Yanks lose heartbreaker meaningless game to Rays

At any other point of the season, this would have been a really tough loss to swallow. Instead, it was no big deal because the Yankees are playing for nothing right now, except for not getting hurt. I do know one thing, Wednesday is going to be frickin’ awesome.

As Michael Kay would say: that was UUUGE. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Helping His Former Team

The Yankees were playing spoiler for the first six and a half innings, recovering from an early 2-0 hole to take a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the seventh. Joe Girardi said before the game that his top three relievers were going to pitch in this game no matter what, their final tune-up before the playoffs begin on Friday. That meant former Ray Rafael Soriano in the seventh.

Like many other multi-run innings, this one started with a walk. Bossman Jr. took four wide ones, then stole second base to put the tying run in scoring position with no outs and the heart of the order up. Soriano was feeling generous, so he walked Evan Longoria too, putting two on with no outs. After throwing another ball to Matt Joyce, the seventh inning guy essentially saved Tampa’s season by catching way too much of the plate with a  pitch. Joyce hit it into orbit, it was obvious th e ball was  gone off the bat from where I was sitting, and the Trop went nuts when the one-run deficit turned into a two-run lead on one swing. It was actually a pretty awesome moment, the moment Matt Joyce became a True Ray™.

TrueRays™ are a thing, right? Or is that only reserved for the Yankees?

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

A High And A Low For Martin

What’s the best thing a player can do in an at-bat? Hit a homer. Russell Martin took care of that with a solo shot in the third inning, his first homer since that three grand slam game against Oakland on August 25th. It was also his 18th of the season, one behind the career high he set in 2007, when he came to plate 620 times. He has just 476 PA in 2011.

Now what’s the worst thing a player can do in an at-bat? Hit into a triple play. That’s exactly what Martin did his next time up, clanking into an around the horn 5-4-3 triple play with the bases loaded and (obviously) no one out. It was a rather aesthetically pleasing play, the Rays really did a nice job turning it. Of course,  Martin helped them out by stupidly sliding head first into first, slowing himself down. What’s the matter, a triple play wasn’t bad enough so you had to risk some broken fingers on the next to last day of the season? Playing smart > playing hard.

(J. Meric/Getty Images)

The End Of The  Line

Bartolo Colon‘s season came to an end in this game, long after we all figured he be released or hurt. He gave up just two runs in 5.1 IP, ending his season with exactly a 4.00 ERA in 164.1 IP. The three strikeouts put his season strikeout rate at 7.4 K/9, and the two walks putting his walk rate at 2.2 BB/9. Bart’s 3.34 K/BB ratio is the tenth best in the AL, which is amazing. The only way I see him making the playoff  roster is if there’s an injury, but damn yo, give this man some props. Colon’s been a godsend this season.

Leftovers

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Soriano easily retired the next three batters he faced after the homer, so I assume the two baserunners and three-run dinger were intentional. That will make me feel better before Friday. David Robertson got two outs and his 100th  strikeout of the  season, then Mariano Rivera struck out the only runner he faced. This could be wrong, but someone here said that was the first time Rivera has entered a game with the Yankees losing in the eighth inning since Game  Six of the 2003 World Series. That’s unconfirmed, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Aside from Martin’s homer, the Yankees scored another run when Curtis Granderson grounded into a double play with men on the corners fifth, and again when Nick Swisher doubled with two on in the sixth. How Mark Teixiera didn’t score from second on a double, I’ll never know. I guess he thought it  had a chance to be caught, but that seems unlikely. It was a shot, I thought it had a chance to get out. The Yankees drew five walks (two by Alex Rodriguez) and struck out only four times (two by A-Rod), but one of the walks  was intentional to Jorge Posada immediately before Martin’s GITP. As soon as they turned it, you just knew they’d win. The narrative would not be denied.

There was very little to talk about after the game, hence the lack of postgame notes. Joe Girardi said Wednesday’s starter was still to be determined, but it won’t be a regular. Expect an inning or two of Phil Hughes and a little Boone Logan among various Triple-A arms. Otherwise, a  few Yankees  (Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Posada, Robertson … a few others as well) hung around to watch the end of the Red Sox game. Oh yeah, the Sox won, so Tampa and Boston remain tied for the wildcard heading into the final game of the season. That’s why Wednesday will be awesome.

The Tigers won and the Rangers are winning at the moment (follow that game here), so the Yankees are still on track to face Detroit in the ALDS. Assuming the Texas score doesn’t change, the only way the Yankees would play the Rangers in the ALDS is if the Rangers lose and the Tigers win on Wednesday. Anything else means Yanks-Tigers.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the other stats, and ESPN the updated standings.

Up Next

Hard to believe it, but there’s just one regular season game left in the 2011 season. The Yankees and Rays will wrap the year up on Wednesday night,  when David Price starts the biggest game of his life against Johnny Wholestaff.

Mets block Yanks from hosting AAA team in Newark next season

Update (8:30pm): Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees offered the Mets $250k and a matching evergreen proposal for allowing them to use Newark, but  apparently that’s not enough. The matching evergreen proposal basically means the Yankees would allow the Mets to move one of their minor league teams into their territory (for one year) sometime in the future, extending the same courtesy they were asking of the Mets. Quarter of a million bucks though? I never thought someone could love Newark that much.

Original Post (3:30pm): Via Jerry Izenberg, the Mets used their territory rights to block the Yankees from housing the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees in Newark next season. Brian Cashman and Essex County exec Joseph DiVincenzo reached an agreement that would have allowed the team to play at Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium in 2012 (home of the Newark Bears), but the Mets shot it down because “their organization would only do something like that with mutual and immediate reciprocity.” The Yankees made the Mets several offers, including at least one involving an undisclosed amount of cash, but still no dice.

PNC Field is undergoing major renovations, which will force the team to play at an alternate site next year. The deadline to submit a proposal for such a site was missed earlier this month, but league execs have established a timetable to ensure that this gets resolved in a timely manner. Ottawa, another potential home, appears to be off the table as well.

Game 161: FTL

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Bartolo Colon has faced the Rays three times this year, and he’s 0-3 in those starts. No Yankees pitcher has ever (ever!) lost four games to the Tampa Bay franchise in a single season, but Big Bart has a chance to  accomplish that tonight. Given where the team stands, it ‘s not really a big deal. It would be a big deal for the Rays and their wildcard chase though. Here’s the lineup…

Eduardo Nunez, SS
Curtis Granderson, CF
Robinson Cano, 2B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Mark Teixeira, 1B – oh by the way, new lineup
Nick Swisher, RF
Jorge Posada, DH
Russell Martin, C
Brett Gardner, LF

Bartolo Colon, SP

It’s a My9 game tonight, so it’s only fitting that it’s raining in St. Petersburg. Luckily this place has a roof. Game starts at 7pm ET, enjoy.

Pregame News: A new number three hitter

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

It’s tough to consider a .244/.339/.482 batting line a poor season for most players, but when you’re Mark Teixeira and a .286/.377/.536 career hitter coming into the season, it is a disappointment. Tex’s struggles against right-handed pitchers this year (.221/.324/.450) are well known, and that’s why he’s hitting fifth tonight. Robinson Cano, who has no trouble hitting anyone, will bat third.

“It’s a great idea,” said Tex. “I told [Joe Girardi] I was all for it.” Although no one came out and admitted it, the change is likely permanent throughout the playoffs, at least against righty pitching. Tex can still mash lefties (.297/.377/.557), there’s no issue there. The first baseman acknowledged that the short right field porch in Yankee Stadium is “appetizing,” and he’s planning to work with hitting coach Kevin Long this offseason to iron out his left-handed swing.

This move isn’t just about Tex though, it’s also about maximizing opportunities. Cano has been intentionally walked ten times this year and five times in his last seven games, and although Nick Swisher is a quality hitter, he’s certainly not a guy that strikes the fear of God into a pitcher. When the choice is pitching to Cano or pitching to Swisher, you pitch to Nick every time. I doubt the other team will stop walking Cano now that he’s hitting third (how many batters have we seen get walked ahead of Alex Rodriguez over the years?), but at least now A-Rod and Tex and Swisher are all behind Robbie to  pick up the slack.

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.