Game 1: NYY vs. HOU — Figuratively late to the game, still an Opening Day loss

The Yankees ended their 2013 season in Minute Maid Park against the Houston Astros, and they begin their 2014 season here for a 3-game Opener for the Astros. Complete with fireworks, a giant flag, country stars, a former President, and Astro Hall-of-Famers (and almost Hall-of-Famers), the Astros decided after losing over 100 games last year that this year was going to be different. To be fair, they won their home opener last year against the Rangers and still lost 111 games (45 games behind division leader Athletics). And the Yankees lost their Opener to the Red Sox and went on to win 85 games. (Here’s a fun little coincidence: the Yankees lost to Boston 8-2 and the Astros won over Texas 8-2.)

And with an almost brand new roster, except Gardner (who was in a different spot on the field and on the roster), the Yankees went into this Opener under starter CC Sabathia. For the first two innings, the Yankees weren’t playing like the Yankees. Between Sabathia’s hanging pitches and some very sloppy fielding, the Yankees seemed determined to gift-wrap their first game to the Astros. The Astros’ offense capitalized with their lead-off batter in the 1st inning. That lead-off double scored on a strong single by the Astros’ arguably best overall player. A fielder’s choice scored that runner, right before a 2-run home run scored 4 runs in the first inning alone. They came back in the 2nd to tack on 2 more runs with a solo homer and a 2-out RBI single.

By the time the Astros reached the 3rd inning, the Yankees defense and pitching finally showed up. After allowing 6 hits and 6 runs in the first two innings, Sabathia only allowed 2 more hits and a walk, but no more runs in his next 4 innings, racking up 6 total strikeouts. The defense also got their work in and finally started working as a team. But it was too late the damage was done.

In his last Opening Day, Derek Jeter’s first at-bat certainly didn’t go as planned (and by planned I mean reminiscent of his 1996 Opening at-bat where he hit a left field first pitch home run). Tonight, the Astros pitcher proceeded to plunk an 88 mph fast ball on his left forearm. A collective breath held by 40,000 fans, but the Captain continued with the game, I’m guessing with a stinging bruise as his first “war wound” of his final season. Jeter would go 1-for-3, with a hit-by-pitch tonight (more on this later) and make some pretty routine plays at shortstop. (Jeter will be honored before tomorrow night’s game, in his first of many celebrations to come this year.)

Dellin Betances got his name on his first career Opening Day lineup card, coming in relief of Sabathia in the 7th. He continued to show the Yankees why he clearly earned this coveted spot in the bullpen with a very quick 1-2-3, 2-strikeouts, 10-pitch inning. And Vidal Nuno took the 8th, allowing just 1 hit in the middle of 3 strikeouts. And if we ignore the first 2 innings (because if you’re a Yankee fan who wouldn’t want a magic reset button on those 2?), the Yankees pitching staff really did a tight, solid job, giving up just 3 hits and no runs in those last 6 innings. Chalk it up to first day back rustiness or whatever cliché or “excuse” you want, but I’m seeing where consistency finally crept in — the same things I saw in Spring Training. And that’s what showed up in innings 3-9 for the Yankees. Comparatively, the Astros can’t hold a candle and really couldn’t do much of anything.

Towards the end of the Astros starter’s outing in the 7th inning, the Yankees began to capitalize on his expended arm. A Teixeira single, a hit-by-pitch on Gardner (why the pitcher wasn’t pulled out after hitting his second batter, I’ll never understand), and a Roberts walk loaded the bases with 2 outs, so the Astros went to their bullpen. Johnson’s dribbler was enough for the Astros to make a force out and get out of that jam. But the Yankees had found a hole and planned to use the top of their order to do something about it.

So they came roaring back in the 8th, with a lead-off walk by Jacoby Ellsbury. A new pitcher promptly gives up Jeter’s first 2014 single into right field. Beltran (who broke a no-hitter bid by the Astros in the 4th) advances the runners with a ground out, and Brian McCann’s first Yankee hit turns into an RBI single to score Ellsbury. Jeter then easily scores on Mark Teixeira’s single. Suddenly, the Yankees are on the board behind the Astros 6-2. And there they would stay for the next 1/2 inning.

A loss to open the season, but the Yankees have been there before, a lot actually — this will be their 5th loss in 6 years since 2009, with tonight’s game making their overall stats 63 wins-48 losses (and 1 tie) in Opening Day games. And if we’re looking back to the year everyone seems to be comparing this year to (2009), the Yankees lost that Opening Day too, with Sabathia on the mound, 10-5 to the Orioles. And then they went on to win 103 games and the World Series. Yeah, I’m okay with losing this one if we’re going to allow history to repeat itself in that way.

Before tonight’s game, the Astros asked great pitcher Nolan Ryan to throw out the first pitch to Craig Biggio. It was a thrill for the Texas crowd to see their hometown heroes in action once again, though Ryan is definitely more comfortable behind a desk than on the mound nowadays.

And in other Yankee player news…

Eduardo Nunez has been designated for assignment to make room for Yangervis Solarte on the 40-man roster. This means the Yankees have 10 days to trade him or find a spot in their organization for him or he will be released to find another team elsewhere. Unfortunately, this is the side of the business that doesn’t sit well with people sometimes. This wasn’t personal, as Nunez was very well-liked in the clubhouse; but after a mediocre Spring, it wasn’t a wise business decision to keep fighting for him to stay if he wasn’t going to contribute. Nunez could definitely flourish in other clubhouses, and I know he’s going to land somewhere fast.

And the other shortstop contender Brendan Ryan was placed on the 15-day disabled list today, retroactive to March 22. He was diagnosed with a cervical spine nerve injury (a pinched nerve in his neck) and will continue rehab and recovery back in Tampa. We wish him a speedy and safe recovery.

It’s a long season, and games like tonight make me glad we still have 161 games to play…

Go Yankees!

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