Spring Game 29: NYY vs. DET — Hitting for history

Ben Francisco really cemented some Yankee fandom today in Lakeland during the Yankees’ 10-6 loss to Detroit, with 2 home runs to left-center field. In yet another game of high hits (16 for Detroit, 14 for Yankees), it seemed that almost every starter today got to slap the ball around the field.

Today’s starter Andy Pettitte allowed 4 runs (including a home run) off 8 hits, only walking one batter and striking out 5 over 6 innings today. And this would have been seen as a decent start for his second time starting in a Grapefruit League game, except his reliever Cody Eppley was very off his game today, allowing 5 hits and 5 runs (1 home run) in the single inning he pitched, affording himself today’s loss.

We are down to the last few games before Opening Day, so while nothing’s going to count as far as statistics go, so much is on the line for those not already nailed down with a definite contract for this season. Francisco, for example, may be starting to shape into a decent bench player with his strong bat. Defensively, he may need some fine-tuning, so I guess the club is going to need to decide what is more important offense or defense for this team.

I was reading some baseball history this last week and found myself drawn to stories of how every season’s winning team manufactured their wins by various measures. I know everyone thinks of the Yankees as the “Bombers”, which is there, but their winning dynasty of the 90’s was composed of hitters, bunters, and runners to score the runs and so many of their stars were on the DL with serious injuries (David Cone’s shoulder aneurysm comes to mind). Sound familiar?

So while the rest of the league is building teams scattered with today’s Sosa, McGuire, and Bonds, the Yankees seem to be focused on what they have that works: hitters, bunters, and runners… and Robinson Cano. It sounds like a winning combination to me, but I guess we shall see.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 28: NYY vs. MIN — Away with a win and flexibility

In what seemed like another messy game, the Yankees were able to pull things together and win today’s away game against the Twins 9-7. A high-hitting game (Yankees 14 – Twins 11), the Yankees also made 3 fielding errors, something that is becoming a common theme recently and something I’m guessing needs a little polish before Opening Day.

Ivan Nova started the game today with some trouble, going 5 innings, allowing 7 hits and 5 runs (2 were home runs), and striking out 3 batters. Fortunately, Nova looked to a stronger offense to help even the score, and the Yankees roster nearly matched the Twins’ starting pitcher’s stats at the end of the 5th inning, trailing 5-4. This was in part due to DH Robinson Cano’s 1st inning RBI sac-fly and 3rd inning RBI-double to score Corban Joseph who had just RBI-tripled. Actually, the Twins were giving RBIs out like candy to the Yankees — Cano, Joseph, Melky Mesa, Juan Rivera, Chris Stewart, and two to Ronnier Mustelier (on 2 outs).

In fact, Corban Joseph found several opportunities to make a dent, including a double and some decent fielding at 2nd base all 9 innings today. His skills at 2nd and behind the plate aren’t going unnoticed, but with a strong Cano cemented there, Joseph may have to find a home elsewhere on the diamond if he wants to play in pinstripes permanently in the next few years. That is all based on the supposition that Cano will re-sign with the Yankees before some other team snatches up what will be the hottest free agent come this winter.

And that got me thinking once again about the guys in the minors who are looking for a permanent home (like Joseph). I think we spend so much time talking about the holes on the team, like we find due to recent injuries (Teixeira, Granderson, and Jeter), but we forget that some of the spots we don’t need are more than amply covered by soon-to-be stars. And perhaps that is part of the issue with today’s players. Have we gotten so specialized in the training that a particular position player can never play another position?

For example, I noticed that Girardi is playing Addison Maruszak now in the outfield, but technically, he is listed as an infielder. (I should note that he seems happy to perform at his best no matter what position he is on the field.) To me, this says he is willing to play wherever they want him to play rather than stand his ground at a particular place.

Look, I understand being totally comfortable with one position over another. But I don’t think that can lead to longevity, or for that matter availability and value to your club for any length of time. I like that they are playing Kevin Youkilis, for example, at both corners and that Jayson Nix can perform well at any place at all on the infield. I like that Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki can be in left and right fields (respectively) on Monday and then on Tuesday be at center and left fields (respectively).

Of course, I don’t see much flexibility with some positions like catcher or pitcher (except for maybe starter or bullpen). But especially at a younger age, while they’re still trying to make it to the Show, players should be more adept to adapting to a similar position (the outfield, the corner infields, and the center infields) no matter which one they may prefer. Because then when you get hired at the big league level, you can stake your claim over, say, 2nd base because that’s where you play best.

And besides, who knows if you don’t find out how happy you could be in right field when all you’ve ever determined to play is 1st base? And you can make easy and great cover when the 1st baseman gets injured unexpectedly. Right, Nick Swisher?

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 27: MIN vs. NYY — It was chilly (and I’m staying positive)

Tonight’s chilly game started out so good, and then it wasn’t. The Yankees fell to the Twins 6-1, only getting 1 hit (they had 10) and committing 3 fielding errors in the process. David Phelps was in to start and was pretty solid the first 3 innings and had a total of 6 strike-outs, a statistic that would mean so much more if he didn’t also allow 6 hits, 5 runs, and walked 3 batters. After loading the bases in the 4th, the Twins’ catcher Butera hit a 3-RBI double with no outs to start what would become a 5-run inning for the Twins. Phelps had been really outstanding this Spring, but tonight had a little trouble controlling his throws. Maybe it was the cold air, maybe it was a night game, maybe it was just one of those days. Either way, the energy and spirit was more than deflated after this inning, and the Yankees never really recovered.

Robinson Cano was back in the line-up today, fresh off his WBC win and MVP award. He had the only hit and run on the scoreboard for the Yankees tonight, with a 4th inning single and scoring the run off a fielding error on Travis Hafner. I wish I could say better things about the defense, but 3 fielding errors and an apparent lackadaisical attitude isn’t worth dissecting tonight, or for that matter ever.

I will say that the pitching in the later innings was rather good. Mariano Rivera received standing ovations entering and exiting the 5th inning, allowing a single then striking out three straight batters. Consistent again, David Robertson followed him in the 6th, allowing a double but striking out two in a row. David Aardsma, looking ever more like the pitcher we thought we were getting before injuries sidelined much of the last two years, had the quickest inning of the evening, including one strikeout. Boone Logan, also on the mend from a recent injury, struggled a bit, allowing a walk and an RBI single, but there is potential for him to return back to the reliever so relied on last year from the bullpen.

Word came out that Derek Jeter is done with Spring Training games and will probably only play in minor league spring games for the rest of March (not open to the public) to see how his ankle is healing and allowing them some leeway if putting him on the Disabled List for the beginning of the season is necessary. I think most Yankee fans are praying that it isn’t necessary; actually, I think Jeter himself is praying it isn’t necessary. But like one of the players recently said, it’s better that they’re dealing with it now in March than September/October.

And while he, Granderson, Teixeira, and Rodriguez (and a handful of other players) are healing, we must amuse ourselves with little suppositions — the who, what, where, when, and how of the game. Something every critic, analyst, and message board manager is now busy doing — making the predictions and trying to explain why their way is the way the game will unfold. But with the Yankees, it’s never about one particular person or another; it’s always the team. And if they’re still in pinstripes in the Bronx, then anything is possible, no matter who’s on the field and who’s watching from the dugout or training room.

Go Yankees! (Heal up fast, guys!)

Spring Game 26: BOS vs. NYY — No rain on this semi-rivalry

In today’s two hour and seventeen minute game, the Yankees effectively shut-out the Red Sox in the 2nd inning, scoring all 4 of their total runs today off of only 5 hits. Overcast and calling for rain that never appeared, the air was thick and really put a damper on what could have been several home run balls for both teams. I think people forget how much the weather affects the game more than the obvious rain-outs. The cloudy skies kept what could have been another hot day for the fans cooler, surprisingly without being too muggy (which is often the case in semi-sunny Florida).

It was fun to see the Opening Day match-up, but I must say I was a little disappointed in the Red Sox. Usually, to a rivalry game, they are much better competitors, but we were missing some of the “big boys” today like Pedroia, Ortiz (who is still out with a nagging injury), Saltalamacchia, Middlebrooks, and Ellsbury. And while there was a handful of Red Sox fans scattered about the stadium, Yankees fans came out in droves clearly to keep the home fires burning strong for our team. So the rivalry is still there, but it was rather subdued for a game, even if it was only Spring Training.

Vidal Nuno started today’s game strong, keeping the Sox scoreless and only allowing only 2 Boston hits and walking 1 batter. His follow-up bullpen in Robertson, Chamberlain, Spence, Eppley, and Montgomery also kept Boston at bay. But the entire pitching staff was backed by some excellent fielding like the two double plays between Nix, Nunez, and Rivera and various outs all over the field.

But I would say the day belongs to Brett Gardner, even though he went 0-for-3 with a walk at the plate. His defense was on display from the first inning all the way up to this impressive 7th inning catch. His coverage and speed was very much needed today in left field, where it seems Boston was hitting quite a bit of their longer balls.

Derek Jeter, however, continues to lead most people’s conversations of today. Scratched from yesterday’s game following warm-ups, Jeter got a cortisone (anti-inflammatory) shot in his stiff left ankle and is set to be out for a few days to rest up. This is, of course, causing all sorts of jabber about him being out for a while, or possibly on the Disabled List come April 1st, or even the end of his career altogether. But this seems out of character to me. We need to remember that Mariano Rivera wasn’t going to let some ACL tear stop him from going out under his terms, and as Jeter is cut from that same competitive cloth, if it takes 3 days or 3 months, he will be back.

And like Cashman was quoted as saying today, “We’ll have to see how he [Jeter] is responding. Hell, he could come here doing the jig. This guy’s ridiculous.” And it would not surprise me in the least to see that happen. Meanwhile, we continue to wish him a fast, complete healing.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 25: NYY vs. PHI — A scratch and a whole lot of potential

The biggest news of today isn’t the 4-1 loss to the Phillies, but rather Derek Jeter being scratched from today’s lineup following batting practice. Recovery from any injury is always a rough road, so as it hits the inevitable bumps, we wish him quick and perfect health. Jeter is quick to remind everyone that the goal isn’t this Spring, but rather Opening Day in two weeks. And barring continuous stiffness or further injury, he should be ready to set-up camp between 2nd and 3rd bases come April 1st, greet Section 203 with his standard glove flap, and pirouette his way to that tight 6-4-3 double play.

Ichiro Suzuki continued settling into the Florida Spring Training momentum with a nice RBI double to knock in Brett Gardner. Having Gardner back full and healthy is also helping the team. With those two on base early, the power middle of the order with (eventually) Robinson Cano and Kevin Youkilis (and perhaps Granderson and Teixeira when they return from the DL) could easily see some higher scoring potential. Perhaps the power isn’t what needed to be replaced then, but rather it’s where you place the power. For example, loading the bases with Gardner, Jeter, and Suzuki could have great scoring potential when say Cano steps up and even just hits a double. Maybe the home run high-hitters are missing, but the possible runs scored is more alive than ever.

I have been playing with a potential line-up and roster for Opening Day. And while I won’t post it on here, as I feel it would require too much explanation, it’s something to think about. We are missing some key players, and while some analysts argue for one solution or another, we are going to see a varied field than one perhaps we are used to seeing in pinstripes. And isn’t that the point of a team any way — to evolve with the circumstances and time?

I guess we might all like to freeze one team or another for eternity to play the exact same way. Most long-time Yankees fans may talk about 1927’s Murderer’s Row or the 1951 season with DiMaggio’s exit and Mantle’s arrival or the superb 1961 team with the Mantle and Maris 61 home run competition. Or perhaps, more recent fans might prefer the 1996 or 1999 teams with the Core Four on top and Joe Torre at the helm. And while most baseball fans love to reminisce about the “way it used to be” (some Yankees fans can still be heard lamenting the old stadium), the basic fact is that time doesn’t stand still, and as it marches on, the faces on the field and names on the roster are going to change.

We have so many potential pinstripes in Spring Training this year that it gives me hope that with the changing of the guard over the next few short years, we have guys waiting on the farm to step up and fill in and find themselves a permanent home in the clubhouse. So as we see retirements and retired numbers collect over the next few years, let’s get excited for the good seasons we have yet to see come out of the Bronx, starting with this one.

Go Yankees!

Two weeks

Two weeks from today is the official start of the 2013 baseball season, the final year for at least Mariano Rivera and the last contract year for some of the Yankee greats. A salute to America and the forthcoming season, the National Anthem, the welcome to the Bronx to all Yankee fans and a polite nod to the brave Red Sox fans who came out for the rivalry match-up, the hum of the crowd in preparation, the cheers as the boys take the field, the Bleacher Creatures in Section 203 prepping for their first roll call of the season, all leading up to that first pitch to start the game. Three hours later, as fans pour into the nearby B, D, or 4 trains, we will either be celebrating victory or commiserating being “cheated” out of a game by those “other guys”. I’m pulling for the former, of course.

In two weeks, we’ll see who made the 40-man roster, where our favorite Spring Training invitees land on the farm, who our 25-man team will be (especially in light of the absences of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson), and who gets the honor of that starting catcher position and that 5th rotation spot.

In two weeks, all the drama of Spring Training and the standing are wiped clean and the reset button is essentially pressed. All the season standing and postseason predictions really pick up but are really thrown out the window. It’s always anyone’s game and anyone’s guess. “It’s a long season,” as they say. Anything is possible.

And yet, so much can happen in those two weeks. We still have 5 home games, 4 away games, and 2 exhibition games before April 1st. CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera still need a few more starts under their belts before being declared “fit for active duty”. Derek Jeter is still looking at a few more back-to-back games and longer time in the games before he is ready for the day-to-day. And the prospects are still trying to prove themselves worthy of Major League play time and a Major League paycheck, especially to cover for the stars on the Disabled List.

So who’s to say what this year holds? What’s the old saying — “prepare for the worst, but hope for the best”. Sounds like a plan to me. So let’s shoot for that 6th ring for Rivera, Pettitte, and Jeter and the 28th flag bearing “2013” over the stadium this year and deal with the rest as we come to it.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 24: NYY vs. PIT — At least the power is back

Traveling to Bradenton today to play the Pittsburgh Pirates and visiting former Yankees Russell Martin (who started at catcher today) and AJ Burnett (who didn’t pitch today), the Yankees found that power key that seemed to be missing in both of yesterday’s games, winning today’s game 11-9.

We saw some great power at the plate today beginning with Kevin Youkilis’ 2-run home run in the 1st and an RBI double in the 2nd. But it was Melky Mesa’s grand slam in the 3rd that made the largest dent in the scoreboard today. Addison Maruszak also added to the scoreboard in the 9th inning with an RBI double. The Yankees also showed their speed around the bases with a total of 5 stolen bases, two back-to-back by Nunez.

One of the most talked about plays occurred in the bottom of the 3rd. A ball goes popping up to center field, Mesa drops it throws the ball to Rivera at 1st, but the runner is safe at first. So far this is fairly standard. But the runner that should have advanced to 2nd was heading around to 3rd when he is told by his coach to head back to 1st, perhaps thinking Mesa actually caught it, so he heads back to 1st. In the process, Rivera throws the ball to Nunez covering 2nd, which makes the confused runner out at 2nd. It was just sloppy and confusing for everyone, and I think there was lots of blame to share for the mishandling of this play all around — the umpires for not calling a dropped ball, the 3rd base Pirates coach for telling the runner to go back to 1st, the runner for going back to first, and Mesa for dropping the ball in the first place. But at least it was an out.

The 9th inning suddenly became the sloppy inning for the Yankees, with the Pirates attempting a rally, scoring 3 runs before a pitching change finally closed the game. Some people were comparing the pitching and defense to watching a Gulf Coast League game (which is rookie league, below Single-A), and I simply cannot argue with that. They really almost lost the game in that half an inning.

Starting pitcher Ivan Nova had a strong start, backed by great defense and racking up the offense early on in the game. Nova dropped a little 4th inning allowing 3 runs and a solo HR in the 5th to slice the Yankee lead in half. But he is on track to for that 5th rotation spot, barring any major development (like an injury).

I also think Mesa’s offense today has certainly nudged his chances up to a whole new level to cover while Granderson recovers. Clearly, he is finding his swing and doing a decent outfield job. At least, he gives Girardi a viable option in the outfield while he awaits his regular starters’ healthy returns.

Speaking of health, Mark Teixeira is back in Tampa today to finish the Spring workouts with the team. While he cannot do anything like basic fielding or proper batting, he can still work on other factors and continue bonding with his teammates. I think his veteran presence in the clubhouse is also going to make an impact in some of the guys who are still hoping to make it and maybe need a little encouragement. Like I’ve said before, it certainly makes a difference when the veterans are present and giving that instant feedback to the prospects. And so many times it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.

Go Yankees!