11 April 2007

Yankees First Week Full of Ups and Downs

It's been a rough week for the New York Yankees.

Only 3-3 after a win last night against Minnesota, the Bronx Bombers have bombed in a number of ways through their first six games.

Last Monday, while playing a rare Opening Day in New York, the Yankees were forced to start the disappointing Carl Pavano, who had not pitched in the majors in nearly two years. Pavano looked decent through the first four innings, but then things unravelled in the fifth. He surrendered four runs in that inning, including the first career homer of Tampa Bay super-phenom Elijah Dukes, in his first major league at-bat, no less, and could not get out of the inning. Fortunately for Pavano, he was let off the hook by the Yankees bullpen and offense, which provided 4.2 innings of scoreless relief and six more runs (including an 8th inning jack by Alex Rodriguez), and they won the game, 9-5.

After one of MLB's many inexplicable April off-days on Tuesday, and a rain-out on Wednesday, the Yankees and Devil Rays met again on Thursday. This time it was Andy Pettitte who could not get out of the 5th inning. First Carl Crawford reached base on an infield single to first base, which is only possible if the batter's really fast (Crawford is) and/or if the firstbaseman screws something up (he did). A bunt back to Pettitte by Ben Zobrist should have been an out, but he was credited with a single, and then Crawford went to third when Doug Mientkiewicz made an error. Replaced by Scott Proctor, Pettitte was on the hook for both runs, and Proctor, the Yanks' best reliever last year, seemed like the best choice to keep the game in hand. He struck out Johnny Gomes, and allowed a sacrifice fly to Ty Wigginton, which made it 4-3, with two outs, and things might not be so bad, right? Wrong. A wild pitch allowed Zobrist to score, tying the game, and then an error by supposedly Gold Glove shortstop Derek Jeter allowed Delmon Young to reach base. Only a great play by Posada managed to get the Yankees out of the inning when the overanxious Young tried to steal and was thrown out at second.

The rest of the game was not much better for the bullpen. Proctor allowed Dukes his second homer in as many games, then singles to 3B Akinori Iwamura and catcher Josh Paul, and LOOGy Mike Myers could not get his one out without allowing and RBI single to Crawford, who ended the inning getting thrown out trying to steal second base, after Zobrist grounded out to third. if not for the youthful recklessness of the Devil rays on the basepaths, the Yanks' day could have been much worse. As it was, they only lost 7-6, but a loss is a loss.

Friday night's game against Baltimore was no better, as this time Mike Mussina allowed six runs in four plus innings and took the loss, which dropped his record against his former team to 9-6 with a 4.51 ERA. Moose, who's become notorious for blaming everything and everyone but himself when he loses, owned up to his failure for once:

"It was just bad. I could say it was the cold, I could say it was the time off -- it was bad. It was a struggle from the very first pitch. I really didn't give us a chance. We count on our rotation a lot, and it's going to make or break our season. For most of the 80-some pitches I threw, I didn't know where the ball was going."

This much was apparent to Yankees manager Joe Torree, too, as Moose was relieved by Sean henn to start the 5th, though he had thrown only 84 pitches. Henn, for his part, was excellent, throwing three scoreless innings to keep the Yankees in the game, but the offense couldn't put anything together against the parade of mostly faceless Oriole pitchers. Mike Myers (two outs) and Scott Proctor (four) bounced back nicely from the rough game on Thursday, providing two more innings of nearly perfect relief, but the offense couldn't string enough hits and walks together to get closer than 6-4, where the game ended.

But then came Saturday...

With the Yankees' brandy-spanking new Japanese pitcher, Kei Igawa, taking the mount for his first major league start, and the perennial also-ran Orioles as the opponent, 50,000+ Yankee fans certainly hoped for big things as they made their way to the Stadium on an unseasonably cold April morning. Boston's far-eastern import, Daisuke Matsuzaka, had made his debut just two days before, and he fanned ten Kansas City Royals in seven innings, so naturally much (too much) was expected of Igawa on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately, he delivered little other than walks and gopherballs, frequently looking like he was afraid to even throw the ball as he paced about the mound and took his (and everyone else's) time delivering pitch after mediocre pitch. With him pitching the top halves of the innings and Steve "Cryogenically Frozen Molasses" Trachsel pitching the bottoms, it's a wonder they ever got to the fifth inning. When flame-throwing Brian Bruney relieved Igawa in the 6th, I figured at least his 98-mph chees would help speed things up, even if his routing on the mound was no quicker.

Trent Nelson, Director of the Advanced Scouting/Nepotism Department at Boy of Summer Industries, indicated that most of Igawa's fastballs topped out at a Jamie-Moyer-esque 87 mph, which is OK if you have a killer changeup and can locate your slider, but Igawa didn't and couldn't, so he got hammered. He ended his day by surrendering seven runs in five innings, including a homer by Nick Markakis in the first, a bases-loaded walk to tie the game in the second, a plunking of Corey Patterson in the third (not easy to do considering how small Patterson is) and a homer to Melvin Mora in the 4th. Igawa managed to get through the 5th without much trouble, but by then the damage was done, with the Orioles up, 7-3. A-Rod's 2-run jack in the first and Jorge Posada's RBI single in the third offerred little consolation on a day when yet another Yankee Starter could not get past the 5th inning.

After the game, Igawa would deny that he was nervous, or that the cold (39 deg F at gametime with a constant 10-15 mph wind) affected him, or that he was in any way less than healthy. Those of you who are paying attention realize that this almost leaves only one possibility for his ineffectiveness: He's no good. Of course, it's a little early for that, but somebody had to say it. For the record, Igawa also indicated that he had been notorious for starting slowly while in Japan, and that by the way, he's not Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Fortunately for Igawa and the rest of the Yankees, the bullpen appears to be very good this year, and they contributed four scoreless innings of relief to allow the vaunted Yankee offense to do its job. And that they did. Melky Cabrera's single ended Trachsel's day in the seventh, and after he walked (slowly) back to the dugout, LOOGy John Parrish got Robinson Cano to end the inning and strand Melky at first. With two All-Star right-handed batters coming up in Jeter and A-Rod, former Tampa closer Danys Baez was brought in to start the eighth. He got Jeter to fly out, and then appeared to hit Bobby Abreu oin the foot, but an appeal by Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo sent him back to the batter's box when it was ruled that he swung at the pitch. Nevertheless, Abreu worked a walk, and then so did A-Rod. With Jason Giambi coming up, a conference at the mound seemed a harbinger of a pitching change, but Perlozzo inexplicably left Baez in to face Giambi, and Giambi made them pay, homering on the second pitch he saw, and putting the game within one run for the hometown team. The Injured Johnny Damon pinch-hit for Miguel Cairo, who had been playing left field for The Injured Hideki Matsui, and got an emotional, standing ovation, but not much else. He struck out and Posada grounded out to end the threat.

With the game only one run down, Mariano Rivera came in to work the ninth inning, which I thought at the time was perhaps a sign that Torre was learning to use his best reliever in any close spot, not just with a lead. Alas, it turns out that they had warmed up Mo because he needed the work, and he was going to pitch the ninth regardless of the score. But a guy can dream, can't he? In any case, Mo mowed them down in the 9th, allowing only a bloop single by Markakis, but retiring the side. That set the stage for the ninth, which was looking bleak at first.

Speaking of bleak at first, Doug Mientkiewicz led off the ninth and lined out, followed by a strikeout by Cabrera. The Melk Man apparently does not deliver on Saturdays. Two outs already against Chris Ray, the Orioles best reliever, who had blown only five saves all of last year? No ray of hope was apparent, but then, Robinson Cano singled, and Jeter walked, and the Stadium was alive again. Bobby Abreu got hit by a pitch (for real, this time), which loaded the bases for Alex Rodriguez, the Goat of the Yankees failed 2006 season, so frequently criticized for failing in circumstances exactly like these. But A-Rod had hit 4/10 off Ray in his career, including a homer and two doubles, so he was not about to let this chance pass him by. Down to his last strike, Rodriguez crushed a 1-2 pitch to center field, clearing the bases, and giving the Yankees their most dramatic win in a long while, 10-7. A-Rod's two homers and six RBI got him the ovations that had mostly eluded him since his 2005 MVP season, and it was, appropriately enough, Derek Jeter who shoved him out of the dugout to take another tip his cap to the appreciative (if not warm) crowd.

Though A-Rod hit his 4th homer of the season Sunday, the Yankees lost the game 6-4 (and the three-game series), when Darrel Rasner did his best Carl Pavano impression, allowing 5 runs in 4.1 innings. But redemption was not far off. Pavano actually did an impressive imitation of a major league pitcher on Monday against the Twins, allowing only two runs in seven innings en route to his first major league win since May of 2005, and A-Rod's homer, his 5th this season, did not go to waste this time. Then Andy Pettitte came back on Tuesday, two days after a relief appearance for Rasner, to shut out the Twinkies for six innings. (I'm telling you, he needs to be a little tired for that sinker to work properly. He would be a perfect candidate for a four man rotation, if anybody ever tries it again.) Rodriguez homered again in the first inning, the fourth consecutive game in which he's gone yard, and the fifth homer in that span.

Look for the streak to contiinue tonight, as Ramon Ortiz starts for the Twins. A-Rod has hit 8 homers off Ortiz, the most off any active pitcher (tied with David Wells and Bartolo Colon...must be a fat guy thing). Similarly, those eight homers are the most Ortiz has allowed to anyone, two more than Carlos Delgado, though it took Delgado only 36 at-bats for those, and A-Rod needed 48. Mike Mussina will try to redeem himself from his lousy first outing, as Pettitte and Pavano did. He's been Cy Young against Minnesota over the course of his career, 20-5 with a 3.17 ERA in 201 innings. Having already outscored the Twins 18-3 in their first two games, the Yankees can look to sweep tonight, and thank the stars that they managed to miss Johan Santana this time through the Twin Cities.

In any case, it's been a week of sad depressions and ecstatic highs for the Yankees, but as Nuke LaLoosh would say,

"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes...it rains. Think about that for a while"

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