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.
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 5, RAYS 1 (12 INNINGS)
Sometimes when they say it is game of inches they really mean it. On Sunday at Tropicana Field the Yankees ended up winning a game against the Rays on a very close checked swing by rookie infielder Dean Anna.
Anna just barely held up on a 3-2 pitch from left-hander C.J. Riefenhauser with the bases loaded and two out as part of a four-run uprising as New York gladly will leave St. Petersburg, FL, with split of their four-game series against Tampa Bay.
After right-hander Heath Bell (0-1) opened the 12th by walking Yangervis Solarte, Riefenhauser came on to retire Solarte on a fielder’s choice grounder by Brett Gardner and Brian Roberts on lineout.
However, Brian McCann singled to advance Gardner to third and Rays manager Joe Maddon decided to walk Jacoby Ellsbury intentionally in order to pitch to Anna. Niefenhauser’s 3-2 pitch to Anna was called a ball by home-plate umpire Clint Fagan and third-base umpire Marty Foster correctly called that Anna checked his swing in time to allow Gardner to score to break the 1-1 tie.
That opened the floodgates as right-hander Josh Lueke replaced Riefenhauser and was tagged by a two-run single by Carlos Beltran and an RBI single off the bat of Alfonso Soriano.
Preston Claiborne (1-0), who was called up on Sunday after the Yankees had been hammered for 27 runs on 32 hits in two days, pitched the final two innings to get credit for the victory.
The Yankees actually held a 1-0 lead in the game after the top of the fourth inning, when Soriano led off with a double and Gardner followed two batters later with a deep drive to right that outfielder Will Myers appeared initially to have caught at the wall.
However, after Yankees manager Joe Girardi challenged the call, replays clearly indicated that the ball landed just under the yellow home-run line on some netting and then caromed into Myers’ glove. Gardner was awarded a double and RBI that allowed Soriano to score.
Emergency starter Vidal Nuno actually held the Rays scoreless over five innings, yielding only three hits and two walks while fanned six batters in his first start since June of last season.
The Yankees bullpen, which had been shredded the past two days, held up well until a one-out error by Roberts in the bottom of the seventh inning allowed the Rays to tie it with an unearned run.
Matt Thornton entered the game with one out in the frame but was greeted by a single by James Loney. Brandon Guyer then rolled a easy two-hopper to Solarte at third. But Roberts bobbled the ball at second and umpire Joe West ruled Loney safe at second also.
Adam Warren came in to replace Thornton and Yunel Escobar singled to load the bases and pinch-hitter Matt Joyce launched a sacrifice fly that scored Loney just ahead of the tag from John Ryan Murphy on the throw from Beltran in right.
The victory allowed the Yankees to improve their season record to 11-8. They remain a game up on the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East. The Rays fell to 9-10 and are two games back.
- Give Nuno, 26, a lot of credit for tossing five spotless innings in his first start in almost a year. Nuno was used because of Tuesday’s rainout at Yankee Stadium in a game scheduled against the Chicago Cubs, which pushed back Masahiro Tanaka’s next start until Tuesday. But Nuno likely will get at least one more start since right-hander Ivan Nova likely will miss the rest of the season to undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
- Anna, 27, only was in the game because Girardi had elected to pinch-run Ichiro Suzuki in the 11th inning to replace Derek Jeter after he led off the frame with a single off Bell. Suzuki ultimately was called out on a steal attempt after he initially was called safe. The call was overturned on a replay requested by Maddon. So Anna ended up stepping into the batters’ box facing a left-hander and sporting a .136 batting average. But he earned the walk and it was a very impressive eight-pitch at-bat.
- Shawn Kelley highlighted an unyielding performance by the bullpen after they had been shelled so badly in the two previous games. Kelley pitched a scoreless ninth and 10th innings and struck out four batters to allow the Yankees to win the game in the 12th. The bullpen of David Phelps, Thornton, Warren, Kelley and Claiborne shut out the Rays on three hits and three walks while fanning nine in seven innings.
- Roberts had a day he would like to forget. Along with committing a senseless fielding error that cost the Yankees the lead he was 0-for-5 with a couple of strikeouts and he stranded four base-runners. Roberts is off to a slow start with the bat and is now hitting just .156.
- Thornton is certainly nothing like his predecessor Boone Logan. He does not have Logan’s sweeping slider and lefties make him pay for it. He was called into the game to retire the left-handed Loney but Loney slapped a fastball to the opposite field for a single. Thornton has to be prepared to push good lefty hitters off the plate to keep them from going the other way.
The Yankees activated Mark Teixeira from the disabled list and he started at first base on Sunday and was 2-for-6 with fielding error in the game. Teixeira, 34, had been out of the lineup since he strained his right hamstring in a game against the Blue Jays on April 4. . . . David Robertson is on schedule to be activated on Tuesday. Robertson, 29, suffered a strained left groin on April 6. He will resume his closer’s role and Kelley will move back into the main setup role. Kelley was 4-for-4 in save opportunities.
I have said this before and I will say this again: The Rays’ organization is great to its own players and fans (which is fantastic) but they treat everyone else with disdain because they are very insecure. One example: If there is giveaway such as an Evan Longoria T-shirt for kids age 14-and-under they will not hand the shirts to any kids wearing an opposing team’s jersey. Yep! They do that that at the Trop because they are small-minded people. But it all trickles down from the top. To most of the nation, Maddon is seemingly lovable guy. But witness him at a press conference and you see that he puts a capital A in the term a–hole. Asked to comment on Nuno and the Yankee bullpen’s performance after Sunday’s game, Maddon told reporters: “There really is no solid explanation. I can’t stand here and say that the Yankees pitched that great. We just did not have a good offensive day.” Most managers tip their cap to the opponent but Maddon can’t be bothered because when his team loses it can’t be because the other team is better that day. I’m sure that there was no explanation for Mark Buerhle’s perfect game either, Joe. He is an A–hole. Period!
The Yankees will have Monday off before making their first trip to Fenway Park to play the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday.
Tanaka (2-0, 2.05 ERA) steps into his first foray into sports’ biggest rivalry after totally dominating the Cubs on Wednesday. Tanaka, 25, struck out 10 batters and only gave up two bunt singles and a walk in seven very strong innings. I am sure Cubs manager Rich Renteria has no explanation for it.
He will be opposed by left-hander Jon Lester (2-2, 2.17 ERA). Lester evened his record by giving up just one run on seven hits and he struck out nine en route to a victory over the Chicago White Sox on Thursday.
Game-time will be 7:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be broadcast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by MY9.
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.
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!
YANKEES 3, RAYS 2 (11 INNINGS)
When the New York Yankees acquired Alfonso Soriano from the Chicago Cubs on July 26 they desperately needed him for his power from the right side. As a bonus, they also got whatever was left in his 37-year-old legs.
On Sunday the Yankees found out there was still plenty left in those old legs to help win them an important game against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Soriano delivered a one-out double in the top of the 11th inning, then stole third and scored on Curtis Granderson’s sacrifice fly as New York salvaged the final game of a crucial weekend series against Tampa Bay in front of a paid crowd of 34,078.
With the game tied at 2-2, Soriano lined a 2-1 pitch from Jamey Wright (2-2) into left field for a double. With Granderson at the plate, Soriano then surprised the Rays by taking off for third and sliding in head first ahead of the throw from catcher Jose Lobaton.
Granderson then skied the next pitch into deep center-field to score Soriano easily with what proved to be the winning run.
Boone Logan (4-2), who came into the game in the bottom of the 10th with one on and one out to retire Lobaton on a inning-ending double play, was credited with the victory.
Mariano Rivera needed only six pitches to retire the Rays in order in the bottom of the 11th to earn his 38th save of the season and notch only the Yankees’ sixth victory in their past 22 games at Tropicana Field dating back to July 21, 2011.
The game featured a pitching duel between a pair of young right-handers in 26-year-old Ivan Nova for the Yankees and 25-year-old Alex Cobb for the Rays.
The Rays struck in the bottom of the first off Nova when newly acquired David DeJesus led off with a single, Ben Zobrist drew a walk and Evan Longoria plated DeJesus with a sharp single to left.
But the Yankees responded in the top of the fourth when Robinson Cano lifted a one-out line-drive opposite-field home run to left for his 24th home run of the season to knot the score at 1-1.
The Yankees then took the lead in the top of the sixth when Ichiro Suzuki reached first on an infield chopper to second. Cano then followed with a double to the wall in right-center for his 84th RBI of the season.
But the lead was short-lived because in the bottom of the inning, Longoria launched a blast into the left-field bleachers off Nova with out to even the game back up at 2-2.
Cobb gave up two runs on seven hits and three walks while he struck out five in 5 1/3 innings.
Nova also yielded two runs on six hits and six walks while he fanned three in 6 2/3 innings.
The Yankees bullpen of Shawn Kelley, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Logan and Rivera held the Rays hitless and scoreless over the final 4 1/3 innings to give the Yankees the opportunity to win the game in extra innings.
With the victory the Yankees improved their season record to 69-61 and they are seven games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. However, the Yankees drew to within 3 1/2 games in the wild card standings. The Rays fell to 74-54.
- Soriano continues to pay dividends as a trade-deadline acquisition. He was 2-for-5 with a single, a double, a stolen base and a run scored. Along with his 26 home runs this season (nine with the Yankees), Soriano has stolen 14 bases (four with the Yankees). That is most stolen bases Soriano has racked up since he stole 19 bases for the Cubs in 2008. Along with his 384 career homers Soriano has 284 career steals.
- Cano entered Sunday’s game with just one single in his past 12 at-bats. But he heated back up Sunday, going 3-for-5 with a single, a double and a homer, a run scored and two RBIs, In his past eight games, Cano is 15-for-34 (.441) with two homers and eight RBIs. His season average is .307, one point below his career batting average of .308.
- The Yankees won with their bullpen, some timely double plays and some great throwing from Chris Stewart behind the plate. The bullpen shut the Rays down without a hit over 4 1/3 innings. The Yankees turned four double plays on the Rays including one with the bases loaded in the first, one in the third, one in the fourth and one to end the bottom of the 10th. Stewart nailed Yunel Escobar attempting to steal in the fifth and then gunned down DeJesus in the seventh. Stewart has thrown out 15 out of 48 base-stealers this season (31 percent), which is just below his 33 percent career average.
- Nova walked two batters in the first inning and ended up issuing six walks overall, a season high for him. Nova entered the game having walked 27 batters in 93 2/3 innings, which is less than three walks per nine innings. But he was bailed out by the four double plays and Stewart’s arm.
- Mark Reynolds connected for a home run in his first at-bat as a Yankee on Aug. 16 at Fenway Park against the Red Sox. Since then he is 4-for-25 (.160) with nine strikeouts. On Sunday, playing third base in place of resting Alex Rodriguez, Reynolds was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.
Derek Jeter completed a three-game stint with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and will be in uniform with the Yankees on Monday when they open a series with the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Jeter, who was a rehabbing a strained right calf, was 3-for-9 with one walk, a double, two runs scored and an RBI. The Yankees want Jeter to take it easy running the bases so they may keep him healthy as much as possible for the final 32 games. In order to get Jeter on the roster the Yankees are expected to trim one of their 13 pitchers.
After sweeping the Jays in four games at Yankee Stadium they will try to sweep them for three at Rogers Centre.
Right-hander Phil Hughes (4-12, 4.88 ERA). Hughes held the Blue Jays to two runs over six innings but did not get a decision. It was his 11th quality start of the season but he has not won a game in his past eight starts. He is 5-5 with a 4.80 ERA lifetime against the Jays.
Knuckleball specialist R.A. Dickey (9-12, 4.49 ERA) will match up again with the Yankees. Dickey gave a two-run home run to Soriano in the eighth inning on Wednesday to end up with a loss in his last start. He is 3-3 with a 3.44 ERA in his career against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 7:07 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.
YANKEES 6, RAYS 5
On a day that the Yankees paid tribute to retired icon Hideki Matsui, two of his former teammates provided some spark to what has been a listless offense to deliver a dramatic walk-off victory.
Derek Jeter came of the disabled list for the second time this season to swat the first pitch he saw for his first home run of the season and Alfonso Soriano, playing in only his third game back in pinstripes, was 4-for-5 with a two-run homer and a game-winning RBI single in the ninth as New York salvaged one of three games against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Jeter strode to the plate in the first inning with most of the paid Yankee Stadium crowd of 47,714 on their feet and – just about the time they sat down – the Yankee captain launched a high fastball from Rays left-hander Matt Moore into the first row of the bleachers over the auxiliary scoreboard in right-center to give the Yankees an early 1-0 lead.
The fans remained standing until their All-Star shortstop took a trip back up the dugout steps for a curtain call. It was not so much what Jeter had just done but a feeling from the fans that this team that has suffered so much turmoil from injuries was on the way back to respectability.
It set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
The Yankees added two more runs in the first inning off Moore, who started the day tied for the American League lead with 14 victories.
Robinson Cano reached on an infield single that caromed off the glove of Moore and Soriano rolled a single that shortstop Yunel Escobar kicked into center-field to allow Cano to reach third.
Vernon Wells scored Cano with a sacrifice fly to center and – after a wild pitch allowed Soriano to move up to second – Ichiro Suzuki scored him with a lined single to center as part of a day in which Suzuki was 4-for-4.
Unfortunately, Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes was not able to hold the 3–0 lead he was handed.
The Rays scored a single run in the second inning when Kelly Johnson lashed a one-out RBI double to score Wil Myers.
The following frame Hughes allowed a pair of one-out singles to Evan Longoria and James Loney and Myers followed with a three-run blast to left-field that gave the Rays a 4-3 lead.
But Jeter and Soriano answered in the bottom of the third.
Jeter led off the frame with a single just over the glove of Johnson at second base and Soriano, one out later, blasted a ball just over the glove of Myers in right-field that landed in the bleachers in the short porch in right to give the Yankees a 5-4 lead.
Hughes, however, was not able to hold that lead either.
Myers led off the fifth with an opposite-field home run into the short porch for the rookie outfielder’s first multiple homer game of his career.
The game remained tied after both Moore and Hughes left the game.
Moore, who entered the game having won all six of his previous starts, gave up five runs on eight hits and no walks while he struck out three in five innings. Moore also uncharacteristically uncorked two wild pitches and was called for a balk just before Soriano homered.
Hughes also yielded five runs on nine hits and two walks and he fanned four in 4-plus innings.
But the Yankees’ bullpen corps of Preston Claiborne, Boone Logan, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera held the Rays to just one hit and did not issue a walk over the final five innings. Rivera (2-2) pitched a perfect ninth inning to get credit for the victory.
The Yankees opened the ninth facing Jake McGee (2-3) and the left-hander missed high on a 3-2 pitch to Brett Gardner to start off the frame. With Jeter squared around to bunt, McGee tossed the Rays’ third wild pitch of the day to allow Gardner to reach second. It ended up being extremely costly.
Rays manager Joe Maddon then opted to walk Jeter intentionally to bring up the lefty-swinging Cano and to set up a potential double play.
But Cano struck out and Soriano followed by bouncing the first pitch from McGee to the left of Escobar of shortstop and on into center-field to score Gardner with the game-winner.
Soriano finished the game with a homer, three singles, two runs scored and three RBIs.
Jeter was 2-for-4 with a homer, a single, a walk, an RBI and two runs scored.
Jeter’s home run was the Yankees’ first home run sine the All-Star break and the first home run from a right-handed batter since June 21. Soriano added the second right-handed homer two innings later.
With the victory the Yankees improved to 55-50 and they are 7 1/2 games out in fourth place in the American League East. The Rays dropped to 62-43 and they surrendered first place back to the Boston Red Sox.
- What a difference Jeter made in his first game off the disabled list. Having Jeter’s right-handed bat in the second spot in the order allows manager Joe Girardi to break up the stack of five or six left-handed batters at the top of the lineup. Jeter has always had a flair for the dramatic but his home run in the first inning spoke volumes about how the Yankees suffered after opening the season 30-18 and then recording a 24-32 mark through Sunday. Perhaps a new day is dawning and the Yankees, behind their captain, may be righting the ship.
- Soriano has always been a popular player with Yankee fans and they have not forgotten him after 10 years. The Yankees acquired him for his power from the right side and to provide protection for Cano in the cleanup spot. If his 4-for-5 day is any indication, he will do both. He is doing what Wells did before May 15 and he has not homered since. Soriano is going to be a very important player for the Yankees for the rest of the season.
- Jeter’s presence allowed Girardi to slide Suzuki down to the No. 6 spot in the order and he responded with four singles and a big two-out RBI in the first inning. After going 0-for-7 in the first two games of the series, Suzuki’s perfect day raised his season average to .279.
- Hughes’ start was very disappointing because in his previous five starts, Hughes had a 2.53 ERA, even though was 1-3 over that stretch dating back to June 27. Hughes is nothing if not vexing as a starter. He is a flyball pitcher in a ballpark ill-suited for them and most of his success in the major leagues has come as a reliever. I wish the Yankees would realize that and put him back there before they make a mistake by allowing him to walk as a free agent after this season.
- Though the Yankees field a great lineup one through six now, the seven, eight and nine spots still are an issue. Brett Lillibridge (seven), David Adams (eight) and Chris Stewart (nine) were a combined 0-for-11 with three strikeouts and just one ball hit of the infield. It will be nice to have Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez back in the lineup.
The Yankees actually offered Matsui a one-day contract with the team on Sunday so that he could retire officially as a Yankee. In a pregame ceremony, Jeter and the Yankees presented the former outfielder with a framed jersey sporting his number 55. Matsui, fondly nicknamed “Godzilla” in his native country, came over from Japan to play nine seasons with the Yankees and he hit .292 with 140 home runs and 597 RBIs during that span. He also was named the Most Valuable Player in the Yankees’ victory in the 2009 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Yankees also marked the occasion by handing out Matsui bobblehead figures to the first 18,000 fans who entered the stadium. . . . After activating Jeter on Sunday the Yankees plan to activate infielder Jayson Nix on Tuesday. Nix, 30, has been on the disabled list for 3 1/2 weeks with a hamstring strain. Adams was optioned back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after Sunday’s game to make room for Nix on the roster. . . . After Granderson was 0-for-4 as a designated hitter with Class-A Tampa on Sunday, Girardi said the veteran outfielder will move up to Double-A Trenton on Tuesday. Girardi also said Granderson could be activated on Saturday when the Yankees are in San Diego to play the Padres. Granderson has been sidelined twice this season with a broken bone in his left arm and a broken left pinkie finger as a result of being hit by pitches.
The Yankee will have Monday off before they open a West Coast road trip with a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Left-hander Andy Pettitte (7-7, 4.39) will open the series for the Yankees. Pettitte, 41, allowed just two runs on hits over six innings on Wednesday against the Texas Rangers but still took his second straight loss. He is 2-0 with a 3.94 ERA in his career against the Dodgers.
Right-hander Zack Greinke (8-3, 3.49 ERA) will start for the Dodgers. Greinke allowed four runs on six hits in seven innings in a loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday. Greinke is 2-4 with a 6.45 ERA lifetime against the Yankees.
Game-time will be 10:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.
YANKEES 7, RAYS 5
Hitters always talk about being patient at the plate, especially when they are mired in a slump. On Saturday the Yankees proved their patience with the Rays’ pitching staff and with slumping outfielder Vernon Wells.
They ended up being handsomely rewarded with a victory.
The Rays issued a season high nine walks to the Yankees and Wells broke an 0-for-11 slide with a pinch-hit two-out bases-clearing double in the seventh inning that rallied New York to a come-from-behind victory over Tampa Bay in front of a paid Yankee Stadium crowd of 46,013.
The Yankees began the bottom the seventh inning trailing 5-3 when reliever Joel Peralta issued a leadoff walk to Robinson Cano and one out later Lyle Overbay stroked a double to advance Cano to third.
Peralta (1-4) then sealed his fate in the game by issuing yet another walk to load the bases to rookie Zoilo Almonte, who had already driven in three runs earlier in the game.
Left-hander Jake McGee replaced Peralta and struck out Jayson Nix. McGee then had David Adams down in the count 1-2 but ended up walking him when his 3-2 pitch sailed outside to allow Cano to score.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi then sent up Wells to pinch-hit for Chris Stewart. Wells laced a 1-2 fastball into the gap in right-center and the ball bounced just short of the warning track and deflected back on the field off the glove of a fan. The umpires awarded Wells second base and waved all three runners in to allow the Yankees to take a 7-5 lead.
The four-run outburst handed the victory to starter CC Sabathia (8-5), who was sailing along with a 3-1 lead in the sixth inning until the Rays forced the Yankees into walking Evan Longoria to load the bases with two out.
But rookie Wil Myers ruined the strategy by lofting a 1-2 pitch that hit the top of the wall in right-center and was knocked into the stands off Brett Gardner’s glove for a grand-slam home run. It was Myers’ first major-league home run.
After Longoria opened the scoring against Sabathia by hitting his 17th home run of the season to lead off the second inning, the Yankees rallied in their half of the third – thanks to some shoddy defense by the Rays.
Gardner led off the frame by slapping an infield roller to James Loney at first but starting pitcher Alex Colome dropped the toss from Loney for an error. After Ichiro Suzuki hit into a fielder’s choice that erased Gardner, Cano slapped a single to left and Travis Hafner hit an infield roller against an exaggerated shift on which shortstop Yunel Escobar could not make a play.
One out later, Almonte followed up his 3-to-4 night on Friday with a two-out a single to center that scored Suzuki and Cano and gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead.
The Yankees tacked on another run two innings later thanks to some more sloppy Rays’ defense and Colome’s wildness.
With one out, Cano drew a walk and when Travis Hafner bounced a routine ball to Loney at first, Loney fired the ball wide of second to allow Cano to reach third. Colome then loaded the bases by issuing a walk to Overbay.
Almonte then worked his way into a 3-2 count before Colome missed wide to force in Cano with another run.
Colome was then removed after pitching 4 1/3 innings, yielding three unearned runs on five hits and five walks and he struck out three batters in what was only his second major-league start.
Sabathia, meanwhile, allowed five runs on five hits while he walked two and struck out two in seven innings.
David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth and Mariano Rivera hurled a scoreless ninth to earn his 26th save in 27 chances this season. Rivera also notched his 65th save out of 67 career save opportunities against the Rays. He has blown only one save against the Rays since the 2005 season.
The victory improved the Yankees’ season ledger to 41-33 and, combined with the loss by the Boston Red Sox to the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees climbed to within 2 1/2 games of the first-place Bosox in the American League East. They trail Boston only two games in the loss column. The Rays fell to 38-37 and they dropped percentage points behind the Toronto Blue Jays in last place in the division.
- The Almonte Legend in the Bronx is reaching epic proportions. He was 1-for-2 with two walks, a run scored and three RBIs on Saturday. In four games (two of them starts), the 24-year-old switch-hitter is 5-for-8 (.625) with a home run and four RBIs. We may not be seeing Wells reclaim left-field just yet. Almonte is looking every bit as impressive as he did when he opened eyes during spring training in 2012. The kid has great awareness of the strike zone, shows patience and the ball just leaps off his bat when he connects.
- Wells deserves a lot of credit for hanging in on a tough at-bat against the hard-throwing McGee. Wells had only nine hits in his past 89 at-bats and he was hitting just .102 in June. His double was his first extra-base hit since May 31. Down quickly on the count 0-2, Wells fouled off a tough fastball and took a ball before he went with a McGee fastball for an opposite-field double. Perhaps Almonte’s success has Wells worried about his future role with the team. It is a great motivator.
- Though Sabathia gave up five runs in seven innings, the two mistakes to Longoria and Myers cost him all five runs. Take those two hits away and Sabathia would have shut out the Rays on three hits and two walks in seven innings. Sabathia drew his career record against the Rays even at 11-11.
- Gardner had a real bad day. He was 0-for-5 with two strikeouts and he did not get a ball out of the infield all day. In addition, his glove actually did tip Myers’ fly ball into the seats for a grand slam. His leap was just a beat late and he perhaps should have tried to tip the ball back into the field of play. It really did cost Sabathia.
- Stewart was 0-for-3, including a strikeout and a double-play ball. Stewart is mired in a bit of tailspin at the plate. He is 0-for-12 in his four starts and his season average has dipped from .277 to .250.
Derek Jeter returned to Yankee Stadium on Saturday to take batting practice and be with the team. Before New York’s game against Tampa Bay, Jeter took batting practice and later fielded some ground balls. Jeter will return to Tampa on Sunday. . . . Alex Rodriguez took five simulated at-bats on Friday in Tampa, FL., as he continues to make his way back from hip surgery. Girardi said he isn’t sure when Rodriguez would be able to play in rehab games, but thinks he would need to run the bases more before taking that next step.
The Yankees will have a chance to win the four-game weekend series with Tampa Bay with a victory on Sunday.
The Yankees will recall right-hander Ivan Nova (2-1, 5.16 ERA) from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to start the game. Nova was 2-0 with a 2.04 ERA at Scranton. His last start for the Yankees was on April 29. He is 6-1 with a 2.98 ERA in his career against the Rays.
The Rays will counter with rookie right-hander Chris Archer 1-3, 5.03 ERA). Archer allowed three runs on five hits and five walks in 4 2/3 innings in a loss against the Red Sox on Tuesday. In his four starts this season, he has made it past the fifth inning only once. He has never faced the Yankees.
Game-time will be 2:05 p.m. EDT in order to accommodate the 67th Old-Timers’ Day festivities, which will begin at 11:15 a.m. The game will be telecast nationally by TBS and locally by the YES Network.
YANKEES 6, RAYS 2
For years the Yankees have stockpiled minor-league talent simply so they could trade them away for well-traveled veterans. This season, out of necessity, they are having to let some of those youngsters play. One of them helped spark the Yankees to victory on Friday in his first major-league start.
Zoilo Almonte was 3-for-4 including his first major-league home run as New York got 5 2/3 innings of solid pitching from David Phelps and downed Tampa Bay in front of a paid crowd of 41,123 at Yankee Stadium.
Almonte, 24, was part of what was an offense that emphasized “small ball” against sinkerball right-hander Roberto Hernandez (4-8).
Brett Gardner opened the first inning with a bunt single and Ichiro Suzuki followed with a hit-and-run single to right that advanced Gardner to third. Robinson Cano then gave the Yankees an early lead with a sacrifice fly to center to plate Gardner.
The Rays tied it in the top of the third on a two-out single off the bat of Ben Zobrist that Cano nearly fielded to retire the side. Instead, the ball caromed off the tip of Cano’s glove and Yunel Escobar scored from third.
The Yankees reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the inning when Austin Romine led off the frame with a double and he was advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Gardner. Suzuki followed with a slow roller to the Hernandez down the first-base line that allowed Romine to score.
The Rays tied it back up in the fourth on a one-out single by Luke Scott that slid under Cano’s glove in right-center and James Loney scored from second after Phelps had uncorked a wild pitch.
But the Yankees took the lead in the fourth for good by loading the bases with no outs against Hernandez. Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay and Almonte hit a succession of ground-ball singles that found holes in the infield.
Jayson Nix then hit into a double play that scored Hafner and advanced Overbay to third. David Adams followed with a slow roller to Evan Longoria at third and Longoria’s throw got past Loney at first base in what was scored as an infield single, which allowed Overbay to score.
Almonte then extended the Yankees’ lead to 5-2 in the sixth by launching a towering shot that landed in the Yankees’ bullpen in right-center. The fans rose to their feet and implored Almonte to take a ceremonial curtain call, which he did to the delight of the crowd.
Meanwhile, the Yankees bullpen quartet of Boone Logan, Shawn Kelly, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera held the Rays to to just one hit and struck out four over the final 3 1/3 innings to preserve the victory for Phelps.
Phelps gave up two runs on eight hits and one walk while he struck out four in 5 2/3 innings.
Hernandez yielded five runs on nine hits and no walks while he fanned four. He is career record in 13 games against the Yankees is now 1-7.
With the victory the Yankees improved their season record to 40-33 and they remain 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in third place in the American League East. The Rays dropped to 38-36 and they are now six behind the Red Sox in fourth place.
- In only three games, Almonte is quickly winning over Yankee fans. He is now 4-for-6 (.667) with a home run and an RBI. Almonte hit a low-inside fastball and used a quick uppercut stroke to launch it over the wall. Almonte is a very impressive young switch-hitting outfielder who was hitting .297 with six home runs and 36 RBIs in 68 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He was called up to replace Mark Teixeira on the roster and, by the looks of things, he may be staying for some time.
- Overbay was 2-for-4 with a run scored and he closed out the Yankees’ scoring with a two-out RBI single in the eighth off reliever Cesar Ramos. Cano set up the score with a one-out single and he stole second and scored easily on Overbay’s hit. The veteran first baseman now has 33 RBIs, which is tied for second on the club with Hafner.
- Phelps, 26, might not have had dominant stuff and he may have been in trouble in just about every inning. But he did manage to limit the damage to two ground balls that barely eluded Cano. Phelps has more than held his own as the fifth starter since he replaced Ivan Nova in May. There seems to be no reason to take him out the rotation either.
- Nix had a game he would just as soon forget. He was the only Yankee starter to fail to get a hit and to reach base. Nix was 0-for-3 and hit into two double plays. Nix is 0-for-6 in his past two games after he was 15-for-49 (.306) in his previous 13 games. Nix also fouled two pitches off himself in his second at-bat. It just was a bad day at the office for him.
Nova, 26, will be recalled from Scranton in order to make a spot start on Sunday against the Rays. Nova was scratched from a scheduled start with the RailRiders on Friday and he will pitch for the Yankees because both Phil Hughes and Hiroki Kuroda would have had only three days rest from their starts in a doubleheader with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday. Nova is 2-0 with a 2.04 ERA in three starts with Scranton. He was 2-1 with a 5.12 ERA before he landed on the 15-day disabled list with a strain in his right triceps. . . . The Yankees on Friday recalled infielder Alberto Gonzalez from Scranton and designated Reid Brignac for assignment. The Yankees were disappointed with Brignac’s lack of production with the bat. He was 5-for-44 (.114) in 17 games with the Yankees. Gonzalez was hitting .224 with eight RBIs in 23 games for the RailRiders. . . . The Yankees also shored up its roster on Friday by trading for Brent Lillibridge of the Chicago Cubs in exchange either for a player to be named later or cash considerations. Lillibridge, 29, is a career .207 hitter who was 1-for-24 in eight games with the Cubs earlier this season. Lillibridge has played second base and third base this season with the Cubs but he has played every position in the major leagues except catcher. He was hitting .281 in 48 games with Triple-A Iowa.
NOTE: Because of blackout restrictions where I live I am relegated to having to watch the Yankees on the Rays on their SunSports network. Their post-game show featured former major-league first baseman Orestes Destrade bemoaning the bad luck for Hernandez because of the Yankees’ series of ground-ball hits that helped them win the game. There is nothing like partisan pity parties after a game. But if Destrade had been accurately reporting things he would have told the viewers that the Rays scored their two runs off Phelps on ground balls that just eluded Cano at second base. Two can play that game, Orestes.
The Yankees will continue their four-game weekend series with the Rays on Saturday.
Left-hander CC Sabathia (7-5, 3.93 ERA) will get the start for the Yankees. Sabathia gave up just two runs in eight innings in a victory against the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday. Sabathia is 10-11 with a 3.48 ERA lifetime against the Rays.
Sabathia will be opposed by rookie right-hander Alex Colume (1-0, 0.00 ERA). Colume allowed just one run in 5 2/3 innings in a victory over the Miami Marlins on May 30. Colume was 4-6 with a 3.07 ERA at Triple-A Durham.
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.