Game 3: NYY vs. HOU — Back on the winning track

This game kind of started out with the same level of dread of the two previous games against the Astros. On their last night in Houston to a crowd about half the size of Opening Day, the Yankees went into tonight’s game looking for their elusive first win of the season, so as not to get out of Texas completely shut-out. So they did just that.

Ivan Nova got his first start of the season and went 5.2 innings, 88 pitches, giving up all 6 of the Astros’ hits and both runs. Nova had a bit of trouble finding the strike zone, walking 5 batters and hitting 2 (some might see that as “retribution” for the Opening Day pitcher having hit 2 of the Yankees, but I call it a coincidence). But fortunately, Nova could rely on a truly amazing infield tonight, who backed him up with 4 double plays in each of the 1st, 3rd, and 5th innings. To me, that was a sign that the Yankees showed up tonight. The runs were scored on grounded into a force out in the 1st and a single RBI in the 5th.

After Nova walked the 5th batter, clearly showing signs of fatigue, they went to the bullpen for Adam Warren, who finished the 6th and threw the 7th inning, flawlessly with 2 strikeouts. Shawn Kelley (my theory for set-up man this year) proved my guess pretty accurate in his 8th inning outing, 3 batters up, 3 batters down (and 2 strikeouts of his own). So who would you call for the save? Closer David Robertson, of course. And while Yankee Universe collectively held their breaths for Rivera’s heir apparent’s first attempt to fill those legendary shoes, Robertson proceeded to throw 13 pitches and quickly get those 3 outs. All doubts were gone. “Right man for the job” seemed to echo on everyone’s lips.

Now, of course, pitching’s only going to work if you have offense. And fortunately, the Yankees had offense tonight. Primarily in the form of Yangervis Solarte, who was in the line-up to give 3rd baseman Johnson the night off. A lucky break for all involved, as Solarte continued to prove why he was the right choice for that coveted 25-man roster spot.

After getting off to a rather slow offensive start, the Yankees finally broke through in the 3rd inning as Ichiro Suzuki singled, advanced to 3rd on Solarte’s first major league hit (a single), and scored on Brett Gardner’s single. With one out, bases were loaded after Derek Jeter walked, so Carlos Beltran’s sacrifice fly easily scored Solarte.

Then in the 5th, Solarte doubled. With 2 outs, Solarte scored on Derek Jeter’s single. However, Jeter overshot first in anticipation of the throw to be made at home, and after seeing Solarte safe, Jeter basically stood in the base path to get tagged out rather than get caught in a rundown he wasn’t going to win (rather amusing, really). The Yankees tacked on another run in the 7th, as Ichiro doubled and then scored on (who else?) Solarte’s single. Now, that single really should’ve been caught as a pop-up on the infield, but the Astros’ defense resurfaced by the 3rd inning, which allowed for the Yankees to poke holes enough to make up for a slow start.

And I’m also just going to interject here that Ichiro and Solarte hitting back-to-back is the most ingenious idea of 2014 so far. And can we please see a whole lot more of that?

So the Yankees won tonight 4-2, though the Astros technically take the series 2-1, as the Yankees head off to get their passports stamped in Toronto for their weekend series.

And there was an interesting moment in the 9th inning, with Solarte batting, where the umpires called for a review to confirm a 3-1 count at the plate. The next pitch walked him, but that use of replay, while not what most people consider the primary objective of instant replay, is a valid use of replay. Look, I know sometimes the scoreboard doesn’t always keep up with the count, but this seemed a little extreme of its use. But then again, getting practice in and out of the way now will certainly ease up as umpires, managers, players, and fans get used to this “new-fangled” technology as a regular part of baseball. (I sound like my grandparents now.)

Now, the best part about the Yankees tonight is that when they’re working together as a team, they really just seem to have a lot of fun. And that to me was evidenced by how at ease they all seemed to be on the field. When Cervelli’s foul ball seemed to ruin the camera in the dugout, Girardi himself went to adjust it. When Jeter had a ball to give to the crowd, he selected a sweet little girl and made sure she was the one who got it over the clamoring, grabby hands of other fans. And overall, the Yankees as a whole seemed to just really relax in and enjoy the game today. Sure, it helped that once they grabbed the lead, they never let it go. But it was more than that. I hope they can remember that feeling and keep the momentum going north of the border on into Yankee Stadium next week.

I know it’s only one win, but I took it as a good sign. And why not? You take what you can get this early in the season.

Go Yankees!

Game 2: NYY vs. HOU — A Texas-themed loss

Two games down, two games lost, 160 games left. And despite what some angry people on Twitter were claiming, you can’t lose all 162 games.

It was, however, the first of many ceremonies to honor and celebrate the career of the retiring Derek Jeter. Of course, being Houston, the Astros couldn’t just give a check and smile for the cameras. No, they had to present personalized, pinstriped (and monogrammed, complete with #2) cowboy boots and a big white Stetson cowboy hat to Jeter (who admittedly doesn’t own a lot of either, but promised to wear them at some point). Plus, with a pro golf tournament in town and the Astros owner being a partial owner in a Florida golf club, a couple of golfers presented Jeter with a 3-day stay at the golf club, lessons from a pro, and a new set of clubs. It kind of felt like he won a Texas-themed raffle. Jeter jogged out to the area between the mound and home plate, thanked the presenters (including former teammates Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and Mike Stanton), posed for pictures, and then ran off into the outfield to finish his warm-ups.

With overcast and rainy skies in Houston, they closed the retractable roof, and Andy Pettitte took the mound. This time, not donning either Yankee or Astro jersey, but a blue dress shirt. He threw a perfect strike, though it probably was a lot slower than we’re used to seeing from the lefty. And no, he’s not coming out of retirement. I think he’s enjoying his guest appearances in between playing “dad” full-time. (Here’s Pettitte talking about Jeter, tonight’s ceremony, and retirement.)

Then the Astros took the field and the Yankees prepared to bat and hopefully make up for last night. With one out, Jeter stepped up to bat and glanced over at the Houston dugout. He’s been getting cheers and standing ovations and thousands of camera phones clicking away every time he sets foot on the diamond. But tonight, most of the home dugout and the bullpen stood on the warning track in front of their “pens” to join the 40,000 fans in the crowd. It might have been a little overwhelming, as they clearly weren’t going to proceed until he acknowledged them. He doffed his batting helmet, the Astros players receded into their collective areas, and he stepped back into the batter’s box to ground out.

Hiroki Kuroda on the mound for his first 2014 start struggled at times in his 6 innings, especially giving up a lead-off home run in the 1st inning. That same batter would take a triple from Kuroda in the 3rd and score on a fielding error. Kuroda’s only other hit allowed was another triple in the 6th inning. In total, he threw 91 pitches, allowing just 3 hits, 2 runs, and a walk, and striking out 5 Astros. Overall though, Kuroda had some rather Kuroda-like innings, fanning batters, relying on his infield and those speedy outfielders, and just playing pretty tight. In fact, the two triples were due in part to the odd layout of Houston’s park that has a hill in center field that Ellsbury had to climb twice to retrieve the long balls. I’m guessing he’s going to like leaving the park and that hill tomorrow night.

Reliever David Phelps came on in the 7th and gave up a home run. Phelps, Thornton, and Kelley would split the 8th inning, even loading the bases, but never allowing another Astros runner to cross the plate.

This would seem like an ideal time for the Yankees to capitalize on the Astros, and they did in a way. It just wasn’t as consistent or compacted as everyone might have preferred. Look, the Yankees out-hit the Astros 7-4, even loading the bases and putting runners in scoring position far too many times to leave them hanging out on the bases.

The Yankees only score came when pinch-hitter (and recent surprise addition to the 25-man roster) Yangervis Solarte came in for 3rd baseman Johnson in the top of the 7th inning. Gardner and Roberts are at the corners with a walk and a single, respectively. Solarte grounds into a double play, but Gardner still scores the Yankees sole run of the game. (It’s like they refuse to be shutout of games they lose.)

So the Yankees end up on the losing side of tonight game (and the series in Houston) with a score of 3-1 Astros. It certainly made the Houston crowd happy, but (and I’m guessing here by the outpouring of fair-weather fans on Twitter) it didn’t do so much for the Yankee crowd everywhere else. I think my favorite response when someone seemed to think this season was “doomed” was when a reporter responded by (sarcastically) praising his perfect sample size of 18 innings for a proper judge of a 162 game season.

Look, I prepared myself based on nearly 20 years of following the Yankees. April usually isn’t the greatest month. They take some time to warm up and gel together as a team and find that timing in the batter’s box or on the mound. Spring Training doesn’t really accurately prepare the everyday players for everyday baseball, as it seems to be more of an audition for the farm system. They don’t play with the same guys they’ll be playing with for 6 months, they barely play for more than half a game at a time, and they don’t really play everyday.

I’ve heard it said that some guys think the Spring’s too long, and maybe it is. But maybe it’s just because that Spring is “sold” as a time to work out the kinks and start functioning as a team (and there is some of that), but that’s not really what happens. April is where that starts to happen. So teams that aren’t “diva-focused” will usually take April to become a team. And teams that tend to be “diva-focused” might have a great April because those “divas” are really showing their stuff.

Divas may set records from time to time, but it’s teams that win championships. And if it takes April to make these Yankee players into that kind of team, I’ll take some losses in April. (Now if it’s May and I’m still talking like this, then I’ve got bigger problems than just naive optimism.) Whatever it takes for the quest for #28…

Go Yankees!

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!