YANKEES 7, BRAVES 4
TAMPA – There was a buzz amongst the 10,527 in attendance at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Sunday before Masahiro Tanaka even threw a pitch. Such is the anticipation for what the 2014 season holds for the 25-year-old Japanese right-hander.
He did not disappoint.
Facing a large portion of the Braves’ everyday lineup, Tanaka allowed one run on three hits and two walks while he fanned six in 4 1/3 innings in his his second start of the spring.
His mound opponent, Julio Teheran, was every bit as impressive, giving up a run on five hits and a walk while striking out five in four innings of work.
But the game actually turned on a key hit from former Braves catcher Brian McCann, who delivered a two-run double with one out in the fifth inning as part of a six-run rally that turned a 2-1 deficit into a 7-2 lead.
The Braves had just broken a 1-1 tie in the top of the fifth against Yankees left-hander Matt Thornton on an RBI single by B.J. Upton that scored Jason Heyward.
The Yankees started the pivotal fifth when Ichiro Suzuki and Eduardo Nunez drew back-to-back walks off left-hander Atahualpa Severino. One out later, McCann laced his game-winning double down the right-field line that scored Suzuki and Nunez.
The Yankees added runs on a wild pitch, an RBI single by Ramon Flores, a sacrifice fly by Mason Williams and an error by shortstop Andrelton Simmons as the Yankees brought 10 men to the plate in the frame.
Thornton (1-0) got credit for the victory despite having a shaky outing. Severino (1-2) took the loss, giving up five runs on three hits and two walks in a third of an inning.
The Yankees evened their spring training record to 9-9-2. The Braves fell to 7-12.
- The Braves hitters were raving about Tanaka’s devastating split-finger fastball after the game. “That split-finger he’s got, it’s a good pitch. It’s a swing-and-miss pitch,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman told reporters. It looks as if the Yankees’ $155 million commitment to Tanaka was a very wise move. Tanaka looks to be something very special.
- McCann is a Georgia native who spent nine seasons playing for the Braves. So it was an emotional day for him to visit with his former teammates. But his two-run double made the day complete. McCann originally was supposed to head to Panama this weekend for the Legends Series. But he was held back to work some more with Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda.
- Suzuki and Nunez did some serious table setting in this game. They combined to go 4-for-6 with a double, three singles, two walks, two runs scored and an RBI. Neither player will start this season but they could make a huge impact off the bench if they hit like they did on Sunday.
- I have not been impressed with the pitching of Thornton so far this spring. His ERA is a staggering 11.57 and lefties are hitting .750 off him. Ouch! If the Yankees had acquired Thornton in 2010 it would have been great. But he is 37 years old and his ERA in the past three seasons has ballooned from 3.32 in 2011 to 3. 46 in 2012 to 3.74 in 2013. That is not a good sign. This team will miss Boone Logan.
- Catcher Pete O’Brien should receive an endorsement deal from Carrier air conditioners. This spring he is 0-for-15 with nine strikeouts. He was 0-for-2 with a walk on Sunday and struck out twice. O’Brien, 23, played baseball at the University of Miami and was the team’s pick in the second round of the First-Year Player Draft in 2012. O’Brien hit .291 with 22 homers and 96 RBIs at two stops at Single A in 2013. He also struck out 134 times.
Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury was scratched from Sunday’s lineup due to tightness in his right calf. Ellsbury also will be held out of Monday’s game. The Yankees called the decision “precautionary.” Ellsbury, 30, said it was nothing serious but he did feel his calf tighten up on Saturday during a workout. . . . The Yankees optioned left-hander Manny Banuelos to Class-A Tampa on Sunday. General manager Brian Cashman said Banuelos, 23, will remain a starter. Banuelos was once considered the team’s No. 1 pitching prospect but he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012 and he missed the 2013 season. Banuelos hopes to get on track enough to earn his way to the major leagues this season. . . . There is still buzz that the Yankees are receiving offers for backup catcher Francisco Cervelli, who is out of options and is hitting .409 with three homers this spring. Cashman declined to comment. . . . Backup infielder Brendan Ryan (back stiffness) is beginning to hit off a tee and is getting closer to returning to action in a few days.
The Yankees will take to the road to Bradenton, FL, to play the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field on Monday.
Kuroda, coming off an outing in which he was tagged for six runs 10 hits last Wednesday, will try to get back on track for the Yankees.
The Pirates will start right-hander Stolmy Pimentel.
Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast on tape delay at 11 p.m. by the MLB Network.
ORIOLES 2, YANKEES (SS) 1
Jonathan Schoop scored pinch-runner Jemile Weeks on a sacrifice fly in the seventh inning to break a 1-1 tie as Baltimore edged a New York split squad on Saturday at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, FL.
Non-roster outfielder Delmon Young opened the seventh with a double of right-hander Mark Montgomery (0-1). Weeks pinch-ran for Young and stole third to set up Schoop’s scoring fly ball.
Korean right-hander Suk-min Yoon (1-0) pitched a scoreless inning of relief in his first major-league appearance to get credit for the victory. Evan Meek pitched the ninth inning to earn his second save of the spring.
With most of the Yankees’ best players either in Panama participating in the two-game Legends Series or resting at the team’s spring complex in Tampa, FL, the Yankees – who brought 13 players who were not on their 40-man roster or who were not invited to spring training – scored their lone run of the game on a leadoff homer in the sixth inning by Francisco Arcia off Orioles starter Chris Tillman.
Tillman had held the Yankees scoreless on two hits and two walks and struck out five in five innings before Arcia’s blast chased him from the game.
The Yankees, meanwhile, got four strong innings of shutout baseball from 26-year-old left-hander Vidal Nuno. Nuno yielded only a hit and a walk while he fanned three batters against an Orioles lineup that included starters Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, the Orioles tied the score with two out in the sixth when Davis launched his third home run of the spring off right-hander Danny Burawa.
The Yankees’ Grapefruit League record slipped to 8-8-2. The Orioles improved their record to 10-5.
- Nuno made a strong case for the fifth spot in the rotation with his effort on Saturday. Nuno threw 38 of his 59 pitches for strikes and only reached three-ball counts on three hitters. Nuno spotted his fastball well and mixed in his off-speed pitches more to keep the Orioles off-balance. Though Michael Pineda is expected to get the No. 5 spot, Nuno showed he deserves some consideration. His spring ERA is now down to 1.50.
- Brian Roberts was one of the few starters to make the trip and he had a great day against his former teammates. Roberts was 2-for-3 and he also contributed a fine defensive play in the sixth inning to rob Cruz of a single. Roberts, 36, may not be Robinson Cano but he is a fine second baseman as long as he can stay healthy.
- Ramon Flores was 2-for-3 on Saturday, including a double and single. Flores, 21, is hitting only .217 this spring but, after a season where he hit .260 with six homers and 55 RBIs in 136 games at Double-A Trenton, he will have a chance to develop this season at Triple A.
- It may be time for Ichiro Suzuki to admit that his days in baseball are waning. He was 0-for-3 on Saturday and he is 3-for-24 (.125) this spring with only three singles and two RBIs. He has not really stung the ball much this spring either. Though the Yankees might be open to trade Suzuki, it is hard to see if there would be any suitors for his services. Suzuki is in the final year of two-year contract with the Yankees and he is slated to be the fifth outfielder this season.
- After getting off to a quick start with the bat this spring, Austin Romine has been slumping of late. Romine, 25, batted cleanup and was 0-for-2 with a walk on Saturday. He is 5-for-25 (.200) with no RBIs in 11 games. Though Romine is a superior defensive catcher, his weak bat makes it almost certain that Francisco Cervelli will win the backup catching job. Romine likely will be sent to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
- Burawa learned a valuable pitching lesson on Saturday. With two out in the sixth, Davis came up the plate for his last at-bat with his team trailing 1-0. Obviously Davis was thinking about hitting a home run to tie it. Burawa, 25, opted to pitch aggressively to Davis instead of making him hit pitches out of the strike zone. His 1-1 fastball was thigh high and Davis drove it deep to left-center and over the wall. If he had walked Davis, Burawa would then have pitched to Steve Pearce, a journeyman who had four homers last season. Davis hit 53. Duh!
The Yankees split squad returns to George M. Steinbrenner Field on Sunday to play host to the Atlanta Braves.
Free-agent right-hander Masahiro Tanaka will make his second start of the spring for the Yankees. Catcher Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira are also scheduled to play in the game.
McCann’s former team will start right-hander Julio Teheran. Brothers Justin and B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons are scheduled to make the trip for the Braves.
Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast by the YES Network and MLB Radio through WFAN (660-AM/99.1-FM).
The New York Yankees open defense of their American League East championship on Monday against the Boston Red Sox with pundits and even their own fans criticizing them for their many injuries and their reluctance over the past few years for opening their wallets to get quality young players. I will try to examine how I believe the division race stacks up and predict how it might go. You may be surprised by my conclusion.
REAL LIFE GAME OF THRONES
If you are a fan of HBO’s series “Game of Thrones” you might notice that the American League East is a lot like the many kingdoms in the show.
The Yankees, with their money and dominance, are a lot like the Lannisters. The Boston Red Sox are a lot like the Starks, highly principled and loyal folk who fight the good fight only to suffer myriad indignities and failures. Of course, you also have those teams like the Toronto Blue Jays, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Baltimore Orioles who also are swirling around the periphery of Kings Landing believing they have a rightful claim to wear the crown.
The 2013 season will play out a lot like the television series and I can tell you why I believe that.
A DOMINANT KING
Since 1995 the Yankees have only missed the American League playoffs once (in 2008) and they have won the division championship in 16 of the past 17 seasons. If that is not dominance than what is? Like the Lannisters, the Steinbrenner family has lavished riches of the kingdom on the best knights to defend the realm and their loyal subjects have been a fairly happy lot for the most part.
But their knights have grown old and their battle wounds have been severe. Some are ready for the fight in 2013 but others are not. Their apparent weakness has given their rivals confidence they take the crown away and you saw that play out this spring.
THE KING NORTH OF THE WALL
The Blue Jays had a legendary team in the early 1990s and they won two world championships during that period. But since then they have fallen into a barren abyss of failure. But their general manager Alex Anthropoulos engineered a winter campaign to load his roster with the best players the Miami Marlins and New York Mets could offer him.
They boast a starting lineup with the speedy Jose Reyes and a line-drive hitting machine in Melky Cabrera to add to their long-ball threats Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They also pried away National League Cy Young Award-winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets to add to right-hander Josh Johnson and left-hander Mark Buerhle from the Marlins to form a strong rotation with their own holdover Brandon Morrow.
The kings of North think they now have a team that storm the wall protecting the kingdoms that lie s to the south such as Kings Landing in 2013.
But there are some warning signs that could give them pause before they are able to proclaim victory.
One is the Blue Jays’ bullpen. I was listening to their broadcasters this spring lamenting about how weak this group appears to be.
Closer Casey Janssen is coming off shoulder surgery and they HOPE he will available for Opening Day. Behind him is failed closer Sergio Santos and his awful 7.88 spring ERA and Esmil Rogers and his 6.39 ERA.
Of all the teams in the A.L. East, this bullpen projects to be the worst in the division, especially if Janssen is unable to capture lightning in a bottle and return as the closer he was last season when he saved 22 of 25 games. The Blue Jays may have to cover there bullpen weakness by asking their starters to go longer than they should.
That tends to weaken the starters and it also could be discouraging when the offense builds a 6-1 lead after six innings and they end up losing the game 7-6. That will get mighty old for the Rogers Centre faithful this summer.
The offense has its own issues.
Third baseman Brett Lawrie plays the game all out and he also tends to get hurt a lot. He enters the season banged up and there are questions about how good centerfielder Colby Rasmus, catcher J.P. Arencibia and designated hitter Adam Lind really are. They have yet to establish themselves as quality major-league players.
There also is a major questions about whether Reyes, whose talents in the past have been held back by leg issues, will be able to play a full season on the hard artificial surface of Rogers Centre without issues at age 29.
So instead of automatically installing them as the kings of this division, you may want to look deeper into these drawbacks. Teams do not win championships on paper. Just ask the 2012 Marlins.
THE LORDS OF BALTIMORE
The Orioles remind me of the twisted and tortured King Stannis, who attacked Kings Landing in season two of the “Game of Thrones” only to be turned back at the gates by the eldest of the Lannisters and his men just as if seemed they were winning.
Stannis had a magical sorceress behind him convincing him that he could win the battle, but he failed in the end. She later told him he still could prevail even as he was licking his wounds in defeat. Manager Buck Showalter is much like this sorceress. His skill of masking weaknesses and enhancing strengths of a ballclub made the Orioles seem much stronger than they appeared to be in 2012.
They won such a ridiculous amount of one-run and extra-inning games that they qualified for the playoffs as a wild card only to be dispatched in Game 5 of the American League Division Series by the CC of Sabathia. They were at the gates of the kingdom of The Bronx only to be turned away by their elders, Prince Derek Jeter and the eldest of Lannisters, Raul of of the House Ibanez.
Showalter still believes his charges can storm the gates of the castle and take the throne in 2013. But, unlike most teams in this division, he did not add much of anything to this team. He is largely counting on the same black magic of 2012, which rarely happens.
Those one-run victories in 2012 can easily turn into one-run losses in 2013. Those extra-inning miracles can become extra-inning nightmares a year later.
Their rotation of Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Jake Arrieta really scares no one. Nobody is going to get up out of bed at the hotel and say “Oh no, we have no chance of winning because Arrieta is pitching tonight!”
The bullpen with closer Jim Johnson is solid but hardly merits superlatives.
The team largely returns the same cast in 2012 minus Mark Reynolds and with the return of second baseman Brian Roberts, who has not played a full season in the majors since 2009.
Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are marvelous talents and Nick Markakis is healthy after missing the stretch run. But I have to wonder if all the magic Showalter spun in 2012 really will return in 2013. Teams like this usually fall back to the pack and that is what I see for the Birds.
DRAGONS AT THE PORT CITY
The Tampa Bay Rays remind of the Targaryens, who once sat upon the throne in 2008 when they faced the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series but have been unable to mount the offensive to get back there.
They have been trapped wandering in a hot climate in Florida and they have been restricted by the lack of soldiers and a lack of money to really win it all.
One year they lose Carl Crawford and Matt Garza. Another year they lose B.J. Upton and James Shields. They try to compensate with their own farm system because they lack money to compete with the Lannisters or the Starks of this division.
They only have the fire of their small but growing dragons who someday might destroy the mightier armies they have to face. For now, it appears the dragons are way too small and too inexperienced to go the entire distance.
The Rays rely on a pitching staff led by the American League Cy Young Award-winner David Price. How ironic that a team that has to pinch its pennies would be beholden to man named Price.
Behind him on promising youngsters like Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb. But there are problems here.
Hellickson spent most of the spring throwing much less than fire at opposing batters. He was rocked often and ended up with a 6.75 ERA. Moore did not fare much better. His velocity was way off and his command was even worse. He finished the spring much better but his once-high promise has faded some.
The Rays have to rely on these pitchers and their bullpen led by reclamation project Fernando Rodney and his 48 saves because the offense leaves a lot to be desired.
Without Upton, the Rays will have to rely on Evan Longoria even more for power. Longoria himself has a problem staying healthy and, if he is missing for any portion of the season, the Rays can kiss their hopes bye-bye.
They have a semblance of an offense with Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings and new shortstop Yunel Escobar. But they also are starting guys like Matt Joyce and Luke Scott, who have not proven they can establish careers for themselves and help a team win.
They also are still counting on Jose Molina to do a bulk of the catching at age 37.
The Targaryens in the television series did not have enough money to purchase the ships to ford the sea leading back to Kings Landing. That kind of jives with the subjects who live in Tampa, FL, who are unwilling to lay down their riches or mount their horses to ford the bridge that leads to the Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
The low attendance puts even more stringent strains on the team’s coffers to keep players like Price in the kingdom for their entire careers.
The Rays, with their young dragons, should remain afloat long enough to mount a serious challenge to take the throne. But the rich Lannisters in the Bronx still have the wisdom and wherewithal to stem the tide. Like in the series, men do not blindly follow the bravest warriors but remain loyal to the men with the gold.
The gold remains in the Bronx.
THE STARKS OF BOSTON
In Season Two of “Game of Thrones” the elder Stark loses his head, the eldest daughter is enslaved to the Lannister king, the youngest daughter is lost in the hinterlands, the two youngest boys have their home burned while the man’s widow and the eldest son plot to overthrow and vanquish the Lanisters to avenge the patriarch’s death.
That pretty much wraps up the Red Sox of 2012. Winterfell befell Landsdowne.
Their king (Bobby Valentine) had his head lopped off and served to the media, they abandoned their home fans and cast adrift a lot of their high-priced talent in order to restock and rebuild to defeat their arch-enemy in the rich Bronx. It was indeed a completely lost season for the Red Sox and the Starks.
They hold out hope that a new manager (Jon Farrell) and a team built around Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury will help get them back to the promised land they have failed to reach since 2007. In fact, they have failed to make the playoffs in the last three seasons.
They want left-hander Jon Lester and right-hander Clay Buccholz to pitch better while young Felix Doubront develops and they pray retreads Ryan Dempster and John Lackey (all kingdoms must have their lackeys) have something left. The problem is that this was the division’s worst pitching staff in 2012 and no swordsmanship will make it much better in 2013.
The bullpen has undergone a two purges since Jonathan Papelbon rode off for the riches of the Phillies. They are now hoping a Pirate can plug the leaks in the hull of the bullpen. Joel Hanrahan has come over from Pittsburgh to be the closer while former closer Andrew Bailey and lost child Daniel Bard try to figure out what happened to their talent.
Bailey is the team’s setup man while the Bard (in true Shakespearean fashion) has been cast into the dungeons of the minor leagues. For shame, for shame!
It also appears that the kingdom’s version of Hodor, David Ortiz, is finally showing signs that those seasons of carrying excess weight have a price. He has a bad heel and he can’t even trot, let alone run. Without Ortiz, most of the power and production will fall upon first baseman Mike Napoli.
There are lots of weaknesses everywhere, including shortstop (Stephen Drew, really?) and catcher, where Jarrod Saltalamacchia hits home runs in small bunches and strikes out in major droves.
Though young outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. promises to give the Fenway faithful something to cheer about when the team is dredging the bottom depths of the division, the ponderous weight of the anchor of this foundering team will keep them from even getting a whiff of the roses near the Iron Throne.
THE RICHES OF KINGS LANDING
The Evil Empire in the Bronx has paid its knights Alex Rodriguez, Jeter, Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Mark Teixeira handsomely over the years. Along with the reward of titles and championships, the team has also fallen short of its goals of late due to injury and the age of these players.
It actually started last season when spring injuries to Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain was just a mere hint of what 2012 would bring. Rodriguez missed time, CC pitched with a sore elbow, Pettitte was lost for a time, Jeter hobbled until he broke in the playoffs,
Speedy outfielder Brett Gardner played in only 18 games.
So why should 2013 be any different?
The rich Lannisters are already missing Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones because payroll concerns were such they were ordered to cut back on their excesses.
Injuries to Teixera, Curtis Granderson, Phil Hughes and a slow recovery by Jeter this spring heightened the concerns of fans who have loyally followed this team over the years. The town criers, the scribes and pundits all denounced this team and said it was dead. They would not win the title in 2013.
They may even finish last.
But an odd thing happened on Friday. The team that was battered all spring played a Washington Nationals team that many say will win the world championship in 2013 fell to the Yankees. Oh, it was just an exhibition game. I know it did not count.
But what you saw in the Yankees was a semblance of a very good team. Pettitte pitched well and the bullpen proved to be as strong as ever.
The major surprise was the offense with Robinson Cano, Kevin Youkilis, Eduardo Nunez and Vernon Wells seemed to respond and it all seemed to come together in one cohesive package.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said earlier this spring that he fails to believe that the Yankees will be bad in 2013. He said he thinks they will be as difficult to beat as they always have been. I agree.
You see injuries do heal. The Yankees will get Jeter, Hughes, Granderson and Teixeira back at some point this season. They also might get Rodriguez back.
They are a team that has always gotten off to slow starts and got better as the season moved along. I see the same scenario this season.
The pitching with Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte, Hughes, Ivan Nova and David Phelps is deep. They have Rivera in the bullpen for one last season and David Robertson, Chamberlain and Boone Logan form a strong setup group for the King of Closing.
The offense features the two best singles hitters of their generation in Ichiro Suzuki and Jeter along with the speedy Gardner. Cano, who is due to become a very rich free agent signing after the 2013 season, is poised for breakout season of offense and defense. He could very well win the Most Valuable Player award this season.
Youkilis looks like the Youkilis of 2007, when he led the rival Red Sox to their last championship. You add Granderson and Teixera to that and you have a good offense to go along with strong pitching.
The “new guys” Wells, Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco and Travis Hafner will have pressure on them to keep the team afloat until the stars come back. They might fail but they can’t be any worse than last season’s Yankees that failed to hit with runners in scoring position.
It also behooves manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman that the Yankees are looked upon as dead meat awaiting a fork to be thrust into them. Perhaps lower expectations is a good thing for the Yankees after always being the team expected to win.
Girardi has a chance to really manage this season and Cashman has staked his reputation by finding these veteran pieces to fill in while the wounded heal in the tent.
That is why I truly believe that some how, some way the Yankees, the rich Lannisters of the Bronx, will have just enough to win this division again.
They may stumble in the playoffs. That is almost as much expected by their fans. But I do see victory here.
- BLUE JAYS
- RED SOX
For fans of the show “King of Thrones” I must add a note that Season Three premieres tonight at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO. If you liked this analogy to the A.L. East please pause a moment miladies and milords to send me a raven.
YANKEES 6, RAYS 4
Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon out of necessity to cover for his team’s weak offense employs a combination of aggressive base-running, bunts and forces the opposition into making mistakes. There also is an old axiom of sports if that a team loves to employ a certain strategy they really hate it when you turn the tables on them.
The Yankees did just that on Sunday by frustrating the Rays with four stolen bases, two sacrifice bunts and they forced two errors as New York played a little “small ball” to send Tampa Bay out of Yankee Stadium with a series loss and pushed them a game further back in the pennant chase.
The Yankees batted around and scored five runs in the bottom of the third inning to send left-hander Matt Moore (10-11) to the showers early using two walks, two stolen bases, a sacrifice bunt, a wild pitch and finally a good old-fashioned home run to put the Rays in a deep hole early.
Eduardo Nunez sparked the uprising by drawing a leadoff walk and stealing second base after Moore had made four attempted pickoffs. Derek Jeter followed with a single into center in which center-fielder B.j. Upton’s throw was off-line, allowing Nunez to score and Jeter to take second.
Nick Swisher, on his own, laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Jeter to third and Alex Rodriguez singled up the middle through a drawn-in infield to score Jeter.
Moore compounded his misery by throwing a pitch in the dirt to Robinson Cano that got past catcher Jose Lobaton and allowed Rodriguez to take second. Rodriguez amped up the pressure by stealing third base and a frustrated Moore walked Cano on four pitches.
Moore then had Russell Martin down 0-2 in the count but Martin battled back to a 3-2 count before he slapped a four-seam fastball to the opposite field and it landed out of the reach of right-fielder Sam Fuld and into the first row of the bleachers in the short porch in right-field for Martin’s 17th home run of the season.
The damage left Moore pitched out, having thrown 45 pitches in the inning. It also gave Hiroki Kuroda (14-10) a nice cushion to work with.
Kuroda came out blazing against the Rays, striking out the side in the first two innings.
But Ben Zobrist nicked him for a solo home run to lead off the fourth inning. From there Kuroda sailed through the Rays’ lineup until the sixth inning.
The Yankees then used an error, two stolen bases, a walk and sacrifice fly to score an unearned run in their half of the fourth.
Nunez reached first after reliever Brandon Gomes misplayed his comebacker to the mound. Nunez then stole second and third base. Jeter walked and, one out later Rodriguez launched a sacrifice fly to the warning track in right-field to score Nunez.
Kuroda, meanwhile, was pitching a gem through five innings, having given up just the one run on two hits and he had walked no one and struck out nine. But he stumbled in the sixth.
The 37-year-old right-hander walked Lobaton to open the frame and Desmond Jennings followed with an infield single. Kuroda then walked Zobrist to load the bases.
Evan Longoria then hit a potential double-play grounder to Rodriguez at third but the ball took a big hop over his glove and two runs scored on the single as Zobrist raced to third.
Matt Joyce followed with an actual double-play grounder to score Zobrist, which drew the Rays to within two runs.
However, the Yankees bullpen shut the Rays down over the next three innings with rookie David Phelps striking out Jennings looking with runners at first and second and two out in the seventh to preserve the lead.
David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth and Rafael Soriano came in to toss a scoreless ninth to pick up his 40th save in 43 chances this season.
How frustrating was the loss for the Rays? They drew two ejections.
Maddon was ejected from the game in the third inning after home-plate umpire Paul Emmel chose to warn both teams after Moore had thrown a pitch that buzzed over the head of Curtis Granderson two batters after Martin’s home run. When Maddon questioned Emmel’s warning he got the heave-ho.
Joyce was tossed from the game by Emmel after he struck out looking on a Robertson curveball to end the eighth inning.
With the victory the Yankees improved their season ledger to 83-62 and they also maintained their one-game lead in the American League East over the second-place Baltimore Orioles. The Rays are now 78-68. They are five games in back of the Yankees in the division and trail in the wild-card standings by four games.
- Nunez has brought back the one element the Yankees have been lacking all season: Speed on the bases. Nunez stole three bases in the game, which gives him 10 on the season. He is second on the team and he trails Rodriguez by three despite the fact he has been at Triple-A most of the season. Nunez is also hitting .294, which means he might be a more viable option as a right-handed DH then a slumping Andruw Jones.
- Martin’s home run is part of a huge resurgence for him since Aug. 21. Martin is 19-for-67 (.283) in that span with four home runs and 14 RBIs. That has finally raised Martin’s season average over the “Mendoza line’ and he is now hitting .209. All Yankee fans can say to him is “It is about time, Russell.”
- Kuroda’s line did not indicate just how well he pitched despite the sixth inning. He did give up four runs in six innings but Kuroda ended up giving up just four hits and two walks while he struck out 10. Unfortunately for him, both of those two walks ended up scoring. The bottom line is Kuroda is the true ace of the staff at this point of the season.
I have been hoping for a game like this where there was some “small ball” mixed in with some long-ball. It was, for the most part, a well-pitched game and the Yankees were able to keep their lead in the division with the toughest part of their schedule now behind him. Nothing to criticize about that.
The Yankees will get a day to rest their bumps and bruises before resuming their homestand on Tuesday starting a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The atmosphere will be electric as left-hander Andy Pettitte (3-3, 3.22 ERA) will make his first start since he went on the disabled list on June 27 with a fractured left ankle. Pettitte will be limited to about 70 pitches. Over the past 10 years, Pettitte is 12-9 with a 4.84 ERA against the Blue Jays.
Left-hander Ricky Romero (8-14, 8.57 ERA) will start for the Jays. Romero is in the midst of a 13-game losing streak, which ties him with the franchise record for futility. He is 3-7 with a 5.00 ERA lifetime against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by MY9.
YANKEES 4, RAYS 1
Through the first third of the season the Yankees have not gotten much consistency from 25-year-old right-hander Ivan Nova, who entered Wednesday’s contest against the Rays with a 5.60 ERA.
Perhaps Nova finally found his groove or the Rays’ offense is in a severe deep freeze. Whatever the reason, Nova looked dominant and he had the Rays in control on the Yankee Stadium mound.
Nova pitched eight-plus innings and just missed pitching a complete-game shutout as New York downed Tampa Bay for the second night in a row and they now have won 10 of their last 13 games.
Nova (7-2) gave up a single to Desmond Jennings to start the game and he did not allow another hit until Sean Rodriguez stroked a one-out double in the eighth inning. In the ninth, Jennings and B.J. Upton hit back-to-back triples to spoil the shutout and end Nova’s evening.
It was the Rays’ first run of the series and their first score in their last 19 innings.
Nova gave up just the four hits, walked one, hit a batter and struck out five to win his third straight start. He faced the minimum in five of his eight innings of work and at one point he retired 13 straight batters.
Rafael Soriano entered the game in the ninth with Upton on third and no outs and he retired Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and Hideki Matsui in order to collect his eighth save in eight opportunities.
Meanwhile, Nova received all the support he really needed on a pair of solo home runs.
With one out in the second inning, Mark Teixeira smacked a 0-1 hanging slider from right-hander Alex Cobb into the second deck in right-field for his 10th home run of the season and his fifth in his last 11 games.
Two innings later, Robinson Cano connected off Cobb (2-2) on 2-0 fastball and he lined a rope into the first row of seats over the auxiliary scoreboard in right-center for his ninth home run of the season. It was his fifth home run in his last 13 games.
Those two home runs were only two hits the Yankees managed off Cobb until the bottom of the eighth.
Raul Ibanez led off the inning with a single into right. With Dewayne Wise pinch-running for Ibanez at first, Nick Swisher laced a double down the right-field line that scored Wise easily. Eric Chavez followed with a double off the wall in left-center that scored Swisher to give the Yankees a 4-0 lead.
Cobb left having given up four runs on five hits and one walk and he struck out four in seven-plus innings.
With the victory, the Yankees pulled into second place in the American League East with a 31-24 record, a half-game behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Rays’ season record is 31-25 and they fell into third place in the division.
- Nova was at his absolute best on Wednesday. He retired 13 of his 24 outs on ground balls and threw 69 of his 103 pitches for strikes (67 percent). Nova also has run his career record against the Rays to 4-0 and he is 2-0 against them this season. Nova’s effort lowered his season ERA to 5.09.
- Soriano came to the rescue in the ninth with one run in and a runner on third with nobody out. But he induced Joyce to pop out in foul territory, he fanned Zobrist on a pitch in the dirt and Matsui’s high fly ball to right died at the warning track. Soriano remains perfect in save situations and he lowered his ERA to 1.90. Soriano also has not been scored upon since the Rays scored a run off of him on May 10 at Yankee Stadium, a string of 10 consecutive scoreless outings.
- Teixeira’s return to driving the ball has led to a recent flurry in which he is 14-for-42 (.333) with five home runs and 12 RBIs over his last 11 games. In that span he has raised his season average from .226 to .249.
- Despite being hit on the left forearm in Tuesday’s game, Cano was able to play Wednesday and homered. Cano had been in tailspin that had dropped his season average to .286 but he now has a modest four-game hitting streak and he is 5-for-14 (.357) during that span.
- The Yankees had a hard time mustering much offense against Cobb, a rookie right-hander. Part of the problem is that Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson were 0-for-7 against Cobb at the top of the lineup. They were 0-for-8 overall and they only managed to get one ball out of the infield.
- After showing signs of coming out of his season-long funk on Tuesday with a three hits, including a grand-slam home run, Russell Martin was 0-for-3 with a strikeout on Wednesday. That lowered his batting average back to .206.
- Alex Rodriguez committed a stupid base-running play in the fourth inning. He drew a walk from Cobb with one out and Cobb’s second pitch to Cano bounced under the glove of catcher Jose Molina. However, Molina was able to retrieve it with Rodriguez halfway between first and second base. Rodriguez tried to get back to first but Molina gunned him down easily. Cano homered on the next pitch and Rodriguez’s mistake cost the Yankees a run.
Closer Mariano Rivera learned the issue with a blood clot in his right calf has been resolved and he is scheduled to undergo surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn meniscus in his right knee next Tuesday in New York. Rivera, 42, said he hopes to be able to pitch in 2013. . . . All-Star setup man David Robertson will throw a bullpen session on Thursday at Yankee Stadium and he could possibly pitch in a minor-league game on Sunday. Robertson has been on the 15-day disabled list since May 14 with a strained left oblique. . . . Brett Gardner will play for Class A Advanced Tampa on Thursday and he could be activated as soon as Sunday. Gardner has been on the disabled list since April 18 with a strained right elbow.
The Yankees will be looking for a clean sweep of their three-game home series against the Rays on Thursday.
They will call upon ace left-hander CC Sabathia (7-2, 3.68 ERA) to get that sweep. Sabathia gave up three runs on eight hits and two walks and fanned five batters in eight innings of work last Friday in a victory over the Tigers. Sabathia is 10-7 with a 3.11 ERA in his career against the Rays.
The Rays are countering with left-hander David Price (7-3, 2.44 ERA). Price struck five in 7 1/3 innings last Friday while giving up four hits and two walks in a victory over the Orioles. Price is 5-3 with 4.15 ERA in his career against the Yankees but one of those losses was this season and Sabathia outpitched him in that game.
Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.
YANKEES 7, RAYS 0
Michelangelo is generally considered the greatest artist of all-time and the Sistine Chapel is living testimony to that greatness. But I truly doubt that Michelangelo could have painted the corners of the strike zone any better than Andy Pettitte did on Tuesday night.
Home plate at Yankee Stadium was Pettitte’s canvas as he craftily dotted a corner here and skillfully used some heavy brushstrokes there on the Rays in 7 1/3 innings of two-hit, no-run baseball and he struck out 10 batters as New York ended up hanging a masterpiece on Tampa Bay.
The 39-year-old left-hander was truly the “Grand Master” as he took command of the game from the opening pitch all the way to his strikeout of Luke Scott to open the eighth inning that ended his night. Pettitte (3-2) gave up only two singles and two walks and no base-runner got past second base as he thoroughly dominated the Rays with his arsenal of cutters, curves, sliders and fastballs.
Meanwhile, struggling catcher Russell Martin broke out of a season-long funk to collect three hits, including a one-out, grand-slam homer off Rays starter James Shields (6-4) in the fourth inning that gave the Yankees a 6-0 lead.
Shields was undone by a combination of sloppy Rays play and Martin’s well-timed home run.
The Yankees scored two unearned runs off Shields in the first inning aided by a wild pitch, a missed double play and a critical two-out error.
With one out Curtis Granderson singled to right and Shields tossed a wild pitch that advanced him to second. He then walked Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano slapped a one-hopper that bounced off Shields’ glove for a double-play ball that became a single.
In keeping with the Yankees’ 2012 tradition of bases-loaded futility, Mark Teixeira struck out looking and Raul Ibanez dribbled a routine ground ball to shortstop Elliot Johnson. However, Johnson short-armed the throw and the ball bounced off first baseman Carlos Pena’s glove and Granderson and Rodriguez scored.
Then in the fourth, Ibanez drew a one-out walk, Nick Swisher singled sharply to right and Eric Chavez was walked on four pitches.
Martin then stepped the plate after having singled in the second inning to bring his batting average to .200 for the first time since May 5. Down 0-2 in the count, Martin actually swung at a high and outside fastball and he drilled it to the opposite field into the right-field bleachers.
The Yankees added a run in the fifth inning on a one-out double off the right-field wall by Swisher to score Cano, who had led off with a double..
Shields, who has lost three of his last four starts and has an ERA of 5.92 in that span, gave up seven runs (five earned) on seven hits and four walks and struck out two in just five innings. In his three starts against the Yankees this season, Shields is 0-2 with a 7.88 ERA.
However, this chilly evening in the Bronx belonged to Pettitte. He threw 103 pitches and 70 were strikes for a percentage of 68 percent. He has won three of his four starts at Yankee Stadium this season and his effort tonight drew the Yankees to within a half-game of the Rays and Orioles, who are tied for first place in the American League East.
The Yankees boosted their season record to 30-24. The Rays fell to 31-24.
- Pettitte’s 10 strikeouts were the most he has recorded in a game since 2003. But that really does not tell you just how dominant he was on Tuesday. In one stretch he struck out five Rays batters in a row. The only hits he gave up were a leadoff single to B.J. Upton in the fourth inning and a one-out single by Pena in the fifth. Pettitte lowered his ERA to 2.78, which is the best of all the Yankee starters. It was the 243rd victory of his career.
- Martin’s grand slam was his fifth home run of the season and it was his fourth career grand slam. Martin’s 3-for-4 night raised his batting average to .211 on the season. He has gotten at least one hit in six of his last seven games and he is 9-for-23 (.391) during that span. The Yankees hope his season-long slump is finally over.
- Cano was 2-for-3 with a single and a double. He entered the game in a 4-for-26 slump (.154).
I am not going to dwell on any negatives in a night the Yankees needed to win to move up in the division. Pettitte was spectacular and the Yankees have very quietly won nine of their last 12 games. They are only one game off their pace from last season when they won 97 games.
Hideki Matsui returned to Yankee Stadium wearing No. 35 for the Rays on Tuesday and he received a warm reception from the 40,537 fans in attendance when he stepped to the plate in the second inning. However, Matsui was 0-for-4 in the game and he is 1-for-9 in his career against his former teammate Pettitte. . . . Cano was hit by a pitch from Rays reliever Cesar Ramos in the seventh inning and he was removed from the game in the bottom of ninth inning in favor of Jayson Nix. It is unclear if Cano was injured or if he will miss any time as a result. . . . Yankee manager Joe Girardi made it clear that when David Robertson is activated from the disabled list he will be the setup man for Rafael Soriano. Robertson is recovering from a left oblique strain and he hopes to return in about two weeks. . . . Early balloting indicates that shortstop Derek Jeter and outfielder Granderson are leading at their positions for the 2012 All-Star Game. Cano and Teixeira are in second place at their respective positions. The balloting will end at midnight on June 28.
The Yankees will continue their three-game home series with the Rays on Wednesday.
The Yankees will start right-hander Ivan Nova (6-2, 5.60 ERA). Nova has won his last two starts despite giving up eight runs in 13 2/3 innings (5.27 ERA). The Yankees scored six runs for him in each of those starts. Nova is 3-0 with a 3.26 ERA in his career against the Rays.
The Rays will counter with right-hander Alex Cobb (2-1, 3.71 ERA). Cobb gave up four runs on nine hits and a walk and he hit two batters in five innings against the White Sox in his last start. He has no record with a 1.50 ERA in his one start against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by ESPN2 and locally by the YES Network.
RAYS 4, YANKEES 1
B.J. Upton lofted a sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth inning and Matt Joyce followed with a three-run home run off new closer David Robertson as Tampa Bay rallied past New York at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday.
The Yankees held a 1-0 lead from the first inning but No. 8 hitter Sean Rodriguez and pinch-hitter Brandon Allen greeted Robertson with first-pitch singles to open the ninth. Robertson then walked Ben Zobrist to the load the bases. After Robertson fanned Carlos Pena looking Upton hit a flyball to right that scored Rodriguez with the tying run.
Joyce then hit an 0-2 pitch into the right-field seats to give the Rays a 4-1 lead.
Reliever Fernando Rodney (2-0) pitched two scoreless innings for the victory. Robertson (o-1) blew his first save of the season and took the loss.
The Yankees season record is now 16-14. The Rays are 20-11.
- The Yankees quartet of starter David Phelps and relievers Boone Logan, Cory Wade and Rafael Soriano pitched eight scoreless innings, giving up five hits and four walks and striking out six. The Rays stranded a total of 10 base-runners and left the bases loaded without scoring in the first and fifth innings. Theses pitchers deserved a better fate.
- Robinson Cano is showing definite signs of coming around with the bat of late. He was 2-for-4 and drove in the Yankees’ only run of the game when he followed Derek Jeter’s leadoff single in the first with a two-out, opposite-field double off the left-field wall that scored Jeter. Cano has at least one hit in nine of his last 10 games and is batting .308 over that span.
- Alex Rodriguez was 2-for-4 in the game and even stole third base the sixth inning for his third steal of the season. Rodriguez is now hitting .279 on the season.
- Robertson proved he was human on Wednesday. The four runs he gave up broke a string of 26 2/3 innings of scoreless baseball over 13 appearances dating back to last season. Though he blew the save, Mariano Rivera would tell him that in order to succeed as a closer you have learn how to fail. Robertson learned that lesson pretty well on Wednesday.
- The offense after the first inning was horrific. They were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. If you want to look at one culprit, look no further than Mark Teixeira. Teixeira is simply running out excuses. It is May and he was 0-for-4 on Wednesday and it dragged his batting average down to .217. He did not get a ball out of the infield, he struck out looking and he grounded into an inning-ending double play in the eighth.
- Curtis Granderson was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the game. In 117 at-bats this season, Gramderson has struck out 33 times, a rate just a bit over one out of every four at-bats.
Rivera was hospitalized this week after doctors examining his torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee discovered a blood clot in his right calf. Rivera was given blood thinners to dissolve the clot and the condition is not expected to prevent Rivera from pitching for the Yankees next season. Rivera told reporters on Wednesday that he will have surgery to repair his knee when the swelling subsides and the knee strengthens.
The Yankees will have a chance to win the three-game series on Thursday against the Rays.
CC Sabathia (4-0, 4.15 ERA) will start for the Yankees, having won his his last four decisions. Sabathia went a strong eight innings to defeat the Kansas City Royals last Friday. He is 9-7 with a 3.25 ERA in his career against the Rays.
Left-hander David Price (5-1, 2.35 ERA) will pitch for the Rays. He allowed one run and struck out 12 in eight innings to beat the Oakland Athletics last Friday. He is 5-2 with a 3.96 ERA in 14 career starts against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.
Today marks the beginning of the 2012 season for the New York Yankees. After a 33-game spring schedule, the team took shape. How will they finish in the American League East? What about the other teams in the division? How will they do this season? Let’s take a look.
Last season marked a titanic shift in the division.
After the Boston Red Sox recorded the biggest implosion in major-league history in September, they are no longer looked upon as an elite in this division. The loss of general manager Theo Epstein and the decision to blame Terry Francona for the team’s demise were bad enough.
But the real shock was to watch the Red Sox take a different approach to trying to fix the team this winter. Instead of just going out and aggressively signing the best free agents available and making bold trades to infuse new blood, the Bosox actually started a coupon-clipping method of solving their problems.
The big names that could have helped them went elsewhere and the Red Sox found that their once-vaunted minor-league system was bereft of immediate-impact talent.
They begin the 2012 season with one of the most important positions on the team left n the hands of someone inexperienced.
If ever this was a microcosm of the Red Sox problems this is it. They allowed Jonathan Papelbon to walk away via free agency. Maligned for his foibles and his occasional blown saves, Papelbon was still an important piece of the success of the franchise. The fans and the press treatment of him bit the team in the rear end.
To replace him the Red Sox traded for Andrew Bailey of the Oakland A’s, a competent closer who at the same time has had a series of arm ailments that have slowed his development. At the end of spring training, Bailey came up with a thumb injury that will require surgery to repair. He will miss two months – at least.
The Red Sox also traded for Houston Astros closer Mark Melancon. The conventional wisdom was Melanco would replace Bailey. After all, why trade for a closer if he is not going to close? But new manager Bobby Valentine announced that jack-of-all-trades (and master of none) reliever Alfredo Aceves would close instead.
Welcome to Red Sox Nation’s worst nightmare. On Opening Day, Aceves coughed the winning run in a non-save situation.
If there is anyone out there who honestly believes this team can win the A.L. East, I want to know what you are smoking.
There are only two elite teams in this division and they are the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays had an interesting spring where they played a lot like the some of the teams in 1960s like the Dodgers and White Sox, who were so deep in pitching talent they shut out any team. However, at the same time, the offense is so bad that scoring runs is going to take some real effort.
Don’t get me wrong. The Rays and manager Joe Maddon have ways of scoring. Carlos Pena may struggle to keep his average around .190 but he will likely hit 30 home runs. Evan Longoria, surrounded by lightweights, will be pitched around and his average will suffer also. But he will win his share of 2-1 games with home runs.
Desmond Jennings, B.J. Upton and the rest of Rays also use their feet to create havoc on the bases. That will get them their share of runs at times. But the old adage “You can’t steal first base” comes into play. The Rays have to reach base in order to steal bases. This team also lacks the athleticism past teams had when Carl Crawford was here.
How many bases will catcher Jose Molina steal? I rest my case.
No, the Rays’ sole means of winning comes with their starting rotation. James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Jeff Niemann are the center of the ballclub. The Rays have attempted to build a bullpen around them but they begin the season with their closer, Kyle Farnsworth, on the disabled list with a sore elbow.
That is huge red flag to me.
Could you say that the Yankees would be favored to win a championship with Mariano Rivera on the DL and expected to miss two months like Bailey? How about if Rivera complained he had a sore elbow?
Nope. No matter how stacked your pitching staff is you have to have a closer and Farnsworth is the best the Rays had in 2011. If he is lost for a long period of time, it puts pressure on Maddon to “shorten” his bullpen. That means keeping his starters on the mound longer than most managers would allow.
That exposes them to possibly losing close games because starters do run out of steam at some point. While a manager like Charlie Manuel might take Cliff Lee out after 121 pitches because he has Papelbon and a deep bullpen, Maddon may say let’s let Price get out of this in the eighth because I do not think J.P. Howell has been effective lately.
It becomes a slippery slope and you start lengthening and lengthening your starters until they begin wearing down.
That is my concern with the Rays.
In addition, they do not have the money and means to ever go to a Plan B. What they have on the roster has to work or they fall.
One team that intrigues me is the Blue Jays.
They already have Jose Bautista. You add to that third baseman Brett Lawrie and a bunch of guys who hit the ball hard and you have the makings of a great offense. Too bad the Rays do not have this offense.
The Blue Jays will put a lot of runs on the board. They have a lot of power and line-drive hitters top to bottom in the lineup.
However, their pitching revolves around Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow. Brett Cecil has been sent to the minors and Dustin McGowan’s comeback has been slowed by injury. Their bullpen does have a closer in Sergio Santos they stole from the White Sox and a former closer in Francisco Cordero they signed from the Reds.
If manager Jon Farrell can piece enough starters to go six, the Blue Jays just might have what it take to pass the Red Sox in third place in this division. Stranger things have happened.
The one given in the division is where the Orioles will finish. Mismanagement, bad luck and foolish spending have really derailed this franchise.
Buck Showalter is a good manager but this team is mired with problems. The young pitching the Orioles counted on has failed to take the big leap forward they expected.
They made big bets on players like Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Adam Jones and they have underwhelmed. They lack a big bopper like a Bautista who can change a game. Instead, they can build around emerging star catcher Matt Wieters.
That just about sums up the Orioles.
Now we come to the Yankees.
They won 97 games last season despite the fact Alex Rodriguez played in 99 games, only Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano had good seasons with the bat and their rotation contained Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon.
How many will they win when they get a healthy season out of Rodriguez, more of their hitters have better seasons with the bat and a rotation that now has Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, a healthy Phil Hughes to go along with ace lefty CC Sabathia?
Their bullpen even without Joba Chamberlain is loaded with Rivera closing like he always has at age 42 and David Robertson and Rafael Soriano shortening games to six innings.
The team has closed the pitching gap with the Rays and their offense is simply the best in the division. Add to that the division’s best bullpen and a veteran bench and you have the makings of another A.L. East title for the team in the Bronx.
I have not seen evidence that would contradict the premise. The only thing that could derail the Yankees is the age of the team. Injuries also are a great equalizer. But, other than a bad spate of injuries there is nothing that will stop this team in 2012.
Here is the predicted order of finish:
1) New York Yankees
2) Tampa Bay Rays (Wild Card)
3) Toronto Blue Jays
4) Boston Red Sox
5) Baltimore Orioles
If this order holds up, look for Valentine to be scanning the help wanted ads in October. He already has the team hating him. If it gets much worse he might be scanning those ads in July.
As spring training camps open it is time to look at the American League East competition for the New York Yankees. How will the other teams fare as they gear up to dethrone the 2011 division champions? Do these teams have the pitching? Is there enough offense? Let’s see.
PART 3 – TAMPA BAY RAYS
Last season was supposed to be the time that the Tampa Bay Rays dropped from contention in the American League East. After all, they lost their star outfielder in Carl Crawford, their slugging first baseman Carlos Pena, their league-leading closer in Rafael Soriano and almost all the elements of what was a very good bullpen in 2010.
Yet, the Rays made the playoffs with a miracle finish that overtook a Boston Red Sox team that choked its way to the finish line. The Rays qualified with a 91-71 record but they lost in the first round of the A.L. Division Series against the Texas Rangers.
What is in store for the Rays in 2012? Do they have another miracle or two left in them?
It is real easy to see what the Rays strategy is for 2012. Run out the best five starters you have and keep them in the game as long as you can to cover up a weak middle of the bullpen and hope the offense can muster enough stolen bases and home runs to eke out a victory.
Right-hander James Shields was the poster boy for this team. In 2010, he was 13-15 with a 5.18 ERA. Last season, he was 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA and 11 complete games. The question is will Shields pitch like he did in 2010 or 2011? As the dean of the staff at age 30, his fortunes will set the tone for the rest of the staff.
The ace of this staff was supposed to have been David Price, who was 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA in 2010. Price, 26, fell from his perch with a 12-13 mark and a 3.49 ERA. The problem is that Price is basically a one-pitch pitcher: his fastball. His breaking stuff was inconsistent and as a result he was a .500 pitcher. Price needs to harness control of his slider and develop even a decent change-up in order to be successful.
Many people were stunned the Rays dealt Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs. But the Rays knew they had rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson ready to jump into the rotation. Heliickson, 24, pitched as the Rays hoped with a 13-10 record and a 2.95 ERA. While Price is still searching for a change-up, Hellickson uses his as a weapon and the Rays hope he gets even better.
The Rays used right-handers Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots last season. But both pitchers struggled with command and injuries in 2011.
Davis, 26, was 11-10 with a 4.45 ERA in 29 starts and Niemann was 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA in 23 starts.
One of these two pitchers is likely to lose their starting spot this spring. The Rays believe 22-year-old left-hander Matt Moore may be ready for prime time in 2012. Moore made one start during the regular season, a five-inning shutout of the Yankees. Then he threw a gem to defeat the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. Moore is a consensus pick to follow Hellickson as A.L. Rookie of the Year.
Though this is the best rotation in the division, there are still concerns. If Shields and Price do not pitch well and Hellickson and Moore do not follow up on their success, the Rays are in big trouble. This is a team that does not have much of Plan B behind its five starters.
The Rays luck in 2011 even extended to their bullpen in 2011.
They replaced Soriano with former Yankee scapegoat Kyle Farnsworth as their closer and Farnsworth ended up pitching well. (Yankee fans may let out a primal scream now). Yep, Farnsworth, was 5-1 with a 2.18 ERA and he saved 25 games out of 31 chances.
Journeyman right-hander Joel Peralta also did a nice job replacing Joaquin Benoit, who left to sign with Detroit. Peralta, 35, was 3-4 with a 2.93 ERA and he added six saves. Veteran right-hander Juan Cruz also helped tighten up the bullpen in the late innings but he was allowed to leave as a free agent.
So the Rays will be building their bullpen around Farnsworth and Peralta in 2012.
The Rays did pick up former closer Fernando Rodney from the Los Angeles Angels. Rodney, 34, has good stuff but has been bothered with back problems. He was 3-4 with 4.50 ERA with the Angels in 2011.
The Rays are hoping left-hander J.P. Howell will get over his arm problems and pitch like he did in 2009 when he was 7-5 with a 2.84 ERA. In 2011, Howell struggled and was 2-3 with 6.16 ERA in 46 games.
The Rays bullpen likely will be rounded out by disappointing left-hander Jake McGee, right-hander Brandon Gomes and the loser of the battle between Davis and Niemann for the final spot in the rotation.
There is no guarantee Farnsworth and Peralta will pitch like they did in 2011. There also is some real soft spots in middle relief and the lack of an effective left-hander may really hurt in a division filled with lefty hitters like Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira.
That means manager Joe Maddon might be forced to leave his starters in the game longer than he might like to cover up the deficiencies and that takes its toll on those starters late in the season. The bullpen is an area of some concern.
The Rays have always been a running team who like to bunt, take extra bases and force opponents into making errors. The loss of Crawford did not change that in 2011. However, the Rays newest emphasis is on the home run.
The Rays had five players hit 16 or more home runs in 2011 and they re-signed first baseman Carlos Pena as a free agent and he hit 28 for the Cubs last season.
The team still revolves around third baseman Evan Longoria, who shook off another season of injuries to hit .244 with 31 home runs and 99 RBIs. The batting average has to be worrisome but Longoria is the team’s only real all-around threat as a hitter and power source.
The Rays also was boosted by a comeback season from Ben Zobrist, who hit .269 with 20 home runs and 91 RBIs. He will likely play a lot at second base and some in right-field as he did last season.
The Rays also rely on the power and speed of centerfielder B.J. Upton, who hit .243 with 23 home runs, 81 RBIs and 36 stolen bases.
Rookie Desmond Jennings arrived and he played well in 63 games. He hit .259 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs as the team’s leadoff hitter. The Rays have high hopes he will surpass Crawford as an athlete and player.
The Rays also caught a bit of luck when Matt Joyce finally began to live up to the promise he showed with the Detroit Tigers. Joyce started off hot but collapsed badly after the All-Star break. He finished with a .277 batting average with 19 home runs and 77 RBIs as a platoon right-fielder and DH.
Sean Rodriguez figures to be the primary shortstop in 2012 though he hit just .223 with eight homers and 36 RBIs. That is because incumbent shortstop Reid Brignac was worse, hitting .193 with one home run and 15 RBIs.
The Rays also reshuffled their catchers for 2012 and they are looking to start former Yankee backup Jose Molina as a starter after he hit .281 with the Blue Jays. Molina, 36, was signed because the Rays were getting beat at their own game. Teams like the Yankees and Rangers were stealing on them at will.
Molina figures to end that with his defensive abilities and arm. However, an offense that relies on the stolen base will be slowed considerably with Molina on base. That is the big tradeoff.
To show how much more the Rays are valuing power, look no further than the signing of left-hander Luke Scott as the team’s primary DH. Scott averaged 28 home runs from 2008 through 2010 with the Orioles before injuries short-circuited his 2011 season. Scott and Joyce will certainly slow down any running game. But the Rays will hit their share of home runs in 2012.
Maddon uses his bench a lot and he will again in 2012.
Brignac will battle career backup Eliot Johnson for the backup middle infield job. Johnson is the better hitter but Brignac is a bit better on defense.
For a while it looked Sam Fuld was going to be the next Pete Rose. Instead, reality set in and he ended up being the next Reggie Willits. But Fuld does provide speed and effort off the bench as an occasional outfield starter and pinch-runner.
Rookie Jose Lobaton will likely back up Molina. Lobaton hit .118 in 34 at-bats last season. The Rays do have a hitting catcher in Robinson Chirinos, however, his inability to throw base-stealers make him a project behind the plate for right now.
This bench is merely adequate. Maddon will use it a lot but there is not much of substance to it.
The 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers may be most interesting world championship team in history. They beat the Yankees in four straight games to win the World Series despite having one power hitter in Frank Howard, who led the team with 28 home runs. Outfielder Tommy Davis led the team with 88 RBIs.
How did they win? Well, they had Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres combine to win 58 games and they had Maury Wills and Davis’ brother, Willie, combine to steal 65 bases.
So they relied on pitching, defense, line-drive hitters and speed and athleticism to win. This is similar to what the Rays would like to build in 2012.
They will go as far as their rotation will allow them to go. Maddon will have to rely on them a lot.
As far as offense goes, Maddon is actually counting more on the home run than the stolen base because only Jennings, Upton and Zobrist are consistent base stealers. Maddon will use his other players like Longoria and Rodriguez to steal in certain situations.
But this team did need the Red Sox to go through a monumental collapse to make it 2011. I do not think their luck extends to 2012. They will not fall precipitously as they should have last season. But I do not see them winning the division. They look to be a contender for second place with the Red Sox. Nothing more and nothing less.
ON THURSDAY – PART 4 BOSTON RED SOX
YANKEES 4, RAYS 2
Teams are often measured by their starting lineups, their starting rotation and their bullpens. Rarely are teams judged by their bench.
But the New York Yankees broke a 2-2 tie in the eighth and beat the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday to clinch their 12th American League East title in the last 16 years largely because Jorge Posada came up with a big hit off the bench.
Posada, 40, who entered the 2011 season having lost his job as the team’s starting catcher and during the season lost his job as the team’s designated hitter, came off the bench in the eighth to deliver a one-out, bases-loaded single that scored two runs and won a division crown for a team that was not the media’s choice to do so.
Before the season began, during spring training and as the season unfolded all the Yankees heard was how deficient their starting pitching was and how old their regulars had become. Their rivals in Boston were hailed as the team to beat because they had better hitting, better starters and a tough bullpen.
But the Yankees proved to the media, to the fans and to the Red Sox that they were the superior team.
The only down note for the jubilant Yankees, who celebrated in their clubhouse by showering each other in streams of celebratory champagne, was that CC Sabathia was unable to secure his 20th victory.
The Yankees staked him to an early lead on Jeremy Hellickson and the Rays on the strength of a solo home run by Robinson Cano to open the second inning. The home run, Cano’s 27th of the season, came on a 2-1 pitch that Cano tagged and sent into the bleachers in right-center to the delight of the crowd of 45,586 at Yankee Stadium.
Two innings later, Yankee MVP candidate Curtis Granderson opened the frame with a double to right-center. Hellickson then fell behind and walked Mark Teixeira.
Rays manager Joe Maddon then elected to use some odd strategy that, at the time, seemed to have worked. He ordered Hellickson to walk Cano intentionally to load the bases with no outs so the Rays could challenge rookie DH Jesus Montero.
Montero did what the Rays might have hoped he would. He bounced into a double play. However, Granderson did score from third on the play and the Yankees had built a 2-0 lead.
Unfortunately, even though the Rays are not a power hitting team, they have a habit of breaking out the longball when Sabathia is pitching.
Kelly Shoppach connected for a solo home run deep to left with two in the fifth to halve the lead. With one out in the seventh, Sean Rodriguez clanked his drive down the left-field line off the foul pole to tie the game.
Of the 17 home runs Sabathia has given up this season, eight of them have been surrendered to the Rays.
Girardi, hoping to get Sabathia 20 victories for the second straight season, left Sabathia in for the eighth. But the left-hander ran into trouble with one out.
Desmond Jennings lined a single to center and B.J. Upton followed with a rocket that popped out of Sabathia’s glove and rolled in back of the mound for an infield single. Evan Longoria then drew a walk to load the bases and Girardi could not wait any longer. He removed Sabathia leaving him only one last start to collect No. 20.
Girardi then summoned the pitcher the Yankees call “Houdini” to get out of the mess, David Robertson.
Robertson (4-0), who entered the game with the lowest ERA among all major-league relievers at 1.12, needed only one pitch to force Ben Zobrist into hitting into an inning-ending double play.
The Yankees then mounted their division-clinching rally off reliever Jake McGee (3-2).
With one out, Girardi went to his bench and sent Nick Swisher up to bat for Brett Gardner. Swisher delivered a double into left-center.
One out later, Maddon called on right-hander Juan Cruz to face Teixeira but Cruz walked him on four straight pitches. Exit Cruz.
Left-hander Cesar Ramos came in to face Cano. But Ramos fell behind Cano 3-1 and Cano was walked intentionally to load the bases again with Montero in the on-deck circle. Exit Ramos.
The Rays then called on right-hander Brandon Gomes to pitch to Montero. But Girardi used his bench again by calling the beleaguered veteran Posada, who is in the last year of a four-year contract and likely will not return to the Yankees next season.
Posada laced a 0-1 pitch into right-field that fell in front of right-fielder Brandon Guyer. Greg Golson, who was pinch-running for Swisher scored easily and Teixeira followed him when the Rays were unable to get a relay throw back to the infield in time.
Posada pumped his fist and the Yankee faithful rose to cheer the man they always serenade with “Hip, Hip, Jorge!” every time he steps to the plate.
Because Mariano Rivera was used to save the first game of the day-night doubleheader, Girardi called upon former Rays closer Rafael Soriano to propel the Yankees to another division crown.
Despite giving up a two-out single to Casey Kotchman, Soriano struck out pinch-hitter Matt Joyce swinging to end a scoreless frame for his second save of the season.
The combination of the Yankees two victories over the Rays and the 6-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles by the severely slumping Red Sox handed the Yankees the flag. The Yankees remain five games ahead of Detroit and Texas for the best record in the American League, which assures the Yankees home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Rays were dealt a serious blow. They could not take advantage of the Red Sox careening off a cliff at home to inferior clubs like the Orioles. They have fallen into a tie with the Los Angeles Angels 3 games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race.
- Girardi made three key moves in this game: Replacing Sabathia with Robertson, pinch-hitting Swisher for Gardner and pinch-hitting Posada for Montero. The fact that all three moves worked and led to the Yankees winning the game, Girardi deserves a lot for the credit for this game and leading this team to its second division title in his four years at the helm.
- There have been rumblings that the Yankees were considering keeping Montero on the postseason roster and leaving Posada off of it. But Posada may have redeemed himself with the division-clinching hit. With Francisco Cervelli out due to a concussion, Austin Romine will likely back up Russell Martin in the playoffs and Posada likely will remain on the roster because the Yankees need another lefty hitter off the bench besides Eric Chavez.
- Cano just keeps rolling at the plate. He now has 27 home runs and a career-best 116 RBIs. The 116 RBIs tie him with Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez and Los Angeles’ Steve Kemp for the second in the majors behind Granderson, who has 119.
An aging club of veterans added a 38-year-old and 34-year-old pitcher to their starting rotation because they could not sign Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte retired. They were without 18-game winner Phil Hughes for much of the year and A.J. Burnett and his 10-11 record and 5.28 ERA were a major headache. They lost relievers Joba Chamberlain, Pedro Feliciano and Soriano to injury. They lost Alex Rodriguez to a litany of injuries for half the season. But somehow, some way this team managed to win another division title to defy the so-called experts that said they would not. There is nothing negative about that.
An MRI taken on Phil Hughes’ aching back was negative and the Yankees believe he will be able to make one more start before the playoffs begin. Hughes was given an epidural shot to relieve pain thought to be associated with a herniated disc the pitcher suffered in 2004. Hughes felt back spasms after a bullpen session on Friday and had his start on Monday pushed back to Wednesday. But Hughes still was unable to pitch and Hector Noesi started in his place.
The Yankees have clinched a playoff spot and a division title in one day. But they still are playing to keep home field.
They can sweep the Rays on Thursday with Bartolo Colon (8-9, 3.81 ERA) on the mound. Colon gave up six runs in only four innings against the Blue Jays on Saturday. The Yankees later rallied to win the game. Colon is 7-4 with a 3.47 ERA against the Rays in his career.
The Rays are countering with prize prospect lefty Matt Moore (0-0, 6.23 ERA), who will be making his first major-league start. Moore was 12-3 with a 1.93 ERA combined between Double-A and Triple-A this season.
Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.