Robertson out with back spasms after MRI

When Chad Gaudin came in for the 7th inning against the top of the 7th inning, I assumed the Yanks were either not going to try to hard to win tonight or someone was hurt. The true story seems to be a combination of both. According to Bryan Hoch, David Robertson was unavailable tonight with back spasms. The Yanks’ key set-up man had gone for an MRI earlier in the day, but the results showed no structural damage. He is considered day-to-day.

Robertson, who had a late-season MRI on his throwing elbow in 2009, has made 59 appearances this year, but lately, Girardi had been leaning heavily on the right-hander. He made seven appearances over 11 games from Sept. 8-Sept. 20 and had warmed up a few times before pitching. Hopefully, the Yanks have enough time to rest Robertson and get him ready for the playoffs, but with ten games left in the regular season, time’s a-wastin’.

Game 152: Twisting the knife

Credit: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

No matter what happens tonight and tomorrow, the Tampa Bay Rays will leave the Bronx in second place. By winning the first two games, the Yankees assured that, in the even of a series split, they’ll have a 0.5-game lead in the AL East. Based on their remaining schedules, a split would probably give the division edge to the Rays, and that’s not good enough for the Yankees. “Our goal,” manager Joe Girardi said this afternoon, “is to win the division.”

To put some distance between them and the Rays, the Yanks are going to have to win one, if not both, of the remaining contests this week, and tonight, the Yanks will turn the ball over to A.J. Burnett. After struggling through a terrible summer, Burnett has been better but still mediocre of late. He isn’t Bad A.J., but he’s not Good A.J. either. During his last four outings spanning 24 innings, he’s allowed 23 hits and 10 walks for an ERA Of 4.50. After striking out just 113 in his first 150 innings, he has K’d 24 batters over his last 24 innings pitched.

Countering A.J. will be one of the Rays’ better pitchers. While Tampa Bay’s rotation is in shambles, Wade Davis hasn’t lost a start since June 27 against the Diamondbacks. His 3.62 ERA over a span of 69.2 innings seems impressive, but he’ll still give up his fair share of home runs — 10 — while his K rate remains low — 6.07 per 9 IP. His FIP is a less impressive 4.47. The Yanks beat Davis on April 10 and lost on May 19 and July 30. For what it’s worth, only Brett Cecil and Felix Hernandez have beaten the Yanks three times this season.

Game time’s 7:05 p.m.

Brett Gardner LF
Derek Jeter SS
Mark Teixeira 1B – Having a terrible September. Girardi said Teixeira will rest his broken toe after the Yanks clinch.
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Robinson Cano 2B
Nick Swisher RF
Lance Berkman DH
Curtis Granderson CF
Francisco Cervelli C

A.J. Burnett P

Interestingly, Tampa Bay is going with a different lineup tonight too. Joe Maddon said he wanted to give Carlos Peña the rest of the series off to “clear his head.” That a tough lefty is going tomorrow night makes that move easier. Check out the Rays’ starting nine:

John Jaso DH
Ben Zobrist CF
Carl Crawford LF
Evan Longoria 3B
Dan Johnson 1B
Matt Joyce RF
Jason Bartlett SS
Reid Brignac 2B
Dioner Navarro C

Update (9:55 p.m.): The Yankees have announced that the game will resume at approximately 10:05 p.m. It’s the bottom of the third, and the Yankees are down 1-0. Both Wade Davis and A.J. Burnett will not be returning to the mound. Royce Ring is warming up for the Yankees, and Jeremy Hellickson will come in to pitch for Tampa Bay.

On the Pinstriped Podcast with Craig Mahoney

If you haven’t checked out Craig Mahoney’s Pinstriped Podcast, well, now is the week to start. I’m his guest this week, and we run down a number of issues, both serious and light-hearted, from the past few weeks. We’re on the Steinbrenner monument, Burnett’s black eye, Ivan Nova, plus some Jeter and some Mo. As Craig says, the podcast may contain naughty language and ribald humor, so I wouldn’t recommend letting the young’uns listen to this one. But if that’s up your alley, check out this week’s edition of the Pinstriped Podcast.

A Lesson In Trust: Hughes vs. Nova

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

There’s no question that the first few innings of Phil Hughes‘ outing last night were rocky. He put at least one man on base in each of the first four innings, averaging almost exactly 20 pitches per frame. He escaped a bases loaded jam in the fourth one inning after getting out of a first and second situation. The young righty clearly was having trouble throwing consistent, quality strikes, and after getting out of that fourth inning unscathed most thought that was the end of his night.

But no, Girardi sent Phil back out for the fifth and he responded with his strongest inning yet, retiring the Rays’ 3-4-5 hitters with a strikeout sandwiched around a pair of ground outs. With 97 pitches thrown and five innings in the bank, it seemed like a natural spot to summon someone from the bullpen. Again, Girardi fooled everyone by sending Hughes back out for the sixth, which ended up being his second consecutive 1-2-3 inning, this time on just eight pitches. Surely that was it after 105 pitches, right? Wrong, there was Hughes back out for the seventh. He threw six more pitches and allowed a single before recording an out to end his night. A case could be made that Girardi should have removed Phil two or three innings earlier, but he stuck with his 24-year-old righty.

Rewind to Monday. Rookie righthander Ivan Nova started the game for the Yanks, and he cruised right into the fifth inning on just 56 pitches, having allowed just a first inning single and a third inning walk along the way. That crucial fifth inning could not have gone any smoother, as Nova retired all three batters on just four pitches total. He was on autopilot, pounding the zone with fastballs and getting Tampa’s hitters to chase the curveball down and off the plate.

After the Yanks pushed a pair of runs across in the bottom of that fifth inning, Nova went back to work in the sixth and promptly allowed a leadoff single to Jason Bartlett. John Jaso followed that up with a five pitch walk, and then Ben Zobrist singled to load the bases with no outs and the Yanks up by four. Carl Crawford reached on a catcher’s interference, and after Evan Longoria plated a run on a double play to cut the lead to two, Girardi was out of the dugout to lift Nova after just 79 pitches.

What’s remarkable about both outings is how differently Girardi handled each pitcher. Hughes was left in until he had emptied the tank despite the stressful early innings while Nova wasn’t allowed to escape his own jam even though the Yanks were still up by two with two outs in the inning. Girardi surely had last week’s series in Tampa in mind, which included not only Nova’s fifth inning meltdown, but Dan Johnson’s go-ahead two run homer off Hughes after he sent him out for that proverbial “one more inning.” Even though both are relatively new to this big league starter thing, Girardi clearly gives Phil more rope right now.

Joel Sherman’s column today confirms what we already know, that Hughes is all but guaranteed a rotation spot in the postseason. Nova, despite what some other scribes want you to believe, is fighting for a spot on the playoff roster, nevermind a starting assignment. Oh sure, the bullpen situation certainly played a part in Girardi’s decisions the last two days, but this is nothing new. Nova’s been subjected to the quick hook all season (longest start: 91 pitches, only one other time over 79) while Hughes has been given a nice long leash (shortest start: 84 pitches, just nine under 100 pitches) all year long.  It’s appears to be a matter of getting what you can out of one guy while giving the other every opportunity to succeed and develop.

Trust is probably the wrong word to use in the title of this post, I think it’s more about development. Nova’s a fine pitcher and the Yankees seem to like him, but it’s undeniable that they adore Hughes and have gone to great lengths to help him reach his ceiling. In some cases that involves putting the big picture over a single game, something they have yet to come close to doing with Nova. The way they’ve handled both pitchers this season is pretty telling about what they think of each both right now, and down the road.

Rumor du Jour: Girardi’s unlikely replacements

As the Yanks sit upon the precipice of a playoff spot, it’s highly unlikely that Joe Girardi, despite a rough patch in early September, will be dismissed as the Yankee manager. The Yanks’ Front Office supports him, and the younger generation of Steinbrenners doesn’t seem so prone to rash personnel moves. Still, if Girardi himself chooses to take another job — say the opening in Chicago’s North Side — the Yanks will have to find a new manager. To that end, Jon Heyman, ever the rumormongerer, says that Bobby Valentine “likely would be one candidate to replace him in the Bronx.” Joe Torre’s name too has been bandied about by columnists looking for a narrative.

I say no way, no how on either candidate. Steve S. at TYU dispatches Torre while Rob Iracane at Walkoff walk seems to think that anyone advocating for Valentine’s return to the bench is delusional. The hand-wringing over Girardi’s contract is simply that. With the Yanks holding a secure playoff, the narrative of Girardi is one story to watch after the Word Series, but he’ll be back.

The subway just got a lot more attractive

If you’re riding the 42nd St. shuttle any time soon, be on the lookout for Yankees. As Ben writes on Second Avenue Sagas, MLB and TBS have started an ad campaign using not only advertising painted on the cars, but also video ads on the new 10 inch screens. Ben will have more on this in a bit, but definitely check out his SAS post for some neat pictures. Of note, there are apparently four players featured: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Cliff Lee. Hmm…

Jeter makes noticeable changes at the plate

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

For most of the season Derek Jeter didn’t look like Derek Jeter at the plate. Sure, he appeared to have the same stance, but once the pitcher delivered the ball it seemed as though a different, much worse, hitter possessed him. He swung at almost everything, especially the first pitch of an at-bat, and when he put the ball in play it was mostly on the ground. It didn’t show much in the first month, as he produced a .380 wOBA. But in May the Captain’s flaws became exposed.

What’s odd about Jeter’s April and May is that it looks like the results should be reversed. In April Jeter walked in just three percent of his PA and hit the ball on the ground 71.3 percent of the time, yet he slugged .521 and had a .380 wOBA. In May he walked a bit more, 6.4 percent, and hit fewer balls on the ground, 63.1 percent, but is power dropped considerably and he slugged just .359. It looked like he might be recovering, but in June things got a bit worse.

Something must have changed after May, because Jeter’s BABIP plummeted. After a .325 BABIP in April and .337 in May, Jeter had a .268 BABIP in June and followed it up with .278 in both July and August. Watching Jeter’s swing it was clear that luck played only a minor role in this change. He was making weak contact with almost everything, grounding pitch after pitch to second and short. It not only led to him making more outs, but also making outs for others. After grounding into eight double plays in the season’s first three months, Jeter grounded into 11 in July and August.

In September things came to a head. Jeter went just 6 for 36 with two walks and two extra base hits in the month. His BABIP: .200. He was looking as poor as ever. During an extra innings game on September 10 in Texas Jeter went 1 for 7, and that seemed to be the breaking point. Joe Girardi gave him the next day off, during which he went to work with hitting instructor Kevin Long. The changes were subtle. Long had Jeter focus on striding straight forward rather than towards home plate. Try that at home; you’ll notice that you generate better bat speed when stepping straight forward. They also worked on the timing in Jeter’s front foot tap and his leg kick. But would these changes translate into results?

The effect was almost immediately noticeable. Almost every Yankee looked poor against Cliff Lee the next day, but Jeter managed to put together four superb plate appearances that included two walks and an RBI double. Since then he has at least one hit in every game and is overall 14 for 45 with five walks and four doubles (.311/.396/.400). It might sound like something you can dismiss with a small sample size disclaimer, but the changes are noticeable in Jeter’s approach. His swings look more authoritative, and he’s putting the ball in the air more often.

As you can see in his batted ball chart, ground balls are falling and line drives are rising. That’s the idea. Even fly balls seem to have a little uptick in the past few games. But even more important than the trajectory of the ball is that Jeter is hitting them hard. That’s a welcome change from his performance during the summer.

Is Derek Jeter cured? We’ve only seen him at work for a handful of games since Long’s intervention, but given the noticeably different approach and the results I think that Jeter has figured out what plagued him most of the season. The recovery couldn’t have come at a better time. The rest of the team picked him up for most of the season. Now it’s time for Jeter to shine in the postseason.