Monday, May 19, 2014

Pirates' Raid In New York Yields Only 1 of 3

So the Pittsburgh Pirates -- a National League Central Division team, and thus not normally on the Yankee schedule -- came to town this weekend. The Friday night game was pushed back to Sunday, as part of a doubleheader.

Michael Pineda is out until June, CC Sabathia possibly until July, and Ivan Nova for at least the rest of this season due to Tommy John surgery; he might be out until next May. So the Yankees' starting rotation now consists of the spectacular young Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, the steady older Japanese pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, and whoever else we can find.

Not "Spahn and Sain and two days of rain," like the 1948 Boston Braves: 'Hiro and 'Roki and three days of lucky.

On Saturday afternoon, David Phelps (pictured above) was sent out to start, filling exactly no people with confidence. Surprise: Phelps was fine. Joe Girardi left him out there for only 5 innings, but he didn't allow a run, with 5 hits and 3 walks.

Dellin Betances may have to be to 2014 what Mariano Rivera was to 1996: The guy who picks up from sometimes-shaky starters and forms an amazing bridge to the closer. (Remember, in 1995 and '96, the closer was John Wetteland; Mariano didn't get that role until '97.) Betances allowed a run over his 2 innings, but at that point, the bats made sure it didn't matter. Adam Warren pitched a scoreless 8th, and Matt Daley pitched a perfect 9th.

As for those bats: Mark Teixeira took Edinson Volquez deep in the 1st, his 9th "Teix Message" of the season. His typical (for a Yankee 1st baseman, anyway) slow start is well over. In the 3rd, Zoilo Almonte,  newly called up in place of the injured Carlos Beltran, and Brett Gardner, not guys from whom you would expect power -- say it, John Sterling -- went "back-to-back-and-a-belly-to-belly!" Obviously, Almonte's 1st home run of the season, Gardner's 3rd.

That was all Phelps and the bullpen would need, but Alfonso Soriano added a dinger in the 7th, and Brian McCann one in the 8th. (In case, case, his 6th of the season.)

Yankees 7, Pirates 1. WP: Phelps (1-0). No Save. LP: Volquez (1-4).

*

Kuroda took the mound for the Sunday opener. He allowed a run in the top of the 1st, a home run by Neil Walker. But he then settled down, going 6 strong, allowing 3 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks.

The Yankees came right back in the bottom of the 1st. Gardner led off with a walk, Derek Jeter singled, and Pirate starter Charlie Morton hit Jacoby Ellsbury with a pitch to load the bases with nobody out. Teix singled home Gardner and Jeter. McCann singled home Ellsbury. 3-1 Yanks.

Kelly Johnson singled to lead off the 2nd. Almonte struck out, but his protection of the runner forced a throwing error from catcher Tony Sanchez -- filling in for our old friend Russell Martin, who is injured -- enabling Johnson to get all the way to 3rd. Not that the extra bases were necessary, as Gardner doubled, and Johnson probably would have scored from 1st anyway. 4-1 Yanks.

Again, the Yankees got the runs they needed early. The Bucs scored 2 in the 6th, but, between them, Daley and Matt Thornton in the 7th, Warren in the 8th, and David Robinson in the 9th stopped them.

Yankees 4, Pirates 3. WP: Kuroda (3-3). SV: Robertson (8). LP: Morton (0-6 -- no, that's not a typo: Zero wins and six losses. Though he didn't pitch badly yesterday, and was kind of undone by his backup catcher.)

*

With Vidal Nuno starting the nightcap, I expect it to not go so well. Don't blame him: He brought his A game, which is a C+ game by anyone else's standards, but was fine: 6 innings, 3 runs (only 2 earned), 6 hits, just 1 walk.

The Yankees took a 2-1 lead in the 2nd, then fell behind 3-2 in the top of the 6th as Nuno clearly tired. But Yangervis Solarte tied the game in the bottom of the 6th with his 5th homer of the season. Amazing: We thought 3rd base was going to be a big hole in the order with Ol' What's His Name suspended for the season, and whatever our problems, that position hasn't been one of them. On offense and defense, Yangervis provides service.

This time, however, for the first time in the series, and hopefully for the last time in any series, Girardi trusted Alfredo Aceves. Aceves was so good for us in the 2009 World Championship season, but now, he's had it. He allowed the go-ahead run in the 7th, and Thornton allowed another in the 9th. Girardi brought Preston Claiborne in to stop the bleeding, and he did all right as the last Yankee pitcher, but it was too late.

Pirates 5, Yankees 3. WP: Gerrit Cole. SV: Mark Melancon (the 6th of the season for the former Yankee -- and I'm not sure having him now, to set up for Robertson, would help much). LP: Aceves (0-2 -- let him go, Brian Cashman, he's not helping).

*

So here we are, with 7 of the season's 26 weeks gone, a little more than one-quarter of the season. How do things look in the American League Eastern Division?

The Yankees are 23-20, in 1st place by a slim margin. The Baltimore Orioles are half a game back, even in the loss column, 1 win behind us, as they have a game in hand: Were they to win it, they would be exactly tied with us. The Toronto Blue Jays are 1 back, 2 in the loss column. The Boston Red Sox are 3 back, and the Tampa Bay Rays 5 back, 6 in the loss column. (The Yanks and Sox have 2 games in hand on the Jays and Rays, and the O's have 3 games in hand on them.)

The elimination numbers that would give the Yankees the AL East title: The Rays 113, the Sox and Jays 117, the O's 121: Any number of Yankee wins and Oriole losses the rest of the way, adding up to 121, and the Yankees win the Division. If, the rest of the way, the Yankees take 2 out of 3 at home, and split on the road, that would give them 94 wins. That's usually enough to win the AL East, and would surely be enough to at least make the Playoffs.

Of course, that comes with some big ifs:

* If Tanaka can keep pitching like an ace, especially when teams face him a second or third time.
* If Kuroda, who's 39, can hold out for the rest of the season as a solid starter.
* If they can find 3 warm bodies to take the places of Pineda until June, CC until July, and Nova the rest of the way.
* If Pineda and CC do come back and can contribute in the 2nd half.
* If Robertson continues to do fine as the successor to Mariano.
* If Solarte continues to do fine as the successor to A-Rod.
* If Beltran comes back fine from injury.
* If Teixeira stays healthy and continues his power renaissance.
* If Jeter continues to play as though he's 36, rather than 40. (I suppose wanting him to play like he did in 2009, when he was 35 and playing like he was 27, is out of the question.)
* If nobody else suffers a long-term injury.
* If Girardi uses his eyes and his brain to manage, and not his dreaded binder.
* And If none of the other AL East teams catches lightning in a bottle and goes on a .600-or-better tear the rest of the way.

That's a lot of ifs. But you know what? There's only a 5-game difference, right now, between the 1st-place Yanks and the last-place Rays. Which means all the AL East teams have their share of ifs. Which means that it's anybody's Division -- including ours.

*

The Yankees are off today, a travel day. Tomorrow night, they begin a 9-game, every-day roadtrip: First, a run that may be (I'm not sure) unprecedented in baseball history, playing both Chicago teams away, first 2 against the Cubs, then 4 against the White Sox. Then they go down Interstate 55 to visit the St. Louis Cardinals.

The White Sox are 21-24, not looking good, and have had pathetic attendance, ranking 29th out of 30 in the major leagues, ahead of only fellow AL Central team Cleveland. The Cubs are even worse, 15-27. But the Cardinals are looking good at the moment, 23-21.

Stay tuned, my honorary nieces & nephews.

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