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!

Taking an off-day

Seeing as the team gets an off-day today, I decided to take one from blogging. There is a lot happening in the club, new acquisitions and trades, finalizing the 25 and 40-man rosters, and injury updates. But I just need a day off and am kind of waiting on some of the stories to finalize before I relate my opinions, and as you know by now, I have plenty of opinions.

In the mean time, if you’re behind on posts, you can now use the time to catch-up. Or you can just go back to your game of solitaire or Angry Birds. Either way, enjoy your Monday!

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 30: TB vs. NYY — A walk-off win

In the Yankees first extra-innings game this Spring, today was really all about the home runs. Kevin Youkilis got 2, Travis Hafner scored a solo (his 2nd homer of the Spring), and the big one came in the 10th from Ronnier Mustelier. Plus, the team had 10 hits, including Eduardo Nunez’s RBI triple. A fielding error by Youkilis in the 4th allowed for Tampa to run up extra runs, but the Yankees, like the always do, keep on fighting all the way to the end.

As Yogi famously said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” And all those fans who left when it rained for 12 seconds in the 5th, or ran out early to miss traffic in the 8th, missed what every team and baseball fan waits for — the walk-off home run, today’s run brought the final score 7-6 Yankees. Honestly, as Spring Training games can end in ties after no score is reached in the 10th, I would have been okay with that. But there’s nothing like a crowd roar and a team celebration at home plate for their new hero. A solid win is infinitely better than a tie.

Also worth noting today was the defense behind the plate. Francisco Cervelli was really excellent as starting catcher today, throwing out 2 runners at 2nd base and providing really outstanding backstop play his entire 8 innings. He has been consistent, if not increasingly better, throughout Spring, something I think helps Girardi and the entire coaching staff breathe a sigh of relief, and perhaps reassure the front office of their decision to not head-hunt for some star catcher.

Again, I really try to stay positive on this blog (and in real life), but I have to mention umpire issues again. It’s a shame that there isn’t more training or accountability or something that would help umpires make better calls. And while no person can ever be 100% perfect, calling outs when it’s obviously safe (and vice versa) really isn’t hard to determine and can spare those men the wrath of players, coaches, and especially the fans. I think it’s really crucial when it affects scoring and game outcome, which it almost did today. I don’t think we would have had extra innings if some blown calls hadn’t been made. But perhaps, it got the Yankees into a fighting mood: “You may try to cheat us out of our game, but there’s no way we’re going down like that.” (Or at least, that’s what I think they’d say.)

And a final note on the team: after his stint playing a minor league game yesterday (grounding out his 4 at-bats), Derek Jeter showed up to camp today with a sore ankle. He’s to rest the next few days and see what it looks like middle of the week. But as of right now, it looks like he will begin this season on the DL and miss Opening Day. In his 18 years of professional baseball, this will be his 2nd not in the starting lineup and playing shortstop (in 2001, he was out due to another injury). And the Yankees have made it really clear that they will not activate him until he can play 9 innings at shortstop, which means stints as DH are out of the question. Honestly, this tells me they don’t want to rush him back and risk any further set-backs, making April 6th the new goal (the backdated option if he goes on the DL). It’s still better that we get all these injuries out of the way in March/April than in September/October when we really need our guys at their best. And besides, like Cashman said today, no matter how many guys are on the DL, they can still compete because “it’s a team”. In the mean time, we wish a “get well soon” to all the Yankees in need of various healing.

Go Yankees!

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!)