My favorite Al Aceves games

No one was happy yesterday when news broke that Al Aceves signed with the Red Sox. He was such a good story, going from the Blue Jays system to the Mexican League, and then eventually, along with Manny Banuelos, to the Yankees. After blowing through the minors he came up to help the pitching starved 2008 Yankees, and lent an even bigger hand to the bullpen in 2009. Now not only is he gone, but he’s gone to them.

We’ll always have our memories of Aceves. Here are some of my favorites from his years in pinstripes.

September 9, 2008: His first start

(Kevork Djansezian/AP)

Early September, 2008, is not a time Yankees fans like to recall. Heading into play on the ninth the Yankees were 76-68, 10 games back of the Rays for first. But that wasn’t their only woe. They were actually in fourth place at the time, two games in the loss column back of Toronto. They had already lost Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain, and Andy Pettitte had started to tank. The Yankees needed pitching desperately. They turned to Acevecs, who, after spending most of the year in the minors, came up a week and a half earlier as a reliever.

Aceves earned his start on September 4, when he pitched five innings in relief of Darrell Rasner, who allowed five runs early to the Rays. He allowed just one run while striking out four, which was an admirable accomplishment against the eventual division champs. The Yankees mounted a late rally, scoring five in the ninth, but came up short. Still, it was clear that Ace was ready to take the ball five days later.

That day Aceves lasted seven innings and didn’t surrender a single run until the Yankees had already put four on the board against Ervin Santana. He needed just 89 pitches to get through those seven innings, mainly because he induced so many ground balls. Of the 26 Angels who put the ball in play, 14 hit it on the ground and only two hit the ball squarely on a line. An inning of relief from both Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte sealed the victory. Unfortunately, the Jays won both ends of the doubleheader, putting another half game between the two.

September 20, 2008: Penultimate game

Last day game at the old Stadium (Julie Jacobson/AP)

It took a 12-5 finish to salvage a third place finish in 2008, and Aceves helped them achieve that mark. While he got smacked around by Boston when the two teams met towards the end of the season, he did pitch a gem just before that. It didn’t catapult the Yankees into contention, but it certainly had some meaning.

On Friday, September 19, 2008, the Yankees started a series against the Baltimore Orioles. This was a largely meaningless series from a pennant race point of view. The Yankees were well behind the Red Sox and had only the slightest prayer for the Wild Card. The Orioles, as usual, were in last. But these three games would be the final three games at Yankee Stadium. As we did every year since I can remember, a buddy and I picked up tickets from one of his dad’s clients and got to sit first row behind the Yanks dugout. But that was Friday, when Carl Pavano started. If only we’d been at the game that Saturday.

Aceves started the game, and it started in inauspicious fashion. Brian Roberts pulled a double down the right field line. But then Adam Jones tried to bunt him to third and popped up right to Aceves. That eliminated the runner and made Nick Markakis’s subsequent single easier to stomach. Aceves didn’t record a 1-2-3 inning until the fourth, and that would be the only inning he retired the side in order. But he still managed to complete six innings without allowing a run. Brian Bruney, Damaso Marte, and Mariano Rivera continued the shutout, and the Yanks came back in a pretty wild bottom of the ninth, which ended with a Robbie Cano bases loaded, walk-off single.

May 16 and 17, 2009: Walk-off weekend

This is another instance where I was at the game before Aceves had his moment. On May 15 it appeared that the Yanks were about to lose a game against the Twins. But a late rally set up Melky Cabrera with a walk-off opportunity. He delivered, giving the Yanks an unexpected victory. Little did I know, walking out of the Stadium to “New York, New York,” that it was just the beginning of quite the memorable weekend.

The next day the Yanks led 3-2 heading into the eighth inning, but Phil Coke kind of ruined that. Joe Mauer had taken him deep the day before. On the 16th it was Justin Morneau. That tied the game at three. Three batters later Coke had given the Twins the lead. The Yanks ended up tying the game in the bottom half, but then the game went into extra innings. Mariano Rivera pitched his two innings, but the Yankees needed someone for the 11th. That man was Aceves.

He took out Nick Punto, Denard Span, and Brendan Harris, which bought the Yanks enough time. In the bottom half A-Rod hit a walk-off, two-run homer off Craig Breslow, and that was that. Two days, two walk-offs.

The very next day the Yanks found themselves in a similar situation. Tied at two in the ninth, Mariano Rivera again took the ball. But he couldn’t possibly pitch two innings on two consecutive days. And so Joe Girardi handed the ball to Alfredo Aceves in the 10th. Again he set them down 1-2-3. Johnny Damon rewarded his vigilance with a walk-off homer in the bottom half.

Aceves might not have played the most prominent role in either win, but he did his job and did it well. For those who worship at the altar of the pitcher win, the weekend saw two for Aceves.

July 5, 2009: Garden variety four-inning save

(Bill Kostroun/AP)

If it weren’t for the offense, Aceves might not have mattered in this game. They came out and scored four in the first two innings, but by the bottom of the fourth they were down 8-4 thanks to five earned runs on Joba’s ledger. But they scored six in the next two innings. After Jon Albaladejo got the Yanks through the fifth, he handed the ball to Aceves. Al pitched four shutout, one-hit innings, including five strikeouts, to keep keep the Yanks ahead for good.

That was another crazy weekend. Not only had the Yankees won on a walk-off the previous day (that was the disastrous Halladay-Wang matchup), but they hung on in admirable fashion on the fifth. The game was important for Aceves, too. With Wang hurt the Yankees needed a starter on July 9 in Minnesota. They apparently didn’t want to pull Phil Hughes out of the bullpen, so they handed the ball to Aceves. It was the second time in his career he earned a start after an effective long relief appearance.

August 7, 2009: The maraton

The Yankees-Red Sox 15-inning marathon on August 7, 2009, provided many lasting memories. A.J. Burnett walked six, but they appeared to be somewhat strategic. He allowed none of them score. And if not for a dinky slap by Jacoby Ellsbury to lead off the game, he wouldn’t have allowed a hit. And, of course, there was J.D. Drew running down Eric Hinske’s apparent game-winning hit, and finally Alex Rodriguez‘s game-winning blast.

Overlooked is Aceves’s contribution. He pitched three innings, from the 10th through the 12th, allowing just two base runners and striking out three Red Sox. He kept giving the Yanks opportunities to end it, but the offense just didn’t come through. Still, his role in that game really can’t be understated.

There were certainly other moments where he shined — his two innings of relief in Game 5 of the 2009 World Series come to mind, because he kept the Yanks alive for their failed ninth-inning rally. But the games above are the ones I’ll remember Aceves for. Have any to add?

Yankees sign Luis Ayala to a minor league deal

Brian Cashman‘s trolling of the “they’d win the World Series if this was 2003!” crowd continued today, with the team signing righty reliever Luis Ayala to a minor league contract. Ayala, 33, last appeared in the big leagues with the Twins and Marlins in 2009. He spent last season in Triple-A with the Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers, and like Bartolo Colon, he pitched pretty well in winter ball this year (40.2 IP, 37 H, 9 R, 7 BB, 25 K). He’s always been a ground ball guy (47.3% career with several years over 50%), so strikeouts aren’t his forte (5.88 K/9).

Ayala made his name with the Expos back in the day, running off three straight seasons with at least 65 appearances and a sub-3.00 ERA, but he’s perhaps most famous for becoming the first casualty of the World Baseball Classic. He blew out his elbow during the 2006 event and needed Tommy John surgery. I really have no idea where he and some of these other non-roster invitees are headed, the Triple-A bullpen is full as it is.

Rounding up the 2011 position battles

h8 bunts. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Given the general construction of the roster from year to year, the Yankees have very few position battles in Spring Training. Last season it was the fifth starter’s job (gift wrapped for Phil Hughes) plus some miscellaneous bench and bullpen jobs, and the year before that Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera had to duke it out for the centerfield job. That’s pretty much it, it’s not often the Yankees have a position up for grabs and need to fill it in camp, at least not a significant position anyway.

This year is no different. Everyone knows about the fifth starter’s job and the last spot on the bench, but there’s also a spot in the bullpen to be decided and the backup shortstop is still an unknown. Let’s recap the positions still up for grabs in camp this spring…

Position: Utility Infielder
Candidates: Ramiro Pena, Eduardo Nunez

The Yankees need to carry someone on the bench capable of playing shortstop, and these two are the only guys on the 40-man roster capable of doing so (meh, I guess Derek Jeter qualifies). Pena is the incumbent while Nunez is the (apparent) hot shot prospect, and both bring different things to the table. Pena is all defense while Nunez can hit for an empty average and play a little defense. The Yankees apparently believe that Nunez is a future everyday shortstop, and if that’s the case, sitting on the bench five or six days a week won’t help his development. My guess is that Pena gets the job for a third straight season.

Position: Backup Catcher
Candidates: Frankie Cervelli, Jesus Montero, Austin Romine

Russell Martin has already been declared the catcher, and Brian Cashman has maintained that there will be an open competition for the backup job. That sounds great, but the choice here is pretty obvious. Cervelli backs up Martin while Montero and Romine play every single day in the minors. Hey, it’s great to say there’s a competition to motivate everyone, but the Yankees won’t have to spend much time mulling this one over.

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Position: Last Man On The Bench
Candidates: Pena, Nunez, Ronnie Belliard, Eric Chavez, Justin Maxwell, Colin Curtis, Greg Golson, Kevin Russo

I already explored this a few days ago so I’ll keep it short. Maxwell and Nunez should play everyday for Triple-A Scranton rather than rot on the big league bench, while Golson, Russo, and Curtis really don’t offer much to the team. Belliard and Chavez at least bring veteran presents (the kids will love ’em) and in Belliard’s case, familiarity with the role. Chavez is a lefty bat, something the bench lacks, which helps his cause. I don’t believe he’ll be able to stay healthy for any length of time though, so I suspect Mini-Manny will get the job almost by default.

Position: Fifth Starter
Candidates: Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Sergio Mitre, misc. prospects

I’m assuming that Ivan Nova will get the fourth spot, a fairly safe bet. Mitre has started a dozen games for New York over the last two years (three in 2010), and his shiny 3.33 ERA last year masked a miniscule strikeout rate (4.83 K/9) and homer tendencies (1.17 HR/9). The Experience can get grounders like a mofo (50.9% last year, 58.7% career), pretty much is only redeeming quality. Colon reportedly threw well in winter ball (where he was managed by bench coach Tony Pena), but it’s been a full year since he was on the big league mound and about four years since he was effective. Now 37, he’s definitely the long shot of the bunch.

Garcia is probably the front-runner based on 157 innings he threw last year that were unquestionably below average but still better than replacement level, which is what Mitre and Colon seem destined to be. The Yankees have some minor league depth to try out, namely Hector Noesi, D.J. Mitchell, and David Phelps, but they’re all in need of more Triple-A seasoning and shouldn’t have their development path altered when a guy like Garcia can be thrown to the wolves for the first month or two of the season. One of them could surprise in camp, for sure, but I’d rather see the kids be the fallback option and not the first attempt at a solution.

Position: Long Reliever
Candidates: Same as the Fifth Starter, plus Romulo Sanchez, Daniel Turpen, Robert Fish, Ryan Pope, Brian Schlitter

Six of the seven bullpen spots are already accounted for (Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Pedro Feliciano, Boone Logan), so that last spot will end up going to someone capable of throwing three or four innings at a clip. Romulo is out-of-options, meaning he has to pass through waivers to go back to the minors, and chances are he’ll be a goner at some point. Turpen and Fish are Rule 5 Draft picks, so unless they spend the entire 2011 season on the 25-man active roster, they’ll have to be offered back to their original clubs. Expect them to be gone before the end of Spring Training. Pope and Schlitter are short relievers with no and little big league experience, respectively, and I’m willing to bet they’ll be riding the Scranton-New York express all summer.

That leaves the guys from the fifth starter competition, so it seems like the runner-up for the last rotation spot gets the last bullpen spot as a consolation prize. Mitre is probably the best fit here, since he has experience as a long reliever and filled that role just last year. Either way, just like every other job listed in those post, the long man is sure to change over the course of the season, so don’t get too attached.

As the Old Guard bows out…

Andy Pettitte went out on top. He still had the itch when he called it a career last week, and he knew he could still pitch well, still get Major Leaguers out, still win games. It wasn’t time to say good bye, but we had no other choice.

Something about Pettitte’s retirement struck a heartstring for many Yankee fans. It’s not just the fact that the team badly needed his arm in the rotation or his calming demeanor on the mound. That’s almost too altruistic. Rather, his retirement, at least for me, resonated on a more personal level. If Andy Pettitte is facing down baseball mortality, aren’t the rest of getting older?

I don’t remember the first time I witnessed an Andy Pettitte appearance in person. By the time baseball resumed in 1995 after a crushingly disappointing end to the 1994 season, Pettitte’s name had become a fixture around the Yanks. He was featured in the team’s “Down on the Farm” section in the annual yearbook, and while not widely regarded as a youngster, the Yanks thought they had something.

I was 12 when Pettitte made his Yankee debut just like I was 12 when Derek Jeter burst onto the scene, 12 when Mariano Rivera arrived and 12 when Jorge Posada showed up. That was the year Bernie Williams cemented himself as a big-time New York star both during the regular season and epic ALDS against the Mariners. I was eight the year Bernie made his big league debut.

Throughout high school, these guys were the stars I watched mature into a cohesive team. Once or twice, I would head from school to the stadium for a student special on Tuesday or Wednesday nights. A valid ID would net a $10 Tier Reserve seat, and in those days, we could move up at will. On a good night, the old stadium will host 30,000 fans as the Yanks went about their winning ways year after year after year.

As the years wore on, those five players would be the stand-outs. They had a pretty damn good supporting cast too. Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius played their roles while Chuck Knoblauch had his moments, for better or worse. Paul O’Neill too, the Yankees’ own warrior, deserves a big tip of the cap too. I watched David Wells throw a perfect game while working on a science project at home, and I heard the end of David Cone’s perfect day on a blisteringly hot afternoon in Western Massachusetts. I remember the anticipation of El Duque’s debut, and the overhyped and perhaps slightly underappreciated nature of Hideki Irabu’s tenure in the Bronx.

Through it all, though, Andy, Derek, Jorge, Bernie and Mariano served as icons of a farm system. This was the true core of a championship team developed from within and allowed to grow. Bernie didn’t fit into the Mel Hall-dominated clubhouse as a shy young kid, and George Steinbrenner always wanted to trade Andy Pettitte for something worse. But they stuck around — and won — for years.

Bernie, the oldest, was the first to go. Felled by a knee injury, he didn’t retire after 2006, but the Yanks weren’t interested in guaranteeing him dollars. It was a bitter divorce smoothed over by time, and after arriving late at Andy Pettitte’s press conference, Williams announced that he too is about to officially retire. Of course, he’s the last one to know that he’s retired, but that’s how it is for many of these guys. “I think one of these days I’m going to make it official,” Williams said. “It’s redundant, but after five years, I think I’m pretty much done.”

Bernie’s last appearance was a strike out against Kenny Rogers in the 2006 ALDS. Andy Pettitte’s last appearance ended with a Bengie Molina groundout. He left it all on the field during Game 3 of the ALCS, but much like in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series, the other team’s pitcher was just better.

Next up in the march toward the new era will likely to be Jorge Posada. The one-time catcher will serve as the DH this year, and even if he has a decent season, it’s tough to see the Yanks re-upping with him once he hits free agency. He’s been with the club since they drafted him in 1990. Would Posada call it quits or sign with another franchise?

Once he goes, Derek and Mariano will be the aging duo that survived my trip through high school, through college, through law school. Time might be nipping at Jeter’s heels, and it will one day come a-knockin’ on Mariano’s door too. For now, though, I’ll sit back and appreciate what these Yankees have done and what they still have left to do. For five guys who were Yankees since they were kids, the past two decades have been as close to baseball perfection as it comes these days.

Yanks set to expand Times Square presence

Millions of tourists from all over the country walk through Times Square every year, and odds are good that most of them hate the Yankees. Now, they’ll be greeted with 2000 square feet of the Yankees right in the Paramount building. As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, the team has signed a 15-year lease for the storefront next to the Hard Rock Cafe at 1501 Broadway. The team store, says reporter Dana Rubinstein, will open “within the next few months,” and I have to believe the club will shutter the much smaller team store on 42nd St. between 7th and 8th Aves. in exchange for this massive space on the Great White Way.

Open Thread: Chase Wright

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Whenever the name Chase Wright is brought up, you’ll inevitably think of the back-to-back-to-back-to-back homer episode of 2007. Who could forget it? It was horrible. The Yankees called Wright up straight from Double-A and he predictably flopped, and two years later he was designated for assignment and traded to the Brewers for one of the players that eventually went to Pittsburgh for Eric Hinske. That didn’t stop Steve Lombardi from comparing him to Erik Bedard, but that’s cool, we all say stupid stuff from time to time*. In a weird bit of timing, today is Wright’s 28th birthday and also the three-year anniversary of Bedard’s trade to the Mariners. Funny how that worked out, huh?

Anyway, here is the open thread for the evening. Both the Devils and Isles are in action, but talk about whatever you want. Have at it.

* One of these days J.B. Cox will replace Mariano Rivera, you watch! [/Axisa circa 2006]

Red Sox ink Aceves to Major League deal

Via PeteAbe, the Red Sox have signed former Yankee Al Aceves to a guaranteed Major League contract. Buster Olney says he gets $650,000 with incentives, which strikes me as a lot since he’s still in his pre-arbitration years. Jon Heyman says the Mets also offered the right-hander a guaranteed deal, but Aceves wanted to pitch in Boston.

The longman missed basically all of last season with back issues and suffered various setbacks throughout the year. Then, this offseason he broke his clavicle riding his bike and required surgery to repair the damage. Reports in December said he was expected to miss at least some of Spring Training, and it’s unclear if he’ll be able to start the season on time. Olney says he passed his physical though for what that’s worth.

Aceves will always be remembered for his heroic relief work in 2009, when he threw 84 innings with a 3.75 FIP. The back injuries last year are nothing new though as he also had some physical trouble in 2009. The Mexican Gangster was awesome, and I wish him the best against everyone but the Yankees.