Spring Game 8: TB vs. NYY — Just a swing of the bat

When a bat and a ball make contact, it gives the chance for a game to suddenly shift. It could be an out, a hit, a grand slam, even an error as a result of a single swing of the bat.

Today, the Yankees hosted the Rays, and like expected, a good portion of today’s crowd was cheering for their “hometown team”. The Rays were smart not to just bring their “b-team” guys, as is usual practice for traveling teams, because the Rays’ fans in the crowd were able to cheer on the names they knew from the regular season. But unfortunately for them (and my brother), it wasn’t the “names” that made much of an impact.

On the Yankees side of things… when I got the lineup today, I smiled. It gave me a glimpse of what will probably be the Opening Day lineup, now less than a month away. Ellsbury, Gardner, Beltran, Headley, Gregorius, Drew, Teixeira, McCann, and Rodriguez filled the field (and DH spot) behind today’s starter Michael Pineda (though I think the Opening Day starter will probably end up being a more veteran-standing pitcher, like usual). And honestly, it was quite the privilege to watch these guys play together. It just all clicked, both defensively and offensively, and it just confirmed my suspicions that this is going to be a pretty good team this year.

The Yankees kept sending the Rays back to the dugout scoreless after every inning well into the game. Pineda’s 2 innings only allowed 1 hit; Nathan Eovaldi’s 3 innings gave up 3 hits and struck out 5 batters; Carpenter gave up a walk in his inning but no hits; and Wilson’s 7th inning was a 1-hit wonder. The pitching, for the most part, for the Yankees was rather top-notch. Girardi and the farm system managers will have their hands full of some pretty good pitching if today was any indication of the bullpen status in the organization.

In the mean time, the Yankees racked up a few runs of their own. In the 2nd, Brian McCann doubled and then landed at 3rd on a fielding error off Chase Headley’s at-bat. Alex Rodriguez (who would go 2-for-3 today) singled home McCann, and Drew’s walk loaded the bases. Didi Gregorius’ groundout scored Headley and put the Yankees up 2-0 over the Rays very early in the game.

Then in the 7th, after the “big transition” (and the lineup read like what I assume will be eerily similar to AAA Scranton’s Opening Day lineup this year), Refsnyder’s lead-off single allowed him to steal 2nd and then score on Slade Heathcott’s single; Heathcott ended up on 2nd due to a throwing error. Heathcott ended up scoring on Greg Bird’s nice double. And going into the 8th inning, the Yankees were up 4-0 over the Rays.

But it wasn’t over just yet. And the 8th inning gave much to awake the sleepy Rays’ crowd. Pitcher Diego Moreno had some trouble keeping the Yankees’ lead — a lead-off walk, hit-by-pitch, a force-out and a throwing error scored a Rays’ run, a line-out, 2 RBI singles, a visit from pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and finally a much-needed strikeout. It put the Rays within striking distance and left the Yankees clinging barely to a 4-3 lead. That threat alone kept them persevering and, in the end, succeeding.

And not without some interesting drama… in the very last moment of the game, with 2 strikes already on the board, pitcher Chris Martin threw a low ball that the Rays’ batter swung at for a swinging strikeout. Which should be enough drama, but the bat slipped from the batter’s hands and flew into the crowd. No worries, the fan was a little shaken up and a little bruised, but now has a great story. A similar thing happened yesterday, and visiting special assistant and spring regular Reggie Jackson made sure the lady got to keep the bat and was well taken care of by stadium medical staff. (Cheers to the stadium security and medical staff who are always busy with foul balls and the occasional bats flying into the seats targeting unsuspecting fans.)

Like I said, sometimes the lone swing of the bat changes everything. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not so good, but it’s always full of possibilities.

Go Yankees!

Spring Games 4 & 5: NYY vs. PHI & PIT vs. NYY — Split, sometimes soggy or chilly, decisions

Today was a long day for the Yankees in many respects. They played what essentially was a distance doubleheader — meaning they had an afternoon game in one location (against the Phillies across Tampa Bay in Clearwater) and an evening game in Tampa at home. People attending the afternoon game only made it back to Tampa about an hour before the evening game began because of rush hour and, well, a minor deluge during the first game.

Yes, after the last couple of hotter-than-normal days in Florida, the cold front that battered through the middle of the country this week brought overcast skies and a much needed drop in temperatures to the “Sunshine State”. Of course, that meant a 50 minute rain delay for one game and a chilly, windy night for the other.

The Yankees traveled to Clearwater this afternoon to face the Phillies (again!), giving Bryan Mitchell a chance to start, something he did rather well — allowing just 1 hit and striking out 2 batters in his 2 innings. Relievers Long, Goody, Tracy, Montgomery, and Pinder continued the pattern of excellent pitching, in total giving up just 4 hits to Phillies batters and a lone run (a home run in the 7th).

On the flip side of things, the Yankees were hitting today, and hitting rather well. In the 4th inning, with Teixeira on base with a single and then pinch-run by Roller, Greg Bird’s double scored Roller and landed him at 3rd on the throw. Bird would then score on Ramon Flores’ single. Just a few batters later, Judge scored on Didi Gregorius’ double. So by the end of the 4th inning, the Yankees were up 3-0 over the Phillies. Then they added an extra run in the 6th with a Nick Noonan RBI double to score Heathcott. Despite the Phillies’ lone run in the 7th, the Yankees still won the game soundly with a final 4-1 score.

Over in Tampa, as skies continued to loom and rain threatened but never fully manifested on the eastern side of the bay, the Yankees weren’t as lucky. The visiting Pirates took advantage of some well-placed pitches to attack. In the 2nd, with one man on with a single, a perfect strike became a perfect 2-run home run for the Pirates to jump them ahead of the Yankees. They added an extra run in the 5th with a first pitch solo home run. Pirates up 3-0 halfway through the game, and it wasn’t looking pretty. The “other guys” now in the game had their chance to shine, something they did rather well on the defensive side of things, but seem rather nervous in the batter’s box. Well, except for the 8th inning — a lead-off double and a single (with 2 outs) put runners on the corners so that Jake Cave could single in the Yankees’ lone run. Final score 4-1 Pirates.

For some reason, tonight’s game especially felt like Spring Training finally kicked in. I realize that I’m a few games too late, but there’s always a moment when it’s no longer theory or speculation or nerves or just sheer hope. I think it was tonight. I was sitting in the stadium, listening to the ruckus of the fans on both sides jeering each other and cheering on their respective teams, watching kids with gloves anxiously praying for foul balls or the kindness of a player or coach, smelling the crisp March air mix with (what I’ve officially dubbed) “the smell of baseball”.

It’s not enough to simply tick off days on a calendar or watch statistics ebb and flow on a chart; no, baseball must be experienced, even if from the nosebleed seats (though in a Spring Training stadium, there are none of these). If experience is our greatest teacher, then what exactly are we learning from a baseball game? Perhaps, it is that life is about the ebbs and flows, the successes and failures, the individual achievements that compose a group outcome, the camaraderie of perfect strangers in a single purpose, the joy in its simplicity contrasting the depth of its complexities, the strategies and sheer luck, and the tenacity to see it all the way through to whatever end.

I don’t know… maybe I’m overthinking it. I mean, it is after all, just a kids game that grown-ups get paid to play while others pay to watch. And even when your team loses, what’s the old soothing adage?, “it’s just a game”; or when your team wins, it’s the “best game ever”. Like I said, baseball must be experienced. It’s that experience that separates it from all the other mundane things you did that day — work, school, Starbucks run. grocery shopping, gym workout, Facebook trolling, whatever.

I mean, after all, it’s why you read this blog (and why I write it) in the first place.

Go Yankees!

{Tech note: There was only shareable media for one of today’s games. Sorry! But at least it was the one they won!}

A chip on the shoulder works

Spring Training batting practice, Chase Headley (#12) waits his turn (Photo via YES Network)

Today, beneath ironically overcast skies in the Sunshine State, the Yankees hosted their first full squad work-out day. 67 men found their way on the field in pinstriped pants and navy BP jerseys to run drills, hit some BP, and show off their stuff for the coaching staff.

This coaching staff included several of the guest coaches, former Yankee players asked to return to camp to help the new guys work on their stuff with the guys “who’ve been there”. Today, noted Yankee alumni included Hideki Matsui, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, and Mariano Rivera. Former Yankee and current Yankee scout Eric Chavez has been seen around camp for the last week; he will also get some time in the broadcasting booth this season. Other guest coaches will include familiar face often seen during Spring Training like Andy Pettitte, Billy Connors, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Lee Mazzilli, Stump Merrill, and Reggie Jackson.

Of course, for the last couple of days, much of the chatter has been centered around Rivera, who stated he probably could still pick up and throw his famous cutter if he wanted to. No doubt about that. But Rivera isn’t here for himself, and he enjoys spending time working with some of the young pitchers. Actually, he always has. In his last year (2013), Rivera was often seen talking to young pitchers in the bullpen, something I think many cherished — whether a lesson in pitching or a lesson in life. When Rivera talks, you listen.

Steinbrenner Field opened its doors this week to any fans who want to watch their favorite players work out before the games officially begin (First Game is March 3, Opening Day is March 4). Many are interested in seeing how returning players like Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Carlos Beltran, and Masahiro Tanaka are doing after their struggles this last year(s) or how Alex Rodriguez is transitioning back to the team after his suspension. And fans are interested in the new guys like Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Jones, Didi Gregorius, and Andrew Miller (and more!). I’m glad to report that for the first time, everyone seems happy and healthy and fired up to win this year.

Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury called it a “chip on their shoulder” — that undercurrent that seems to prevail in camp this year after falling short last year. Players come to New York to win, and anything short of that is frustrating, especially for guys like Ellsbury who signed up for that kind of team. I was thinking about his comment, and I think I have to agree with that mentality. But I also have to say that this is the right season for that kind of attitude. It’s a very new team, a weird combination of the “old guys”, the “career veterans”, and the “new kids”. And I have to say it again. It reminds me oddly of another weird year — 1996. So I guess that’s why I’m holding out some hope. It’s too eerily familiar.

I spoke with a Cubs’ fan recently, and we joked about the Back to the Future II prediction for the World Series. If you don’t remember, Marty McFly heads into the future to 2015 and sees on a digital billboard that the Cubs won the Series over Miami, something that he finds weird because at that point Miami didn’t have a team. Now, Miami does have a team (though it’s not the “gators” as seen in the movie), but they are in the National League with the Cubs. Cubs fans are assuming that this means they’ll be celebrating the NLCS victory over the Marlins instead of the Series. And due to the date Marty travels into the future (October 22, 2015) and how late the season will go this year, an NLCS prediction at this point seems more likely… that is if the movie is an accurate predictor of baseball.

It’s amusing to dream about such things, but like so many other media-soaked predictions, they are just that — predictions. Some teams are already assuming they have the best team. One player already asked for his “ring” due to some recent acquisitions for his team, only really half-joking. A broadcaster I didn’t expect to be so level-headed clarified that player’s comment by saying that he is right in a sense because his team does look amazing on paper. But paper doesn’t mean squat at the end of the season. Other teams seem to build similar patterns of strong starting rotations, but really lack where it ultimately matters — offense.

This left me thinking. Lately, so much of the focus has been on pitching. And I understand that. The old adage “if you don’t have pitching, you don’t have anything” isn’t just an adage. But if all you have is pitching, you won’t win that many games. To win games, you must score runs. To score runs, you must have hits. To have hits, you need a good offense. So (pardon the corruption of the adage) if you don’t have offense, you won’t win any games and thus no World Series. Many teams have a small group of players capable of some power, but relying on a small group of guys isn’t enough. Far too many teams seem to rely on this formula, which usually leads to divas and reduces a team to a single star carrying the weight of the hopes and dreams of an impossible goal.

Instead, I’d prefer to see a balance. Good rotation + good offense + good defense + great morale = championship. Teams win games. Good teams win lots of games. Great teams win championships.

Here’s to a great team this year…

Go Yankees!

Winter Meetings and roster shifting

I am ashamed it’s taken me almost 3 weeks to publish, but I do have completely legitimate reasons that really none of you care about (geography, health, holidays, stress, source issues, writer’s block, etc.). So I apologize for my procrastination, and here we go because there’s a lot to cover.

Okay, Winter Meetings in sunny San Diego are underway and providing interesting fodder for rumors and then confirmation of a few of them. This unfortunately includes David Robertson departing the pinstripes for… well, pinstripes. Robertson is on his way to play for the pinstriped men of the Second City, known to the world as the Chicago White Sox. The Sox deal locks him in for 4 years and $46 million, which leaves the Yankees with a bonus draft pick because Robertson declined the option last month and then opted to sign elsewhere. We wish Robertson and his family well on his new endeavors, except (of course) when the Yankees play them towards the end of next season.

In his stead, the Yankees are left looking to their current bullpen like Betances, Warren, Whitley, and Phelps leap to mind, but as we all know, the Spring will certainly shake things up in that (and every other) area. But I know they are looking to reinforce the pen, as they did with the signing of Andrew Miller, a free agent most recently with the Orioles and Red Sox. The left-handed reliever threw 103 strikeouts in 62.1 innings over 73 games just last year and is very comfortable in the set-up role, but (on par with many recent signees) he is willing to fill whatever role they ask of him. Another reason Spring is crucial is to play around with the bullpen and see where all the pieces fall into a comfortable rhythm.

In another recent move, the Yankees, the Tigers, and the Diamondbacks negotiated a 3-team trade deal. The Yankees sent Shane Greene to the Tigers, the Tigers sent a pitcher and minor leaguer to the Diamondbacks, and the Diamondbacks sent shortstop Didi Gregorius to the Yankees. In other words, everyone was wondering who was going to fill that monster hole in the middle infield, and this is the answer — Didi Gregorius. Well, it will probably be split between him and Brendan Ryan.

Also if you’re keeping track of anything in the Baby Bomber world, the Yankees denied arbitration with outfielder Slade Heathcott and pitchers Jose Campos and David Huff; all three elected free agency.

And because no Yankee post seems to be complete without news from a recently retired Captain, here’s the update…

There are postseason awards given by MLB Network affectionately called “GIBBYS“, short for “Greatness in Baseball Yearly” Awards. Basically, it’s a collection of moments in the season that fans, viewers, and network people vote for the best of those moments in specially decided categories. Jeter’s final Yankee Stadium game was the winner in two categories — what became known as the “2 Good to Be True” highlight became the Moment of the Year and the Walk-Off of the Year. If you can’t remember that moment (and apparently were in hibernation somewhere in September), this link is to jog your memory.

And Jeter hosted his annual Turn 2 Foundation Holiday Express for local kids, gifting them with packs filled by his “Jeter’s Leaders” a few weeks ago, hanging out with Santa, and then treating them to an early release of the upcoming kids’ movie Annie, a redone, updated version to be released nationwide on Christmas Day. I know it’s always a highlight and a treat for the kids of New York.

Well, with Winter Meetings still in progress, I can imagine there is a handful of other announcements to be made in the near future before everyone hunkers down for the holidays.

Go Yankees!