Game 116: CLE vs. NYY — The Warrior and the Number Six

I realize the title of today’s blog post must sound like a very weird day on Sesame Street, but when I was thinking through the day’s events, this is the one that stuck. And made me smile because it sounded like a bad episode of a long-time New York-based children’s TV program.

Today’s festivities began when the Yankees honored former pinstriped outfielder and current YES Network broadcaster Paul O’Neill with a plaque in Monument Park. A whole slew of former teammates like Posada, Rivera, Martinez, Cone, and Jeter and former manager Joe Torre and trainer Gene Monahan showed up to help honor O’Neill. O’Neill was dubbed “The Warrior” by George Steinbrenner himself because of O’Neill’s drive and passion for the game. O’Neill is such a fan favorite that even though his #21 hasn’t been retired, no players is technically allowed to wear it for fear of facing the wrath of fans like one newer player did a few year ago. (He ended up selecting another number after the fan-hate got a little much. Hey, don’t mess with your fan base!)

And it’s only fitting that honoring an Ohio-native meant the Yankees must play the Ohio team, though O’Neill actually played for the other Ohio team prior to his 9 years with the Yankees. It’s just unfortunate for the Yankees that the visitors from Cleveland seemed to pick today to play like the team my uncle keeps telling me they are. (For the record, I don’t believe him, and the Indians’ stats this year certainly don’t support his opinion, but again, you can’t shake a fan of their loyalty over a little thing like facts.)

Anyway, it was Brandon McCarthy’s turn to start today, and apparently earn his first loss as a Yankee. Over his 6.1 innings, he threw 90 pitches, allowed 7 hits and 2 runs, and struck out 8 Cleveland batters. Those runs came early in the game, in the 2nd inning with a 2-out 2-run home run to give the Indians an early lead.

Now, the Indians today had one thing in their favor today — their pitcher who threw a really great game, including striking out 10 Yankee batters in just 6 innings. His pitch count was a little high (109 pitches), but that’s only because the Yankees don’t like giving up anything easily. Even a shut-out game.

Oh yeah, the Yankees got shut out of today’s game. Hill and Whitley split the last 2 outs of the 7th inning in relief of McCarthy, and Whitley threw the rest of the game, giving up a lead-off home run in the 8th inning to push the Indians to a 3-0 score. The Yankees just weren’t hitting much today, only racking up 5 total hits and getting 15 total strikeouts.

Of course, the most talked about hit was Derek Jeter’s lone hit of the day — a 6th inning single. Now, why was this significant? Because Derek Jeter now holds the #6 spot on the All-Time Hits Leaders’ board by himself at 3,431 hits. And he can now add to it (up to 84 more hits where he would tie for #5, an unlikely feat with just 46 games left to play) and keep that amazing spot for a good while. At least until some young, aspiring ball player (probably not even born yet) decides to be the next great hits leader — hopefully in pinstripes like the great Derek Jeter.

Two players were also hit by some nasty balls today — pitcher Brandon McCarthy took a line drive off his foot in the 3rd, and then in his at-bat, Francisco Cervelli took a pitch right off the side of his abdomen (warning: it looks more painful than it sounds). Both stayed in the game, but I imagine both will be pretty bruised up later tonight and into tomorrow.

Also, Brian McCann was placed on the 7-day DL, and Austin Romine was recalled from AAA Scranton to fill in as back-up catcher while McCann recovers from his concussion.

And Mark Teixeira is still nursing his stitched-up hand, finding that things like gripping a bat is excruciatingly painful when the skin on your hand has been sliced through by metal cleats. (Sorry for the graphic image, visual people, but sometimes we need to remember that these guys are just as fragile and need time to recover from things like painful injuries too. Okay, so maybe it’s the players that need the reminder more than anyone because they tend to be anxious to jump back into the fray without waiting for total healing.)

Other roster moves: Brian Roberts has been unconditionally released, and Scott Sizemore has been re-signed to a Yankees minor league contract. So bad news for you Roberts fans, but some good news for you Sizemore fans (oddly often the same people).

And one more tidbit: There was a really nice article posted today in the Wall Street Journal, by Yankees’ beat reporter Daniel Barbarisi on Brett Gardner and his father Jerry. This is one of those “insider” stories that proves to be quite inspirational. It’s worth the read, and it explains the inherited determination and passion that Gardner displays as well as his good-natured character. And it’s one of the reasons I’m glad he’s going to be a Yankee for a long time.

Go Yankees!

Game 108: NYY vs. BOS — The trades, the rivalry, and the Monster

First up: yesterday’s massive trade fiasco…

Okay, I toyed with the idea of writing a separate blog post yesterday just on the trades made, but I felt like my opinions were too hot to make a calm, objective post. Those I actually talked to yesterday certainly got an earful. And I wasn’t just specifically talking about Yankee moves. I think we can officially dub yesterday as the “Game Changer” for far too many games. A few teams certainly ended up winning yesterday, some even guaranteeing themselves a playing spot in October, and some teams pulled some rather confusing moves that either pulled them out of postseason contention or were just rather head-scratching.

The Yankees really didn’t make an Ichiro-sized splash as they did a couple of years ago; no, that was left for a couple of other teams to cannonball into the media circus pool. Instead, they upgraded their infield and added a solid reliever. In the first trade with the rival Red Sox (and tonight’s opponents) since 1997, the Yankees sent infielder Kelly Johnson to Boston in exchange for shortstop (and starting 2nd baseman tonight) Stephen Drew. And with the Diamondbacks, the Yankees acquired infielder Martin Prado for minor league prospect Pete O’Brien and either cash considerations or a player to be named later. Drew will be a free agent following this season, while the Yankees picked up Prado’s contract through 2016. The Yankees also picked up pitcher Esmil Rogers off waivers after he was released from the Blue Jays, adding a new arm to their inconsistent bullpen.

Now, with those three additions, certain players had to be moved around. Scott Sizemore was released from his AAA contract in conjunction with Prado’s addition; Brian Roberts was designated for assignment due to the recent additions of infielders Headley, Drew, and Prado; and as mentioned above, Johnson was traded to Boston. And to make room in the current clubhouse, Zelous Wheeler and Zoilo Almonte were optioned back to AAA.

After all the roster movements and deals and trades, I cannot imagine the amount of work done to maneuver all that, like fitting pieces of a 10,000 piece puzzle into place in 24 hours. The goal for all 30 teams is simple: build a better, stronger team. Some are focused on just getting to October, some on rebuilding for future seasons, and some on just plugging holes in the leaky dam. I love puzzles, but I’m glad I’m not a GM after yesterday.

And the Yankees were in Boston tonight. On a personal note, it’s the first game they’ve played there since I was privileged enough to take a Fenway Park tour back in June, so watching the game was rather fun and special, pulling memories and moments from that day to the forefront of my mind. And so much of me wished I was sitting in the ugly, uncomfortable seats in the Green Monster, cheering on my Yankees in the midst of a sea of red-shirted Bostonians. I grew a new appreciation for the rivalry after that tour, and I almost crave the competition and zeal that both teams and their fans seem to spark in both cities and both parks on such weekends as this one.

It was recent July acquisition Chris Capuano to take the mound for the Yankees tonight. Actually, overall, Capuano did a pretty good job for his first Fenway start. The pressure of the rivalry often can take its toll on newer pitchers to the competition, even if they are veterans. But 98 pitches over 6.1 inning, 8 hits, 4 runs, and 5 strikeouts, keeping some of the bigger Boston bats silent was a decent outing tonight, as it was a bit of a back-and-forth offensive game. In the 3rd, with 1 out, one batter tripled, the next hit a ground-rule double to score the runner, and the next singled home the runner from 2nd. They added another run in the 4th with an RBI single.

In the mean time, the Yankees added their own offense as Carlos Beltran hit a solo home run into the Red Sox bullpen in the 4th, and Beltran’s single in the 6th scored Ellsbury.

In the 7th, with Capuano still going strong, he allowed a runner to single and then advance to 2nd on a sacrifice bunt, thus on the hook for that runner. Shawn Kelley came in to relieve Capuano, but a quick single scored that runner for Boston. Thornton would close out the inning for the Yankees with a 1-pitch double play.

Down 4-2, the Yankees are back up to bat in the 8th inning with a big chance to catch up as the heart of their batting order is due up. Derek Jeter steps up to the plate, likes the first pitch he sees, a 93 mph fastball, and smacks it to the top of the Green Monster over left field. It may be the only time everyone in Fenway was cheering for a Yankee home run.

Actually, Jeter got a standing ovation for every at-bat he had tonight from the entirety of the Boston crowd. Sure, there’s always a contingent of Yankee fans at Boston games, but they weren’t cheering the loudest for Jeter tonight. I could always tell when Jeter was walking up to bat and when he did something good on the field because the crowd would cheer as if he were Pedroia or Ortiz or one of the Boston stars. It was surprising and amusing and amazing all at the same time.

Adam Warren pitched 12 pitches in the 8th inning, keeping the Red Sox from adding to their 4-3 lead. But lack of offense in the 9th ended up handing the Red Sox the win tonight.

The Yankees have two more games at Fenway this weekend. Then Boston will come back to the Bronx at the beginning of next month, and the Yankees will be back in Boston to close out the regular season at the end of September. There’s nothing like a Yankees-Red Sox game, so if you can, there’s still 8 more chances to catch one this season.

Go Yankees!

Game 57: OAK vs. NYY — Delayed extra inning loss

It’s a shame that the Yankees couldn’t hold off the surging tide that is Oakland right now because Hiroki Kuroda was actually pretty on point tonight and left the game while the Yankees were still in line for  the win. But right now, the Athletics are on the rise and the Yankees seem to be hitting some speed bumps.

I’m guessing the hour and 12 minute rain delay at the prior to the game didn’t do them any favors either. And I’m guessing book-ending the game with an extra inning wasn’t exactly the cap on a marvelous day that they hoped for.

Anyway, Kuroda’s outing included 6.2 innings and 93 pitches, just 2 hits, 1 run, 1 walk, and 2 strikeouts. The sole run he allowed was a solo home run in the 5th inning. Kuroda was back to being Kuroda, and the Yankees offense was big enough to set him up for the win. In the 1st, Gardner singled and then scored on Mark Teixeira’s single. And then Teixeira got a solo home run in the 6th inning. So the Yankees were up 2-1 as Kuroda stepped off the mound, clinging to a win.

So they turned to Dellin Betances to finish the 7th inning, which he did quickly. In the 8th, however, Betances did something so rare for him — he struggled. With 2 outs, he walked a batter (another rarity for him) and that runner scored on a long double and allowed Oakland to tie up the game, and Betances earned himself a blown save.

Robertson’s 9th was rather flawless, but it’s too bad it was wasted on a tied game. The Yankees couldn’t come up with much in the bottom of the 9th, so the game went into extra innings. And whoever was still left at Yankee Stadium on this late night, settled in hoping for a Yankee walk-off that would never come.

Adam Warren was sent up in the 10th, and Warren’s night came unraveled pretty quickly. He allowed a lead-off solo home run to push the Athletics into the lead. Then a batter walked and then scored on a double. A fly out kept the runner in place, but he scored on a single. And suddenly, the A’s were up 5-2 over the Yankees. They brought in Claiborne to close out the 10th, and the Yankees couldn’t come up with that needed offense to make up the difference.

Of course, the best part of tonight’s game is that Mark Teixeira was back in the line-up and playing first base like only Teixeira can. The doctor cleared his rested wrist for return to normal. Michael Pineda was placed on the 60-day DL, and Scott Sizemore was recalled and placed in tonight’s line-up. It was good to have both Teixeira and Sizemore back on the field again, as their contributions defensively (and Teixeira’s offensively) were crucial to keeping the A’s from doing damage under Kuroda’s watch. It’s too bad that didn’t carry over towards the end with everyone else.

Also, Masahiro Tanaka was named AL Pitcher of the Month for May for his outstanding show of force during last month’s six appearances. Currently, Tanaka is riding a 5-1 win-loss record and a 1.88 ERA for his rookie 2014 season. He continues to impress every team, every scout, every broadcaster, and every fan with his high-capacity for excellence. And that in itself is a Yankee trait. It’s good to know he’s on “our side” of this game.

Go Yankees!

Game 19: NYY vs. TB — A 12th inning victory

Finally! The Yankees split their 4 game series with the Rays, bookending their trip with wins. This afternoon’s Easter game was surprisingly better than yesterday’s almost instantly because of the pitching.

But first, the Yankees announced a trip to the DL for Ivan Nova due to a partial tear of his UCL. He will see the team doctor, who will decide if the treatment is rehab or even the dreaded (but oddly popular) Tommy John surgery. Nova was placed on the 15-day DL because a torn ligament, even a partial tear, isn’t something you can just sleep on and hope it feels better in the morning. Plus the Yankees activated Mark Teixeira from his hamstring injury. The corresponding roster moves were Scott Sizemore to AAA Scranton and Matt Daley was designated for assignment. And personally, I don’t think Sizemore’s going very far because his contributions to the team in the interim were rather outstanding.

So with the bullpen practically deflated from the last 2 games and saving some of the more feared starters (read: Tanaka) for the Boston series next week, it was Vidal Nuno to the mound, who was also sort of competing to take Nova’s starting spot while he recovers (though I hope it’s sooner rather than later because Nova is still one of the better pitchers, if you ignore yesterday’s outing). So Nuno went a full 5 innings, giving up 3 hits, 2 walks, and no runs, striking out 6 Rays batters. Let’s just say, Nuno could be an easy fit for that starter’s spot after today’s outing. He was pretty great actually, which really stood in contrast to his Spring.

The Yankees offense seemed a little stifled by the Rays’ starter, but finally found a hole in the 4th inning. Alfonso Soriano led off the inning with a double. Two outs later, he’s on 3rd and Brett Gardner is up to bat. Gardner his a long fly ball to right field, which is initially called an out, but was challenged and overturned as the right fielder actually “trapped” the ball and sold it as an out. The ball actually hit the fence above the wall and probably should have been at least a triple if not an inside the park home run, but on a replay overturn, the umpires ruled a double. Something about when the initial umpire call was made, which sounds to me like a cop out for a bad call, but at least it still scored Soriano. And the Yankees were up 1-0 over the Rays for a long time.

So David Phelps got his turn on the mound for 1.1 innings, starting in the 6th inning, and kept the Rays scoreless. In the 7th, with 1 out by Phelps, Matt Thornton was brought on as a lefty-specialist, but promptly allowed a single and a fielding error on a force attempt (which really should have been a double play, by the way). So the Yankees turned to Adam Warren to complete the 7th, a single, a sacrifice fly to tie up the game, and a strikeout. And the Yankees, with Warren at the helm, go into the 8th inning all tied and keep the Rays firmly planted there.

Even Shawn Kelley who gets his turn in the 9th, helped push the game into extra innings to pitch through the 10th. Kelley continues to show why he’s an excellent set-up man and interim closer. Someone made a Twitter joke calling him Shawn KKKKelley because of his 4 total strikeouts, and while that’s a little cheesy on the surface (and would make a decent scoreboard graphic), it does embody how crucial his pitching has become for the Yankee bullpen. It’s always nice to have consistency.

Now, the Yankees just called up Preston Claiborne to fill in the depleted bullpen and threw him into the game for the 11th for a quick 3 outs. Despite having a pretty terrible Spring, Claiborne seems to be back to his 2013 self, and for that, he was on the mound when the Yankees suddenly came alive in the 12th inning.

That’s right, the Yankees decided to go for it with gusto in the 12th. Very quickly, Solarte led off with a walk, Gardner grounded into a force out, and Roberts lined out. So it was 2 outs, and Gardner on 1st base. McCann singled and the Rays intentionally walked Ellsbury to load the bases. And then it’s Dean Anna to work a walk and walked in Gardner to break the tie. (2-1 Yankees) Still 2 outs, Carlos Beltran singled, allowing both McCann and Ellsbury to score. (4-1 Yankees) And Soriano decided to add his own stamp on the game and singled home Anna, for a score of 5-1 Yankees.

Claiborne came back to close out the bottom of the 12th, and despite a lead-off double, the Rays never really got close. And the Yankees had their win. Almost 4 1/2 hours, extra innings, and a whole lot of very excited local Yankee fans, and by the 12th inning, the Trop was electric. Even my brother (a Rays fan) said that this was how you play baseball. And no, Joe Maddon (Rays’ manager), it wasn’t just your lack of offense against “okay Yankees pitching”. Lazy offense, expecting a repeat of the last two games, I’ll accept. But you can’t blame pitching today, sir.

Go Yankees!

Game 17: NYY vs. TB — Bullpen implosion

Oh, I had such high hopes at the halfway point for this game…

I mentioned yesterday that certain games are harder to write about, including those where the Yankees get pummeled or when they just hand the game to the opposing team. Tonight’s game ended up being both. It started so well, but then just crumbled into a disaster. In almost 4 hours, the Rays came back to just pound the Yankees into oblivion, taking advantage of the seemingly endless mess out of the bullpen. It seemed as if they played two very different games, one up through the 6th inning and one for the last 2 1/2 innings. It was a very different ballgame during those last couple of innings; it was also a very long ballgame during those last couple of innings.

But let’s start with what was good. Hiroki Kuroda took the start tonight and would have had a very decent win had there been a little support in the last third of the game. In his 5.2 innings, he threw 99 pitches, giving up 7 hits, 3 runs, and 2 walks. He was backed by some great defense, reminiscent of last night’s team. (Like this nice leaping grab by Ellsbury.) Really, through the first 3 innings, Kuroda was flawless. His trouble began in the 4th, with 2 outs, he gave up a walk and a single before a double scored both runners. And then in the 6th, with 2 outs and two men on base with singles, a single easily scored that 3rd run.

And the Yankees gave him a nice cushion. In the 2nd inning, McCann, Solarte, and Johnson loaded the bases with 2 singles and a fielder’s choice, and all 3 scored on Scott Sizemore’s deep double. Then, Ichiro Suzuki bunts, initially called out at 1st, but a challenge and replay overturned it and called him safe (by a mile and a half, by the way), which moved Sizemore over to 3rd. Brett Gardner’s force out scored Sizemore, giving the Yankees a healthy 4-0 lead in just the 2nd inning. Things were looking up.

And after the Yankees got out of the 6th inning, it was 4-3 Yankees. Jacoby Ellsbury singled, stole 2nd, and scored on Soriano’s single to give them a 5-3 lead. And then the bottom fell out.

David Phelps came on in relief to get the last out of the 6th inning, which he did quickly, but a line drive to his thigh forced him off the field with 1 out in the 7th (it will probably just end up a nasty bruise). Matt Thornton took his place and things got hinky. A fielder’s choice and single put runners at the corners with 2 outs.

So they turned to Adam Warren. But a single quickly scored a run and a walk ended up loading the bases. Two more runs scored on another single, which pushed the Rays over the Yankees 6-5 before Warren finally got that 3rd out. So Warren came back for the 8th inning and got 2 quick outs. And then there was trouble again. A double followed up by a big 2-run home run put the Rays at 8-5.

And the Yankees turned to Cesar Cabral, who promptly gave up a single. A wild pitch allowed the runner to steal 2nd, and then he was able to score easily on the next batter’s single. Cabral loaded up the bases by then hitting the next two batters. Yet another single scored 2 more runs for the Rays, 11-5. When Cabral proceeded to hit the next batter, the home plate umpire ejected him, which I understand is standard, but I don’t really agree with because it wasn’t like he was intending to really get the batters. He just didn’t have any control.

Shawn Kelley got that elusive 3rd out for the Yankees. But the damage was too deep, too late.

Right after the game, Cabral was designated for assignment. I think even he saw that coming, with his lackluster outings and his really uncontrolled pitching tonight. They called up pitcher Matt Daley to take his place on the roster.

Like I said, it was like watching two completely different games. The last third of the game was just what I titled the today’s post — an implosion of the bullpen. They just seemed to crumble under pressure. They could grab those first couple of outs quickly, but then their strength would just dissolve.

And the only positive I can think of is that at least Kuroda didn’t get the loss because he pitched pretty well again and certainly didn’t deserve that on his stats.

They say it’s the second day after a late flight that gets to you. Apparently, it only got to the Yankee bullpen. Better luck tomorrow, I guess. There’s not much else to say, unfortunately…

Go Yankees!

Game 16: NYY vs. TB — A team, a triple play, and a Solarte

Okay, usually the games that are harder to write about are the ones where the Yankees get pummeled or the ones they basically hand over to their opponent. Today was the exact opposite, but what makes this difficult to write is where to start on what essentially was a game-long string of highlights. Honestly, the Yankees were the full package tonight at the Trop against the Rays — pitching, hitting, defense, everything. And this was coming off a very late night flight from New York to Tampa.

So I guess I’ll start at the beginning…

CC Sabathia took the mound and started in on the Rays with very little weakness. Over his 7 innings, he threw 107 pitches, allowed 7 hits, 2 walks, and 2 runs, and striking out 6 batters. The first run came in the 4th inning, after a sweep double play and a runner on 3rd, a passed ball allowed the runner to score just under the diving Sabathia trying to make the tag. (I think I was more intrigued with Sabathia diving into home to make the tag than the fact that the run scored.) Then the Rays’ lead-off batter in the 7th planted a solo home run for the second and final Rays run.

Dellin Betances came on in relief in the 8th inning and got himself into a bit of trouble, walking 2 batters, but he was able to pitch out of the inning and come back to close out the 9th with a quick 3 outs. He was certainly more Betances-like in the 9th, and it paid off, keeping those Rays from ever coming near the Yankees.

Now, I will say the Yankees’ defense was just flawless tonight, even with Scott Sizemore playing first base for the first time in his entire life. He even had to borrow a 1st baseman’s glove from Kelly Johnson. Lots of defensive action tonight: Ichiro’s sliding grab, Jeter’s diving stop, or the other one that started a double play, and Beltran’s tumble over the right field wall that had everyone concerned for a bit (but he’s fine, just banged up a little).

But the highlight everyone’s talking about is their 2nd inning triple play. Let me preface this first with the fact that the last 2 triple plays have been while Sabathia was on the mound. A standard 5-4-3 one in 2010 and the ridiculously awesome 4-6-5-6-5-3-4 triple play last year (my personal favorite). (Before 2010, the Yankees hadn’t made a triple play since 1968.) And then there was tonight’s. A lead-off double and a walk put runners on base, and then a groundout directly to Solarte who stepped on 3rd, fired to Roberts at 2nd, and then Sizemore at 1st for the “standard” 5-4-3 triple play. They are very rare indeed, but a lot of fun to watch. Well, if your team benefits from them, that is.

The Yankees offense just pounced on the Rays’ ace and never looked back. In the 1st inning, Ellsbury singled, and 2 outs later, McCann singled him home. In the 2nd inning (which turned out to be one long Yankee highlight reel), Sizemore doubled, Brian Roberts tripled in Sizemore, Jacoby Ellsbury also tripled to score Roberts, and Derek Jeter singled in Ellsbury. It was hit central at the top, and defense mania at the bottom, easily one of the highest points of the game.

Going into the 5th, the Yankees were up 4-1. With 2 outs, Alfonso Soriano and Brian McCann each hit their own solo home runs, back-to-back (Soriano went to left field, McCann to right). In the 6th, Brian Roberts led off with a double and scored on Ellsbury’s sacrifice fly. Then in the 7th, with 2 outs again, McCann, on base due to a throwing error, scored on Roberts’ soft single.

And then it was the 9th inning, and the Yankees were firmly in the lead with a score of 8-2. Soriano led-off with a single. Then Yangervis Solarte stepped up to the plate and hit an 83 mph curveball deep into the right field seats for his first career MLB home run, and a 2-run homer at that. Solarte was also the one whose quick defensive thinking initiated that 2nd inning triple play. There was a scout in Texas that didn’t think Solarte would amount to much because he hit “some” and didn’t play defense that well. I think somewhere in Texas, someone is very, very wrong and/or very, very fired.

And the score was 10-2 Yankees. And it was an entire highlight reel of a game for them.

Look, I get that the Rays have been hit hard with a recent string of injuries – one of their really better starting pitchers will be out the whole season with Tommy John surgery and 2 other starters are also on the DL at least a month. And I’m not a huge fan of “blow-out games”, even if the team I’m rooting for is winning.

But what made it a great game was the way the Yankees played. They were tight and together, a team in every sense of the way, everyone contributing and hustling and making great plays. Usually, only a couple of guys stand out for that, but tonight, no one stood out because everyone was doing that. They were a team, and it’s teams that win games, teams that win titles, teams that win championships. I like this team.

Go Yankees!

Games 14 & 15: CHC vs. NYY — Doubleheader shutout sweep

67 years ago yesterday, Jackie Robinson played in his first MLB game, officially breaking the color barrier and changing the landscape of baseball forever. Recently, MLB has seen a recent downturn in black players on starting rosters and have hosted diversity seminars to brainstorm ways to increase the diversity in the league. There is definitely a presence of Hispanic players in the league, and of course the increase of Asian players seems dripping with a ridiculous amount of international press coverage. But with college scholarships, larger signing bonuses, and societal expectations leading African-American potential players toward other professional sports (football and basketball jump to mind), there has been a steady decline in baseball, which is a shame because we all know baseball is so much better than every other sport.

Mandela-Robinson
(at L) Nelson Mandela at Yankee Stadium in 1990, (at R) Jackie Robinson playing baseball, honored for their courage and conviction today and forever in Monument Park (photo via cbsnewyork.com)

Now, last year, on Jackie Robinson Day (and heightened by the release of his Hollywood biopic 42), I thought about how so many players wouldn’t have a career without that day almost seven decades ago, not just the black players but also those of Hispanic, Asian, or mixed heritage. And that got me thinking about the current roster for the Yankees. In fact, their entire starting rotation has benefited from this anniversary — Sabathia, Kuroda, Nova, Tanaka, and Pineda, arguably one of the best starting rotations in the entire league. Also on the Yankees are players of all sorts of backgrounds and ethnicities to back up their amazing starters. And to me, that reminds me of the very city they play in — New York is a ridiculous melting pot of ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity.

So, in the very city (or rather neighboring borough) that broke the barrier that prevented anyone from playing the greatest sport in the world, we have a wonderfully diverse team that is set on continuing the tradition for excellence in athletics, something Robinson himself certainly sought during his time in New York (albeit in Brooklyn).

In addition to celebrating Robinson tonight before the second game of the doubleheader, the Yankees honored the late Nelson Mandela, who visited New York and Yankee Stadium in 1990, shortly after he was released from serving 27 years in a South African prison for fighting for his country’s civil rights. Tonight, the Yankees unveiled a plaque to celebrate his life and work to help break the barrier in his country and support those around the world who sought to do the same. Robinson’s widow and daughter and Mandela’s grandson were present for the pre-game ceremony.

But today in the Bronx, it was quite chilly for the doubleheader against the Cubs (I’m thinking the players are more than a little anxious to leave the 40-something degree weather for the weekend series in sunny Florida). Because of the storm front yesterday that brought some late spring ice and snow to the area and the chilly temperatures, yesterday’s postponed game was played this afternoon. And it was Masahiro Tanaka‘s turn to dazzle the crowd once again with 107 pitches, 8 innings, just 2 hits (wimpy little bunts), and a walk. But what was spectacular was the 10 solid strikeouts, which set a record for Yankee pitchers at 28 in his first 3 games. No, he was something to watch again, and it just stunned the Cubs. Shawn Kelley came in for the save in the 9th, getting his 4th.

Carlos Beltran got the offense going with his fourth home run of the year right in the 1st inning. In the 4th, with bases loaded, Dean Anna hit a nice sacrifice fly to score a sliding McCann, who got in just under the tag. Gardner, on base with a ground-rule double in the 5th, scored on Ellsbury’s groundout, which came with its own bit of drama. Apparently, it should have been called a “catcher’s interference“, but because a run scored, the Yankees opted to take the out to allow the run to score (and only former catcher Girardi seemed to know and understand this part of the rule); had they gone with the interference call, Ellsbury would be on 1st, but Gardner couldn’t score on that play. It was more important for the run to score than an out to be called.

And so the Yankees sat at 3-0 for the first game.

Of course, the game was not without a little drama. The Cubs challenged two calls. The first one was a bunt in the 2nd inning that was initially called out, but replays and the umpires did confirm the Cubs challenge and overturned it. (It became one of the hits Tanaka “allowed”.) Then in the 7th, a short hopper deflected off Tanaka, which Anna grabbed on the infield grass and tossed to 1st to get the out. The Cubs challenged it, but replays and the umpires denied the challenge, and the out stood as called.

Game over, stadium cleaned, dinner break, pre-game ceremonies to honor Robinson and Mandela, and it was play ball part 2.

This time, Michael Pineda took the mound for his 6 innings, giving up 4 hits and a walk to the Cubs. Phelps, Thornton, and Warren (who would get the save) finished the last 3 innings to keep the Cubs scoreless. Unlike last time, there was no drama with Pineda, but the nail-biting 9th certainly threatened the Yankees lead and made the entire crowd (or whoever was left in tonight’s windy cold stands) groan, then cheer, then groan, then finally cheer.

Now, for the evening game, the Yankees racked up the hits with a total of 12 against the Cubs’ pitchers. But out of that, they only cobbled together 2 runs — a Gardner RBI single in the 4th and a Sizemore RBI single in the 5th. And that put the Yankees solidly at 2-0 for the second shutout of the day, and sweep of the Cubs during their 2-game stint in the Bronx.

Two amusing plays tonight: Alfonso Soriano made a long run into the side wall to catch a fly ball in the 6th that some grabby fans tried to reach over and take out of play, but Soriano grabbed it first and made the out with flair and panache that can only be described as “Sori-style”. And in the 3rd, Derek Jeter hit what should have easily been a groundout, but the 2nd baseman literally let the ball pass between his legs and slowly roll into the shallow infield; Jeter jogs his way all the way to 2nd, before anyone even laid hands (or glove) on the ball.

Okay, Scott Sizemore is looking more and more like a great grab for the Yankees, who went 2-for-3 at bat and made some very good defensive plays at 3rd. But with all the newer talent on the roster, it certainly seems like quite an upgrade (Solarte, Sizemore, Tanaka, Pineda, Johnson, and Beltran, just to name a few). Everyone (even those just “filling in”) seems to be contributing far and above expectations, and that gives me an early (and fairly solid) hope for October.

And on Jackie Robinson Day, it’s good to see a tradition of excellence continue in such full force.

Go Yankees!