What looked like bitter defeat and a one-way ticket to second place turned into the biggest and most important win of the season. The Yankees mounted a, dare I say, gutty comeback in the late innings to take the series finale from the Blue Jays by the score of 9-6. In many ways, it was the exact opposite of Saturday’s loss.
Don’t Call It A Comeback
We’ll get into the first few innings in a sec, but right now the important thing is that the Yankees were down 5-1 heading into the sixth. They had squandered an opportunity or two along the way, but for the most part the lack of scoring had to do with Henderson Alvarez overwhelming the lineup with fastballs. Seriously, the kid threw two (two!) sliders out of his 87 pitches. The other 85 were two- and four-seam fastballs. That’s insane and part of the reason why the first five innings were so frustrating.
Anyway, the Yankees got a run back in the sixth when Alvarez uncorked a wild pitch with men on the corners, though they were unable to bring Nick Swisher in from second with no outs. The seventh inning is when things really started to turn around. Eduardo Nunez pinch-hit for Eric Chavez against the left-handed Brett Cecil, opening the inning with a single. Steve Delabar replaced Cecil and allowed a ground-rule double to Derek Jeter, putting two men in scoring position and (more importantly) bringing the tying run to the plate. Ichiro Suzuki plated the first run with a sacrifice fly to center.
The middle of the order was up, but lately Alex Rodriguez hasn’t been much of an offensive force. He came into the game riding a 2-for-24 slump, and when a pitcher with a filthy put-away splitter like Delabar jumps ahead in the count 0-2, it seems like an out is inevitable. Instead A-Rod fouled off two pitches before working the count full and eventually drawing the walk. He doesn’t hit for as much impact as he used to, but Alex can still put together a mean at-bat. Robinson Cano followed a hard-fought at-bat of his own, fouling off two two-strike splitters before doubling down the right field line. Jeter scored to make it a one-run game, and a batter later Aaron Loup chucked a wild pitch to allow A-Rod to score the tying run. Nick Swisher actually did a great job of avoiding the pitch and allowing it to go to the backstop. The two at-bats by A-Rod and Cano really defined the big inning, they were fantastic.
The Yankees needed a strong outing from Phil Hughes, and he instead gave them five runs in 4.2 innings. The Blue Jays tagged him for eight hits, including what appeared to be a back-breaking two-run homer by Brett Lawrie in the fifth inning. That turned a 2-1 game into a 4-1 game that felt like a 400-1 game. Phil allowed another run before being lifted with two outs in the fifth. None of the four starters in the series completed six innings of work and two didn’t even complete five.
I thought Hughes was overthrowing early in the game, especially in the two-run first inning. He was consistently missing up in the zone, far enough up that hitters took the pitches for balls rather than put a good swing on them. Seventeen of his 93 pitches were the new slider, which is far more than I can remember him throwing in any other start. Toronto only had two left-handed hitters in the starting lineup, so maybe that’s why the battery emphasized the pitch. It was not a good way for Hughes to end his season by any means, and hopefully he’ll get a chance to wash the taste out of his mouth in a postseason game.
And The Yankees Take The Lead
Tying to score at five felt like a win, but in reality there was still a lot more work to be done. Left-hander Darren Oliver opened the eighth by walking Curtis Granderson on five pitches, which is a big no-no. Joe Girardi opted to leave Raul Ibanez in to face the veteran southpaw rather than send Casey McGehee or (worse) Andruw Jones to the plate, and he was rewarded with a single. Russell Martin, one of the team’s three hottest hitters in recent weeks, sacrificed the runners up to second and third with one out. The Yankees were in business.
The right hitter was up in this situation, the generally punchless Eduardo Nunez. He was the right hitter because he’s the best non-Ichiro contact hitter on the Yankees, and all they needed was a ball-in-play. Nunez drove the ball to deep center field — the camera angle make it look like it was ticketed for the gap, but alas — for the go-ahead sacrifice fly. After being down four runs with four innings the play, the Yankees had taken the lead. Jeter followed by punching a single to right, allowing pinch-runner Brett Gardner to trot home with a huge insurance run. That two-run lead felt enormous.
Girardi catches an awful lot of grief for his managerial moves, but you have to hand it to him for this game. Every button he pushed worked and contributed to the win. He used Derek Lowe to escape Hughes’ fifth inning jam, and the veteran sinkerballer rewarded him by retiring all five men he faced and restoring order in the middle innings. Boone Logan took over with one out and the score tied in the seventh, and the overworked left-hander retired both Colby Rasmus (strikeout) and Adam Lind (fly ball) to end the inning. He walked the right-handed Yunel Escobar between the two lefties, which seemed like a strategic pitch-around in lieu of another pitching change to match up.
Offensively, Girardi left Ibanez in the game to face Oliver, which obviously worked out. I wouldn’t advise making a habit of allowing Raul to face tough lefties in the late innings of close games, but on Sunday it worked out for him. Pinch-hitting Nunez for Chavez despite the lack of another infielder on the bench paid dividends as Eduardo started the game-tying rally with a single and drove in the go-ahead run with a sac fly. Having Martin bunt resulted in a pair of runs as well. Pretty much anything that can be construed as a managerial decision worked in the Yankees’ favor.
Rafael Soriano made things interesting in the ninth, very interesting in fact. Like he brought the tying run to the plate by loaded the bases with no outs interesting. Thankfully he escaped the jam with two ground balls, the first a 6-4-3 double play and the second a routine 4-3. Still though, didn’t need the heart attack Rafi. David Robertson walked a batter in an otherwise strong inning, striking out a pair on … wait for it … curveballs!
The Yankees scored their first run with a Chavez solo homer in the third, his third dinger in his last four games. They also plated two big insurance runs in the ninth, when Curtis Granderson doubled in a pair with the bases loaded and no outs. It gave him 100 RBI on the season, meaning the Yankees will not have their first 100 RBI man-less season since 1992 (not counting strike years). Jason Frasor, the first Jays’ pitcher of the inning, faced ten batters in the series and retired two.
After tying the game in the seventh, Swisher lined into an inning-ending double play with Cano on third. The infield was in, Escobar made a great diving stop to his left, then flipped over to third for the force out. Robinson may have been a little too far off the base but I don’t blame him for getting doubled up. It was just an incredibly unfortunately turn of events. Swisher did everything right and still ended the inning. Sometimes baseball just ain’t fair.
Cano stayed hot with a 3-for-5 day, and one of the three was a little push bunt single to third base to beat the shift. A lot of people have been waiting all season to see someone do that. Jeter also had three hits while A-Rod and Ibanez had two each. Every starter had at least one hit other than Martin, who took and 0-for-4 with the sac bunt. A-Rod, Swisher, and Granderson drew walks to pace an offense that put 18 men on-base in nine innings. They also went 4-for-12 (.333) with runners in scoring position, so hooray for that. Total team effort by offense, so great job by them.
Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
MLB.com has the box score and video highlights while ESPN has the updated standings. The Orioles finished of their sweep of the lowly Red Sox, so there is still a tie atop the AL East. If the Angels lose to the Rangers tonight, the Yankees will clinch at least a wildcard spot. If Texas loses, there will be a three-way tie for the best record in the AL. The magic number for the division is down to four.
It’s the final series of the season, a three-game set against the Red Sox in the Bronx. I think we knew that would be an important series when the season opened, but I don’t think we expected the clubs to be separated by 20-something games in the standings. CC Sabathia gets the ball against Clay Buchholz in the opener on Monday night. Check our RAB Tickets for some last minute deals.