Yankees recall Royce Ring, designate Chad Huffman for assignment

Joe Girardi finally has his second lefty reliever. Royce Ring was recalled from Triple-A Scranton today, with Chad Huffman getting the axe to make room on the 40-man roster.

Ring, 29, spent the year working out of SWB’s bullpen, where he held lefty batters to a .202 batting average against. He struck out 26 and walked just seven in 24 innings of work. Boone Logan is likely unavailable today after working in four of the last five days, so at least now they’ll have someone to match up with Carlos Pena, Matt Joyce, et al in the late innings. The move may also mean that Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner are doing well following their cortisone shots, since Huffman likely would have been insurance should either miss more time.

Hughes’ biggest start of the year

(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Phil Hughes‘ first full season as a big league starter has certainly had it’s share of ups-and-down. He came out of the gate and was arguably the best pitcher in the league through his first six starts thanks to a 1.38 ERA, 2.51 FIP, and .214 wOBA against. The next 11 starts didn’t go so well (5.51 ERA, 4.63 FIP, .355 wOBA against), but the six after that did (3.63 ERA, 4.18 FIP, .285 wOBA against). The overall body of work (4.26 ERA, 4.21 FIP, .311 wOBA against) is pretty good for a kid that started the season as a 23-year-old in the AL East, but tonight the Yankees need better than pretty good. They need Hughes to be at his absolute best.

The last two games have been quite possibly the most stressful, exciting, depressing, and emotional games we’ve seen not just this year, but over the last two or three years as well. Add in the fact that the Yanks had lost six of seven games coming into this series against the Rays, and well, everyone’s patience was starting to wear a little thin. The disappointment felt during Monday’s lost was wiped away by the pure joy of last night’s thrilling (and for a while, painful) victory. A win tonight not only keeps the Yanks out of second place in the division, but it also allows them to feel pretty good about themselves going into tomorrow’s off day and the weekend series in Baltimore. Considering how awful things have been going, that’s a pretty significant moral victory.

Hughes, of course, had his last start skipped in an effort to control his ever-increasing workload, though he did make a one inning relief appearance in Texas as sort of a tune-up. His 156.1 IP this year are 44.2 more than he threw last season, 56.2 more than 2008, 40.1 more than 2007, and 10.1 more than he threw in 2006, his previous career high. Not only are we talking about uncharted territory in terms of overall workload, but it’s been four seasons since Hughes was even close to this many innings, so it’s clear to see why the Yanks are being careful.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of being skipped is unpredictability, which is something young starters come with anyway. For all intents and purposes, the Yanks have had Hughes skip a start twice already this season, and both times he struggled immediately afterward. His June 24th start was easy to pass on because it conveniently fell on an off-day, and he then went 11 days between starts due to the All Star Break. Perhaps not coincidentally, Hughes struggled following each skip (six earned runs allowed each time), but it’s not like he was setting the world on fire at that point of the season anyway. Correlation does not equal causation, but we can’t completely ignore the possibility that the skips and the struggles are related.

Regardless of innings, starts being skipped, all that stuff, Phil Hughes has to be in top form this evening. The bullpen continues to be worn down after back-to-back extra inning affairs and a five game stretch in which the starters threw just 28.1 of 48.1 total innings. Kerry Wood is bound to unavailable after working in four of the last five days, and the same should be true for Boone Logan, the only lefty in Joe Girardi‘s bullpen. David Robertson warmed up four freaking times before finally getting in yesterday’s game, and even Mariano Rivera‘s recent workload has gotten up there. The last thing Hughes can rely on tonight is having a fresh bullpen to bail him out.

There’s a lot of pressure on the kid tonight to deliver not just bulk innings, but quality innings. Efficiency most certainly has not been his strong suit over his last 15-20 starts or so, but tonight would be a fantastic time for him to buck that trend. Hughes ascent to a top-of-the-rotation starter is something that will take years to happen, but that’s the kind of effort they need on this day. They need length and more than just a chance to win the game. It’s arguably the biggest start of Hughes’ young career, so let’s all hope he’s up to the task.

Yanks’ 2011 slate wraps in September

Even though the Yanks still have 17 regular season games left before the 2010 campaign heads to the postseason, Major League Baseball has unveiled the schedule for 2011. To avoid the spectre of November baseball, Opening Day is a Thursday in March, the season ends on Wednesday, September 28 and the playoffs could, in fact, begin before October does.

For the Yankees and for all of baseball, Opening Day 2011 will be Thursday, March 31. Coming two days after my birthday, that’s a great present. The Bombers will start the season at home against the Detroit Tigers. I’m already anticipating a CC Sabathia/Justin Verlander duel, but be prepared to dress warmly as average March 31 highs are only around 56 degrees.

If a Thursday opener seems odd, that’s because it is. According to Major League Baseball, this is only the 11th Thursday Opening Day in baseball history, and the most recent was was in 1976. This is the first non-Sunday or Monday start since 1998.

The early end date too is rare. The last season to wrap this early in September was 2003, and the last to finish on a day other than Sunday was 1990. MLB is promoting the early end date as a way to end the World Series before November, but the game could accomplish this goal by tightening up the playoff schedule and eliminating unnecessary off-days as well. With the season over on September 28, the Division Series should on September 30 and October 1.

While you can browse through the MLB master schedule via the link in the first paragraph, the Yanks’ own site has a sortable version of the team’s 2011 schedule available here. Despite cold April temperatures and the constant threat of rain in New York, the Yankees go heavy on the home games early on. Twenty of the team’s first 28 contests are in the Bronx, and 32 of the first 51 games are at home. On the flip side, 26 of the final 40 games and 12 of the last 17 are on the road.

April is heavy on AL Central opponents. After a three-game set against the Tigers (3/31-4/3), the Twins stop by for four, and the White Sox drop in for their own four-game set (4/25-4/28) as well. After the first seven games at home, the Yanks take a quick three-game road trip to open Boston’s home slate (4/8-4/10) before a home set against the Orioles and Rangers. All April games but the six against the Orioles are going to be against teams that finished above or near .500 this year.

May brings some divisional rivalries, including, oddly enough the only two games the Yanks play against the Rays until July (5/16-5/17 in Tampa Bay) and a three-game set against Boston (5/13-5/15) as well as Interleague Play. The Mets visit the Bronx for a three-game set starting May 20, and the month ends with one of the Yanks’ two West Coast trips. They play nine against the Mariners, A’s and Angels beginning May 27th. The two trips are a welcome change from 2010’s three swings out west.

In June, the Red Sox stop by for the second time (6/7-6/9), and the Indians make their only trip to the Bronx as well (6/10-6/13). For the Interleague sets, the Yanks travel to Wrigley Field (6/17-6/19) and Great American Ballpark (6/20-6/22) before hosting the Rockies (6/24-6/26) and Brewers (6/28-6/30). Interleague play wraps with an early July series in Queens (7/1-7/3).

The Tampa Bay Rays dominate the July schedule. Over a span of 12 games, the Yanks and Rays will face off eight times (7/7-7/10 in the Bronx, 7/18-7/21 in Tampa Bay). The Athletics and Mariners stop by for a late-month visit as well before the Yanks play two sets against various Sox (8/1-8/4 in Chicago, 8/5-8/6 in Boston). The Yanks take another trip to Fenway before August ends (8/30-9/1) as a part of the team’s grueling late-season road slate.

In September, 18 of the Yanks’ 24 games will be against AL East rivals. Sandwiched in between these sets is a West Coast swing to Anaheim (9/9-9/11) and Seattle (9/12-9/14). Five of the Yanks’ last eight games are against Tampa Bay with the Rays in town for two (9/20-9/21), and the Yanks’ closing their season in Tampa Bay (9/26-9/28). Once again, the Red Sox will be the final regular season opponent at Yankee Stadium, as Boston drops for a three-game set on the 23rd of September. And that’s all she wrote.

Thought to ponder: Ivan Nova in the bullpen

While writing Nova’s breakdown this morning I started to think that maybe he’d be best suited for a role in the bullpen for the playoffs. There is some evidence that he’d help out greatly, even if he’s nothing more than an insurance policy.

1) In his first two innings Nova is especially effective. His line in the first two innings this season: 10 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 8 K, 1 HR. That amounts to a .194/.275/.306 line. Maybe that’s not ideal for high leverage situations, but that brings us to the second point.

2) The Yankees have only four effective relievers before Rivera: Robertson, Wood, Chamberlain, and Logan. With the four starters that’s just nine men on the pitching staff. Vazquez will be there as the long man, so 10. At that point both Mitre and Gaudin are rendered redundant, so taking Nova, with the aim to use him in short bursts, makes sense as the 11th pitcher.

3) There is no real third point, but three is a good number so here are some more early-appearance numbers for Nova. On pitches 1 through 25 he holds opponents to a .231/.286/.333 line (though he’s actually better on pitches 26-50). When an opponent faces him for the first time in a game he hits .245/.298/.302. WIth men on opponents are hitting .238/.327/.429 off him, which is actually better than his bases empty line — though, again, he won’t be used in high leverage situations.

If the decision comes down to Gaudin or Nova, at this point I think Nova has to get the nod.

Nova’s third trip through the order

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

When a team sees a pitcher for the first time it can take a trip through the order before they catch onto him. That’s what we’ve seen from Ivan Nova in his short stint in the rotation. He has been mostly good his first time working through an order, but he runs into trouble as the game wears on. Maybe that’s fatigue, maybe it’s the opponent figuring him out. Either way it has meant early exits for Nova and a long day for the bullpen. Last night’s game was no exception.

Through the first four innings it looked as though Nova was getting better and better. He allowed two base runners in the first and needed 18 pitches, only half of which were strikes, to finish the inning. In the second he allowed one base runner and threw nine of 16 pitches for strikes. In the third he needed just nine pitches, six strikes, and in the fourth it was just seven pitches, five strikes. In neither inning did he allow a base runner. It wasn’t until the fifth that he started to break down.

It started with a Carlos Pena home run, which, as Mike said, is far from a fireable offense. Of Pena’s 27 home runs this year 19 have come against righties. Even B.J. Upton’s double seemed to come on a good pitch, a 93 mph fastball low and inside. Since it was followed by a swinging strikeout on a good, low and in curve to Reid Brignac, it seemed like Nova might settle down. But that meant the lineup was turning over and he’d have to face the Rays’ best hitters for a third time.

In the first Nova used the fastball away before coming inside with a changeup to record a pop-out to second. The change did catch a bit of the plate, but Jaso missed it. The second time he continued to work mostly away, though he did throw a number of pitches high in the zone, including the pitch that Jaso lined to Curtis Granderson. It was no surprise, then, that he had a feel for Nova the third time. Again Nova worked away, starting with two changeups that missed. Ahead 2-0 Jaso took a fastball high and away for a called strike before smacking a liner to center on an outside fastball. I can’t read Jaso’s mind, but based on his previous ABs he probably had an idea of what was coming next. On 2-1 he could afford to guess.

Nova then retired Ben Zobrist before walking Carl Crawford, who had one of the three Rays hits to that point. It did look like Nova was working around Crawford, as even the strike on 3-0 was a generous call. That brought up Evan Longoria, whom Nova had walked on four pitches in the first. In the fourth Longoria jumped on a first pitch fastball and lined it to Granderson. This sounds somewhat like what happened to Jaso. The third AB started a bit different, as Nova went away with the curveball after having gone inside with the fastball in the first two PA. Longoria took it for a strike. Nova then went back to the fastball, a 95 mph pitch on the outer third. But like Jaso before him Longoria took the outside pitch up the middle for an RBI single.

Matt Joyce was Nova’s final batter of the night. In the first he worked him outside before coming high and inside with a 1-2 fastball that induced an inning-ending infield pop-up. Again in the fourth Nova kept his pitches outside until he got two strikes. At 1-2 he again came high and tight with the fastball, but this time Joyce took. He would not be so disciplined on the next pitch, a curve breaking down and in. Joyce swung over the pitch in the dirt and was thrown out at first. In the fifth Nova fell behind 0-1. He went to the curveball, but it crossed high and in the middle of the plate. Joyce, perhaps looking for an outside pitch given the patterns in his previous ABs, took it the other way for a single. Nova kinda got burned there, because if Brett Gardner were in left he might have caught that. But was Kearns, and the ball dropped right in front of him. That put the Rays within two and ended Nova’s night.

Given the hitters that did finally catch up to Nova, it looks as though he fell into patterns. A team with quality hitters won’t fall for that too often. By the third time through the order both Jaso and Longoria appeared to have an idea that they’d get outside fastballs. When Nova threw one they were ready. With Joyce it was more of the same. You can only pitch a guy outside for so long. Good hitters will figure it out. Thankfully, this seems to be more of a maturity thing for Nova than a question of his stuff. His fastball clearly has life and he has generated quality results from his secondary pitches. At this point it’s about keeping hitters off balance. If he can do that he can fill a spot in the back of a rotation. If not, he still might find success in the bullpen, where he won’t have to face hitters more than once.

Yankees take back first place with dramatic win

It’s tough to call any game a must win at this point of the season given the Yankees’ comfortable lead on a postseason berth, but Tuesday’s game was about as close to a must win as it comes. Losers of four in a row and seven of eight, the Yanks needed something to feel good about. A long, rollercoaster ride of a game later, we’re looking at what might be the biggest win of the season for the Bombers.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Biggest Hit: Jorge Goes Boom

We’ve seen a lot of monster homeruns this year (I’m talking distance), but very rarely do they mean anything. Usually it’s a tack-on run or a meaningless homer in June or something, but Jorge Posada‘s tenth inning blast in this one was big in every way. Big on the scoreboard, big on distance, big in the standings.

The two teams played to a seven-all tie through the first nine frames, and given the Yanks’ recent play, it’s completely understandable if you were sitting watching the game wondering how they’d lose this one. Even the most hardened of fans had to have their doubts given the past week, so each scoreless inning by the bullpen just seemed like a delay of the inevitable. Jorge Posada changed all of that with one swing of the bat, a swing that sent a 2-0 Dan Wheeler fastball into orbit. When it did finally return to Earth, it landed on top of the restaurant in centerfield, 445 feet from home plate according to ESPN, and gave the Yankees an 8-7 in extra innings.

Big distance, big run, big WPA swing. Try 0.328. Massive for a non-walk-off hit.

Honorable Mention: Cano Ties It Up

As great as the ending of this game was, the middle was throw the remote worthy. The Yanks pushed six runs across in the first five innings, the most comfortable lead they had in more than a week. Of course, Tampa took it all back and then some, scoring seven runs in a fifth inning that was capped off by a Willy Aybar three-run homerun off Boone Logan.

Obviously deflated (it’s hard not to be after that), that old Yankee resolve reared it’s glorious head and the Yanks managed to tie things back up in the very next half inning. Granderson led off the frame with a walk against rookie Jake McGee, and Mark Teixeira pushed him into scoring position with a single to the opposite field. Two batters later, Robbie Cano knotted things back up with an run-scoring double into the rightfield corner, his 98th RBI of the season and a new career high. That’s all well and good, but the score was back even, and that’s all that mattered.

Biggest Out: Nobody Runs On Greg Golson … Nobody!

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

The 2009 Yankees were the kings of the walk-off, but one thing they never did was win a game on a walk-off throw. That’s exactly what happened in this game, when Greg Golson gunned down Carl Crawford – a nice, slow runner, you know? – trying to advance to third on a fly ball to rightfield. It was an absolutely perfect throw, right on bag, handled beautifully on the short-hop by Alex Rodriguez before he applied the tag. It really gets no better than that. Crawford makes it in safe 99 times out of 100 on that play, but luckily for the Yanks, this was that one.

The most amazing part about it is that Golson didn’t even think Crawford was going, as he admitted after the game. It wasn’t until he heard Curtis Granderson yelling from centerfield that he prepped and threw flatfooted. “Who ever would have thought Greg Golson would make a huge play in the middle of a great pennant race?” said A-Rod after the game, meaning no disrespect to the kid. Hell, I’m sure Golson himself would tell you that. What a throw.

Curtis Muthaf*%&in’ Granderson

The Grandy Man has been the target of much criticism this year, and justifiably so. You don’t come to New York and hit .248/.322/.444 one year after being an All Star and expect to get a free pass, but Granderson showed everyone what he’s capable of doing in this one. He launched a monster opposite field double in the first inning, then yanked one into right-center two innings later for his second two-bagger. A few innings after that he drew a walk that started the game-tying rally. And none of that represents his best play of the game.

As the game entered the late innings, one swing is all that it would take for the Rays to win, as we learned so painfully on Monday. Ben Zobrist, .368/.538/.895 over the last week or so, connected with a David Robertson offering with two outs in the ninth, and although it didn’t have the distance to leave the yard, it was a no-doubt extra base hit off the bat. With a favorable bounce, we might be talking about an inside-the-parker, which would have cut the population of Yankee Universe in half after everyone got done jumping off the bridge.

Granderson was having none of that nonsense. He got right on his horse, broke right away for right-center, dove and made the full-extension catch in the gap. It was arguably the greatest single defensive play of the Yankees’ season, and that’s not hyperbole. Here’s the video if you don’t believe me. It was a glimpse of Grandy’s game-changing talent, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Not So Super Nova

There’s been a bit of a pattern in each of Ivan Nova‘s first five big league starts; he starts out strong, then struggles the second and third times through the order. This game was no different, as he cruised right through four innings of work before completely imploding in the fifth.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Staked to a six-run lead, he gave up a solo homer to Carlos Pena to lead off the frame, hardly a fireable offense. B.J. Upton followed that with an opposite field double, not the end of the world, especially when Reid Brignac strikes out as the next batter, but there seemed to be no escape after that. Three singles, a walk, and a grounder later Nova was out of the game, handing a two-run lead over toLogan with two men on. All the Yanks needed was one out, but they couldn’t get it until after Aybar put Tampa ahead with a three-run blast to left.

It’s pretty obvious that Joe Girardi left Nova in so long because he was trying to get him to complete five innings and thus put him in line for the win, but the move backfired in a big way. The Yanks got away with it in the end, but man, that was an absolute disaster inning. Every bit as bad as Granderson’s catch was good.

Leftovers

Two more hits and a walk for Derek Jeter, who has now reached base seven times in three games since getting a day off in Texas. It all starts with the Cap’n, as he goes, so does the lineup.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

While his game-tying double was his biggest, Cano also launched a two-run homer early in the game to extend the Yankees lead. He reached base four times and drove in three. A-Rod also went deep, turning around a 94 mph Matt Garza fastball in the fifth for a solo shot. He won’t get the seven needs to reach 30 for the 13th straight season, but as long as he’s peaking at the right time, I couldn’t care less how many homers he hits.

It all turned out fine in the end, but how in the world was Colin Curtis allowed to bat for himself with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth? That’s where Posada has to be deployed, not with no one on to leadoff an inning. Anyway, no harm no foul, I begrudgingly guess.

Four strikeouts in five plate appearances for Austin Kearns, who continues to look absolutely horrible at the plate. With Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner banged up, the Yanks are going to need him, so he better snap out of it soon. The other deadline pickup, Lance Berkman, singled and walked, continuing his recent stretch of awesomeness.

After Logan served up the homer to Aybar, the bullpen threw five scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and a walk while striking out seven. Can’t say enough about the job those guys did, and they sorely need Thursday’s off day to rest and recoup.

The win moves the Yankees back in first place in the AL East, albeit by just half-a-game. The magic number to clinch a playoff berth is down to just 11.

WPA Graph & Box Score

Now that’s a fun one, isn’t it? Of course the middle innings took years off my life, but so be it. MLB.com has the box score and video, FanGraphs everything else.

Up Next

The rubber game on Wednesday will pit Phil Hughes against changeup guru Jamie Shields. No question about it, the Yanks need a big-time outing from their young starter.

Notes following the rollercoaster

Tonight’s game was monster back-and-forth affair, but I don’t think anyone expect it to end like it did. “A perfect throw,” said Joe Girardi of Greg Golson‘s rocket from right after the game. He did, however, seem more impressed with Alex Rodriguez‘s scoop of the short-hop at third to apply the tag. It was a perfect play all around, and it had to be to get a guy as fast as Carl Crawford. It’s definitely not the way you draw up the final out of the game, for sure.

Here’s some more highlights from Girardi’s postgame press conference…

  • Girardi attributed Ivan Nova‘s rough fifth inning to worrying too much about the baserunners and missing spots. He knew Tampa would pinch hit for Matt Joyce if he went to Boone Logan, and he liked the the Nova-Joyce matchup the best.
  • One of the biggest moments of the game for him was the Yankees’ half of the sixth and the way they bounced right back to tie the game after Tampa’s comeback. Curtis Granderson led things off with a walk, Mark Teixeira singled him over, then Robbie Cano capped things off with a run-scoring double.
  • After preaching before the game about not wanting to wear down his relievers and giving them rest after throwing three times in four days, stuff like that, he used both Kerry Wood and Boone Logan for the fourth time in five games tonight. When asked about that, Girardi said exactly what you’d expect. Wood’s a veteran and experienced, Logan’s a lefty specialist and hasn’t faced a ton of batters in that time.
  • He said he’d check with both guys tomorrow about their availability. I’ll guess no on Wood, but Logan for a batter in an emergency spot.
  • This will probably be a surprise, but Girardi called it one of the biggest wins of the season. Stunned I tell you.

As for Andy Pettitte, who threw five innings for Double-A Trenton tonight, they’re going to evaluate him over the next few days and see how he feels. Girardi wouldn’t commit to saying he’ll start Sunday, but it’ll be a massive upset if he doesn’t.