Yanks walk off to seventh straight win

The standings might say that these are meaningless games, but the Yankees aren’t acting like it. They started to surge last week by taking two of three from the Angels in Anaheim and haven’t let off the accelerator, even after clinching everything. Early last night it looked as if they’d let up a bit, but they mounted yet another late-inning comeback to steal a win from the Kansas City Royals.

The Royals staged the first rally, in the top of the seventh, though it had more to do with Phil Coke than the Kansas City offense. He came with a man on first and one out, to face Alex Gordon, Josh Anderson, and Mitch Maier, three weak-hitting lefties. For Coke, a guy who’s faced tight situations in meaningful games, it should have been a cakewalk. It was anything but.

Alex Gordon bunted the first pitch back to Coke, but the latter hung on too long and allowed Gordon to reach and Mark Teahen to reach second. Anderson handed Coke instant atonement with a bouncer right to him, but Coke again muffed the play, this time throwing way behind Derek Jeter and into center. Teahen scored and the Royals had runners on second and third with one out.

The lead lost, Coke got ahead of Maier 0-2, and again got a grounder right back to him. Gordon had already broken for home, but Coke paid no mind. He fired over to first as if there were two outs. The announcers couldn’t believe it, the crowd couldn’t believe it, and the replay showed that Molina couldn’t believe it. Coke had three consecutive plays and managed to botch each one. What should have been an easy appearance turned into a two-run deficit.

Had the game any real meaning, maybe Coke wouldn’t have even been in. Girardi pulled A.J. Burnett after recording the first out of the seventh and having thrown 108 pitches. It was one of A.J.’s better performances. He allowed six baserunners, but kept the Royals at bay with his favorite weapon, the curveball. It helped him strike out eight. With 6.1 innings of one-run ball, three walks, three hits, and eight strikeouts, I’d say Burnett had himself a fine game.

The Yankees used four pitchers last night, and Coke was the standout disappointment. Dave Robertson came out for the eighth and retired the first two batters he faced, including one strikeout, before walking the third batter. That was apparently his limit, as Girardi went with Bruney to finish things off. He allowed a hit and walked a guy, but also fanned two Royals and didn’t allow a run to score. He also had the benefit of Jerry Hairston, who turned a pop up bunt into a double play, teaching rookie Josh Anderson a lesson that will stick with him.

The story of the ninth inning dates back to Sunday. Trey Hillman’s team was up 4-1 against the Twins, and Zack Greinke was in line for the win. Instead of taking a chance with one of his unpredictable setup men, Hillman went to closer Joakim Soria for two. It paid off, but after 46 pitches Soria apparently needed a few days off. He surely wasn’t available last night, given Hillman’s decisions.

Taking the hill to preserve the one-run lead was Kyle Farnsworth. Signed to replace Tom Gordon in 2006, Farnsworth was a disaster from the start. Only when he hit a streak of semi-reliability were the Yanks able to deal him, in a contract swap with the Tigers for Pudge Rodriguez. Both players were horrible to finish out the year, but that didn’t stop Royals GM Dayton Moore from handing Farnsworth a two-year, $9 million contract. Had he waited, he could have had Fanrnsworth for a song later that winter.

With one out in the ninth, Frankie Cervelli bounced one back up the middle. It was out of Farnsworth’s reach, and Alberto Callaspo couldn’t get a handle on it. Eric Hinske pinch hit for Ramiro Pena, and it looked like he wanted the walk-off right there, putting his home run swing on the first pitch but missing. As Farnsworth is apt to do, he missed with the next two pitches and then gave Hinske something he could hit. The ball landed in right, and Cervelli hustled to third. The walk-off was already in the air.

For a guy who can’t hit with runners in scoring position, Robinson Cano sure has driven in a lot of runs lately. After a grand slam last night he got another chance in a tight spot — tight, at least, in the context of this one game. He unloaded on a 3-0 pitch, but just missed. It was deep enough to score Cervelli and tie the game, though. Blown save, Farnsworth.

The last thing the team wanted last night was to go into extra innings. Everything’s clinched. They’d already used a ton of their bench players. I’m sure the regulars just wanted to get on with it. Eric Hinske must have felt that vibe. Otherwise, why would he have have tried to steal second with two outs? Not only did he make it, but he also scampered into third on an errant throw.

The Royals decided they’d rather face Juan Miranda than Johnny Damon, but at that point it didn’t seem to matter. The Yanks were walking off with that win one way or another. Miranda hit a grounder back to Farnsworth, but it was just hard enough to bounce off the pitcher’s shins and into foul territory. The Yanks swarmed from the dugout just as Miranda touched first, and the Yankees had recorded their 15th walk-off victory.

That was a lot of writing for a meaningless game, eh? Well, sometimes big things happen in the least likely games. Coke’s blunders, A.J.’s solid performance, the late-inning heroics. It added up to another quality game in a time when they’re supposed to be boring. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 Yankees: the team that can make even the most drab game a thriller.


Bruney, Robertson and a post-season bullpen

When the Yankees beat the Red Sox on Sunday, the story obviously focused around the AL East crown. After missing the playoffs last year and winning the Wild Card in 2007, the Yankees had reclaimed the division title for the first time since 2006.

There was, however, a bigger story in the game-within-the-game and one that could be potentially more important for the Yanks’ postseason chances than the inevitable clincher. With the Yanks up by a run and Andy Pettitte out of the game after six solid innings, Joe Girardi had to deviate from his usual game plan. Phil Hughes had just thrown in back-to-back games and was unavailable to pitch. David Robertson was not yet back from his elbow injury.

With the stadium holding its collective breath — and the woman sitting in front of me having some conniption fit — Girardi gave the ball to number 99 Brian Bruney. Coming into Sunday’s game, Bruney had a season to forget. Since returning from an injury in mid-June, Bruney had appeared in 31 games to bad results. He had allowed 52 baserunners in 26 innings, and opponents were hitting .302/.414/.528. After a stellar start to the season, Bruney had walked 20 and struck out 19 while generally stinking up the joint.

And so into the fire walked Bruney. He came out more than alive. Strike out, ground out, ground out went the Red Sox in the 7th. Pop out, fly out when Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis, two dangerous hitters, in the 8th. When Girardi came out to get Bruney, the much-maligned right-hander left to a standing ovation in the Bronx. The fans had put no faith in Bruney, and the Yanks’ reliever delivered.

His stuff on Sunday was better than it had been in a long time. Thanks in part to a wide strike out and Jose Molina’s pitch framing, Bruney threw 14 of his 21 pitches for strikes. He was throwing his fastball at 94.55 mph and peaked at 96.8. It was vintage Brian Bruney.

After the game, he was emotional in talking about the crowd response. “The thing that was special for me was the crowd reaction,” he said in the clubhouse amidst champagne.”I’ve been through a lot all year, fighting a lot of injuries and mechanics and pitching like garbage. It’s special. The ovation I got, for me, meant a lot. Everybody here was counting on me and everybody here let me know they appreciated it. I would have loved to look up and give a ‘thank you,’ but honestly, I had tears in my eyes and I couldn’t do it.”

For much of the season, my dad has speculated that Bruney has been more injured than he is letting on, and this comment seems to hint that perhaps his throwing arm has not been 100 percent. While I hate to read too much into 1.2 innings, Sunday’s outing could be the start of a solid run for Bruney. He threw with confidence and made his pitches.

Meanwhile, David Robertston will take the mound for the Yankees tonight. After missing much of September with a sore elbow, the Yanks’ strike out artist will resume his role in the bullpen, and all systems are go for Robertson. In effect, then, the Yankees could be gaining two bullpen arms right when they need them the most. As Tyler Kepner reports today, the Yankees will look at Bruney, Robertson, Chad Gaudin and Damaso Marte for two bullpen spots in the first round.

If Bruney can restore some confidence, if Robertson can pitch and stay healthy, the Yanks will have the ability to reduce their playoff games to six-inning affairs. Gaudin, a versatile starter/long-reliever and Marte, a lefty specialists, have their upsides for other reasons, but I would lean toward a healthy Robertson and Bruney. With their offense and their starting pitchers, shortening games could very well lead to more than a few October W’s, and in the short best-of-five first round, those victories are both rare and important.

Little chance Bruney makes the postseason roster

It’s no wonder the Yankees have shown so much patience with Brian Bruney. Dominant relief pitchers don’t come around that often, and in 2008 and early 2009 Bruney appeared to be just that. He pitched well both before and after a lisfranc injury last season, and opened 2009 with a bang. Two injuries later and he’s just not the same. The Yankees continue to give Bruney chances, but each one is a reminder that this is not the guy who struck out five straight Rays over two games.

Even in August, when he had a 0.87 ERA, Bruney still didn’t look reliable. He only allowed one run over 10.1 innings, but that might have been a string of reliever’s luck. He struck out only five in that span and walked seven. Opponents reached base 37.5 percent of the time. He threw 201 pitches, almost 20 per inning. With peripherals like that, it’s no wonder he’s struggled in September.

This month Bruney has appeared in nine games, the same number as August, though has pitched 4.2 fewer innings. He’s throwing fewer pitches, but not many, around 19 per inning. Opponents get on base 41.4 percent of the time. His strikeout to walks ratio sits at 4:5. The difference is that teams have gotten to him this time around, going deep twice for a .583 slugging percentage.

Over the course of 2009, Bruney has gone from lights out setup man to questionable postseason roster candidate. The Yankees will take only 10 pitchers to the ALDS, and Bruney doesn’t appear to be one of the 10 best on the roster. Can they trust him in a playoff appearance? Certainly not the way he’s pitching now. He’ll have to show considerable improvement in the season’s last 10 games, and even that might not be enough to convince the Yankees to take the chance.

Bryan Hoch examines Bruney’s woes which, the Yankees think, relate to a mechanical issue. There are plenty “I feel good” quotes in the article, but perhaps the most interesting paragraph reads

The question is if the Yankees have enough time to allow Bruney to continue ironing out what he said have been season-long mechanical problems — bad habits on the mound that have plagued him relating to his hip rotation.

That doesn’t sound like an easy problem to fix. Bruney will have a maximum five games to work it out, and even then he’ll likely only get into three or four more before the regular season ends. Some improvement would be encouraging, but would it be enough to put him on the postseason roster? Not quite, I would think. There are certainly 10 more deserving candidates, especially with David Robertson slated to return this weekend.

It’s a shame what happened to Bruney this season. It appeared he was coming into his own, and then we found out he was unavailable for the first game of the first Boston series. It’s been downhill from there. There’s a chance Bruney could recover, but he probably won’t get a real chance again until 2010.

The unreliable Brian Bruney

Brian Bruney wondering where it all went wrongSmall sample sizes can be cruel. Just four, four-and-a-half months ago there was a big chunk of Yankee Universe that thought, that knew Brian Bruney was the answer to the Yanks’ perpetual 8th inning question. After all, the guy had just rattled off an unreal April: 8 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 12 K. In the middle of the month, he had a stretch where he struck out 12 in just 6.2 IP over seven appearances without allowing a baserunner.

But then Bruney got hurt, as a balky throwing elbow landed him on disabled list. He came back about four weeks later, presumably healthy, and fired a perfect inning against the Orioles in what appeared to be the first attempt at easing him back into that 8th inning role. Next thing you know, Bruney’s back on the DL with the same elbow problem because he wasn’t truthful with the organization, telling them he felt good when he really didn’t. Classic meathead syndrome, the guy thought he could pitch through it and still be a positive contributor to the club.

Four weeks after the setback, Bruney returned, this time for good. Except now the Yankees weren’t looking for an 8th inning guy – Phil Hughes took that and ran with it. They didn’t even need a 6th or 7th inning guy really, because Al Aceves had been masterful in the middle innings. Bruney was just another guy in the pen, but if he performed like he had earlier in the season, those high leverage late inning opportunities would eventually fall into his lap.

Except Bruney never returned to his April highs, not even close. Since returning from the DL on June 16th, Bruney’s allowed 41 baserunners in 20.2 IP, giving up five homers in the process. Opponents are hitting .310-.416-.548 off him in that time, so he’s turning everyone into Chase Utley. After a particularly dreadful stretch in July, Bruney didn’t allow a run in 8.2 IP from August 7th to the 31st. The problem is that he handed five inherited runners over to whoever relieved him in that time (three of those five were left in scoring position), and somehow none came around to score. Bruney gets no credit for those scoreless frames, he left a mess that someone else had to cleanup.

Bruney hasn’t struck out at batter since August 11th, seven appearances and six innings ago. His walks were always offset by his high strikeout rate, which coming into this year sat at exactly 9.0 K/9. The velocity is still there, but he’s just not making his pitches these days. He’s a liability whenever he enters a game, but the Yankees have such a large lead in the division (99.96542% chance of making the playoffs) late in the season that they can afford to keep running Bruney out there in an effort to get him back on track.

As it stands now, Bruney is no better than on the playoff roster bubble. There’s no fewer than three righthanders ahead of him on the relief pitcher depth chart, and there’s a distinct possibility he could be left home in October if favor of a long man or an extra lefty reliever. There’s really no need for the team to carry seven relievers in October just to stroke Bruney’s ego, the Rays left Edwin Jackson home in the ALDS and ALCS last year, and he was far more important to Tampa’s team last year than Bruney is to this year’s Yankee club.

Furthermore, with a glut of relief options in the majors and minors, Bruney may not have a spot on next year’s team. He’s out of options and entering his second year of arbitration, and the Yanks may not want to keep a rather expensive, ineffective reliever around when they have kids coming up who at the very least can be equally as unreliable at a fraction of the price. A nontender is always a possibility, but with that kind of power arm you’d think they could get at least something for him, even if it’s a Grade-C prospect. His salary could be prohibitive, though.

Of course, Bruney could render those last two paragraphs moot if he turns it around in the next month. We’ve seen him get hot, and when he’s on a roll he can make batters look silly. Right now though, I cringe whenever I see him walk through the bullpen door.

Photo Credit: Keivom, NY Daily News

Cano, half of the bullpen clears waivers

Via MLBTR, Robbie Cano, Brian Bruney, Mark Melancon, and David Robertson all cleared waivers yesterday, so they could now be traded to any team. AJ Burnett, Melky Cabrera, Al Aceves, Phil Coke, Sergio Mitre, Edwar Ramirez and Shelley Duncan represent the second group of players placed on waivers when they hit the wire yesterday. If anyone is claimed, the Yanks could do one of three things: a) pull him back, b) let the claiming team have the player and his entire contract, or c) negotiate a trade with the claiming team.

In case you missed it, the White Sox have apparently put a claim in on Alex Rios. They Jays have the opportunity to unload the $60M or so left on Rios’ deal by just giving him to Chicago, or they could work out a trade to launch a full blown rebuild. If nothing comes of it, they can just take him back like nothing ever happened.

Almost every player on every team’s 40-man roster will be placed on waivers this month. Teams will use this as an opportunity to gauge interest in their players, and create some flexibility for potential moves later in the month. For example, say the Yanks and Jays get close on a Roy Halladay deal in a few weeks, Melancon wouldn’t have to be placed through waivers again to be included in the deal. It’s just procedural, don’t get all hung up who gets put on waivers and who doesn’t.