The Race for October: Rounding 3rd and headin’ for home

As the Bombers’ bats fell largely silent last night and the Angels could not mount a late-game comeback against the Rays, Yankee fans in the east will wake up to a tie atop the AL East standings. Both the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays have 37 games left to play and both teams are a Major League-best 77-48. Meanwhile, the never-say-die Red Sox are hanging on the fringes of the playoff picture, six losses back of the beasts of the easts but not quite ready to pack it in.

Three weeks ago, the playoff picture looked remarkably similar to the way it does today. Just as they did last night, a Yankee loss dropped them into a first-place tie with the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Red Sox were 6.5 games out of the East — seven on the loss side. The Red Sox needed a surge then to close the gap, but they shaved just one game off of their playoff deficit as three weeks melted away from the season.

For 20 games, then, the best league in baseball has seen its top three teams spin their wheels. No team has taken advantage of the others’ struggles, and no team has emerged the true victor. The final 37 games then will be telling, and as I did then, let’s see what the future awaits.

Of the three AL East teams still battling it out, the Yankees have the toughest schedule. (Ed. Note: All numbers are taken from this spreadsheet.) As of today, the seven teams that await the Bombers on their schedule have a combined winning percentage of .524. Only the Orioles and A’s — currently at 61-62 — are under .500 on the season. The Yanks must play the pesky Blue Jays eight more times, the Red Sox and Rays a combined 13 times and the White Sox and Rangers six times. It might be a challenge, but it’s one to which the Yanks have risen before.

So far on the season, the team has a lofty .627 winning percentage against these clubs. That number is of course powered by the 10-2 record the Yanks hold against the Orioles, but beating up on the bad teams it the way to get to October. The Yanks have lost just one each to Oakland and Texas in five and four contests respectively. They handled the White Sox in May and have a 7-5 mark against the Red Sox. All the Yankees have to do is keep doing what they’ve done, and they’ll get there.

The biggest obstacle in the way of the Yanks’ path to a symbolic AL East crown is Tampa Bay. The Rays’ final 37 games are against some weak competition indeed, and Tampa Bay has dominated these teams. The Rays’ seven opponents have a combined winning percentage of .482, and that includes the Yanks and Red Sox. Only 19 of the Rays’ last games are against opponents with winning records, and Tampa Bay enjoys 13 games against the likes of the Royals, Orioles and Mariners.

The Yanks’ saving grace though is the fact that Tampa Bay is 38-22 against these opponents. That’s a solid mark indeed, but the Yankees are 37-22 against their remaining opponents. If both teams play as they have so far, the AL East could come down to a dead heat. The tiebreaker will be the two teams’ head-to-head record, and right now, Tampa Bay has a six games to five edge.

And then we find the Red Sox, hanging around, uninvited to this two-team party. The Red Sox have just 36 games left in which to make up their deficit. Luckily — or unluckily — for Boston, they get to play 12 games against the Rays and Yankees and can kinda sorta control their own fate. Outside of those sets, though, Boston’s schedule isn’t going to give them an edge. Their seven opponents have a combined winning percentage of .505, and the Red Sox have beaten the six teams they’ve faced only 32 out of 62 times.

Even if the Red Sox can beat up on the Blue Jays, Mariners and Orioles, if they can’t decisively down the Rays and Yankees, they’ll have no chance in the AL East. Even a split of the 12 games leaves them where they are now but with only 24 games left to make up a 5.5-game deficit. It’s not impossible, but it’s highly unlikely.

For the Yankees, then, with a few question marks in the rotation and some less-than-inspired play on the field, the club will cheer on Tampa Bay this weekend as the Rays take on Boston. Even if the Yanks slip out of the AL East lead, if Tampa Bay can stomp on the Red Sox — something the Yanks failed to do two weeks ago in the Bronx — the road to October will look ever clearer. Even still, the race against the calendar still favors Tampa Bay and New York, but I’m not going to start counting my chickens just yet.

Bautista’s late blast gives Jays 3-2 win

With a successful homestand behind them, the Yankees headed north of the border to take on the Blue Jays with the idea of keeping the good times rolling. Rookie righthander Ivan Nova made his first career start and was solid if not spectacular, but a pair of poorly located pitches to Jose Bautista sent the Bombers home with a disappointing loss.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Biggest Blunder: Robertson Misses His Spot

Going into the late innings of a game with the score tied against a team like the Jays is risky business because they can change the score with one swing of the bat. Of course, the Yankees can do that too, but having home field advantage tipped the scales in Toronto’s favor.

David Robertson took the mound in the 8th inning as usual, scheduled to face the Jays’ 2-3-4 hitters. He made quick work of John McDonald (who took over at short after Yunel Escobar was ejected), and jumped out to a 0-1 count on homer king Jose Bautista by dotting the outside corner with a 92 mph fastball. Bautista already had one homer on the night (more on that later), and the Yanks’ plan since then was to work him away, away, and away some more. Frankie Cervelli called for the same exact pitch, set up outside again, but Robertson completely missed his spot. The pitch sailed back in on the inner half, right into Bautista’s wheelhouse and he did what he’s been doing all season: launching moonshots.

The solo homer gave the Jays the lead with just three Yankee outs remaining, and he made sure to rub it with a bat flip and a slow, David Ortiz-esque trot around the bases. There’s a bit of a story to that, but we’ll get to it in a bit.

Two Out Runs

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

The Yanks didn’t mount too many threats in this one, instead opting for quick, almost instantaneous strikes. Their first run came after Nick Swisher coaxed a walk out of Brandon Morrow in the 1st inning before Robbie Cano doubled him in two batters later. Their other run came in a very similar fashion, with Cano walking in front of Jorge Posada‘s double in the 6th. There were two outs in the inning at the time of both doubles, so the runner on first was able to just put his head down and run blindly around the bases. I’m not sure if Cano would have been able to score on Posada’s double without that head start.

Ivan The Pretty Good

Making his first career start, Ivan Nova’s night didn’t exactly get off to the banging start. Fred Lewis sent his second pitch of the game back through the box for a single, and Escobar followed that up one pitch later with a line drive double into the right-centerfield gap. Bautista drew a four pitch walk, and after the Yanks took an early 1-0 lead, Nova looked ready to give it back (and then some) in the bottom of the 1st. Much to everyone’s surprise, the neophyte righty managed to escape the inning without a single run crossing the plate. He had plenty of help, of course.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Vernon Wells, Toronto’s cleanup hitter, hit a mid-range fly ball to left. Brett Gardner lined it up perfectly, caught the ball with his momentum going towards the plate, and uncorked a throw home that beat Lewis by about two steps. Cervelli received the well and applied the tag (with his ball actually in his glove) before Lewis came close to touching home. It was Gardner’s tenth outfield assist of the season, second only to Shin-Shoo Choo’s twelve. Nova had new life, and he took advantage of it by striking out Adam Lind on a 97 mph fastball at his eyes to end the inning.

Considering how rocky the 1st inning was, Nova settled down very nicely. The only other trouble he ran into wasn’t even a prolonged rally; Bautista hit a two run homer after Escobar reached first with some help from the umpiring crew. It was a hanging curveball, a pitch that should have been crushed. Other than that, he retired nine of the last ten men he faced, giving up just an infield single after Bautista’s homer. PitchFX clocked him as high as 97.5 mph with the fastball, far beyond any scouting report we’ve ever seen. That didn’t last long though, Nova settled into the 92-95 mph range after that opening frame. He was probably just a little geeked up. I was particularly impressed with a pair of changeups he threw to Lyle Overbay in the 4th, getting him to swing over the pitch on 3-1 and again on 3-2. Great stuff.

Overall, Nova certainly did enough to earn himself another start, it’s just a matter of where the Yanks decide to squeeze his turn in. With the light hitting White Sox and even lighter hitting Athletics coming up on the schedule, he should have a better go of it next time around.

Tempers Flare

Exciting little moment in the 6th inning of this one. A few innings after Bautista did his little bat flip after his first homerun, Nova threw a fastball up and kinda sorta in, which Bautista of course took exception to. He walked towards the mound and barked some, Nova barked back, both benches and bullpens emptied, but ultimately nothing came of it. No punches, nothing like that. It’s still something to keep an eye on the rest of the series, especially after Bautista’s exaggerated homer trot in the 8th.

These two clubs still have eight more games left against each other. I suspect this won’t be the last of it (especially not if A.J. Burnett gets another start against his former team), but I’d rather have the Yanks win the games instead of stooping down to their level. Let the fourth place team practice their dance routines for the October homecoming dance.

Leftovers

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Seemed to me like Joe Girardi was a little quick with the hook when he pulled Nova at just 73 pitches with one out in the 6th, but it’s not the end of the world. The benches had just cleared and the Jays put a man on with an infield single, so maybe he wanted to get the rookie out of there before the emotions ran a little too high. I guess my biggest concern is that the bullpen has been taxed of late, and it seemed like an unnecessary move. Hopefully it doesn’t bite them in the ass at some point during the next two games.

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Morrow was rather filthy, striking out a dozen in six innings of work. That slider inside and under the hands of lefties is just devastating. It’s almost impossible to get a bat on that, and the damn thing is on the corner of the plate, so it’s strike three either way. Just tip your cap, he was big time in this one. That said, I will link to this and mention that Ken Singleton and John Flaherty said home plate ump Jerry Meals’ name an awful lot during the broadcast.

Bad call by first base Mark Wegner ump in the 3rd inning, calling Escobar safe at first when Mark Teixeira allegedly came off the bag to field Eduardo Nunez‘s throw. Tex argued emphatically and the replay showed that he did in fact keep his foot on bag, but of course Wegner’s call stood. Sure enough, Bautista homered three pitches later. Such is life.

Ugly night for Curtis Granderson, who struck out struck out in each of his three official at-bats (with a hit by pitch mixed in). Of course, the final strikeout was a load of crap call (Grandy never argues, but he did after that strike three call), but it is what it is. Nunez and Frankie Cervelli saw a total of 21 pitches in their six trips to the plate, but Ramiro Pena salvaged the bottom third of the lineup with a pair of singles.

It was a frustrating loss, but let’s keep things in perspective. Nova was making his first career start, Murder’s Row Replacement Level Row (h/t Carig) was camped at the bottom of the lineup, and the umpiring sucked. They weren’t exactly set up for success. The Red Sox beat the lowly Mariners, so the Yanks’ lead on a playoff spot shrunk to five-and-a-half games.

WPA Graph & Box Score

It kinda looks like a 2-D Mario level, no? MLB.com has the box, FanGraphs the other stuff.


Up Next

The Yanks will try to extract revenge Tuesday night when they send Dustin Moseley to the mound against Marc Rzepczynski. I was concerned that the Yanks had never seen him before, but don’t worry, they knocked him around the two times they faced him last season. Crisis averted.

Banuelos rocked in Double-A debut

Some notes…

  • Kevin Goldstein reports that the Yankees have signed 16-year-old shortstop Tzu-Wei Lin out of Taiwan for $350,000. That’s $200,000 more than they gave Fu-Lin Kuo back in December, which I suppose gives us an idea of how much they like him. Goldstein’s mini-scouting report says he’s 5-foot-11 and 150 lbs. with a good bat and good glove. Who the hell knows though.
  • Both Hector Noesi and D.J. Mitchell have been promoted to Triple-A Scranton. Those moves come in the wake of not just the Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos promotions, but also the Zach McAllister trade and Ivan Nova‘s call up. Lots of movement in the last week or so.
  • The Yankees spent 188% more ($5,126,500 total) than their established slot amount ($2,722,800) in the first ten rounds this year according to Baseball America. Only the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Tigers went more over slot.
  • Adam Warren‘s 15 strikeout game earned him Double-A Eastern League Pitcher of the Week honors. Michael Solbach took home the same award in the Low-A South Atlantic League.

And on to the actual games…

Triple-A Scranton had a scheduled off day.

Double-A Trenton (6-0 loss to New Hampshire) faced the centerpiece of the Roy Halladay trade
Justin Christian, LF & Austin Krum, CF: both 1 for 4, 1 K
Everyone Else: combined 0 for 19, 4 BB, 8 K – a pair of those walks went to Dan Brewer, as did a pair of strikeouts
Manny Banuelos: 5.2 IP, 7 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 6 K, 7-3 GB/FB – turns out AA is tougher than A+ … allowed a pair of homers in this one after surrendering just one to this point all season
Josh Schmidt: 2.1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7 K – no contact outing
Wilkin DeLaRosa: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 WP, 0-2 GB/FB

[Read more…]

Game 125: SuperNova

You're not in Trenton anymore, Ivan. (Photo Credit: Flickr user Russ Glasson)

Hopefully the Yankees enjoy the Blue Jays’ company, because tonight marks the first of nine games the two will play during the final 38 games of the Yanks’ season. That’s a touch less than one out of every four games going forward. The Jays come into this one losers in four of their last five even though they outscored their opponents 26-23 during that stretch. That’s what a 16-2 win will do for you.

On the bump for the Yanks will be Ivan Nova, who is making his first career big league start as you already know. With any luck, the Jays will experience the same “helpless against a pitcher they’ve never seen before” phenomenon that plagues the Yanks. Toronto will counter with Brandon Morrow, who hopefully will be in 5.1 IP, 5 R mode and not 7 IP, 2 R mode. At least he doesn’t feature a great changeup, like basically everyone else on their staff.

Here’s the starting nine…

Gardner, LF
Swisher, RF
Teixeira, 1B
Cano, 2B
Posada, DH
Granderson, CF
Nunez, SS – why is he at short and Pena at third? that’s backwards, defensively
Pena, 3B
Cervelli, C

First pitch is scheduled for a little after 7pm ET tonight, and it can be seen on YES. Enjoy.

Aceves, Pettitte to throw this week

Via Marc Carig, Al Aceves will make another rehab start tomorrow, his fourth so far. Joe Girardi has indicated in the past that they want to get Ace on a normal reliever’s schedule – working every other day, etc. – before they activate him from the disabled list, so it could be another week or so before he’s ready to join the team.

Andy Pettitte, meanwhile, will throw a bullpen session this Friday, his first since suffering a setback with his groin injury a week or so ago. There’s no timetable for his return nor should there be at this point. Let’s see him get that first mound session out of the way before we start planning ahead. Hopefully Ivan Nova pitches well tonight and alleviates some of the urgency surrounding Andy’s return. As long as he’s healthy for October, that’s what really matters.

Albaladejo, Sanchez, Miranda due for Sept. 1st call-ups

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees plan to recall Jon Albaladejo, Romulo Sanchez, and Juan Miranda when rosters expand on September 1st, with Colin Curtis a strong possibility as well. Wilkins DeLaRosa is barely holding onto his job in Double-A Trenton, so I wouldn’t expect to see him called up to give Joe Girardi a second lefty out of the pen. Hopefully Damaso Marte is healthy by then, because they don’t have any other southpaws on the 40-man roster.

The interesting situation involves the third catcher. Jorge Posada and Frankie Cervelli are the only two catchers on the 40-man at the moment, but a third catcher is a September call-up staple, especially for playoff teams that want to rest their primary backstop. Chad Moeller is the obvious candidate, but Sherman predictably opines about the possibility of calling up Jesus Montero. Personally, I don’t see it. The Yanks have plenty of options at designated hitter already, and I think the 20-year-old is better served playing every day in Triple-A Scranton during their playoff run than getting six or eight plate appearances a week with the big league team.

I want to see him in the show as much as an anyone, but I don’t think the time is now.

Not always a Yankee, Rocket now a Yankee problem

Clemens testifies in front of Congress on February 13, 2008. The indictment stems from his testimony that day. Credit: AP Photo, Pablo Martinez

Roger Clemens’ six season with the Yankees were, in the annals of his career, mostly unspectacular. He stole a Cy Young from his teammate Mike Mussina in 2001 and captured two World Series rings, but his numbers — a 4.01 ERA/114 ERA+ with strike out rates below his career norm and walk rates higher — show that the Roger who was in the Bronx was more hype than substance. He was, after all, pitching in his age 36-40 seasons and made his Yankee encore at age 44.

Still, the post-baseball Roger Clemens — the one embroiled in a PED scandal and facing an indictment for perjury — will forever be linked to the Yankees. Unfairly or not, Roger Clemens’ problems will cast a shadow over Yankee past and could impact Yankee present and Yankee future too. This nagging issue comes about because Andy Pettitte, it seems, is key to the Justice Department’s case against Clemens.

Once upon a time, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte were very close friends. They wintered together in Houston; their kids grew up together; they trained together; and they, according to Pettitte, shot human growth hormone together. Clemens said that Pettitte “misremembered,” but in the he said-he said war, Congress and the Justice Department have seemingly sided with the current Yankee southpaw.

As former House Representative Tom Davis said late last week, Pettitte was the House’s key witness. In a phone call with ESPN New York’s Ian O’Connor, Davis spelled out the Congressional case against Clemens and highlighted Pettitte’s importance. “If it was just Roger versus McNamee, it’s a different matchup,” he said. “We didn’t call Andy Pettitte, we deposed him, and he supported McNamee and that was a problem for [Clemens]. Without Pettitte, neither McNamee nor Clemens was that articulate or credible.”

Pettitte has yet to address Clemens’ situation and, if the case goes to trial in three or four years, Andy will likely be called as a witness. It will create an uncomfortable situation for the two men and for a Yankee organization trying to live down the Mitchell Report accusations. “Andy Petttitte didn’t want to testify against his friend,” Davis said to ESPN. “But when he raised his right hand, he told the truth. It would’ve been different without him. Roger was a great pitcher who’s done a lot for the community, and McNamee’s had other issues.”

Today, Clemens and Pettitte seem cordial at best, but their intense friendship has long since cooled. In an interview with Boston’s WEEI last week, the Rocket commented on Pettitte. Clemens, who must repeatedly deny any PED use, said he and Andy no longer speak. “My boys went out to a game quite a bit,” he said, but we don’t.”

While the perjury case may rest in part on Pettitte’s shoulders, Clemens’ lawyer is being aggressive — some would say overly so — in his case. He rejected a plea deal that would have required Roger to admit PED use in exchange for no jail sentence, and Rusty Hardin seems willing to let this drama play out in an open court room. “The government made a recommendation [for a plea agreement] and we declined,” Hardin said to ESPN. “I will tell you the recommendation they made was a very good one if he was guilty. And if he was guilty we would have jumped on it.”

Hardin too is engaged in his own he said-he said debate with Representative Davis. The former House member claims they gave Clemens ample opportunity to avoid testifying for Congress but that Clemens wanted to clear his name. “We’re sitting around, and they were deciding whether to go through with the hearing or not,” Davis, who insists that Congressional representatives urged Clemens to be as forthcoming with the truth as possible, said. “This wasn’t a mandatory hearing. We weren’t hanging [him] out to dry. We were only giving him an opportunity to refute the Mitchell report and to tell his side of the story.”

Hardin refuted that take. “So Tom Davis,” Clemens’ attorney said, “who I saw on TV last night, comes down to us, calls us aside and urges us to have Roger testify. And now that son of a bitch is on TV saying that Roger insisted upon it.”

It’s a nasty, nasty business, and Clemens has found himself embroiled in a royal mess. By the time this case goes to trial, Andy Pettitte will have likely retired. He’ll be called upon to rehash his own PED testimony, and he’ll have to again talk, under oath, about the conversations he had with Roger Clemens while both were on the Yankees. The era may be in the past, but the legal percussions will echo into the future. As Joe Torre, the man who managed a team hiding some steroid users, said, “It’s sad.”