Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Buck stopped there

             It was only fitting that the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Texas Rangers in Arlington in the new one-game Wild Card format, setting up a long-awaited standoff with the New York Yankees, the team they were hot on the trail for during the second half of the season. Both teams played each other evenly down the line at nine games a piece in the regular season, and the playoffs would follow suit, prompting one of the narrowing and exciting postseason match-ups in recent Yankee history.

             Also as part of these new playoff rules implemented by MLB to spice up baseball in 2012, the number one seeded team (Yankees) would have to start on the road for the divisional series, which means the first two games would take place at Camden Yards. CC Sabathia, who has been shaky in his last two playoff stints in pinstripes, was on the mound trying to get back into his 2009 mode when he was absolutely dominate. For the Orioles, Buck Showalter pulled Jason Hammel out of his hat to pitch, despite the fact he hadn't made a start in several weeks. The Yankees grabbed an early lead thanks to an Ichiro double, with Jeter running on a full-count, which made the score 1-0 Yankees and placed Ichiro on second base with no outs. Instead of a big rally with Alex Rodriguez at the plate, Ichiro attempted to steal third with no outs and was caught (a big no-no in baseball), then Hammel came back to strikeout Rodriguez. The Yanks would only get one run that inning when it looked like the inexperienced Hammel was about to be on the ropes. Sabathia cruised through the first two innings, and in wasn't until the 3rd that he experienced some issues. He would find himself in a bases loaded jam and facing Nate McLouth. Sabathia hung a slider and the hot-hitting McLouth smoked it into right to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead. The Yankees would tie it an inning later thanks to a RBI single from Mark Teixeira, and from there both starting pitchers locked in. The Orioles best chance against Sabathia came in the bottom of the 8th when JJ Hardy lead off with a double. Sabathia got tough; striking out Adam Jones next, getting Matt Wieters to pop up, and then finally retiring Mark Reynolds to end the threat. With the score tied 2-2 in the 9th inning, the home team Orioles brought out their mega closer, Jim Johnson, who had an amazing season with 51 saves, to pitch the inning. Apparently the Yankees weren't impressed with the closer's stats because Russell Martin greeting him with a solo homer to left that gave the Yanks a 3-2 and stunned the crowd at Camden Yards. Other Yankees joined the fun such as Raul Ibanez, Derek Jeter, and Robinson Cano's double off knocked Johnson out of the game and secured the Yanks with a mighty 6-2 lead. Girardi let Sabathia come out in the bottom of the 9th with a 7-2 lead, but after retiring two batters, but failing to get the third, Sabathia was lifted after a great 8.2 inning performance of two-run ball and David Robertson got the final out for the 7-2 Yankee win.

             The Yankees sent their other lefty, Andy Pettitte, to the hill for the second game in search of his 20th postseason win against the inexperienced Wei-Yin Chen. The Yankees, just like the night before, had a chance to do damage early, but only got one run out of it. Jeter and Ichiro lead off with singles, giving A-Rod an opportunity to finally make some noise in the postseason since 2009. He lined a shot up the middle that was looking to be a RBI single, but Oriole second baseman Robert Andino snared it in mid-air and toss it to second to double up Jeter. The next hitter, Robinson Cano, then smoked a double to right that scored Ichiro from first on a bizarre play at the plate in which Wieters tried to Ichiro twice around the plate, but missed and the Yanks were up 1-0. Like Sabathia, Pettitte was doing fine until a two-out rally surfaced in the bottom of the third. A bloop hit, followed by a solid single from McLouth, and then a walk to JJ Hardy, put Chris Davis at the plate with the bags juiced. Instead of getting out of the jam, which the crafty Pettitte usually does, Davis ripped a pitch into right and the Orioles took a 2-1 lead. The Yanks had their best chance to either tie it up or even take a lead an inning later in the 4th. With the bases loaded and only one out, Eduardo Nunez came to the plate and popped a weak fly ball to shortstop. Derek Jeter followed that up with a ground out to third and the rally was officially over. The Orioles padded up their lead in the 6th after a Matt Weiters double, Mark Reynolds hit a single to the opposite field in right which scored Wieters for a 3-1 Orioles lead. The Yankees struck back in the 7th, Nunez finally hit the ball, a bloop double, and Jeter got him home with a RBI single and the Yanks were only down 3-2. The bats for both teams took the rest of the  night off, allowing Pettitte to go 7 innings, taking the hard luck loss, while Chen went 6.1. Jim Johnson was back on the mound in the 9th for a save this time, looking to put the meltdown the night before behind him, and he did just that, sitting down Jeter and Ichiro very quickly, then getting (of course) A-Rod to strikeout (of course) to end it 3-2 in favor of the Orioles. The save by Johnson tied the series at a game a piece, heading into New York for the final three.

             Being the top-seeded team in the AL was finally going to have some payoff with the next three games occurring at the homer-happy Yankee Stadium that benefits the pinstriped club. Hiroki Kuroda was picked to pitch game three and he was going to lock horns with the young Mike Gonzalez, who has had alot of success against the Yanks in 2012 going into this game. Unlike the previous two games, the Orioles struck first in the top of the 3rd from a Ryan Flaherty solo homer. That lead didn't last long, in the bottom of the frame with Russell Martin on base, Derek Jeter hit what looked like an ordinary fly ball to center, but Adam Jones took a step in and soon found himself trying to catch up (while blowing a bubble from his bubblegum). The ball dropped in at the warning track, allowing Martin to score to tie it up 1-1, and putting Jeter at third with two outs. Naturally the Yanks couldn't get a hit to get Jeter in, so it was left tied at 1. The Orioles second blow (as in homer) came in the 5th when 20-year old Manny Machado crushed a ball to left that made it 2-1 Orioles. Other than that, Kuroda was great, going 8.1 innings and only giving up the two runs. Unfortunately for the Yankees at the time, Gonzalez was even more stingy and the Yanks went into the bottom of the 9th trailing 2-1. The 51-save man Jim Johnson came out to pitch, and this is when a monumental substitution in Yankee history occurred. Manager Joe Girardi sat Alex Rodriguez down, who looked terrible trying to hit all night plus struck out against Johnson the night before, and brought up Raul Ibanez to pinch-hit. Ibanez had a number of key homeruns and hits during September, most of which came in a pinch-hitting role. Rodriguez had slumped in postseasons in the past and boos from the Yankee Stadium crowd is nothing new, but this is the first time its been admitted by the Yankee hierarchy that he's simply not a superstar anymore.

            The move paid off big time when Ibanez was clutch again and sent a Johnson pitch to right field, tying the game 2-2 with A-Rod watching from the bench. The Yankees couldn't win it in regulation, so it went into extra innings. Jeter too would see bench time, but this was injury related when he was taken out after limping around all night on his bad foot that he fouled pitches off of. In the bottom of the 12, that man again, Raul Ibanez lead off the inning against lefty Brian Matusz. On the first pitch he saw, Ibanez blasted it into the night and the ball went far over the right field wall for a dramatic walk-off 3-2 Yankees win!!

             With the dramatic win the night before and the old lefty Joe Saunders on the mound for the Orioles, the Yankees had to have felt the clinch at the tips of their fingers in this best of five series. Jeter was back on the field, sort of, taking the DH spot for the night to rest his aching foot. Girardi started A-Rod at third base and he finally delivered a hit, to the surprise of the crowd. The Yankee bats were quiet yet again in this game, and they failed to put a dent into the veteran Saunders. The Orioles got on the board against Phil Hughes in the 5th after the Yankee rightly danced a tight rope in the previous innings, Nate McLouth lined a solo homer to right that gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead. Cano came up in the 6th with runners on the corners, and his weak ground out to second was to too to turn a double-play, so Jeter scored to tie the score at 1. Cano, along with Swisher, Granderson, and A-Rod, were absolutely brutal in trying to make any sort of contact, and the Yankee crowd was letting them know it. There would be no Raul Ibanez magic this night, Girardi used him only once, with two outs as a substitute for Jayson Nix, and Ibanez came up empty. The move didn't make much sense since Nix was hitting the ball well all night and had two hits to show for it. The night before was a 12-inning affair, this one did one batter with the 13th. In the top of the inning, and with Girardi and Showalter unloading their bullpens, it was left up to Pedro Strop versus Davis Phelps. It would turn out Phelps being the one who would finally buckle. His double to JJ Hardy brought Machado home to score and the Orioles had a 2-1 lead. In the bottom of the inning, Showalter's last man standing, Jim Johnson came on for the save and didn't blow it this time. Girardi once again went to the bench for Alex Rodriguez again Johnson, this time selecting Eric Chavez, but he fared no better and Johnson was able to lock down the 2-1 Orioles win, pushing the series to decisive 5th game to move onto the next round to face the Detroit Tigers.

             When Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman restructured CC Sabathia's deal after the pitcher opted out of his original deal before start the season, it was to come up big and wins important games such as a deciding Game 5 of the ALDS. The Yankees ace came up big in Game 1 with a strong 8.2 inning performance for a win, he would need to do the same in order to get the Orioles out of the Yankees' hair. Girardi, seeing the writing on the wall with his crop of slumping hitters in the middle and bottom of the lineup, sat Alex Rodriguez (and his $30 million a year contract) in favor of Eric Chavez for third base, and inserted new fan-favorite Raul Ibanez as the DH. Jeter was back at shortstop after his one day off as a DH. Sabathia and Hammel both picked up from where they left off in Game 1 and were stingy through the first four innings. It wasn't until the bottom of the 5th when the Yankees struck. Mark Teixeira innocently lead off with a single, then with the first baseman not holding him on, actually bad calf and all stole second base to get himself into scoring position. Raul Ibanez would bring Teixeira home on a bleeder up the middle for a 1-0 Yankee lead that seemed so huge for the fact runs were hard to come by during this series. In the top of the 6th, there was a little controversy thanks to a foul ball hit by Nate McLouth that seemed to possibly nick the right field foul pole. Replays weren't conclusive enough to show that the ball changed any direction as a result of it hitting the pole, so after going to check the Instant Replay, the umpires ruled it foul, and Sabathia finished off McLouth with a strikeout. The Yanks would strike again in the bottom of that inning, an Ichrio Suzuki double to the wall in front of the Yankee bullpen brought home Jeter and gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead. There would be more Yankee bat-awaking. Curtis Granderson, another candidate for worst Yankee hitter this postseason, finally connected on a pitch and blasted it to the second deck in right that now had the Yankees up 3-0 with CC Sabathia in complete control. The Orioles finally made it interesting in the top of the 8th after Matt Wieters lead off with a single. Manny Machado took a walk next, but Sabathia was able to come back from a 3-1 count to strikeout Mark Reynolds. The official Sabathia-killer, Lew Ford, came up next and singled under the diving glove of Jeter to bring home the first Oriole run of the night. Andino was next and he chopped an infield single that Sabathia wasn't able to field smoothly, and his throw to second to nail a runner was too late. So the bases were loaded and the Orioles trailing 3-1, with their best hitter of the series, Nate McLouth, batting. This is where Sabathia got into ace-mode; he struckout McLouth, then got Hardy to ground out to short on a fantastic running throw by Jeter. The threat was gone and Sabathia was back out on the mound for the 9th inning with Soriano taxed from the previous two nights, and Game 1 of the ALCS looming the next day. There was no threat this time from Baltimore and CC sat them down 1-2-3 in the 9th for a complete game 3-1 Yankees victory to send them into the next round.

            For two teams with big offensive weapons, it came down to very stingy pitching (with the help of batters on both sides being cold as the chilly October weather), but one team had CC Sabathia and the other team didn't. It was good to see Girardi/Cashman stand up and admit finally that A-Rod isn't a superstar  player anymore through the moves they made pinch-hitting for him, but A-Rod wasn't the only bat lacking; Cano, Swisher, Granderson, and Teixeira really need to wake up during the next round or else the Yankees will not be going to the World Series....

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Top of the AL East heap

             After all the months of injuries, hot and cold streaks, too many homers, not enough small-ball, it all came down to three games for the Yankees against their heated foe the Boston Red Sox to determine if they'll be comfortably crowned the AL East champs or would have to roll the dice with the new one-game playoff  rules of the Wild Card round. The Yankees showed up in a big way to make their claim as the best team in the division and all the pieces are coming together in just the right time for a successful playoff run.

             While the Orioles, in a dead heat with the Yankees in the standings, were down in Tampa to mettle with the Rays, whose playoff chances were hanging by a string, the Yankees hosted the last place Red Sox and their last place roster with lame duck manager, Bobby Valentine, on his way out the door. CC Sabathia was looking for his fourth strong start and the decimated Red Sox lineup was the perfect opponent. Starting for the Red Sox was the oft-injured Clay Buchholz and the Yankees tore him apart in the 2nd inning and put the first game away immediately. Robinson Cano started the fun with a solo homerun, Curtis Granderson added a 2-run shot, Russell Martin then went opposite field for another, and by the time Cano got up again in the long inning, his double made it 7-0 Yankees and drove Buchholz from the game after 1.2 innings. Mark Teixeira made his return to the lineup after his weeks long calf injury, and he launched the fourth homer of the inning, a 2-run blast off of Alfredo Aceves. With the 9-0 lead, CC Sabathia had things well in hand; just giving up a solo homer to Daniel Nava in the 4th and a sacrifice fly in the 7th. Sabathia went 8 innings and struck out 7 batters to reach his 15th win of the season. Base running expert Melky Mesa had his first hit and RBI in the majors to increase the lead to 10-2, which is where the score ended. The Yankee win, combined with an Oriole loss in Tampa on the night, put the Yankees back in sole possession of first place!!

             If there was a game the Yankees were going to lose in this final regular season series, it likely was the second with tough-lefty Jon Lester starting against David Phelps, replacing the ineffective Ivan Nova in the rotation. Under wet skies the Red Sox took an early 2-0 lead in the 1st inning from a Jacoby Ellsbury single followed by a Dustin Pedroia double. Pedroia would eventually come around to score, but Phelps held the punchless Red Sox lineup from there. Meanwhile the Yankee offense was knocking on the door almost every inning against Jon Lester, but couldn't get that big hit with runners on. In fact, Mark Teixeira painstakingly hit into two double-plays with two runners on. The first Yankee run didn't come across until the middle of the Teixeira hitting gaffs, the 2nd inning, and it took an Eduardo Nunez lined shot to short that wasn't handled well and Curtis Granderson came into score. The score amazingly stayed 2-1 Red Sox to the top of the 9th inning when Rafael Soriano was brought out in the non-save situation. As he has been bit by the homerun bug lately, Soriano gave up another to James Loney that increased the Sox lead to 3-1. With the Orioles winning their game in Tampa, the pressure was on for the Yanks to hold onto their one-game lead. In the bottom of the 9th, the Red Sox went with their free agent replacement of Jonathan Papelbon, Andrew Bailey, and the struggling closer brought the Yankees back to life. A Curtis Granderson single put a runner on, then Raul Ibanez, solid in pinch-hitting scenarios lately, slapped a game-tying over the right field wall which put the Stadium crowd into a frenzy.

            The Yankees would go on to load the bases in the inning, but couldn't push across that winning run, yet. It wasn't until the bottom of the 12th that the Yankees were able to hold serve with the Orioles. After two solid innings of relief from Derek Lowe, which included a frog on the field game pause, the Yankees had a two-out rally. September call-up Francisco Cervelli, in as catcher, was in the hole 0-2 against the tough, tall, hard-throwing Andrew Miller. Somehow, Cervelli worked the count to 3-2 and drew a walk. The next hitter, Curtis Granderson, was the beneficiary of a four-pitch walk, which put Cervelli into scoring position. With that hero again, Ibanez, due up next, Girardi stuck with him instead of going to Andruw Jones for the righty-lefty match-up. The night ended with a well-placed single by Ibanez through the shortstop hole and the speedy Cervelli rounded the bases for the 4-3 game-winning run.

            There was one game left and the AL East, along with the best record in American League, was in front of the Yankees for the taken. A win would not only secure them the AL East title, but with the Texas Rangers limping to end the season, the Yankees also had the opportunity to give themselves home field advantage through the AL rounds. Two Japanese imports would take the hill, Boston's also oft-injured Daisuke Matsuzaka and his mythical gyro-ball versus the solid Yankee Hiroki Kuroda. Boston grabbed a quick 1-0 in the 1st inning, but Curtis Granderson erased that and then some with a 3-run homer in the bottom of the 2nd. An inning later, Robinson Cano went deep as well on Dice-K with a massive 2-run shot that made it 5-1 Yankees and eventually would make Bobby V to have to call upon his overworked bullpen.  Cano wasn't done with just the first homer, he smoked another in the 5th inning and then poked a 2-run single with the bases loaded in the 6th. The rout was on for the Yankees and the AL East was only inches from their grasp, as the Orioles were also trailing in their final game in Tampa. Boston would score again in the 7th to make it 9-2, but Curtis Granderson responded with his second homer of the night, the 43rd of the season. Just about every Yankee hitter got into the action one way or another and by the time the 7th inning was done, the Yankees had a massive 14-2 lead. Kuroda went 7 innings and picked up his 16th victory of the season. The Orioles ended up losing anyways, which would've given the division to the Yankees, but the Yanks stormed their way to finish the regular season with the 14-2 and Robinson Cano elevated his hitting to a whole new level before the playoffs are about to start.

              On Friday night the Orioles and Rangers play the one-game Wild Card playoff to determine which team faces the 2012 AL East Champion Yankees. Meanwhile the 95-67 Yankees can rest up some of their overused and overworked players and prepare for Game 1 of the ALDS. The Bomber line-up finally resembles what GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi had in mind with all the sluggers back healthy and Ichiro making his impact. CC Sabathia looks strong again, and Andy Pettitte is as sure as a bet as their is for postseason starts. There's no Mariano Rivera for those automatic saves, but a few days rest should serve Rafael Soriano well. Meanwhile Bobby Valentine would be relieved of his managerial duties in Boston after just one season of turmoil, Miquel Cabrera would be the first Triple-Crown winner since 1967, and the Mets had another wasted season. All is right in Yankeeland for the time being......