Champions on Display MLB

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Backing In

The bottom line is that the Sox are in the post-season. That said, the fact they did so riding a five-game losing streak and losing two straight to the lowly Jays...not exactly the way you want to do things.

So let's take a moment to celebrate the Sox getting into the post-season for the third straight year. It also marks the fifth time the Sox have made the playoffs in Terry Francona's six years running the team. They'll face the Angels in the ALDS, a team they have had great success against in the post-season. Baseball in October...a very good thing indeed.

And with that out of the way...what the hell, guys? Dropping two to the Jays? Especially last night to Romero, a pitcher that Boston has owned all year long. And that was, in large part, due to a bad outing from Buchholz.

Unlike bad performances earlier in the year, I don't think this is a reversion to his bad form. He just had a bad game. All pitchers do, from the lowly ones to the all-time greats. So one bad outing for Buchholz in his last seven or so is not a reason to ring the alarms. But his next start will be carefully watched to see how he bounces back from this beating.

And it was a beating; seven runs on eight hits in five innings and an astounding five home runs surrendered. It was a brutal outing. He was throwing strikes (almost 71% of his pitches) but there was too little movement on a lot of them. And when you pitch to contact with a flat fastball...well, you get Adam Lind looking like he was channeling Babe Ruth and Mel Ott at the same time.

It's not often I talk about an opposing player in positive tones, but Adam Lind crushed the hell out of the ball last night. He was the first visiting player to hit three homers at Fenway since Frank Thomas did it in 1996. He's got a sweet swing, hits for power and average...maybe this is the Jay the Sox should have been focusing on instead of Halladay. Ah well...

So having Buchholz spot the Jays six runs in the first three innings didn't help. But what also didn't help was the Sox hitting into four double-plays. Or going 4-11 with runners in scoring position. And as fantastic as that eighth-inning rally was done only after V-Mart hit into a double-play. If he limits that to one out, the score is tied going into the ninth.

As far as notable stats go, Ellsbury picked up his 67th steal of the season. I hope he pushes hard to get to 70, especially since the wild card is locked up. If he gets there, he'll be the first person to register 70+ steals in a season in the AL since Brian Hunter stole 74 bases in 1997.

So tonight Tim Wakefield gets back on the mound and faces Roy Halladay. Halladay has looked disenchanted ever since the trade deadline passed, but his performance has picked up in September, going 3-2 in five starts with a 1.80 ERA. But Boston has been able to get to him the last couple of times they've faced off. I guess we'll see what happens tonight. Will Tito roll out the B-team or try to break the losing streak? Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Preparing For That Title Run

It sure didn't take long for the nay-sayers to come out.

You know, the ones who said the Yankees would never survive their three West Coast trips this year, or survive a brutal second-half schedule, or had the pitching or bullpen to win a division crown.

Moments after Hideki Matsui's two-run single, Mark Teixeira's and Melky Cabrera's homers, and Andy Pettitte's six strong innings led the Yankees to a 4-2 victory Sunday and the AL East division title for the first time since 2006, they were out saying they Yankees would choke in the playoffs, that CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez always fail to get it done in the postseason, all that kind of garbage.

But it's clear these doubters just haven't been paying attention. The don't know this team and they don't understand baseball playoff history.

Because it's clear to anyone who's been watching closely that this Yankees team is not the same as the ones that have failed in the first rounds in 2006, '07 and '08.

Heck, last week alone should have proven that as the Yankees (101-56) took two of three against the Angels to win a series in Anaheim for the first time since May 2004 before sweeping the Red Sox over the weekend to even the season series at 9 after losing the first eight games of the season against them.

Perhaps the difference in this team is because the Yankees missed the playoffs last season. While failing to make postseason for the first time since 1995 stunk, it does seem it provided a clean break from Joe Torre's Yankee Years.

This year, it did not seem as if the Yankees were playing in the shadow of the championship teams of the late 1990s and 2000. This team played free and loose. Maybe it's because the roster has been turned over so much since 2001.

Perhaps it was the spring training billiards outing, or Sabathia taking teammates to Magic and Cavaliers games, or A.J. Burnett's walk-off whipped cream pies. Maybe it was just the attitude created by an ability to win games in a number of different ways. Perhaps it was all of the above.

Maybe that explains why this team celebrated so hard Sunday.

But no one can deny that there simply is something different about this team.

And unlike the '06, '07 and '08 teams, this year the Yankees actually have the pitching to match their overpowering lineup. Since the All-Star break the Yankees have gone an AL-best 50-19 with a 3.98 ERA, 562 strikeouts, .245 BAA, 1.30 WHIP, .316 OBP and .699 OPS. They also allowed 66 homers, tied with Oakland for fewest in the AL.

The pitching staffs of those recent past Yankees teams never came close to doing anything like that. Instead, they relied on potent offenses to carry them through the marathon that is the regular season ... and it cost them in the playoffs.

But not anymore. Yes, the Yankees' offense is still overwhelming, leading the league in runs (891), homers (237), OBP (.363) slugging (.480) and OPS (.843), while tying the Angels for first in batting average (.285). But now they have the type pitching they had when they made six World Series between 1996 and 2003.

Not that the doubters will acknowledge that. Instead, they'll point to a lack of playoff experience for many players such as Burnett, Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Nick Swisher and even Mark Teixeira. They forget that in the playoffs, that doesn't matter. The 2003 Marlins, which had a roster with nearly no playoff experience, won the World Series. Or the 1987 Twins. Or 1986 Mets. There are plenty of examples.

They point to the postseason failures of Sabathia (ALDS: 2-1,6.14 ERA; ALCS: 0-2, 10.45) They ignore that Sabathia had to pitch 241 regular season innings in 2007 , 253 last season to lead his teams to the playoffs. Think that didn't have an effect? Guess again. Here's what Sabathia told The Hartford Courant:

"I was as drained mentally as I'd ever been," Sabathia said. "My body was OK, my
arm felt fine. I'd do it again if I had to."

The doubters also will point to A-Rod's postseason struggles starting in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. They ignore his strong postseason's performances before that and the different approach that he's taken throughout this season, which I expect will continued over to the playoffs.

They also forget that it is not uncommon for hitters to run hot and cold from one postseason to the next. Take Mickey Mantle, for example. He had a World Series record 18 homers and handful of rings. No one would ever accuse him of being a postseason choker. Yet in 1954 he hit .200 with one homer and one RBI, and in 1961 he hit .162, 1962 .120 and 1963 .133 with one homer and one RBI.

Steroids did wonders for Barry Bonds in the regular season, but they didn't help him in the postseason until 2002 when he hit .294 on the NLDS, .273 in the NLCS and .471 in the World Series. He was terrible before that and terrible again in 2003 when he hit .222 with no homers in the NLDS.

The reality is that the past playoffs mean absolutely nothing on the present. If it did, would Mariano Rivera have come close to allowing that World Series winning single to Luis Gonzalez in 2001? Would he have blown that save against the Red Sox in 2004?

So while the doubters focus on the past, we'll just worry about the present.

The Yankees are getting ready and tuning up. Even their Spring Training B lineup was able to beat the the lowly Royals 8-2 Tuesday on the first career homer by Ramiro Pena and a grand slam by Robinson Cano.

The Yankees have accomplished their first goal this season. They have three more to go. And they have all the tools to get there.

Runners In Scoring Position
1-for-5 (.200)
6-for-11 (.545)
408-for-1,505 (.271)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
191-for-686 (.278)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
343-for-1,232 (.278)
Vs. Red Sox
45-for-204 (.221)

Up Next
Tuesday vs. Royals, 7:05 p.m., YES
Anthony Lerew (0-1, 3.86) vs. Burnett (12-8, 4.19)

Burnett's father came through triple-bypass surgery in good shape Monday, so A.J. will take the mound looking to build off his last two starts, which were strong. The Yankees won't tax him, but are looking for five or six strong innings.

A Wasted Game

I understand the logic behind keeping Beckett out of last night's game. There's no sense in risking an injury this close to the post-season. Still...a win last night would have locked up the wild-card. And as I have said all season, until the math says different nothing is assured. And losing 11-5 to Toronto in a winnable (and rain-shortened) game means that the Sox still can't celebrate quite yet.

Last night's loss was a function of bad pitching, plain and simple. Michael Bowden came out and threw a clunker, giving up seven runs on seven hits in three innings. To his credit, Bowden didn't blame the short notice or bad weather for his performance.

"It's inexcusable," said Bowden, who did not blame the short notice for his struggles. "They could have told me at 7:05 and I should have been able to put forth a better effort than I did tonight. It's just a terrible feeling, going out there and letting the team down and giving up that many runs so early."

Bowden has never backed away or blamed anyone for a bad performance but himself, which is a refreshing attitude in this day and age. He has a lot of talent, although I think there is a question now about whether he'll be a starter or a long reliever/spot starter going forward. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's an important role to fill and the right guy in that slot can make a huge difference.

It didn't help matters that Hunter Jones then came out and allowed four runs on five hits in 1.2 innings. By that time the Sox were in an 11-3 hole. Throw in the rain and they never had a chance to get back into it. Which is too bad, because the lineup was smacking the ball.

I mentioned online the other day that Ortiz needed three homers and Youk needed five to give Boston three players with 30+ homers for the first time since 1977. I don't know if they read it or not, but Youk cranked a pair of homers and Ortiz added one of his own. Now Ortiz has 28 homers and Youk has 27 with six games left to play. But with the run deficit, all this power wasn't enough.

So we move on to tonight, where Buchholz takes the mound against Ricky Romero. This matchup favors the Sox in a big way. Boston is at home, Buchholz owns the Jays (3-0, 1.35 in three starts) and Romero is owned by the Sox (0-3, 8.83 ERA in four starts). It will be a massive disappointment if the Sox do not clinch the wild card tonight with a matchup like this.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Math Has Spoken

I wanted to wait until the Yanks-Sox series was finished before writing. And now that it is over...the Yankees have shown that, right now, they are the team to beat in the AL.

The series sweep knotted the season series at nine wins a piece. But the Yankees dominated Boston down the stretch and definitely have the momentum should they meet in the post-season. While Boston still has to clinch the wild card, I do think that will happen.

But in this series, when the Yankees needed clutch pitching, they got it. When they needed a key hit, they got it. Boston was in every single game. But when they needed the key pitch or the big eluded them. At the end of the day, the Yankees executed better and that is how you win ballgames.

The one thing the Yankees did have in their favor were the pitching matchups. Getting Sabathia against Daisuke and Pettitte against Byrd was a big plus for New York. They never had to see Beckett or Buchholz. And the one that leaned the Red Sox way...well, Lester had a lousy game. He was done for even before that ball richotched off his kneecap.

But at the end of the day, all these games were there for the Sox to take. And they didn't. And so New York is back in the post-season and looking as tough as ever. Of course, that hasn't helped them much over the past decade or so. And it's an open question about whether pitchers like Sabathia and Chamberlain can get it done in the post-season.

For the Sox, the task at hand is wrapping up the wild card. They have a six-game edge on the Rangers with seven games at home to close the season out. They meet Toronto tonight with Beckett taking the mound against Scott Richmond, who is 7-10 with a 5.32 ERA. The Sox saw him in late August and clobbered him for five runs and nine hits in five innings. I'd like to think we'll see a similar performance tonight. And let us hope we do. The only thing worse than losing three to the Yankees would be choking like the Mets.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Math Says: "It's Over"

The magic number says the Yankees need one more win to wrap up the AL East and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona, though, has already waived the white flag. How else do you explain the lineup he fielded Saturday with Jason Bay, J.D. Drew and Alex Gonzalez not starting? The only explanation is that he's working on his postseason roster. It's over Dave, admit it.

CC Sabathia allowed just one hit in seven inning to outduel Daisuke Matsuzaka in a 3-0 victory Saturday at Yankee Stadium that gave the Yankees a 7-1/2 game lead in the division with seven games left.

All that's left now is to celebrate and get ready for the playoffs.

Sabathia was utterly brilliant, walking two, striking out eight and throwing 57 of 96 pitches for strikes. Yes, he could have gone deeper in the game if the Yankees needed him to, but with Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera rested a ready, Joe Girardi didn't need to tax his ace's left arm.

Hughes locked down the eighth and Rivera closed out the ninth for his 43rd save of the season. And since allowing Bay's tying two-run homer on April 24, Mo has two saves in four appearances against the Sox, allowing just three hits and two walks in four innings while striking out seven. Yeah, the Sox own Rivera, all right!

But back to Sabathia, in most other seasons he likely would be the favorite to win the Cy Young. He's 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA and hasn't lost since the end of July. He's gone 9-0 with a 2.04 ERA while the Yankees have won each of his 11 starts in that span.

It's just Sabathia's misfortune that Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez are have ridiculously good seasons. (I still lean toward King Felix for the award at this point).

The Sox simply couldn't touch CC Saturday, and that's exactly what the Yankees needed because their offense struggled to deliver the big hit against Matsuzaka.

Dice-K had ... well ... a typical Dice-K performance, working in and out of trouble and making big pitch after big pitch. He allowed one run on six hits and five walks in seven innings. He struck out three and threw 65 of 115 pitches for strikes.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, they just couldn't find a hit with runners in scoring position against him, ending up 1-for-15 for the game.

It was maddening to watch, especially after Friday, when the Yanks went 7-for-21 with RISP. An no inning was more agonizing than the fifth, when Derek Jeter singled and Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira walked to load the bases with no out.

Somehow, with the middle of the order up, they failed to score as Alex Rodriguez grounded into a forceout at home, and Hideki Matsui and Nick Swisher popped out.

The Yankees should have had a nice, comfortable lead for CC at that point. Instead it was scoreless until Robinson Cano led off the sixth by sending a 1-and-1, 90 mph fastball over the wall in left to give the Yankees and Sabathia a 1-0 lead.

Sabathia didn't need anymore than that, but the Yanks punched across two more in the eighth against Billy Wagner, who is not exactly known for having stellar outing in high-profile games in September. Right, Mets fans?

Swisher led off with a walk and pinch runner Brett Gardner moved up on a wild pitch. After Cano struck out, Gardner stole third as the Yankees swiped two more bases without getting caught by the Sox after stealing seven on Friday.

Wagner then hit Melky Cabrera with a pitch, but should have gotten an out when Gardner was caught in a rundown when a pitch bounced a short distance from Victor Martinez. However, shortstop Chris Woodward failed to handle a throw and Gardner made it back to third safely with Melky moving up to second.

Jose Molina then walked and after Jeter struck out, Damon blooped an 0-and-2, broke-bat single into right to drive in two.

And that finished off the Sox.

Order the champagne.

There's going to be a celebration tonight.

Runners In Scoring Position
1-for-15 (.067)
401-for-1,489 (.269)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
184-for-670 (.275)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
336-for-1,216 (.276)
Vs. Red Sox
44-for-199 (.221)

Up Next
Sunday vs. Red Sox, 1:05 p.m., ESPN
Paul Byrd (1-2, 6.04) vs. Andy Pettitte (13-7, 4.15)

With a win, the Yankees (99-56) also would win their 100th game and after starting the season 0-8 against the Sox, would split the season series, 9-9. Also, the win would render the last six games of the season meaningless and allow Girardi to rest his regulars and evaluate some relievers and reserves for the final spots on the playoff roster.

Last time out, Pettitte shook off some rust after missing a start because of sore shoulder and delivered a quality start. He'll be looking to improve on that to show he is fully healthy and ready for postseason play.

Tonight marks the start of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. There are 10 players who appeared in the majors this season who claim Jewish heritage, among them the Red Sox's Kevin Youkilis, Brewers' Ryan Braun (father), Rangers' Scott Feldman and Ian Kinsler, Rays' Gabe Kapler and A's Craig Breslow of Trumbull, CT (of course). And for the first time that I can remember, none will be faced with a choice of whether to play (thank you ESPN of keeping the Sox-Yanks game at 1 p.m.).

To everyone celebrating, g'mar tov, and to anyone fasting, may you have an easy fast.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Yes, Joba, That's How You Do It

Finally! Joba Chamberlain pitched up to his potential.

It had been a long, agonizing seven weeks since we saw a start like that from him, but he finally delivered at the right time, giving the Yankees hope that they'll have four strong starters heading into the playoffs.

Joba delivered a quality start -- three runs in six innings -- and Alex Rodriguez homered and drove in four as the Yankees knocked around Jon Lester in a 9-5 victory at Yankee Stadium Friday.

The Yankees' lead in the AL East over the Sox is 6-1/2 with their magic number sliced to three, meaning that if the Yankees win the next two, they'll be able to celebrate the division title right before Rogue Nation's eyes. The Red Sox's magic number for the wild card remained at three.

The Yankees (98-56) also moved 42 games over .500 for the first time since 2002 and have won seven of the eight games played against the Sox since the All-Star break after losing the first eight games of the season series against them this season.

But the story in this game for the Yankees was Joba.

Chamberlain has struggled badly since the Yankees began their well-intentioned but poorly executed attempts at limiting the 24-year-old righthander's innings to about 160. In his previous nine starts, he was 1-4 with an 8.25 ERA, .327 batting average against and .409 on-base percentage against.

That all disappeared Friday as Joba (9-6, 4.72 ERA) won for the first time since Aug. 6 (against the Red Sox) and had his strong start since July 29.

He allowed five hits and one walk, while striking out five and throwing 52 of 86 pitches for strikes. The Yankees had set a limit of 90 for Joba, meaning that should Joba replicate this type of outing Wednesday against the Royals, his arm strength should be back at 100 percent.

At some point between his last start and Friday, Joba had a stern conversation with Joe Girardi and the coaches, and it appears he finally got the message: pitch aggressively, trust the fastball and attack the strike zone.

He did all of the above, using his 95 mph fastball without fear, retiring the first 11 batters of the game and escaping a second and third, no out jam in the fifth by getting Jason Varitek to foul out, striking out Alex Gonzalez and inducing a ground out from Jacoby Ellsbury.

The only mistakes he made came on a two-out homer to Victor Martinez in the fourth and a two-run, opposite field homer to David Ortiz that made the score 6-3 in the sixth on a pitch that was off the plate, but belt high.

But by that point the Yankees had the game well under control as the offense jumped on Lester early and didn't let up, dealing the young lefthander his first loss since June 18 and first loss against the Yankees in eight career starts.

Lester, though, wasn't helped by the Sox's inability to stop the running game. The Yankees stole seven bases against Jason Varitek, including three by Rodriguez and two by Derek Jeter. That has to be disconcerting for Rogue Nation as the Sox appear headed to an ALDS matchup with Angels, a team that loves to run.

But that's Boston's problem.

Jeter singled to lead off the first, stole second and came around to score on A-Rod's two-out single to make it 1-0. In the process, Lester needed 30 pitches to get through the frame.

The Yanks then blew the game open in the third as Mark Teixeira led off with a single before A-Rod smoked a 93 mph, 1-and-1 fastball into the second deck in left for his 28th homer of the season to make it 3-0. He's now hitting .288 with 93 RBI after missing the first 28 games of the season.

But the Yankees didn't stop there. Hideki Matsui followed with a single, and after Jorge Posada flied out, Robinson Cano doubled and Nick Swisher walked to load the bases.

Then came as scary a moment as there is imaginable. Melky Cabrera lined a pitch back up the middle and nailed Lester on his right thigh for an infield single that scored Matsui to make it 4-0.

It took several minutes for trainers to help Lester back to his feet and them help him off the field.

Injuries happen to every team and I'll never, ever root for anyone, including a player on the Red Sox, to get hurt -- especially Lester who has had to overcome so much, including defeating cancer. It's classless, crass and morally reprehensible.

The good news -- and it is good news -- is that Lester sustained only a bruise. It could have been so much worse -- a broken leg or knee cap. And for a little while I was flashing back to when Bryce Florie took a shot to the face against the Yankees a few years back. Thank goodness, it's only a bruise.

Hunter Jones came on to replace Lester and allowed an RBI groundout by Jeter to complete Lester's line: 2-1/3 IP, 8 hits, 5 runs, 3 walks, 3 strikes and 47 of 78 pitches for strikes. It was the first time since May 15 that Lester had allowed five runs in a game.

The Yankees pushed across another run in the fourth on Jorge Posada's RBI single to make it 6-1, and made it 8-3 in the sixth on A-Rod's RBI double and Posada's RBI single. Teixeira added an RBI single in the seventh.

Five relievers came on to allow two runs, but still closed it out without having to tax Phil Hughes or use Mariano Rivera, which should set up today's game beautifully with CC Sabathia set to take the mound.

Runners In Scoring Position
7-for-21 (.333)
400-for-1,474 (.271)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
183-for-655 (.279)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
335-for-1,201 (.279)
Vs. Red Sox
43-for-184 (.234)

Up Next
Saturday vs. Red Sox, 4:10 p.m., FOX
Daisuke Matsuzaka (3-5, 6.80) vs. Sabathia (18-7, 3.31)

The Yankees have won each of Sabathia last 10 starts, with the big lefthander going 8-0 with a 2.24 ERA. Another win by the ace would cut the Yanks' magic number to one.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Home Stretch

When you split a four-game set with the Royals, your first instinct is to say "Wasted opportunity." And in many ways, Boston dropping two of four to the Royals was a wasted opportunity.

I figured that Boston would take three. And that Greinke would be the only loss. Sure enough, I was right. The only consolation from the Sox getting handcuffed by Zach is that it proves he deserves the AL Cy Young and now Aviv has to stop being a homer and talking up Sabathia. So there's that.

Losing that first game was tough, though. And while they hammered the Royals in the last two games...well, sometimes those missed opportunities loom big. Especially in the waning days of the season.

But the Sox took care of business on Wednesday and Thursday. And what made Thursday's 10-3 victory so satisfying was how Buchholz manned up for his start.

Clay has a head cold. One of those nasty ones that clogs every opening and makes you want to sleep for hours. Instead of giving in, he strapped the cleats on and went 5.2 innings, gave up no runs on five hits and struck out eight. It was the kind of thing you want to see from all of your players. I have no questions about his mental toughness anymore. When you man up like that, it proves you belong in the bigs.

The only downside on the pitching was Ramon Ramirez imploding against his old team. Three runs on three hits in 2/3 of an inning jacked his ERA by almost half-a-run in a single night. Granted, that last run came when Saito allowed his inherited runner to get home before closing out the eighth. But Saito made up for that with a solid ninth inning that included two strikeouts.

Starting August 19, Buchholz hasn't lost in his last eight starts. He is 6-0 in that span and has lowered his ERA from 5.02 to 3.21 as well. He has cut down on his walks, increased his strikeouts and improved his overall game. Even more notable; in September Buchholz is 4-0 with a 1.38 ERA in five starts. That's just flat-out dominant. And it now begs the question of whether the Sox want to, or even could afford to, trade Buchholz for other parts in the off-season.

He's an effective pitcher now and under Boston's control for a few more years. That's the kind of chit the Sox are loathe to trade. But on the other side, Buchholz's trade value is even higher now. This will be the big story to watch in the off-season.

On the bat side, the story has to begin with Victor Martinez. He went 2-5 with a walk and extended his hitting streak to 23 games. The Boston record is 34, set by Dom DiMaggio in 1949. Both Tris Speaker and Nomar Garciaparra had 30 game hit streaks for the Sox. So V-Mart is approaching some fine company. If he can close out the season and keep the streak going, he'll have hit in 33 straight games. Which would make Opening Day 2010 a very interesting game to watch.

Ellsbury went 3-6 with two runs scored and a RBI. He is now consistently productive from the lead-off position, making those growing pains from the start of the year worthwhile. Oh, and he stole his 65th and 66th base of the year last night. 70 steals looks like a very attainable goal for Ellsbury in 2009.

But the whomping stick belonged to David Ortiz. He went 3-5 with three RBI and a run scored. Two of those RBI came in the ninth with a bases-clearing double that closed out the scoring at 10-3. The first RBI came on a solo shot in the fourth, Ortiz's 26th of the year.

It is almost impossible to believe that David Ortiz, with the horrific start he had in 2009, is within striking distance of 30 homers and 100 RBI. He is currently at 26 homers and 91 RBI. It's an impressive turnaround. Still...I think the Sox have a lot of thinking to do in the off-season about the makeup of the team for 2010.

And now it comes down to the big series. Three games in New York with the Sox 5.5 games back of the Yankees. Much to Aviv's chagrin, the Yanks still haven't closed out the AL East. And with the Angels looming as the matchup for the wild-card, winning the AL East matters a whole hell of a lot to the Yankees.

So we get the two shining youngsters of the respective franchises this evening, with Chamberlain and Lester facing off. The Yankees have home-field advantage, but even Aviv would be forced to admit the Sox have the better pitcher on the mound. It will be a great start to a critical series. Either the Yankees will seal the deal or the Sox will make things very uncomfortable for them over the last week of the season.

One Last Regular Season Dance

This one has a different feel to it, doesn't it?

As the Red Sox arrive in New York for the sixth and final regular series against the Yankees, very little is in doubt.

Both teams will be in the playoffs. The Yankees, who lead the AL East by 5-1/2 games, have secured their berth and have magic number of five to clinch the division, something they can do with a sweep.

The Red Sox's magic number to clinch the wild card is three, and with the playoff pretenders that are the Rangers fading badly, it's entirely possible the Sox could get swept this weekend and still clinch that berth.

Really the only thing that maybe is in doubt is the division. If the Sox were to sweep, the Yanks' lead would be cut to 2-1/2 games entering the final week in the season, though with the Royals and lifeless Rays left on the Yankees' schedule, it's hard to believe the the Bombers wouldn't be able to secure the division crown anyway.

That, of course means, the only thing left for our two rivals to establish the weekend is a psychological edge should they meet in the ALCS.

If the Yankees sweep, the season series would end up 9-9. Also it would mean that after losing the first eight games of the season against the Sox, the Yanks will have gone 9-1 against Boston in the second half.

If Boston can sweep or even take two, they would put a stop to the Yankees' roll over them and reestablish some momentum against the Bombers.

A look at the pitching matchups:

Tonight, 7:05 p.m., NESN, TBS, Local TV (Check your listings)
Jon Lester (14-7, 3.33 ERA) vs. Joba Chamberlain (8-6, 4.73)
Lester hasn't lost since July 19 and the Sox haven't lost one of his starts since Aug. 9, when he gave up one run against the Yankees. Joba, meanwhile, is fighting for a spot in the postseason rotation. He hasn't won since beating the Sox on Aug. 6 and has a 8.25 ERA in his last nine starts. The Yankees want him to go at least five innings tonight, but another bad start likely will mean Chad Gaudin becomes the Yankees' fourth playoff starter.

Saturday, 4:10 p.m., Fox
Daisuke Matsuzaka (3-5, 6.80) vs. CC Sabathia (18-7, 3.31)
Dice-K has won both his starts since returning from the DL, allowing no runs in six innings in his first start against the Angels, before giving up three runs in 5-1/3 innings against the Angels. This will be a big test for him. If he can replicate what he did against the Angels, the Sox can feel secure that they have four confident and competent starters. In six career starts against the Yankees, though, Matsuzaka is 3-2 with a 6.35 ERA. Sabathia, meanwhile, has been brilliant in the second half, going 10-1 with a 2.54 ERA, including two wins over the Red Sox. He's been the Yankees' best pitcher and will look to continue that roll.

Sunday, 1:05 p.m., ESPN
Paul Byrd (1-2, 6.04) vs. Andy Pettitte (13-7, 4.15)
Byrd is 0-2 with a 12.00 ERA on the road this season and 3-5 with a 4.72 ERA in his career agains the Yankees. The Sox will be hoping to get five, maybe six, decent innings out of him. After a 10-day break, Pettitte returned from some shoulder soreness to pitch decently Monday against the Angels. After allowing two runs and shaking of some rust in the first inning, he settled down nicely and ended up with a quality start, three runs in six inning. Pettitte will be looking return to the dominant form he had through much of the second half.

Prediction: Yankees take two of three and continue their second-half run against the Sox. Joba pitches well, but not well enough to beat Lester.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Girardi Gambles On Kennedy ... And Wins

Joe Girardi, that was a gutsy decision.

With Phil Hughes and Alfredo Aceves unavailable, Girardi needed to find a way to get through the eighth and hand the lead to Mariano Rivera.

He gambled and put a pitcher coming back from an aneurysm in his shoulder on the mound.

The gamble paid off and the Yankees got one of the more significant wins of the season Wednesday.

Ian Kennedy, making his first appearance in the majors since last season, pitched a shaky but scoreless and eighth and Rivera shut down the Rally Monkey in the ninth for his 42nd save of the season as the Yankees beat the Angels 3-2 for their first series win in Anaheim since May 2004.

The Yankees finished the season series against the Angels at 5-5, which is quite significant given how much the Bombers have struggled against the Halos over the past 15 years.

In addition, the Yankees ended up gong 3-3 on the West Coast trip, which has to be a bitter disappointment to Red Sox fans, who were hoping their team would be able to make up some ground in the standings.

Instead, the Yankees remain six game ahead in the AL East with a magic number of five to clinch. A sweep this weekend would give the Yankees the division crown and should the Sox lose to the Royals tonight, the Yanks would need to take just two of three to wrap things up.

But Girardi was in a tough spot as the Yankees headed to the bottom of the eighth with a 3-2 lead Wednesday.

Hughes pitched 1-2/3 innings and threw 37 pitches and Aceves 1-2/3 innings and 34 pitches Tuesday. Damaso Marte had already thrown a scoreless inning in Wednesday's game, while Jonathan Albaladejo showed why his is not a major leaguer by failing to get out the only guy he faced. Phil Coke, coming back from some gastrointestinal problems, struck out his only batter but likely didn't have the strength to go much further.

That left Girardi with no solid choices for the eighth. Brian Bruney has been terrible of late, David Robertson is still not back from his minor elbow soreness, and Mark Melancon, Michael Dunn, Edwar Ramirez and Josh Towers have not shown anything to make anyone believe they can get big outs.

So Girardi turned to Kennedy.

Kennedy started the season well at Triple A but developed an aneurysm, similar to what David Cone faced in 1996. He ended up missing four months, only getting back on the mound earlier this month. He made several appearances during the minor league playoffs, but once all the Yankees affiliates had their seasons ended this week, Kennedy was called up to the majors with the hope that he'd get into a few low pressure situations or meaningless games.

Instead, he was thrown into the eighth inning of a significant game against the Angels.

Talk about pressure. Remember, not even Joba Chamberlain or Hughes were thrown right into the eighth when they were put into the bullpen. They had to proven themselves and earn that role.

Yet, here was Kennedy, pitching the eighth.

He got Juan Rivera to line out before hitting Howie Kendrick and walking Gary Matthews Jr. Macier Izturis then struck out, but Chone Figgins walked. Kennedy, though stayed composed and got Erick Aybar to fly out to left to escape the jam with that 3-2 lead in tact.

That was a gutty outing from Kennedy, who can't be near full strength yet. Who knows? Maybe he'll be the eighth inning guy next season when Hughes moves to the rotation.

But Wednesday, Kennedy's three outs allowed the Yankees to deliver a win to A.J Burnett, who had electric stuff.

Burnett's fastball was popping, hitting 97 mph. He struck out 11, but that also forced him to throw a lot of pitches. He ended up allowing two runs on seven hits and three walks in 5-2/3 innings He threw 65 of 101 pitches for strikes before Girardi lifted him in the sixth with a run in on Matthew's double and runners on first and second.

Still it was a second consecutive solid outing for Burnett (12-9, 4.19 ERA) and third in four outings. It's looking as if Burnett has moved past his August troubles and is ready for a big playoff run.

But the Yankees needed Burnett to pitch well because they were going up against Scott Kazmir, who entered the game with a 2.53 lifetime ERA against the Bombers. In addition, Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher were out of the lineup after fouling pitches off their feet Tuesday and Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon were held out because of their struggles against Kazmir.

That meant the lineup had Shelley Duncan, Jose Molina and Jerry Hairston Jr. Not exactly the Yanks' best lineup.

And Kazmir was sharp from the start, allowing just a walk to Hairston and an infield single to Brett Gardner over the first three innings.

But the Yankees broke through in the fourth. Mark Teixeira doubled with one out before Hideki Matsui walked to start the threat. Duncan then singled to left and Robby Thompson properly tried to score Teixeira. It took a perfect throw, but Juan Rivera made it and got Teixeira at the plate.

Against the Angels, the Yankees have to be aggressive on the bases and with Robinson Cano and his .211 batting average with runners in scoring position due up next, the Yankees couldn't afford to be conservative.

Cano, however, wasn't going to fail this time, lining a two-run single to right and moving to second on a poor throw home to give the Yankees the lead.

Melky Cabrera then followed with a double and the Yankees had a 3-0 lead to protect.

Kazmir (9-9, 5.06) ended up allowing the three runs on six hits and three walks in six innings, but the Angels' offense just couldn't come back against the Yanks, scratching across a run in the fifth on Bobby Abreu's groundout and another in the six, but getting no more.

The Yankees bullpen did the job with Kennedy delivering three huge outs.

Runners In Scoring Position
3-for-8 (.375)
393-for-1,453 (.270)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
176-for-634 (.278)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
328-for-1,180 (.278)
Vs. Red Sox
36-for-163 (.221)

Up Next
Friday vs. Red Sox, 7:05 p.m., NESN, TBS, Local TV (Check your listings)
Jon Lester (14-7, 3.33) vs. Joba Chamberlain (8-6, 4.72)

As the final regular season installment of THE rivalry begins, Chamberlain faces a huge start. Joba needs a strong outing or he may lose his spot in the postseason rotation. Lester is 1-0 with a 2.70 ERA against the Yankees this season.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Against The Angels, Start Gardner

For the second time in nine days, Brett Gardner’s speed allowed the Yankees to pull out a victory over the Angels, and it’s quickly becoming clear that whenever the Bombers play those pesky Halos, Gardner has to be in the starting lineup.

Gardner scored the go-ahead run in the ninth on a sacrifice fly from Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees beat the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Orange County, Calif., USA, Western Hemisphere, Plant Earth, Milky Way Galaxy 6-5 Tuesday for the first time in Anaheim this season to become the first team in the majors to clinch a spot in the majors.

No need to go overboard about clinching the playoff spot -- we knew that was going to happen after the Yanks (96-56) took two of three at Fenway in August.

The goal right now is the division, and thanks to Zack Greinke (yes, at 15 wins, I’m ready to give him the Cy Young), the Royals shut down the Red Sox to give the Yankees a six-game lead in the AL East. With 10 games left to play, the Yankees’ magic number to clinch the division is six, meaning if the Yankees should sweep the Sox this weekend, they’ll wrap up the division crown.

Before I go any further, my desire to have Gardner start against the Angels is not about Melky Cabrera. Melky has been brilliant this season and incredibly clutch. Against any other team, I have absolutely no problems when he starts, and I have no problem if he were start in either corner position against the Halos.

But the Angels are not any other team. They are a pain in the Yankees’ butts, especially in Anaheim, where the Bombers' troubles are beyond nauseating. They are 6-18 in Anaheim the last five years and this year, they are 1-4 and have been outscored, 39-26.

Against the Angels, the Yankees have to play a different brand of ball. They need to be able to manufacture runs and use speed to apply pressure on the Angels' defense -- just like the Angels do to their opponents. And Gardner is the Yankees’ best player for doing that.

Yes, Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, A-Rod and Cabrera all can steal bases and have speed, but none are the threat on the bases that Gardner is.

Gardner’s speed is blinding and whenever he gets on first, he wreaks havoc on the defense and pitcher. He gives the lineup an extra dimension and that simply allows the Yankees to matchup a little better against the Angels and gives them a better chance to win.

Last Monday in the makeup game at Yankee Stadium, Gardner, who has stolen 23 bases in 28 attempts, led the front end of a double steal that forced Angels catcher Mike Napoli to deliver a bad throw to third that skipped into the outfield and allowed Gardner to score what proved to be the winning run in the eighth.

Tuesday his speed allowed the Yankees to pull out a game in which they blew a five-run lead.

Gardner, who is hitting .280 with a .356 on-base percentage, led off the ninth with a solid single to center and then stole second before Jeter walked. Damon then sacrificed the runners up before the Angels intentionally walked Mark Teixeira ahead of A-Rod.

Can you imagine that? Walking Teixeira to get to A-Rod, who had hit a monster two-run homer earlier in the game? Remember when the Yankees faced that dilemma against David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and the Red Sox? It's a no-win situation and this time, it's the Angels who lost because A-Rod hit a sacrifice fly to center to bring in Gardner to make it 6-5.

Of course, another key to beating the Angels is being able to slow down their running game, and in the ninth Jorge Posada stopped the Angels' attack cold.

Now, there was no doubt that after blowing the save his last time out against he Mariners Friday that Mariano Rivera was going to shut the door on the Angels. A second straight blown save wasn't going to happen. But it's always nice to get a little help.

Kendry Morales led off with a walk and speedy Reggie Willits came on to pinch run. But before you knew it, the Yankees had two outs on a strike-em-out, throw-em-out double play as Rivera whiffed Juan Rivera and Posada, who committed a throwing error on a steal in the eighth, nailed Willits at second.

Rivera then got Erick Aybar to ground to second to secure the victory and his 41st save of the season. There would be no Rally Monkey on this night.

But against any other team, this game wouldn't have been this close. It would have been an easy win.

The Angels, though, aren't like any other team and Anaheim is the place of the Yankees' worst nightmares.

The Yankees grabbed a 4-0 lead in the third. After Teixeira hit a one-out single, A-Rod demolished a 3-and-0, 93 mph fastball from Ervin Santana and put it into the rock pile well past the center field fence.

After Hideki Matsui reached on catcher's interference, Jorge Posada lofted a high fly ball that settled into the first row of the right field seats, for a two-run homer.

Matsui then led off the fifth with a monster homer to make it 5-0 and the Yankees seemed to be on their way.

Starter Gaudin had cruised through the first four innings, making a strong argument to be the Yankees' fourth starter in the playoffs over Joba Chamberlain. But he came undone with two outs in the fifth, as the Yankees continue to show problems escaping innings. Three of the Angels' five runs scored with two outs.

Chone Figgins wrapped a fly around the foul pole in right to make it 5-1 and Macier Izturis followed with a double. After Bobby Abreu walked, Vladimir Guerrero singled in Izuturis to make it 5-2 and Gaudin's night was done. Alfredo Aceves struck out Torii Hunter to snuff the threat.

Gaudin allowed two runs on six hits in 4-2/3 innings. He struck out three and threw 58 of 96 pitches for strikes.

And if I had to choose today, I would go with Gaudin as the fourth starter the playoffs with Joba in the bullpen as a long reliever. Even though Gaudin didn't get through the fifth Tuesday, he gave the Yankees a chance to win and that's something he's done in four of his five starts with the Yankees.

Thanks in large part to the Yankees well-intentioned, but poorly thought out and executed plan, Joba can't say the same thing. He's been terrible since mid-August and unless he miraculously turns it around in his final two starts of the regular season, how can the Yankees even think of putting him on the mound in Game 4 of the ALCS?

Unfortunately, Aceves didn't have his best stuff Tuesday, running into trouble in the sixth. Morales and Juan Rivera started the inning with singles before Aybar flew out to right, sending Morales to third. Pinch hitter Gary Matthews Jr. singled in Morales to make it 5-3 and Figgins singled to load the bases.

Aceves then got Izturis to foul out to third and seemed to be on the verge of escaping the inning without any further damage, but he walked Abreu to force in another run. Aceves got out of the inning thanks to a brilliant play by A-Rod at third.

A-Rod, in case you can't tell, had a brilliant game homering, driving in three and make that big defensively play.

Unfortunate, the defense betrayed Phil Hughes in the eighth. Howie Kendrick reached on an error by Robinson Cano to lead off, stole second and moved to third on Posada's throwing error on the attempt. After Figgins popped to second for the first out, Kendrick scored on Izturis' single to tie it a 5. Hughes (8-3, 3.04 ERA) got out of the inning by striking out Guerrero and Hunter, but still was tagged with his third blown save.

But the Yankees had the right guy leading off the ninth and Gardner's legs helped the Yankees get a crucial win in Anaheim.

Of Note
Jeter's single in the third was his 200th of the season, giving the Captain seven 200-hit seasons in his career. Only Lou Gehrig has more in team history with eight. Jeter's career high for hits in a season is 219 in 1999.

Runners In Scoring Position
1-for-10 (.100)
390-for-1,445 (.270)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
173-for-626 (.276)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
325-for-1,172 (.277)
Vs. Red Sox
36-for-163 (.221)

Up Next
Wednesday at Angels, 3:35 p.m., YES
A.J. Burnett (11-9, 4.22) vs. Scott Kazmir (9-8, 5.08)

Make no mistake about it. This is a huge game for the Yankees. A win would give them a .500 (3-3) West Coast trip, would allowed them to win a series in Anaheim for the first time in ages and would give them a season split of the 10-games against the Angels.

Burnett looked much better his last time out Friday against the Mariners, allowing one run in seven inning and a game that turned into a 3-2 loss when Mariano allowed a walkoff two-run homer to Ichiro Suzuki. Burnett needs to replicate that outing and maintain that type of pitching through the playoffs.

The Angels got Kazmir near the Aug. 31 trading deadline in large part because the lefty is tough on both the Yankees and Red Sox. Kazmir is 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA this year and is 6-4 with a 2.53 ERA against the Bombers in his career.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


What is there to say when you blow a winnable game (12-9) like last night? To the Royals? When you're ahead 9-5?

Nothing but "blech." That and "Manny Delcarmen should only be in the game when one team is getting blown out by the other."

I love the kid, but good Lord that was a brutal inning. And with two outs to boot. Altogether it was three runs allowed on three doubles and a walk. Just a painful outing and all too reminiscent of how he has pitched in September.

Not that Bard was any better. He gave up the runs that gave Kansas City the lead and was bailed out of the sixth only by the fact that the Royals still believe that Betancourt can play baseball. Wagner came on in the eighth and allowed the last run. Hell, the only pitcher who had a good outing was Bowden, who shut the Royals down in the ninth for one of only two 1-2-3 innings Boston pitchers had last night.

Wakes had a rough game, the rain playing merry hell with his knuckler. Maybe it's just me, but shouldn't Wakes have been moved back? The knuckler depends on precise control and release, and a little wind doesn't hurt either. A steady downpour doesn't help any of those things. But in the end, the Sox still led after Wakes left the game. And they were hitting the hell out of DiNardo as well.

Jason Bay went 2-5 with a three-run blast for his 36th homer of the year. Four more and he'll be the first player since 1998 not named Manny Ramirez or David Ortiz to hit 40 homers in a season (It was Mo for those of you playing at home). V-Mart went 2-4 and grabbed a pair of RBI, giving him 100 on the year (33 with Boston). Ellsbury went 1-5 but grabbed two RBI and scored a run. The point is that Boston's offense did their job and the pitching staff simply didn't show up.

The worst part? The Sox should have cut the Yanks lead to four games last night. I think five games still makes Yankee fans uncomfortable, but the Sox had a chance to put the pressure on and let it get away. And now they face the kid who should win the Al Cy Young if voters aren't blinded by wins and wins alone. Zach Greinke takes the mound for the Royals while the Sox send Paul Byrd. This is a matchup that favors the Royals. Hopefully the pitching staff can regroup and the Sox can tag Zach for a few runs.

Two-Out Troubles

Five, two-out runs.

The Angels scored five, two-out runs Monday.

Thank goodness the Red Sox squandered a six-run lead in their loss to the Royals because this loss for the Yankees was positively maddening.

This one very easily could have been a Yankees' victory, instead it's a 5-2 loss at the House of Horrors. The Yankees will have to wait another day to secure a playoff spot. Their lead over the Red Sox remained at 5, but their magic number to clinch the division dropped to eight.

The Yankees have lost six of their last 10 games and dropped their 17th of their last 22 in Anaheim. Why can't Al Davis just buy this team and move it to San Jose?

Andy Pettitte was serviceable in his return from a bout with shoulder fatigue. He allowed three runs on five hits and two walks in six innings. He struck out three and threw 57 of 91 pitches for strikes.

Unfortunately, Pettitte just couldn't make the big pitch to escape trouble.

With two outs in the first, Bobby Abreu singled before Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter hit consecutive doubles to make it 2-0.

Pettitte settled down and cruised into the fifth, when Robb Quinlan walked and Jeff Mathis singled with one out. Chone Figgins then lofted a fly ball that should have been caught by Melky Cabrera, but instead was caught by Johnny Damon, allowing Quinlan to advance to third.

That proved costly as Erick Aybar grounded a single to left that would not have been able to score the runner from second. Instead, it made the score 3-0.

Normally, Pettitte's night would have been good enough, but not at Angels Stadium and not on this night.

The Yankees offense simply couldn't figure out Joe Saunders, who allowed two runs on seven hits in 8-1/3 innings. He struck out three and threw 70 of 108 pitches for strikes.

The Yankees simply couldn't mount any sort of attack against him. Their only runs came on homers by Alex Rodriguez in the seventh and Hideki Matsui as a pinch hitter in the eighth.

Someone has to explain this to me. Joe Girardi said he didn't start Matsui because he wanted to get more righthanders in the lineup against the lefty Saunders. The thing is Matsui hits lefties as well as righties and about half his homers have come off lefties.

I understand wanting to spell Matsui to keep his knees in shape, but that's not what Girardi was doing here. He simply outsmarted himself.

Girardi also make a puzzling move after lifting Pettitte prior to the seventh and the Yankees trailing 3-1. He went to Brian Bruney instead of a well-rest Alfredo Aceves. Then Girardi compounded it by bringing in Jonathan Albaladejo in the eighth.

The result: Bruney gave up a two-out homer to Kendry Morales and Albaladejo allowed a two-out RBI double to Juan Rivera.

The Yanks ended up going to the ninth facing a three-run deficit, which proved just to steep to overcome, even against suspect closer Brian Fuentes.

At some point the Yankees are going to have to start making big pitches against the Angels in Anaheim and getting big outs. Giving up two-out runs ... five of them ... is simply unacceptable. Good teams don't do that and the Yankees (95-56) were not doing that as they were building the league's best record.

This kind of struggles just can't continue.

The Yankees have to turn it around ... now.

Runners In Scoring Position
0-for-3 (.000)
389-for-1,435 (.272)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
172-for-616 (.279)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
324-for-1,162 (.279)
Vs. Red Sox
36-for-163 (.221)

Up Next
Tuesday at Angels, 10:05 p.m., Local TV (check your listings)
Chad Gaudin (5-10, 4.81 ERA) vs. Ervin Santana (7-8, 5.43)

Just get a win in Anaheim. Please.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I Love Baltimore

And it's not just me. Every Sox fan loves Charm City and the Orioles. How else could we possibly feel about a city and stadium where Boston went 8-1 on the road? What other emotion could capture how we feel about a team the Sox went 16-2 against in the regular season? We love you, Baltimore. Don't ever change. And with Peter Angelos running the team, we know you never will*.

Boston rolled into Baltimore on Friday trailing the Yankees by six in the AL East and leading the Rangers by seven in the wild-card. As of this morning, those numbers are five and eight. The Sox have won 11 of their last 13 games and are peaking at the perfect time. And the three-game set over the weekend with the O's was a perfect example of that.

Friday gave us the Prodigal Son cementing his position as the #3 playoff starter. Buchholz went six innings and allowed just one run on five hits to lead Boston to a 3-1 win and his sixth win of the year. Bard, Oki and Paps closed it out. Ellsbury picked up his 62nd steal and Jason Bay hit his team-leading 34th homer.

Saturday was a gutshot to the Orioles. Leading the Sox 3-2 going into the sixth, they allowed nine runs over the next three innings and the Sox rolled to a 11-5 win. Lester picked up his 14th win but more importantly he showed that he could pitch the Sox to a win without having his best stuff.

Lester gave up 10 hits in six innings and allowed three runs. He struck out just four batters and threw first-pitch strikes to just 44% of the batters he faced. But he gutted it out and got the win. Wagner and Saito cleanly got the Sox to the ninth inning before Delcarmen came on and briefly gave the Orioles a spark of hope by allowing two solo shots and not getting a single out from the four batters he faced. That brought Ramon Ramirez on and he finished the game without any more damage.

I don't want to sound like I am picking on Delcarmen, because I like the kid and I think he has a ton of talent. But he has been brutal in September:13.50 ERA in five games with 2.2 innings pitched to his credit, along with three homers and five walks. Batters are hitting .438 off him for the month. I'm guessing he must be tired or something, but at this juncture I don't want to see him at all when the game is on the line.

The big bat on Saturday belong to, of all people, J.D. Drew as he went 3-5 with four RBI, three of which came on a three-run blast in the eighth. Mike Lowell also had a strong game, going 3-4 with two RBI. In fact, every starter had at least one hit. And a shout out to Josh Reddick, who went 1-2 with a walk and hit the second homer of his major-league career. The kid has a ton of talent and he will be fun to watch in the years ahead.

And that brought us to Sunday and Daisuke. The odds of Daisuke repeating his incredible comeback performance were slim. And he didn't. But he pitched well enough for his second straight win and led the Sox to a 9-3 win and sweep of the Orioles.

Daisuke went 5.1 innings and allowed three runs on eight hits. More impressively, he struck out five while walking just one batter. He threw first-pitch strikes to 66% of the batters he faced and 66% of his overall pitches were strikes. It was a solid outing and just what the Sox wanted to see from him. Ramirez, Oki and Saito finished the game with little drama (three walks and a hit among them).

Ellsbury continues to improve at leadoff. He went 3-4 with two runs scored and three RBI, including his eighth homer of the year (a solo shot) in the seventh. He's hitting .304 for the year and now has a OBP of .356 overall. But that doesn't reflect has good he has been in September. Ellsbury is batting .308 and has an OBP of .392 for the month. Even more impressive: in his last six games Ellsbury is hitting .423, has an OBP of .483 and no, that is not a mistype. Oh, and he picked up his 63rd steal of the year to boot.

Then you have Victor Martinez. He's hitting .331 with a .907 OPS since coming to Boston. He went 2-4 with a run scored and a RBI and is now riding a 19-game hitting streak dating back to August 28. And while correlation does not imply causation, Boston is 29-17 since trading for V-Mart and 16-5 since his hitting streak began. He has been a huge influence on this lineup. Just the luxury alone of being able to place Youk into the cleanup slot and having Bay hit fifth or Papi hit sixth has transformed the offensive power of the Sox.

This year the Sox have scored 9+ runs in 22 games; 12 of those were before the break. The Sox went 16 games between the last two 9+ run games of the first-half of the season (between June 23 and July 11) and another 16 games before their next 9+ run game on August 2. Those were the two longest streaks the Sox went all year without scoring 9+ runs in a game. Since Martinez has joined the squad, the longest stretch between two 9+ run games has been a pair of 13 game stretches during that brutal August. But since September 1, the longest gap between two 9+ run games for the Sox has been three games. This is a long way of saying that not only has Boston's offense improved greatly with V-Mart in the lineup, but that they are peaking at the right time.

Since September 1, the Sox are 13-5 and the Yankees are 12-7. Over the past week, the Sox are 6-1 and the Yanks are 4-3. The trend lines are beginning to narrow between the two and the question is whether the Yankees built up a big enough lead over the past couple of months when they looked near immortal to hold off the Sox for the AL East title. As I said before, this race isn't over yet. You never give up until the math says different. Especially now as the Yankees have to play in their personal House of Horrors (Anaheim) while the Sox get four games with the Royals before the two teams clash one last time this season in the Bronx over the weekend. It is very, very plausible that the Sox and Yanks could be playing for the AL East lead this weekend.

But before that happens the Sox have to take care of business in Kansas City. Baring a late scratch, Tim Wakefield will be looking for his 12th win tonight. I make no excuses for my very public cheer-leading for Wakefield. He is the consummate professional, plays hard, plays hurt (if possible) and is the only guy playing on the Sox now who was on the team back during my post-college days in Boston**. We go way back, Wakes and I. He'd have to kill a puppy on live television to get me to say a bad thing about him. He faces someone most Sox fans should recognize; Lenny DiNardo. DiNardo was on the 2004 roster and bounced up and down between Boston and the Bucket until the A's claimed him off waivers in 2007. Now he's with the Royals, the poor bastard. He's 0-1 in two starts with a 5.23 ERA. But don't let that fool you; DiNardo has talent and when he can put it all together he is very effective. Unfortunately for him, he has the Royals behind him.


* Baltimore fans (all 17 of you), take that jibe gently. Angleos gets a lot of things right. Ticket prices, amenities, food, hiring Andy McPhail...all good things. But he just can't get the personnel decisions correct. If Angelos would take his hands off of that area, your team would improve by leaps and bounds. I suggest you start by trading Markakis to Boston...

** This would be 1995, Wakefield's first year in Boston. The other four starters for the Sox? They were Erik Hanson, Roger Clemens, Zane Smith and Vaughn Eshelman. All four are out of the game now but Wakefield keeps chugging along. The lesson, kids, is simple: Learn to throw the knuckler. Oh, and using steroids while allowing your trainer to shoot them in your wife's butt and then selling her down the river to try and salvage your drug-riddled career is not, repeat not a good idea. Yes, I still hate Clemens. Why do you ask?

Time To Grow Up, Joba

One the not-so-rare occasions that my wife becomes frustrated with me, she likes to tell me that I'm the most stubborn man on the planet.

It's at those moments that I point her in the direction of Joba Chamberlain and she quickly backtracks and tells me I'm the second-most stubborn man on the planet.

That's only because I actually learn from my mistakes ... sometimes. Joba doesn't.

How else to explain why Joba just doesn't seem to understand that in order to succeed, he needs to work quickly and be aggressive with his fastball?

Joba allowed seven runs in three inning -- failing to go his prescribed five innings -- and the Yankees lost to the Mariners 7-1 Sunday to drop 2 of 3 at Seattle.

The Yankees are now just five games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East, their magic number to clinch the division frozen at nine, though they can clinch a playoff spot tonight with a win or a Rangers loss.

The Sox have won 10 of their last 11. The Yankees have gone 4-5 in their last nine and have played very inconsistently -- not exactly the way they wanted to be playing as they head into this crucial week with three at the Angels before returning home to host the Sox for three.

Joba didn't even give the Yankees a chance in this one, though it would have been a tad more tolerable had Mariano Rivera been able to close out Friday's game, which turned into a 3-2 loss on Ichiro Suzuki's walkoff, two-run homer. The loss spoiled a terrific outing from A.J. Burnett.

That one hurt. But CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui took the sting out of that loss with a 10-1 Saturday. Teixeira went 4-for-5 with two homers and five RBI, Cano also went 4-for-5 and Matsui launched his 26th homer of the season. Sabathia, meanwhile, allowed one unearned run in seven innings with eight strikeouts to pick up American League-leading 18th win and lower his ERA to 3.31.

That left it up to Joba to pull out the series in what was supposed to be a key start for him as the Yankees rebuild his armstrength. After three straight starting in which he was limited to three innings, Joba went four in a sharp start Monday and was supposed to go five Sunday.

Things didn't work out as planned.

The Yankees seemed as if they would jump on Ian Snell early, only to let him off the hook. Derek Jeter led off with a single and Johnny Damon walked, but Teixeira popped out, Alex Rodriguez struck out and Matsui grounded out. A sign of things to come.

Joba started well enough, getting Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez to fly out, but Jose Lopez doubled to left, Ken Griffey Jr. doubled to center to score Lopez and Adrian Beltre singled to give the Mariners a 2-0 lead.

Had Joba settled down after that, the Yanks might have had a chance. Instead, Joba got worse.

Mike Carp and Adam Moore led off the second with single before Josh Wilson sacrificed them over. Joba then intentionally walked Ichiro, but the strategy backfired when Joba missed on a 3-and-2 pitch to to Gutierrez to walk in a run.

Lopez then hit a sacrifice fly before Junior blew it open, as Joba left a 1-and-2, 93 mph fastball in Griffey's happy zone (down and in). Junior's eyes grew about as wide as my son's whenever he see chocolate cake, crushing the pitch deep to right to make it 7-0.

Game over.

The Yankees pushed across one on Jorge Posada's double in the sixth and Sergio Mitre, banished to the bullpen with Chad Gaudin assuming the No. 5 stater's spot (Hooray!), pitched five scoreless innings in relief, but that didn't really matter.

Joba allowed seven runs on six hit and three walks in three innings. He struck out two and threw just 37 of 69 pitches for strikes.

He was, in a word, terrible.

The Yankees are still figuring on Joba being their fourth starter in the playoffs, but the 23-year-old righthander has just two scheduled starts remaining in the regular season to get straightened and stretched out. His next start is supposed to be Saturday vs. the Sox.

This wasn't the intended result of the latest Joba Plan, and the Yankee braintrust has clearly erred in their handling of their prized prospect, but Joba hasn't held up his end of the bargain either.

He simply has to grow up, bear down, pitch the way he's supposed to and get outs.

Maybe the Yanks should just send Joba back home to Nebraska for a few days.

That got him straighted out at the All-Star break.

Maybe it can work again.

Runners In Scoring Position
0-for-4 (.000)
4-for-14 (.286)
1-for-11 (.091)
389-for-1,432 (.272)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
172-for-613 (.281)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
324-for-1,159 (.280)
Vs. Red Sox
36-for-163 (.221)

Up Next
Monday at Angles, 10:05 p.m., YES
Andy Pettitte (13-6, 4.14 ERA) vs. Joe Saunders (13-7, 4.75)

The Yanks pushed Pettitte's start back a few days after he complained of some arm soreness in his last start. He had a good bullpen Friday and should be good to go. Of course, the Yankees have had a dreadful time playing in Anaheim, where they have lost 16 of their last 21. Fortunately, Saunders has a 7.97 ERA in four appearances in his career against the Yankees.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tough Loss

This is a quick entry because I have too much work in the real world today and because the focus here should be on Aviv's fantastic post on Hank Greenberg. If you have not read it, do so now.

This would be the point where, if I wanted to scream "I told you so!", I would. Billy Wagner came on in the ninth in a 3-3 game last night, gave up a walk and a hit, and allowed the winning run for the Angels to come across. The 4-3 loss broke Boston's seven-game winning streak and trimmed a half-game off Boston's wild-card lead over the Rangers.

I'm not doing it because Wagner hasn't been that bad for the Sox. In 8 games and 7.1 innings of work with Boston, Wagner has 12 strikeouts and three holds, a 1-1 record and a 2.46 ERA to go along with a 1.09 WHIP. Those are not bad numbers at all. Compare that to this line:

2-2, 6.75 ERA, 18.2 IP, 14 ER, 1.875 WHIP, 3 BSV

That is Eric Gagne's line from 2007. Comparing Wagner to him at this juncture would be ludicrious. So while I am not eating my words just yet...I am getting the silverware out.

Buchholz takes the mound down in Baltimore tonight. He owned the Orioles the last time he faced them, going seven innings and getting the win in a 10-0 Boston romp. Here's hoping the new and improved Buchholz has a repeat performance tonight.

Hank Greenberg: A Forgotten Story

A few years back, a colleague asked me why Jewish ballplayers won't play on Yom Kippur, but do play on Rosh Hashanah.

He knew the story about Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series for the Dodgers because it fell on Yom Kippur. What he didn't know about was Hank Greenberg.

Most people don't know about Greenberg's story and it's a shame. It's one of the more important stories in baseball history, one filled with courage and heroism.

It's also one that many would say helped set the stage for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in 1947.

No, Greenberg was not the first Jewish ballplayer. There had been dozens of Jewish players long before him. But Greenberg was the sport's first Jewish superstar -- though that may not be an apt-enough description.

Within baseball, there are Hall of Famers and then there is the Pantheon of Immortals: Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, DiMaggio, Cy Young, Mays, etc.

Greenberg is part of that latter, exclusive group.

Greenberg played from 1933 to 1947, losing four years to World War II when he enlisted for military service even though he was exempt under U.S. Government guidelines.

His career numbers for that short span are amazing: .313 batting average, 331 homers, 1,276 RBI, .412 on-base percentage and .605 slugging percentage.

His best seasons rank among the greatest in the history of the game.

He hit 58 homers in 1938, which stood as the highest home run total between Babe Ruth's 60 in 1927 and Roger Maris' 61 in 1961.

He drove in 183 runs in 1937, one shy of Lou Gehrig's record set in 1931.

He won the AL MVP in 1935 and '40 and led the Detroit Tigers to World Series titles in 1935 and '45 and AL pennants in '34 and '40.

He was one of the game's greats.

But it wasn't easy, not by a longshot.

Greenberg grew up in an Orthodox home in the Bronx, N.Y., the son of Jewish immigrants. Like many Jewish kids, including those growing up today, he struggled assimilating into U.S. culture, but ultimately found his comfort zone through sports.

Through hard work, he overcame some clumsiness to become a good first baseman -- good enough to draw attention from several major league teams.

Greenberg received a contract offer from the Yankees, but turned it down because of some guy named Gehrig who played first. The Senators also wanted him, but Greenberg said no -- you know what they said about Washington: "First in war. First in peace. Last in the American League."

Greenberg tried out for the Giants, but Jon McGraw, who was desperate to find a Jewish superstar to boost sagging attendance, declined. Oops!

Ultimately Greenberg signed with the Tigers in 1929 for $9,000.

But it was not easy to be a Jewish ballplayer at that time. Anti-Semitism was rampant both in the game in the world as a whole.

While playing in the Texas League in 1932, teammate Jo-Jo White slowly walked around Greenberg, just staring at him. Greenberg asked White what he was looking at. White responded that he had never seen a Jew before. Greenberg let White look a while longer before asking if he saw anything interesting. White, who was looking for horns, responded, "You're just like everyone else."

But that wasn't the worst of it. Not even close.

Bench jockeying in the majors at that time was vicious with players uttering the most vile, racist and degrading comments in a crude and unsportsmanlike effort to unnerve their opponents.

The catcalls were brutal and the Cardinals were particularly merciless in the 1934 World Series.

But Greenberg wasn't necessarily one to just turn the other cheek.

According to one story, Greenberg eventually became so fed up with the razzing he was taking from the Chicago White Sox that he took on the entire team himself, challenging anyone who dared to yell an epithet, “If you got a gut in your body, you’ll stand up.”

No one did. Greenberg, afterall, was 6-foot-4, 200 pounds and a large man.

Teammate Birdie Tebbetts once suggested no one in the history of baseball other than Jackie Robinson was ever more abused than Greenberg. But I'd be remiss if I did not mention the abuse Lary Doby suffered through, which was no less brutal that what Robinson had to endure.

But it wasn't just on the field where things were difficult for Greenberg. It was the 1930s and the world was a dangerous place for Jews.

By 1933, Adolph Hitler had assumed power as Germany's chancellor and had begun to systematically strip Jews of their citizenship and rights, eventually leading to Krystallnact in 1938 and the start of the Holocaust.

But even in the U.S., anti-Semitism was growing, especially in the Detroit area, where Father Charles Coughlin and Henry Ford were powerful personalities, blaming Jews for everything from the Great Depression to the Russian Revolution, while singing the praises of Hitler, Nazism and fascism.

At first Greenberg struggled with being known as a Jewish ballplayer, wanting instead to be known simply as a great player.

Eventually Greenberg's heritage became as strength as he realized that with every homer he struck, every game he won, every championship he captured, he also struck a blow against the stereotypes and garbage being spewed by the Hitlers, Fords, and Coughlins of the world -- much as Jesse Owens stuck a blow against Der Fuhrer's racial theories in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

But early in his career, Greenberg faced a difficult decision. It was 1934 and the Tigers were in the heat of a pennant race as September rolled around -- and along with it came the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

In secular parlance, these are the holiest days of the Jewish year -- though every rabbi will say that title belongs to the Sabbath. Traditionally Jews spend those days in synagogue praying during a period that is marked with reflection, repentance and reconciliation of sins committed throughout the previous year.

So Greenberg, who had long drifted from his parents' orthodoxy, was faced with a difficult choice: honor his faith or fulfill his commitment to his team.

There was no easy answer. There was no clearcut choice.

The topic was debated in papers throughout the country and Greenberg consulted rabbis, friends and his team.

Manager Mickey Cochrane told Greenberg that the issue was a personal matter that he must decide for himself. That Cochrane was a wise man.

Rabbis offered three rulings:

  • One allowed Greenberg to play on Rosh Hashanah, citing a passage from the Talmud that the holiday was happy day and children played in the streets of Jerusalem. Yom Kippur, though, was off limits.
  • The second allowed Greenberg to play on Rosh Hashanah on the condition that only Kosher food be sold and no Orthodox Jews attend the game.
  • The third said no rabbi was in position to tell Greenberg what he should do. This was a decision he had to make for himself.

It's not clear how much influence the rabbis had, but ultimately Greenberg struck his own compromise: He'd play on Rosh Hashanah, but not on Yom Kippur.

But it wasn't an easy compromise. He was not at all at peace with the decision.

"Finally I decided I would play," Greenberg recalled. "But I don't mind telling you I was upset mentally and at heart when I went into that game. Some divine influence must have caught hold of me that day."

Greenberg hit two homers on Rosh Hashanah and the Tigers beat the Red Sox, 2-1.

Ten days later was Yom Kippur, but by that time the Tigers had seized control of the American League. Greenberg missed the game and went to synagogue, where he received a standing ovation from the congregation.

The Tigers lost to the Yankees that day, 5-3.

The next day Greenberg returned and homered as the Tigers locked up the pennant.

And in the process, he won over his critics and inspired Edgar Guest to pen the poem, "Speaking of Greenberg:"

The Irish didn't like it when they heard of Greenberg's fame
For they thought a good first baseman should possess an Irish name;
And the Murphys and Mulrooneys said they never dreamed they'd see
A Jewish boy from Bronxville out where Casey used to be.
In the early days of April not a Dugan tipped his hat
Or prayed to see a "double" when Hank Greenberg came to bat.

In July the Irish wondered where he'd ever learned to play.
"He makes me think of Casey!" Old Man Murphy dared to say;
And with fifty-seven doubles and a score of homers made
The respect they had for Greenberg was being openly displayed.
But on the Jewish New Year when Hank Greenberg came to bat
And made two home runs off Pitcher Rhodes—they cheered like mad for that.

Came Yom Kippur—holy fast day world-wide over to the Jew—
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn't come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, "We shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat,
But he's true to his religion—and I honor him for that!"

Greenberg never faced the dilemma again in his career. He played in nine Rosh Hashanah games, going 11-for-33 with six homers and 13 RBI, and sat on seven Yom Kippurs, including Game 6 of the 1935 World Series, though he did have an injured wrist.

Greenberg, in the process, set an example for generations of Jews who followed, including Koufax, on how to balance faith and assimilation. That doesn't mean Jews no longer struggle with that balance. It's a constant battle with no right answers except that which feels right to the individual making it.

Greenberg also laid down the blueprint for staring down, overcoming and defeating those who would spew hate, racism and ignorance.

He was a great ballplayer who should not only be remembered for his accomplishments on the field, but for all he had to endure as well.


Tonight is the first night of Rosh Hashanah. To everyone celebrating: Shana Tovah -- Happy New Year.