Monday, July 6, 2015

Holiday Weekend Fireworks... and then Yankees Blew Up on Sunday


It's an old adage (are there any new adages?), quoted by everyone from Peanuts' Charlie Brown to M*A*S*H's Colonel Potter, that the team in 1st place on the 4th of July wins the Pennant.

This, of course, is a holdover from the days of single-division leagues. It's also baloney, as plenty of teams have famously blown leads later than the 4th of July. In the case most relevant to the Yankees, the 1978 Boston Red Sox. In the case most recently relevant to he Yankees, the 2011 Red Sox.

On Friday, the Yankees began a 3-game home series with the Tampa Bay Rays. And Masahiro Tanaka was mortal again, giving up 2 runs in the 1st inning and another in the 5th. And the way the Yankees had been hitting lately, Tanaka not pitching like the Tanaka of 2014 was a bad sign.

It was still 3-0 Rays as the Yankees came to bat in the bottom of the 8th. And when Brett Gardner led off by striking out, it looked bleak.

Then came back-to-back singles by Chase Headley and Alex Rodriguez. Up came Mark Teixeira, and BOOM! Teix Message! His 20th home run of the season, and we hadn't even hit July 4 yet. Tie ballgame.

Then Brian McCann and Garrett Jones drew back-to-back walks. Potential winning run on 2nd, insurance run on 1st, only 1 out. Things were looking good. But Chris Young grounded into a double play.

Did Gregorious led off the bottom of the 9th with a walk. Jose Pirela bunted him over. Winning run on 2nd, only 1 out. Then Gardner was walked intentionally to set up the double play, and Headley promptly grounded into it.

A-Rod led off the 10th with a walk. He got stranded. The Yankees got nothing in the 11th. And when the Rays touched them up for 2 runs in the top of the 12th, it looked bad.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If you're going to lose, do it in the regulation 9 innings, instead of making us sit through missed opportunities. Winning baseball > "free baseball."

But Gardner led off the bottom of the 12th with a walk. Headley struck out, But A-Rod singled him over to 3rd. Runner on 3rd, tying run on 1st, winning run at the plate, less than 2 out? The Yankees aren't going to blow this, are they?

Teix came through again, singling home Gardner. Next up was McCann. BOOM! First walkoff home run of the year for the Yankees! His 13th homer of the season.

Yankees 7, Rays 5. WP: Chasen Shreve (6-1), even though he was actually worse in relief of Adam Warren in the 12th than Warren was. No save. LP: Steve Geltz (1-4), not to be confused with early 1990s good-field-no-hit Phillies shortstop Steve Jeltz.

*

So the Yankees were in 1st place in the American League Eastern Division on the 4th of July, a sunny Saturday in New York. And were at home. As God intended it.

Well, not totally as God intended it. It wasn't the old Yankee Stadium, and only 35,508 people showed up, leaving about 14,000 empty seats.

Michael Pineda took the mound. Took the hill. Toed the rubber. I love baseball jargon.

"Big Mike" -- not to be confused with yours truly, I'd like to think I'm important but I'm hardly big -- pitched 7 innings, allowing 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks, with 10 strikeouts. That should have been enough to allow the Yankee batters to win the game.

And it looked like it was. This time, it was the Yankees who struck for 2 runs in the 1st inning. The 1st 4 batters of the game: Gardner singled, Headley singled, A-Rod singled home Gardner, Teix hit a sacrifice fly to score Headley.

But Joe Girardi's musical-chairs approach to bullpen management canceled out Pineda's brilliance. He brought in Justin Wilson to pitch the 8th, and Wilson struck out the 1st 2 batters he faced. Presuming that relieving Pineda in the first place was the right idea (I'm not so sure it was, but you can't argue with Wilson's results), the next right idea would have been to leave Wilson in.

Girardi didn't: He immediately brought in Dellin Betances for a 4-out save. At first, it worked: Betances got the last out in the 8th. But the 9th began with a James Loney single and a Steven Souza home run, and it was 2-2. Betances got the next 3 outs, including raising the Yankees' strikeout total on the day to 14. As Phil Rizzuto would have said, "But the damange is done. I tell ya, Murcer, it's unbelievable. Holy cow."

The specter of another extra-inning loss hung over the Yankees. But they refused to accept this. Teix doubled to lead off the bottom of the 9th. Young worked a walk to push the winning run to 2nd with nobody out.

The batter was rookie left field Ramon Flores. He tried to bunt the runners over, and hit a ground ball back to Rays reliever Brad Boxberger. Easy play, right? Wrong: Boxberger threw it away! Teix scored easily!

Yankees 3, Rays 2! WP: Betances (5-1) -- again, a winning pitcher who didn't really deserve it. No save. LP: Boxberger (4-4).

Back-to-back walkoffs over the Rays. Holiday fireworks on back-to-back days. I'm guessing Joe Maddon is glad to be managing the Chicago Cubs now, instead of the Rays, as he did from 2006 to 2014. (He might be the first man preferring to manage the Cubs over someone else.)

*

So after 81 games, half the season, the Yankees were 44-37. That averages out to 88 wins. Historically, 93 wins has been enough to win the AL East. As I've said before, I've looked it up, and from the formation of the Division in 1969 to today, despite the exact lineup of teams having changed (the Yankees, Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays have been the only constants), the team that finishes 2nd averages 92 wins. Therefore, to win the AL East, you need at least 93 wins. This isn't always the case -- the Yankees won the Division, Pennant and World Series in 2000 despite winning 87 games -- but it usually is.

Yesterday's game was essentially over before it began. Ivan Nova allowed 3 runs in the 1st 2 innings, and the Yankees just didn't hit. Throw in an 8th-inning implosion by reliever Brian Mitchell, and the final score made it look much worse than it was, but it didn't matter, because the Yankees just didn't hit:

* 1st inning: Bases loaded with 2 out, nothing.

* 2nd: 1st & 2nd with 2 out, nothing.

* 4th: Man on 1st with 1 out, double play.

* 6th: Home run by A-Rod, his 16th of the season, and nothing else.

* 7th: 1st & 2nd with 1 out, double play.

* 8th: Leadoff walk, nothing.

Rays 8, Yankees 1. WP: Erasmo Ramirez (8-3). No save. LP: Nova (1-2).

*

So, more than halfway through the season, 14 weeks out of 26 done, the AL East looks like this:

The Yankees are 44-38, and lead the Orioles by 1 game. The Rays and Jays are 2 back. The Red Sox, having an awful season, are 6 back -- 7 in the loss column, as the Yankees have 2 games in hand on them.

The Yankees have today off. Tomorrow night, they begin a 3-game home series against the Oakland Athletics. Here are the projected starting pitchers:

Tuesday, 7:05 PM: Nathan Eovaldi vs. Sonny Gray.

Wednesday, 7:05 PM: CC Sabathia vs. Scott Kazmir. Yes, the Scott Kazmir the Mets led go in one of their many, many boneheaded trades.

Thursday, 1:05 PM: Tanaka vs. Jesse Chavez.

*

In addition, the starters for the All-Star Game were announced. No Yankees made it for the AL. No Red Sox, either. This is the first time both have been blanked in a dog's age. Surely, more than the minimum one player per team will be named as reserves for each.

The Mets? They'll be lucky if Steve Matz is named.

As a designated hitter.

The game will be played a week from tomorrow night, at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. That's a National League park, which means there won't be a DH. Which means, if A-Rod makes it -- and why not, the guy is hitting -- it'll be as a pinch-hitter only. Somehow, I don't think Ned Yost, manager of the AL team since he's the manager of the defending Pennant winners, the Kansas City Royals, is going to put A-Rod in the field in the month that he turns 40.

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