Spring Game 11: DET vs. NYY — A walk-off balk on Berra Day

Carmen & Yogi Berra, a 65 year partnership
via nydailynews.com
Photo credit: Michael Schwartz

First, let me start off with my deepest condolences to the entire Berra family. The great Yogi Berra’s wife of 65 years Carmen passed away last night. She was 85. As much as Yogi was a part of the Yankee Universe, Carmen was too. She was his partner in all things, standing by his success as a player and his struggles as a manager. Together, they opened the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center near the home in New Jersey (it’s on my list of places to visit this year), and together, they raised 3 sons, 11 grandchildren (one of whom writes for MLB), and 1 great-grandchild. Many people saw Carmen as the First Lady of the Yankees, but I think of her as the First Lady of Baseball. Through her class, kindness, and generosity, she showed what it meant to be a Yankee and baseball wife, leaving a legacy for generations to follow. She will be sorely missed. (There is a great article in the Daily News about Yogi and Carmen’s love story and their legacy.)

And then there was a game. A very cold (for Florida) game against the Detroit Tigers. For every game at Steinbrenner Field this year, they are honoring the Yankee legends; we’ve had Gehrig, Ruth, DiMaggio, Stengel, and Mantle. And today, not planned at all but a very nice surprise on timing, Yogi Berra graced our tickets — something I didn’t even notice until after I was already in the gates. Before the game, the Yankees took a moment of silence to remember Carmen and pray for the Berra family. It was really Berra Day at the stadium, and the Yankees pulled off a win that really suited Yogi and Carmen’s sense of fun.

Hiroki Kuroda started for the Yankees, allowing just a single and a walk and 5 strikeouts over his 2.2 innings. It was a bit of a rough start, with Kuroda seeming to have a bit of trouble finding command of his pitches. But he came into the 3rd determined and found that rhythm and the strike zone for a quick 2 outs. Shawn Kelley came in for a 1-pitch, 1-out fly out in the 3rd. At the bottom of the 3rd, Derek Jeter got his second hit of the night (and not a weak lucky chopper like the 1st inning) and took 2nd on a wild pitch. And then Carlos Beltran (DH-ing for the night) promptly smacks his 2nd home run of the Spring over the right field bleachers onto the Walgreens’ Deck. The Detroit right fielder, who basically got every other ball hit in his general vicinity, barely moved to make even an effort towards the wall because he knew before everyone else did that the only people who could get the ball were sitting at the bar on the Deck. And the Yankees were up 2-0 over Detroit.

David Robertson practiced his closer capabilities in the 4th inning, striking out 1 of his 3 batters. That “Houdini” magic continues, and it’s looking like it’s going to be Robertson’s year to fill some big shoes. But the real surprise came in the 5th and 6th innings watching Michael Pineda pitch. Pineda, if you recall, hasn’t been able to contribute to the Yankees’ rotation or bullpen because of injury, surgery, and just some really bad timing, so this seems to be the year that he can finally show off that arm that the Yankees invested in a few years ago. And he delivered, allowing a single and striking out 4 Detroit batters over his 2 innings. (Together, Kuroda and Pineda recorded 9 of the 11 strikeouts in tonight’s game.) It was something watching him pitch, like I’m seeing the beginning of something I can’t quite put my finger on the depth of its significance.

And then Matt Thornton took the 7th and proceeded to blow the Yankees 2-0 lead. With 1 out, Thornton allowed a single, an RBI triple (which was a really nice hit, by the way), an RBI single, another single, and a double steal to land 2 runners on 2nd and 3rd. Yankee fans everywhere (well, those left who braved the chilly night air) groaned. And suddenly, Thornton pulls it together and strikes out the batter and gets the next one to ground out. And it’s over. The game is tied going into the “Honoring America” 7th inning stretch.

So the 8th inning was led by Preston Claiborne, who continues to make a very good case for Set-Up Man. With 1 out and a man on due to a throwing error by an infielder, he proceeds to get the next 2 batters to pop up for center fielder Antoan Richardson, who dives and slides for both outs (he’s the one to watch after this game). Still tied in the 9th, the ball goes to Jim Miller, who gets two outs quickly and allows a single that promptly gets out when he tries to stretch it into a double.

To the bottom of the 9th we go, the handful of fans praying for a walk-off so we can all go home and get warm. But no one was expecting what happened. With 1 out, Zelous Wheeler singles and then moves to 3rd on Francisco Cervelli’s solid single right up the middle. And just as Jose Gil was digging in for his turn at bat, the Tigers’ pitcher balks on a pick-off throw to 3rd. So Cervelli is given 2nd base and Wheeler advances to home for the 3rd Yankee run and inadvertently the win.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a walk-off balk before. But on Berra Day, I don’t think anything else would have made sense. As people started leaving in droves beginning in the 4th inning, fleeing the 50 degree windy night (I know some people who would love to get up to 50 degrees today, including those in Detroit and New York, but it’s all relative), I was very much reminded of the Yogi Berra famous phrase “it ain’t over ’til it’s over”. And if it ain’t over ’til that last out or last run in recorded, then we wait and witness a very strange way to win a ball game.

It was almost too strange, too perfect, too Yogi Berra. And somewhere, Carmen is laughing and shaking her head. Well, this one’s for you, Mrs. Berra, who always found such joy in life.

Go Yankees!

{Addendum 3/9/14: The YES Network recorded a brief tribute to Carmen, which you can watch here.}

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