Game 126: Payback

Alex approves. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Blue Jays got the best of the Yankees last night, with Jose Bautista getting revenge for an alleged pitch thrown at his head by homering late in the game to break a tie. Now it’s time for the Yanks to get some payback of their own.

I’m not talking about plunking Bautista or anything, let him puff his chest out and think he’s shown everyone he’s the man. He’s going to be playing golf in October one way or the other. I want to win, and not just win, but win big. Bludgeon them right from the start and show no mercy. Remind Bautista and the rest of his teammates that they’re nothing but fourth place afterthoughts in the game’s toughest division, and even though they won the battle yesterday, they were always doomed to lose the war.

Here’s the starting nine…

Jeter, SS
Swisher, RF
Teixeira, 1B
Cano, 2B
Thames, DH
Posada, C
Kearns, LF
Granderson, CF
Nunez, 3B

And on the the bump, it’s Dustin Moseley.

This one’s scheduled to start a little after 7pm ET and can be seen on good ol’ My9. Enjoy.

Steinbrenner stadium tribute set for Sept. 20

The Steinbrenner family announced today that the Yankee organization will unveil a monument in memory of the Boss on September 20 prior to the team’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Long-time owner George Steinbrenner passed away on July 13, just nine days after celebrating his 80th birthday. “We remain profoundly grateful and touched by the many expressions of sympathy and support from so many. We wish to thank everyone for their kind thoughts and prayers, which we continue to hold close. We are especially appreciative that our family’s privacy was respected as we grieved the loss of George,” the family said in a statement.

The Steinbrenner monument will be the first new one in Monument Park since the team unveiled a statue in honor of Joe Dimaggio in 1999. “We know we will always share George’s memory with Yankees fans everywhere,” the Steinbrenner said, “and a monument in his honor to be located in Monument Park will reflect the special connection, appreciation and responsibility that George felt for New York Yankees’ fans everywhere as they were always uppermost in his mind.”

Vazquez skipped as Nova tabbed for Sunday

Fresh off of his strong start against the Blue Jays, Ivan Nova will take the ball against the White Sox on Sunday instead of Javier Vazquez. Joe Girardi said that Vazquez will be skipped this weekend but will be available out of the bullpen. After a strong May and June, Vazquez has struggled lately. He is 2-2 over his last seven starts but with a 6.69 ERA over 35 innings. He’s allowed 11 home runs over that span, and more alarming than the results have been his stuff. His fastballs were down to the mid-to-low 80s, and his breaking pitches had nothing on them.

Vazquez had complained about a dead arm period two weeks ago, and it seems as though the right-hander has yet to regain his arm strength. Nova’s presence allows the club to give Javy some extra rest in advance of a September stretch drive. The team has not yet announced the rotation beyond this weekend, and we don’t know for how long Javy’s rotation spot will remain in limbo. It sounds however as though Nova, barring a collapse, will remain a rotation option for the remainder of the season. After all, Phil Hughes‘ innings limit will come into play shortly as well.

For two key Yanks, some looming decisions

CC delivers. Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

When the Yankees signed CC Sabathia, most news outlets reported it as a seven-year, $161-million deal, but that’s not entirely true. As we know — and try to forget — the Sabathia deal is a three-year contract for $69 million with a player option for four years and $92 million. Sabathia’s opt-out looms nearly as large as the lefty himself, but speaking on the contract for the first time, CC said he’ll stay in New York.

According to The Post, CC said he “won’t even consider” exercising his opt-out clause after the 2011 season. “I’m here,” Sabathia said to Mark Hale. “Hundred percent. I think you know I’ve built a house here, right? My kids go to school here. We live here year round. So I’m not going anywhere.”

That’s music to my ears. As a Yankee, CC Sabathia is now 36-13 with a 3.21 ERA. He’s a horse, averaging just under 7 innings a start, and he’s pitched even better in the cozy confines of Yankee Stadium than we could have expected. At home, he is 17-2 with a 2.84 ERA. “You can give my wife credit for that, I guess,” Sabathia said. “Her cooking. And just being at home, being around my family and going out and being able to be relaxed. It’s just one of those things. I love being home. I love playing in The Bronx. I love being at Yankee Stadium. But just one of those things that worked out like that.”

When the Yankees signed CC, the opt-out was viewed as an incentive to come to New York. Most who covered baseball assumed that Sabathia wanted to pitch closer his home in California’s Bay Area, but the Yankees overwhelmed with him money. Unlike A-Rod‘s opt-out or J.D. Drew’s opt-out, the one in CC’s contract wasn’t necessarily about getting more money if the market rebounded; it was about allowing CC to adjust to the pressures of New York and decided if he wanted to stay. For now, it seems, he’ll stay.

Of course, I can’t believe right away that CC won’t take advantage of the opt-out in some shape or form. It gives the left-hander some leverage if the market appears strong after the 2011 season. He could ask the Yanks for another year in exchange for waiving the opt-out or he could renegotiate the final four years of his deal entirely. After all, when other high-profile opt outs have come due, the players have used that leverage to get richer. Love of New York aside, would CC be the exception to that rule?

But I’m certainly willing to take him at his word that he wants to stay in New York. He’s the king of the Yankees rotation and, after the World Series, the toast of the town (and it takes a while to tend to an organic garden in the bullpen). If he stays, the Yanks have at least one ace for the next few years, and their rotation is still that much stronger. They will still look to land Cliff Lee as a replacement for Andy Pettitte when he retires and have Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and, for better or worse, A.J. Burnett under team control for the next three years. It could very well be a riches of pitches.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Before CC’s opt-out comes due, another Yankee free agent will have a decision to make. As the Bombers head to the Windy City this weekend and as the White Sox’s cross-town rivals see their managerial spot in flux, Joe Girardi‘s contract situation will sneak to the forefront. Our own Mike Axisa tackled the Cubs question a few weeks ago, but with Lou Piniella’s resignation this past weekend, the Chicago media will pepper the Yanks’ skipper with questions about the Cubs’ vacancy. As he must and as he did to ESPN, Joe will say that he loves New York. “I’m sure I’m gonna be asked that a lot now that he’s stepped down,” Girardi said. “My focus is here. I have a responsibility to the organization and to the guys in that clubhouse and that’s where my focus is. I’m very happy here, you know what? Great working relationship here with everyone involved and I’m very happy here. This organization has been great to me.”

Girardi, though, recognizes his close ties to Chicago, and as a native son of Illinois, might he be tempted to try to manage the Cubs to an elusive World Series? “I know I have a background there and I’m not gonna skirt around my background there,” he said. “I grew up a Cubs fan, I played for the Cubs, but I’m not worried about that now. Im worried about what we’re doing now. We’re in a fight.”

I don’t always agree with Joe Girardi’s moves. I find his bullpen management a bit too by-the-books at times, but he’s enjoyed great success with the Yankees in his three seasons so far. Unless the Yanks somehow fail to make the playoffs, he’ll have an offer on the table from the Steinbrenners as the Cubs try to fill their own managerial role. As with CC, Girardi, though, should return to the Bronx. It’s just the Yankee way.

Avoiding the big bats

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Last night Jose Bautista almost singlehandedly beat the Yankees (his pitching staff helped), driving in all three Blue Jays runs with his two homeruns. The first one, a two-run shot on a hanging curveball in the 3rd inning is forgivable since there was still so much baseball left to be played, but the second homer … not so much.

It’s the 8th inning of a tie game with the baseball’s premier homerun hitter at the plate after he’d already gone deep earlier in the game AND was pissed off about alledgedly being thrown at, so why does that guy even get a chance to swing the bat? Sure, David Robertson absolutely missed his spot on the deciding homerun pitch, but that doesn’t excuse anything.

Rewind back to this past weekend and even to last week for that matter. The Mariners have one legitimate power hitter in their lineup, yet Russell Branyan was allowed to hit three homeruns in the three game set. The series before that featured an injury riddled Tigers’ lineup with MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera smack dab in the middle of it, and yet Miggy hit four homers in the four game set. Do you see the pattern here? The Yanks are allowing the one guy in the other team’s lineup, the guy your game plan says not to let beat you, beat them.

Of course this is just a very, very small sample. We’re talking about an eight game stretch during which time the Yanks actually won five of those games, but the point stands. These players who so obviously stick out from the rest of their lineup because of their offensive might are punishing the Yanks time and time again. The old school Michael Jordan Defense doesn’t work in baseball, you can’t let these guys hit their homers and concentrate on shutting everyone else down and hope to win.

I’m not saying they should blindly pitch around the other team’s big bats a la Barry Bonds in the early aughts (I’ll never forget watching a game a few years ago when the opposing team intentionally walked Barry with two outs and the bases empty in the 1st damn inning), but in high leverage spots like last night, don’t even give him a chance to make to you pay. Go after Vernon Wells and his .313 wOBA since May 10th. Forget Cabrera, let Brennan Boesch and his .197 wOBA since the break beat you. Let’s see if Jose Lopez’s .267 wOBA can made you regret avoiding Branyan.

Maybe this is just a knee-jerk reaction following last night’s loss because you never want to intentionally put the winning run on base in the late innings, but when you’re talking about hitters of that caliber, the winning run is already in scoring position when they come to the plate. They’re capable of driving themselves in with one swing, like Bautista did last night. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request for Joe Girardi and the rest of the Yanks’ decision makers to use their brain a little and not give the other team’s best hitters anything to hit in late inning, high leverage spots. There’s no shame in pitching around great hitters when they have a chance to do major damage to your win expectancy, we see it happen to the Yanks all the time.

We’re getting down to crunch time here with basically no wiggle room in the division race. Stop giving these great hitters a chance to beat you in the late innings. Just stop it.

Ivan Nova and the rotation going forward

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Even though they were saddled with a frustrating loss, the Yankees have to be encouraged by what they saw out of first time starter Ivan Nova last night. He avoided certain doom in the very 1st inning (with some help from Brett Gardner) before settling down and more than holding his own the rest of the way. Nine of the final ten men he faced made outs, with the lone exception being a dinky little infield single that ended his outing perhaps a little sooner than I think we all expected. Given his pitch count (73) when he was lifted with one out in the 6th, there’s a very real chance that Nova could have completed seven full innings he had been given the opportunity. That’s like hitting the lottery when you’re talking about a 23-year-old pitcher in the AL East.

In a normal situation, Nova easily earned himself another start, but the Yanks aren’t exactly in a normal situation right now. They’re in a division race and have five other (theoretically) capable starters on the roster already. The plan was to use Nova to give the other starters a little extra rest here and there, though the team never divulged how many starts they actually plan to give him. Joel Sherman reported “at least two or three,” but I’m not sure we can take that as gospel. I’m willing to bet this situation is a lot more fluid than we may think, and the team is going to play it by ear until their spot in the standings becomes a little more certain.

Prior to yesterday’s game, Joe Girardi indicated that his starters for the next five games will be as follows:

Tonight: Dustin Moseley (five days rest)
Tomorrow: Phil Hughes (five days rest)
Thursday: OFF
Friday: A.J. Burnett (six days rest)
Saturday: CC Sabathia (six days rest)
Sunday: Javy Vazquez (seven days rest)

Nova’s start combined with the off day gave them the opportunity to split up Burnett and Vazquez not just because they’re unpredictable and could burn out the bullpen in a two day span, but also because Girardi wants Frankie Cervelli to serve as the personal catcher for both pitchers. Now they don’t have to worry about 39-year-old Jorge Posada potentially catching three days in a row just to keep the catching rotation in order.

What happens after those five games is anyone’s guess right now. Obviously they could go right back to Moseley and Hughes on Monday and Tuesday, respectively, with both pitching on five days rest before running A.J., CC, and Javy out there after that on their normal four days rest. They also have the option of starting Nova on Wednesday, giving those three guys another day of rest. There’s about a dozen different options here.

Perhaps the best thing to do from a big picture point of view is to start Nova on either Monday or Tuesday, Moseley the other day, then go to the regulars with Hughes getting skipped this one time through the rotation to control his innings. The punchless A’s (.311 team wOBA) are in town early next week, which makes throwing the rookie out there in the division race a little easier to swallow. Yeah, that’s weak logic, but I figured it was worth mentioning.

Really, the most important thing going forward is a) making sure Hughes’ workload doesn’t enter the danger zone (he’s at 140.2 innings right now), and b) Sabathia makes as many starts as possible. An extra day here or there is fine, but he makes the big bucks for a reason, and that’s so the team can lean on him in crucial late season games. Under no circumstances should CC be pushed back a day just to squeeze in a start for Nova to keep him from getting stale, unless of course the Yanks have a comfortable division lead.

There’s one other thing we have to remember here: Nova’s on an innings limit too. He’s at 153.1 innings this season, a career high. He threw 139.1 innings last year and 148.2 the year before, so what’s his limit this year, maybe 180? That’s another four or five starts, which … is probably fine now that I think about it. I suppose the only way it becomes an issue is if the Yanks remove Vazquez from the rotation for whatever reason (injury, ineffectiveness) and decide to go with Nova as one of the regular starting pitchers. I’m not saying that’s what I think they should do, but we can’t rule it out completely.

For now, the Yankees have to be encouraged by what Nova did last night, and should feel confident with him making another start in the not too distant future. When (or if) that chance comes is anyone’s guess, but with Hughes on an innings limit and Vazquez walking a tightrope, I’m willing to bet that Mr. Nova will make another start for the Bombers before the season is out.

The Race for October: Rounding 3rd and headin’ for home

As the Bombers’ bats fell largely silent last night and the Angels could not mount a late-game comeback against the Rays, Yankee fans in the east will wake up to a tie atop the AL East standings. Both the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays have 37 games left to play and both teams are a Major League-best 77-48. Meanwhile, the never-say-die Red Sox are hanging on the fringes of the playoff picture, six losses back of the beasts of the easts but not quite ready to pack it in.

Three weeks ago, the playoff picture looked remarkably similar to the way it does today. Just as they did last night, a Yankee loss dropped them into a first-place tie with the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Red Sox were 6.5 games out of the East — seven on the loss side. The Red Sox needed a surge then to close the gap, but they shaved just one game off of their playoff deficit as three weeks melted away from the season.

For 20 games, then, the best league in baseball has seen its top three teams spin their wheels. No team has taken advantage of the others’ struggles, and no team has emerged the true victor. The final 37 games then will be telling, and as I did then, let’s see what the future awaits.

Of the three AL East teams still battling it out, the Yankees have the toughest schedule. (Ed. Note: All numbers are taken from this spreadsheet.) As of today, the seven teams that await the Bombers on their schedule have a combined winning percentage of .524. Only the Orioles and A’s — currently at 61-62 — are under .500 on the season. The Yanks must play the pesky Blue Jays eight more times, the Red Sox and Rays a combined 13 times and the White Sox and Rangers six times. It might be a challenge, but it’s one to which the Yanks have risen before.

So far on the season, the team has a lofty .627 winning percentage against these clubs. That number is of course powered by the 10-2 record the Yanks hold against the Orioles, but beating up on the bad teams it the way to get to October. The Yanks have lost just one each to Oakland and Texas in five and four contests respectively. They handled the White Sox in May and have a 7-5 mark against the Red Sox. All the Yankees have to do is keep doing what they’ve done, and they’ll get there.

The biggest obstacle in the way of the Yanks’ path to a symbolic AL East crown is Tampa Bay. The Rays’ final 37 games are against some weak competition indeed, and Tampa Bay has dominated these teams. The Rays’ seven opponents have a combined winning percentage of .482, and that includes the Yanks and Red Sox. Only 19 of the Rays’ last games are against opponents with winning records, and Tampa Bay enjoys 13 games against the likes of the Royals, Orioles and Mariners.

The Yanks’ saving grace though is the fact that Tampa Bay is 38-22 against these opponents. That’s a solid mark indeed, but the Yankees are 37-22 against their remaining opponents. If both teams play as they have so far, the AL East could come down to a dead heat. The tiebreaker will be the two teams’ head-to-head record, and right now, Tampa Bay has a six games to five edge.

And then we find the Red Sox, hanging around, uninvited to this two-team party. The Red Sox have just 36 games left in which to make up their deficit. Luckily — or unluckily — for Boston, they get to play 12 games against the Rays and Yankees and can kinda sorta control their own fate. Outside of those sets, though, Boston’s schedule isn’t going to give them an edge. Their seven opponents have a combined winning percentage of .505, and the Red Sox have beaten the six teams they’ve faced only 32 out of 62 times.

Even if the Red Sox can beat up on the Blue Jays, Mariners and Orioles, if they can’t decisively down the Rays and Yankees, they’ll have no chance in the AL East. Even a split of the 12 games leaves them where they are now but with only 24 games left to make up a 5.5-game deficit. It’s not impossible, but it’s highly unlikely.

For the Yankees, then, with a few question marks in the rotation and some less-than-inspired play on the field, the club will cheer on Tampa Bay this weekend as the Rays take on Boston. Even if the Yanks slip out of the AL East lead, if Tampa Bay can stomp on the Red Sox — something the Yanks failed to do two weeks ago in the Bronx — the road to October will look ever clearer. Even still, the race against the calendar still favors Tampa Bay and New York, but I’m not going to start counting my chickens just yet.