as obvious as Suzyn Waldman saying you don't want to have lefties in the lineup against a tough lefthander such as, say, Jon Lester. But cold hard truth is that it is the Yankees' Achilles' heal right now and it cost us dearly against Boston. The injury to Brian Bruney and consecutive extra inning games stretched the bullpen to the point where it became ineffective. Changes must be made.

First thing Cashman must do is get a legitimate long man. Call up either Brett Tomko or Alfredo Aceves. It is ridiculous not to have long man on this roster and it has already hurt the bullpen significantly. You need a long guy, not only in blowouts, but in extra inning games, too. You'd think the Yankees would have learned after starting last season without a long man.

Currently the Yankees have 13 pitchers on the roster. Either David Robertson or Steven Jackson will be sent down to make room for Phil Hughes. The Yankees should replace the other with a long man. Tomko has been great, 1-0 with 0.96 ERA over 9-1/3 innings and six appearances at Scranton. Aceves is already on the 40-man roster and is starting at Scranton. He got off to a rough start, but may have turned things around in his last outing, pitching 6-2/3 shutout innings.

Also, 13 pitchers is just too many to be carrying. It leaves the bench very short. The Yankees need to send one down. I'd look long and hard at sending down Edwar Ramirez or Veras. Ramirez has not been one of the guys Girardi has been looking at for key outs in the seventh and eighth and his workload has been inconsistent. Veras is inconsistent. He can be great, but if he's not throwing strikes, then look out. The Yankees can't afford to have that kind of reliever right now.

Meanwhile, the Yankees have to figure out how to rebuild the pen without Bruney. Mark Melancon was very impressive in his debut, retiring the Sox with ease in the seventh. Even when he ran into trouble in the eighth, he kept his composure and got out of the bases loaded, no out jam. He has a terrific fastball that has life and the Red Sox hitters had trouble squaring up his pitches. Kevin Youkilis' ground ball single up the middle might have been an out against a team that had a shortstop with better range. I'm sure Girardi would like to ease Melancon into games, but the Yankees might not have a choice but to make him the eighth inning guy right now and gamble that he's up to the challenge.

Phil Coke was the only other reliever who seemed to be able to get outs against the Sox and he got several big ones against Boston's top lefties. He needs to continue to see more big spots. Jonathan Albaladejo was great in Friday's game but got hit Saturday. He's young and has shown the potential to develop. Keep trotting him out there in the seventh.

Unfortunately that leaves Damaso Marte, who has proven to be nothing more than a situational lefty. That makes the presence of a long man that much more important.

Hopefully Bruney is able to come back at 100 percent in 2-4 weeks, because we have seen just how important his presence is. And if Melancon is the real deal, well now were starting to talk about a strong unit.

Meanwhile, the Yankees scouts have to focus on middle relievers, because given the economy, there should be some good ones available as the trade deadline approaches. The Yankees will be in position to grab one or two. They just have to make the right choices.

Where's The Clutch?
Everyone knows the famous story from Game 7 of the 2003 ALDS when Derek Jeter turned to Aaron Boone late in the game and assured him the ghosts would come out and the Yanks would win. That kind of confidence is great, but it seems that since then, all they Yankees' offense does is wait for those ghosts.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, make things happen, and that was never more obvious than on Jacoby Ellsbury's steal of home Sunday. Boston's attack is relentless. It scores in every way possible, can explode for multi-run innings at any point and knows how to deliver the knockout blow. And that is a huge difference between the two teams.

It was easy to blame Alex Rodriguez's inability to hit in the clutch for the Yankees' problems, but it is clear this season that the Yankees' problems are much deeper. So far this season, the Yankees are 41-for-179 (.229) with runners in scoring position. Last year they hit .261 with RISP. By comparison, they Yankees average with runners in scoring position in 1998 was .299 and in 1996 .293.

Rodriguez's return is going to help this team immensely, but he won't be able to fix everything. The Yankees need to become more dynamic offensively. Enough with the waiting for the big home run. It's time to get back to what worked for this team in thy dynasty years. The Yankees need their hitters to start trusting the guy behind them more and they need to be willing to sacrifice their stats for the good of the team. More hit-and-run, more hitting behind runners, more going back up the middle and the other way, and more simply looking for a good pitch to drive into the outfield with a runner on third with less than two outs.

Home runs are great, but I'd rather have a consistent offense that knows how to get runners in consistently, thus applying more pressure on the opposing pitcher to keep runners off base. Remember, in the four championship years, the Yankees never had a batter hit more than 30 homers in a season ... and that was during the height of the steroids era. The home runs will come, but they shouldn't be the focal point of the offense.

Quality Starts
It an easy stat to dismiss: no more than three runs in six innings. That's a 4.50 ERA at worst. Shouldn't a major league starter be able to do that on just about an every start basis? Well, yes, of course. But the stat is more important for the impact that kind of start has on a team's chances to win.

So far this season, in 18 games the Yankees have had seven quality starts. More telling, of those seven quality starts, the Yankees have won six. Of the remaining 11 games, the Yankees have won three.

With the bullpen in shambles, the Yankees need their starters to give them quality outings nearly every time out ... and they guys in the rotation all have the ability to do it.

Hey Dave...
I actually had a Red Sox fan tell me the Yankees shouldn't have pitched Mariano Rivera Friday because Mo has now blown 12 saves against them. Really??? Can you believe that??? Rivera's blown 12 saves against the Sox in 14 years and has 44 saves against them, going 12-6 with a 2.91 ERA. Prior to Friday, the last time he'd blown a save against the Sox was April 20, 2007 -- that's two years ago. He saved nine straight games against the Sox in that stretch.

By comparison, entering the season Jonathan Papelbon was 0-3 with a 4.43 ERA, with seven saves and two blown against the Yankees since 2006. Yet the Sox never would not put him in a save situation against the Yanks unless he was unavailable to pitch, as he was Sunday.

Here's the bottom line, these two teams know each other better than any other. And they know each other's closers better than any other. That's going make blown saves for each closer more frequent than their career averages. But you still put your closer in to close out the games.

Runners In Scoring Position
Yes, I'm changing this feature because of how inefficient the Yankees have become in this situation.
Sunday
0-for-6
Season
41-for-179 (.229)

Up Next
Monday at Tigers, 7:05 p.m., YES
CC Sabathia (1-1, 4,81) vs. Justin Verlander (0-2, 9.00)

Now is the time when Sabathia has to step up and be that ace the Yankees believed they were signing. With the bullpen spent and the team on a three-game losing streak, the Yankees need at least seven innings (hopefully more) with no more than two runs. And with Phil Hughes scheduled to start Tuesday, it is critical to getting this team feeling good again.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Win Is A Win

Japanese peace activist Daisaku Ikeda once said "The determination to win is the better part of winning." About the only positive thing I can say about Boston's wild 16-11 win over the Yankees yesterday afternoon is that they showed more determination to win than New York did. Because the rest of the game was pretty much a god-awful mess.


Yes, the Boston bats did erupt in an offensive frenzy and seven of nine starters got at least one hit (Drew and Green the exceptions). Yes, Varitek hit a grand-slam and Lowell drove in six runs. And Ellsbury went 2-4 with a homer. All well and good. But the Sox also hit into three more double-plays. Papi only got one hit (he is currently hitting .217). Right-field has become an issue for the Sox with JD Drew flashing a weak bat and Baldelli on the DL. And Pedroia had an unusually bad game, committing both an error in the field and a boneheaded base-running blunder in the sixth that killed a rally dead.


And the pitching...I don't think anyone expected both Burnett and Beckett to throw as poorly as they did. Both were pulled after five innings of work and gave up eight earned runs. If you watched them pitch you'd have been hard-pressed to believe the won a title in Florida in 2003. It's was ugly.


After Beckett was pulled, Delcarmen came out and tacked those final two runs onto Beckett's sheet. Then Okajima earned the win despite giving up the final Yankee run and boosting his ERA over seven. The only pitchers who could hold their heads semi-high were Ramirez and Papelbon. And Ramirez put guys on second and third before ending the eighth and Paps walked two guys. It was just an ugly, ugly game yesterday.


But...the Sox won because, right now, they have a determination to win that the Yankees do not have. As Aviv mentioned in his post, the Sox grind out those at-bats and get the clutch hit they need. For whatever reason, the Yankees can't seem to do the same thing. You can also toss in the fact that Boston's bullpen is better that New York's. The only pitcher I have seen come out of their pen that has been consistently good in this series is Phil Coke. And when your starters can't break six innings, that adds up to trouble.


So who knows what kind of game we will get tonight. It could be a taut extra-innings thriller or a slugfest. All I know for sure is that regardless of the result tonight, the Sox are guaranteed to have pushed the Yankees into third-place and taken second for themselves. And they are within striking distance of the Jays. A couple of more wins and a Toronto loss could see the Sox in first before May. And after their horrendous start, wouldn't that be a remarkable thing?


First Pitch Strikes


Is this even worth analyzing from yesterday's game? No.


Next Game


April 26 / Home against New York / Masterson vs. Pettitte / 8:05 PM

Saturday, April 25, 2009

That Was Ugh-Lee

To borrow a line from a friend: I want to cry, but there just aren't any tears left.

That was one of the most bizarre, ugliest and excruciating baseball games I've ever watched, and that the Yankees lost 16-11 to the Red Sox at Fenway Saturday after being up 6-0 through 3-1/2 made it pure torture. I'm not sure the CIA, even at its lowest points, would show that to prisoners at Gitmo. Watching hour upon hour upon hour of mindless over-analysis during the NFL draft was more enjoyable. It was that bad.

I'm not going bother getting into the pitching too much. It was miserable ... for both teams. Even the most effective pitchers -- Ramon Ramirez (0 runs on 19 pitches in two-thirds of an inning) and Jonathan Papelbon (0 runs 30 pitches in 1 inning) -- labored. Everyone had trouble getting outs. It was just one of those days for pitchers that happen every so often at Fenway.

Here's what you need to know about this game: on a day where the offense ruled, the Yankees' offense failed miserably.

That's right. FAILED.

How can that be when they scored 11 runs? That's because they should have score a ton more. For the second game in a row they stunk with runners in scoring position, going 3-for-17 and stranding 12. Friday they went 4-for-19 with runners in scoring position. That's 5-for-36 (.139) in the two games. They also had a three game stretch last week when they went 3-for-28 (.107).

Offensively that is the big difference between the Yankees and Red Sox right now. Both teams grind out at-bats. Both teams get runners on base, but when the Red Sox need the big, clutch hit, they get it. The Yankees don't. And all you have to do is look at the last two games to see that.

Leading by two in the ninth Friday, the Yankees loaded the bases with no outs and failed to push across an insurance run and finish off the Red Sox. But the Red Sox, they took a one-run lead into the bottom of the eighth Saturday and pushed across four more runs, all but ending the Yankees' hopes of somehow pulling this one out.

Normally, 11 runs are more than enough to get a win, but this was not an ordinary day and the Yankees needed their offense to be extraordinary. Too bad it wasn't.

What We Learned
We knew Friday night the bullpen was in trouble with Bruney's injury, but we found out just how much. Veras' strong performance Wednesday is just a memory and it's clear Joe Girardi does not have complete faith in him. I thought he'd replace Brian Bruney in the eighth-inning role, but Giradi brought in Veras in the sixth, leaving the seventh and eighth to Phil Coke and Jonathan Albaladejo. It's scary, but it's quite possible that the Yankees fate for the next month or so while Bruney recovers could rest in the hands of prospect Mark Melancon (who did not arrive in time for Saturday's game). And if that's not reason for concern, I'm not sure what is.

Hey Dave...
The pitching on both sides has been absolutely taxed. In Saturday's game, there were 391 pitches thrown, 215 by the Sox, and in the two games, the side has been retired in order a grand total of ... get this ... three times. Regardless of what happens today, it's going to take both teams at least three or four games to recover. When is MLB going to start give these teams a day off after their series?

Runners On Third With Less Than Two Outs
Saturday
2 Opportunities
0-for-2, K
Season
33 Opportunities
7-for-28, 3B, BB, 4 SF, 18 R, 15 RBI, 3 K, 3 GIDP

Up Next
Sunday at Boston, 8:05 p.m., ESPN
Andy Pettitte (2-0, 2.53 ERA) vs. Justin Masterson (1-0, 3.18)

If ever the Yankees needed a complete game, it's right now. And Pettitte's just the guy to deliver.

NFL Draft/UConn Updates

Hey, we're UConn alumni ... and it's the one thing we agree on!

Running back Donald Brown becomes the first UConn player to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft, chosen No. 27 by the Colts. The Colts lost Damien Rhodes in the offseason, so this is a real nice pickup for them. Brown will back up Joseph Addai, but will see a fair amount of action in his first season.

Cornerback Darius Butler was selected by the Patriots in the second round with the 41st pick. The Patriots have had secondary issues for a long time. Butler is a fast, smart corner who should be able adapt to Bill Belichick's system and contribute, at least on special teams, very quickly.

Offensive Tackle William Beatty was selected by the Giants in the second round with the 60th pick. The Giants' offensive line has a strength, consistent and largely healthy for several years now, but tackles Kareem McKenzie is getting older. Beatty, a late bloomer at UConn, will be afforded the time to develop before contributing in two or three years.

Defensive end Cody Brown was selected by the Cardinals in the second round with 63rd pick. Brown is a speed rusher and a bit of a project. Leading up to the draft, speculation was that he would be converted to an outside linebacker by a team that plays a 3-4, but the Cardinals play a 4-3, so Brown will remain in his natural position. He'll need to bulk up a bit to make it.

Wow! Four picks in the first two rounds. UConn has come far. Put it like this, only Southern Cal had more players (5) picked in the first two rounds and Ohio State (4) had as many. The University of Miami and Notre Dame, factories for NFL players, had no one selected. This should be a big boost to UConn's recruiting as none of the guys were big prospects coming out of high school.

Another Rebuilding Job

The word is not good.

Brian Bruney has been placed on the DL Saturday because of his injured right elbow and relief prospect Mark Melancon has been added to the 40-man roster and called up, lohud.com's Peter Abraham is reporting.

Also Angel Berroa was added to the 40-man roster and called up to replace Cody Ransom (quad). No word yet on who has been designated for assignment, but it is believed right-hander reliever Humberto Sanchez will be cut. He was obtained from the Tigers in the Gary Sheffield trade and the Yankees hoped he would become a big part of their bullpen, but injuries have derailed Sanchez's career.

The doctors must not have liked what they saw on Bruney's MRI, meaning the injury likely is significant. This is an awful break for Bruney, who appeared to have figured out what it takes to pitch in the majors was emerging and as a top-flight set-up. Hopefully, the injury isn't too serious and he'll be able to return this year, but it looks like he's going miss a long stretch regardless. The Yankees would not have called up Melancon otherwise. Updates on Bruney's status as that information becomes available.

They Yankees believe Melancon eventually could become the successor to Mariano Rivera (if he ever retires), but they wanted Melancon to get at least another half year at Triple A Scranton before adding him to the 40-man and calling him up.

Still Melancon, a power pitcher, has been impressive at Scranton and might be ready for the majors right now. In six appearance, he's 2-0 with a 0.00 in 10-1/3 innings. He's allowed four hits and three walks, while striking out 17. Last season, he pitched at Class A Tampa, Double A Trenton and Scranton, combining to post an 8-1 record with a 2.27 ERA in 41 appearances. But make no mistake, Melancon is being called up to pitch right away.

It's a tough blow for the Yankees' bullpen and it is coming at a bad time, though still plenty early enough in the season. The pen, clearly the shakiest aspect of the team, was starting to jell and show signs it could be an effective unit. Bruney's injury will force Joe Girardi to rebuild the pen yet again.

For now, expect Jose Veras to become the eighth-inning guy with Jonathan Albaladejo and Phil Coke splitting the outs in the sixth and seventh. Melancon will be worked in slowly, but as long as he shows he can get outs, his progression up the bullpen pecking order will be rapid. Eventually he could become the guy to pitch the eighth.

And lest anyone (ie Dave) suggest it, Joba Chamberlain WILL NOT be moved back into the bullpen unless Melancon falls flat and the other three prove less than entirely reliable. The Yankees are committed to finding out what Joba is as a starter, despite Dave's pronouncements that this a failed experiment.

Of course, for this series against the Sox, all this means the Yankees will have a serious disadvantage and will need good length from both A.J. Burnett today and Andy Pettitte Sunday to survive.

Hold you breath Yankee fans. We're in for a bumpy ride.

UPDATE 2:50 p.m.: Ransom has been placed on the 60-day DL, clearing one spot on the 40-man. Sanchez was released, clearing the other spot. Meanwhile the news on Bruney is better. He has a strained flexor mass, a muscle injury. Take a big sigh of relief Yankee fans because it's not a ligament injury. This means Bruney will be shut down for a week before beginning to rehab and rebuild the arm. No word yet on how long the Yankees expect Bruney will be out, but two to four weeks seems reasonable if the arm responds, maybe a little longer. Looks like this will not be a long-term situation, and could become a positive if Bruney returns at 100 percent and Melancon fulfills his potential.

How Sweet It Is

I spent the night trying to decide what was better; Bay's homer off Rivera to tie it in the ninth, Youk's game-winning blast or being right about Joba's future as a starter. I came to the decision they were all pretty great. Watching Boston beat the Yankees is often like that...no matter how bad some things were, all you remember are the sweet, sweet highlights.


But not all was perfect in Boston's 5-4, 11-inning comeback over New York last night. For one thing, it never should have gotten that far. The Sox teed off on Joba all night but hit into double-play after double-play, four of them to be exact. The Sox let Joba off the hook when they should have buried him. It was ridiculous that he entered the sixth inning with a chance to win before surrendering the tying run (at that point).


And the performance of Hideki Okajima was not one for the ages, the year or the week. Four batters, four hits, two earned runs and no outs. If this kind of outing is a sign of things to come rather than an aberration, the Sox will lack a reliable lefty for the pressure situations. I like Javier Lopez and he did okay last night, but that isn't his kind of role.


And Papi struck out four times. I really don't know if he is starting slow or still having wrist problems. But he needs to figure out what is going on and soon.


All of that said, there was a lot to like last night. Overall, Boston's bullpen outperformed New York's. And that is going to be the key to who wins this series because the teams are so closely matched across the board. The Sox have bedeviled Rivera over the past few years, making last night's ninth-inning comeback not that surprising. And when Marte came out for the 11th inning, I think a lot of Sox fans felt confident about pushing the winning run across. From the Boston side, Saito continues to look healthy and solid. And the trade for Ramon Ramirez gets better and better for Boston. He came on in a huge pressure situation and, with two runners on, got a huge double play. This was his first taste of big-time baseball and he came through. Is it worth noting he used to be a Yankee?


Lester had a decent outing, going six innings with seven hits and two runs. I was hoping for a little more dominance but he kept Boston in the game. It's Lester's first no-decision of the year. Still, he was better than Joba.


Super-sub Nick Green continues to come through for Boston. 2-4 last night with an RBI single in the sixth. He has been very important to Boston's recent run of success. And Kevin Youkilis continues to build off of last year's stellar season. He went 2-4 last night with two RBI, including the game-winning home run in the 11th. He is currently batting .433 and just hammering the ball.


But how about Jason Bay? 3-5 with a game-tying two-run shot in the ninth! He has thrived since coming to Boston last year in the trade with Pittsburgh. His defense in the field has been stellar (so far he has been perfect in 2009). And his bat is as reliable as an atomic clock. You just know that come season's end, Bay will have around 30 homers and 100 RBI. That's great production from your sixth batter. Which is a topic for another post...how the hell is he batting sixth?


And so we see the sun rise today with the Sox a game ahead of New York for second place in the AL East. Game Two is at 4:10 this afternoon, which is an odd time for a Fenway game and likely the work of our fine friends at FOX. It's the matchup of injury-prone aces as Beckett faces off against Burnett. If there is one game that New York is likely to take in this series, it's this one. Burnett has owned the Sox in recent years.

Ohh, The Missed Opportunities

That one was tough to take.

And the news only got worse after the game.

Mariano Rivera surrendered a two-run homer to Jason Bay with two outs in the ninth and Damaso Marte could not get through a second inning of work unscathed, allowing a walk-off homer to Kevin Youkilis in a 5-4 gut wrenching, 11-inning loss Friday at Fenway Park.

I had plenty of question about the way Joe Girardi used his bullpen. Unfortunately, he had some valid reasons behind his decisions.

Prior to the game, Girardi said on WFAN that while he did want to, he would be willing to use the combination of Brian Bruney and Mariano Rivera for nine outs. So when Jonathan Albaladejo got the Yankees to the eighth inning with a two-run lead, I assumed Bruney would come in and Mo would get the ninth. Instead Albaladejo went back out there for they eighth, and Rivera entered the game in the middle of a batter to get the last out of that inning.

After Rivera gave up Bay's homer, I figured Bruney would come in for the 10th. Nope. It was Marte for the 10th ... and 11th.

Turns out Bruney's elbow is hurting and he's heading back to New York for an MRI. With Veras unavailable following Wednesday's outing, that the the Yankees short in the bullpen that was terrific until Rivera's first blown save of the season.

The Yankees are going to remedy their bullpen shortcomings by placing Chien-Ming Wang on the DL and recalling David Robertson. (Dave, the Yankees are finally saying the Lisfranc tear may have caused Wang to favor is foot by altering his windup. They claim it has caused him to have a hip issue). But if Bruney's injury is serious, it would be a terrible blow to this bullpen. We don't know what the issue is, but if Bruney is out for any amount of time, top prospect Mark Melancon will be called up.

The news only got worse: Cody Ransom strained his quad while stealing second in the eighth. He was placed on the DL and it looks like Angel Berroa will be called up.

But when the Yankees look back at this loss, ultimately they will have to blame their offense. They Yankees made Sox starter Jon Lester work, getting runners on in every inning and forcing him to throw 114 pitches, 67 strikes, in six innings.

But the Yankees left 15 men on base, went 4-for-19 with runners in scoring position and grounded into three doubleplays for the game. The biggest missed opportunity came in the ninth.

Leading 4-2, Mark Teixeira was hit by a pitch and Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher walked to load the bases to with no outs. It was the Yankees' chance to put the game away and against a team a resilient as the Sox you must come away with at least one run there, if not a lot more. But Robinson Cano grounded into a 4-2-3 double play and Melky Cabrera fouled out.

It was the opportunity they'd come to regret missing most because it was game in which they did everything possible to bail out a shaky Joba Chamberlain.

Chamberlain kept the Yankees in the game, pitching 5-1/3 innings and allowing two runs, one earned, on nine hits and four walks. But he was not sharp, throwing 91 pitches, only 49 strikes. How'd he do it? Well Joba seems to have found Wang's missing sinker and got the Sox to ground into four doubleplays.

Still, the concern here is Joba's inability to throw strikes. If he continues to struggle with his location, the issue won't be rotation or bullpen as much as majors or minors. No matter what his role, he has to be able to throw strikes.

This is a tough loss swallow, but Yankees have A.J. Burnett going Saturday and have a great shot to bounce back behind a guy who's eaten the Red Sox alive in his career.

What We Learned
Rivera is not ready to throw more than one inning just yet. Remember, Rivera did have minor offseaon shoulder surgery and in two months, he closes that game out, no problem. He's just not there yet, and with the bullpen down two arms, that just prove too much to overcome. Still, Phil Coke and Albaldejo were impressive and even Marte looked good in the 10th.

Hey Dave ...
Nice win. We'll get you Saturday.

Runners On Third With Less Than Two Outs
Friday
5 Opportunities
1-for-4, 3 R, 3 RBI, SF, GIDP
Season
31 Opportunities
7-for-26, 3B, BB, 4 SF, 18 R, 15 RBI, 2 K, 3 GIDP

Up Next
Saturday at Boston, 4:10 p.m., FOX
Burnett (2-0, 3.20 ERA) vs. Josh Beckett (2-1, 3.79)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Welcome Back, Kason

Under the radar last night, the Red Sox rolled back part of one of the dumber trades Theo Epstein has ever made as GM. The Red Sox got left-handed pitcher Kason Gabbard from the Rangers in exchange for cash.


Gabbard, if you don't remember, was sent to Texas along with David Murphy for the walking disaster that was (and is) Eric Gagne back in 2007. It's a testament to the team that they were able to win the World Series with the Automatic Hit Machine taking the mound in key spots.


Almost every Sox fan I know or heard or read was opposed to the trade. No one thought that Gagne could handle the pressure-cooker that is Fenway Park. No one except Theo, that is. And so a promising lefty and a talented outfielder were sent to Texas for a guy who gave up hits at a .325 clip while taking HGH. Ugh.


But now that trade has been partially expunged. I have a soft spot for Gabbard, having watched him in AA Portland before getting called up to Boston in 2006. He is one of those crafty left-handers, using a variety of off-speed pitches to induce a lot of grounders. And while he is in AAA Pawtucket (aka The Bucket) right now, it would not be surprising to see him in Boston later this year.


The fact that Boston got him for cash is telling as well. Tom Hicks' money issues are well-known at this point. But while Hicks and the Rangers have tried to explain that away, the facts are a different thing altogether. If the Rangers are selling off Gabbard for cash, that tells me Hicks is trying to raise cash fast to make his payments. Now if Boston could only pull a similar deal for Teagarden...


Bottom line, though, is that a pitcher that should have never been traded is back with Boston. Gabbard is a 4/5 pitcher, maybe a 3 if you have limited arms and he is on every single night he starts. But as the Sox have shown so far, you can never have too much pitching. So welcome back, Kason. We missed ya.

Wang Doesn't Show Enough

While Chien-Ming Wang showed some positive signs during his extended spring training start in Tampa, Fla., Thursday, don't count on Wang to make his next scheduled start Tuesday against the Tigers.

Wang allowed five runs, four earned, on nine hits in seven innings. He struck out 11, walked none and threw 70 of 91 pitches for strikes. His slider was sharp, and while he got more sinkers down, he still left plenty up that were hammered. He continued to throw in the low 90s, not 94-95 mph, where his sinker had been so effective in his 19-win seasons.

Dave, this is about as close to an admission that it's still the Lisfranc that the Yankees will make.

"Maybe it's the arm strength, not getting enough innings pitched last year,"
roving pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras said. "He hadn't pitched in eight
months. With arm strength, it'll be easy for him to get the ball down. More arm
strength, more velocity. The man didn't pitch for eight months. It takes time to
get it back."

In any case the Yankees simply can't afford to let Wang build that arm strength in the majors. He has to be placed on the DL so he can rehab and rebuild his confidence. Wang is expected to rejoing the Yankees in Boston Friday, but it's likely that DL move will happen before Tuesday. Phil Hughes (3-0, 1.86 ERA at Triple A Scranton) is expected to be called up. The Yankees are banking he'll prove last year was nothing more than a learning experience, and I think he'll deliver.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Big Cuts: The Rivalry Resumes

A conversation about the Red Sox and Yankees.

Aviv: So Dave, here we are! The first of the six big showdowns between our rivals. Both have teams have gotten off to decent starts despite some early issues and both teams probably should have one or two more wins. Yet here they are, tied for second behind Toronto of all teams.

It's going to be a good series and the pitching matchups are fascinating. Joba Chamberlain vs. Jon Lester Friday, the former Marlins teammates A.J. Burnett vs. Josh Beckett Saturday and Andy Pettitte vs. Justin Masterson Sunday.

You'd have to think the Red Sox should take 2 of 3 simply because they are home, but I wouldn't be surprised if it goes the other way. Burnett loves facing Boston. He's 7-1 with a 4.97 ERA against the Red Sox and at Fenway, he's 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA. And the way Pettitte has been pitching, it's going to be tough for Masterson to outduel him.

The only thing that would surprise me in this series is if either team sweeps.

Dave: I don't think either team will sweep either. As we both realized during our preseason analysis, these two teams are very close to one another in quality. I would state that the one area that Boston has an edge is in their bullpen. The Sox 'pen currently has an ERA around 2.50; I believe New York's relief corps is flirting with an ERA around 7. In what should be a close series, that could be a critical difference. Again, how do you get to Rivera successfully?

The matchup that works best for the Yankees is Game 2. Burnett has simply had Boston's number for some reason. I'd like it to be different this time, but past experience tends to predict future results. Lester found his groove in his last outing and his experience as a starter, and being at home, should give him the edge over Joba. Who, by the way, is still being mis-used as a starter.

That brings us to the tossup; Masterson and Pettitte.While Pettitte has a very good lifetime record against the Sox (16-8, if memory serves me), lately it hasn't been so good. Taken together in 2007 and 2008, he is just 3-3 against the Sox and has an ERA of 5.80, with the Sox teeing off on him at a .338 clip. Masterson is admittedly an unproven commodity to some extent. But he always seems to keep his team in the game and has very good control. And while his lifetime record against New York isn't good, he has shown a maturity this year he hasn't possessed thus far. Add in that the game is in Boston, and I think you'll be surprised at how he does.

But to go off-topic for a second...what is going on in Toronto?? Here's a team that has nothing in their starting rotation behind Doc Halliday, they're getting nothing at the plate from their starting outfielders, and yet they lead the AL East. How long can this go on?

Aviv: Toronto has gotten off to a great start, but I think that it's more of a function of whom they've played: Detroit, Cleveland, Minnesota, Oakland and Texas. They haven't even played an AL East team yet. Look, last year everyone said the Rays were talented, but we didn't know if they were ready to compete. No one is saying the Blue Jays are talented. Unless they start beating the top teams, I'm not ready to worry about them.

But back to the big series. Dave to be fair, if you're going to call Pettitte-Masterson a tossup, then you have to call Joba-Lester a tossup, too. Look, I agree the Yankees are stronger with Joba in the bullpen, but to say he's being misused as a starter is wrong at this point. He was drafted as a starter and has what scouts say are four plus pitches. He was rushed to the majors in 2007 to help the pen and is being allowed to develop as a starter in the majors. And so far, the numbers say he's a capable starter.

Joba is 3-1 with 3.07 ERA in 14 career starts -- and the Yankees are 9-5 in those games. He's kept the Yanks in every game, never giving up more than five runs (two occassions) in any start, and he's pitched at least six innings in eight of those starts and 5-2/3 in another. He's even gone seven once -- against the Red Sox, in fact, in a 1-0 victory. Two of the times he's failed to go six were when the Yankees first put him in the rotation and had to stretch him out, and another was his last start last season when he was lifted with what turned out to be tendinitis.

Joba very well may end up in the bullpen, but it's very premature and unsupported to say he's being misused. Masterson, by the way, is 5-3 with a 3.49 ERA in 10 career starts, including Monday. But he's going up against Pettitte, who's throwing the ball better than he has in either of the last two seasons when he had a drop-off against the Sox. You were right, Dave, with Pettitte's career record of 16-8 against the Sox, but what you left out was Pettitte's 6-2 record with a 3.53 ERA in 15 games, 13 starts, at Fenway. That includes going 1-0 with a 1.50 in Boston last year.

As for the Yankees' pen I wouldn't get too caught up with those early season numbers. That unit's been beaten up in two of Chien-Ming Wang's disasters and has had to deal with the struggles of Jose Veras and Damaso Marte. However, Bruney has been great, Jonathan Albaladejo and Phil Coke are developing nicely and quickly, and even Veras seemed to have turned around with that fantastic outing Wednesday. Yes, this going to be a big test for the bullpen and if it doesn't perform, it will be the difference in this series. I'm just saying do not dismiss these guys just yet. They are better than you think.

By the way, if David Ortiz is going to warn Joba about throwing at hitters, he better do the same for his own pitchers. Do I even have to go into the number of Yankee hitters who have been plunked vs. the number of Red Sox hitters in recent years?

Dave: Actually, I don't think I have to call Joba-Lester a tossup. Lester is a proven starter who has victories in critical games under his belt, including a World Series-clinching victory in 2007. You remember the World Series, right? To Lester, this is just another game. To Joba, a closer playing dressup as a starter, this is a much bigger deal. You can say he is 3-1 in 14 career starts. What you fail to mention is that he has yet to register a decision in 2009 and is running with an ERA over 5. Lester has similar stats this year, but at Fenway and with his last outing, I think Lester is the favorite.

And the simple truth is that Joba is the best bridge to Rivera in the ninth. He should be, right now, what Rivera was to Wetteland back in 1996. Imagine if back then someone slotted Rivera into the five hole and wanted Bob Wickman to always pitch in the eighth. You'd have run them out of the Bronx on a rail. It's no different now. Take it from someone who has already seen his team try to turn a closer into a starter...it's not a good idea.

As for Pettitte, I cannot deny he won in Fenway against the Sox...and lost to them the other two times he faced them. Even in his win he couldn't get past six innings of work. And if you go back to 2007, he was 0-0 with a 6.32 ERA and a WHIP of 1.915 in Fenway. So do we really know which Pettitte we are getting come Sunday? It's a tossup strictly because of the fact that Masterson has shown an ability to keep games close this year and that Boston has a superior bullpen as of right now.

Yes, New York's bullpen is showing signs of actually understanding what it is they are supposed to do. I'll give them props for a masterful job against the A's, especially since CC looked like the CC of 2008 prior to his trade and the chance to strike out pitchers, and they had to cover for his ample posterior. But the truth is right now they are not as good as Boston's bullpen. They may well be later this year, but they aren't there yet. I think this will be the critical factor in the series.

And here's something interesting... All year long I have been hearing about this killer Yankee lineup and how Boston is going to flounder without Manny batting behind Ortiz. But when I look at the stats, the Red Sox have scored as many runs in fewer at-bats and have a better team average and OPS. Now how is that possible?

I think Papi was just warning Joba because he is known to have a tendency to...lose control. As for who plunks who...I looked back at 2008. The first game between the two teams where someone was plunked was July 4th, when Darrell Rasner and Beckett traded hits. Then came July 5, when Yankee pitchers plunked four batters to Boston's three, including hitting Manny three times in one game. In fact, there was only one game between the two teams prior to the final series where the Red Sox pitchers plunked the batter first and hit more batters than the Yankees. That was a game Tim Wakefield started, and getting hit by a knuckleball is like getting hit by a stiff breeze. As opposed to Mike Mussina, who seemed to think the Yankees got a win every time he drilled a Boston batter in the ribs. As with all things, the two teams were pretty even in this category. But let us not pretend that Joba doesn't like to ride a pitch head-high and inside.

Aviv: Dave you're missing a HUGE difference between Rivera in 1995 and Joba. Rivera came up as a starter with a plus fastball and a mediocre change. He was mediocre in his 10 starts with the Yankees and only emerged in the bullpen because he accidently discovered the cutter while fooling around with Ramiro Medoza. He never had a shot to be a good starter. And if the Yankees knew what that cutter was or what he'd become, they might have beaten the Mariners in the 2005 ALDS.

Joba has four plus pitches. Relievers don't have or need that kind of repertoire. And Joba's development as a starter was stunted because the Yankees rightfully believed he could help them in the bullpen in 2007. To declare that Joba is or should be a reliever and the future closer without even giving him the chance to find out what he could be as a starter would be foolhardy both for Joba and the Yankees' future. The fact of the matter is that while we all agree on what Joba is as a reliever, no one knows what he is as a starter. He could be a Cy Young winner or a dud, but there's only one way to find out and that's for him to start while he's still at the beginning of his career. The Yankees HAVE to go through this now, even if means redevolping a bullpen that is unproven, but has the potential to be good. Joba will return to the pen if stating turns out not to be his strength.

But let me get this straight, you're calling Masterson-Pettitte a tossup because the Sox have a better bullpen and you're not sure which Pettitte (also a guy who's had a ton of World Series experience and for whom this will be another game) will show up, despite the fact that in three starts this year he's 2-0 with a 2.53 ERA and 0.94 WHIP and has gone at least seven innings in every start. Meanwhile Lester, who's had one good start this season against the wOes and is 1-2 with a 5.50 ERA and 1.44 WHIP, gets the edge over Joba because you think Joba, who, like Masterson, has kept the Yankees in every game he's started, should be in the bullpen. We'll agree to disagree.

But Dave, you can't seriously be comparing the production of the Red Sox's offense so far with the Yankees', which has been without Alex Rodriguez and has an automatic out in Cody Ransom. Even Papi knows this is not the true Yankees offense, saying:


"This one is an easy one -- they are missing A-Rod. ... You don't have the
best player in the game in your lineup, it makes it different."


The better question is why aren't the Sox outscoring the Yankees? And let's not get too excited about the Red Sox's run production. The surge this week has been against the pitching poor wOes and Twins.

But let's get back to hitting batters. Here are the numbers: starting in 2004, the Red Sox have hit 55 Yankees and the Yankees have hit 43 Sox. The Red Sox have outhit the Yanks in four of the five seasons and were tied in the other. A-Rod has been hit 10 times, Jeter 7, Youkilis 8, Manny 4 and Papi 0. The only pitchers of note who have not hit a batter are Pettitte, Curt Schilling and ... Joba, who came high and tight four times to Youk, but has hit no one. Even Mo has hit six, an no one would say they don't respect him.

Here's the bottom line for Papi, pitching inside, intimidation, hitting batters, it's all part of the game for both sides. If Papi doesn't want Youk to experience an up-and-in pitch, then he also needs to tell his pitchers not to do it. Otherwise his words are merely an invitation for fireworks.

Dave: Why I am giving you advice on your pen is beyond me. I should be content to let you guys keep Joba in the rotation and leave it at that. But if you look at what he has done as a starter and as a reliever...he's a better reliever. As a starter, he has been decidedly average thus far. Not bad, but not great. But as a reliever/closer, he has shown a lot of promise. All the Yanks are doing now is depriving themselves of a proven eighth inning guy and future closer in return for a 4/5 starter. But hey, that works for Boston so here's hoping they keep it up.

I think Lester gets the edge because of his experience as a starter and that the game is being played in Fenway. With Masterson-Pettitte, my contention is that Masterson can hang with Andy and get to the Sox bullpen, which is (right now) better than New York's. That makes it a tossup. That said, Pettitte could easily throw a gem and it won't make a lick of difference if Masterson can get through 5-6 innings.

Really? You are saying the Sox's lineup is that superior to New York's right now? We've had Jed Lowrie batting somewhere around .050 most of the season before his wrist went balky. The entire top third of the lineup has been MIA for most of the season. Meanwhile, all we have heard going into the season is about how great Mark Teixeira would be in New York and how Boston would falter without The Great Manny. Instead, the Sox are holding their own and are, in fact, slightly better. Oh, and are the wOes so bad when they play New York? I seem to remember them taking two of three from you guys to start the season...

Here's the bottom line with Joba; the guy can't stop throwing at Youk's head. And as far as I can tell, there isn't any reason for him to be doing it besides the idea that Joba is being a fool. Pitching inside and the occasional ball in the side? That's part of the game. Throwing at a guy's head? That goes beyond the pale and everyone except Joba seems to get that. I guess we'll see what happens this weekend.

Oh, and as a bonus non-baseball treat, I figured that as fellow UConn alumni we should predict which, if any, Huskies may go in the first round on Saturday. I'll throw out two names -- Darius Butler and William Beatty.

Aviv: Donald Brown will go at 21 to the Eagles and Bulter toward the end of the round. Beatty will slip to the second round because he was a late bloomer.

Rolling

As easy as it was to criticize the Red Sox at the beginning of the season, it is just as easy now to sing their praises. The dark skies have been replaced by sunshine. The wails of lamentation have given way to a Hallelujah chorus. And I am pretty sure I've seen those animated bluebirds flying around my head once or twice.



Seven wins in a row, including a doubleheader sweep against the Twins yesterday. Ortiz is finally starting to find his swing. Youkilis is destroying the ball and has an OBP of .522, which is just ridiculous. The bullpen has surrendered just 13 runs in 15 games over a collective 47 innings of work, which works out to about a 2.49 ERA. Reclamation project Brad Penny is 2-0 and Tim Wakefield, the only Boston player who remembers the city in the mid-90s, is 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA.


Yes, life is good in Boston right now.


Boston stands at 9-6, just 1.5 games off the pace set by Toronto (??) and tied with the Yankees for second. That is just one win off from where Boston stood at this point in 2007 (10-5). So for all the angst and worry caused by Boston's poor start, they are pretty much where we want them to be at this point in the season. And while I would have enjoyed a couple of more wins for the Sox, I definitely will not complain.


It was a joy to watch them take out the Twins yesterday. Neither game was ever in any doubt. They handled supposed ace Francisco Liriano with ease in the nightcap while Penny gave them six solid innings. I can't imagine there are too many pitchers who are 2-0 with a 7.80 ERA. But I'll take it.


And just to twist the knife with Aviv a touch, it would be remiss of me not to mention the play of Nick Green. The one-time Yankee, playing for just $500,000 this year, has been a great sub for the Sox thus far in 2009. He's batting .313 with a .934 OPS in 11 games. And while his glove hasn't been the best (a mild understatement, with three errors last night), his errors have tended not to cost Boston any runs while his bat has definitely given the Sox some pop at important times. He's definitely no Cody Ransom, that's for sure.


Today is an off-day, a well-deserved rest for the Sox. And we'll need it since tomorrow renews the greatest rivalry in baseball as the Yankees come to town. The pitching matchups are intriguing across the board. You have the young guns Friday in Lester and Joba. Saturday gives you the injury-prone aces Beckett and Burnett. And Sunday is a youth/experience clash between Masterson and Pettitte. Those three matchups could go either way and it wouldn't be a surprise.


That said, I am expecting the Sox to take at least two of three. Don't let me down, boys.