Spring Game 6 (TOR vs. NYY) & 7 (NYY vs. HOU): Future dynasty intact despite losses

Game 6’s main story is all about the Chris Stewart ejection in the 2nd inning. Replays do say he was safe at first matching Stewart’s opinion, but apparently a slight argument today earned Stewart a toss from the loss in Tampa. A tight and quick game all the way to the end, the only run a solo home run by the Blue Jays’ replacement 3rd baseman Andy LaRoche in the 7th inning. Starting pitcher David Phelps was in fine form, throwing 3 scoreless innings, displaying his potential for that 5th rotation spot, something he may earn easily if Phil Hughes’ back doesn’t improve in time.

Game 7 in Kissimmee was all about the 6th inning. The Yankees (via Matt Diaz) singled their way into the lead when Melky Mesa slammed a 3-run left field homer, and with that, they took the lead 5-1. Yankee fans sighed in relief, a win was finally in sight. And then the Astros stepped into the box. Loading the bases, relief pitcher Shane Greene walked in a run, allowed a superb grand slam out to center field by Astros’ Brandon Laird, and an RBI double. At the end of the 6th inning the score was 7-5 Astros. A final ditch effort for the Yankees in the 8th had an Adonis Garcia single score Tyler Austin, finalizing the score at 7-6 Astros. With all that drama mid-game, Francisco Cervelli’s excellent catching display was sorely overlooked, throwing two on-target outs, catching the runners attempting to steal 2nd base.

A double loss today drops New York to the very bottom of the Grapefruit League (the teams who Spring in Florida), now with a record of 1 win-6 losses, a .143 average. All of the supposed “good teams” this year are still wallowing at the bottom of their respective leagues — Washington and the Yankees in Florida, and Texas and LA Angels (both 0-5 in the Cactus League, Arizona).

The two games couldn’t have been more different. But something that was the same was the display from those who will land in the minor leagues this season and those non-roster invitees who are trying to win a job. In the Toronto game, we saw an outfield collision, though they made the out, between Slade Heathcott and Ronnier Musteller. No injuries, but gentlemen, this is why you “call it”. In the Houston game’s now famed 6th inning, it was a “minors” game (with the exception of Eduardo Nunez) — with a Hit by Pitch, reach on a fielding error, force out, single, home run, and 5 total RBIs.

What most people don’t realize is that Spring Training is not really about the stars of the team, the regular roster, and contract players. Spring is about the guys you won’t see on national broadcasts or in Yankee Stadium this year. It’s about what the next generation of Yankees are doing and when they’ll be ready to compete on the level of Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and Derek Jeter. For some, that day may never come. For others, it may be this April (finding a spot in replacement for an injured player) or September (when the rosters swell to 40). For others, we may be seeing their names whispered about for a few years before they burst on the scene in their rookie year.

And from where I sit, the Yankees have a plethora of outfield options (Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott, Matt Diaz, and Juan Rivera will probably lead the AA Tampa Yankees and/or the AAA SWB Railriders this season in hits and defense), some infield potential (Walter Ibarra and Luke Murton at the corner bases immediately come to mind), and behind the plate is already some tough competition to watch in the minor league (with Bobby Wilson and Gary Sanchez). The farm system seems to be in place to produce some really good players in the next few years. As the Yankees age out and retire or perhaps move on with big contracts (with teams that haven’t maxed out their salary cap for a decade), the team is in desperate need of some home-grown talent. And I think they have it here.

If the Spring teaches us anything, it’s whether there is a future to continue a dynasty or even to create a new one. So long live the Yankee dynasty. This year, it’ll be 110 years and counting.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 5: BAL vs. NYY — Trying too hard?

Brett Gardner scored a 3-run triple today
via NYDailyNews.com

Despite today’s loss, Brett Gardner was the man of the game, at least for the Yankees. Following Chris Stewart’s RBI single that put the Yankees finally on the board (but still trailing 7-1), with bases loaded, Gardner hit a nice ball out in center field (just a few feet shy of the fence) and cleared the bases with a 3-run triple (score up to 7-4). He also had some great defensive opportunities. But that was one of so few highlights of this 3 1/2 hour game for the Yankees.

Another outstanding player from today was Slade Heathcott, including a single and a run scored. I think that’s one name we’ll be talking about a lot this Spring and into the future with the Yankees. And in the 9th inning, Kyle Roller hit a beautiful 2-RBI single to bring the score to 10-7 (the final score).

At times, it felt like watching a little league game — the missed easy outs, the sloppy errors (there were 5 for the Yankees), the wild pitches, the ridiculously long innings, the double-digit scores. And while I liked watching kids’ games, the games like today are more wince-inducing because “they should know better”. It’s not fun to watch, and I’m sure it’s not much fun to play in those games.

I guess it’s a result of “trying too hard”. Perhaps then there is a fine line between “trying too hard” and “doing your best”, and that line exists only when you know what your best is. And at 20 years old, you really don’t know where that line is, even if you’re not a professional athlete where everyone can watch you make your mistakes. I think back at the two huge “growing up” times in my own life — between 18 and 21 (college) and between 21 and 25-ish. There is something about that 25 year mark where you just develop a sense of yourself. You’re going to make so many mistakes trying to figure yourself out, pushing yourself too hard or sometimes not trying hard enough, discovering what works for you and what doesn’t. And for a professional baseball player, maybe the hardest thing is finding out in the public eye that your “best” isn’t “good enough”, but that’s a discussion for another time.

On the up side note after today’s loss, teams who end up on the bottom of the standings in Spring Training usually end up on the top of standings in September. As I look across the current spring standings, we should see Texas, LA Angels, Oakland, and New York (AL) and Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Washington, and Philadelphia (NL) all at the top of their respective divisions. (Side note: Perhaps the toughest division in the AL isn’t the East any more, as the competition between Texas, LA, and Oakland is just heating up in the West.) Sounds like we have an interesting season to look forward to this year.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 4: NYY vs. PHI — All about the helmet… and competition

Eduardo Nunez, helmet on…for now
via NYDailyNews.com

One of the most consistent things from today’s game was Eduardo Nunez, today’s starting short stop (and Derek Jeter’s primary defensive back up). And not in the way you’d think. He went 0-for-3 in the batter’s box, grounding out every time. He was, however, 3-for-3 on losing his helmet running to 1st base. Does he need a smaller helmet or a chin strap? Is he imitating Willie Mays to appear to run faster? (Thanks for that comparison, Bryan Hoch!) Is he protesting the new helmets that are supposed to offer greater protection from errant balls and are only slightly heavier? Or is it just becoming his trademark? I suppose you have to be known for something. I’m just waiting for a parody video at this point.

Some highlights from today’s game: Starting pitcher Jose Ramirez, the ever-reliable David Robertson, and mustachioed Joba Chamberlain all threw stellar games and kept it scoreless through 5 innings. Mark Teixeira’s defense was outstanding today, with several unassisted outs. He also had an RBI double in the 1st inning, scoring Ichiro Suzuki, which the Phillies matched in the 6th to tie up the game. Speaking of Ichiro, he went 3-for-3 today with 3 gorgeous singles, stamping him consistent, as usual. Teixeira and Robinson Cano tag-teamed for a sweet double play in the bottom of the 5th. Minor league 3rd baseman Walter Ibarra showed his potential with a really tough catch in foul territory in the 6th. In the 7th, replacement catcher JR Murphy hits a long 2-run center field homer, and the Phillies matched again with a solo centerfield home run and a 2-run home run in the bottom of the inning, which won them the game.

This back-and-forth reminds me of the Annie Get Your Gun song “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”. As strong as the Phillies were a few years ago, it seemed today as if they were determined to outdo the Yankees just enough. This is, for you non-musical fans, just basic competition. And competition is really at the heart of every sport. I’m not a huge fan of out-matched games, where one team really blows away the other team. There’s no tension, no drive, no heart, no real competition. And that’s why these guys got into the game in the first place — not to be fair to everyone, but to win a good strong, tough win. The greatest games in history are always the ones where the two teams have to battle through all 9 innings (or perhaps even more) to see who will land on top. It’s exhausting,but thrilling. The anticipation, the unknown, the waiting for the hero of the game to appear, and the opportunity for the athletes to do something dynamic for your team. That’s what makes a good game. And I hope we never lose that drive in the game.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 3: NYY vs. BAL — No Regrets

Today’s MVP is undoubtedly Brett Gardner, who went 3-for-3 beginning with a head-first slide into first to beat out what should have been an easy 3-1 (First Baseman to Pitcher) out. Anyone else on the team would not have made that safe. His speed is much to praise and a key to the Yankees’ winning strategy this year. Statistics put him at potentially stealing approximately 50 bases during the regular season, similar to his 2010-11 numbers (47 & 49, respectively).

But the highlights of the day were few and far between for the Yankees. Sure, there were a couple of blown umpire calls on both sides, but nothing was going to really save this game for the Yankees. Going into the 9th inning, they were behind 5-0. With 2 outs, the Orioles closer walked Corban Joseph, who proceeded to steal 2nd base, and on a single from Walter Ibarra scored the only Yankees run in the game. Those two events seemed to bookend today’s loss.

It was interesting to see the comparison in lineups, however. The Orioles played their stars — Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, JJ Hardy, Manny Machado, and starting rotation possibility Brian Matusz. The Yankees played Brett Gardner and Francisco Cervelli (though you could count Jayson Nix, who played a good portion of 2012 as back-up infielder with the Yankees). It was clear from the start the Yankees were outmatched in this game, but maybe that was Girardi’s point — play the potentials and see who rises to meet the challenge they’re bound to face in the Majors. Intimidating, yes, but it must be a great way to see who is ready for the Show and who needs more time in Scranton, Trenton, or Tampa this year.

I suppose then that today’s game is a good example of why they do Spring Training. Sure, the regular starters get to ease back into everyday play, but it’s really more to see what’s coming down the line for the teams. One broadcast I was listening to mentioned how many scouts were at the game (I think he said the number was 35 or 40). I know I’m not the only one interested in what future stars might just one day don the pinstripes.

It’s funny how you can already tell which players have something special. I’m personally watching a handful of talent currently at Camp. Most of them aren’t ready to face the pitching and fielding of the Majors just yet (easily proved when facing them during Spring Training, for example), but there’s something there. Something you just can’t put a finger on. Something you begin to see after you’ve watched the game for a few decades and get to know patterns and potential.

I remember reading something a while ago about Michael Jordan’s brief retirement from basketball to play minor league baseball. Everyone thought he was crazy because he still seemed to have so many great years left, but Jordan needed to see for himself if a sport he loved was possible, even at his age. After a year, he went back to the Bulls for 3 more years and was as stellar as ever. Now the only person that ultimately mattered on opinion and decisions was Jordan himself. And if he hadn’t played baseball, he would have always wondered if he could.

That’s what I think of when I see the non-roster invitees at Camp. A good portion of them may never play in Yankee Stadium or any professional baseball stadium, but they should definitely make every effort to try while they can. Every professional athlete knows they are one serious injury away from permanent retirement, so pursue your dream while you can. Even if it means a loss to the Orioles or Blue Jays (who, by the way, are two of the better teams in all of baseball).

No regrets, young pinstriped ones!

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 2: TOR vs. NYY — The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

Well, there’s good news, bad news, and worse news for today.

The good news is it looks like Derek Jeter is on track to begin his Spring Training games on Sunday, March 10 (they’ll be playing the Blue Jays in Dunedin that day). According to GM Brian Cashman, Jeter’s been cleared for all baseball activity, but they want to ease into full activity to give his body and healed ankle time to adjust to the athletics of a real game again. I have a feeling his return will be greeted similarly to how Jorge Posada was greeted at Steinbrenner Field today before the game.

The bad news is the loss to the Blue Jays at their home opener today, making the Yankees 1-1 so far. We still have 5 weeks left of Spring and a lot of game to play before we can count them out. The Yankee pitching was actually quite stellar today, matching what the Jays brought to the table. And we could even get guys on base, but it’s the same old story of leaving them out there that leaves us once again scoreless. It looks like some offense needs to build some consistency, not that the Jays were that much better. It was actually more of an even match today. And while it may be a bit early, this could make for an interesting division race this year.

Granderson breaks forearm off errant pitch
via NYTimes.com

And now for the worse news: Curtis Granderson took an inside fastball to his right forearm. He is now out for 10 weeks with a fracture. That means that not only will he miss spring, but also the first month. According to my calendar, that puts his first game back on May 5 (at home against Oakland). Just when everyone was discussing the possibility of switching Granderson and Brett Gardner around the outfield, now we have to wait to see how that works for another couple of months.

So much like last year, it’s going to take other guys on the team, stepping up and making it happen. For now, we can only hope for the best and pray for a swift, clean recovery for Granderson.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 1: NYY vs. ATL — Spring into a win

I’m going to skip any Disney clichés here. But based on cheering, I’d say the visitors to the Braves Spring Training park at Disney were a good portion of Yankees fans. And they had much to cheer about. Zolio Almonte’s first at-bat was a 2-run home run. Robinson Cano blasted a 5th inning solo home run. Prospect Slade Heathcott, who entered the game in the 6th, seemed to find every fly ball near center field. Six pitchers helped David Phelps get the first win of the season.

And the battle begins today for the starting catcher position and the two players today had each excelled at two different aspects of the plate. Francisco Cervelli’s throw to 2nd to throw out a runner trying to steal was spot on, while Austin Romine batted a 2 RBI single to widen the Yankees lead.

The disadvantage of Spring Training is that they have to rotate everyone around so much that it’s hard to get a real grasp on consistency, at least from a viewer’s standpoint. These guys have to try their hardest to prove their worth in just a few short innings (pitchers often get only one) per day. At the same time, they are learning to work as a team, which (like I’ve said a million times) is the key to a winning team.

Now, the Braves’ defense was arguably not as tight as one would expect, 3 fielding errors by the 3rd inning, which seem to have attributed to an easier victory for the Yankees’ first game this year. But one cannot argue with the Yankees fan base — the cheering, the laughter, the celebrations were a pleasure to hear in what should have been Braves territory.

Great start to the season then. First home game tomorrow against Toronto, behind Adam Warren. With all the talk this year about the Blue Jays, this should be a glance into how the teams will do to battle for the AL East title this year.

Go Yankees!

2013: Hope for the best

The first game begins tomorrow against the Atlanta Braves. David Phelps is set to start, joined on the field by Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Eduardo Nunez, Melky Mesa, Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine, and others. Spring Training officially begins for the Yankees in Kissimmee against the team boasting the Upton brothers, Jason Heyward, and Dan Uggla. (By the way, the Braves are retiring #10 in honor of recently retired, long-time Brave, and now Cooperstown-bound Chipper Jones.)

I read an article today placing odds on each club and what their chances were to get in the 2013 World Series based solely on the Spring Training observations and statistics. They ranked the Yankees at #10 on the list. But what do the statisticians know this year over their predictions last year?

Early on last year, the Washington Nationals were seen as unstoppable, the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles were completely discounted for any chance once again, and the Miami Marlins were supposed to be the underdog/come-from-behind team to probably earn the Wild Card. There was so much hope for the Marlins, they even had a cable reality show following the team around, highlighting their new stadium. And the Yankees? Well, they were supposed to land somewhere in the middle of the AL East, missing the Wild Card spot and the off-season. And by the way, no one saw anything from San Francisco.

Sure, you can chalk it up to all the injuries or the long season or the human factor. In 2012, Rivera tears his ACL, Gardner has an early injury that keeps him out all season, Pettitte comes back only to shatter his ankle, Jeter has a near-record season, Ibanez goes yard in the clutch, Rodriguez has a roller coaster year, and Granderson’s 43 home runs were nearly overshadowed by his record 195 strikeouts. And they still ended up with 95 wins and the AL East title. So really, you just don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 8 months. Will the Yankees take the AL East this year? Maybe. But as the cliché goes, “It’s a long season.”

While I would love to say at this point that the Yankees will win #28 this year, I couldn’t. I really don’t know. No one does. Some Yankees fans aren’t so hopeful for this year. But isn’t that part of the fun of a long baseball season — the unknown result, the hope of a win?

So I guess, here’s to a long season, full of surprises of all shapes and sizes and full of so much hope for a safe championship year for our team.

Go Yankees!