Saturday, April 7, 2012

An Un-Mo-tivating Opener



Not the way I wanted the Yankees to open the 2012 baseball season. And not just because it was in that redonkulous dome in St. Petersburg.

That game felt like a Yankees-Red Sox game, with all the early action, too many men left on base, lots of managerial maneuverings. At least when it’s the Yanks and the Red Sox, you get either Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, not Tropicana Field!

Historically, one of the clichés of baseball is that, at the start of the season, the hitters are ahead of the pitchers. That may have been the case yesterday, with the score being 6-5... after the 3rd inning.

First at-bat of the season, Derek Jeter singled for career hit Number 3,089. Wait, why am I still keeping track? He got Number 3,000 last season. Against this same team. But in a real ballpark. In a real city.

He didn't score. And then CC Sabathia did not have his good stuff in the bottom of the 1st. He began the game by walking Desmond Jennings. He got Ben Zobrist out, but then allowed a single to Eva Longoria. No, wait, that's "Evan" Longoria. (Notice I did not say, "Sorry." I am not sorry.) CC got the 2nd out, but that moved the runner over.

Then CC was ordered to intentionally walk Sean Rodriguez, to set up the inning-ending play at any base.

Big mistake: Carlos Pena knocked it out. Grand slam. 4-0 Tampa.

Couldn't start the season a whole lot worse.

But, it was only the 1st inning. Plenty of baseball to be played. (Wow, I think the Cliche Meter will be ringing off the hook today.)

Top of the 2nd: Alex Rodriguez doubles to lead off. Mark Teixeira is hit by a pitch. 1st and 2nd, nobody out. This is good. Nick Swisher grounded out, to move the runners over. 2nd and 3rd, 1 out. New acquisition Raul Ibanez grounded out, to score A-Rod and move Teix over. Man on 3rd, 2 out. Russell Martin drew a walk. Shields threw a wild pitch, scoring, Teix. Brett Gardner singled, moving Martin to 2nd. Jeter walked. Bases loaded.

Curtis Granderson struck out, leaving the bags juiced. Those runs would matter. Rays 4, Yanks 2.

Top of the 3rd. Robinson Cano leads off with a single to center. A-Rod also singles to center, sending Cano to 3rd. Teix pops up. Swish gets an RBI groundout. 1st and 2nd, 1 out. Ibanez hits his first Yankee home run, giving the Yankees a 6-4 lead.

That would be the Yankees' last run of the game. Martin grounded out. Gardner singled, Jeter grounded out, leaving a man on base.

CC gave up a home run to Longoria in the bottom of the 3rd, to make it 6-5. Other than that, he was pretty much fine through the 6th. Rafael Soriano pitched a good 7th. David Robertson got in trouble in the 8th, 1st and 3rd with nobody out, and struck out the side.

The Yankees left the bases loaded again in the 7th, and 2 on in the 8th. Total LOB: 12. Not that the Rays had helped themselves, they stranded 10.

Bottom of the 9th. Enter Sandman. Mariano Rivera with 1 inning to get 3 outs. As close to automatic as baseball history has ever seen.

One of the reasons why Mo might not be “the best relief pitcher of all time” is that failing on one batter sometimes causes him to become unraveled, as was the case with Damian Miller in 2001 and Kevin Millar in 2004. This tended not to happen to such previous Yankee relief greats as Joe Page, Luis Arroyo, Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage. True, Mo never lets a single loss carry over to his next appearance, but one batter, that, he has let bother him.

As with CC in the 1st, Mo let Desmond Jennings on, singling up the middle. And then Zobrist hit a triple to tie it up. Then -- again, as in the 1st inning -- manager Joe Girardi ordered an intentional walk, to Longoria. Then another, to Luke Scott. X-Qs-Me?

Then, Girardi makes another "chess move. He takes Swish out, and puts Eduardo Nunez -- who can't field -- in short right field, essentially making him a 5th infielder.

It was Yankee Legend Yogi Berra who said baseball isn't like football, that, "You can't make up no trick plays." He was wrong. You can. But that doesn't mean that, given this particular situation, you should.

Mo got Sean Rodriguez to strike out. But Pena hit the ball long enough to get the winning run home on a sacrifice fly, even if Gardner had been able to catch it, which he wasn't.

Final score: Rays 7, Yankees 6.

WP: Fernando Rodney (1-0). LP: Rivera (0-1).

I mentioned that this felt like a Yankees-Red Sox game. Yet, until the end, I never felt like the Yankees were going to lose it. But when Mo let Jennings on, I could hear Harrison Ford in my head: "I've got a bad feeling about this!"

*

Still, if I have to choose between winning the first game of the season or the home opener, I’ll choose winning the home opener every time.

Let’s not forget, the Yankees have had many seasons where they got off to a bad start and won anyway. 1998, 1-4, won 114 games and the World Series. It seems like every year starting in 2005, the Yankees have gotten off to bad starts and righted the ship, and except for 2008 made the Playoffs anyway.

I'm not worried about CC. Like Mo, like so many of the Yankees of the Joe Torre and Joe Girardi eras, is not one of these guys who's going to let one bad start bother him. He'll be fine.

The Rays' manager, Joe Maddon, also made some curious moves during the game. Both he and Girardi like to do this, much like Casey Stengel used to with the Yankees in the 1950s. I saw Bill Madden’s column in today’s Daily News, and he also invoked Stengel, and also Stengel's mentor, John McGraw. Both men were pioneers of lefty-righty platooning.

I am concerned that the Yankees may not have the kind of depth that Stengel’s teams, the Billy Martin era teams, or even Joe Torre’s teams, had. You might remember a criticism of the late ‘70s, early ‘80s Yankees, that Bobby Murcer’s place on the team at the end of his career was to symbolize the Yankees’ great depth.

As for Mariano: This may be one of those seasons, and it’s happened a couple of times before, where he blows 2 early on, then unhittable rest of the year. I can certainly live with that.

The series resumes tonight, David Price going for Tampa Bay, and Hiroki Kuroda, the highly-regarded righthander obtained from the Los Angeles Dodgers, makes his Yankee and American League debut, wearing Number 18.

Come on you Pinstripes!

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