The standings might say that these are meaningless games, but the Yankees aren’t acting like it. They started to surge last week by taking two of three from the Angels in Anaheim and haven’t let off the accelerator, even after clinching everything. Early last night it looked as if they’d let up a bit, but they mounted yet another late-inning comeback to steal a win from the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals staged the first rally, in the top of the seventh, though it had more to do with Phil Coke than the Kansas City offense. He came with a man on first and one out, to face Alex Gordon, Josh Anderson, and Mitch Maier, three weak-hitting lefties. For Coke, a guy who’s faced tight situations in meaningful games, it should have been a cakewalk. It was anything but.
Alex Gordon bunted the first pitch back to Coke, but the latter hung on too long and allowed Gordon to reach and Mark Teahen to reach second. Anderson handed Coke instant atonement with a bouncer right to him, but Coke again muffed the play, this time throwing way behind Derek Jeter and into center. Teahen scored and the Royals had runners on second and third with one out.
The lead lost, Coke got ahead of Maier 0-2, and again got a grounder right back to him. Gordon had already broken for home, but Coke paid no mind. He fired over to first as if there were two outs. The announcers couldn’t believe it, the crowd couldn’t believe it, and the replay showed that Molina couldn’t believe it. Coke had three consecutive plays and managed to botch each one. What should have been an easy appearance turned into a two-run deficit.
Had the game any real meaning, maybe Coke wouldn’t have even been in. Girardi pulled A.J. Burnett after recording the first out of the seventh and having thrown 108 pitches. It was one of A.J.’s better performances. He allowed six baserunners, but kept the Royals at bay with his favorite weapon, the curveball. It helped him strike out eight. With 6.1 innings of one-run ball, three walks, three hits, and eight strikeouts, I’d say Burnett had himself a fine game.
The Yankees used four pitchers last night, and Coke was the standout disappointment. Dave Robertson came out for the eighth and retired the first two batters he faced, including one strikeout, before walking the third batter. That was apparently his limit, as Girardi went with Bruney to finish things off. He allowed a hit and walked a guy, but also fanned two Royals and didn’t allow a run to score. He also had the benefit of Jerry Hairston, who turned a pop up bunt into a double play, teaching rookie Josh Anderson a lesson that will stick with him.
The story of the ninth inning dates back to Sunday. Trey Hillman’s team was up 4-1 against the Twins, and Zack Greinke was in line for the win. Instead of taking a chance with one of his unpredictable setup men, Hillman went to closer Joakim Soria for two. It paid off, but after 46 pitches Soria apparently needed a few days off. He surely wasn’t available last night, given Hillman’s decisions.
Taking the hill to preserve the one-run lead was Kyle Farnsworth. Signed to replace Tom Gordon in 2006, Farnsworth was a disaster from the start. Only when he hit a streak of semi-reliability were the Yanks able to deal him, in a contract swap with the Tigers for Pudge Rodriguez. Both players were horrible to finish out the year, but that didn’t stop Royals GM Dayton Moore from handing Farnsworth a two-year, $9 million contract. Had he waited, he could have had Fanrnsworth for a song later that winter.
With one out in the ninth, Frankie Cervelli bounced one back up the middle. It was out of Farnsworth’s reach, and Alberto Callaspo couldn’t get a handle on it. Eric Hinske pinch hit for Ramiro Pena, and it looked like he wanted the walk-off right there, putting his home run swing on the first pitch but missing. As Farnsworth is apt to do, he missed with the next two pitches and then gave Hinske something he could hit. The ball landed in right, and Cervelli hustled to third. The walk-off was already in the air.
For a guy who can’t hit with runners in scoring position, Robinson Cano sure has driven in a lot of runs lately. After a grand slam last night he got another chance in a tight spot — tight, at least, in the context of this one game. He unloaded on a 3-0 pitch, but just missed. It was deep enough to score Cervelli and tie the game, though. Blown save, Farnsworth.
The last thing the team wanted last night was to go into extra innings. Everything’s clinched. They’d already used a ton of their bench players. I’m sure the regulars just wanted to get on with it. Eric Hinske must have felt that vibe. Otherwise, why would he have have tried to steal second with two outs? Not only did he make it, but he also scampered into third on an errant throw.
The Royals decided they’d rather face Juan Miranda than Johnny Damon, but at that point it didn’t seem to matter. The Yanks were walking off with that win one way or another. Miranda hit a grounder back to Farnsworth, but it was just hard enough to bounce off the pitcher’s shins and into foul territory. The Yanks swarmed from the dugout just as Miranda touched first, and the Yankees had recorded their 15th walk-off victory.
That was a lot of writing for a meaningless game, eh? Well, sometimes big things happen in the least likely games. Coke’s blunders, A.J.’s solid performance, the late-inning heroics. It added up to another quality game in a time when they’re supposed to be boring. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 Yankees: the team that can make even the most drab game a thriller.