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!

Spring Games 22 (PHI vs. NYY) & 23 (NYY vs. ATL) — Space Jam & Groundhog Day

The Yankees were shut out of both games today, splitting the squad between hosting the Phillies in Tampa and visiting the Braves at Disney. In total, their opponents scored 11 runs (7-Phillies, 4-Braves) to the Yankees’ grand total of 0. Both games were relatively quick, and both were not a whole lot of fun to watch.

In Tampa: both Derek Jeter and Kevin Youkilis hit very nice doubles but could never cross the plate. Hiroki Kuroda seemed to have a book-ended start today — nice in the beginning, messy (allowing 4 hits and 4 runs) in middle, and a very strong finish. The Yankees also signed a new player from the Tigers, Brennan Boesch, to play in the outfield while Granderson heals from his injury at the start of the season; he didn’t see much action in right field today and his bat has yet to make a dent on the scoreboard, but there’s still a few weeks left of Spring, so we’ll see how that transaction turns out.

At Disney: there’s not much to talk about on the Yankees’ side of things, as it was very much the Braves show from the start. David Phelps had a little trouble with his start today, allowing 7 hits and the Braves’ 4 runs over his 5 innings, but he did strike out 6 batters. And like I said, that’s all I have to say about that.

I walked into the stadium this morning and something just felt a little off. I walked out just a couple of hours later with proof. It was a quick game, but everyone was just trudging through mud to make it to nine innings. And this happened in both games. I think we had a Space Jam kind of day. Now, perhaps I’ve dorked myself out to you now, but the plot line works (and at least it’s a sports movie). Something came into the Clubhouse this morning and just sucked all the power and life out of the team. Well, whatever it was, they need it back and soon. This wasn’t just a bunch of sloppy plays (that was a few days ago) or being out-matched (that was a few weeks ago); this was very different.

I guess if you could pick one of the days this Spring to have a Groundhog Day-like experience to wake up tomorrow and redo the whole day, today would be my pick. I really try on this blog to stay positive even when there’s not a lot to be positive about. So I guess my positive outlook on today is that it’s almost over, and there’s another game and a fresh start to a new day tomorrow. And let’s be honest, no matter how many runs anyone scores against the team, it still doesn’t count for anything in the long run. Maybe it’s just soothing to remember that or maybe it’s denial, but tonight, I think all Yankee fans can use some soothing denial just to tide us over until tomorrow.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 21: MIA vs. NYY — Turning potential into excellence

CC Sabathia started for the first time this Spring and the first time since his elbow surgery last fall in today’s 7-3 win against Miami. Sabathia went five innings, allowing 2 runs in the 1st inning before finding his stride. Another few starts and we’ll be seeing the strike-out king in full force ready for that April 1st start.

Francisco Cervelli cleared a nice solo home run in the 2nd to put the Yankees on the board, plus added some fantastic backstop defense today. Travis Hafner earned his pinstripes today with a beautiful 2-run homer in the 3rd inning, after struggling most of the Spring to find his swing. I cannot wait to see him aim for the 4 train in the Bronx.

However, for me, the game belongs to the prospects. It’s kind of amazing what playing on the field with the veterans can do to boost their confidence, ability, standards, and fancy footwork. Corban Joseph started at 2nd base today and saw some nice defensive opportunities fall right into his hands, which he handled with excellence and encouragement from Jeter (who started at Shortstop again today). Filling in for Jeter in the 6th, Addison Maruszak once again began his march toward the big leagues with his hustle and defense; Maruszak really goes for every opportunity and rarely disappoints. Jose Pirela, entering the game for injured Ronnier Mustelier, proceeded to triple twice and earned an RBI, scoring two of the runs himself; his defense at the corners is pretty good too.

Ronnier Mustelier was rushing for a popped up foul ball when he ran smack into the press pen and its metal barriers at full speed. Shaken a little, bruised on both legs, he trudged his way to the clubhouse, replace by Jose Pirela. Girardi said later he’ll be back by Tuesday. Thank God for nothing serious, but we wish him quick healing and rest to see him back on the field. This is another one with such potential.

Potential seems to be the word of the day, and the advantage of the veterans like Jeter playing on the field with them that potential became excellence. And that’s what should happen in the farm system. Any known player will tell you that’s where they learned their best stuff, where they went from a possibility to a reality. And that’s what I saw today, what I think Girardi and the coaches and scouts see in those higher numbered guys. Like I said yesterday, there’s a thin line between what makes a player ready for the Bronx and what keeps him in Scranton, and today, we saw the next generation of Yankees step up their game and prove why they might be ready for the Show in the very near future. If I had one on, my hat would be off to you guys!

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 20: NYY vs. TOR — The thin line

If ever there was a game played in which one could see the dividing line between those who belong in the Bronx and those who will spend their season in Scranton or Trenton or perhaps Tampa, it was today’s game. It was a sloppy, messy game for both sides really, but it was the early pitching for the Yankees that turned a 1-0 game into a 1-15 game an hour and a half later at the end of the 2nd inning in Dunedin today. At the end of the game, hours later, it was 17-5 for the Blue Jays, playing to the last third of the sold-out crowd.

Like I said, it was obvious who on both sides of the diamond today will be playing in the Bronx (or Toronto) come this April, and who still has to develop their skills before they set foot there this season or even the next. Each team earned 3 errors, though that was being generous on the scorekeeper’s part, as some easy outs were grossly mishandled. The pitching wasn’t great on the Yankees at first and then gradually developed into a normal momentum, while the Jays’ had the reverse issue. And honestly, I could go on, but no one really wants to remember the negatives. (And if you do, you’ve picked the wrong blog to read.)

So here’s a great positive for us: Kevin Youkilis actually had a dynamite game. He hit the Yankees’ only home run right in the 1st inning, added a nice 2-RBI triple in the 4th, and saw some decent defense at 1st base today. I’ve discovered that I really like him at 1st, knowing he can cover all the action that goes on there while Teixeira is gone for the next 6 weeks. And I think he’s the best option to make up for some power at the plate. It’s almost surreal that I’m saying lovely, positive things about Youk, but I have to say that I kind of like the guy, odd batting stance and all. What’s the old saying… “Everyone looks good in pinstripes?” That now seems to suit him.

What started as a relatively breezy, cool day, ended up being nearly three and a half hours (of just game time) under the cloudless, sunny (and slightly baking) Florida skies. I would think the early lead allowed for some breathing room for the Jays’ fans, but the extended game time and continuous intake of drinks opened the doors to some very vocal comments. It really made me miss the sport and fun part of being in a baseball game. Sure, the gentle ribbing and rivalry are all part of the game, but when factors like time, drinks, and negativity are added in, it definitely lessens what should be a great day at the park, regardless of the score, the teams, or the game’s resolution.

And perhaps, that’s what was missing most of all — the good fan base. It’s so easy to be a fan when your team’s winning or playing well, and it’s easy to jump on a bandwagon of all-stars or potential power-hitters. But where are those fans when the team slumps or struggles or their recently signed all-star turns out to be a dud? Those fair-weather fans are nice to fill in the stands, but the true fans stay to end of the game regardless, cheer every batter on their team regardless, applaud their pitcher’s every strike and out regardless, and enjoy every nuance of a live game regardless. It’s the true fans that come game after game, year after year, rain or shine, win or lose, championship season or last place finish. It’s the true fans today that I tip my hat to (metaphorically), for it’s you that turns crowds of strangers into a family. And that’s yet another reason I love the Yankees — we have the best true fans ever! If you don’t believe me, sit in Section 203 at Yankee Stadium for Roll Call for one game this season and tell me it isn’t true!

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 19: PHI vs. NYY — Core Four Mini-Reunion

The Core Four were at it again… well, in a way. Derek Jeter started at shortstop tonight for the first time this Spring, exactly 5 months to the day after his season-ending broken ankle in the ALCS last year, playing 4 solid innings. Andy Pettitte made his Spring debut tonight on the mound, throwing 3 innings, striking out 3, and only allowing 1 of the Phillies’ 2 runs tonight. Mariano Rivera came on in the 5th inning to throw 3 straight, quick ground outs. And Jorge Posada (the only retired member) watched from the coaches’ den by the dugout, enjoying his role as Guest Coach and good friend to so many on the team. It was quite a fun mini-reunion to watch in a game tonight for those of us used to rooting on the Core Four for nearly two decades now.

WestPoint Team
Yankees honor West Point’s baseball team
The two teams meet for March 30th Exhibition game

The Yankees topped the Phillies 6-2 tonight, much of that is due to the 5 errors made by the Phillies. Newly signed minor leaguer and outfielder Ben Francisco made a big splash tonight with a 2-out RBI. Melky Mesa also is stepping up as an outfield contender, with some nice offense including a 2-out RBI hit in the 3rd and some good base running and outfield defense.

Also in Yankees news tonight, the Yankees sent infielder Corban Joseph, outfielder Zoilo Almonte, and pitcher Adam Warren back to AAA camp. Though we know cuts have to be made, all three are solid pinstripe material that could easily see any Bronx time later this year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these three names on the September expanded roster.

Another fun thing about tonight was the addition of the West Point baseball team to their pre-game workouts and honored at the 7th inning stretch during the Yankees’ traditional “God Bless America”. The teams will play an exhibition game on March 30th at West Point. I love that the Yankees have kept the tradition of honoring America and the troops that serve our nation during every home game and support programs like the Wounded Warrior Project. It’s part of why I love the Yankees because it serves to remind us that we are not on one side of things, but a bunch of citizens united together who owe a debt of gratitude to an amazing group of men and women who choose to voluntarily serve our country. It’s good to remember all that we have (including baseball games) is because someone else fought for us to have it.

So I thank all those (including some of my family members) who have served and know that I think about you and am grateful for you every time I hear Kate Smith’s vocals over the loudspeaker and see the thousands of people honoring your service.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 18: NYY vs. TB — Anything is possible

Ivan Nova, continuing his campaign for that 5th rotation spot, put up a good strong 4 innings today against the Rays in the 3-1 win. I know Nova has his detractors (and don’t we all?), but he is clearly shaping up to have a better 2013 than he did in 2012. Perhaps the advantage of such a competition for this role is encouraging all the pitchers to really hone in and fine tune their skills to keep/earn their spot on the rotation.

Speaking of competition, Francisco Cervelli continues his case for starting catcher, throwing two men out stealing 2nd base in the 1st and 4th innings. Plus, he’s starting to prove himself in the batter’s box again with a solid hit today. Again, I think the fight to prove one’s self worthy of a particular job is far more rewarding than just being handed something. You appreciate it as a privilege and an honor rather than just take it for granted as an given. I rather like that we’re seeing some competition this Spring because I think it’s bringing out the best in the team that has made its reputation a standard of excellence.

And perhaps that’s what makes this Spring different. With the injuries and rehab and shift to a lower salary base, the Yankees have basically opened themselves up to this kind of Spring, where there is no certainty (not that there ever really was) about what the Opening Day line-up might consist of. In fact, while we might know for sure that we have Jeter at shortstop, Cano at 2nd, Gardner in left (maybe), Ichiro in right, and Sabathia on the mound (and I suppose we’ll also see Mo in the 9th), the other half of the team still remains a mystery. Sure, Youkilis will play a corner, but which one? And who’s filling in the other one? What about center field (or will it be left)? And catcher is still open, though I could see Girardi rotating Cervelli and Stewart on a more regular basis because they both bring excellent backstop resumes to the table.

And that just sets the anticipation for a great season. Many stories have been written about where everyone’s going to land for the postseason, but you just don’t know. And that’s what the Yankees are proving this Spring, that no matter how much you plan and prepare, something will just come along and blow all those plans out of the water. The human factor of the game, or even life, makes this life and this game so much more interesting than anything you could ever plan for. So bring on the unexpected. The Yankees are ready to prove to the world that anything is possible.

Go Yankees!