All hail Helen!!

All hail Helen!!
Helen Carmona and your humble blogger

Monday, May 12, 2008

Disappointment at its worst

Is there a more depressing image in baseball than the tarp?

If so, enlighten me, because I don't think there is.

You wait all night, as I did Sunday night in Taiwan, thinking over the first inning, getting your pencils sharpened and your scorecard prepped. You mix the coffee because the one a.m. start means staying up until four-thirty (at least); you go over the notes from the previous two Tigers games, turn on the TV and.... there's Michael Kay saying, "...dreadful weather and no real window for it to improve today...."

Ugh! I got the Charlie Browns, those feelings that things are just going to go south and there isn't a single thing you can do about it.

Utterly, completely, hopelessly depressing...

I've never been left at the alter, but I can't imagine it feels any worse than a rainout. I often compare baseball to a marriage -- it's long, and not every day is worth getting out of bed for, but there are enough good days -- and just enough great ones -- to remind you of why you agreed to spend your life with this person next to you. You hang in there after the (many) small defeats, and even after the few crushing big ones. There are times when you wonder if you can come back for another season, but when February rolls around, you're there. It's a commitment, and it's life-long, so you roll with it, knowing there are always better days ahead.

The rainout isn't like an argument with your wife; it's more like dealing with a wife who's going through really horrible PMS. It's not really her fault, but you're stuck with the fallout, regardless. So you suck it up and wait until she feels better. No hard feelings. Tomorrow's another day.

So here we are at tomorrow already. And yesterday, what was that? It's good times again!

On to Tampa...

Not so fast

Before we dive headlong into the week upcoming, let's look back at the week that was.

Rounding into form

Even though Jason Giambi and Robinson Cano still occupy the bottom two positions on the America League batting table, both of them are just a few games away from being out of the cellar.

Giambi carried the Yankee offense, in spurts, last week, driving in six runs while collecting five hits, all for extra bases. His .385 batting average and .539 on-base percentage signal an awakening that the Yankees sorely need with their bottom-of-the-order hitters fading fast. (Morgan Ensberg, Jose Molina, and Chad Moeller were a combined 3-for-19 last week, and a heating-up Wilson Betemit went down with a hamstring injury.)

Cano joined Giambi's hit parade, posting a .389/.444 week on the strength of seven hits in 18 at-bats, including a home run and two doubles. But beyond the numbers, Cano finally looked like a confident hitter. It may well have been the better numbers that boosted his confidence, but the body language and the hand speed seemed much better than they did during the first five weeks of the season.

Combined, Cano (3) and Giambi (6) drove in nearly half of the 19 runs the Yankees scored in their five games last week. With Alex Rodriguez set to rejoin the lineup, with Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui combining for a red-hot week (18-for-58/.328/.448), and a rejuvenated Cano and Giambi, the Yankee offensive slump over these first 38 games may be at an end.


All hail Hideki!

His hitting streak may not have made it through the week, but Matsui's bat was as hot as any other in the Yankee order last week. He tied Cano with seven hits for the week, and tied Abreu by getting on base nine times in the five games the Yankees played.

Matsui's .331 batting average allows him to begin the week as the American League's number two hitter behind Cleveland's Victor Martinez (.346), and his .414 on-base percentage has him in fourth place in the league.

Other Yankees climbing the league batting charts are Jeter (8th place, .308) and Abreu (14th, .303). Jeter, however, is struggling trying to earn more walks. His on-base percentage sits at a modest .340 (his career OBP is .388) largely due to his paltry total of just five walks earned so far this season.

That figure puts Jeter on pace for only 26 walks the entire season, far below his previous career worst of 43 walks, in his injury-shortened 2003 season. But Jeter is also on pace for his lowest strikeout total of his career. The future Hall-of-Famer averages about 107 whiffs per season, but is on pace this year for around 60, far below his previous low of 88, also in 2003.

Raz-zle, daz-zle!

Fans of the Bill Murray classic Stripes will recall that abbreviated lyric from Murray's army graduation scene. But it just as aptly describes the feelings Yankee fans have after watching Class AAA call-up Darrell Rasner post two victories in two starts after replacing Ian 'Kry-baby' Kennedy in the starting rotation. Simply put, Rasner was all that Kennedy never even appeared to be.

Rasner looked confident, threw strikes (a razzle-dazzling 3.5-to-1 strikes-to-balls ratio in his second start), and made it through the fourth inning -- all things Kennedy was failing to do on an increasingly more frequent basis. Predicting success in baseball is such an inexact science that it's never really fair to say a mistake was made in trusting a young player; Yankee general manager Brian Cashman saw something he liked in Kennedy and promoted him. That it didn't work out this time just means that a new direction was needed. Thank goodness Cashman and Yankee manager Joe Girardi made the call they did.

With Rasner up and thriving -- so far; a dangerous Tampa lineup awaits later this week --Yankee fans feel a lot better about the fourth spot in the rotation.

On the other hand...

The Kei Igawa experiment just isn't working, and can anyone who has watched this guy pitch at the major league level say they see any positive signs when he's on the mound?

On Friday night, Detroit batters teed off on Igawa's pitches with such scary regularity that I actually feared for Igawa's safety as I watched. I was sure one of those shots was going to split Igawa in two right there on the mound. The guy has triple-A talent, and even down in Scranton he was only 3-3. With a one-game line of 3.0/11/6/6/0/0, 18.00 ERA and 3.67 WHIP, Igawa's future seems sealed. If he has any major league potential left at all, he has to go to the bullpen now and forget starting... forever.

For the bargain-basement price of $34 million, the Yankees got themselves a spotty, unreliable, situational reliever.


Season to date

The Yankees went 2-3 last week, finishing their nine-game homestand with a 4-5 mark after a win over Cleveland on Thursday before splitting two games on the road in Detroit. Sunday's rainout will be made up on either July 24 or September 1, two scheduled off-days for both the Yankees and the Tigers.

The Yankees are 19-19 on the season and tied for third place with the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East, four games behind the division-leading Red Sox, and two and a half games behind second-place Tampa. Tonight, the Yankees begin an important four-game series in Tampa.

Projected starting pitchers

Yankees: Andy Pettitte, LHP (3-3, 3.77 ERA)
Last start: In his 400th career start, Pettitte got a no-decision after throwing 6 and 2/3 innings against Cleveland last Tuesday. He struck out a season-high six batters but also surrendered another home run to Jhonny Peralta, this one a two-run blast.

Rays: Matt Garza, RHP (1-1, 4.91 ERA)
Last start: Garza took a tough loss from the Blue Jays, giving up just six hits and one run in 6 and 2/3 innings, but the Rays went scoreless, handing Garza his first defeat of 2008.

Yankees: Chien-Ming Wang, RHP (6-1, 3.12 ERA)
Last start: Facing his third ace in a row, Wang finally came up short. After defeating Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia and Seattle's Erik Bedard in successive starts, Wang pitched well -- striking out four and allowing only five hits and three walks in seven innings -- but lost 3-0 to Cleveland's unbeaten Cliff Lee. Back on April 6, Wang threw six innings of four-hit ball, walking two and striking out six and holding Tampa scoreless for his second win of the season. Wang is 5-2 with a 4.11 ERA in seven career starts at Tropicana Field.

Rays: Edwin Jackson, RHP (2-3, 4.04 ERA)
Last start: Jackson got a no-decision despite throwing eight shutout innings against the Blue Jays last Thursday. He is 2-2 with a 5.40 ERA in nine career appearances against the Yankees.

Yankees: Mike Mussina, RHP (5-3, 4.36 ERA)
Last start: The Moose won his fourth consecutive start, throwing five innings, allowing three runs and four hits while striking out three against no walks. Earlier this season at Yankee Stadium, Mussina faced Tampa and gave up one run on two hits over six innings in getting his first win of 2008. He's 7-5 in 16 career starts at Tropicana Field.

Rays: James Shields, RHP (4-2, 3.14 ERA)
Last start: Shields threw a gem at the L.A. Angels, tossing nine innings and getting a one-hit shutout. In his previous home start, Shields also threw nine shutout innings, giving up just three hits to get the win. He has not fared well against the Yankees, however, going 0-5 with a 7.83 ERA in six career starts.

Yankees: Darrell Rasner, RHP (2-0, 3.00 ERA)
Last start: Rasner got the win in Detroit last Saturday, throwing six-plus innings and giving up just two runs. This is his first career start against the Rays.

Rays: Scott Kazmir, LHP, (1-1, 2.70 ERA)
Last start: Kazmir sat out April with inflammation in his left elbow, but he won his first game last Saturday night against the Angels when he pitched six scoreless innings, allowing three hits and three walks while striking out six. Last season's American League strikeout leader is 2-3 with a 3.00 ERA in nine career appearances against the Yankees.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Indians 5, Yankees 3

Go figure baseball.

On a night when lights-out reliever Joba Chamberlain can't find the strike zone (or figure out which pitches to throw), demoted starter Ian Kennedy throws a gem (in Class AAA Scranton) that makes him look like the second coming of a mature Greg Maddux.

Ya gotta love this game!

I don't have much to say about Kennedy, except Do it when it counts, rookie! If Kennedy wants to bitch and moan about a demotion, then go down to Scranton and throw like he actually cares about his career, then let him repeat the performance when he gets back to New York, or else let the hype machine stop right now. A minor league outing means nothing, not after the remarks Kennedy made on his way out of town, and he needs to be handed a copy of No Medals for Trying, Jerry Izenberg's book on the Giants under head coach Bill Parcells.

And he needs to read it. Twice.

But enough about who's not here. Let's talk about who is, and let's talk about what the hell Chamberlain was doing on Tuesday night.

Maybe he knew in the bullpen that the slider wasn't there tonight, or that he couldn't locate the fastball where he wanted it. Whatever was going on in his head, he looked like a rookie, unable to shake what ailed him and get the job done. The one knock on Kennedy (last time his name appears in this post, I promise) was that he seemed to wallow too long in his own muck. Joba, except on rare occasions, has been able to bounce back from a walk or a hit or a wild pitch. Not on Tuesday night. Let's hope that fiasco was a one-off, and Chamberlain gets back to the hill soon and makes this disaster a distant memory.

(And for the record: Joba wasn't done in by the pitch David Dellucci hit for the home run; Chamberlain was undone by his own inability to throw strikes. If you don't have control, why not just throw gas -- 97-m.p.h. gas -- and make guys hit it somewhere? Not every batter is going to go yard as Dellucci did. Walking the two batters who were on base before Dellucci came up... that's what killed Chamberlain and the Yankees.

Just throw strikes, kid!)

And one more thing on the pitching... Tough luck, Andy Pettitte! Your six-strikeout, one-walk performance deserved better than a no-decision.

Oh yes they call him the streak!

It looks like marriage to a cartoon drawing has done wonders for Hideki Matsui's... wood. The Yankee designated hitter was still stroking it on Tuesday, collecting three more hits to run his hitting streak to 15 games. I know, I know... Joe DiMaggio is not grumbling in his grave just yet, but Matsui's streak is worth noting, just the same.

After an April drought for the Yankees, any sign of extended life from the offense is a welcome sight. No one expected Saturday and Sunday's explosion to continue -- and it didn't. Matsui, Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, and Bobby Abreu combined to go 21-for-37 over the weekend, with a billion RBI, but were just 4-for-17 with three strikeouts on Tuesday, and three of the hits came off Matsui's bat.

Hopefully, Matsui's streak will become contagious, and maybe it already has. Robinson Cano, ensconced at the bottom of the American League batting race, has had a hit in each of the last two games. That hasn't happened since... well, the box scores are too depressing to review, but with only 18 hits on the season, it's safe to say Cano's two-game hitting streak is a rare thing in 2008 and reason for (cautious) optimism.

Run on this!

You can mark this down and put it in the vault: There will not be many throws this season, by any player on any team, prettier than the one Jose Molina used to gun down Ben Francisco on a stolen base attempt in the third inning.

It is rare that the word perfect can be used accurately to describe anything done by mankind, but I defy anyone to find a single fault with the way that play unfolded. Molina's rifle shot from his knees landed in Robinson Cano's glove at the exact fraction of a second that Francisco's thigh slid into that samew glove for the tag and the out.

It would take a computer recreation to make that play look any more precise. Defense is so often underappreciated, and that's too bad, because few things in baseball excite the sense more than a bang-bang play at any bag other than first base. (Remember Mel Allen narrating those outfield assists on This Week In Baseball all those years ago? I sure do...)

Thanks to Jose Molina for a play that really cannot be topped.

Season to date

The Yankees are 17-17 and in third place in the American League East, four and a half games behind division-leading Boston, and one game behind second-place Tampa Bay. Tuesday's loss was the team's first since sweeping a three-game series from the Seattle Mariners. The Yankees dropped the first game of the three-game series with Cleveland and are now 3-4 on the current nine-game homestand.

Wednesday's starting pitchers

Yankees: Chien-Ming Wang, RHP (6-0, 3.00 ERA)
Last start: Wang threw six innings, allowed a run, three hits, and issued two walks while striking out five in a 5-1 Yankee win over Seattle, a victory that broke a three-game Yankee losing streak. Wang is 3-1 in his career against the Tribe.

Indians: Cliff Lee, LHP (5-0, 0.96 ERA)
Last start: Lee is the surprise pitcher in the majors so far this season. He has yet to allow a single run on the road. In his last start, at home against the Mariners, Lee tossed six-plus innings, allowed three runs on eights hits, walked none and struck out three.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Yankees 8, Mariners 2

After Saturday's game, when the first four hitters in the Yankee lineup -- Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu, and Hideki Matsui -- went 10-for-19 with four extra-base hits and five RBI, I wrote that they couldn't do that every day.

And I was right. They could do even better.

That four-man combination that chased Seattle ace Felix Hernandez from Saturday's start did the same to Sunday's unbeaten starter, Carlos Silva. Led by Jeter's 4-for-5 afternoon, the top of the Yankee lineup went 11-for-18 on Sunday, scored six times and drove in four of the team's eight runs. Toss in Melky Cabrera's team-leading sixth home run of the season, a two-run shot, and Robinson Cano's solo homer (Cabrera and Cano went back-to-back in the third inning), and it's easy to see why starting pitcher Darrell Rasner's first outing of the season was overshadowed somewhat.

Finally, the Yankees are hitting the way they did last season, and the way everyone knew they could this season.

In 2007, the Yankees scored five or more runs in one inning over thirty times. Sunday's six-run third inning was the first time the Yankees have scored five or more runs in an inning this season, and it came in the 33rd game of the year. As Jeter said in an interview after the game, it's almost a shame there's a day off on Monday. Who wouldn't want to see more of this weekend's fireworks?

One up, one down

Hello, Darrell Rasner. Hit the road, Ian Kennedy.

Rasner, who was the Class AAA International League's Pitcher of the Month for April, was everything Ian Kennedy was not during Kennedy's dismal month in the Bronx. Rasner was confident, quick, and most importantly, in control. In notching his first major league win of the year, Rasner threw only 76 pitches in six innings, 48 for strikes. He struck out four Mariner batters and walked none, giving up just five hits.

Rasner's one mistake pitch resulted in Adrian Beltre's two-run first-inning home run, and it was a genuine 'Uh-oh, here we go...' moment for Yankee fans. But Rasner settled down as the Yankee offense got fired up, and once Rasner was handed the lead, he looked like the mature pitcher that Kennedy needs to become.

It's entirely possible that Rasner will get blown up in his next start; or he could toss a no-hitter. Who knows? But with the Yankee offense soaring, the team needed a game where it didn't have to produce hit after hit just to bail out a floundering starting pitcher. Rasner gave the team a break, and allowed the hitters to relax after a month of watching Kennedy and fellow rookie Phil Hughes give up big inning after big inning.

There was just too much offense on Sunday to say that Rasner was the player of the game, but he was certainly in the conversation, and that's all Yankee fans have wanted out of their other young pitchers this season.

Whose bullpen is this?

The Yankee bullpen, maligned throughout the month of April, had a bounce-back week over the last seven days. Ten pitchers combined to hurl 22 and 2/3 innings in relief, giving up just five earned runs all week, and four of those were surrendered by Jonathon Albaladejo in one outing against the Detroit Tigers. That gives the entire relief staff a remarkable 1.99 ERA for the week, and leads to the question, is this really the Yankee bullpen, or a group of imposters in pinstripes?

The impressive numbers don't stop at the stellar ERA. The bullpen staff cut its walks down considerably, giving up just eight for the week, for a 3.18 walks per nine innings average. But when balanced against the collective strikeout numbers -- 21 strikeouts, for an 8.34 strikeouts per nine innings average -- Yankee fans will live with the bases on balls number.

And the WHIP wasn't bad, either. With 16 hits added to the eight walks, the relief crew registered a 1.06 WHIP number, which is just outstanding.

Taken as a whole, the bullpen finally rounded into shape last week, but if one reliever must be singled out -- besides Mariano Rivera, who is in MVP/Cy Young form -- it's Ross Ohlendorff, who continues to look more and more like a long reliever who can spell Mussina or Rasner should either exit before the seventh inning.

Ohlendorff tossed 4 and 1/3 innings of relief last week, and registered a 0.00 ERA and a 0.69 WHIP in giving up just two hits, a walk, and no runs while striking out five. As Yankee fans continue to wonder who will replace Joba Chamberlain once he's placed in the starting rotation, Ohlendorff seems to be making his case to fill Joba's shoes.

Season to date

The Yankees swept all three games from the Mariners, outscoring Seattle 19-4 overall. The Bombers are 17-16 and tied for second place in the American League East, one percentage point behind Baltimore and Tampa Bay (both 16-15), and three games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. The Yankees have won three straight and are an even 3-3 on their current nine-game homestand. The Yankees have the day off Monday and will open a three-game series with the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.

Tuesday's starting pitchers

Yankees: Andy Pettitte, LHP (3-3, 3.93 ERA)
Last start: Pettitte was roughed up by the Detroit Tigers on Wednesday, giving up seven hits, including a home run to Marcus Thames, and five earned runs in just six innings of a 6-2 Yankee loss. It was Pettitte's second consecutive loss after a 3-1 start to the season. Pettitte had good control -- tossing 63 strikes out of 90 pitches thrown -- but the Tigers were in a hitting mood. Against the Indians, Pettitte has never done well at Yankee Stadium, posting a career 1-4 record and a 5.48 ERA in seven starts.

Indians: Fausto Carmona, RHP (3-1, 2.60 ERA)
Last start: In 6 and 2/3 innings last Tuesday against the Mariners, Carmona gave up two runs (one earned) on eight hits and four walks, against just two strikeouts. In three career starts at Yankee Stadium, Carmona is 0-0 with a 3.24 ERA.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Yankees 6, Mariners 1

Like most high schools, mine played all of it's home football games on Friday nights. During my senior season, we had one away game scheduled for ten-thirty on a Saturday morning, and some of the guys were grumbling about it. Friday nights were special; you played, you showered, and by nine-thirty or ten o'clock you were at one of the local pizza places hanging out until midnight or so.

In our youthful way, we didn't want to give up even a single Friday night. But as we were grumbling in the locker room after post-practice showers, a gravelly voice came out of the equipment locker. "Ahhh, be quiet," it said. "The game was meant to be played in the daytime."

That was our equipment manager, an old guy in his late-sixties who had played and coached before there were lights installed at most fields. None of us in that locker room said anything to contradict him, mostly because he was tougher than any of us were, and also because he was right. We just didn't know that then.

I recall this story here only because I was reminded of it while watching Mike Mussina pitch a whale of a game on Saturday, under the mid-afternoon Bronx sun. There were a few moments in that game when (corny, sentimental atmosphere reference alert!) the pale-blue May sky hung over Yankee Stadium, and it was comforting to see that picture.

Ever since television took over command of American sports, the amount of day games has dwindled to about two per week, and afternoon start times are all but extinct when it comes to the postseason. And the Yankees have had such crappy weather this spring that even their day games have looked drab, even melancholy. Saturday may not have been a totally azure day in New York City, but the few moments of sunshine that came through on the broadcast made the game a little more enjoyable.

Like football, baseball, too, is meant to be played in the daytime.

Another good Moose sighting

You have to hand it Mike Mussina. In the face of brutal criticism after two disastrous outings against the Red Sox, he has responded with some terrific pitching. He's a proud guy and would never admit that Hank Steinbrenner's tirade -- "Mussina should pitch more like Jamie Moyer" -- inspired him to dig deeper, but if Steinbrenner really was no catalyst, then the timing is awfully coincidental. (Actually, Yankee fans probably hope it's coincidental; otherwise Hank will think he really knew what he was talking about, then we're all in for it...)

It would be unrealistic to expect Saturday's performance to become the norm for Mussina -- not just unfair to Mussina, but unfair to most pitchers -- because Mussina was nothing short of brilliant. He opened the game with two perfect innings, gave up a run in the third but got a double play to end a threat, got another double play to end the fourth, stranded two baserunners in the fifth, then saved his best for last, in the sixth.

I don't know if Mussina knew it was going to be his final inning -- I suspect not, since he came into the sixth having thrown only 71 pitches -- but he sure pitched as if he were trying to leave with a flourish. Mariner third baseman Adrian Beltre reached first base on a one-out throwing error by Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, but no matter. Mussina was not in the mood to mind very much if his defense betrayed him slightly.

Moose had already gotten the first out of the inning on a four-pitch, swinging strikeout of Raul Ibanez. With Beltre on first, Mussina went after Seattle designated hitter Jeff Clement and first baseman Richie Sexson. He got Clement to strikeout with a swing and a miss on the third pitch, and took just five pitches to dispatch Sexson in the same manner. As Moose walked off the mound with three swinging strikeouts in his pocket -- something he hadn't done in one inning since the 2005 season -- it was easy to forget that Beltre had even been on base.

Mussina never made it out to the hill in the seventh. Manager Joe Girardi turned the game over to the Yankees' suddenly stellar bullpen. LaTroy Hawkins, Edwar Ramirez, and Jose Veras cleaned up the final three innings, and Mussina went to 4-3 on the season. Watching the game, and knowing Mussina had thrown only 84 pitches, I wanted to see more of him, but that was just a fan's selfishness. I'll take what Mussina gave us today and look forward to his next start in Detroit. where the Yankees will need more of what we saw on Saturday.

It was a Moose sighting. A Moose sighting of the best kind.

Alex who?

Here are the numbers: 10-for-19, a home run, three doubles, five runs scored, five RBIs. That's the stat line laid down by the first four hitters in Saturday's Yankee lineup -- Johnny Damon, Jeter, Bobby Abreu, and Hideki Matsui. With big bangers Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada out of action for a while, Yankee fans have wondered where the team's offense was going to come from. Certainly, there won't be this level of production every game -- especially against ace pitchers like Felix Hernandez, who just didn't have his best stuff on Saturday -- but maybe May was the antidote the Yankees needed for their April offensive woes.

Whatever prompted that outburst yesterday, let's hope it's contagious throughout the clubhouse. Jason Giambi and Robinson Cano are still anchored to the bottom of the American League's list of batting stats, while Morgan Ensberg and Jose Molina are slowly headed in that direction. (Slowly only because neither runs very well, but their numbers are headed south in a big hurry.)

The Yankees will probably need a different guy to be the big bopper each game, because the top four will not bat .526 with four extra-base hits every time out. But even though we know it can't happen every day, it sure as hell was fun to watch on Saturday, and against King Felix, no less!

The king is dead! Long live the.... Yankees!

Season to date

The Yankees are 16-16 and in fourth place in the AL East, three games behind the division-leading Red Sox and one game behind Baltimore and Tampa Bay, both tied for second. The Yankees have won two in a row over the Mariners and are 2-3 in their current nine-game homestand. Sunday's game will be the last with the Mariners in this series. Game time is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. at the Stadium.

Sunday's starting pitchers

Yankees: Darrell Rasner, RHP (0-0, 0.00 ERA)
Last start: Rasner was called up to replace Phil Hughes after Hughes was placed on the disabled list last week. This is Rasner's first major league start this season. Last year, he earned a victory over the Mariners at the Stadium on May 6, the day Roger Clemens announced he was returning to the Yankees for one more season. At Class AAA Scranton this season, Rasner started five games and had a 4-0 record with an 0.87 ERA.

Mariners: Carlos Silva, RHP (3-0, 2.79 ERA)
Last start: Silva got a no-decision in Cleveland, giving up two runs on seven hits and striking out three while walking one in seven strong innings. Silva will go deep into games, averaging seven innings in six starts this season.

Yankees 5, Mariners 1

Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they're fascist. -- Crash Davis, speaking to Nuke LaLoosh, in Bull Durham.

Strikeouts may very well be vestiges of a far right-wing regime, but I'll take them any day. Thank goodness the Seattle defense was asleep behind starter Erik Bedard early in last night's game, because once Bedard got rolling in the middle innings, blowing the ball by Yankee hitters, he was fun to watch -- fun only because the Yankees were already up 3-1 thanks to four Mariner errors, and the Yankees' own starter, Chien-Ming Wang, was keeping the Mariner lineup off the bases.

After Bobby Abreu grounded out to second base in the bottom of the fifth, for the second Yankee out, Bedard struck out four of the next six Yankee batters. That's never fun for a Yankee fan to see, but for a baseball fan who has been bombarded by the increase in run-scoring in the Bud Selig era, watching a pitcher dominate brings a little tingle of excitement, even when that pitcher is wearing enemy colors.

But when Yankee reliever Kyle Farnsworth stepped to the mound in the seventh inning, and started throwing an unhittable fastball from the very first pitch, the tinge of guilt was gone, and it was simply fun to just sit back and enjoy a pitcher going for broke. Farnsworth netted ten strikes out of his economical 14 pitches thrown, and notched two strikeouts in his one inning of work, but it wasn't the strikeouts themselves that were so fun to see; it was the way Farnsworth completely overwhelmed Jeff Clement and especially Wladimir Balantien.

It looked unfair to the hitters, which is the way baseball is supposed to look when a pitcher is on his game. We don't see it much anymore, and when it comes around, it reminds us how much fun baseball can be when the game isn't taking three and a half hours as managers change pitchers after every late-inning home run.

Is Wang the new Pettitte?

Now that he's 6-0 in 2008, there's no longer any debate about whether Chien-Ming Wang belongs in the conversation with baseball's other top aces. The questions now are how high canhis win total go this season, and how much more important he's been to the Yankees than just a pitcher with a solid won-loss record.

Wang's 44 wins since 2006 place him four ahead of Brandon Webb for the most in the majors for any starting pitcher. But look at these numbers: 27-7, 22-6, 11-0. Those are the numbers related to Wang's starts the game after a Yankee loss.

Wang has taken the hill 34 times in his career the day after the Yankees lost the previous game. In thos games the Yankees are 27-7 overall; Wang's personal record is 22-6; and after last night's win, Wang is 11-0 in the last 11 starts after a Yankee loss.

For years, starter Andy Pettitte was known as the streak stopper, the one Yankee starter who was so competitive that he took Yankee losses personally and went to the mound the day after a loss and stopped the other teams in their tracks. Time and again, Pettitte got the Yankees back onthe winning track. Now, apparently, that's Wang's job.

For all Wang's success over the last three years, Yankee fans have never been sure whether or not he was a successor to a David Cone or a Pettitte as a knife-in-the-heart pitcher who could stare down an opposing batting order like a front-end ace should be able to do. But Wang's new pitch, the slider, looks more and more like an out pitch every time he throws it. he only had four strikeouts last night, as opposed to his nine last Sunday in Cleveland, but Wang is clearly now a top-level major league ace. It's still hard to believe, after last year's 19-win season, that Wang wasn't even in the top five of the Cy Young voting. That doesn't look like a problem this season.

And Cy Young voters wil have to take into account not only Wang's record, but who he's beaten, head-to-head. I know pitchers always insist that they're not facing the other pitcher, but the other lineup, but when Wang has two wins already against a lights-out C.C. Sabathia and a hard-charging Bedard, that can't hurt his credentials when it comes time for the awards to be handed out.

And why stop at Cy Young? With the way the Yankees have needed wins, and with the way Wang has kept this team from being a lot worse than 15-16, has there been another player in baseball who has exemplified the word 'valuable' the way Wang has? To heck with Cy Young; bring on the MYP!

How offensive?

Last night's win wasn't all about the pitching, but when was the last time we looked down a Yankee lineup and saw only one .300 or better batting average?

Last night's lineup had exactly one .300 hitter: Hideki Matsui at .313 (and a juicy .409 on-base percentage). All season, a chorus of Yankee fans and bloggers, including me, have wanted to blame the shoddy pitching for the lackluster record, and when it came to offense I've always pointed to the poor team average with runners in scoring position as a main culprit. But the Yankees don't just hit poorly with runners on base; they hit poorly all the way around.

Among hitters elegible for the batting title (3.1 at-bats per game the team has played), Robinson Cano and Jason Giambi are the two worst hitters in the American League. Shelley Duncan, who doesn't have that many at-bats, is hitting .190. Jose Molina has seen his hot start cool to a .218 clip. Morgan Ensberg is at .235, and even Derek Jeter and Melky Cabrera, at .284 each, aren't tearing up the baselines with their cleats. (Although any Yankee fans will take .284 from Cabrera, whose all-around-player stock is rising every week.)

Tha Yankees were handed their lead last night from a lackluster Mariner defense that committed four errors in the first three innings. Against Seattle starter Felix Hernandez today, the Yankees may need similar generosity. (Ironically, the Yankee with the best career numbers against Hernandez is Cano, at .571. Cano got a rest last night, and replacement Alberto Gonzalez went 1-for-3 with a run scored.)

Season to date

The Yankees are 15-16 and infourth place in the AL East, three games behind the first-place Red Sox and two games behind Baltimore and Tampa Bay, both tied for second place. The Yankee win last night ended a three-game losing streak. The Yankees are 1-3 on their current nine-game homestand.

Saturday's starting pitchers

Yankees: Mike Mussina, RHP (3-3, 4.73 ERA)
Last start: Mussina pitched five innings in Cleveland, holding the Indians to two runs, giving up four straight hits in the fifth inning. Seattle leadoff hitter Ichiro Suzuki has made a living off Mussina, hitting .409 off the Moose in his career.

Mariners: Felix Hernandez, RHP (2-1, 2.22 ERA)
Last start: Hernandez was on his way to a 3-0 record, pitching seven shutout innings against Oakland, but the A's touched him for four runs in the eighth and chased Hernandez. Despite striking out ten batters, Hernandez took his first loss of the season. Hernandez is 1-0 against the Yankees, allowing one run and five hits in a seven-inning start last season.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Ode to Whitey Ford

The song I will be singing for the rest of this season, to the tune of Country Roads, by John Denver.

Almost fed up, with these rookies
One named Phil Hughes, the other Ian Kennedy
I’ve grown old now, older than my years
Counting all their earned runs, screaming through my tears

Whitey Ford, come back home
To the place, where you belong
We need a pitcher, before it’s too late
Come back home, Whitey Ford

Eleven games now, they have started
How much more crap, do we have to take?
Brian Cashman, he’s the one to blame
For the way we… are losing every game

Whitey Ford, come back home
To the place, where you belong
We need a pitcher, before it’s too late
Come back home, Whitey Ford

I hear your voice, in the first and second innings
Rememberin’ how you won all those games for us
And watching these two, I always get the feeling
That things were better yesterday…. Yesterday….

Whitey Ford, come back home
To the place, where you belong
We need a pitcher, before it’s too late
Come back home, Whitey Ford

Tigers 8, Yankees 4

Forget, for the moment, just how easily the Tigers swept the Yankees at the Stadium for the first time since 1966. At hand, for the moment, are bigger issues than a three-game home losing streak or being another step closer to the American League East division basement.

For at this moment, someone needs to remind Brian Cashman of the John Maynard Keynes line, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?"

It is obvious, to anyone who has been watching, and to anyone who has been reading just the box scores, that the experiment with rookie pitchers Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes has failed in its present form. There is no telling what will become of either of these two young hurlers, but right now, the Yankees, who are suffering for a host of reasons, are suffering most because Hughes and Kennedy combined cannot put together a complete game a week.

After Kennedy's latest bomb last night (in which he again, luckily, avoided a loss), and the placing of Hughes on the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday, the experiment, which was insisted upon in the face of an opportunity to get Johan Santana from the Minnesota Twins, has bottomed out, especially in light of the revelation that Hughes may be out for as long as 30 days, perhaps even longer.

Crying about the failure to get Santana is a fool's errand -- not only is it 20/20 hindsight, but it would be commenting without knowing all that went on in the discussions. Whatever the price for the Twins ace, it may have been ultimately too high, and nixing the trade may well have been the right thing to do.

But now that the two rookies have had eleven starts to prove their value, the plug has to be pulled. The 2008 Yankees are blessed in one respect: No other AL East team has made a move away from the pack, but how long before one does? Boston just got three terrific pitching performances in a row. God help the Yankees if the Red Sox start pitching like the Arizona Diamondbacks.

And what about the Tampa Bay Rays, or the Baltimore Orioles, two teams who have no business being ahead of the Yankees, except that they’re good and the Yankees are pathetic. Historically, May is the time when good teams have shaken off their April shivers and start rolling towards October. Pennants are never won in the spring, but they sure as hell can be lost there.

And that’s what lies in wait for the Yankees, who cannot possibly hope to put together another run like they did to escape last season’s opening 9-19 hole. That magical feat was accomplished with one MVP offensive year, another near-MVP offensive year, and consistent pitching that, if it wasn’t quite World Series worthy, at least it didn’t put up numbers like these: 4.1 innings per start, 8.67 ERA, 2.10 WHIP, 6.5 walks per nine innings. That’s part of the combined stat line of Hughes and Kennedy. If it looks ugly in print, try watching it every night.

What’s the answer to the Yankees pitching woes? There may not be a good one, but the worst one, right now, seems to be letting these two rookies get away, any longer, with masquerading as major league pitchers. They may still be prospects, but they’re nothing more than that. And how much more prospecting can the Yankees afford to do, as postseason gold slips away with every loss?

Say it with me: A one, a two, a three…

Bench Robinson Cano!!!

Oh, yeah...

I almost forgot. Bobby Abreu hit a first-inning, three-run home run last night. Yay, Yankees! (And oh yeah, I almost forgot this... Abreu looked like Fred Sanford in right field trying to field a fly ball near the wall. He's a DH waiting to happen next year.)

Season to date

The Yankees are 14-16 and in fourth place in the AL East, three games behind Boston and Tampa Bay, and two games behind third-place Baltimore. The Yankees have lost three consecutive games, all at home, and are 0-3 on the current nine-game homestand.

The Yankees open a three-game series tonight with the visiting Seattle Mariners. The Mariners have lost two in a row and are 13-16 and in third place in the AL West, four and a half games behind the L.A. Angels and Oakland A’s.

Friday’s starting pitchers

Yankees: Chien-Ming Wang, RHP (5-0, 3.23 ERA)
Last start: Wang pitched seven scoreless innings and struck out nine in last Sunday’s classic, 1-0 pitcher’s duel against Indians starter C.C. Sabathia in Cleveland. Wang allowed four hits while walking two.

Mariners: Erik Bedard, LHP (2-0, 2.04 ERA)
Last start: Bedard came off the disabled list to throw six and 2/3 scoreless innings and allowing only two hits in a 5-3 Mariner victory over the Oakland A’s last Sunday. Last season, with the Baltimore Orioles, Bedard was 2-0 against the Yankees with a 1.29 ERA in three starts.