This season’s ninth innings are going to seem very strange for the New York Yankees.
For the first time since 1997 the team will not have the benefit of the greatest closer in baseball history.
Mariano Rivera was the gold standard of the modern era one-inning closer and won’t it be odd not hearing “Enter Sandman” reverberate throughout the Yankee Stadium?
Rivera leaves taking his major-league 652 saves and career ERA of 2.21. He also removes the security blanket that managers Joe Torre and Joe Girardi had that made them so successful. Opponents will enter the 2014 season extremely happy that No. 42 will not be in the Yankees’ bullpen.
The question is who will take Mo’s place?
Though no promises have been made, David Robertson will have the opportunity to fill the biggest shoes in baseball.
Robertson, 28, like Rivera, is a product of the Yankees’ minor-league system and he has been Rivera’s set-up man for the past three seasons.
In four full seasons and parts of a fifth, Robertson has compiled a 21-14 record with a sparkling 2.76 ERA. Last season, Robertson was 5-1 with 2.04 ERA and superbly set up Rivera in his final season.
The big question is can the former University of Alabama closer handle the job at the major-league level. Robertson has a mere eight saves in 18 chances in the majors.
When handed the role in 2012 when Rivera injured his knee early in the season, Robertson faltered and was replaced by Rafael Soriano. That experience leaves enough doubt about him heading into the new season.
But Robertson has the goods to close. He can bring a low- to mid-90s fastball, a cutter he learned from the master Rivera and a knee-buckling curveball. The only question is can he keep his pitch counts down to get through a clean ninth inning consistently?
Rivera’s lifetime WHIP (Walks and Hits to Innings Pitched) was 1.00, which is excellent. Robertson is sporting a career WHIP of 1.25, which is not great for a reliever. However, his WHIPs over the past three seasons have been 1.13, 1.17 and 1.04.
The 1.04 WHIP from last season is a career low. That is closer material. So Robertson stands as the No. 1 candidate as of today.
The Yankees still could sign a closer before spring training opens. But that is not looking likely.
The best closer on the market, Grant Balfour of the Oakland Athletics, signed a two-year deal with his former team the Tampa Bay Rays. Former Rays closer Fernando Rodney, 36, was excellent in 2012 but regressed in 2013 with 37 saves and 3.38 ERA and a high WHIP of 1.34.
In addition, the Yankees have already spent a lot of money on free agents this offseason. Can they afford to add more?
A more likely scenario would be a trade packaging some players in return for an experienced bullpen pitcher who can set up and close out games. Stay tuned.
The Yankee bullpen also will be without some other familiar names in 2014.
The Colorado Rockies signed left-hander Boone Logan to a three-year deal. The Detroit Tigers signed right-hander Joba Chamberlain to a one-year deal.
The Yankees did sign veteran left-hander Matt Thornton, 37, from the Boston Red Sox. Thornton has some heavy mileage on him but he provides the team a quality left-hander who has had experience as a set-up man and closer.
Thornton has a career record of 32-42 with a 3.53 ERA, a 1.29 WHIP and 23 career saves. He was 0-4 with a 3.74 ERA in 60 games with the Chicago White Sox and the Red Sox last season. He will essentially replace Logan as the team’s main left-hander.
The Yankees also have a holdover in right-hander Shawn Kelley, 29, who was 4-2 with a 4.39 ERA in 57 games with the Yankees last season. The former Seattle Mariner essentially made Chamberlain obsolete after recording 71 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings with his devastating slider.
Kelley and Thornton are likely to be Girardi’s main seventh and eighth inning options this season.
The Yankees also have high hopes for right-hander Preston Claiborne, 26, who was impressive in the early stages of his rookie season.
Called up in May, Claiborne did not issue a walk in his first nine appearances. On July 28, Claiborne was 0-1 with a 2.06 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP in 29 games. However, the wheels came off the wagon quickly and he was 0-1 with a 8.80 ERA in his last 15 games.
The Yankees still believe the big Texan nicknamed “Little Joba” can pitch as he did in his first 29 games in the major leagues. As long as Claiborne is attacking the strike zone to get ahead he can be a huge weapon for Girardi this season. Claiborne has a very high ceiling and spring training will determine just how far he can go in 2014.
Speaking of high ceilings, the reliever to watch this spring will be left-handed specialist Cesar Cabral, 25.
A Rule 5 draft pick in 2011, Cabral was competing for a job with the Yankees in 2012 when he suffered a fracture of his left elbow in his final appearance of spring training and he missed the entire 2012 season.
His rehab also extended into 2013. In 30 games in three stops in the minors, Cabral was 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA. But he had 43 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings. He was called up to the majors when the rosters expanded on Sept. 1 and he made his major-league debut on Sept. 2.
Cabral ended up 0-0 with a 2.45 ERA in eight late-season games, striking out six in 3 2/3 innings. Lefties hit .125 off him.
It looks as if the Yankees have found a gem in the young lefty. Cabral enters 2014 as almost a shoo-in to make the team to give the team a lefty specialist they have lacked since Clay Rapada injured his arm in spring training last season. Mark my words, Cabral is something special.
The other two spots in the bullpen are up for grabs. But the Yankees have a lot of options to fill those spots.
Should Michael Pineda claim a spot in the starting rotation and join CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Ivan Nova and Hiroki Kuroda, one obvious choice to fill out the bullpen is David Phelps.
Phelps, 27, has served as reliever and spot starter for the past two seasons.
In two seasons he is 10-9 with a 4.11 ERA in 55 games (23 starts). His ERA is inflated because he been less successful as a starting pitcher the past two seasons. Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild would like to see Phelps resume his role in the bullpen because of his versatility and effectiveness.
Phelps does not possess a crackling fastball but he does have extreme confidence in his stuff. He throws strikes and his control is excellent.
Along with Phelps, the Yankees used rookie right-hander Adam Warren as a long reliever and spot starter last season. Warren, 26, responded with a 3-2 record and a 3.39 ERA in 34 games (two of them starts).
Warren enters spring training in the running for the No. 5 spot in the rotation but could very well end up as the long man out of the bullpen again. Unlike Phelps though, Warren has a mid-90s fastball and he has been better as a starter.
The same can be said for 26-year-old left-hander Vidal Nuno.
Nuno won the James P. Dawson Award in 2013 for being the most impressive rookie in spring training. He then went 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before making his major-league debut as a reliever in last April.
He was 1-2 with a 2.25 ERA in five games (three starts) before a strained left groin sustained on May 30 shelved him for the rest of the season.
Nuno is a soft-tosser but he has exceptional control. His ability to fool hitters with his breaking stuff makes him a good possibility as a No. 5 starter if he is impressive again this spring. He also could become a third lefty as a long man in the bullpen.
At the very least, Nuno could return to Scranton and be ready for fill in as a starter or reliever for the Yankees should they need to replace an injured pitcher. Nuno is an excellent insurance policy for Girardi.
One very intriguing bullpen possibility for the Yankees is former top prospect starter Dellin Betances, 25.
The 6-foot-8, 260-pound right-hander flamed out as a starter in 2012 when he recorded a 6-9 record and 6.44 ERA with 99 walks in 113 1/3 innings at two minor-league stops. The Yankees made him a reliever in 2013 and he was much better.
Betances was 6-4 with a 2.68 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 84 innings at Scranton. He cut his walks to just 42.
He was called up in September and had a 10.00 ERA in six games late in the season. But the Yankees believe he has potential to be a dominant reliever in the major leagues is he continues to harness his control. He has mid-90s fastball and his power curve is getting better.
Betances enters this spring as a dark-horse bullpen candidate with the tools to become an excellent reliever someday and perhaps a future closer.
The same can be said of right-hander Mark Montgomery, 23, the team’s current No. 11 prospect.
Montgomery has a 93-mile-per-hour fastball but his biggest weapon is a drop-off-the-table slider that has shot him through the minor-league ranks.
In 2012 he struck out 13.8 batters per nine innings as he advanced through Double-A Trenton. He also led the organization in saves. Last season, Montgomery was 2-3 with a 3.38 ERA with 49 strikeouts in 40 innings at Scranton.
He will get an opportunity to show his progress this spring but he likely will start the season in Scranton. The Yankees still see him as a future setup man or closer. He may get his shot sometime in 2014.
Another minor-leaguer worth watching this spring is 24-year-old right-hander Chase Whitley, who spent most of last season at Scranton.
Whitley was 3-2 with a 3.06 ERA with 62 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings in 29 games. The Alabama native also showed some ability as a starter late in the season.
In five late-season starts, Whitley was 1-0 with a 1.64 ERA. The Yankees will evaluate him this spring and determine what role he might be best suited. But his solid numbers in the minors indicate he is on track to make the major leagues in a few years.
One interesting aspect of the candidates I have mentioned so far is that seven of them (Robertson, Claiborne, Phelps, Warren, Betances, Montgomery and Whitley) were originally drafted by the Yankees. Two others (Cabral and Nuno) are products of the team’s minor-league system.
The other two candidates (Thornton and Kelley) were signed as a free agent and via a trade, respectively.
Although the Yankees’ position players in the minors are progressing slowly. The same can’t be said for the starters and relievers they have been developing the past few seasons. That is a testament to the scouting department and general manager Brian Cashman.
The Yankees need to continue that development as they move forward.
The biggest testimony to that progress will be if Robertson seamlessly settles in as the team’s closer. He may be replacing a huge legend. But if anyone can do it, it is Robertson.
A lot is riding on Robertson;s right arm and the Yankees are very hopeful he can meet the challenge.
BRAVES 2, YANKEES 1
TAMPA – To the Yankees and their fans, the tradition and history of the team is almost as important than the future direction of the franchise. On Saturday, the current legends of the team and the promise of the future were on proud display on Saturday at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
Future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera, fresh from a morning news conference to announce that 2013 will be his final season in pinstripes, and team captain Derek Jeter, rehabbing from offseason surgery to his left ankle, both made triumphant spring training debuts.
As a metaphor for the future, 23-year-old right-hander Jose Ramirez threw four shutout innings against the Braves, yielding just one hit and striking out four batters.
However, as a reminder of the team’s present, the Yankees’ offense could not match its excellent pitching and they fell to Atlanta for their fourth consecutive spring training defeat.
Rivera, 43, spurred the crowd of 10,973 to its feet as he trotted to the mound in the fifth inning serenaded by his personal anthem “Enter Sandman.”
It did not take the master long to establish his signature cutter as Dan Uggla hit a weak infield popup and Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson were caught looking in only 15 pitches. The gathered throng shot to its feet again as one of their heroes strode off the mound and tipped his cap just before he entered the dugout.
Their other “Golden Boy,” Jeter, wasted no time after his standing ovation as he stepped into the batter’s box in the first inning. He sent the initial offering from left-hander Mike Minor between the shortstop Tyler Pastornicky and the third baseman Francisco in left-field. Though Jeter’s gait appeared to be somewhat labored. It did not make a difference to the fans who cheered the captain they love so dearly.
In a spring marked by injury after injury, disappointment and mounting losses, the fans were just happy to have No. 2 and No. 42 back on the field.
Minor matched Ramirez with four shutout innings of his own. He gave up three hits and two walks.
The Braves scored their first run in the seventh inning on a one-out triple by Pastornicky and a two-out bloop RBI single to center by Uggla. They added an insurance run in the ninth on a Jordan Schaffer double and Schaffer later scored on a sac fly off the bat of Jordan Parraz.
That run proved significant because the Yankees ended a 19-inning spring scoring drought against the Braves that dates back to the team’s spring opener on Feb. 23. Thomas Neal scored Bobby Wilson on a groundout off reliever Alex Wood.
Anthony Vavaro (1-0) pitched a perfect sixth inning to get credit for the victory. Wood pitched two innings to earn his second spring save. Left-hander Francisco Rondon took the loss for the Yankees.
The punchless Yankees are now 3-11 this spring. The Braves improved to 8-8.
- Of all the young pitchers, it’s Ramirez, 23, who’s looked the best. He’s gotten two starts and has pitched a total of shutout nine innings allowing four hits with one walk and five strikeouts. “He’s been great,” manager Joe Girardi said. “The kid has thrown the ball really well. He’s throwing strikes. He’s got an outstanding changeup. His slider is a work in progress. He spots his fastball with velocity. He’s had an outstanding spring.”
- Ichiro Suzuki was 2-for-3 and a stolen base on Saturday. He is hitting .450 for the spring. It is just too bad that nobody in the No. 3, No. 4 or No. 5 spots can get enough going at the plate to score him. I bet Girardi is counting the days until mid-May when Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira are expected back. Until then it is not much of an offense. It is just plain offensive is what it is.
- Ronnier Mustelier may be built like a tank but he proved on Saturday that he can run when he stroked a two-out triple to right-center in the seventh. Mustelier, 28, is hitting a robust .375 this spring and Girardi even tried him out at third base on Saturday. Mustelier was moved to the outfield because he seems to be better there. But if he could play third well enough the Yankees might keep him because of his potent bat.
- Surprise! The Yankees were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position on Saturday. It is apparent that the team’s downfall in the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers has not been rectified. They are going to have to do better when the season starts.
- Matt Diaz and Juan Rivera, two players who are likely going to make the team and are being counted upon in the absence of Granderson and Teixeira, were a combined 0-for-6 on Saturday. Rivera is hitting a respectable .273 but Diaz is struggling, hitting just .222.
- Left-handed designated hitter Travis Hafner was 0-for- 2 and he’s hitting .167. It may not yet be time to panic but you may want to keep the Xanax handy.
Right-handers Phil Hughes, David Robertson and David Aardsma threw bullpen sessions on Saturday and all three reported feeling fine afterward. “All good news,” Girardi said. “Maybe the worm has turned.” . . . After the game right-handers Tom Kahnle and Kelvin Perez were optioned to minor-league camp.
The Yankees hope to seek a better result on Sunday on the road against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, FL.
Right-hander David Phelps will make his fourth start of the spring for the Yankees. He will be opposed by J.A. Happ.
Game-time will be at 1:05 EDT and the game will be telecast on tape delay by the MLB Network at 3 a.m. on Monday.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.