Only Ichiro Suzuki would swing at a pitch four inches inside and hit a home run.
The Yankees entered the 7th inning of their Friday evening affair with the Mariners clinging to a 2-1 lead. Nick Swisher led off the inning with a bloop double down the left field line. While Robinson Cano struck out, Melky Cabrera took a wild pitch for ball four. The Yanks had runners on the corners and one out. They were set to pick up a big insurance run. There was but one problem: Jose Molina was due up.
With the expanded rosters, the Yankees had numerous options. Eric Hinske, Jerry Hairston, Jr., Brett Gardner and Juan Miranda were available to pinch hit, and Francisco Cervelli could be used defensively to fill in for Molina. Rather than play for the insurance run, though, Girardi took the safe route. Molina hit for himself, swung at the first pitch and rolled into one of the easiest 6-4-3 double plays you’ll ever see. The phrase “tailor-made double play” was invented for just that play.
As YES went to a commercial break, I shook my head. “The Yanks better not let that come back to haunt them,” I thought. Not so surprisingly, they did but in a rather stunning fashion. With two outs in the 9th — and two batters removed from recording his 1000th career strike out — Mariano Rivera gave up a walk-off two-run home run to Ichiro Suzuki, and for just the second time since the start of 2008, the Yankees lost a game after leading through 8 innings.
For Rivera, the two earned runs were just the second and third he has allowed since June 12. What was so shocking about this loss though was the stark contrast between the first two at-bats of the inning and the last. Jack Hannahan struck out for the fourth time, and Mike Carp went down swinging as well.
After that, it fell apart. Mike Sweeny hit a booming pinch-hit double on the first pitch, and then Ichiro took the first pitch — a ball in the left-handed batters box — deep into the right field seats. Sweeney and Ichiro went up swinging, and they delivered. Two pitches, two hits, two runs. The blown save ended Mariano Rivera’s string of 36 straight saves, and while I would prefer the Yanks to wrap up this division race, I would rather see the inevitable blown save in September in Seattle than in October in Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis or Anaheim.
Unfortunately for the Yanks, Rivera’s implosion overshadowed an otherwise-promising game. For seventh innings, A.J. Burnett showed composure and great stuff on the mound. He had every pitch working and didn’t suffer through one of those bad innings. He threw 66 of 104 pitches for strikes and allowed just one earned run on seven hits and three walks. He struck out six, and A.J. has picked a good time of the year to turn it on again.
After A.J., Phil Hughes came in and blew away Seattle. He needed just 15 pitches to dispatch the Mariners in the 8th. As I watched that inning unfold, I wondered though about Hughes’ secondary pitches. He threw 12 stellar fastballs, none slower than 95 mph, three cut fastballs and just one curveball on a 2-2 pitch to Ken Griffey. He’ll need those other pitches next year, but that’s a story for another day.
In the end, Ichiro went from goat to hero in one swung. While the Yanks could muster only two runs against Felix Hernandez, for Ichiro, the home run was the redemption he needed. Twice, he was picked off first base by Burnett, but with one swing, he put that behind him. While I was ready to write about the pitching triumvirate of A.J., Phil and Mo who delivered the Yanks a tight win in Seattle, Ichiro would have none of it. Them’s the breaks in baseball. They’ll do it again tonight at 10 p.m.