Game 1: BOS vs. NYY — Could this game be an April Fool’s joke?

Today was Opening Day for the 2013 Yankee season. Due to a long and rough 2nd inning for starting pitcher CC Sabathia, Boston took an early 4-0 lead, something the Yankees could just never quite overcome, eventually losing 8-2.

Opening Day Newtown
Opening Day Pre-Game Ceremonies honor the victims of the Newtown tragedy
via nypost.com

The festivities started with a very respectful tribute to the victims of the December Newtown tragedy. During a moment of silence, the names of those lost in the Sandy Hook shootings scrolled on the big screen. You could hear a pin drop. It was a fitting and emotional moment and a wonderful way to honor their memories.

For me, the two stand-out players on today’s roster were former Red Sox Kevin Youkilis and catcher Francisco Cervelli. Youkilis, at times, seemed like the only defensive player on the field, with his hustling, making key plays, and covering his teammates. Perhaps this is where age/experience is a huge factor, and perhaps his recent stints on other teams. He was clearly playing at level above much of the other team, who seemed discouraged by the Sox early lead. The team’s rhythm and momentum, despite the numbers on the scoreboard or fans in the stand, was strangely absent, something I’ve seen in recent Spring Training games, but never expected to see in Major League  regular season.

The other key player today was starting catcher Francisco Cervelli, who wasn’t initially thought to catch Sabathia today (in fact, he found out he was starting when he got to the park this morning), but he was clearly the right choice for the position. In addition to some truly excellent defense, including a great Jayson Nix (starting 3rd baseman) to Cervelli play to keep a run from scoring in the 6th inning, Cervelli’s most talked about contribution came on a 2-out 2-RBI single in the 4th inning, scoring the only 2 Yankees’ runs of the game.

In a game that started out so sunny and clear, quickly the skies became overcast, the wind kicked up, and by the end of the game, rain was pouring in the Bronx. The stadium began clearing at end of the 7th inning, with the Yankees trailing 5-2, and increased at every half-inning break, by the time the rain began whoever was left headed to the cover of the concourse or the Great Hall at Yankee stadium to await what was slowly becoming the inevitable outcome of the game.

I could spew out all the clichés here — “There’s still 161 games of the season.”, “It’s a long time until October.”, or “They just didn’t give their 100%.” And all of that is true, perhaps the final one more than most. Honestly, I guess I’m soothing my disappointment of today’s game with the knowledge that we’re getting back the “Big Three” (Teixeira, Granderson, and Jeter) in about a month or so. April could be really rough until then. Heck, the season could be really rough until they find their groove. But they will find it, and when they do, they’ll be the force we Yankee fans love to root for.

Go Yankees!

Developing the 25

First of all, a very Happy Easter to everyone! It’s only right (at least in my mind) that baseball season should start the day after a holiday celebrating new life and spring time.

Rosters have been submitted for Opening Day, which means that the 83 men who showed up back in February have now been whittled down to the select 25. Regular roster members that will begin the 15-day Disabled List are starting pitcher Phil Hughes (back), infielders Derek Jeter (ankle) and Mark Teixeira (arm), and outfielder Curtis Granderson (arm). All of these guys are estimated to see official play time end of April or May. Previously placed on the 60-day DL are pitchers Cesar Cabral and Michael Pineda and infielder Alex Rodriguez.

That being said, that leaves 25 spots to fill. So the starting rotation is CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Ivan Nova, and David Phelps. Manning the bullpen this year then are pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Cody Eppley, Shawn Kelley, Boone Logan, David Robertson, Adam Warren, and closer Mariano Rivera. Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are slotted in the catcher’s role. The bench is filled with infielders Robinson Cano, Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, Lyle Overbay, and Kevin Youkilis and outfielders Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, and Vernon Wells.

To make room for Overbay, the Yankees designated pitcher Clay Rapada for assignment. In other words, another one bites the dust.

And that got me thinking again. I was reading a book recently about the development of specialized players. Its unfortunate side effect is that it actually weakens a player. They specialize in one particular area, so they never end up working on and strengthening all these other areas of a player and actually develop into a weaker player. So when the team needs someone who can, for example, pitch more than a handful of pitches every few days to get some solid return on their investment, they can’t depend on someone so specialized that they don’t have the stamina and longevity to do that job.

Perhaps there’s an overall life lesson in that after all. If we focus too much on strengthening one area (like work), we can actually weaken another area (like family). Of course, we can’t do everything perfectly all the time at the same time. But there is a lot to be said for finding a balance and exerting excellence in every aspect as you come across it, not neglecting all else to focus in on one part.

And maybe in baseball (at least on the Yankees), we’re shifting from specialized players to a team of well-rounded ability and skill players. Similar to previous championship teams, the Yankees may have developed a 25-man (or 40, really) roster that can work as a team, without focusing on the individual needs and whims of the superstars or divas-in-training. Of course, where we land somewhere in August may have a completely different look or feel. But for now and today, before Sabathia throws the first pitch of the season tomorrow afternoon, there is such hope and dreams for another championship team and that 28th ring.

Go Yankees!

Exhibition Game: NYY vs. West Point — Honoring America

The Yankees officially ended their Spring at West Point’s United States Military Academy, touring the campus and playing a game against the cadet’s baseball team. The Yankees may have won today’s exhibition game 10-5, but really the day was about honoring those who dedicate their lives to serving our country. The team spent the morning touring the historic campus, lunching with the cadets, and hanging out in the bleachers and dugout of the USMA. (More stories from today’s visit is available here, via yankees.com.)

And while it was nice to see the Yankees take another win (in another non-game and won’t count for anything), I am always impressed with the club’s respect for our military. They show it at every home game, honoring a veteran and active duty personnel, and taking a moment to honor all those who serve with “God Bless America” at every 7th inning stretch. Other teams jump right into “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” or something semi-relevant to their team or cheesy wedding-DJ type songs. But the Yankees always start with respect and honor.

I remember the days immediately after 9/11 when our country became united in its patriotism and baseball was a remembrance of America’s pastime. Baseball was a temporary distraction from a world that had been shaken to its core and changed forever. Baseball was consistency and competition and a nod to the stability we so desperately needed. Baseball gave people something to cheer on and hope for. Baseball reminded us that we as Americans were on a team, united together for a single cause.

And today’s visit to those who take that “team mentality” to the next level reminded me of those days. Upon graduation, the cadets go on to bring freedom and peace to countries across the globe and here in the U.S. They are our real heroes, and they deserve our respect and honor. And I, for one, am proud to follow a team that regularly shows that kind of respect and honor to our military.

So today, I honor those who have taken their time and risked their lives to serve our country, including so many in my family. Thank you for your service.

Go Yankees!

Exhibition Game: NYY vs. WSH — The team, the cuts, the non-game

Andy Pettitte threw 6 strong innings in today’s exhibition game against the Washington Nationals, including striking out 6 batters. The Yankees won this afternoon’s game in D.C. 4-2 against was is estimated to be one of the best NL teams. And the Nationals can boast a regular lineup with superstars like Ryan Zimmerman, Jason Werth, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, and (USA Today’s cover story) Bryce Harper. But up against a well-seasoned workhorse like Pettitte, the Nationals might be glad they will never meet again this 2013 season outside of some fated World Series between the two.

It was the 4th inning today that made all the difference: a Youkilis solo home run, Hafner’s single, Wells’ double, a strike-out, a Nunez 2-RBI single (safe at 2nd on throwing error), a Chris Stewart RBI single, and 2 ground outs. And while the Nationals scored 2 of their own (both RBI singles), they never could quite catch the momentum that seemed to strike the Yankees for that brief 1/2 inning. Mariano Rivera also pitched the final three outs in what could be his last game at Nationals Park, notching the save. Honestly, that inning was the reason the Yankees are something to be reckoned with, as despite their injured stars, the team functioned as such — a team and raked up the runs to give Pettitte a decent lead to continue his start.

Now, while the critics are drilling into the team’s increasing DL, it’s really the pitching staff (particularly the starting rotation) that is the strongest factor of this season’s team. They always say, “if you don’t have pitching, you don’t have nothing.” Well, they got pitching, even when a starter is on the DL, there’s still excellent, solid pitching. So it sounds like we got something.

Speaking of pitching… the roster cuts were announced today, and for most people, the biggest surprise was to see that relief pitcher David Aardsma had been designated for assignment. (For my non-baseball friends and family reading that, it means he’s been released from his commitments to the Yankees and is free to be picked up and contracted to another team should they want him.) This news really disappointed me. And while I understand why (Girardi mentioned they needed a long reliever rather than Aardsma’s specialty as short-relief), it’s never an easy thing to digest to be let go from a team, especially one who’s worked hard to come back from rehabbing after 2011 Tommy John surgery. He played a good Spring, so hopefully he’ll find a home for 2013 soon.

Predictably making the roster were outfielder Ben Francisco and infielder Jayson Nix. Another shocker was sending Vidal Nuno to AAA to start the season, after such a stand-out spring and winning the award, but I suppose he is prepared to be called up should the need arise. (And chances are with this year’s luck, the need will arise.) Melky Mesa is optioned to AAA to start 2013, despite some hard-earned outings and spectacular defensive plays.

Something tells me this year will be nothing short on spectacular plays and stories of all these amazing guys. Best of luck to all!

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 33: PIT vs. NYY — The Final Spring Game

Hiroki Kuroda is ready for the season with a solid game pitched today, the last official Spring Training game, hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates. Though ultimately a 2-1 loss, Kuroda pitched six innings, only allowing one hit and striking out five batters. Kuroda is scheduled to be the #2 pitcher in the regular rotation and really has had the most consistent outcome this Spring of all the potential starting rotation.

Both teams were kept scoreless until the 7th inning where Yankees pitcher Boone Logan allowed a walk and a hit before taking a line drive to what he called his “left fat” (translation: hip/stomach area) and exiting the game. (Logan is scheduled to pitch at tomorrow’s exhibition game and is so far cleared for that assignment.) David Aardsma’s wild pitch allowed a run to score before an RBI single score Pittsburgh’s second and final run of the night.

The Bucs’ pitching staff held the Yankees’ decent offense at bay until Lyle Overbay’s 2-out RBI double in the final inning. Also adding to the hit list today were singles by Suzuki, Cano, and Youkilis, doubles by Boesch and Neal, and a nice triple by Cervelli in the 6th inning. Again the problem once again was not getting all those base runners to cross the plate and score the runs.

Probably the biggest news of today was the Yankees’ release of Juan Rivera, in lieu of recent acquisitions of OF Ben Francisco and IF Overbay. I personally have mixed feelings about this because I was starting to like Rivera’s contributions both to the on-field play of the team and to the dynamic of the clubhouse. At this point, it will be interesting to see where he lands, if he lands somewhere soon. I know the sharks have to be smelling blood in the water right now due to his Spring production. Well, good luck to him wherever he may land and soon!

I believe we should hear in the next few days what the honed-down 25 and 40-man rosters look like. Now, with several starters beginning the season on the DL, this has enabled Girardi and Cashman to allow for some new faces on both rosters. This reminds me of waiting for a list from school for a school play or the honor roll. They would always wait until the last possible second to post the list of names, as you anxiously awaited to see if your name made the list and what part you had. Nerve-wracking to say the least, and there was always a twist somewhere.

The Yankees posted their projected Opening Day line-up today: CF-Brett Gardner, RF-Ichiro Suzuki, 2B-Robinson Cano, 1B-Kevin Youkilis, DH-Ben Francisco, LF-Vernon Wells, SS-Eduardo Nunez, 3B-Jayson Nix, C-Chris Stewart, Pitcher-CC Sabathia. This is, in itself, an interesting twist. I am glad to see Youkilis at 1st and Nix at 3rd (a personal favorite corner combination recently); but Stewart over Cervelli is unexpected. I suppose this is to be chalked up to Girardi’s leaning toward having “personal catchers”, where the starting pitchers might work better with one or the other and get paired with that one for the season (barring injury). Or perhaps, Girardi just likes surprising everyone with something unexpected. And while I think this is a good line-up, I don’t doubt it will be fine-tuned and adjusted over the next few days.

On a final note, Vidal Nuno was awarded the James P. Dawson award today, given to the most outstanding Yankee rookie in Spring Training. Past recipients include: Willie Randolph (1976), Don Mattingly (1983), Jorge Posada (1997), Hideki Matsui (2003), Brett Gardner (2009), and most recently David Phelps (2012). Nuno is in very good company as he continues to develop his career in pinstripes. Congratulations!

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 32: NYY vs. BAL — Revenge on the birds

Let’s call this some late revenge for all the trouble they gave us last year. Showalter’s starting Orioles stars just couldn’t compete with the Yankees’ minor leaguers and bench players/injury substitutes (plus Brett Gardner, who went 1-for-4 with 2 strikeouts). For all the talk about how amazing the O’s are and will be this season, they certainly didn’t bring their A-game to tonight’s game, losing to the Yankees 11-8 and committing 5 fielding errors.

So let’s talk about how the Yankees were awesome tonight. David Phelps threw 5 innings, striking out 9 batters and only allowing 4 hits, 3 runs, and 2 walks. Bobby Wilson, Mason Williams, and Melky Mesa all notched doubles of 3 different Orioles pitchers. Brennan Boesch, and Ben Francisco each swung for the fences with home runs in the 1st and 3rd innings, respectively. And RBIs were in abundance by Eduardo Nunez and Boesch (each with one) and Wilson, Williams, and Addison Maruszak (each with two).

Speaking of Maruszak, a last-minute replacement for Ronnier Mustelier who was scratched due to a sore knee, but really another excellent job again, this time at 3rd base. He had some nifty defensive moves including a nice scooping grab and toss to 1st for the out. He’s really turning into something of a utility player, and his offense was excellent tonight getting a nice RBI single and scoring a run himself. For someone who’ll be starting in AA/AAA this year, he’s certainly showing marketed improvement in recent years and is really becoming a player that could make a mark on a future starting roster, with that future being much sooner than previous estimations.

And again, this is what’s so awesome about Spring Training — we get to see player development and prospects firsthand. I know last year, it was tonight’s starter (Phelps) that really took people by surprise and look where he is now — in competition for the 5th starters position, probably settling into a nice long-relief bullpen during the healthy season, covering Phil Hughes while he recovers from his back injury at the beginning of the season. Did anyone see Phelps coming in 2012? Maybe a handful of people, but it was last Spring that brought him to the forefront for everyone, especially Girardi.

So who is this year’s Phelps? There are many possibilities, like Vidal Nuno (who is now contending for a bullpen job), Mustelier (an excellent infielder with a power bat), and Juan Rivera (who is really finding a home over at 1st covering for Teixeira). And there are so many player contributions to the progress of the 2013 team already, who will probably find their 2013 home in Tampa, Trenton, or Scranton. I guess that’s part of the fun of Spring — you never know who’s going to be the next necessary cog in the Yankees machine, and really, it can be anyone, from the superstar high-contract veteran players right on down to the young non-roster invitees. It’s what makes it all about the team and not just the superstar high-contract veterans.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 31: HOU vs. NYY — Settling for a spring tie

CC Sabathia started tonight by giving up 3 runs off 4 hits (3 doubles) in the 1st inning. Finally finding his pitches, we began to see the ace pitcher find his stride, only allowing a solo home run in the 4th to bring the score 4-0 Astros. Chris Stewart showed some nice defense tonight, throwing 2 runners out at 2nd base, and was even able to get a nice RBI single to tie up the game in the 6th. And that’s where the game remained for another 4 innings, with a Spring Training Tie — 4-4 in 10 innings for the final score.

Two new faces debuted in pinstripes tonight. Former Angels (and Blue Jays, if you want to really go back) outfielder Vernon Wells made his start tonight in left field and saw some defensive action there and notched a sacrifice RBI offensively. He definitely gives the Yankees some options in the outfield, and honestly, with his reputation with the fans out there, I’m kind of looking forward to some kind of truce or playful banter between Wells and the bleacher crowd. Recent Red Sox infielder Lyle Overbay jumped in halfway through the game to cover 1st base, doing a nice job tonight and coming in handy for shortened plays with relief pitcher Joba Chamberlain (who I think is now serving as the Yankees one-man welcoming committee). It looks like these two might really work out pretty well, especially for the beginning of the season.

I’m having a hard time not reading negative articles about the Yankees right now. Part of my job is to research and find out what’s going on with the team via Twitter, Facebook, ESPN, various sports networks and news outlets, and general team knowledge. And when I’m researching, it’s so easy to find things being written now about how people think the Yankees will be so horrible this year due to all the injuries or age or time or money or whatever they want to drum up today. And while I do appreciate opinions, and as a long-term Yankees fan I am accustomed to a lot of Yankee hatred, I think I’m just not in the right place personally to deal with the stress of these “analysts” and “columnists” who seem to want to discount a team that has made its name for being a something other than the normal baseball team.

Perhaps the team of the recent dynasty of Yankees (encompassing the 1996-2003 years, with 4 championships) is over, but that doesn’t mean we have to shut down all hope or start thinking of the Yankees in terms of the 1980’s again. On the contrary, I think we have every reason to hold out for another unexpected season. Because in my 18 years of following the Yankees, one of the things I have come to love about them is that we can always expect the unexpected. If they make the playoffs, it will be because they either blew away the competition (2009) or they just eked on in at the last second (2012). If they win the World Series, it will be because they either swept through the other guys (1998) or they took it all the way to Game 7 in the 9th inning for a one-run win (1962).

Expect the unexpected.

As recently as 2012 should remind us of that fact: Jeter has a bounce-back year, leading the league in hits (216), and then broke his ankle in extra innings of the ALCS; supposedly “older and washed-up” bench player-turned-regular outfielder Raul Ibanez homers 3 times in the post-season, becoming the “King of New York”; Rodriguez (suffering from hip issues) is benched and sharing a slump with other star players (like Cano and Granderson); mid-season surprise signing Ichiro Suzuki finds a home in NY and NY falls in love with him; and Mariano Rivera and Brett Gardner both miss most of the season and come back stronger than ever for 2013.

Expect the unexpected. You just never know.

Go Yankees!