A meaning for these meaningless games

(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Now that Joe and I got what we had to say about The Collapse off our chests, it’s time to turn our attention back to the Yankees. These last two games against Tampa mean nothing to them in the grand scheme of things, and the only stuff left to address are the margins of the playoff roster, the backup catcher situation and the last one or two arms in the bullpen. And then there’s Alex Rodriguez.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, A-Rod has developed a bit of an injury problem since signing his massive, so ugly I don’t even want to cite the numbers contract after the 2007 season. First came the quad strain in 2008, then the hip in 2009, then the calf in 2010, and this year it was both a knee and a thumb. Alex hasn’t played more than 138 games in any of the last three seasons, and he sure as heck won’t get there this year.

All the missed time hurts not only because A-Rod is out of the lineup, but also because he’s typically been a slow starter once he does rejoin the team. Following that storybook first-pitch homer after his hip surgery, A-Rod had just two hits (both singles) in his next 29 plate appearances. The calf strain limited him to a .200/.250/.467 batting line over a 64 PA stretch. Since coming back from the knee surgery, he’s hit just .197/.338/.364 in 80 PA, but that includes all the time he was hampered with the thumb problem.

“I never get into results,” said A-Rod on Monday. “It’s more about balance and plate discipline. I feel I’m right on schedule.” Hitting coach Kevin Long acknowledged that Alex’s “timing is off,” adding that they are working on his leg kick, among other stuff.

All we’ve talked about for the last week or two is rest, getting these players off their feet a little bit after the six-month regular season and before the playoffs begin. Well A-Rod has already had a ton of rest in the second half between the knee and thumb issues. There are only two games left in the regular season, and it’s probably not the worst thing in the world for the Yankees to let their cleanup hitter play all nine innings in both games. Rodriguez can use the at-bats, so these last meaningless games don’t have to be completely useless for him.

Cheering on The Collapse for fun and profit

Be honest: If the Yankees weren’t indirectly involved in the AL’s most compelling storyline right now, would you even watch their last two games? I wouldn’t. My MLB.tv would be set to the Rays and Red Sox games. It’s a bit fortunate, then, that the Yankees are facing the Rays. It means I can watch the Yankees finish out their season while keeping up with the most exciting games of the season.

Yankees fans have to be divided in some way during these last few games. Can any of you actually root for the Yankees to lose? That’s a tough proposition. I can let go of a loss much easier in this instance, but I don’t think actively rooting for the Rays is an option right now. But at the same time I want to see the Red Sox complete The Collapse and watch playoff baseball from their homes. (Though, given the enormity of their collapse I doubt any of them would actually watch baseball this fall.)

One reason for wanting the Red Sox out of the playoffs is obvious. As Yankees fans we have two duties. First, and foremost, is to root for the Yankees. That takes precedence over everything else baseball related. A distant second is to hope for Red Sox losses. Yet there is another, perhaps more powerful, element at play here. I don’t just want to see the Sox fall out because they’re the Sox. I want them to fall out because they’re the Sox. Allow me to elaborate.

Losing skids last only so long. Good teams can slump, and in rare instances they can collapse for a few weeks. Let’s not pretend that the Red Sox are actually this bad. They have scored more runs than any team in baseball. They have two top-tier pitchers heading their staff. They have two phenomenal relievers to end games. For the first five months of the season they won more games than any team in the American League, despite going just 11-15 in April. They’re absolutely a threat if they make the playoffs.

The principle at play here is that hot and cold streaks can turn on a dime. Remember when the Yankees lost six straight? They then won that seventh game and ended up winning seven of their next nine. Then, from May 29th through July 2nd they went 23-8. Then remember when they won eight straight to start August? They followed that by losing three straight. True, none of those streaks and skids nearly measure up to Boston’s current slide. But the principle holds true: streaks and skids can change at any time, without notice or prior indication.

The only reason to root for the Red Sox at this point is if you feel that the Rays are the stronger overall team. Given the way both teams have played throughout the season, that’s a tough point to argue. Remember, it’s not as though the Rays went on some crazy winning streak to pull back into the AL Wild Card race. They’ve gone 14-10 in September, after an 18-10 August. Those are good records, by and large, but they’re not part of some miraculous surge. They play solid baseball, and have all season. The Red Sox, on the other hand, played dominant baseball for four to five months before collapsing in the final one. If they get back on track, they’re clearly a bigger threat than the Rays.

The question, then, is whether you think the Sox can get back on track. I certainly think they can. They’re too good not to. If that turnaround happens in the last few games, they could be headed to the playoffs with that terrible September behind them. It’s a brand new life, and it’s not difficult to see them using that life to steamroll the AL playoff competition. And then we’re back to the whole rooting for the Yanks and against the Sox thing.

Bonus 1: Counterpoint

While writing this I couldn’t help but think of the rivalry. The Red Sox and Yankees, when they have something on the line, makes for some of the most compelling baseball I’ve ever watched. Wouldn’t the best possible ALCS matchup be the Yankees vs. the Red Sox? And, if the Yankees were to win the World Series, wouldn’t it be that much sweeter to go through the Sox in doing so?

These are tough questions to balance. I fully believe that the Yankees’ easiest path to the World Series is one that does not involve the Red Sox. But at the same time, I believe that a matchup with the Sox will make for the best baseball. It can be tough to reconcile these two thoughts.

Bonus 2: This could be a drama-free series

Last week Joel Sherman reported that MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to add a fifth playoff team from each league. This could go into effect as early as next year. The premise is simple: the two non-division-winners with the best records will play one game to determine who advances to the next round. While the main idea here is revenue enhancement, there are baseball reasons at play. Namely, it makes the division title much more important. It could also lend drama to the final few weeks, since another team would have something at stake.

This year, however, the additional playoff spot would reduce the drama of the Wild Card chase. The Rays and the Sox would have little to play for in the final two games, since they’d face each other in a one-game playoff regardless of how they fared in the last two games. Yes, there would have been a little added interest with the Angels involved, but they played their way right out of it this weekend. And so instead of watching the Rays and the Sox closely this week, we could turn off our TVs until Wednesday, when those two teams would have their playoff.

Yet the current system makes this race that much more compelling. We have a real race, one that could easily end in a tie and force a Game 163. Yes, the new system will bring a Game 163 every year, but then it will lose some of its magic. The beauty of Game 163 is that two teams somehow ended up tied for a single playoff spot. There’s natural drama there. But with a forced one, it’s just business as usual. It won’t be bad, per se, but it’s not necessarily better than the system currently in place.

The other side of The Collapse

(click to embiggen)

That was Tropicana Field last night, shortly after the Rays beat the Yankees by the score of 5-2. The majority of the 18-something-thousand fans in attendance stayed at their seats after Red Sox-Orioles game was put on the big board, just in time for the final two outs. The fans collectively groaned when Dustin Pedroia drove in a run, then booed when David Ortiz followed that with an infield single. Adrian Gonzalez flew out for the second out of the inning, and that drew a ton of cheers.

While all this was going on in the stands, the Yankees were in their clubhouse without a care in the world. You’d never know they had just lost a game to a division rival, they were too busy poking fun at the rookies for their early-90’s music costumes. Russell Martin told a story about how he asked the home plate ump if he had stretched before the game because he (or his strike zone) was a little tight. Joe Girardi vaguely explained his pitching plans for the next two days. Phil Hughes zipped up Austin Romine‘s Madonna outfit. They were a team with nothing to play for at the moment, and it showed.

Outside though, outside that clubhouse, it was a celebration. Jed Lowrie had swung over a Jim Johnson sinker for strike three, the 27th out in Boston’s latest failure to distance themselves from the Rays. Less than 24 hours earlier, Jacoby Ellsbury was being hailed as the no-doubt MVP for his game-winning, 14th inning homer off Scott Proctor in the Bronx, but now he was a goat. A goat because of this …

The ball was in glove, and then it wasn’t. The result was the first inside-the-park homerun by an Orioles player in Camden Yards history, a three-run number by Robert Andino that turned a 3-2 lead into a 6-2 lead. The Trop exploded when  Lowrie went down swinging, a thunderous combination of cowbell, cheers, and whatever the hell that foghorn thing they play after homeruns and wins is … all combined with great acoustics (hooray for the dome!). The press box was literally shaking, and honestly, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced at a ballpark.

This collapse is just … it’s unthinkable. I mean, 2004 was just completely different. That was a short series where the proverbial “anything can happen” happened. This Red Sox collapse is a month-long stretch of ineptitude, a team beating itself with bad defense, really bad pitching, and just not enough offense to makeup for it. Boston has gone from nine games up with a 99.6% chance of making the postseason on September 3rd to tied in the loss column with a 63.3% chance of making the postseason just 24 days later. Take a second to wrap your head around that.

As Yankees fans, we’re conditioned to hate the Red Sox and laugh at their misfortune. It comes with the territory, so this collapse is right in our wheel house. No sympathy, nothing. But we don’t ever think about the other end of The Collapse (has to be capitalized at this point, right?), the team that did the catching up. I got to experience that firsthand last night, or rather I got to observe fans who experienced that firsthand last night. It wasn’t about the suffering of the Red Sox, it was about the excitement of the Rays. A young, exciting, and likable team that legitimately qualifies as an underdog doing things underdog teams do. It was a very different view of things as a Yankees fan, a view of a world where winning isn’t a birthright. Apparently that way of life can be fun too.

(Ellsbury .gif via @bubbaprog)

Rays beat Yanks to tie Sox for AL Wildcard

Best loss  of the season? Best loss of the season. I can’t believe I’m saying such a thing, but with everything already clinched, I have no issues with the Yankees losing a game so the Rays could tie the Red Sox for the wildcard lead with two games left in the season. This is pretty amazing, folks.

Don't worry Hector, you did good. (J. Meric/Getty Images)

Gassed

Hector Noesi has done a really nice job for the  Yankees this season, but the only problem is that the vast majority of his work has come in low-leverage relief spots. Because of that, it’s not much of a surprise that he looked completely gassed after his pitch count crept north of 40-45 or so. Noesi allowed three runs on five hits and two walks in two innings and change, throwing 59 pitches. Tough spot for the kid, but what can you do. His overall body of work has been encouraging this season.

Raul Valdes relieved him and retired two of the three lefties he faced. The one exception was Johnny Damon, who pulled an outside slider through the right side of the infield for a ground ball single. Good process, bad result. Since coming to New York, Valdes has faced a total of 14 left-handed batters, and he’s given up four hits (one double, the rest singles) and struck out five. There’s talk that he could make the postseason roster, but I have no interest in seeming them carry a second LOOGY in the playoffs unless it’s a legit shutdown guy (which they don’t have). Joe Girardi won’t be able to help himself with the matchups, and having an inferior pitcher (like Valdes) out there in a potentially big spot just because he happens to throw with the correct arm isn’t in the team’s best interests.

Back To The Bullpen

With his inflamed back keeping him out of action for the last two weeks or so, Phil Hughes returned to the Yankees as a reliever in this game. It’s hard, if not impossible to differentiate between what was rust and what was Hughes  being Hughes, but the end result is that he threw 36 pitches across 1.2 IP, allowing one hit (a double) and two walks against two strikeouts. His fastball velocity was in the 92-94 range, so no significant spike. Girardi indicated that Hughes might pitch again Wednesday, but I’m not sure that will happen after this pitch count. I bet Phil makes the ALDS roster, but he almost certainly shouldn’t.

(J. Meric/Getty Images)

Leftovers

The entire Yankees offense was basically Robinson Cano. He hit a first inning solo homer to dead center and then singled in another run in the third, going 2-for-4 on the day. The other ten hitters (counting a defensive replacement and a pinch-hitter) went a combined 4-for-27. Jamie Shields has been shutting the Yankees down all season, nothing was different in his final regular season start of 2011.

How about home plate ump Paul Schrieber showing up Russell Martin during that fifth inning ejection? No, you can’t argue balls and strikes, but Schrieber stopped play, walked in front of the plate, and got in Martin’s face. That’s definitely over the line. If you’re going to toss a guy, then toss him. Don’t make a spectacle out of it. I’m sure Schrieber will be disciplined in a timely manner. (nope)

Oh, and speaking of Martin, I sure hope someone gave him a stern talking to after he slid head-first into first to beat out an infield single in the second inning. Everything’s clinched already, why risk  some broken fingers? Playing smart > playing hard.

Get this, Jorge Posada made not one, but two nice defensive plays throwing runners out at the plate in the first three innings. He’s really going out with a bang; the game-winning hit in the AL East clinching game, the homer off Wakefield on Sunday, and now the two plays in this game. Neat stuff.

Obviously the Red Sox lost to the Orioles, allowing the Rays to tie them for the wildcard. In other out of town news, the  Tigers walloped Cleveland, so if the Rangers win tonight, they’ll remain one loss up on Detroit. If they lose, the two teams will have the same record. This is important because the Yankees will face whichever team finishes with the worse record in the ALDS. If they finish with the same record,  it’ll be Yanks-Rangers  because Detroit won the season series over Texas. The Rangers are playing the Angels out on the west coast right now, and you can follow that game here.

And finally: holy Desmond Jennings! When Derek Jeter doesn’t hit .300 this year, that will be why. What a catch.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Box Score

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the nerdy stuff, and ESPN the updated standings. You don’t really need to check them, the Yankees are still in first.

Up Next

The second to last game of the season, that’s what’s up next. Bartolo Colon will start against Jeremy Hellickson on Tuesday night. Another loss would not be upsetting. At all.

Postgame Notes: Rookie Hazing

(Photo via the Yankees)

The story of the night is clearly what happened on the field, but that’s between the Rays and Red Sox. The Yankees (finally) got busy with their annual rookie hazing tonight, dressing the kids up as various 80’s and 90’s musical megastars. Jesus Montero broke out the parachute pants and was MC Hammer. Brandon Laird was Slash from Guns n’ Roses. Andrew Brackman and Dellin Betances were Milli Vanilli. Hector Noesi dressed up like Prince and George Kontos was a different George, George Michael. Austin Romine drew the short straw; he had to dress up like Madonna and go out on a date with Alex Rodriguez. Okay, I made that last part up, but Romine was definitely the material girl. Phil Hughes zipped him up.

I’ll be honest, the Yankees are getting soft. Who cares about dressing up in the middle of the series? They’ve got to get these kids dressed up when they’re hanging cities, preferring to or from Toronto so they have to go through customs. Weak  sauce, Yankees. Someone needs to step up next year and take the bull by the horns.

Anyway, there’s wasn’t too much to talk about as far as the actual game, so let’s recap…

  • Russell Martin asked home plate ump Paul Schrieber if he stretched before the game, because he “seemed kind of tight.” Schrieber was not too pleased, so that’s what led to the  ejection. I’ll  give Russ some creativity points, but the zone really wasn’t that  bad.
  • Other than possibly Phil Hughes, none of the team’s playoff pitchers will pitch on Wednesday. Joe Girardi wants to give them two full days off before the ALDS begins. A player might manage that game, but only if it doesn’t mean anything in the wildcard race. Based on what happened tonight, it absolutely will, one way or the other.

Game 160: Bittersweet

Just as charming inside as it is outside. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

The end of the regular season is very bittersweet. No one wants to see it end because man, it’s baseball and we don’t want it to go away. But then again, wooo postseason baseball! This game means nothing to the Yankees but everything to the Rays. Just sit back and enjoy it. The games will get a lot more stressful in a few days.  Here’s the lineup…

Derek Jeter, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Robinson Cano, 2B
Alex Rodriguez, DH
Jorge Posada, 1B
Eric Chavez, 3B
Russell Martin, C
Eduardo Nunez, RF – have fun with the roof, Eddie
Brett Gardner, LF

Hector Noesi, SP

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

Pregame Notes: Going through the motions

Air conditioned batting practice. What a country.

When we looked at the schedule a few weeks ago, this series seemed like it had the potential to be pretty important, and that’s why I’m here for the three games. Things have since taken a drastic turn for the better, at least for the Yankees. These games mean nothing to them, it’s all preparation for the playoffs and hoping that no one gets hurt. Of course it means everything to the Rays, who are holding onto playoff hopes by the skin of their teeth.

Anyway, there wasn’t much going on before the game, just like you’d expect with a team that’s had a playoff berth wrapped up for close to a week now. Here’s some miscellaneous items worth mentioning…

  • Joe Girardi did say that he’s going to play his regulars this series, but he obviously won’t push it. His focus is on Friday. There’s no Mark Teixeira or Nick Swisher in the lineup tonight, but all of the other regulars are a go. Alex Rodriguez is at DH and Eduardo Nunez gets to have some fun with the roof in right field.
  • Both Jorge Posada and Jesus Montero were doing various catching drills on the field earlier this afternoon, making throws to second and blocking balls in the dirt. Gotta figure they were prepping for a potential emergency catching situation in the playoffs.
  • Batting practice was optional after the late night, but most of the regulars are on the field taking their hacks. Andruw Jones man, that dude puts on a  show.
  • I didn’t hear anything about it before the game (could have easily missed it), but Buster Olney says that Raul Valdes has an “excellent chance” to make the postseason roster as the second lefty. I’d rather see them just take a better pitcher even if he is right-handed.
  • Still no word on who will start Wednesday, but it won’t be any of the regular starters or even a B-list reliever. That figures to be a September call-up bullpen game.
  • I really can not stress this enough: Andrew Brackman is gigantic.