A Quick Thank You to the Season that Was

(via @davidblattman)
(via @davidblattman)

It is difficult to put into words just how fantastic this season was for the New York Yankees. This is a team that was all but guaranteed to float around the 81-win mark this year, with the most hopeful of fans merely expecting strong contributions from the slew of youngsters that were slated for the roster. It was meant to be a transitional season, as Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi spent the last season of their respective contracts stewarding a ship towards 2018, with 2017 in the rear-view before the year even began. And most would have been happy with the team spoiling the playoff hopes of a potential playoff team or two.

Instead, the Yankees spent the better part of the season as one of the best teams in baseball, only bowing out to the soon-to-be World Series champions in the American League Championship Series. It was a hell of a ride, to say the least.

I’m not going to recap this season; those pieces will be written in the weeks to come. And I’m not going to attempt to plot out just how the Yankees made it this far; that story has been written and, exciting as it may be, we all know it well-enough already. Rather, with just under a month to go before Thanksgiving, I’m simply going to write out a few thank yous to the people that made this season special.

Thank you to CC Sabathia, for showing the world that you’ve still got it, even as your knees breakdown. And thank you for reminding us that some folk just love being a Yankee.

Thank you to Gary Dunaier, better known as ‘Thumbs Down Guy,’ for giving the fans and the players a new way to celebrate the team’s Fighting Spirit.

Thank you to Didi Gregorius, for always playing with the brightest and widest of smiles, and reminding us that baseball is a hell of a lot of fun. The post-game tweets are always a treat, too.

Thank you to Cashman and the powers that be, for brilliantly executing the ‘rebuild on the fly’ strategy.

Thank you to Girardi for sticking with the team’s young players, throughout their ups and downs.

Thank you to Luis Severino, for pitching like an ace from wire to wire, dazzling fans and opposing hitters alike with ridiculous sliders.

Thank you to Greg Bird, for finally getting healthy and raking in the playoffs.

Thank you to David Robertson, for coming home and being better than ever.

Thank you to Gary Sanchez, for proving that 2016 was closer to a taste of things to come than a fluke.

Thank you to Chad Green, for somehow becoming one of the best relievers in all of baseball.

Thank you to Brett Gardner, for being the continuing to quietly be a legitimate bargain in left field.

Thank you to Aaron Judge, for hitting baseballs harder and further than any human being should be capable of, while also playing with a childlike wonderment.

Thank you to the River Ave Blues staff, both on the page and behind the scenes, for making one of my dreams come true by bringing me on-board.

And thank you to the readers of River Ave Blues for taking it easy on me despite my penchant for rambling, and continuing to make the comment section a must-read (which is something that almost reads like an oxymoron).

I could go on and on, as this season was incredibly special in so many ways. It reinvigorated my love of the Yankees, and made me hopeful that another stretch of great success is well within reach. I don’t know what 2018 will bring, but for the first time in nearly a decade I’m heading into it with a healthy dose of optimism.

Trying to decipher Didi Gregorius’ post-victory tweets

Fun team is fun. (Presswire)
Fun team is fun. (Presswire)

Last night the Yankees did a number on Jason Vargas en route to an 11-7 win over the Royals. The Yankees extended their AL East lead to 1.5 games over the Orioles, and although that doesn’t mean a whole lot in May, it’s better than being 1.5 games back, isn’t it? Also, the Yankees boast the baseball’s best run differential at +63. That’s pretty cool.

Following last night’s win, Didi Gregorius fired off a celebratory tweet, as he does after just about every win. They all start with #StartSpreadingTheNews and end with WHAT A GAME too. Love it. Such a fun little tradition. Here is last night’s post-win tweet:

He’s got the #BigMike hashtag in there for Michael Pineda and … an old man emoji for Aaron Hicks? Hicks hit the three-run home run last night. The emoji has white eyebrows so yeah, it’s definitely an old man. What’s up with that? Is it because Hicks likes golf? That’s kind of an old man thing. Or maybe because he’s bald like the emoji? That’s it. It’s because Hicks is bald. Has to be.

Here is the tweet Didi sent out following Tuesday’s series-opening win over the Royals.

A squid for Gary Sanchez! Or is that an octopus? I think it’s a squid. Either way, Sanchez is the Kraken — he can thank Brian Cashman for that nickname — and the squid/octopus fits perfectly.

What about the rhino though? That’s Chris Carter. He hit the two-run home run Tuesday. Is Carter a rhino simply because he’s a big strong dude? Because he’s deceptively fast? Rhinos can run up to 34 mph, you know. The internet told me that. Is it because his eyesight is poor and he strikes out so much? Rhinos have bad eyesight too. That can’t be it. That’s too mean. I’m going to say Carter is a rhino because they’re both big and strong. Perhaps an ox emoji would have been better, but rhinos are cooler than oxen.

The Yankees came back for a win over the Astros in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, and between games Gregorius broke out the ultra-rare five emoji tweet to celebrate.

Okay, the first two are kinda easy. The star is Starlin Castro. He hit a two-run game-tying home run. The Judge is, well, Aaron Judge. He hit a solo shot to give the Yankees the lead as part of back-to-back homers with Castro.

Now we move on to the clown, who is Brett Gardner. He’s hit the other solo home run. To further confirm the clown=Gardner dynamic, here is the tweet Gregorius sent out after Gardner’s ninth inning game-winning home run against the Cubs two weeks ago:

That was a fun game, wasn’t it?

Anyway, you know why Gardner is the clown? I’ll tell you why. Because he’s the biggest jokester on the team. He’s the dude who pranks everyone and keeps the team loose. You wouldn’t think Gardner is that guy, but he is. Next time you’re at Yankee Stadium, pay attention to the between-innings entertainment on the scoreboard. There’s one skit in which they ask a bunch of players who the funniest guy on the team is, and to a man, they say Gardner. That’s why he’s the clown.

Okay, going back to the original May 14th tweet, we’re left with a fist and a red angry face. That’s … Chase Headley? He had the bases clearing triple that game. Has to be him. I have no idea why Headley is a fist and an angry red face. He doesn’t strike me as a fighter or a guy who gets mad a lot. Could it be because he’s intense? We’ve seen Headley get pretty fired up at times, either after a big hit or a big play or whatever. Example:

chase-headley-catch

I’m at a loss for this one. Headley as fist plus angry red face is a #thingtowatch. A developing situation.

Let’s now go back to May 6th, the middle game of that three-game sweep at Wrigley Field.

Two-run homer by the star (Castro)? Check. Three-run homer by the bald guy (Hicks)? Also check. That leaves the baby emoji in baby bomber, a phrase usually reserved for hitters, but in this case it goes to a pitcher, Jordan Montgomery. He pitched that day. 24-year-old Jordan Montgomery, who is 6-foot-6 and 225 lbs., is the team baby. Didi has spoken.

Okay, we’ve got one more postgame tweet and two more player-specific emojis to cover. Here’s the tweet:

May 3rd was the final game in the series against the Blue Jays, when the Yankees came back in the seventh inning against Joe Biagini. Gregorius drove in the go-ahead run with an infield single that game. He doesn’t have an emoji for himself, as far as I can tell.

Anyway, Judge smashed a two-run home run against Marcus Stroman that game — I guess there’s no short guy who finished his degree while rehabbing a torn ACL emoji? — so we get the judge emoji. The fire to close out the game? Aroldis Chapman. That one is easy.

That leaves us with the big biceps and expressionless face, which is Matt Holliday. He hit the three-run homer. Have you seen Holliday’s arms? They’re the size of my thighs. Holliday could give Joe Girardi a run for his money in the big arms contest. Judge too, for that matter. Ditto Clint Frazier whenever he gets called up.

What about the face though? Is it because Holliday never smiles? Now that I think about it, I can’t remember ever seeing him smile. He’s always super serious. That’s okay. He’s the grizzled veteran who was brought in to show the kids how to win and all that. It’s a serious job. I just enjoy that Didi decided a boring face emoji is most appropriate for Holliday.

The Yankees are off to a great start this season and this team is, rather easily, the most likeable group of players the Yankees have had in a long time. The young players are a big part of that, and Didi himself is a young player. He’s only 27. This team is so very fun and easy to root for, and after each win, Gregorius marks the occasion with a tweet. It’s the best. Love this team, you guys.

Ranking the Yankees’ nine come-from-behind wins this season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The 2017 season is off to a marvelous start for the Yankees, a team many pegged as a .500-ish club that might contend for a wildcard spot if enough things went their way. Well, 30 games into the season, the Yankees have baseball’s best record (21-9) and run differential (+58). They just went into Wrigley Field and swept three games from the defending World Series champs. Who saw that coming?

One of the single biggest reasons the Yankees are off to a such great start is their Fighting Spirit. They have that never-say-die mentality. The Yankees have nine come from behind wins this season, and while that is not the most in baseball — the Astros have 14 such wins — it’s not about quantity. It’s about quality. The Yankees have made some incredibly dramatic comebacks already this season. It’s been so fun to watch.

So, with that in mind, why don’t we do back and rank these nine come-from-behind wins? Who doesn’t want to relive this stuff? I’m the man in charge here, so I’m going to rank the comebacks based on two criteria:

  1. Improbability: Coming back from down three in the ninth is much more impressive than coming back from down one in the sixth. Personnel matters too. Beating the other team’s ace closer is so much more satisfying than taking advantage of a weak middle relief crew.
  2. Emotional Pull: Some wins just feel bigger than others, you know? At the end of the day, one game in the standings is one game in the standings, but some feel like they have more impact than the others.

I could take the super easy and super boring way out and rank these based on win probability or something like that, but nah. A subjective ranking is better because, like I said, some wins just feel bigger than others. Time to rank those nine come-from-behind wins. Come with me, won’t you?

9. April 14th: Wacha Wacha Wacha

Final Score: Yankees 4, Cardinals 3 (RAB recap)
Lowest Win Probability: 33.0% in the first inning

Not the most memorable come-from-behind win you’ll see, but hey, a comeback is a comeback. The Cardinals jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in this game thanks to Matt Carpenter’s first inning two-run home run. He hit that homer and the Yankees pitched him like he was David Ortiz the rest of the series. The Yankees answered right back with Starlin Castro‘s two-run homer off Michael Wacha in the bottom of the first. Austin Romine gave them the lead with a solo homer the other way in the third, then Chase Headley doubled in a run fifth. Nice and easy.

8. April 16th: Bird’s big game

Final Score: Yankees 9, Cardinals 3 (RAB recap)
Lowest Win Probability: 40.2% in the second inning

This is best remembered as Greg Bird‘s first — and thus far only — huge game of the season. He went 3-for-3 with a double, a home run, and a walk. Aaron Judge was robbed of a home run and given a triple right before Bird’s homer, as I’m sure you remember. (Can’t wait for Judge to retire with 799 career homers, you guys.)

Anyway, this game qualifies as a comeback because Greg Garcia slapped a two-out single against Michael Pineda in the second inning, driving in the game’s first run and giving the Cardinals the 1-0 lead. The Yankees answered with three in the second, one in the fifth, and five in the eight. Pretty much the only noteworthy thing about this game was Bird’s performance. And the Judge non-homer triple, which I’m still bitter about.

7. April 12th: Judge goes headhunting

Final Score: Yankees 8, Rays 4 (RAB recap)
Lowest Win Probability: 19.0% in the fifth inning

This game was maybe the first real indication the 2017 Yankees are not a pushover. The Rays took a 3-0 lead into the fifth inning thanks largely to Rickie Weeks’ first inning two-run home run off Jordan Montgomery, and that’s when the Yankees started to chip away against Blake Snell. They loaded the bases with no outs in the fifth on a single, a walk, and an error, and they were poised to blow that huge opportunity before Aaron Hicks drew a two-out walk to force in a run. Pete Kozma and Jacoby Ellsbury had both popped up with the bases loaded earlier in the inning.

The Hicks walk got the Yankees on the board and cut Tampa’s lead to 3-1. A wild pitch with Matt Holliday at the plate got the second run in. One inning later, with the Rays still up 3-2, the Yankees went single single single against Jumbo Diaz to tie the game. Judge almost took Diaz’s head off with the game-tying single:

The Yankees scored three more runs in that sixth inning courtesy of a Weeks error — that was when Weeks and Brett Gardner collided at first — and an Ellsbury single, plus a Hicks ground out. Judge smacked a two-run home run in the seventh for good measure. The offense hadn’t done much of anything against Snell for the first four innings, then bam, they came alive for two runs in the fifth, four in the sixth, and two more in the seventh.

6. April 13th: Hicks, then Hicks again

Final Score: Yankees 3, Rays 2 (RAB recap)
Lowest Win Probability: 30.7% in the seventh inning

Unlike the previous three games on this list, the Yankees actually scored first in this one. Hicks hit a first inning solo home run against Matt Andriese for a quick 1-0 lead. The Rays were able to put two runs on the board against Luis Severino, however. Jesus Sucre, the light-hitting backup catcher, stroked a two-out single in the second to drive in the first Tampa run. Peter Bourjos hit a solo homer in the fifth to give the Rays a 2-1 lead. Peter Bourjos!

The score remained 2-1 Tampa into the seventh inning, and because we’d yet to be fully introduced to this team’s Fighting Spirit, it was easy to think the offense would go to sleep and not put up much of a fight the rest of the way. We saw that happen an awful lot from 2013-16. Instead, Hicks turned that 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead with a go-ahead two-run home run to left field.

One homer from the left side of the plate, one homer from the right side of the plate. This was just about the time we all started to think that maybe Aaron Hicks is good now. He drove in all three runs against the Rays that night, and the bullpen, led by Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, made that 3-2 lead stand up.

5. May 3rd: Luck Biagini tonight

Final Score: Yankees 8, Blue Jays 6 (RAB recap)
Lowest Win Probability: 18.3% in the third inning

This game did not start well for the Yankees. Not at all. CC Sabathia allowed four runs in the top of the first inning, and after the Yankees answered with three runs of their own in the bottom half, Sabathia allowed two more runs in the second. Womp womp. The Yankees were down 6-3 three half-innings into the game.

The comeback started in earnest in the third inning courtesy of Judge’s line drive two-run home run into Monument Park. Marcus Stroman is an extreme ground ball pitcher with a hellacious sinker, but you wouldn’t have known it based on that swing. Judge lifted it out to center like it wasn’t no thing. That got the Yankees to within 6-5, and the score remained 6-5 until the seventh inning.

New York’s three-run go-ahead rally in the seventh had to be the most annoying thing ever for Blue Jays fans. The rally started with one-out hits by Judge (single) and Headley (double) against Joe Biagini, who’d struck out the first five Yankees he’d faced that night. Chris Carter plated the tying run with a broke back bloop to left field, then pinch-hitter Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees the lead with an infield single. The call was reviewed and Didi was confirmed safe.

Once the ball got by Biagini, he had no chance for the out at home. He stopped and looked in that direction anyway, giving Gregorius enough time to beat it out. The Yankees took a 7-6 lead and still had runners at first and second with one out. They eventually scored an insurance run thanks to Joe Smith’s control issues. He walked Gardner to load the bases and then walked Hicks to force in a run.

The Judge single and Headley double were legit. After that though, the Yankees scored on a broken bat bloop, an infield single, and a bases loaded walk. Like I said, that had to be the most annoying game-losing rally ever for Blue Jays fans. Betances and Chapman protected that 8-6 lead after the Yankees scored three in the seventh to take the lead.

4. April 22nd: Carter has his signature moment

Final Score: Yankees 11, Pirates 5 (RAB recap)
Lowest Win Probability: 10.5% in the fifth inning

This was a wild game. A solo home run and a sac fly by Andrew McCutchen, plus a solo home run by David Freese had the Yankees down 3-0 after five innings. To make matters worse, Jameson Taillon opened the game with four hitless innings. The Yankees had pretty much no chance against the young right-hander.

The wheels finally came off the Taillon bus in the sixth. Ellsbury beat out an infield single and Hicks drew a walk — a lot of these rallies involve Hicks drawing walks, huh? — setting up Castro for the game-tying three-run home run.

Boom. Taillon went from flirting with a no-hitter and being in complete control to blowing the three-run lead in the span of eleven pitches. The Yankees did not stop there either. Judge doubled to center after Starlin’s homer, ending Taillon’s afternoon. Bird followed with a hit-by-pitch, Romine singled to load the bases, then the ultra-pesky Ronald Torreyes gave the Yankees a 5-3 lead with a two-run double. The Yankees put up a five spot in the span of 24 pitches.

One small problem though: the Yankees still had 12 puts to get. That 5-3 lead didn’t even last a half-inning. Jonathan Holder and Tyler Clippard conspired to allow two runs in the bottom of the seventh to knot things back up at 5-5. Jordy Mercer and Adam Frazier had the run-scoring singles. Blah. All the good vibes from that five-run top of the sixth were quickly erased in the bottom half.

The score remained 5-5 until the eighth inning, an eighth inning Felipe Rivera started with two quick outs. The inning didn’t look like it was going anywhere. Frazier then booted a ground ball, allowing Romine to reach first base. That got it all started. Torreyes punched a single to left to put a runner in scoring position, and with the lefty Rivero on the mound, Joe Girardi elected to pinch-hit Carter for the pitcher’s spot. Carter then deposited a first pitch changeup into the back bullpen at PNC Park.

Man, Carter has effortless power. He put nothing into that swing and the ball flew out of the park. As of right now, that is his Signature Yankee Moment™. It would be neat if he gave that home run some competition, you know? A few more big hits would be cool.

Anyway, the Yankees continued to pile on after Carter’s home run gave them an 8-5 lead. McCutchen misplayed a ball in center, turning Ellsbury’s fly ball into a three-base error. He scored on Antonio Bastardo’s wild pitch. Headley (double) drove in Hicks (ground rule double) for a 10-5 lead. Judge’s insane solo homer in the ninth made it 11-5.

That five-run eighth inning rally all happened with two outs. Six straight Yankees reached base after the first two hitters of the inning made outs, and Frazier booting Romine’s routine ground ball opened the door. That’s all it takes for this team. These Yankees have shown they will make you pay for a mistake, even one as seemingly harmless as a two-out bases empty error with the bottom of the order due up. This was a crazy back-and-forth game.

3. April 9th: Torreyes starts the winning streak

Final Score: Yankees 7, Orioles 3 (RAB recap)
Lowest Win Probability: 10.2% in the sixth inning

Later this season, when the Yankees are celebrating their 28th championship and we’re all still amazed they went 153-9 during the regular season, we’ll look back at this game as the turning point. They’d lost four of their first five games, and franchise catcher Gary Sanchez had to be placed on the disabled list earlier that day. The diagnosis: a strained brachialis muscle that would sideline him four weeks. Yuck.

The Yankees appeared to be headed for their fifth loss in six games because the Orioles built a 3-0 lead against Sabathia — a ground out and two singles accounted for the runs, not homers — and the offense had little interest in cashing in on the opportunities gifted to them by Wade Miley. Seven walks in five innings! And Miley didn’t allow a damn run. The Yankees let him completely off the hook. So annoying. So, so annoying.

It wasn’t until the sixth inning, when Miley was out of the game, that the comeback started. Judge and Romine strung together back-to-back two-out singles against reliever Tyler Wilson, then both scored on Torreyes’ triple into the right-center field gap.

That was the big hit the Yankees had been waiting for all game. All season up to that point, really. The two-run triple cut Baltimore’s lead to 3-2. Judge tied the game up with his first home run of the season leading off the eight inning — who knew how many would follow? — and the two clubs went into the ninth inning knotted 3-3. The Yankees were going to have to find a way to score to avoid the heartbreak of a walk-off loss.

Holliday got the ninth inning rally started with his fifth (!) walk of the day. Ellsbury pinch ran and stole second base, but ultimately that did not matter because Darren O’Day walked Carter anyway. The two walks gave the Yankees runners at first and second with no outs. Good time for a bunt, no? Sure. One run is huge in that situation. Castro had another idea. He never squared around to bunt, and instead found the hole with a ground ball single back up the middle, scoring Ellsbury.

That hit felt huge. Huge. We were all begging for a big hit. Had been all week. Castro finally provided it. The Yankees had a 4-3 lead, and with Chapman looming, it felt like plenty. Thankfully though, they did not stop there. Headley drew a walk after the single to load the bases — O’Day walked three of the first four men he faced that inning — then Judge got an insurance run home with a grounder. Romine drove in two more insurance runs by hitting into a sac fly/error combination. Pro move.

The Torreyes triple got it all started. The offense was showing little life up to that point, and Lil’ Toe was able to break the ice. Once he got the Yankees on the board, everyone was able to relax a bit. It helps that O’Day is no longer the pitcher he was a few years ago, of course. The Yankees were down 3-0 and staring a 1-5 start to the season in the face. Two runs in the sixth, one in the eighth, and four in the ninth gave them a 7-3 win in what proved to be the first game of the eight-game winning streak. The Torreyes triple that turned the season around.

2. May 5th: Gardner plants one over the ivy

Final Score: Yankees 3, Cubs 2 (RAB recap)
Lowest Win Probability: 3.5% in the ninth inning

This was a statement game. The Yankees had been playing very well in the weeks leading up to this game, but something about going on the road to play the defending World Series champs — and a legitimate World Series contender again this year — feels like a measuring stick. Want to prove you’re for real? Go in there and beat the best.

And for the first eight innings, the Yankees didn’t look like they could beat the best. Solo home runs by Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber gave the Cubs a 2-0 lead, and a whole bunch of baserunning mistakes allowed Kyle Hendricks to skate through 5.1 scoreless innings. The Yankees had plenty of chances to get to Hendricks early on and could not do it. It was one of those games.

Fortunately for the Yankees, Wade Davis was not available for the Cubs. He’d worked each of the three previous days and manager Joe Maddon decided to rest him. Understandable. That pushed Hector Rondon, the guy Chapman replaced as closer following the trade last year, into the closer’s role for the day. Rondon hasn’t been quite right since dealing with an elbow injury last summer.

The ninth inning rally was textbook. It was everything you could want in a comeback. Tough at-bats, hits against the shift, the whole nine. Headley started the rally with a one-out single the other way through the shift. Ellsbury came off the bench to work a two-out walk, which put the tying run on base. Rondon threw 25 pitches to the first four batters of the inning, including eight to Carter, who struck out. Yeah, Carter struck out, but he saw a ton of pitches.

Rondon was clearly starting to fatigue when Gardner stepped to the plate with two on and two outs. He took the first three pitches of the at-bat for a 1-2 count, then went into protect mode. He fouled off two two-strike fastballs and took another for a ball before Rondon changed the game plan. He tried to get Gardner to swing over top of a slider, which is a wonderful idea, but he hung the pitch juuust enough.

The golf shot three-run home run quickly turned that 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead. It was a stunning moment. It really was. Down two and down to your final strike? Comebacks like that aren’t supposed to happen, even with the tying run already on base. Gardner hoot and hollered his way around the bases and teamed up for the mother of all airborne forearm smashes with Ellsbury after crossing the plate. It was incredible. Just incredible.

Chapman made the 3-2 lead stand up in the ninth inning — he had to pitch around Headley’s error, remember, which turned Addison Russell’s routine grounder into a leadoff double — and the Yankees walked away with a series opening win at the Friendly Confines. They’d been shut down for eight innings before exploding in the ninth to capture victory from the jaws of defeat. Some wins feels bigger than others. This was one of them.

1. April 28th: Had the O’s right where they wanted ’em

Final Score: Yankees 14, Orioles 11 in ten innings (RAB recap)
Lowest Win Probability: 0.5% in the seventh inning

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Most years, a dramatic comeback like the Gardner homer against the Cubs would go down as the best win of the season, no questions asked. Drop the jaws of the defending World Series champs like that? Forget it. Hard to come up with a better win. For most teams, that is. Not the 2017 Yankees.

On a cold night at Yankee Stadium, fresh off the heels of a two-game sweep at Fenway Park, the Yankees put together one of the most improbable wins in franchise history. I don’t think that’s hyperbole, do you? Down eight runs in the sixth inning and you come back to win? That’s the kind of win you remember for years.

Every huge comeback is made possible by bad pitching, and Sabathia obliged in this game. He gave up a two-run double to Manny Machado in the third inning and a two-run home run to Welington Castillo in the fourth inning. Machado then tacked on a fifth inning homer to make it 5-0. Judge was able to get one back with a solo homer, though the O’s answered right back. Mark Trumbo crushed a grand slam off Bryan Mitchell in the sixth to stretch his team’s lead to 9-1.

Down 9-1 with four offensive innings to go? Turns out the Yankees had the O’s right where they wanted him. The chipping away started in the bottom of the sixth, as Gregorius brought Holliday home with a ground out. Holliday had doubled earlier in the inning and advanced to third on Castro’s single. Judge came through with a two-strike, two-out, two-run home run against Kevin Gausman, his second dinger of the game, to get the Yankees to within 9-4. They were in business.

Mitchell wasn’t having any of that though. A walk, a single, and a two-run single by Jonathan Schoop gave the Orioles some of those runs back in the seventh. That 9-4 deficit became an 11-4 deficit. At that point it felt like one of those “it’s just not meant to be” nights. You know what I mean. They happen to every team each season. Multiple times. Jonathan Holder escaped Mitchell’s bases loaded, one-out jam to give the Yankees a chance.

You can’t come back from down 9-1 and later 11-4 by stringing together singles and walks and sac bunts. I mean, you could, but it’s unlikely. You need some huge blows along the way, and Ellsbury provided one in the seventh inning with his first career grand slam. A single (Romine), a double (Headley), and a walk (Holliday) set that one up. Ellsbury parked a ball in the right field bleachers and got the Yankees to within 11-8. Down three with two innings to go? Doable!

Much like the comeback against the Cubs, the Yankees did not have to face the regular closer in this game. Zach Britton was on the disabled list at the time, forcing O’s skipper Buck Showalter to use Brad Brach in the ninth inning. Brach’s good! He was an All-Star last season. (Really!) But he’s not Britton. Headley and Holliday made that known by starting the inning with a walk and a single to get the tying run to the plate. Ellsbury grounded out to get a run in, then Castro clubbed the most aesthetically pleasing home run of the season to date.

Look at that. It’s beautiful. Brach hit his spot perfectly. He was trying to tie Castro up inside with a first pitch fastball. Starlin wasted no time. He got his hands in, dropped to one knee, whipped his bat around, and yanked the ball out to left field for the game-tying two-run home run. I could watch that homer over and over and over. It’s so pretty. It’s exactly how I’d want a ninth inning game-tying home run to look.

Anyway, the Castro home run only tied the game. The Yankees still needed another run to win. They wound up with that one run plus two others in the tenth inning. Jayson Aquino helped the Yankees out by walking Hicks — another Hicks walk! — and Kyle Higashioka to start the inning, meaning they got the tying run into scoring position without even taking their bats off their shoulders. No matter. Holliday was in scoring position standing in the batter’s box. He launched a walk-off three-run home run into the home bullpen to officially complete the comeback.

Down 9-1 with 12 outs to go and 11-4 with nine outs to go, yet they won. The Yankees scored ten unanswered runs after the top of the seventh inning. The offense did its part, but don’t forget the bullpen either. Holder, Clippard, and Chapman combined to retire all but one of the dozen batters they faced to hold the Orioles down.

This is the win that made it feel real. This is when it became clear that no, the 2017 Yankees are not the 2013-16 Yankees. There’s something different about this team, and whatever it is, I love it.

Early Returns on Some Former Yankees

(Jason Miller/Getty)
(Jason Miller/Getty)

One of the most frequently asked questions early in the season revolves around former Yankees. There is some measure of comfort to be had from seeing an ex-Yankee struggle in another team’s uniform, while there is an equally bothersome annoyance when those players perform well. We want to know that the Yankees made the right decision in either trading the player or letting him walk; or, at the very least, that they received back more than they sent away. The pratfalls of small sample sizes are well-known, but it is never too early to check-in on these players.

For today’s post, I’m going with any players that have been moved since the Yankees waved the white flag last season. If you would like to see any players added to this list going forward, let us know in the comments.

Johnny Barbato, Pirates – 3.2 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 1 K, 2.45 ERA, 4.11 FIP

The Yankees dealt Barbato to the Pirates two weeks ago, and received … basically nothing in return. This came on the heels of him being designated for assignment to make room for Jordan Montgomery, and there are still plenty of shuttle arms sitting at Triple-A, so it wasn’t surprising to see him moved.

Carlos Beltran, Astros – .250/.287/.354, 10 R, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 0 SB, 81 wRC+ (101 PA)

Beltran has spent most of his time at designated hitter this season, which is unquestionably his best position nowadays. He has made five starts in left, though, as a means to get Evan Gattis’ bat into the lineup at DH. The Astros will live with his defense in left, though, as that means that they have one of the the best hitting lineups in baseball for that particular game.

Ben Gamel, Mariners – .227/.346/.409, 4 R, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 0 SB, 120 wRC+ (27 PA)

An injury to Mitch Haniger opened the door for Gamel to play everyday, and he has made the most of it thus far. Haniger isn’t slated to return until the end of the month, so this is probably the best opportunity that Gamel has had to demonstrate his worth at the big league level to date.

Nick Goody, Indians – 9.0 IP, 2 H, 3 BB, 9 K, 0.00 ERA, 2.34 FIP

Terry Francona has utilized Goody as a right-handed specialist this year, and it has worked wonders thus far. He was particularly good on Sunday, when he entered the game with the bases loaded and nobody out, and escaped the inning without allowing a run by picking up a swinging strikeout and inducing a double play.

Brian McCann, Astros – .278/.369/.417, 10 R, 3 HR, 13 RBI, 0 SB, 122 wRC+ (84 PA)

The Astros are making a serious effort to keep McCann healthy and rested, as the 33-year-old catcher has already sat for six games (though, having Gattis’ bat on the bench helps that decision along), and started at DH once. He has rewarded them with a strong start to the season, which includes a dramatically sliced strikeout rate (from 20.1% last year to 12.5% this year) and an improved walk rate (up 2.8 percentage points).

Andrew Miller, Indians – 11.2 IP, 7 H, 4 BB, 16 K, 0.00 ERA, 1.55 FIP

Miller was dominant throughout his second-half with the Indians last season, including a magnificent 2016 postseason (1.40 ERA and 41.1 K% in 19.1 IP). He has continued his brilliance in 2017, as Francona continues to utilize him as a ‘bullpen ace’ instead of a traditional closer. It’s difficult to quibble with the return (Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield, and more), but I miss Miller more than anyone else on this list – and it isn’t particularly close.

Ivan Nova, Pirates – 36.0 IP, 26 H, 1 BB, 22 K, 1.50 ERA, 2.69 FIP

Nova has walked 4 batters in 100.2 IP with the Pirates. Over that time, 247 pitchers have thrown at least 30 IP, and only Roberto Osuna and Dan Otero have walked fewer batters at three apiece. Those two have combined to throw 67.2 IP in that stretch. Among pitchers with 80 IP or more, only Carlos Carrasco is within 10 walks of Nova (he has walked 13 batters in 86.1 IP).

Blake Parker, Angels – 12.1 IP, 9 H, 4 BB, 21 K, 2.19 ERA, 0.58 FIP

Parker is currently second among relievers in WAR, tied with Kenley Jansen and Chris Devenski. It’s only May 3, and it’s obviously unsustainable – but it’s intriguing nonetheless. Angels fans are already discussing how good Parker was before injuries set-in in 2014 (he had a 143 ERA+ and 10.7 K/9 in 46.1 IP in 2013), and he was better with the Yankees than his final numbers indicate, thanks to a 0.1 IP, 4 ER affair on September 23.

James Pazos, Mariners – 12.0 IP, 10 H, 6 BB, 14 K, 3.00 ERA, 2.42 FIP

The Yankees viewed Pazos as a lefty specialist, and understandably so as he’s strictly a fastball/slider guy. The Mariners have used him as a traditional middle reliever, though, and the results of been quite good so far. It is worth noting that righties are hitting .290 against Pazos, so a correction may be forthcoming.

Anthony Swarzak, White Sox – 13.1 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 15 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.98 FIP

Would it be wrong to give the Yankees some semblance of credit for Goody, Parker, Pazos, and Swarzak all pitching so well in 2017? After all, they were members of the team’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre shuttle last year; that may be a bit unfair, considering that they have been far better away from the pinstripes. Swarzak is also one of three former Yankees (Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson are the others) pitching quite well out of the White Sox bullpen this year.

Luis Torrens, Padres – .083/.154/.083, 0 R, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB, -28 wRC+ (13 PA)

The 21-year-old Torrens was selected by the Padres in the Rule 5 Draft, and the expectation was that he’d be returned to the Yankees by the end of Spring Training. After all, he had played exactly zero games above Single-A, and there was no indication that he would be ready to play at the highest-level. That didn’t happen, though, and Torrens is riding the Padres bench as the team’s third-string catcher. Whether this helps or hurts his development is an interesting question, as Torrens was (or is) a solid catching prospect.

Kirby Yates, Padres – 2.1 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 1 K, 7.71 ERA, 14.59 FIP

The Padres are Yates’ second organization of the young season, as he was waived by the Angels after just one appearance. In defense of the Angels, it was an awful appearance – he allowed a two-run home run to Kevin Pillar (which plated an inherited runner) and a solo shot to Justin Smoak, with two additional Blue Jays taking him to the warning track.

Report: Construction delays may force Yankees to play first home series at Citi Field

(Chris McGrath/Getty)
(Chris McGrath/Getty)

According to the Associated Press, renovation construction delays at Yankee Stadium could force the Yankees to play their first home series at Citi Field. The home opener is Monday, April 10th, and the Rays will be in town for a three-game set. The Mets will be on a road trip through Philadelphia and Miami that week.

The Yankees announced extensive renovations to Yankee Stadium over the winter designed to make the ballpark more fan friendly. They added a kids zone for parents, and, most notably, the center field area has been upgraded. The Yankees removed over 2,000 seats to build two new “Bullpen Landing” sections next to the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in center field. Here’s the artist’s rendering:

(Yankees)
(Yankees)

Those “Bullpen Landing” sections are the problem. Material delays have slowed down construction. Other teams have played games while their ballpark was being renovated — the Cubs played most of the 2015 season without bleachers at Wrigley Field, and they were short bathrooms on Opening Night — but because these renovations are in center field, they’re in the batter’s eye, and that’s a problem.

This wouldn’t be the first time the Yankees have had to play home games in Queens. They played all home games in 1974 and 1975 at Shea Stadium while the old Yankee Stadium was being renovated, and they also played one game at Shea Stadium in 1998. A concrete beam fell at Yankee Stadium and forced the ballpark to be closed for emergency repairs and safety inspections.

I should note it is not final the Yankees will play their first home series in Citi Field. Construction could still be done in time. Also, make sure you note the date: April 1st. There’s usually a lot of silly news dumped on this date each year, news designed to trick people and make them laugh, and maybe give them a little scare too. Posts for fools, if you will.

(Sorry, we’ve been out of the April Fool’s Day game for a while and decided it was time to get back in. So, just to be clear, this post is FAKE NEWS.)

The RAB crew’s official predictions for the 2017 MLB season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Tomorrow afternoon the Yankees and Rays will open the 2017 baseball season with the very first game of the year. They’ll be the only show in town for a few hours. That’s much better than 2014, when the Yankees and Astros were the last teams to play their first game of the season. This Spring Training was a blast, but I’m ready for the regular season. Bring it on.

Anyway, with the new season upon us, we figured it would be a good idea for everyone here at RAB to make some predictions. Sounds good? In an effort to save table space, I’m going to direct you to CBS for my predictions. You don’t have to read them, just click the link and leave the tab open for a few minutes. I made some Yankees specific bold-ish predictions earlier this week, so check those out too. Here’s how everyone else here at RAB sees the season playing out:

Ben Domenic Jay Joe
AL East Blue Jays Red Sox Yankees
AL Central Indians Indians Indians
AL West Astros Astros Rangers
AL WC1 Red Sox Mariners Red Sox
AL WC2 Yankees Yankees Tigers
NL East Nationals Nationals Nationals
NL Central Cubs Cubs Cubs
NL West Dodgers Dodgers Dodgers
NL WC1 Pirates Giants Mets
NL WC2 Giants Mets Cardinals
ALCS Indians Indians Yankees
NLCS Cubs Cubs Dodgers
WS Indians Cubs Yankees
AL MVP F. Lindor M. Machado A-ROD M. Trout
NL MVP K. Bryant B. Harper C. Seager
AL CYA M. Tanaka C. Archer M. Tanaka
NL CYA C. Kershaw C. Kershaw C. Kershaw
AL ROY A. Benintendi A. Benintendi A. Judge
NL ROY D. Swanson D. Swanson D. Swanson
Katie Matt Steven Sung-Min
AL East Red Sox Red Sox Red Sox Red Sox
AL Central Indians Indians Indians Indians
AL West Astros Astros Astros Rangers
AL WC1 Mariners Orioles Yankees Astros
AL WC2 Yankees Rangers Blue Jays Blue Jays
NL East Nationals Nationals Nationals Nationals
NL Central Cubs Cubs Cubs Cubs
NL West Dodgers Dodgers Dodgers Dodgers
NL WC1 Giants Mets Mets Cardinals
NL WC2 Cardinals Giants Cards/Rox tie Giants
ALCS Astros Red Sox Indians Indians
NLCS Dodgers Cubs Cubs Nationals
WS Dodgers Cubs Indians Nationals
AL MVP M. Machado M. Trout M. Trout M. Trout
NL MVP B. Harper B. Harper B. Harper B. Harper
AL CYA C. Archer M. Tanaka M. Tanaka M. Tanaka
NL CYA N. Syndergaard C. Kershaw N. Syndergaard N. Syndergaard
AL ROY A. Benintendi A. Benintendi A. Benintendi A. Benintendi
NL ROY H. Renfroe D. Swanson D. Swanson D. Swanson

Surely there’s nothing here you disagree with, correct? Great. Enjoy the weekend.

Hideki Irabu, Twenty Years Later

(Bill Kostroun/Associated Press)
(Bill Kostroun/Associated Press)

A bit over twenty years ago, the San Diego Padres purchased the contract of Hideki Irabu from the Chiba Lotte Marines. There was no bidding process, nor was any other team able to offer Irabu a contract – the Padres were the early bird to the worm, and they stood to reap the rewards. This is noteworthy in and of itself, as it played a tremendous role in the creation and implementation of the posting system that we all know and loathe (though, to be fair, the system that brought Masahiro Tanaka over was an improvement, even if subsequent tweaks will prevent us from seeing Shohei Otani for a couple more years). But I digress.

The demand for Irabu was understandable. In addition to throwing the hardest recorded fastball in the history of the NPB (98 or 99 MPH, depending on the account), he was probably the league’s best pitcher from 1994 through 1996. Some called him the Japanese Nolan Ryan, while Bobby Valentine – a former manager – compared him to Roger Clemens (the 6’4″, 240 pound frame helped), and several scouts believed he would be better than Hideo Nomo. That last bit may not mean much nowadays, but it came on the heels of Nomo’s first two MLB seasons, which included a Rookie of the Year award, two Top-4 Cy Young finishes, over 10 K/9, a 133 ERA+, and 9-plus WAR (per both B-R and FanGraphs).

Unfortunately for the Padres (or fortunately, depending on how you want to weigh hindsight), Irabu refused to pitch in San Diego. He was a lifelong Yankees fan, after all, and that was the only organization that he would play for. And George Steinbrenner was more than happy to oblige, and a deal was struck. The Yankees sent top prospect Ruben Rivera (rated 9th overall by Baseball America a couple of months prior), Rafael Medina (64th on the same list), and $3 MM to the Padres, in exchange for Irabu, Homer Bush, and Gordie Amerson. They subsequently signed him to a four-year, $12.8 MM deal, with a team option for a fifth.

Fans, players, and talking heads the world over had strong opinions about the manner in which Irabu forced his way to the Yankees. A Tokyo-based newspaper was headlined “ARE YOU BLINDED BY MONEY?” on the heels of the deal, which is seemingly a timeless question for athletes. And both Andy Pettitte and Kenny Rogers questioned the signing, with the former griping about their comparative wages (Pettitte made around $600,000 in 1997). There was excitement, to be sure, but the skepticism and anger was palpable.

Irabu made his stateside debut shortly thereafter, making six warm-up starts in the minors. He dominated the competition, allowing a 2.32 ERA in 31 IP, and posting a ridiculous 34 strikeouts against just 1 walk. His fastball sat in the 94-96 MPH range, and his forkball had vicious bite in the upper-80s, low-90s. More than satisfied with his stuff and performance, the Yankees called him up to face the Tigers at home on July 10, 1997.

(Chuck Solomon/SI)
(Chuck Solomon/SI)

I was there that evening, as a part of a sell-out crowd (as compared to the average weekday audience of around 28,000), and I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen the stadium more excited for the first pitch of a relatively inconsequential game. That level of excitement was steady throughout the evening, with cheers at every strike and veritable roars with every punch out. When Joe Torre pulled Irabu in the top of the 7th the crowd reacted as though he had thrown a perfect game, demanding a curtain call. All told, he finished that night with 6.2 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 4 BB, and 9 K. It was a fine debut, and it seemed as though a legend was being born.

The brakes were pumped in short order, though, as Irabu was awful over his next seven starts, earning a demotion to the minors and a return engagement in the bullpen. In the eleven appearances between his first and last starts of the season, batters hit .343/.395/.663 against Irabu, which led to an 8.42 ERA in 41.2 IP. The first uses of ‘I-Rob-U’ were born during this stretch, as fans turned on him rather quickly. Some faint glimmer hope was found in his final start of the season, against those same Tigers, when he went 5 IP, allowing just 2 hits, 1 run, and no walks, while striking out 6. The final line was ugly – a 7.09 ERA and -0.9 bWAR in 53.1 IP – but there were flashes of brilliance sprinkled in.

That glimmer of hope expanded tenfold in the first few months of the 1998 season. Irabu allowed 1 run or less in six of his first seven starts, and boasted a 1.13 ERA in 47.2 IP when Memorial Day rolled around. When the first half came to a close, he was sitting on the following line: 86.2 IP, 67 H, 40 BB, 65 K, 2.91 ERA. The strikeouts and walks weren’t terribly strong, but we were at the tail end of the dark days of baseball analytics, and that ERA was quite good in the run environment of 1998. The wheels fell off in the second half, to the tune of a 5.21 ERA in 86.1 IP, and Irabu didn’t factor into the 1998 playoffs.

Overall, 1998 wasn’t a terrible year for Irabu. Disappointing? Sure. But 173 IP of 109 ERA+ ball isn’t too shabby, and he actually bested Pettitte in H/9, K/9, ERA+, and bWAR. The sequencing of it all kept him off of the playoff roster (as it should have, as he was all but unpitchable down the stretch) – but there were still some signs that he could be a competent back of the rotation starter. And, given his contract, he’d get the chance to be just that.

Instead, Irabu was viewed as a dead man walking in 1999, his season tarnished by Steinbrenner referring to him as a “fat pussy toad”  after he failed to cover first in a Spring Training game. (Pussy as in full of pus.) He was sent to the bullpen to open the season, spending the entirety of April as a mop-up reliever, before rejoining the rotation in May. The writing was on the wall at that point, it seemed, and Irabu did little to help his cause. His strikeout and walk rates improved markedly over his 1998 season, and he looked quite good in June (3.33 ERA in 24.1 IP) and July (2.64 ERA and 4.1 K/BB in 44.1 IP) – but that represented the high point to an otherwise dreadful season, including two-plus awful months to close the season (6.63 ERA between August and October).

The Yankees officially gave up on Irabu thereafter, and he was dealt to the Expos for Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly, and Christian Parker in the 1999-2000 off-season. He spent three more years in the majors (two in Montreal, one in Texas), battling injuries, ineffectiveness, and demotions to the minors, throwing his last big league pitch on July 12, 2002 … he allowed a walk-off single to Jacque Jones in  a 4-3 loss to the Twins.

Irabu finished his career with 514 IP across 126 appearances (80 starts), posting a 5.15 ERA (4.97 FIP) along the way. His 18.1% strikeout rate and 7.8% walk rate were both better than average for their time, but his propensity for the long ball (1.59 HR/9 for his career) and gradually increasing hittability felled him. Luckily for the Yankees, their return for Irabu was much better than what they gave up back in 1997 – and he didn’t stop them from winning back-to-back World Series championships.

He returned to the NPB in 2003 at 34-years-old, pitching for the Hanshin Tigers of the Central League (in a rotation with Kei Igawa, because of course). He finished fourth in the Central League with 164 strikeouts, with a league-average-ish 3.85 ERA. He attempted a return engagement in 2004, but injuries essentially ended his career.

Irabu’s post playing days were discussed quite a bit when he committed suicide in 2011, and they don’t bear repeating here. Despite his struggles with the Yankees, I remember him somewhat fondly. He started one of the most exciting games that I’ve ever attended (I was eleven at the time), and his forkball stands out as one of the first filthy breaking balls in my memory. His career was a disappointment, and much of it was a circus – but the talent was there, and he was fun to watch when he was right.

If you’d like to take a few moments to see what could have been, I recommend these two videos. The first is from 1994, when he was still pitching in the NPB:

And the other is from his MLB debut: