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 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 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!

Spring Game 13: NYY vs. STL — You never know what the future holds…

A 2-run homer and walk-off RBI single grabbed today’s win for the Cardinals in South Florida today. The Yankees grabbed an early lead, backed by Ivan Nova’s excellent outing as starting pitcher, including 27 strikes of 45 pitches thrown today. Francisco Cervelli was also given a chance to do some decent offense, taking a break from behind the plate to focus on the DH role today, and impacting the scoreboard with a hit, a run scored, and a walk. Addison Maruszak played the whole game at short stop and his offensive drive came with a double in the 9th inning and scoring a run off next batter Ramon Flores’ single and ran a good defensive game, including a double play in the 7th.

In injury-related news: Mark Teixeira is looking at 8-10 weeks of recovery time for his arm/wrist strain, so he is choosing to spend his spring back in the New York area, closer to his family and closer to the doctors and rehab facilities. Today, Derek Jeter saw the surgeon in Charlotte who performed his October surgery to repair his broken ankle and is currently scheduled to be back at camp on Friday; this sounds like good progress toward that March 10th (or thereabouts) spring starting date to me. Curtis Granderson is recovering and using his time wisely, visiting Tampa area schools and charities and preparing to host a fundraising event for his Grand Kids Foundation next week. Mariano Rivera is set for a press conference Saturday morning; this leads most people to assume that he will announce his retirement at the end of the 2013 season, something we have expected all Spring. If so, it looks like another #42 will be up at Monument Park this time next year.

That being said, people are already talking about the 2014 Yankees when so many will be up for free agency and contract options/extensions that year — including Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Boone Logan, and Phil Hughes. Honestly, this seems more than a little presumptuous as we’re not even out of Spring Training and have yet to play a single regular game. And with Cashman already talking with Cano’s agent about contract extensions and the increase of both injuries and the ever-talked-about age factor, I just think critics (and fans in some ways) are already setting themselves up for something that just may never happen.

Something I’ve learned in all these years, as a baseball fan and a Yankees fan, is that you never know what the future holds (as I hear Back to the Future lines in my head). And that’s what adds excitement to this game that’s so based on strategy and planning and talent. There are too many factors you cannot control, including individual streaks and slumps and flukes and surprises. Who really expected Raul Ibanez, a forty year old “has-been” (as he was dubbed in Spring of last year), to be the champion of the Yankees’ postseason last year? No one, and that’s why I can’t discount this year, and I certainly won’t start fretting about 2014. In fact, I’m excited at the thought of the surprises yet to come from people you don’t expect both on and off the field.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 11: ATL vs. NYY — Another one bites the dust

David Phelps did an excellent job campaigning for that 5th spot on the rotation with tonight’s performance, allowing only 2 hits and 1 run and striking out 2 batters through 4 solid innings. Though the Braves ultimately won 2-0, it was truly fantastic pitching that kept the Atlanta stars (Jason Heyward, B.J. and Justin Upton, and Dan Uggla, among the starters) from running away with the game. Diving stops, flip plays, and spirited teamwork all coincided for a superb showing for the Yankees tonight in Tampa and really demonstrated the excellent defensive capabilities in many of tonight’s infielders. No infielder was a regular starter, but certainly for most of the game they played like they could be one day.

News came from Arizona today, where World Baseball Classic’s Team USA was working through their exhibition games, that Mark Teixeira strained his right wrist, which will be looked at by the team doctor in New York to get an accurate estimate on the injury and recovery time. And OF prospect Adonis Garcia broke his left hand and is now scheduled for surgery on Thursday. So we have yet another set of well-wishing for quick healings and return to the field.

Seven more players have been reassigned to minor league camp, including outfielder Tyler Austin and catcher Gary Sanchez. (Greg Bird, Cito Culver, Rob Segedin, Francisco Arcia, and Kyle Higashioka fill out the rest of the crew.) I know much has been made about “not making the cut” and getting sent down so early, especially for the Yankee’s #1 prospect Sanchez. But when I think about it, the catcher’s position during Spring is really a competition between Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli for the regular starter and a look at the younger guys trying to make an impression for the minors. They already know Sanchez is a great catcher who needs a few years experience and refinement before stepping behind the plate in the Bronx. So why would they waste his time during Spring warming the bench? No, they already like him and want him, but they know he’s playing in the minors this year. Smart move all around, I’d say.

Tomorrow, the Yankees plays the WBC’s Dominican Republic team for an exhibition game, and while we know the Spring Training games are basically just a month of exhibition games, this one counts for even less as no one will ever count a player’s totals for or against them. It’s just to get a country’s team used to playing together, as they’re used to playing against each other during the regular season. And if nothing, it will be interesting to see Joe Girardi on one side and his regular bench coach Tony Pena managing on the other, in addition to Robinson Cano batting for another team. The latter sight should be enough to put some fire under all parties to get Cano signed more permanently to the Yankees beginning in 2014. I just don’t think the team would get over him hitting against them.

Go Yankees!

Spring Game 8: PHI vs. NYY — One month to go

It’s hard to target what exactly wasn’t there for the Yankees for their 5-10 loss against the Phillies today in Tampa. By the end of the 3rd inning, the Phillies were up 6-1. The Yankees actually out-hit the Phillies in the game (12-10), nearly every batter had a hit and four with two hits. But Hiroki Kuroda’s less-than-stellar first spring outing combined with the four (yes, I said four) fielding errors early in the game really allowed for a less-than-stellar outing overall today.

The two stand-out semi-regular players today would have to be Francisco Cervelli (2-for-2 with a walk and some excellent defense, including a nice throw to catch the only runner attempting to steal 2nd) and Melky Mesa (another nice solo home run today in the 7th inning). An Addison Maruszak 2-run single in the 5th and Ronnier Mustelier’s solo home run in the 6th (no video available for either) topped the non-roster players’ list of good attempts in today’s game. And once again, the Yankees seemed to be able to load bases with their short-ball, but driving in the runs is severely lacking overall.

And while we know that Spring Training games are technically nothing more than a month-long of exhibition games, it still has to be disheartening for the players on the losing team (which lately has been the Yankees). And after losing 7 in a row now, it’s going to take the team veterans to refocus the rookies’ attention and remind them why they were asked to participate in this process.

Spring isn’t actually a level playing field by any means. With the Yankees inviting an extra 44 people to their Spring, they are forced to play the non-roster invitees more than some other teams have quite a bit less — the Phillies have only 18, for example. And with this being a World Baseball Classic year, this means some of the regular players are cutting their Spring short with their teams to represent their countries. Again, I am forced to reiterate to those who get easily discouraged during Spring Training that this isn’t really about getting to Opening Day with the best record in Spring Training, but rather for the coaching staff to see the potential in the farm system and the regular roster to get some actual playing time with some of the guys on the team (like a glorified practice or simulated game) before April 1st (our Opening Day this year).

I’ve been talking with some people who seem all into the current standings of the teams, as if they’re the predictor for the regular season, and I just have to shake my head. It’s like trying to apply letter grades to summer camp and expecting those honors to apply for graduation. It’s a “long season” from April 1st to September 29, as they say. It’s just not worth the effort and stress freaking out about losses now when it doesn’t really count. The Yankees have seen worse Springs, and they’ll see better ones. Like I’ve said before on here, I’m just really loving the opportunity to keep an eye out for the next generation of legends. Which of these non-roster invitees will we see on the banners outside of Yankee Stadium along River Avenue one day soon? Which of these young guys will we associate with a retired number in say 20 years? Which of them are future Hall of Famers?

This is an exciting time of year, and I cannot wait for 2013.

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!