Tagged: Darren O'Day

Yankees’ ‘Twin Towers’ Shut Down Orioles Again

GAME 30

YANKEES 5, ORIOLES 4

You made me love you
I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it
You made me want you
And all the time you knew it, I guess you always knew it

                                           –  “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It)” by Al Jolson

In a game in which the Yankees took a 5-0 lead after three innings the last thing manager Joe Girardi was thinking was that he would have to use his “Twin Towers” to have to close out the game. But that is just what happened on Friday night in front of a paid crowd of 38,731 at Yankee Stadium.

Girardi was forced into using 6-foot-8 right-hander Dellin Betances and 6-foot-7 left-hander Andrew Miller to close out the final 2 1/3 innings as New York downed Baltimore for a second straight game.

Betances (4-0) pitched 1 1/3 innings of perfect relief to get credit for the victory and Miller hurled a 1-2-3 ninth to earn his Major-League-leading 13th save in 13 opportunities.

The Yankees stormed out to an early lead on right-hander Miguel Gonzalez (3-2) when Jacoby Ellsbury extended his hitting streak to 11 games with a leadoff infield single and Brett Gardner followed with a double.

Alex Rodriguez scored Ellsbury with a sacrifice fly and, one out later, Brian McCann laced a 3-0 fastball into the seats in right-field for his third home run of the season.

Two innings later, Ellsbury reached on a leadoff walk and Gardner advanced him to third with a single. Gardner subsequently stole second. Two outs later, McCann was walked intentionally to load the bases and struggling veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran then cracked a two-run double to pad the Yankees’ lead to 5-0.

However, right-hander Adam Warren encountered both pitch count and command issues in the fifth inning.

J.J. Hardy and Ryan Flaherty opened the frame by drawing back-to-back walks. Manny Machado followed with an RBI single that scored Hardy.

One out later, Adam Jones loaded the bases with a single and Delmon Young scored Flaherty and chased Warren with a fielder’s choice groundout that erased Jones at second.

Warren left having been charged with two runs on seven hits and three walks with two strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings. He left having thrown 88 pitches and he has now failed to complete six innings in any of his eight career starts.

Left-hander Justin Wilson struck out Chris Davis to end the inning, however, he ran into trouble of his own in the sixth inning.

After retiring the first two batters, Wilson allowed a double to J.J. Hardy and Flaherty reached after being hit with a pitch. Girardi brought in right-hander Chris Martin to replace Wilson.

But Martin ended up issuing a walk to Machado to load the bases and rookie Jimmy Paredes singled in two runs to draw the Orioles within a run.

So the combination of Warren’s inability to go further in the game and shaky bullpen work from Wilson and Martin forced Girardi’s hand to use his best bullpen tandem for a second straight game.

Meanwhile, the Yankees offense went to sleep after Gonzalez left having given up five runs on five hits and two walks with two strikeouts in four innings.

Left-hander T.J. McFarland, right-hander Darren O’Day and left-hander Zach Britton held the Yankees to three hits and one intentional walk over the final five innings to keep the O’s in the game.

With the victory the Yankees improved to 19-11 and they maintained a three-game lead over the second-place Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East. The Orioles, who lost their third straight contest, fell to 12-15 and they are tied with the Boston Red Sox in fourth place, 5 1/2 games behind the Yankees.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Ellsbury was 1-for-3 and scored two runs and he is now batting .362, which now leads the American League. Jones, who entered the game hitting .367, was 1-for-5 and that dropped his average to .359. Ellsbury and Gardner combined to go 3-for-7 with a double, two singles, a stolen base and four runs scored. The tandem is a combined 71-for-205 (.346) on the season.
  • McCann continues to love Yankee Stadium because 22 of his 26 home runs with the Yankees have come at home. McCann entered the contest in a 1-for-14 (.071) funk before he connected for his third home run of the season. McCann is now batting .231.
  • The “Twin Towers” of Betances and Miller have now combined for a 4-0 record, 13 saves and a 0.00 ERA in 31 games. They have yielded only 11 hits and 16 walks with 54 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings. Their combined WHIP is 0.81. Unfortunately, neither will be available for Saturday’s game.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Warren is showing everyone what I already knew: He is better suited coming out of the bullpen. He is 2-1 with a 4.65 ERA in six starts but his failure to pitch six complete innings is hurting the team because it is draining the bullpen. It is a good thing that left-hander Chris Capuano is making some minor-league rehab starts because the Yankees could use Capuano so they can shift Warren back to the bullpen, where he recorded a 2.97 ERA in 69 games last season.
  • Chase Headley went 0-for-4 and he seems to be really mired a three-week slump. On April 22, Headley was hitting .254 with two homers and nine RBIs. Since then he is 10-for-50 (.200) with one homer and one RBI. After a hot spring it looked as if Headley was primed for a big season, but it is looking like he has fallen back in some old bad habits at the plate.
  • Martin’s 0-1 record and 3.55 ERA in 15 appearances seem like pretty good numbers. However, one very ugly number for him is that he has allowed five of seven inherited runners to score and two of them scored on Friday on Paredes’ bases-loaded single in the sixth. Martin has to do better when he enters the game with runners on base.

BOMBER BANTER

After being harassed by the press for two months, Girardi finally named Miller as the team’s closer after the left-hander earned his 13th save. Asked again if Miller was his closer at his postgame press conference, Girardi told reporters: “Is there a reason I have to? He’s been closing games for us. He’s our closer. Is that better? Is that going to be the headline tomorrow?”  . . .  Right-hander Masahiro Tanaka played catch for a second straight day prior to Friday’s game and reported no issues with his right wrist or forearm. Tanaka, who has been on the disabled list since April 28 with tendinitis in his wrist and a mild strain in his forearm, made 25 throws from 60 feet and another 25 from 90 feet. The Yankees believe he is on schedule to be back in about a month.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their four-game series with the O’s on Saturday having clinched at least in a series split already.

Right-hander Chase Whitley (1-0, 0.75 ERA) will make his third start of the season since being recalled from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Whitley, 25, needs to pitch the same way he pitched on Monday when he shut out the Toronto Blue Jays on six hits and no walks with six strikeouts in seven innings for his first victory.

The Orioles will start left-hander Wei-Yin Chen (0-1, 2.83 ERA), who surrendered two runs on seven hits and two walks with four strikeouts in six innings in a no-decision against the Rays on Sunday.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast by the YES Network.

 

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Yankees Poised To Finish Third In A.L. East

With spring training in their rear-view mirror and the 2015 season about to start, the question is where will the New York Yankees finish in the American League East. The Yankees have failed to make the playoffs the past two seasons and many experts believe it will be three. But with the additions the Yankees made could they possibly have a surprise in store. Here is how I project it.

NEW YORK YANKEES

First of all, let’s admit that this is not your father’s A.L. East. There is NO dominant team in the division and there is not much separation between any of the five teams in terms of talent.

That said, the Yankees come into 2015 building around the foundation they began with their half-billion dollar investment last winter with the signings of outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, catcher Brian McCann and right-handed pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.

Those free agents were added to the holdovers in shortstop Derek Jeter, first baseman Mark Teixeira, outfielder Brett Gardner and left-hander CC Sabathia.

General manager Brian Cashman actually started the rebuilding process for 2015 last summer by retaining a number of players they acquired around the trade deadline or later such as third baseman Chase Headley, second baseman Stephen Drew, outfielder Chris Young and left-hander Chris Capuano.

With the retirement of Jeter, the loss of free-agent closer David Robertson and right-hander’s Hiroki Kuroda’s decision to end his career pitching in his native Japan, Cashman was forced to shuffle the deck by using young pitchers like right-handers David Phelps and Shane Greene and left-hander Manny Banuelos to bring in right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, backup first baseman and outfielder Garrett Jones, starting shortstop Didi Gregorius and relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve.

Cashman also used cash to lure free-agent left-hander Andrew Miller to bolster the bullpen around rookie sensation Dellin Betances.

The result is a team that features a starting lineup of eight players ranging in age from 31 to Alex Rodriguez at 39. The former starting third baseman is returning from a year-long performance-enhancing drug suspension to become the team’s designated hitter.

Only Gregarious at age 25 is considered young.

However, the rotation features a 26-year-old in Tanaka, a 26-year-old in Michael Pineda and a 25-year-old in Eovaldi. A spring injury to 36-year-old Capuano has thrust 27-year-old Adam Warren into the No. 5 slot. So the only pitcher over 27 in the Yankees rotation is Sabathia, who is 34. When is the last time you could say that about the Yankees’ rotation?

The bullpen will center around Betances, 26, and Miller, 28, who are  –  at least for now  –  going share the closing duties. If both pitch as they have up to now, it will be a very good shutdown pair because neither have been hit hard by righties or lefties.

The concern will be with the setup spots. Warren is in the rotation so the Yankees will be counting on the right-handed Carpenter, 29, and left-handed Justin Wilson, 27, who was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates with Cashman using the team’s catching surplus to deal away Francisco Cervelli.

If Carpenter and Wilson are successful, the bullpen will have a chance to be very good. If they fail, it could be a long season. Warren’s shift back to the bullpen with the return of both Capuano and right-hander Ivan Nova from Tommy John surgery in June can only be a big plus for the group.

Esmil Rogers, 29, will handle long relief. Shreve, 24, gives Girardi a third left-hander and 6-foot-8 right-hander Chris Martin has 95-mile-per-hour stuff that moves on an extreme downward plane. This trio looks solid and give Girardi credit for being a master of managing bullpens.

All spring long the Yankees struggled to score runs. It was not too much different from the way the offense struggled last season.

A pair of speed demons  –  Ellsbury and Gardner  –  are stacked on top of the lineup. The idea is to get them on base as much as possible and let them use their speed to get into scoring position for the middle of the lineup.

Both combined to steal 60 bases in what both players admittedly could call an off year. So they hope they can top 80 this season.

The whole strategy rests upon the middle of the order bouncing back from injuries and off years in 2015.

The third batter, Beltran, incurred painful bone chips in his right elbow and ended up posting the worst numbers of his career.

The cleanup hitter, Teixiera, was still limited by a sore right wrist and other injuries and posted only 22 home runs.

Although the fifth hitter, McCann, did crack 23 home runs and drive 78 runs, he only batted .232. So the Yankees would like him to hit closer to his career .272 average this season.

That is plenty of firepower but it seems like a fragile situation counting on Beltran, who will be 38 on April 24 and Teixeira, who will be 35 on April 11.

Behind McCann may be the one diamond-in-the-rough player who is primed for  huge season in Headley, 30, who hit 31 homers and drove in 115 runs for the San Diego Padres in 2012. Back issues have hampered him for the past two seasons but he seems healthy now.

He batted .305 with three homers and eight RBIs this spring and the former Gold Glove winner has been flashing some serious leather at third base.

It is unclear how much A-Rod will contribute from the DH spot. Rodriguez has not played more than 138 games since his Most Valuable Player season in 2007. Hip surgeries, nagging other ailments and the drug suspension have teamed with Father Time to make him an unknown quantity.

This spring, Rodriguez batted .267 with three homers and four RBIs and he did not look overmatched at the plate. But it is hard to know what A-Rod will provide until the bells rings on the regular season.

Nowhere did the Yankees look more vulnerable last season than at second base. After Robinson Cano took his power, his .300 average and his Gold Glove defensive skills to Seattle, the Yankees tried veteran Brian Roberts at the position.

But his batting and fielding skills eroded over four seasons of injuries and the Yankees cut him loose in July in favor of Drew, who had never played second base in the pro baseball. Drew also was dealing with a season-long hitting slump that saw him bat only .162 between the Boston Red Sox and the Yankees.

Drew started this spring very slowly but emerged to bat over .470 in the final three weeks with three home runs. Drew has been working with the Yankees’ new hitting coach Jeff Petland and it seems to have been paying some dividends. The Yankees would settle for Drew batting .250 or so with 15 homers and 65 RBIs this season. Those had been norms for Drew in his previous seasons.

Though it was sad to see the 20-year era of Jeter’s career at shortstop come to an end, the Yankees are very hopeful they have an emerging star in the making in Gregorius.

What fans immediately saw this spring is that Gregorius has outstanding range, great hands and an powerful and accurate arm. The Yankees believe his defense will be upgrade since Jeter’s range had been so limited the past several years.

Jeter batted .256 in his final season and the Yankees hope that Gregorius can possibly top that average this season largely batting ninth. When Gregorius was in Arizona, manager Kirk Gibson benched him against left-handers because he has batted only .150 in his career against them.

But the Yankees allowed him to hit against left-handers this spring and Gregorius did not seem to look bad against them. So, for now, Girardi is content with playing his young shortstop every day.

The bench is solid and features power-hitting right-hander Young and power-hitting left-hander Jones. Young, 31, had an exceptional spring and he brings athleticism to all three outfield spots he plays and a potential deadly bat against left-handed pitching.

Jones, 33, hit 15 homers for the Miami Marlins last season and he seems to have the perfect swing for Yankee Stadium. Jones will primarily back up Teixeira at first and he can also play the corner outfield spots, if needed.

Backup infielder Brendan Ryan, 33, had a spring he would rather forget. First, he was delayed at the start with a back injury he sustained lifting weights. After he returned, Ryan ended up pulling a right calf muscle last week and he will start the season on the disabled list.

Ryan brings a slick glove to second, shortstop and third base  –  although short is where he really shines in the field. But he can’t hit a lick. He has no power and he is a career .234 hitter.

The Yankees obtained infielder Gregorio Petit from the Houston Astros in exchange for cash in the last week of the spring. So Petit, 30, will assume Ryan’s role despite having played on only 62 major-league games with the Oakland Athletics and the Astros. He has batted .278 in just 151 at-bats. He will be a stopgap until Ryan is healthy again.

John Ryan Murphy, 23, managed to hold off a challenge from veteran Austin Romine this spring to remain the backup to McCann. Murphy batted .284 with a homer and nine RBIs in 32 games last season and the Yankees rave about his defense behind the plate.

But the biggest secret the Yankees are carrying with them now lies in the young players they were able to showcase this spring. For the first time in a very long time the Yankees have a number of very good prospects and some positional depth at the minor-league level that could be factors this season.

But the promise is even brighter longer term.

Right-handed starters Luis Severino and Domingo German (obtained in the trade for Phelps and Martin Prado) and left-handed starter Ian Clarkin along with left-handed reliever Jacob Lindgren and right-handed relievers Nick Rumbelow and Jose Ramirez are in the pipeline and moving quickly to the majors.

Second basemen Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela tore the cover off the ball this spring and their presence at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is just a taste of what is the horizon with outfielders Slade Heathcott and Ramon Flores also knocking on the door.

Right-hander Chase Whitley, 25, had a 1.17 ERA this spring and he still not crack the bullpen. You have to figure he is going to get a call-up to the 25-man roster at some point. Keep an eye also on Bryan Mitchell, who will be 24 this month. Mitchell drew rave reviews when he fanned Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez back-to-back in a five-inning effort in a split-squad game in Lakeland, FL, on April 2.

At Double-A Trenton will be prospects such as outfielder Aaron Judge and first baseman Greg Bird, both of whom looked undaunted by major-league pitching this spring.

Catching prospect Gary Sanchez, 23, is also not too far away from contributing in the major leagues.

Though Yankee fans and the Yankee front office never has shown much patience with its young prospects in the past, this group might just force the front office to use them and perhaps the revolving door of signing aging free agents will finally end.

Should the Yankees falter as what so many experts are predicting this season. The young players who are on the way could be a foundation to build around, It is there to see. It is just up to Cashman and the Yankee front office not to screw it up.

Here now is my brief assessment of the other four teams in the division and my prediction for the order of finish in 2015.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

This is a team that ran away with this division last season. But it is hard to see them as a “great” team.

Their ace is a very pedestrian Chris Tillman. Their offense lost outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis. They also are likely to be without Matt Wieters to start the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Ditto for shortstop J.J. Hardy, who has left shoulder injury.

With all that they still have Adam Jones, Manny Machado and they are really hoping that Chris Davis recovers his home-run stroke.

Though Tillman is not a true ace they do have Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzales and Bud Norris to form a solid foursome. The bullpen with closer Zach Britton and setup guys Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter is top notch.

They also have one of the best managers in baseball in Buck Showalter. So in Baltimore there is hope the O’s can repeat.

A lot depends on how new outfielders Alejandro De Aza and Travis Snider do to make up for the losses of Cruz and Markakis.

BOSTON RED SOX

This team flopped in 2014 and yet many are picking them to win the title in 2015.

Most of that is based on their offense. To Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, the Red Sox have added Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts and Pablo Sandoval.

They are also hoping for better seasons and health from Xander Bogaerts and Shane Victorino.

However, it is hard to look at the rotation and see anything but potential disaster.

Clay Buchholz was 8-11 with a 6.34 ERA and is considered the ace. Rick Porcello did have a 15-13 record and a 3.43 ERA with the Tigers. But Justin Masterson was 7-9 with a 5.88 with the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Lefty Wade Miley was 8-12 with a 4.34 ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks. A better offense will help him but he is not anything close to Jon Lester, who the Red Sox traded last season and were unable to re-sign as a free agent.

No. 5 starter Joe Kelly (6-4, 4.20 ERA with the Cardinals) starts the season on the disabled list with right bicep injury. In addition, closer Koji Uehara, who just turned 40, is also on the disabled list with a hamstring injury so Edward Mujica and his 49 career saves are it for now.

There is no doubt that the Red Sox will be capable of scoring runs. The question is will it be enough runs to cover a pitching staff and an underbelly of a bullpen that could really exploited?

Add that up to the fact that catcher Christian Vazquez is out for the season to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and you have enough doubts about the Red Sox to make it unlikely they are a good choice to win this division.

The Toronto Blue Jays tried this approach last season and it did not work.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

This team seemingly lost everything so quickly that their home radio station, WDAE, is not very enthusiastic about them.

Manager Joe Maddon and his screwy ideas that seem to work on shifting is gone. General manager Andrew Friedman, who introduced sabermetrics and advanced scouting techniques to the organization that built this team, is also gone.

The team’s best pitcher in David Price was traded last season and now is pitching for the Detroit Tigers. Their second-best pitcher, Matt Moore, is not expected back until June because he is recovering from Tommy John surgery.

This spring they incurred injuries to their best remaining pitcher Alex Cobb. Their closer, Jake McGee, will miss the first month.

They also traded away offensive contributors such as Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar and Matt Joyce.

The team’s offense can be wrapped up in third baseman Evan Longoria and a lot of hope and praying.

They are counting on production out of rookie outfielder Steven Souza Jr., who batted .130 this spring and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who the Indians discarded saying he could not play shortstop and he was not the hitter he was in 2011 (25 home runs and 92 RBIs).

They are still hoping that Desmond Jennings just shows one little spark of the long-departed Carl Crawford. But it is not looking like it will happen.

This could amount to one of the weakest hitting teams in baseball in 2015 and it could be worse without Maddon running the show.

Granted, Cobb, Moore, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi could form a solid rotation when they are all healthy. The question is can the Rays tread water long enough to see that happen?

Though McGee, Grant Balfour and Brad Boxberger form a solid trio at the back of the bullpen, the Rays are counting on a pair of former failed relievers in Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri to help out in the middle innings.

They also do not have a decent lefty beyond McGee. Ouch!

After many years of dealing with their obnoxious cowbell-ringing fans  –  all of about 7,000 of them a game  –  it appears that the bloom is off the rose and the cowbells will eventually fall silent this season unless there is some sort of miracle new manager Kevin Cash can create.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

This was the sexy choice to win the division in 2014. Funny thing is, I would have selected them to win this season if young right-hander Marcus Stroman did suffer knee injury that will force him to miss the entire season.

Stroman would have formed a nice 1-2 punch with right-hander Drew Hutchison, who at 24 has progressed so much as a pitcher he is starting on Opening Day ahead of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and veteran Mark Buehrle.

To that they have added a pair of young pitchers in left-hander Daniel Norris and right-hander Aaron Sanchez, who looked to be the team’s closer in waiting until the team opted to use him as a starter instead.

The bullpen is untested but it has closer Brett Cecil. There is a lot untested pitchers in the mix behind him but 20-year-old Miguel Castro may end being something special as he gets his feet wet in the majors.

Like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays never have to worry about scoring runs. Add to the thundering power of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion the bat of third baseman Josh Donaldson, who hit 29 home runs and drove in 98 runs for the Athletics in their cavernous ballpark.

You would think Donaldson will love the Rogers Centre.

Though the Jays will miss line-drive machine Melky Cabrera, they still have Jose Reyes and they have also added catcher Russell Martin, who can hit 20 homers and run a pitching staff like a pitching coach.

So there is a lot to like.

The question is after losing Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus the Blue Jays are trotting a pair of young outfielders in Dalton Pompey (center) and Kevin Pillar (left). Much of what the Blue Jays do will revolve around what they do.

They also have a new second baseman in Devon Travis.

It is hard to pick a team to win with so many new players in the lineup like Pillar, Pompey and Travis. This team is carrying six rookies!

But the real test of how the Blue Jays do in 2015 will hinge on its pitching staff. Stroman was a much bigger loss than I think the Blue Jays can overcome.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1) BALTIMORE ORIOLES (92-70)

2) TORONTO BLUE JAYS (86-76)

3) NEW YORK YANKEES (84-78)

4) BOSTON RED SOX (80-82)

5) TAMPA BAY RAYS (76-86)  Hello Montreal!

The Orioles will fall back to the pack but not enough to make much difference. The Blue Jays actually could have won it with Stroman, but now they will fall short and they will not win the wildcard either. I was tempted to pick the Yankees for second because Tanaka, Pineda and Eovaldi are all primed for excellent seasons. But the offense this spring was woefully lacking and it looks as if they will lose a lot of 4-3 and 3-2 games unless make a deal for a young slugger like Giancarlo Stanton. The Yankees just do not have that stud in the middle of the order and it will hurt. The Red Sox will be the Red Flops mainly because their pitching is not as good as people believe it is. Their bullpen also is much weaker without Miller. About all that the “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval is good for is twining with Ortiz to advertise for a doughnut shop. Ramirez is talented but he also is moody and can give up when things are not going well. Ask the Marlins and Dodgers. As for the Rays, their collapse could not have come at a worse time for them when attendance and TV viewership is dropping. The owner wants to have a new stadium built despite the fact that they are tied to dumpy and ugly Tropicana Field for many more years. That is why it is inevitable that the team will be sold and shifted to another city like Montreal soon. Tre bien!

Yankees, Rays Look To Be Class Of Tough A.L. East

The American League East is a division loaded with talent. It consists of a world champion, a playoff team, the winningest franchise in baseball history and two power-laden clubs with some pitching. Of those five teams it is possible that three teams could claim playoff spots. Let’s look into the magic ball and see what we can predict. In no particular order let’s look at the teams:

NEW YORK YANKEES

After an injury-marred 2013 season managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner loosened the pursestrings and allowed general manager Brian Cashman to throw out nearly $500 million to free agents. That brought in the best available pitching free agent in Masahiro Tanaka, the best in catcher available in Brian McCann, two All-Star outfielders in Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, a left-hander for the bullpen in Matt Thornton and two important infielders in Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts.

Needless to say the Yankees are not planning on winning 85 games and missing the playoffs as they did in 2013.

Added to what the Yankees already had, this team is loaded for a playoff run. The rotation is five deep with CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Tanaka and the sensational return of Michael Pineda this spring has the other teams in the division worried. Only the Tampa Bay Rays can boast a rotation close to this and they only have four healthy starters at the moment.

The bullpen is missing Mariano Rivera and no one will tell you that David Robertson will make anyone forget the greatest closer in history. But no one can believe he can’t do as well as Rafael Soriano did in 2012. The rest of the bullpen has undergone a makeover because of the loss of Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain. Shawn Kelley and Thornton will handle the late-inning work. The addition of 6-foot-8 rookie Dellin Betances is going to give the bullpen depth because Betances might have the best stuff of the group.

Add to this corps three starting pitchers shifted to the bullpen, David Phelps, Adam Warren and left-hander Vidal Nuno. Phelps and Warren are holdovers from last season and Nuno, 26, gives the Yankees a second lefty to go with Thornton.

The Yankees only need to hope that Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter return to form. They both missed virtually all of the 2013 season and both are being counted upon to help the offense. They also are hoping that Johnson can fill in for the suspended Alex Rodriguez and Roberts can fill the huge hole left by the childish and petulant departure of Robinson Cano. The Yankees issued Cano’s No. 24 to spring training invitee Scott Sizemore. That tells you what they think of Cano after he left.

Ellsbury will combine with Brett Gardner to provide speed and daring on the bases. McCann and Beltran will join Teixeira and last season’s acquisition Alfonso Soriano to give the Yankees a lot of power in the middle of the lineup. Johnson and Roberts can provide double-digits power as well at the bottom of the order.

The bench features the catcher many teams wanted this spring in Francisco Cervelli, All-Star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and a pair of hot-hitting rookie infielders in Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte. Slick-fielding shortstop Brendan Ryan starts the season on the disabled list with an upper-back injury.

Top to bottom the Yankees are loaded with talent, power, speed, a great rotation, a solid bullpen and a versatile bench. They will go a long way in deciding who wins the division and who ends up in the playoffs.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

The Rays are a product of a similar model that used to keep afloat the small-market Minnesota Twins. You try and keep a small corps of good young players together long enough to win until they start leaving via free agency. Of course, this method requires that you keep all the plates spinning at once for a long, long time.

If you don’t you lose.

The Rays were fortunate to keep left-hander David Price off the open market for a year. He will join left-hander Matt Moore and right-handers Alex Cobb and Chris Archer to provide the only rotation in the division that can rival the Yankees. Jeremy Hellickson begins the season on the disabled list but he has not been real effective when he has been healthy so I am not sure how his season will go.

The Rays dumped Fernando Rodney because he blew too many saves and was shaky in those he did save. Enter former Rays right-hander Grant Balfour, who was not signed by some other teams because of some medical questions. Balfour has only had one season as a closer and there is no guarantee the Rays can get another season out of him.

The rest of the bullpen is good. Balfour’s fellow senior citizen, Joel Peralta, is the setup man. He is joined by lefty Jake McGee and former closer Heath Bell. Right-handers Josh Lueke, Brandon Gomes and lefty long man Cesar Ramos round out a pretty solid corps.

The Rays are really lacking speed this season. Their only real base-stealing threat is Desmond Jennings, who is been doing a very bad imitation of Carl Crawford since he arrived.

Now the Rays are looking to generate lots of power with Evan Longoria and Will Myers in the middle of the lineup. The problem is Matt Joyce is coming off a disappointing season and he has not lived up to expectations at all. They also have to hope an aging Ben Zobrist can bounce back after a down 2013 campaign.

The additions of James Loney at first base and Yunel Escober at shortstop helped the offense and defense last season. They hope Ryan Hanigan can provide defense and leadership behind the plate this season.

As always, manager Joe Maddon will mix in spare parts like Sean Rodriguez, David DeJesus and Jose Molina. In addition, he will shift his defense to drive opponents nuts, But if the Rays should falter, Price will be on the trading block before the league deadline. If that happens, the Rays season is over.

In any event, this will be Price’s last year with the Rays and the Rays have to roll the dice they win the division this year. Otherwise, it’s lights out at Tropicana Field for their fan base of 7,500. If things don’t pick up at the gate the team could be headed elsewhere.

BOSTON RED SOX

Most Yankee fans forgot what happened in 2013 so we will leave it at that.

The Red Sox prospects for 2014 would seem to be bright. After all, they hope to have the same rotation they finished with back this year.

They are counting on Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront to be just as good in 2014. Problem is Lester is notch below what an ace should be. Look at most fantasy drafts this season and you will find Lester going in the middle rounds because of his high ERA and even higher walks-to-innings-pitched (WHIP) ratio.

Clay Buchholz also is going late in drafts because he has had a hard time staying healthy. His recurring back problems are not going away. He can only treat it to stay on track.

Lackey and Peavy are also on the north side of their usefulness. Both are crafty veteran pitchers and they will win their share on guile. But this group pales in comparison to the Rays and Yankees. That does not even take into account Doubront, who if you look as his 2013 numbers you wonder why the Red Sox like him so much.

To be sure, Koji Uehara was a miracle worker for them after the Bosox tried a number of unsuccessful closers since Jonathan Papelbon left years ago. But Uehara turns 39 on Wednesday and there is no net for him if he fails to do what he did late last season.

Boston does have lefty Andrew Miller and Junichi Tazawa back and they added Edward Mujica. But they do not have Craig Breslow at the start of the season and this bullpen is just a lot less deep than it was in 2013.

The same can be said for the starting lineup. Instead of bringing Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Daniel Nava off the bench they will have to play to fill holes when Ellsbury, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia left the team.

Grady Sizemore actually beat out Bradley in center but the Red Sox know they can’t just run the oft-injured former All-Star out there every day. Bogarerts at short, Will Middlebrooks at third and center are unsettled positions with unknown quantities in them. A.J. Pierzynski takes over behind the plate and should be an offensive upgrade from Salty but teams are going to run wild on him on the bases.

The Red Sox just hope they can get another year out of fading DH David Ortiz, who at age 38 is well beyond borrowed time. He had a horrible spring and players at 38 do not get better. They fade.

The Red Sox will still revolve around Dustin Pedroia at second and they just hope that Shane Victorino (who begins the season injured), Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp can still do what they did last season. But as we know it is hard to repeat as champion. The last team to do it was, well, the New York Yankees in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Red Sox Nation remembers that period of time.

So I do not think there is going to much in the way of magic at Fenway this season. It just not in the cards.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

The Jays are all about redemption.

They gave a fading infielder out of Pittsburgh Pirates and a disappointing third baseman out of the Cincinnati Reds a place on the team and they were rewarded with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Those two players form the most feared middle-of-the-order pair in baseball. Both could easily hit more than 40 homers apiece.

The Blue Jays even rehired manager John Gibbons even after they fired him three years ago.

So the Blue Jays were the cool team to pick in 2013 after they added Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes to what they already had in Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus. But their recipe for success did not count on a complete meltdown of their starting rotation.

Ace R.A. Dickey pitched with a bad back, Brandon Morrow was also hurt and former ace Ricky Romero forgot completely how to pitch successfully. Last season was just not pretty for the Jays.

But they have renewed hope in 2014. Dickey is healthy again and Mark Buehrle can still eat up innings with his soft-tossing junk. Add to that a healthy Morrow and you have the makings of a staff, But the other two spots will go to Drew Hutchison, who at 23 hopes he can establish himself as a starter this year, and an old friend Dustin McGowan, who last pitched as a regular in the Jays rotation in 2008. he is now 32 and he is an expert in rehabs.

Now that is some reclamation project.

Casey Janssen fell into the closer role when Sergio Santos was injured and now both form a nice tandem at the end of the game. Lefty Brett Cecil and hard-throwing righty Steve Delabar make the Jays bullpen one of the best in the division this season.

But bullpens have a way of wearing down when the starters do not succeed and have to be taken out early. In the rough and tumble American League East, the Blue Jays rotation just lacks the ability to hang with the big boys.

There is no doubt their offense is impressive. They will hit their share of home runs. But they also will lose a lot of games by scores of 9-7 and 8-5 because of this shaky rotation.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Cashman pointed out this spring what was painfully obvious. The luck the Orioles used to make the playoffs in 2012 was bound to be paid for in 2013. Orioles manager Buck Showalter took offense. But the truth always hurts, Buck.

The Orioles did not win those one-run and extra-inning games they won in 2012 and they finished with the Yankees in a tie for third place in 2014.

It is hard to see how the Orioles make it much better in 2014 even with the addition of right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Bud Norris and outfielder Nelson Cruz.

The issue with the Orioles is the same as last season. The starters Jimenez, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Norris are all fine pitchers in their own right but who, for Pete’s sake, is the ace? And is that ace better than the pitchers they face routinely like David Price, Masahiro Tanaka, Clay Buchholz, R.A. Dickey or Matt Moore?

The answer is no and Showalter will learn that quickly.

Jimenez is just a middling starter and Norris just looked good compared to all the awful pitchers the Astros kept running out there. Neither make the Orioles much better.

The addition of Cruz is curious because the Orioles are loaded with offense in mega-power threat Chris Davis added to Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and J.J. Hardy. Cruz adds to that power but it is hard to see how that helps keep runs of the board.

The Orioles bullpen also took a major hit when Jim Johnson left for Oakland and took the 101 saves he recorded for the O’s the past two seasons with him. The Orioles are asking journeyman right-hander Tommy Hunter to do a job he has never done before and close games.

They did not add much around him either. They still rely on right-hander Darren O’Day and left-hander Brian Matusz to set up. Getting to them may be an issue because none of the rest of Orioles bullpen is really proven.

So Showalter just has to hope that his team can score runs in droves night after night to cover for a weak pitching staff. The mix of this starting staff and bullpen may be the worst in the division because the Blue Jays actually boast a much stronger bullpen.

Showalter may be an excellent manager but he can’t turn cubic zirconium into diamonds. There just no magic left for the Orioles.

 

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

 

1) NEW YORK YANKEES

2) TAMPA BAY RAYS 

3) BOSTON RED SOX

4) TORONTO BLUE JAYS

5) BALTIMORE ORIOLES

 

I see a close race between the Rays and Yankees and both will easily make the playoffs. The Red Sox will not collapse but I do see them fading as the season progresses when their rotation routinely starts breaking down. The Blue Jays will win their share of games with their offense and bullpen. But there will be days when good pitching will beat good hitting. On those days the Blue Jays will lose. The same for the Orioles. If they do not average seven runs a game they are in a heap of trouble. No team can do that consistently enough and no one can in this tough division. They will fall to the basement with a loud thud. Sorry, Buck. The truth hurts, huh!

 

 

Wells’ Walk-Off Hit Hands Victory To Nova, Yanks

GAME 86

YANKEES 3, ORIOLES 2

There are defining moments within a season and in a pennant chase. But the New York Yankees delivered a very big message to the Baltimore Orioles on Friday: You are NOT going to push us around anymore.

Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells, who had failed to deliver in the same situation four innings earlier, came through with the tying and winning RBIs in the ninth inning off Orioles closer Jim Johnson and Ivan Nova pitched the game of his life as New York  –  bullied and bruised from a sweep at Oriole Park at Camden Yards last week  – broke the heart of Baltimore with a walk-off victory in front of a raucous paid crowd of 43,396 at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees entered the ninth trailing 2-1 with Johnson (2-7) on the mound facing No. 9 hitter David Adams, who was hitting .183 as he stepped into the batter’s box. Adams ripped an 1-1 fastball and delivered an opposite-field single to right.

Brett Gardner, attempting to sacrifice Adams to second with a sacrifice bunt, reached on a single when Johnson overran the ball and was unable to make a play.

Surprisingly, Ichiro Suzuki then elected to drop down a sacrifice bunt that advanced Adams to third and Gardner to second because the move effectively allowed Orioles manager Buck Showalter to intentionally walk Robinson Cano to load the bases, as he had done in the fifth inning.

Trailing 2-1 with Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez on the mound in the fifth, Showalter had Gonzalez walk Cano intentionally to load the bases with one out. Hafner then flied out to shallow center, leaving Adams at third base. Wells followed with a weak foul popup to first baseman Chris Davis that left the bases loaded.

But in the ninth inning against Johnson both Hafner and Wells were hoping the outcome would be different. Fortunately for the Yankees, they redeemed themselves.

Hafner drew a walk on four straight pitches to bring in the tying run in Adams. Wells followed by slapping a 2-2 sinker from Johnson just past the dive of third baseman Manny Machado and into left-field to score Gardner with the run that made a winner out Nova.

Nova (3-2) was only starting the game due to a sore left hip flexor injury to right-hander Hiroki Kuroda. But the 26-year-old right-hander took advantage of his first start since June 23 and only his sixth start this season.

Despite opening the second inning by hitting Davis with a pitch and allowing a two-run opposite-field home run to Matt Wieters that hit off the top of the wall and bounded into the bleachers, Nova shut down the Orioles the rest of the way on just two singles and a walk while he struck out 11 batters  –  one less than his career best of 12 in 2011 against the Cincinnati Reds.

Mixing his 95-mile-per-hour fastball with a devastating curveball that had the powerful Orioles, who lead the major leagues in home runs, flailing at air all night in what was Nova’s first major-league complete game in 67 career starts. Over nine innings, Nova threw 102 pitches and 70 of them were strikes, a strike percentage of 69%.

This was much like the Nova of 2011 who burst onto the scene as a rookie to post a 16-4 record with a 3.70 ERA and win his final 12 games in a row. It was not the same Nova who was so awful in going 12-8 with a 5.02 ERA in 2012 and who was 1-1 with a 6.48 ERA in his first four starts of 2013 before he landed on the 15-day disabled list for two months with a right triceps strain.

It looked as if Nova would end up taking a hard-luck loss because the Yankees’ offense could only manage one hit off Gonzalez until the fourth inning.

Wells delivered a two-out lined single to left and Gonzalez then issued a walk to Lyle Overbay, seemingly pitching around the veteran first baseman in order to face light-hitting shortstop Luis Cruz. However, Cruz spoiled the strategy when he laced a sharp single to left and Wells was able to slide home just a beat ahead of the throw from Nate McLouth and the tag of Wieters at the plate.

The game remained that way until the Yankees mounted their rally off Johnson in the ninth that handed the closer his sixth blown save of the season, two of them to the Yankees.

Gonzalez gave up four hits and five walks while striking out four in six innings of work. Left-hander Troy Patton and right-hander Darren O’Day both pitched an inning shutout baseball for the Orioles.

The victory for the Yankees, their fifth in a row, allowed them to climb within percentage points of the second-place Orioles in the American League East with a 47-39 mark. The Orioles defeat left them 48-39, five games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox are playing the Los Angeles Angels in a late game in Anaheim, CA.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • How can six go into five? That the problem for manager Joe Girardi now that Nova has served notice he belongs in the rotation. You can’t possibly remove hard-throwing Dominican after what he did on Friday. When Nova is on like he was on Friday, he actually has the arguably the best stuff of any of the current Yankee starters. The most likely candidate to go could be David Phelps. But Phelps pitched a fine game against the Minnesota Twins on Thursday. Stay tuned.
  • Wells was given a second consecutive start against a right-handed pitcher and he made the most of it. Despite hitting that weak foul pop in the fifth, Wells finished the evening 2-for-5 with a run scored and the game-winning walk-off RBI. In his past three games, Wells is 6-for-12 with four RBIs. That streak has raised his season average from .223 to .235.
  • Cruz is showing signs he may be a better hitter than his .136 mark with the Los Angeles Dodgers that led to his designation for assignment and eventual release. Cruz is 3-for-11 (.272) and has RBIs in the past two of his three starts at shortstop for the Yankees. Cruz also made a fine pair of plays on ground balls off the bat of Machado and Nick Markakis in the third inning that robbed both of potential hits.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

You can’t fault the pitching because Nova was sensational. Besides Cruz’s two gems, Cano turned in a pair of dazzlers in the fourth inning. So you can’t fault the defense. You could rip Hafner and Wells for failing the fifth inning with the bases loaded and one out. However, they atoned for those sins by coming through when it counted in the ninth. No complaints here.

BOMBER BANTER

The Yankees announced Friday that shortstop Derek Jeter will begin a rehab assignment on Saturday with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre. Jeter, who has spent the better part of eight months rehabbing a broken left ankle after undergoing surgery, is expected to play at least five innings at shortstop in the RailRiders’ game against Lehigh Valley. Jeter originally broke the ankle in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers last October. After undergoing surgery Jeter attempted to return to action during spring training but felt discomfort and had to be shelved. An MRI on April 18 indicated a second small break of the ankle and Jeter has been on the disabled list the entire season. Girardi refused to set a firm date for Jeter’s return to the Yankees.   . . .  Kuroda has been cleared to resume throwing again but it is not clear when he will make his next start. Kuroda first felt discomfort in his left hip warming up for last Saturday’s game against the Orioles in Baltimore. He pitched in the game and ended up losing 4-2. Kuroda is 7-6 with a 2.95 ERA in 17 starts this season.

ON DECK

The Yankees will put their five-game winning streak on the line on Saturday in a matinee against the O’s.

Veteran left-hander Andy Pettitte (5-6, 4.40 ERA) will take the mound for the Yankees. Pettitte passed Whitey Ford to become the team’s the all-time team strikeout leader but he ended up with a no-decision on Monday after giving up four runs on six hits and four walks in five innings against the Twins. Pettitte is 18-5 with a 3.48 ERA in the past 10 seasons against the Orioles.

Baltimore will start right-hander Chris Tillman (10-2, 3.68 ERA). Tillman yielded two runs on five hits and two walks while striking out six in six innings against the Yankees on Sunday, his seventh consecutive winning decision. He is 3-3 with a 7.27 ERA lifetime against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.

 

Orioles Blast Three Homers To Cool Off Yankees

GAME 10

ORIOLES 5, YANKEES 3

Ryan Flaherty, Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold each hit solo home runs and Jason Hammel pitched six solid innings as Baltimore edged New York on Saturday in front of a paid crowd of 41,851 at Yankee Stadium.

All three solo home runs came off Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes (0-2), who is showing signs that he is now paying for missing all of spring training with a bulging disk in his upper back.

Hughes was hammered for five runs on nine hits and two walks and struck out three in four-plus innings of work.

The Yankees scored all their runs as a result of their new acquisitions. They got a pair of solo home runs from Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells and an RBI single from Lyle Overbay. But the Yankees could not overcome Hughes’ struggles enough to mount a late charge against the Baltimore bullpen.

Brian Matusz, Darren O’Day and closer Jim Johnson shut out the Yankees in the final three innings and Johnson was credited with his fifth save of the season.

Hammel (2-1) gave up three runs (two earned) on eight hits and a walk while he struck out four to pick up the victory.

The Yankees had their four-game winning streak halted and their season record fell to 5-5. The Orioles improved to 6-5.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Wells blasted his third home run of the season to bring the Yankees to within 5-3 but the Yankee offense pretty much died after that. Wells was 2-for-4 in the game and even got himself an outfield assist in throwing out Adam Jones trying to stretch a hit into a double. Wells is hitting .333 in the early going and it appears he is loving the fact he is playing every day again.
  • Hafner also stroked his third home run of the season to lead off the second inning. It was a laser shot that landed in the Yankees’ bullpen in right-center. Hafner is hitting .303 so far and he is looking more like the star he was with the Indians than the injured wreck he has been the past five seasons.
  • David Phelps made a case for himself to be inserted into the starting rotation. He came into the game in the fourth with the Yankees trailing 5-3 and a runner on second and no outs. He then proceeded to retire six batters in a row, four of them by strikeout. He ended up pitching four shutout innings and the only hit he gave up was Jones’ single and Wells threw him out at second.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Hughes, 26, is basically pitching his own version of spring training and it shows. Hughes simply lacked command of all of his pitches and the Orioles just teed off on him. The Yankees have to hope he will right himself as he gets stronger. Hughes, who was second in the American League in giving up 35 home runs in 2012, also needs to try harder to keep the ball in the ballpark.
  • It is hard to criticize Kevin Youkilis because he came into the game hitting a team-best .424 and he had at least one hit in all of the team’s first nine games. But he was Missing In Action (MIA) on Saturday. He was 0-for-5, including a strikeout and hitting into an inning-ending double play. His average fell to .368.
  • Hammel used shortstop Jayson Nix as an escape hatch to maintain the lead for the Orioles. Nix bounced back to Hammel in the second inning with a runner on. In the fourth, Nix struck out looking with two on and in the sixth he fouled out to first baseman Chris Davis with two on.

BOMBER BANTER

Shortstop Eduardo Nunez only was available to pinch-run and the Orioles took advantage by targeting Nix to shut down rallies. Manager Joe Girardi used pinch-hitter Brennan Boesch for Nix in the eighth inning with two and two out, but Boesch struck out swinging against O’Day. That forced Girardi to shift catcher Francisco Cervelli to second base, Robinson Cano moved from second base to shortstop and Chris Stewart was inserted behind the plate for the ninth inning. It was Cano’s first major-league appearance at shortstop and only Cervelli’s second appearance at second base. Nunez, who left Friday’s game with a bruised wrist after being struck by a pitch from Orioles right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, will not be available to play in the field until at least Tuesday.  . . .  Girardi refused to comment on new allegations surrounding Alex Rodriguez and a clinic in Miami that allegedly supplied players with performance-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball reportedly believes it has unearthed evidence that a representative for Rodriguez attempted to have documents purchased from the Biogenesis anti-aging clinic.  Girardi said the team is aware of the charges but he said the news has not affected the clubhouse at all.

ON DECK

The Yankees will hope to win the rubber game of the three-game weekend series with the Orioles on Sunday.

Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda (1-1, 6.75 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Kuroda, still suffering the effects of a bruised right middle finger incurred in his first start, gave up three runs in the first inning and struggled with his command in 5 1/3 innings against the Cleveland Indians on Monday. But still he won the game. He is 1-1 with a 2.93 ERA in his career against the O’s.

The Orioles will start left-hander Wei-Yin Chen (0-1, 3.75 ERA). Chen gave up three runs on five hits and two walks while striking out three over 6 1/3 innings in a loss to Clay Buchholz and the Boston Red Sox. Chen was 1-2 with a 5.25 ERA against the Yankees in 2012.

Game-time will be 8:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by ESPN.

 

Orioles Fall To Ibanez’s Pair Of ‘Buckshot’ Blasts

Hear people talk about going to heaven
Grab a little bit of heaven right here on Earth
Troubled times lead to healing times
I was sad now I’m feeling fine
It’s the taking and the giving that makes this life worth living,
Makes this life worth living

 

                                             – Lyrics to “State of Mind” by Raul Midon

 

GAME 3 – AMERICAN LEAGUE DIVISION SERIES

YANKEES 3, ORIOLES 2 (12 INNINGS)

There have some memorable home runs in Yankees’ history: Bucky Dent in 1978, Reggie Jackson in 1979 and Aaron Boone in 2003. How about adding a pair of them from Raul Ibanez in 2012?

Yankee manager Joe Girardi – summoning up all the courage of his convictions – sent Ibanez to pinch-hit for a player who is fifth on the all-time home run list in Alex Rodriguez with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning and Ibanez delivered a huge game-tying line-drive home run to right on the first pitch from Orioles closer Jim Johnson.

Three innings later, Ibanez led off the bottom of 12th inning with a high-arcing, no-doubt-about-it blast on the first pitch from left-hander Brian Matusz into the second deck in right-field of Yankee Stadium as New York became the first team this season to defeat Baltimore in walk-off fashion.

The come-from-behind victory on Wednesday also turned the momentum of the series clearly to the team in pinstripes as the Yankees have a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series and the next two games will be in their backyard. They will have a chance to punch their own ticket to the American League Championship Series with a victory on Thursday.

The Yankees have also proven to be a bit of a thorn in the side of the Orioles in extra innings this season. After the Orioles lost their first two extra-inning games of the regular season to the Yankees, they ran off a streak of 16 straight to finish 2012. But they have now lost a third game in extra frames to the Yankees and this one really stung because the O’s were two outs from victory in the ninth.

As with all of the three games of series, the Yankees and Orioles got locked into another pitchers’ duel between 37-year-old right-hander Hiroki Kuroda and 28-year-old rookie right-hander Miguel Gonzalez.

Both were brilliant. Both would have been worthy victors. But both left the game empty-handed.

Kuroda was tagged for a pair of home runs from two Orioles’ rookies, Ryan Flaherty hit one with one out in the third and Manny Machado posted his leading off the fifth.

Other than those two mistakes, Kuroda proved to be worth every bit of the $10-million, one-year contract to which he was signed this winter. Kuroda only gave up the two runs on five hits, one walk and two hit batters while he fanned three in 8 1/3 innings.

However, the Yankees had another difficult time trying figure out Gonzalez. In his two regular season starts against the Yankees, Gonzalez was 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA in the Bronx.

In this contest, the Yankees only got to Gonzalez in the third inning when Russell Martin lined a one-out double off the wall in the left-field corner and Derek Jeter lined a high fastball into center-field that Adam Jones misjudged into a triple.

Gonzalez, along with Darren O’Day pitching a 1-2-3 frame in the eighth, shut down the Yankees cold until the ninth. Gonzalez surrendered just the one run on five hits and no walks while he fanned eight Yankees in seven innings.

The ninth began with Johnson, who gave up a game-winning home run to Martin and five runs (four earned) in Baltimore’s 7-2 loss in Game 1, retired Suzuki on a routine fly ball to left.

Girardi then stunned the paid crowd of 50,497 by sitting Rodriguez, who was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts in the game and 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts in the series, and sending up instead 40-year-old outfielder/designated hitter Ibanez to face the right-handed Johnson.

Girardi figured that the lefty-hitting Ibanez had a better chance of  pulling Johnson’s “bowling-ball” sinker out to right-field than Rodriguez had hitting the same pitch to the deeper dimensions in left – especially with a swirling wind blowing out stronger to right.

On Johnson’s first delivery, Ibanez managed to put the barrel of the bat on the low fastball and lift it up on a line about five rows back into the bleachers in right as the fans in the stadium and the Yankees in the dugout went into delirium for getting to the closer, who led the American League with 51 saves this season, in two games this series.

Johnson had only given up three home runs during the regular season. He now has given up two critical longballs (to Martin and Ibanez) within four days to the playoff-tested Yankees.

Meanwhile, the Yankees’ bullpen was doing a number on the powerful Orioles’ lineup.

Lefty Boone Logan came in to relieve Kuroda with one out in the ninth and struck out the lefty-swinging Jim Thome, who along with A-Rod are the only two active players who have 600 or more home runs.

Yankees closer Rafael Soriano came on to strike out the righty-swinging Mark Reynolds and he also contributed a scoreless 10th inning.

Right-hander David Robertson (1-0) pitched two scoreless frames in the 11th and 12th to set the stage for Ibanez’s heroics in 12th.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter elected to use Matusz (0-1) in the 12th after he pitched a perfect 11th. Matusz was thought to be among the Orioles’ best young starters when the season began but he was banished to the bullpen, where he became e a specialist against left-handed hitters like Ibanez.

But Ibanez stepped to the plate looking for a fastball up in the zone so he could drive it out and Matusz obliged him. The sound of the bat striking the ball was all you needed to hear because it struck flush on the sweet spot and the ball rose majestically into the thin 62-degree, low-humidity air.

Wind or no wind, it was obvious to the Yankees and to Matusz where it was going. The only doubt was how far back into the second deck it would land.

Ibanez tossed his helmet as jogged around third and headed toward home plate. His thrilled teammates were there to pound him about as hard he hit the baseball. Matusz turned away the second the ball was struck and trudged slowly to the dugout – his head down and with the look of a defeated punch-drunk fighter wearily stumbling to his corner after yet another crushing knockout.

For the veteran-laden Yankees, who have participated in 17 of the past 18 postseasons, it was just another day at the office. But destiny laid her precious hands on their backs and provided them with a gentle nudge to yet another classic postseason victory.

For the young and cobbled-together Orioles, who have not been in a postseason since 1997, it was a cold slap in the face with some serious reality. Another defeat will mean this magical trip to the big dance will end up with them as wallflowers again.

If you want to beat the Yankees you had better beat them when you have a chance. The Orioles have had chances in all three games to do just that. But they failed twice.

That is twice too many.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Give Girardi credit for doing something most managers would never do in benching Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth. But give Ibanez even more credit for coming through with another pair of clutch hits for the Yankees.  On Sept. 22, Ibanez entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the fifth and stroked a solo homer to tie it at 5-5. He later tied the game again with a two-run home run in the bottom of the 13th as the Yankees rallied from a 9-5 deficit in the top of the 13th. The Yankees won the game in the bottom of the 14th, 10-9. On Oct. 2, Ibanez pinch-hit in the bottom of the ninth with one on and no outs and he hit a two-run shot that tied the game against the Boston Red Sox at 3-3. Ibanez later won the game, 4-3, in the bottom of the 12th with a two-out, opposite-field single to right. Ibanez had a lot to do with the Yankees winning the division and he now is poised to become the big hero of the ALDS. He becomes the first player in postseason history to hit two home runs in a game in which he did not start.
  • Kuroda, minus the two solo homers, was absolutely amazing in his 8 1/3 innings of work. Those who thought the Yankees’ starting pitching would be their undoing in the series were dead wrong. CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Kuroda have combined to give up only seven runs on 20 hits and three walks and struck out 15 batters over 24 innings. That is an ERA of 2.62 and a WHIP (Walks and Hits to Innings Pitched) of 0.96.
  • Jeter entered Game 3 hitting .444 (4-for-9) and added to that by going 2-for-4 with a clutch RBI triple to raise his average to ,462 in the series. On a team where a lot of productive hitters are coming up small in the series, Jeter is not resting on his 216-hit regular season.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • If there was not a left-handed pitcher scheduled for Game 4 for the Orioles, it might have possible that Rodriguez might have been benched altogether. I am not so sure he should not be benched anyway after his 1-for-12 (.083) start. Rodriguez has not really shined in the postseason over the past three years and he looks clueless at the plate in this series.
  • Curtis Granderson pulled another one of his disappearing acts in this game. He was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and he did not get a ball out of the infield. Granderson is 1-for-11 (.091) with six strikeouts in the series. On two occasions on Thursday, Granderson struck out on just three pitches. He and Rodriguez seem to be having a contest going on who can stink it up the most in the series.
  • In a game in which the Yankees needed him to hit well, Robinson Cano was 0-for-4 and he saw only 11 pitches. Cano is again being too aggressive at the plate and he is basically getting himself out by hitting pitches that are not in his wheelhouse. Cano is 2-for-12 (.167) for the series but he does have three RBIs.

BOMBER BANTER

Jeter fouled a pitch from Gonzalez off his left foot in the third inning two pitches before he legged out his RBI triple. However, Jeter hobbled throughout the rest of the game in noticeable discomfort and was removed in favor of Jayson Nix in the bottom of the ninth inning. It is not clear if the injury will force Jeter to miss Game 4.  . . .  Injured closer Mariano Rivera threw out the ceremonial first pitch in Game 3. Rivera was not introduced but drew a loud standing ovation as the strains of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blared from the public address system. Rivera was shelved after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on May 3 in Kansas City.  Rivera, 42, has said he will return to pitch for the Yankees next season.

ON DECK

The Yankees can advance to the ALCS with a victory over the Orioles on Thursday.

The Yankees will send 26-year-old right-hander Phil Hughes (16-13, 4.23 ERA) to the mound. Hughes struggled in September, giving up at least four runs in four of his six starts. However, he is the team leader in victories this season. In his four starts against the O’s he was 2-2 with a 4.76 ERA.

The Orioles will hand over their dying hopes to journeyman 31-year-old lefty Joe Saunders (9-13, 4.07 ERA). Saunders started September off 2-0, but he wound up failing to win in three of his last four starts. He did defeat the Yankees at Camden Yards in his only start against them on Sept. 8.

Game-time will be 7:30 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by TBS.

 

CC, Yankees Ride 5-Run Ninth To Soar Past Birds

 

Well now C., C.C. Rider, well now see 
See what you have done 
Well now C., C.C. Rider, well now see 
See what you have done 

 

                 – Lyrics to “C.C. Rider” by Chuck Willis and Ma Rainey

 

GAME 1 – AMERICAN LEAGUE DIVISION SERIES

YANKEES 7, ORIOLES 2

Before this series began, the Orioles were counting on the fact that CC Sabathia came into Sunday’s game with an 0-2 record and a 6.38 ERA in the regular season against the Orioles after posting a spectacular 16-3 mark against them in his career.

They also believed their vaunted bullpen, led by closer Jim Johnson and his 51 saves, would hold the Yankees down long enough for the Orioles to sneak off with another one of their patented one-run victories at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Neither of those two things happened, however.

Sabathia pitched a brilliant 8 2/3 innings and the Yankees pounded Johnson in the ninth inning for five runs on five hits, including a tie-breaking leadoff home run from Russell Martin, as New York clipped the wings of Baltimore to take a pivotal 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series.

The game was tied 2-2 when Orioles manager Buck Showalter elected to bring Johnson into the game to attempt to hold the Yankees scoreless in the top of ninth. However, Johnson elevated a sinker on a 2-0 pitch to Martin and the veteran catcher blasted a long line drive into left-field that landed six rows up into the bleachers.

You could hear a collective gasp in the crowd because the deluxe sinker-baller Johnson had only given up only three home runs all season and none after June 5.

Raul Ibanez followed with a sharp ground single into right and Derek Jeter then executed a perfect hit-and-run single into the hole between first and second to advance Ibanez to third. Eduardo Nunez was inserted into the game to run for Ibanez.

Ichiro Suzuki then delivered a swinging-bunt single that scored Nunez and one out later Robinson Cano, who came into the game hitting .615 in his last nine games but was 0-for-4 on the night, slapped an opposite-field double to score Jeter and Suzuki. Cano advanced to third on a throwing error by J.J. Hardy.

Johnson (0-1) left in favor of right-hander Tommy Hunter and Nick Swisher was able to loft a fly ball into center to score Cano with fifth and final run charged to Johnson.

Meanwhile, Sabathia (1-0) pitched skillfully and came within one strike of pitching a complete game against a team that was playing in its first postseason since 1997 in front of a raucous towel-waving paid crowd of 47,841.

The Yankees actually broke open the scoring in the game before some of those fans had enough time to dry off their seats after a two hour and 21 minute rain delay had pushed back the first pitch to 8:42 p.m. EDT.

Jeter, who led the major leagues in hits this season with 216, stroked a hard-hit single up the middle off Orioles starter Jason Hammel. Suzuki, playing in his first postseason game since his rookie season of 2001 with the Seattle Mariners, then laced a double to the wall in left-center that scored Jeter standing up.

That run stood until the third inning when Chris Davis lined a single to center off Sabathia and Lew Ford followed with a single in the hole between shortstop and third into left-field. Robert Andino laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance them a base and Sabathia perhaps made his only real mistake of the whole evening.

Sabathia hung a first-pitch slider and Nate Mclouth slapped it into right-center to score Davis and Ford to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead.

The Yankees tied it up in the fourth by taking advantage of some wildness on the part of Hammel, who had not started a game since Sept. 11 because of a recurrence of a right knee injury that landed him on the disabled list early in the season.

Alex Rodriguez drew a walk to lead off the frame and one out later Swisher was walked on a 3-2 pitch. Mark Teixeira followed with a towering shot that hit the top of the scoreboard in right-field to score Rodriguez, however, Teixeira was thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a double on a bullet throw from Davis.

The game remained tied until the ninth but Sabathia earned the victory by turning away several serious Oriole scoring threats.

The Orioles mounted a rally in the fifth when Davis led off with a broken-bat single to right and one out later Andino rolled a ball just past a diving Jeter into left. However, Sabathia fanned McLouth looking and he retired Hardy on inning-ending groundout.

The Orioles put two men on base with two out in the sixth on a Mark Reynolds single and an error by Jeter on a short-hop grounder off the bat of Manny Machado. But Sabathia got Davis to fly out to center to end the threat.

In the eighth, Hardy led off with an opposite-field double to right. But Sabathia struck out Adam Jones swinging, got Matt Wieters out on a foul pop to Teixeira and Reynolds rolled out to Jeter to strand Hardy and set the stage for the Yankees five-run explosion in the ninth.

Sabathia surrendered two runs on eight hits and one walk while he fanned seven batters in a gutty 120-pitch outing. He left with two out in the ninth after Ford hit a two-out double on a 1-2 pitch.

David Robertson came on and struck out pinch-hitter Ryan Flaherty swinging to end the contest in front a quiet and dispirited Camden Yards crowd.

The Yankees had some chances to score more runs earlier in the game off Hammel. But base-running blunders and the fact the team was 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position until the ninth saved the Orioles.

After Suzuki doubled in Jeter in the first he was thrown by Wieters trying to steal third. Teixeira getting thrown out trying to stretch his RBI single in the  fourth also short-circuited a potential big-inning.

Hammel gave up two runs on four hits and four walks while he struck out five in 5 2/3 innings.

Reliever Troy Patton escaped a two-on, two out jam in the sixth on a running catch of a ball off the bat of Curtis Granderson in foul territory in deep right by Davis.

The Yankees mounted a threat against Patton in the seventh when Martin and Ibanez drew back-to-back walks to start the inning.

After reliever Darren O’Day gave up a sacrifice bunt to Jeter that advanced Martin and Ibanez, Suzuki hit a hot smash to Andino and he threw Martin out at the plate. Rodriguez ended the threat by striking out swinging.

The ninth, however, would prove to be a much different story against Johnson.

The Yankees hold a vital 1-0 lead, having taken a game on the road in the best-of-five series. Since divisional play began, teams with a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five sets have won 48 of the previous 68 series.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Sabathia shook off the long rain delay and retired the first six batters he faced. He threw 80 of his 120 pitches for strikes (67 percent).  Sabathia also redeemed himself after pitching so poorly this season against the Orioles in his three starts and the 6.23 ERA he recorded in the best-of-five ALDS loss in 2011 to the Detroit Tigers.
  • Martin has been delivering clutch home runs lately and this one was probably even more important than his three-run home run in the sixth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sept. 28 that broke open a game the Yankees eventually won 11-4 to keep their lead in the American League East. Though Martin hit .211 this season, a hot final month allowed him to post a career high 21 home runs.
  • Though Suzuki’s base-running foray in the first hurt, he delivered for the Yankees in the game by going 2-for-5 with a double, a run scored and two RBIs. He also combined with Jeter to reach base six times in 10 plate appearances.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Rodriguez is virtually useless to the Yankees. He did draw a walk and score the tying run in the fourth. However, in his other four trips to the plate he struck out three times and rolled out weakly to short. After another disappointing season, Rodriguez is continuing his inept hitting in the playoffs.
  • Granderson was not much better. He was 0-for-3 with an intentional walk. He hit into a fielder’s choice, fouled out to right and struck out. That is odd for Granderson because he entered play with a career average of .313 in division series play. In the seventh inning reliever Brian Matusz deliberately walked Teixeira on four pitches to face Granderson with two out and he struck him out on three pitches.
  • The runners-in-scoring-position curse that has followed the Yankees much of the season almost sunk them against the Orioles. The Orioles were 3-for-8 but those five times they did not deliver against Sabathia cost them the game. The Yankees were very lucky to have won.

BOMBER BANTER

The Yankees posted a 25-man roster for the series that included some surprises. The Yankees found out middle infielder Jayson Nix was healthy enough to put on the roster. His left hip flexor injury he sustained in game on Sept. 27 was supposed to have sidelined him for 10 to 14 days but he was cleared to play on Saturday. In addition, Andruw Jones was left off the roster in favor of outfielder Brett Gardner and Nunez. Jones struggled badly in the second half and ended up hitting just .197. The Yankees also elected to go with a 11-man pitching staff that did not include 12-game winner Ivan Nova, veteran Freddy Garcia or reliever Cody Eppley. Late-season acquisition Derek Lowe was placed on the roster along with rookie right-hander David Phelps.

ON DECK

The Yankees will have a chance to deal a severe blow to the Orioles if they can win a second game at Camden Yards on Monday.

The Yankees have decided to go with 40-year-old left-hander Andy Pettitte (5-4, 2.87 ERA), who happens to be the all-time leader in postseason victories and boasts a 19-10 record with a 3.83 ERA in 42 starts. Pettitte was 2-1 with a 1.62 ERA in his three starts after being activated from the disabled list with a broken bone in his left ankle. He is 27-6 with a 3.52 ERA lifetime against the Orioles.

The Orioles will counter with a rookie right-hander from Taiwan in Wei-Yin Chen (12-11, 4.02 ERA). Chen wore down in September as evidenced by his 0-4 record and 5.05 ERA in his final six starts of the season. Chen started against the Yankees four times and was 1-2 with a 5.25 ERA.

Game-time will be 8 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by TBS.