Think back to April, if that doesn’t cause too much psychological pain. Entering the season, many had questions about the team’s bench and bullpen, and April didn’t do much to eradicate those fears. In fact, with the bullpen pitching to a 6.46 ERA in that first month, they only exacerbated concerns. The bench, once looking deep, was depleted after injuries to Alex Rodriguez and Xavier Nady. While the bench and bullpen isn’t nearly as important as the starting lineup and the starting rotation, good teams usually have a few useful players in both areas. The Yanks, it seemed, did not.
In baseball, a team changes over the course of a season. A team is not the same in April as it is in August. It’s easy to forget that in April if the team is losing. The bullpen was just bad then, and it was tough to see a road to recovery. Ditto the bench. With the Nady injury further sapping the team’s depth, there weren’t many options. It looked like the team might be good, but would lose a few games because of these glaring weaknesses.
We’ve often said that a bullpen’s strength is its malleability. Again, ditto the bench. It’s difficult to find quality bench players and relief pitchers, because if they were good they’d be starting. Even veteran relievers are no guarantee. How many times does a team sign a veteran reliever in the off-season and then immediately see his production dip? Just look at the Royals, who signed Juan Cruz. He’s now looking like Jose Veras, only Cruz is under contract for this year and next for multi-million dollars. Veras was expendable at the league minimum.
Over the course of May the Yankees showed their flexibility and depth by shedding the ineffective parts of the bullpen. They optioned Edwar Ramirez and Jon Albaladejo and DFA’d Jose Veras. Brian Bruney’s injury hurt the bullpen depth a bit, but the Yanks were able to move Al Aceves and Phil Hughes up, much to everyone’s delight. Even David Robertson and Mark Melancon got chances, but as they faltered the Yankees again showed their flexibility by demoting them when needed.
All of a sudden, the bullpen was a strength and it could grow even stronger between now and the playoffs. Brian Bruney has looked better in his last few appearances. If he can get close to his April production, that’s a massive boost. Damaso Marte hasn’t allowed a run in his last five AAA appearances and could join the team soon, possibly for the West Coast swing. Add Chad Gaudin‘s dominance of righties, and you have a pretty damn strong bullpen. One of the strongest in the league, in fact.
In early February, before we knew of A-Rod‘s hip injury, the bench looked as deep as any. Among the backups were one of Nick Swisher and Xavier Nady, one of Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera, Jose Molina, and Cody Ransom. That’s a pretty formidable bench. However, the A-Rod and Nady injuries moved Swisher and Ransom to the starting lineup, meaning even lesser players would take their places on the bench. And then there was the period where both catchers were hurt, forcing the Yanks to carry Francisco Cervelli and Kevin Cash. All of a sudde, the depth had dried up.
Fast-forward a few months, and the Yankees once again have a solid bench. They’re replaced Ransom with Jerry Hairston Jr., who plays more positions, is better on defense, and is a better hitter. Getting decent production out of both Melky and Gardner has soften the blow of losing Nady. Jose Molina is back and providing his excellent defense at catcher. True, Ramiro Pena languishes now, but once Brett Gardner gets back the Yanks will have 25 usable players on the roster. How many teams can say that?
The reason that both the bullpen and bench are currently strengths is not that the Yankees acquired quality veterans over the off-season. It’s because they left themselves a lot of flexibility in their roster construction. All of the reserve players either had options or were easily releasable. When they proved they weren’t cutting it, the Yanks made the necessary moves. They were backed into corners in a few instances, but once players came back from injury they were able to compensate. It looks like things are back to where they’d hoped at the start of the season: strong bench, strong bullpen. Crazy thing is, they could get even better in the next few weeks.
The Yankees had just tied the game when Johnny Damon sent a ball into the Yankees bullpen, and the new Stadium was pumped. While Victor Martinez had given the Red Sox the lead with a two-run jack in the prior half inning, the Bombers, behind Damon, quickly rebounded, and first year pinstriper Mark Teixeira stepped to the plate against the untouchable Dan Bard. The first pitch was a breaking ball that dropped in for strike one, but Tex wouldn’t let Bard get away with that again. He threw the same exact pitch and Tex hit a towering blast that landed deep into the right field stands. Order had been restored, and Mark Teixeira once again reminded all of us how lucky we are to have him on the Yankees.
Remember, Tex’s Yankee career didn’t start out so well. On the morning of May 13th he was hitting just .191-.328-.418, a far cry from the .308-.410-.552 he hit last season. Since then though, Tex has been a man on a mission. His .320-.403-.614 batting line is a better reflection of his talents, while his 29 homers lead the American League. He’s also second in the league with 83 RBI and tied with Adam Lind for the lead with 59 XBH. Teixeira has become a legitimate MVP candidate thanks to his gaudy stats and plethora of big hits.
Even though he started the year struggling at the plate, the one thing that never slumped was Tex’s defense. He’s been an All-World defender at first, whether he is ranging to his right to snare balls eying the outfield, leaping to grab balls hit over a mere mortals head, or scooping up throws from his fellow infielders. After watching Jason Giambi trip over his own feet for the last seven years, it’s been quite refreshing to watch an adept defender.
I was of the belief that the Yankees weren’t going to be able to sign Teixeira in the off-season. After dropping more than $250M in commitments to CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, I figured there wasn’t enough left in the piggy bank for Tex and that the season would start with Nick Swisher as the everyday first baseman. But the Steinbrenners found that extra $180M between the couch cushions and brought Tex home to the Bronx. And I couldn’t be any happier.
Just under a month ago, Andy Pettitte looked finished. Heading into the All Star Break, he had just suffered through his second straight start of six earned runs, and against the Angels on July 11, he couldn’t make it out of the 5th inning.
At the time, the Yankees, I wrote, had an Andy Pettitte problem. Pettitte hadn’t been giving the Yankees much of anything — innings, quality starts or hope. And so in grand River Ave. Blues fashion, as soon as we wrote off Andy Pettitte, the Yanks’ veteran lefty turned his season around.
Since the start of the second half, Andy Pettitte is only 1-1, but since when do won-loss records tell the whole story? The Yanks are 3-2 in games Pettitte has started, and his numbers are quite impressive. In five starts, he has thrown 33.2 innings or just under 6.2 innings per start. He has allowed just 25 hits and nine walks while pitching to a 1.87 ERA. He has 33 strike outs in those 33.2 innings, and opponents are hitting just .210/.264/.269 against him. He hasn’t allowed a home run since Nick Markakis blasted one with one out in the first inning on July 20, a span of 33.1 innings.
So then, is Andy Pettitte back? It’s tough to say. Those 33.2 innings are sure looking impressive, but we can’t draw any conclusions from just five starts. He’s on a great run, and we can only hope it continues.
As Pettitte got outs though, as he matched Jon Lester zero for zero yesterday, his importance to the Yanks’ October success grew and grew. Right now, the Yanks have a 6.5 game lead with 51 games left. Their magic number is 46. They have the biggest lead in baseball right now, and if the lead expands over the next few weeks, they can begin to look at lining things up for the post-season.
Inevitably, gearing up for October will involve answering a few tough questions surrounding Joba Chamberlain. The Yanks’ youngster is at 115.2 innings and will soon be facing his innings limit. We don’t know what it is, but it can’t be much more than 160. With the Yanks enjoying a 6.5-game lead and with Pettitte healthy, effective and pitching lights out baseball, the team can afford to give Joba some extra time off.
The Yanks have eight weeks of regular season baseball left, and right now, it’s all clicking. As Pettitte goes, so will the rest of the rotation. While it’s early yet to look toward October, with Joba on an innings limit, October has to play into the equation right now. I’ll gladly embrace that Andy Pettitte renaissance as the home stretch approaches.
Record Last Week: 6-0 (38 RS, 15 RA)
Season Record: 69-42 (619 RS, 525 RA), 6.5 games up
Opponents This Week: vs Toronto (3 games), @ Seattle (4 games)
Top stories from last week:
- After getting their butts beat in the first three games against the White Sox before rebounding on Sunday, the Yanks came out of Monday’s off day starting a matchup with Roy Halladay in the face. Andy Pettitte held the fort down before some late inning homers sealed the win, then the lineup picked up the disappointing Sergio Mitre for a quick series sweep.
- Heading into the four game set with a 2.5 game lead, all the Yanks had to do was beat the Red Sox once to remain in first place at the end of the weekend. Yankee pitchers walked way too many on Thursday, but the offense picked them up and team walked away with their first win against the Beantowners this year. The game also set a New Stadium attendance record. The pitching staff straightened themselves out the next day, but we waited 15-innings before Alex Rodriguez ended the game with a walk-off two run homer. It was fitting considering all the talk about his homerless drought. With a series split already in the bag, CC Sabathia got greedy and shut down the Sawx for another shutout win on Saturday. But the best was saved for last, when Johnny Damon & Mark Teixeira went back-to-back in the 8th to crush the hearts of everyone in teh nation.
- The Yankees did make a few minors moves during the week. Chad Gaudin was acquired from the Padres for a PTBNL, while Robbie Cano and three bullpen pieces cleared waivers. Ramiro Pena was called up to replace the DFA’d Cody Ransom, while Josh Towers was recalled for bullpen insurance on Saturday and then DFA’d the next day. Ian Kennedy’s rehab continues to … uh … continue. Oh, and first rounder Slade Heathcott wants $2M with the signing deadline a week away.
- And finally, the Old Stadium continues to come down. Sad.
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Four weeks ago, Yankee fans weren’t feeling too good about themselves. Despite heading into the All Star Break with a 2.5-game lead in Wild Card race, the Yanks had just suffered a humiliating three-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to find a first-place tie melt into a three-game deficit. They were 0-8 against the Sox and seemingly couldn’t handle the playoff-caliber teams.
What a difference a month makes.
After a 5-2 comeback win over the Red Sox tonight — a victory that capped a four-game weekend sweep of the Sox — the Yankees find themselves atop the world of baseball. They are 69-42 and 18-5 since the All Star Break. They lead the Red Sox by a whopping 6.5 games and lead Joe Torre’s Dodgers by two games for the best record in baseball. That 0-8 start against Boston seems as though it came in a different season.
Tonight, the Yanks relied on that tried-and-true formula of pitching and home runs. Andy Pettitte didn’t have his best stuff early on. He scuffled through the first four innings, needing 81 pitches to record the first 12 outs of the game. The Red Sox, though, scoreless since the 9th inning of Thursday’s game, could not break through. They left two on in the second and the bases loaded in the fourth.
Pettitte turned it on after a hard-hit line out by Jason Varitek with the bases juiced in the fourth. Over the next three innings, Pettitte needed just 31 pitches to record nine outs. On the other side of the ball, Jon Lester was matching Pettitte zero for zero. Lester stifled the Yanks for seven innings, giving up just a run on five hits and no walks while striking out seven.
The one run though was a big one. Leading off the seventh, Friday night’s hero lofted another home run deep into the night at Yankee Stadium. With one swing, Alex Rodriguez gave the Yanks a 1-0 lead, and with the way the Sox had been going, it seemed as though it would be enough.
Yet, the plan needed a bit of an adjustment. Phil Hughes had thrown on back-to-back days and in four of the last five games. With Al Aceves out with a sore back, the job fell to Phil Coke. Victor Martinez, 1 for the series until the 8th inning tonight, lofted a deep fly ball to left field, and the Red Sox were up 2-1, their first lead since early on Thursday when I was still sitting in Ben Gurion Airport half a world away.
Out went the Yankees’ slim edge, in came the pitcher Bill Simmons had just anointed as the Red Sox’s closer of the future. Hideki Matsui went down; Derek Jeter went down. As Johnny Damon walked to the plate, the Yanks’ win expectancy dipped to 20.2. Down but not out, the Comeback Kids weren’t done yet.
Damon blasted the Daniel Bard offering into the Yanks’ bullpen, and Mark Teixeira hit a towering drive into the second deck in right field. It was the sixth time this year these Yanks had gone back-to-back, and the 3-2 lead was there to stay. The stadium erupted as the Red Sox’s faces fell. Three batters later, a Nick Swisher single gave the Bombers a 5-2 lead, and it would be more than enough as Mariano Rivera nailed down the ninth for his 32nd save.
No team in baseball has a lead as big as the Yanks’ 6.5 game margin. No team in baseball has a record as good as the Yanks’ 69-42 record. Game. Set. Match. Sweep.
Ivan Nova hit the disabled list, but it appears to be nothing more than a paper move and he’s expected to make his next scheduled start on Thursday.
Triple-A Scranton (6-1 win over Lehigh Valley)
Kevin Russo: 3 for 4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 BB, 1 CS
Reegie Corona: 0 for 5, 1 R, 2 K
Austin Jackson: 2 for 5, 1 R, 2 RBI, 2 K – 5 for his last 10
The Duncans & John Rodriguez: all 1 for 4 – Shelley drew a walk & drove in a run … J-Rod doubled, drew a walk & drove in a run … Eric hit a solo jack
Juan Miranda: 3 for 5, 1 2B, 1 K
Colin Curtis: 0 for 5 – threw a runner out at the plate from CF
Bryan Peterson: 1 for 1, 2 R, 1 2B, 3 BB – stop gap catcher until Frankie Cervelli‘s healthy
Jason Hirsh: 6 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 5-10 GB/FB – 51 of 76 pitches were strikes (67.1%)
Damaso Marte: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1-2 GB/FB – 12 of 21 pitches were strikes (57.1%)
Mark Melancon: 1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1 HB, 2-1 GB/FB – 11 of 18 pitches were strikes (61.1%)
Jon Albaladejo: 1 IP, zeroes, 2-1 GB/FB – 12 of 15 pitches were strikes (80%)
Like I said, can’t complain about three out of four.
And what’s up with a spillover thread lasting only a half-inning? Dayum.
Oh well, can’t complain about three out of four.
Does Pettitte’s outing qualify as “gritty” or lucky?”
I have a headache. Morgan & Phillips induced, of course.