Game 8: NYY vs. CLE — Let’s call it “Batting Practice”

They always say if you don’t have pitching, you don’t have anything. Sorry, Cleveland, but you don’t have any pitching. This really came into play when their starter Carlos Carrasco gets ejected in the 4th inning for intentionally hitting batter Kevin Youkilis in retribution for previous batter Robinson Cano’s 2-run homer. Sure, the Yankees were up 7-0 at that point, but that was just childish and mean-spirited, especially in light of the fact Carrasco just got back from a 6-game suspension for intentionally drilling a Royals’ batter in 2011. (The time discrepancy was explained as: Carrasco then had and was recovering and rehabbing from Tommy John surgery immediately following this incident, which is an 18-month standard recovery time; and this was his first start back, following the surgery and the suspension). Girardi & Co. would never put up with that kind of behavior, so I’m hoping he’s not long for some permanent punishment before someone really gets hurt.

Outside of that bit of drama, the game ended up basically like extended batting practice for the Yankees in tonight’s 14-1 win. Yes, that’s right — 14 runs, off 18 Yankee hits. So instead of my basic summary, game wrap-up, and highlights, I now have to summarize the summary. Gardner and Cano each earned 2 doubles, Wells and Overbay each with 1 double. Gardner earned 2 RBIs; Cervelli, Youkilis, and Boesch each earned 1; and Cano grabbed 4. Being as they are after all the “Bronx Bombers”, home runs, however, were the tall order of the day, with Ichiro, Cano, Youkilis, Overbay (his first as a Yankee), and Boesch (also his first in Pinstripes) each yanking one out of Progressive Field tonight.

Also solid tonight was starting pitcher Andy Pettitte, who thanks to his team is now 2-0 for 2013. He threw 97 pitches over 7 innings, striking out 4 batters and only giving up 1 run, a solo home run in the 6th and the Indians’ only run scored tonight. His replacement Adam Warren also gave a solid performance for the final 2 innings, saving Rivera and Robertson and Chamberlain for any future, tighter scoring games in the near future.

Nearly 30,000 empty seats in the stadium tonight (compared to yesterday’s sold-out crowd), heavy on the home runs, fielding grounders, base running, singles and doubles for almost everyone… to me, this game ended up looking like a lot of the Yankee batting practices I’ve attended. I mean, I do feel bad for the Indians. No one really wants to get slammed like this. And after seeing that scoreboard continue to crawl upwards for the other team, it has to be disheartening, and a younger or “less experienced” team like the Indians won’t have the voracity to pull together and execute an effective rally or at least attempt one.

And while it’s still early in the season, I do love that the Yankees are finally finding that groove and playing as a team, even without their (recovering) veterans. This, to me, signals a stronger, well-rounded team that has a chance (despite critics) at doing something great, even amazing this year. Again, it’s still early and I’m still (perhaps naively) hopeful, but that’s the fun part about April — October and most everything is still so possible.

Go Yankees!

Game 7: NYY vs. CLE — Winning the “family series”

Honestly, this big story today isn’t the win at Cleveland, but the familiar faces in the other dugouts. Wearing #33 for the Yankees is former Indian (and former 1st baseman) Travis Hafner, while #33 for the Indians is former Yankee (and current 1st baseman) Nick Swisher. Both seemed excited about the opportunity for the Cleveland’s first home series of the season for very different reasons, and both filled their new roles very nicely.

After a troubling 1st inning to the game for both teams (each starting pitcher gave up 3 runs in the 1st inning alone), the game settled into a momentum, at least for the Yankees. Starter Hiroki Kuroda threw 5.1 innings, allowing 3 runs off 5 hits and 4 walks, striking out 6 batters. Boone Logan seemed to find his stride after a rough couple of outings in previous games, keeping the Indians at bay for his 4 outs. But Shawn Kelley’s 4 outs struggled to find the strike zone, giving up a double, 2-run home run, a triple, and several wild pitches (one of which scored the 3rd run of the 8th inning) before finally getting out of that jam. Closer Joba Chamberlain (minus the mustache at last) walked 2 batters (one was Swisher) in the 9th but was able to strike out his final batter to keep the game at 11-6.

However, it was the offense’s game that ultimately won the day for the Yankees, mostly due in part to Hafner and the renewed bat of Robinson Cano. In the 1st inning, Hafner earned boos from a previously welcoming Cleveland crowd by slamming a 3-run homer into center field. In the 3rd inning, Cano’s double put him in place to score on a Hafner single. Cano hit 2 solo home runs today in the 5th and 6th innings. Also notching RBIs today are Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, and Eduardo Nunez (who was back in the line-up today after some time off following the bicep bruise he sustained in Detroit).

And this makes Cleveland and New York even in the stands at 3-4, something I watch intently every year because of my uncle. Like I’ve mentioned before, my mom’s family is from Northeast Ohio, thus diehard Indians fans. And it’s become a slight family rivalry every season as to whose team is better (and let’s be honest, it’s usually been me). And now, my uncle and I have a (non-monetary) bet going to see whose team will have the better win-loss average by the All-Star break. It was agreed upon at the end of Spring Training, where the Indians were on a high and the Yankees were just… not, but it’s starting to look up for my side of the deal.

And I suppose that’s what makes this particular series special for me. This is my family’s series. My mom watches it partly rooting for both sides (but really, she’s happier when the Indians win). My uncle is just rooting for the improbable rout over the Yankees (I’ll never say it’s impossible, but I doubt it). And I, as usual, am enjoying the Yankees triumph over another team. And overall, it builds good-natured competition and rivalry and that bond that only baseball can bring to a family. It is a family sport, after all — from the first time a dad and son play catch to their first trip to a real ballpark to watching the son hit his first home run. It’s like home. It’s like family. It’s my family.

Go Yankees!

Game 6: NYY vs. DET — A shut-out win with character

Boy, today was a much-needed win for the Yankees. In fact, they needed  it so much they got starting pitcher CC Sabathia to shut-out the Tigers in today’s 7-0 ballgame. Throwing 114 pitches and striking out 4 batters, Sabathia seemed back on track after his Game 1 loss, while Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander struggled to keep the lower-end of the Yankees roster at bay. Fun game note for Yankee fans: Sabathia completely silenced the bats of Detroit sluggers Fielder and Cabrera, who did so much damage in the previous two games to the pitching staff.

Speaking of which, it was a Francisco Cervelli RBI double in the 2nd inning to put the Yankees on the board early. That was followed up by a Jayson Nix 2-run home run. (That’s right, I said Nix; don’t worry, it surprised me too.) Verlander managed to keep runners from scoring through his next 4 innings, but the Yankees dented the board again in the final two innings to keep the ball rolling. In the 8th inning, a Hafner single and Wells ground-rule double set the stage for an Ichiro Suzuki sacrifice fly to score Hafner’s pinch runner Nunez (still on the mend). Wells, now at 3rd, scores easily on Cervelli’s single. In the 9th inning, with Nix and Gardner at 1st and 2nd on singles, Youkilis’ line drive to left field easily scores both runners on his single. In total, the Yankees notched 13 hits off the Tigers’ pitching staff.

I just can’t say this enough: when the Yankees actually pull together and play like themselves, they win ball games. They did this on Wednesday against Boston under Andy Pettitte, and they did this again today. And I absolutely loved that we can depend on the bottom half of the line-up (usually known as the weaker half) to bring in the runs and slug it out of the park from time to time.

I also want to point out that Francisco Cervelli is one of the stand-out players on the team this year, beginning in Spring Training and now carrying on into the regular season. Not only in his catching defense, but his offense is just really reaching new levels, not seen since he first came up. It’s rather rewarding to see a player who took the time and effort to improve what needed to be improved and then proceed to push himself further into a mature, well-rounded player. He is really turning into a good example, and not just for those looking to work their way up to the Bronx, but also for those on the team now struggling to find their groove again.

And perhaps, that’s the real lesson they all must learn at some point. Slumps and successes come and go; both are inevitable parts of life and baseball. But it’s what you do when you’re deep in a slump that builds the character you have to depend on when you’re riding the success wave. Character (via determination) is what keeps you going when you’re just playing horribly and making every effort to fix whatever’s wrong, and it is character (via humility and integrity) that keeps you grounded when everything’s going right and everyone loves you. And that’s what really makes a good ball player a great ball player — character. And boy, do we have that in spades in pinstripes!

Go Yankees!

Game 5: NYY vs. DET — Pitching to mediocrity

It was a battle of the starting pitchers today, at least on paper, but it wasn’t spectacular on either side of the diamond. Phil Hughes nearly matched Detroit’s starter Scherzer in today’s loss to the Tigers. What Hughes did his in 4 innings, Scherzer did in his 5; they each threw 87 pitches, 57 were strikes, and each allowed 4 runs. And neither’s immediate reliever helped their campaign for winning pitcher (though Scherzer did eventually earn that thanks to the Detroit’s lineup). But that’s where the similarities stop. Hughes allowed 8 hits, striking out 4, while Scherzer allowed 5 hits (one was another Vernon Wells home run) , walked 2, and struck out 7 Yankee batters.

In total, Detroit was a hitting machine with 17 total hits. When you have a team led by the reigning Home Run Derby champion (Fielder) and last year’s triple crown and league MVP (Cabrera), hitting is more than an understatement. And what the Yankees have failed to do in this series is to keep the hits from being important and capitalizing on opportunities, like the weakness that is their pitching staff and bullpen. On the other hand, the Yankees pitching staff and bullpen was supposed to be the key to winning games this season, but it seems to be lacking in consistency. Some argue Spring Training is too long, but perhaps some years, it isn’t nearly long enough for some teams.

And there was that odd call at 1st in the 6th inning. To clarify, I re-watched the play several times to make sure I knew what happened. Brennan Boesch hits the ball directly to Tigers’ 1st baseman Prince Fielder. Fielder catches the ball and runs to tag 1st base to get out the runner Vernon Wells, who had to double back to the base on the out (the catch to get Boesch). The umpire at 1st calls the 1st play out and the tag safe. And then on appeal, the home plate umpire overturns the call making it an unassisted double play for Fielder. The home plate got it right. It was the right call, but it wasn’t made clear or apparent to the dugout, which caused some tiffs from our coaching staff. No one got ejected, but it was more than unsettling for everyone.

The Yankees made a good effort in the 6th inning, scoring 3 runs to make a try to catch up with the Tigers. But pitching from the bullpen never quite maintained the scoreless goal, and Detroit pulled further away until they finally pinned the score at 8-4 Tigers. It wasn’t really a well-earned game for Detroit; it wasn’t really a good game period. It was one of those games that won’t get one of those fancy names to remember them (like “The Aaron Boone Game”, “The Mr. November Game”, “The Giambi Flip Game”, etc.). It was just game 5 of 162 for this season. And those games start blurring together, where an April game may be confused with a June game or an August game. You might ask, “Was it the game when he hit the home run [like Wells today] or dove for the fly ball [like Gardner today]? Wait, he always does both.” Exactly, my point — a blur.

So, I’ve been reading about Yankee history lately. (What else should I do in my free time than think more about the team?) And some years, the teams gels instantly; they have this almost magical quality about them that just clicks from day one and cements their play-off and World Series status almost from Day 1 of the season. But most years, it’s not so cut-and-dry. In fact, so many Yankee seasons have started out so rough that people often just write them off as finishing around .500 if they’re lucky (this means their win-loss game total is about even). And sometimes they do exactly that. But more often than not, the Yankees somehow pull themselves together and return to their Yankee-ness and end the season on top (or at least somewhere close to it).

So maybe this is a .500 year, and everyone will be forced to reevaluate all the players and angles and dissect “what went wrong”. But just maybe this is a spectacular year full of those games I mentioned above (and not the blurry ones). Those memories matched with dates and statistics become the sports news highlight reels, the YouTube hits, and the ones we as fans can cherish of our heroes, our team.

And besides, (still denial, maybe hopeful, always positive) it’s only April…

Go Yankees!

Game 4: NYY vs. DET — Not quite a rivalry

Neither of today’s starting pitchers were exactly at their best. Tigers’ starter Doug Fister gave up 6 hits, 3 runs (one was a Youkilis homer), and 2 walks, which would have been enough for the Yankees to capitalize normally, but the Tiger bats were hard to silence today. Yankees’ Ivan Nova went just shy of 4 innings, giving up 4 runs off 5 hits and 2 walks, striking out 5 of Detroit’s batters. His relief Boone Logan ended up giving up the 1st of 2 home runs today by Prince Fielder to give up the lead to the Tigers in the 5th. His replacement Shawn Kelley gave up the other Fielder home run in the 7th to notch the final score at 8-3 Detroit.

Former Tiger Brennan Boesch showed some great defense in the outfield in the 3rd inning, sparing the Yankees a 3rd Fielder home run of the day. In the 5th inning, Brett Gardner scored on a wild pitch right before Kevin Youkilis sends a ball into left-center field for a 2-run home run. But after Youkilis’ homer, the Yankees just couldn’t make their lead (of 3-2 at that point) stick.

Also of note today: Eduardo Nunez was hit pretty hard by an 88-mph fastball in the 4th inning, collapsing in pain, clutching his right arm. After finally getting him off the field and into the trainers’ room, an x-ray came back negative with the diagnosis of a bruised right bicep, on a day-to-day watch. Honestly, with that much force and that much pain so evident, it’s really a miracle there’s nothing more serious with him. He even thought initially it was broken or something. Well, we wish him quick healing! (And on a side note: what is it with Detroit trying to take out our shortstops? Enough already!)

Comerica Park hasn’t been a good place for the Yankees in a long time. Detroit fans may be trying to build a rivalry, but really they need to take a lesson from our good rivals like Boston. Hostility and anger isn’t rivalry; good-natured ribbing and jeering — that’s rivalry. And it should be from both sides of the fan base, not just one or you just look like bullies. Rivalry makes the game worth fighting for as it spurs on competitiveness; the other is just mean-spirited and really against the nature of the game in general. I never thought there’d be a day I’d rather deal with Boston’s fans than another team’s.

And seeing as I’m trying to limit the negativity on this blog, I’ll end with this last thought. It may be over-said, especially this early in the season when we’re down 1-3 in the standings, but it is a long season and there are still so many games to play. And while yesterday may have started the Yankee momentum, it hasn’t reached its full swing yet (pun not intended) with its full roster at full strength. Yes, Detroit has a power-packed roster, but so do a lot of teams (Toronto, LA, and Texas come to mind). And we need to remember that the Yankees didn’t have a power-packed roster in the late 1990’s and still managed to win 4 championships in 5 years.

It’s still really early in the season and so many things can happen (both good and bad). So stay (or get) healthy and safe, guys! We need you for 157 more games.

Go Yankees!

Game 3: BOS vs. NYY — A win is a win is a win

The cold may be around for a while, but the Yankees sure showed up tonight and won the game 4-2. I must begin with starting pitcher and legend Andy Pettitte, who began his first 2013 start with his usual elegance. He went a full 8 innings, only giving up 1 run, an RBI double in the 7th inning. He seemed to have fun spraying his pitches all over the plate and getting batters to hit at nothing for those ground outs and fly outs — in other words, a return to Andy-style in the Bronx. And tonight, he had a great team backing him up and making those outs.

In the 1st inning, a pitch got away from tonight’s catcher Francisco Cervelli, who went to retrieve it and had to hustle back because the runner (who started the play at 2nd) got greedy and thought he could steal home. Cervelli wasn’t about to let that happen and promptly kept Boston at bay. The Yankees also racked up 3 double plays. The defense was alive and kicking tonight.

As far as the offense goes, the bats were present tonight (actually, both teams each got 8 hits). In the 2nd inning, a Hafner single and a Nunez ground-rule double set the stage for Lyle Overbay’s 2-RBI single to put the Yankees on the board. And then, in the 3rd inning, Brett Gardner takes a swing at the 1st pitch and hits it into the right field first row for a solo home run. It is now 3-0. Going into the bottom of the 7th inning, the score is 3-1, when Cervelli steps in to hit the ball into left center field (into the Red Sox bullpen) for another solo home run.

Mariano Rivera steps into the 9th inning to save the 69th Andy Pettitte-Mariano Rivera match-up game. He was a bit uneven tonight, allowing a walk, a hit, and a run, but ultimately he closed the game on that wonderful strike-out looking, ending the game at 4-2.

All in all, it was still nice to see a win. And more importantly, it was nice to see the Yankees again. Perhaps it was the veteran presence and command on the mound or maybe some behind-the-scenes pep talk. Perhaps, we’ll never know why it finally clicked, but it was like finally exhaling after holding one’s breath for so long, even without realizing it. And it worked. Home runs from non-home run hitters, in the frigid cold no less. But a win is a win is a win.

And now, it’s off to Detroit and more cold, but for now and tonight, the Yankees can breathe and smile. A job well done, team.

Go Yankees!

Game 2: BOS vs. NYY — It’s going to be a frigid April, isn’t it?

It was a very cold night in the Bronx, something that I think helped Boston win tonight 7-4; Boston is a town, after all, with average colder temperature for their outdoor stadium than New York. I know I may be grasping at straws here, but when your team loses its second game of the two games played this season, I think you’re entitled to grasp whatever works for soothing your denial. (And yes, I’m mixing clichés because it’s late and I’m recovering from a nasty cold, so your grace is appreciated.)

Starting pitcher Hiroki Kuroda had to leave the game early in the 2nd inning due to a bruised middle finger, due to trying to catch a ball with his bare hand. He was replaced by Cody Eppley, who gave up 4 runs and 4 hits in a just over an inning. Adam Warren was able to do more in his 5 innings and keep Boston from continuing to run up the scoreboard.

Two offensive powerhouses helped pick the Yankees up a bit off the floor. In the 4th inning, Travis Hafner earned his pinstripes and put the Yankees on the board with his first solo home run of the season and as a Yankee. Hafner doesn’t have the defense to earn Yankee fan respect, so he only has his offense. And it seems like he’s off to a good start.  And in the 8th inning, trailing 7-1, Vernon Wells hit his first home run as a Yankee, earning his pinstripes tonight with a 3-run homer. For the handful of people still braving the frigid cold, this was the best it got tonight and well worth the 3 1/2 hour game time.

I should add the interesting defense of Chris Stewart in the 7th inning catching a foul ball diving into the Red Sox dugout. It was nice of Pedroia and Middlebrooks to rush to aid his flip over the barrier, further proof that there is no real ill will between the rivals, especially as you never know which Red Sox will don pinstripes next year. Right, Youkilis?

It’s going to be a long April missing half of the starters, and tonight only continued to prove that. It’s not that the rest of the players aren’t capable of playing and winning the games. No, it’s just that they’re not playing as a team. And it’s not players that win games, but teams. So when the Yankees as a team show up to play ball, we’ll see more W’s on the scoreboard and less nasty media articles. Honestly, we’ve been through worst seasons, and really, it’s only April 3rd. Give them some time, give everyone some time to be the teams that can contend for the post season. Because doesn’t the new MLB ad say that they “play for October”? And is it October? No, but it’s certainly feels like October in the Northeast.

Go Yankees!