The Jorge Posada Game

(Barton Silverman/The New York Times)

The Yankees had lost two in row, three of five, and four of seven. Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui were on the disabled list with wrist injuries and a neck strain kept Jason Giambi on the bench for the day. Coincidentally, he was mired in a 1-for-18 slump. Miguel Cairo started at first base, Andy Phillips at designated hitter. The Rangers were in town with their .283/.349/.454 team batting line, and Shawn Chacon was scheduled to get the ball for the Yankees even after taking a line drive off his left shin in his previous start. The date is May 16th, 2006.

Predictably, Chacon put the Yankees in an early hole. They were down two-zip before they even came to the plate, and six-zip when Joe Torre pulled Chacon with one out in the second. Long reliever Aaron Small’s second pitch was clobbered into the right field bleachers at the Old Stadium for a three-run homer. The Yankees managed to get one back when Cairo singled in Bernie Williams in the bottom half of the inning, but Small gave it right back in the top of third when Mark Teixeira doubled in the junior Gary Matthews.

This one had all the feel of a blowout, one of those inevitable games that occur during the course of a 162-game season. The Yankees were already down nine runs with three of their best offensive players on the sidelines, and the soft part of their bullpen was being thrown at the feet of one of the league’s best offenses. Their win expectancy at that point was two percent, and that felt a little generous. A comeback was unthinkable, but the Yankees and their de facto cleanup hitter had a different idea.

The chipping away officially started in the bottom of the third inning. Johnny Damon singled to start the frame and came around to score on Derek Jeter‘s double. Jeter managed to steal third before Alex Rodriguez popped out in foul territory, bringing Jorge Posada — that de facto cleanup hitter — to the plate. Posada worked the count full before singling back up the middle to drive in Jeter for the team’s third run. A seven-run deficit is still rather significant, but it’s better than a nine-run deficit. More importantly, the comeback wheels were in motion.

Small managed to keep the Rangers in check the next two innings, allowing his offense to chip away a little more in the fifth. Jeter led off the inning with a walk and went to third on A-Rod‘s double. Posada skied John Koronka’s 72nd pitch of the night to deep left field, but it stayed in the park for a sacrifice fly. Jeter trotted home and Alex moved over to third. Robinson Cano, batting fifth for just the third time in his career, plated A-Rod with an RBI ground out. Those two runs turned a 10-3 games into a 10-5 game and effectively ended Koronka’s day.

The Rangers started to make a little bit of noise in the top of the sixth, but Posada helped put an end to a potential rally. Small was lifted with two outs and Teixeira on first, as Torre went to the southpaw Ron Villone to face lefty swinging Blalock. Blalock clobbered Villone’s first pitch the other way to left. Melky Cabrera, playing in just his 12th career game, retrieved the ball and fired back towards the infield. Teixeira was running on contact with two outs and was chugging around third by the time Jeter made the relay throw. Posada received the ball at the plate, then received Teixeira’s left shoulder into his chest as he blocked the plate.

“It was pretty tough,” said Posada after the game. “That was probably the hardest I’ve ever been hit.”

Teixeira, who was listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 lbs. at the time, was running at full speed and said afterward that a collision was his only play in that situation.

“It’s a tough play for a catcher, obviously, but he’s one of the best,” said Teixeira after the game. “He made a very nice play. I’m out if I just slide. Because of the timing of it, if I could have hit him to knock the ball loose, that was my only option to be safe.”

The play at the plate ended the inning and prevented the Rangers from piling on any more runs, and it seemed to inject some life into the offense. Jeter homered in the bottom half of the inning after Melky started the frame with a single and Damon followed with a walk. Suddenly it was a 10-8 game, and the Yankees kept coming after Joaquin Benoit replaced Scott Feldman.

A-Rod walked next, making it four straight batters to reach base to open the inning. Posada then drew a walk of his own to put the tying run on base, and he eventually moved over to third when Bernie doubled in a run to make it 10-9. Cairo slashed a single to left with two outs to score Posada and Williams, turning a one-run deficit into a one-run lead. The Yankees had come all the way back from nine runs down, tying the largest comeback in team history. Of course, the game was far from over.

That 11-10 lead was short-lived thanks to Scott Proctor, who started the seventh inning by walking Kevin Mench and giving up a two-run homer to Brad Wilkerson. Five pitches into the inning, the Yankees were down a run again. In the bottom half of the inning, Damon and Jeter again applied pressure by starting things off with back-to-back singles. A-Rod grounded back to the pitcher, but it allowed Jeter to move up a base and put runners at second and third with one out for Posada.

Jorge worked the count to 2-2 against the forgettable Rick Bauer, then lifted the fifth pitch of the encounter towards left-center. It wasn’t deep enough for a homer and it didn’t even drop in for a hit, but his second sacrifice fly scored Damon and re-tied the game. Two-hundred and seventy four pitches, 39 base runners, and 24 runs into the game, the Yankees and Rangers were tied after seven.

The eighth inning went by without a hitch thanks to Kyle Farnsworth and Ron Mahay, the only pitchers in the game to record a 1-2-3 inning. Farnsworth was the only guy to appear in the game and not allow someone to reach base. Go figure.

Tied at a dozen in the top of the ninth, Torre gave the ball to Mariano Rivera. On this crazy night, not even Mo was safe. Mench opened the inning with a broken bat bloop single, then pinch-runner Adrian Brown moved to second on Wilkerson’s bunt. After a walk to Mark DeRosa, Rod Barajas drove in Brown with another broken bat bloop hit to give the Rangers a 13-12 lead. That put the game in the hands of closer Akinori Otsuka with the top of the order due up.

As he had done all night, Damon got things started with a leadoff single that was nothing more than a ground ball that took a bad hop past Teixeira at first. “This field gets very choppy,” Teixeira later said. “The last one almost hit me in the hand. I just kind of got my hand up there to block it.”

Damon moved up to second on Jeter’s ground ball back to the pitcher, the first time all game the Cap’n failed to reach base. A-Rod nearly tied to game with a line drive back up the middle, but Matthews reeled the ball in to bring Posada to the plate with two outs, the team’s final chance.

(Kathy Willens/AP)

Otsuka was a fastball-splitter pitcher, and he went after Jorge with splitter after splitter. The first three were down below the zone for balls, then Posada took the get-me-over fastball for an autostrike one. Otsuka went back to that fastball in the 3-1 count, and Jorge was looking for it.

“I was just hoping it was out of the park so we wouldn’t have to keep playing,” said the Yankees’ backstop after the game. “I didn’t want to play anymore. As soon as I hit it, I knew it was gone.”

As Jorge said, the ball was gone off the bat, a walk-off two-run shot deep into the right field bleachers. Posada rounded the bases and hopped on home plate with his hands in the air, mobbed by his teammates as the comeback bow was officially tied.

In terms of win probability added, good ol’ WPA, it was the greatest regular season game of Posada’s career at +0.93. It’s not particularly close either. He went 2-for-3 with the walk-off homer, a walk, and two sacrifice flies. Jorge scored the tying run in the sixth, drove in the tying run in the seventh, then won the game in the ninth. He also went 1-for-1 protecting the plate, and years later he and Teixeira would share a laugh over the collision after becoming teammates.

Aside from the game-tying double off Pedro Martinez in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS, this game was the first that jumped to mind after I’d heard about Posada’s intention to retire over the weekend. It was just so perfectly Jorge. He helped drive the offense with his patented power and patience, and he took a pounding behind the plate when he needed.

Posada did exactly that for the Yankees for a decade and half, but his contributions often went under the radar because of others on the team. In Game Seven it was Aaron Boone. In Game Three of the 2001 ALDS — when his solo homer accounted for the only run of the game — it was Derek Jeter’s flip play. There was always something that stole the spotlight from Posada, but not in this game. The injuries allowed his star to shine as he carried his team to one of the biggest comebacks in franchise history.

Fan Confidence Poll: January 9th, 2012

2011 Record: 97-65 (855 RS, 657 RA, 102-60 pythag. record), won AL East, lost to Tigers in ALDS

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Winter leagues wrap up in Latin America

The Yankees have re-signed infielder Doug Bernier to presumably again serve as Triple-A Scranton’s backup infielder according to Matt Eddy. They also released a ton of players…

Released: RHP Jim Blueberg, RHP Francisco Cruceta, RHP Nathan Forer, RHP Mike Gipson, RHP Dustin Hobbs, RHP Corey Maines, RHP Mike Recchia, RHP Michael Solbach, LHP Trevor Johnson, C Jon Hurst, 2B Emerson Landoni, OF Mike Ferraro, OF Taylor Grote, OF Bobby Rinard

Maines officially won the “first 2011 draftee to be released” race, and Landoni has already hooked on with the Braves. Grote was probably the best prospect of the bunch, though he hit just .221/.309/.311 in nearly 1,200 plate appearances after signing for $250k as the team’s eighth round pick in 2007.

The regular seasons for the four major Latin America winter leagues are officially over, so this will be the final minor league update of the 2011 baseball season. The minor league regular seasons actually starts before the MLB regular season this year, as all four full season officiates open their season on Thursday, April 5th. The big league team plays its first game the next day. How about that?

Arizona Fall League – see Nov. 27th update for final stats

Dominican Winter League – see Dec. 26th update for final stats

Mexican Pacific League
Jose Figueroa, OF: 9 G, 3 for 10, 4 K (.300/.300/.300) – 19-year-old spend last season in the Dominican Summer League
Walt Ibarra, IF: 48 G, 25 for 151, 15 R, 5 2B, 1 3B, 5 RBI, 8 BB, 34 K, 2 SB, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.166/.213/.212)
Ramiro Pena, IF: 36 G, 32 for 130, 12 R, 4 2B, 4 HR, 22 RBI, 14 BB, 15 K, 1 SB, 1 CS (.246/.317/.369)
Jorge Vazquez, 1B/DH: 56 G, 70 for 212, 34 R, 7 2B, 18 HR, 60 RBI, 21 BB, 66 K, 3 HBP (.330/.397/.618) – finishes the year with 50 homers, 49 unintentional walks, and 232 strikeouts in 737 plate appearances
Felipe Gonzalez, RHP: 2 G, 0 GS, 1.1 IP, 2 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 HB (20.25 ERA, 3.00 WHIP) – 20-year-old spent the season in the Dominican Summer League
Cesar Vargas, RHP: 2 G, 0 GS, 2 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 K, 1 HB (4.50 ERA, 2.50 WHIP) – soon-to-be 20-year-old struck out 85 in 71.2 IP in the Dominican Summer League this year
Pat Venditte, SwP: 32 G, 42.1 IP, 30 H, 11 R, 11 ER, 7 BB, 46 K, 6 HR, 1 WP (2.34 ERA, 0.86 WHIP)

Puerto Rican League
Ray Kruml, OF: 20 G, 13 for 59, 5 R, 3 2B, 1 3B, 4 RBI, 2 BB, 9 K, 6 SB, 2 CS (.220/.242/.305)

Venezuelan Winter League
Dan Brewer, OF: 6 G, 1 for 19, 2 RBI, 2 BB, 10 K, 1 HBP (.053/.174/.053)
Colin Curtis, OF: 32 G, 29 for 111, 17 R, 6 2B, 2 HR, 11 RBI, 16 BB, 21 K, 3 SB, 1 CS, 3 HBP (.261/.369/.369)
Jose Gil, 1B/C: 32 G, 22 for 81, 16 R, 8 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 10 RIB, 7 BB, 16 K, 1 SB (.272/.326/.432)
Gus Molina, C: 42 G, 31 for 121, 11 R, 7 2B, 5 RBI, 9 BB, 26 K, 2 HBP (.256/.313/.314)
Jose Pirela, IF: 60 G, 71 for 236, 25 R, 8 2B, 4 3B, 3 HR, 36 RBI, 13 BB, 29 K, 4 SB, 2 CS, 4 HBP (.301/.344/.407) – nice winter for him
Rich Martinez, RHP: 1 G, 0 GS, 2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 2 K (0.00 ERA, 2.50 WHIP)

Open Thread: Alfonso Soriano

(AP Photo/Ron Frehm)

I think it’s fair to say that Jesus Montero will be the Yankees’ most anticipated rookie in quite some time next year, probably since Alfonso Soriano in 2001. Soriano, who thrice ranked as one of the 40 best prospects in the game by Baseball America (peaked at #16 in 2000), took over at second base that year once Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing problems relegated him to left field. He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting (behind Ichiro and CC Sabathia) with a .268/.304/.432 batting line (18 homers and 43 steals), then he went on to hit .295/.335/.536 with 77 homers and 76 steals from 2002-2003 before being traded for Alex Rodriguez.

It’s kinda hard to believe, but Soriano turned 36 years old yesterday. He was never exactly an OBP threat, but from 2002-2006 he was the best power-speed player in the game. Only four players hit 100 homers with 100 steals during that time, and Soriano is the easy leader with 187 homers (37 more than Carlos Beltran) and 165 steals (11 more than Bobby Abreu). If it wasn’t for Mariano Rivera‘s blown save, Soriano’s go-ahead eighth inning homer off Curt Schilling in Game Seven of the 2001 World Series would have cemented his place in Yankees lore forever.

* * *

Like yesterday, I’m posting a little earlier than usual because of the NFL playoff action. The Giants and Falcons kick off at 1pm ET (on FOX), then the Steelers and Broncos play at 4:30pm ET (on CBS). None of the hockey and basketball locals are playing, however. Talk about whatever you like here, go nuts.

Report: Yankees offered Nakajima $1M

Via Jon Heyman, the Yankees offered Hiroyuki Nakajima approximately $1M, but the more serious issue was his role. When the announcement was made that the two sides couldn’t reach a deal, we learned that they only offered him a one-year contract. A statement issued by Nakajima’s agent makes it sound like they believe he should be a starter, but apparently no MLB club agrees with that given the lack of bids.

A report from Sponichi (translated) reiterates that Nakajima was okay with the money, but he wanted to become a free agent after the one-year deal while the Yankees wanted to retain his rights for six years like every other player. As a courtesy, MLB typically allows foreign veteran players to be treated as true free agents rather than players with zero service time. Either way, what’s done is done. Nakajima will go back to Japan and the Yankees will look for another bench player elsewhere.

Scouting Phil Hughes

When long-heralded prospects make it to the major leagues, the exciting scouting reports on them tend to stick around long past their expiration dates. We hear about potential based on a perception of the player that is no longer reasonable or based on existing attributes. We cling to those old scouting reports, hoping that the player will eventually reach the level of performance that they promised, not willing to accept that circumstance and lack of development have altered the player’s ceiling.

Phil Hughes provides a good example of this phenomenon. While many of us have moved on and have lowered their expectations when it comes to Phil, we still cling to him as a guy who has long had potential and could eventually capitalize on it. However, his myriad injuries and the stunted development associated with them have altered Hughes such that the previous scouting reports no longer apply. He was a guy with a fastball at 91-94 that he had stellar command of, an excellent curveball that he could finish hitters with, and a changeup that always seemed to be on the cusp of being a usable pitch. However, the updated scouting report reads differently:

Hughes, turning 26 in June, has a classic power pitcher’s build, coming in at a solid 6’5″ and a listed 240 pounds. However, he seems to have put on a bit of weight in recent years, and the Yankees sent him to their fat camp last spring to try and shed those extra pounds. The Yankees have long liked his makeup and believe he has the mental ability to be a successful pitcher in this league, but his conditioning is something worth keeping an eye on.

As for his stuff, he is primarily a two pitch pitcher, featuring a fastball and a curveball. While he has used a cutter fairly often in recent years, he seemed to have slowly removed in from his repertoire over the course of 2011, a smart decision considering its ineffectiveness throughout the season. He occasionally mixes in a changeup, but it is not much of a pitch and is unlikely to become a major part of his arsenal.

His fastball sits at 89-92, and is pretty straight. However, he does have very good command of the pitch in the zone, and he uses that ability to draw plenty of foul balls and get ahead in counts. His curveball, once a pitch that he could throw for strikes and use to finish hitters off, has become adequate at best. It was always a bit loopy, but it had a lot of depth and hitters would swing over it. It has lost some of that depth and just tumbles up to hitters, who can usually catch up to it and foul it off or drive it somewhere. He has also struggled to throw it for strikes in recent seasons. Hughes tinkered some with a spike curve last season, but did not see great results and is unlikely to lean on it in the future.

This two pitch combination allows him to get to two strikes by way of his fastball, but once he is there he has nothing to finish hitters off with. He cannot throw the fastball by them, and they are not swinging at the curveball out of the zone. Eventually, Hughes makes a mistake and hitters are ready to pounce.

Outlook: Hughes did have a major jump in innings from 2009 to 2010, so it is possible that some of his 2011 struggles could be attributed to overuse. But unless he recovers some of his velocity, has his command go from good back to great, or recaptures his old curveball, Hughes profiles as a #4 starter or possibly a good reliever. His fastball command is still good enough to keep him in a MLB rotation, but he needs to find another positive attribute in his arsenal to surpass his current back-of-the-rotation ceiling. As he nears his age 26 season, the likelihood that he does that grows ever more slim.

That is my scouting report on Hughes at this point. I’ve discarded the one that marked him as the next Yankees ace, as those expectations simply do not match the skills that Hughes currently brings to the table. I hope to be forced to pull that old one out of the trash, dust it off, and use it once again, but I do not expect that to happen. It is time to stop judging Phil Hughes on what he could have been, and start addressing what he is.

Rivera expects to be ready for Spring Training after surgery…

… on his vocal cords. Third time with that joke is a charm, no? Anyway, Marc Carig spoke to the greatest reliever of all-time today, and Mariano Rivera said he expects to be ready for Spring Training when camp opens in about five weeks. Carig says Mo sounds like his normal self following surgery on vocal cords, but frankly I don’t think it was his voice that many of us were worried about. Glad everything’s okay.