The Montero Era begins with comeback win

I hadn’t been this excited about a regular season game in a long, long time. There’s very little that could have happened to completely ruin Jesus Montero‘s debut for me, and frankly this might have been the most intense win of the season. Might have been? Who am I kidding. It absolutely was.

(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

The Comeback

For the first six innings of the game, the Yankees were putting on a RISPFAIL clinic. I mean inning after inning, it was stranded runner after stranded runner. They left the bases juiced in the first, runners on corners in the second, a man on first in the third, a man on first in the fourth, men on corners in the fifth, and the bases loaded in the sixth. That’s what, a dozen stranded baserunners in six innings? Ridiculous. In the seventh inning though, all was forgiven.

Former Yankee Al Aceves was on the bump for the Red Sox, and he started the inning by striking out Nick Swisher, who we’ll talk about more later. Andruw Jones (more on him later too) started the comeback rally by fouling off nine pitches as part of a 14-pitch walk, an absolutely gorgeous at-bat from a veteran guy who’s played through everything. It really defined the inning for New York, an inning in which none of the first four batters saw fewer than five pitches. Chris Dickerson pinch-ran for Jones, and moved to second with Aceves grazed Montero’s jersey with a fastball for his first career time-on-base.

With the tying and go-ahead runners on base, Terry Francona went for the kill and brought in setup ace Josh Daniel Bard. Russell Martin swung through two straight sliders for a quick 0-2 count, and frankly I thought the at-bat was lost after that. Bard throws so hard that you have to cheat fastball, but you also have to watch for the slider and try not to get caught out front. He made it easy for Russ by missing with three straight heaters to run the count full, the second of which was close to the outside corner and an impressive take from Martin. The sixth pitch of the encounter was another fastball, this time over the plate, and Martin let it eat*, driving the pitch into the right-center field gap. The runners were on the move, so Dickerson scored with ease and Montero chugged in right behind him somewhat surprisingly.

At +.350 WPA, Martin’s double was far and away the biggest play of the game. It was also the fifth biggest hit of the season by the Yankees (based on WPA), and the biggest before the ninth inning. Zombie Eric Chavez rose from the dead to pinch-hit for Eduardo Nunez, and he singled through the right side to plate Russ from third (he moved up on the throw home) with a big, huge, monster go-ahead run. The rally was classic Yankees, starting with Andruw’s prolonged at-bat. They worked the count (38 pitches in the inning), took close pitches, fouled off tough pitches, ran the bases well, and came through in big spots. It was gorgeous, you couldn’t dream up a better rally. After starting the inning down 2-1, the Yankees ended it up 4-2.

* Am I the only one that heard Martin talking about this a few weeks ago? How he and Kevin Long were working on just swinging as hard as possible, and how they’ll yell “let it eat” from the dugout instead of “let it rip?” I remember hearing it and thinking it was pretty cool, but maybe that’s just me.

(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Closing The Door

Because nothing is ever easy in Boston, the Yankees’ three-headed bullpen monster had to work for the final nine outs. Rafael Soriano benefited from a(nother) great catch by Brett Gardner in a scoreless seventh, though he walked Jacoby Ellsbury with two outs. David Robertson started the eighth out with a four-pitch walk to Adrian Gonzalez, which is exactly what they didn’t need. Dustin Pedroia hit a tailor made double play to short that the Yankees turned into two outs … except first base ump Mark Wegner called him safe. Fine, whatever. Robertson got out of the inning by striking out David Ortiz and getting Carl Crawford to fly out to left.

The ninth inning certainly got a little dicey, starting with Jed Lowrie’s leadoff walk against Mariano Rivera. Josh Reddick followed with a fly ball to deep-ish right, then Jarrod Saltalamacchia struck out for the second out. Ellsbury worked another walk to put the tying run on base, then Marco Scutaro took a 0-1 cutter to the opposite field for a single. Lowrie did not score but the bases were juiced for Gonzalez, arguably the best hitter on the planet.

As far as I’m concerned, this at-bat was a pitching clinic. The first pitch cutter was down and out of the zone but Gonzalez hacked at it for strike one, and the second cutter was right in around his waist. Adrian fouled it off for strike two. The third and fourth pitches were again inside, and both of them nearly hit Gonzalez. He took the first for a ball, but fouled off the second. Mo and Martin pounded the Red Sox first baseman inside so he couldn’t extend his arms, but the fifth pitch of the at-bat was … well look at it:

Look at that thing. It’s perfect. Down and away after four straight cutters in, the pitch must have looked like it was in China. Gonzalez checked his swing but it didn’t matter, Alfonso Marquez called it a strike and the game was over. Just a brilliant sequence from the Yankees’ battery. The gif comes courtesy of the great Mike Fast, by the way.

The New Burnett?

(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Let’s start with the obvious: A.J. Burnett pitched better than anyone expected. Two runs in 5.1 IP? No one was thinking that given how awful he’s been for the last two months. Burnett’s two biggest mistakes came to back-to-back batters, when he allowed a ground rule double in a 2-0 count to Gonzalez to lead off the fourth before allowing a two-run homer to Pedroia in a 3-1 count. Nothing unusual here, he fell behind in the count and gave fastballs to fastball hitters. Overall, Burnett struck out four and walked two, giving up just the two runs on five hits. He got nine outs on the ground and just two in the air.

Obviously it was an encouraging outing, and you know what else was encouraging? A.J. showed off some new mechanics, so at least know they’re doing some serious tinkering behind the scenes. That’s not to say I thought they were sitting on their hands, but it’s always reassuring to see something like that. The changes were pretty simple and Al Leiter said they were designed to keep his hands together and make his delivery more compact. Essentially all he was doing was starting with hands at his chest (they’re usually at his waist) and with his legs a little bit spread apart on the mound (they’re usually close together). The curveball was clearly a key pitch for Burnett; he threw 33 of them and 24 went for strikes (seven swings and misses). That just wasn’t happening before, the pitch was always finishing out of the zone.

Anyway, did Burnett do enough to earn himself another start? Joe Girardi wants to get his rotation down to five guys but he did say they wouldn’t base the decision on just one start, so … I dunno. Let’s enjoy this one start for the time being and worry about the rotation tomorrow or the next day. Give A.J. some mad props, he showed up and took care of business today. Very nice to see.

The Debut

Sorry to make you wait this long, but you really didn’t think I’d go the entire recap without talking about Montero’s debut, did you? He went 0-for-4 with the hit-by-pitch, so it was hardly a spectacular debut, but I didn’t think he looked overmatched or anything. His first inning at-bat was his best, a six-pitch strikeout against Jon Lester after falling behind in the count 0-2. I thought the outside changeup he took for ball two was impressive, because it was juuust off the plate and couldn’t have been easy to lay off. I’m actually kinda glad he didn’t hit a grand slam there, since the last three players to hit grannies in their first career at-bat (Kevin Kouzmanoff, Jeremy Hermida, and Daniel Nava) haven’t exactly distinguished themselves. I may or may not be kidding.

Two of Montero’s three balls in play were fly outs to right-ish center, so he showed off that opposite field stroke we’ve heard so much about. For a 21-year-old kid making his big league debut in Fenway Park in the middle of Yankees-Red Sox, I thought he did well. Plus, you know, he scored the game-winning run. He just knows how to win games! The good news is that it’ll get easier from here, because nothing tops that kind of atmosphere. I’m very excited to see more.

Leftovers

(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Underrated moment of the game: Curtis Granderson‘s diving catch to end the sixth. The Sox had runners on first and second, and if that ball lands, it’s at least one run and possibly two because there were two outs. Huge play at the time that looks even bigger in hindsight.

Stupid moment of the game: Nick Swisher’s sacrifice bunt in the fifth inning. The look on his face in the dugout told you the whole story, he simply forgot how many outs there were. So instead of swinging away with Robinson Cano on second with one out, he bunted him to third so Andruw Jones could take his hacks. Unsurprisingly, they did not score. Physical mistakes I can live with, mental mistakes like that (especially forgetting how many outs there are, give me a break) drive me nuts.

Speaking of Jones, that dude was a straight up beast tonight. He drew three walks and struck out once in his four plate appearances, and he saw a total of 36 pitches. Thirty-six pitches! He and Swisher combined to see 19 pitches in the first inning alone. That’s nuts. The Yankees fouled off 30 strike-two pitches as a team, the most in a nine-inning game in the majors this season. Other than Swisher’s stupid bunt, they just did not give away at-bats, not even the rookie.

Derek Jeter and Granderson each had two hits and a walk while Cano and Martin each had a pair of knocks. Jones had the three walks (undoubtedly, some of that was due to the rookie batting behind him), and both Swisher and Mark Teixeira had a hit. Tex, by the way, left the game after getting hit by a pitch and is day-to-day with a bruised right knee. I would not be shocked if he was out of the lineup tomorrow, no reason to push it now.

You know who was really on their game tonight? Ken Singleton and Leiter. They were all over Martin’s at-bat in the seventh, breaking down what he was looking for and what not. Absolute announcing clinic. Those two killed it all game.

The Yankees are now tied with the Red Sox in the loss column for first place in the AL East, and because the Rays lost to the Rangers, they’re 8.5 games up for the wildcard. The magic number to clinch a postseason berth is Aaron bleepin’ Boone, number 19 in the sidebar. The win, by the way, was the Yankees’ 82nd of the season, clinching their 19th straight winning season. That’s the second longest streak in baseball history, behind the 1926-1964 Yankees. Yes, they had 38 consecutive winning seasons, so this squad is halfway there. Yeah.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

Now that is the kind of WPA graph we were supposed to have on Wednesday. MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs some nerdy stuff nobody cares about, and ESPN the updated standings.

Up Next

Time for the Yankees to come back home to the Bronx. They’ll open their six-game homestand on Friday night when Ivan Nova gets the ball against Brandon Morrow and the rest of the Blue Jays. RAB Tickets can get you into the Stadium dirt cheap if you want to catch the game.

Teixeira day-to-day with bruised right knee

Update (11:03pm): Tex left with a bruised right knee and is listed as day-to-day. No word on whether or not he’ll go for any tests or anything like that.

Original Post (10:28pm): Mark Teixeira left tonight’s game with the Red Sox after getting hit by a pitch in the sixth inning. He actually stayed in to run the bases and play defense in the bottom of the inning, but was replaced in the field in the seventh. It was a curveball that got him right in the side/back of his right knee. We’ll update the post if we get any more info, but Tex was in obvious pain.

A loss at every level

I dropped the ball on this yesterday, but Short Season Staten Island clinched the division title with last night’s win. They’re going back to the playoffs after finishing in last place last year, and they’re getting some reinforcements as they chase their sixth league title in eleven years: Dante Bichette Jr., Mariel Checo, Taylor Morton, and Isaias Tejeda were all added to the roster today after winning the GCL title yesterday. Hooray for that.

In other news, Kei Igawa was placed on the DL yesterday. That effectively ends his season and his Yankees tenure. To say it didn’t go as planned would be the understatement of the century. And finally, Gary Sanchez was selected by Los Leones del Escojido in the first round of the Dominican Winter League draft earlier this month. Doesn’t really mean anything, but now we know that he’ll be playing winter ball and who it’ll be with.

Triple-A Scranton had a scheduled off day. They have five games left in their season: two games at Pawtucket then three at home against Buffalo (doubleheader on Sunday). In order to make the postseason, they have to win all of their remaining games while Lehigh Valley and Gwinnett both lose all of theirs.

Double-A Trenton (2-0 loss to New Hampshire)
Austin Krum, CF: 0 for 4, 1 K
Corban Joseph, 2B: 2 for 4, 1 K – six for his last 12 with three doubles
Austin Romine, DH: 1 for 4, 2 K – guess what? he got promoted to Triple-A Scranton after the game, so good for him
Rob Lyerly, 1B & Yadil Mujica, SS: both 0 for 3, 1 BB – Lyerly whiffed twice, giving him 144 on the season
Melky Mesa, RF & Damon Sublett, LF: both 1 for 3, 1 BB, 2 K – Sublett doubled
Jose Pirela, 0 for 0, 1 E (fielding) – left the game after committing an error in the first
Jose Gil, C & Addison Maruszak, 3B: both 1 for 4, 2 K
Shaeffer Hall, LHP: 7 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 11-4 GB/FB
Pat Venditte, SwP: 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 2-2 GB/FB

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Ryan Pope designated for assignment among flurry of moves

Via Mike Ashmore and Mark Feinsand, the Yankees have cleared space on the 40-man roster for Jesus Montero and Scott Proctor by designating Ryan Pope for assignment and placing Justin Maxwell on the 60-day DL. Think about that, Pope got DFA’d for Jesus.

In other news, Chad Jennings and Joel Sherman report that both Lance Pendleton and Raul Valdes have been called up in addition to Brandon Laird, Chris Dickerson, Montero, and Proctor, so the Yankees have plenty of pitching available tonight. Jack Curry says Hector Noesi and Aaron Laffey are next line for a call-up, but they have to wait for the ten-day period to expire before coming back to the bigs. Montero, by the way, is in the lineup tonight. He’s batting seventh as the DH, and has already caught a bullpen session.

Welcoming back Scott Proctor

(Al Bello/Getty Images)

Did anyone honestly think that Scott Proctor had any chance to pitch for the Yankees this year? Before the season no one would have given it a thought. Even after the Yankees signed him to a minor league deal last month I’m not sure anyone expected him to actually make the major league roster. And yet this morning we got the news that he would, indeed, don the pinstripes and make his return to the Yankees. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Proctor, and even longer since he’s been consistently effective. So what makes this time around any different?

For many of us the return of Proctor isn’t about pitching, per se. It’s about an emotional attachment to a guy who pitched so well that he fell victim to the Joe Torre bullpen death trap. (After all, the Death by Bullpen category was created because of Torre.) That tends to happen when a guy makes his debut as a Yankee and has quality stuff. It took Proctor a while to harness his fastball, but by 2006 he had turned into a reliable reliever at a time when the Yankees searched desperately for one. He was a savior of sorts, providing pain-free innings when the rest of the bullpen, especially Kyle Farnsworth, made games a bit more difficult.

It was hard to ask more of the guy than he provided in 2006. He led the league in appearances that year with 83, tossing 102.1 innings. All of them were in relief. No reliever has tossed 100 innings since. They key to his success was his walk rate, just 2.9 per nine, which was down a half point from the previous season. He also kept his hit rate down, thanks to a .258 BABIP. In even the previous season that didn’t seem possible, thanks to his straight as an arrow fastball. But it appeared that in 2006 he added a little movement, and that helped him succeed.

Of course, that many innings and that many appearances takes a toll on the arm. Proctor didn’t show the signs in 2006, though one teammate, Ron Villone, did. Even in 2007 Proctor produced quality results, a 3.81 ERA in 54.1 innings as a Yankee. But he clearly wasn’t the same pitcher as he was in 2006. While he managed to keep his hit rate at a normal level, he started to walk tons of batters — 4.8 per nine to be specific, or nearly two per nine more than the previous season. By July’s end the Yankees had apparently seen enough. They traded him to LA for Wilson Betemit, thereby acquiring the quality reserve infielder they had long sought.

In 2008 Proctor missed more than two months with elbow troubles, and in 2009 he underwent Tommy John surgery. He barely pitched in the majors in 2010, spending most of it with the Braves’ AAA affiliate. This year he re-signed with the Braves and earned a call-up after impressing in AAA. Yet his stint in the majors went terribly. He walked more than he struck out, and he allowed five homers in just 29.1 innings. His release from the Braves came with no surprise. The only surprise, really, was that the Yanks considered him at all.

Maybe the Yankees felt they owed him something. After all, towards the end of Torre’s tenure Brian Cashman spoke out about how his manager handled relievers. He reiterated those criticisms earlier this year. There’s also the issue of Proctor’s alcoholism, which apparently was part of the reason the Yankees traded him in 2007. In the linked article, a characteristically excellent one from Tyler Kepner, Proctor mentions that he wanted to show Cashman how he changed. Now he’ll get his chance.

While the emotional angle plays up well, it can’t be the only reason the Yankees are giving Proctor another chance. This is a business, after all, and recalling Proctor means they’ll have to sacrifice someone on their 40-man roster. That bears real costs, so they have to think that he can actually help the club. While he did experience poor results this year he did have some oomph on his fastball, averaging 93.7 mph. He hasn’t hit those speeds since 2008. He was also seemingly burned by his breaking stuff. Perhaps, then, the Yankees see something they think they can correct. They’d better, if they want this decision to work out.

Chances are that Proctor is a non-factor down the stretch and that he’s off the roster either before season’s end, or early in the off-season. But his mere presence on the roster evokes feelings of the days when he was a real force in the Yankees’ bullpen. He was, for a stretch in 2006, the only reliable piece of the bridge to Mariano. He won’t be in that role this year. He won’t sniff high-leverage situations. But there’s something reassuringly nostalgic about having him back on the roster. May he pitch well and prosper again in pinstripes.

Where does Posada stand?

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

The refrain can cease. After months and months of yapping about Jesus Montero, the man himself is set to debut with the Yankees. For many it feels like a move long overdue. After a slow start Montero started to turn things around, and by the end of July it appeared that he could help the major league team. Yet the Yankees went through August doing business as usual, opting to wait until rosters expand before they called up their top prospect.

In a way that made sense. Roster construction dictated it. Early in the month the Yankees ran a short bench, opting to carry a sixth starter instead of a fourth bench player. That made sense, because it left the bullpen at full strength. They could have recalled Montero in that spot and worked with a short bullpen, but they also knew that Alex Rodriguez would return at some point in August. At that point they absolutely could not carry Montero, since they’d require all four other bench players. So even if they promoted him after the trade deadline, they would have had to send him back down after a few weeks.

The only way the Yankees could have carried Montero before today was if they chose to removed Jorge Posada from the active roster. While the organization and Posada came to blows in May, things seemed to smooth out from there. Posada started to hit, and the Yankees made it clear, through media channels, that they did not intend to release him. Despite his overall struggles he has managed to stay productive against righties, producing a .354 wOBA against them in 254 PA. That translates to 8.8 runs above average, a respectable figure for that number of plate appearances.

Now that the roster limit has expanded from 25 to 40, the Yanks have plenty of room to maneuver. They’ve wasted no time in calling up Montero, and he could immediately jump into a prominent role. YES Network’s Jack Curry recently reported that Montero will start at DH tonight against Jon Lester. That’s quite a debut assignment, and it portends his role down the stretch and perhaps into the playoffs. In fact, Joel Sherman quotes a Yankees official saying, “By the playoffs, [Montero] will be our best DH option.” That’s quite a bold statement for a player who has yet to face major league pitching.

While Montero’s assignment for tonight comes against a lefty, the unnamed Yankees official makes it sound as though he’ll play against right-handed pitching, too. That would leave Posada without a role. This is nothing new, of course; Posada lost his gig for a week in August while Eric Chavez took over DH duties against right-handed pitching. Posada came back with a fury, driving in six runs, including a grand slam, against the Rays. Since then he’s hit decently, but not to the level where he absolutely must remain in the lineup. Unless the Yankees use Montero behind the plate, Posada could spend most of September on the bench.

Throughout the season the Yankees have shown patience with Jorge Posada. They could have removed him from the lineup when he struggled early in the season. They could have treated him more harshly after his blow-up in May. But they stuck with him, for the most part, and he rewarded them with some quality numbers against right-handed pitching. But his complete lack of flexibility has hurt them at times. With rosters expanding the Yankees gain plenty of flexibility, and they’ll apparently use that to try another option at DH. Jorge will be there in case it doesn’t work out. But for the time being, his name won’t appear frequently on Joe Girardi‘s lineup card.