Rays offense dooms Yanks again

A bright spot | Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

The O’Neill Rule has failed. The Yankees bats were not, in fact, enlivened by the 9th inning rally on Wednesday. In fact, a number of the team’s hitters, including A-Rod, looked considerably worse at the plate than they did in Wednesday’s loss. They took advantage of Rays’ mistakes, but never conjured a rally of their own. The Rays, on the other hand, continued to pound Yankees’ pitching. The injury riddled lineup just couldn’t hang.

Defining moment: Yanks fail to capitalize in the third

The Yanks came into the game needing a win, so to see the Rays put across three in the first was pretty deflating. They came back for a couple in the second, and then appeared poised to assert themselves in the third. Randy Winn opened with a single, and you just can’t waste opportunities like that. And so the Yankees went to work.

Derek Jeter laid down a beauty of a bunt that easily advanced Winn to second. That, however, wasn’t the ultimate aim. With Evan Longoria playing back, Jeter’s intention, I’m sure, was to put himself on base, too. Once the ball got past James Shields that was assured. Brett Gardner followed with a bunt of his own, this one a bit more predictable. Shields fielded this one, but likely wouldn’t have gotten Gardner even if he made a good throw. He didn’t, though, and the ball rolled into foul territory in right, allowing Winn to score. All the sudden, a deflated feeling turned into joy. The Yankees had tied the game.

Not only did the Yanks get a new life, they also got an opportunity to break open the game. Runners stood on second and third with none out, and the Yankees had their 3-4-5 hitters coming to the plate. In the most painful fashion, Shields dispatched of them. Mark Teixeira tapped a weak one right back to the pitcher. Alex Rodriguez struck out on a pitch that Dioner Navarro had to block. Robinson Cano waved at strike three well outside the zone.

While they had tied the game, the failure to score even one run in that situation again brought the deflated feeling.

Andy Pettitte: Not sharp

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

It was clear, right from the first batter, that Andy Pettitte was going to battle through this one. Four batters later he had a runner on first with none out and a 3-0 deficit. He threw 28 pitches in the inning, 13 of which were out of the zone. I’m pretty sure Cervelli had to move his glove on every pitch, though I might just be imagining that.

Overall Pettitte thew 103 pitches, 101 of which came before the sixth. In that inning he threw just two pitches, both cutters to Carlos Pena, who slammed the second one into the Yankees’ bullpen to give the Rays a 7-4 lead. Again, deflating. Two runs is one thing. Once they tack on that third run, though, well, I’m not sure if it’s just psychological, but it seems like a much tougher hole to dig out of.

It looked like Pettitte had settled down a bit after the first, but he slipped again in the fifth. Gabe Kapler singled with one out, and for some reason Pettitte payed a bit too much attention to him at first, throwing over four times during Jason Bartlett’s at-bat. That one ended with a seven-pitch walk, which set up Carl Crawford to knock home Kapler with a single and give the Rays the lead. A Ben Zobrist sac fly put them two ahead.

I thought that would be it for Pettitte, but apparently Girardi wanted Pettitte to face the lefty Pena. In his career Pena is a markedly worse hitter against lefties, though he’s been equally bad regardless of handedness this year. Anyway, it was a decent move that backfired.

Sheilds’s change perplexes Yanks hitters

Photo credit: Kathy Willens/AP

James Shields continued his high-strikeout ways by sitting down seven Yankees, six of them swinging. Five of those came on changeups. What’s strange is that, so far as I can tell, Shields did not generate any swings and misses except for a strikeout pitch. He threw it 24 times, his most utilized secondary pitch, and made only one mistake. That was Juan Miranda‘s second-inning homer.

In the past few years Shields has proven himself to be a very good pitcher who doesn’t appear dominant. He induced just six swinging strikes in his 7.1 innings, which matches his number of swinging strikeouts. That’s amazingly efficient. The Yanks did get to him in some ways — he did allow eight hits — but one of them came because B.J. Upton couldn’t find a fly ball. Four runs in 7.1 innings from Shields is not bad. But he still looked good.

Another rally falls short

For the second straight night the Yanks posted a rally in the ninth that fell short. Derek Jeter drove in two with a picturesque double into the gap, but that just wasn’t enough. lt’s encouraging that they were able to bring the tying run to the plate, but it just wasn’t enough.

WPA Graph and box score

The peak at the beginning makes this one even more depressing.

More at FanGraphs. Here’s the box score.

Up Next

It’s back on the road, but not really, for three games at Citi Field this weekend. Javy Vazquez vs. the lefty Hisanori Takahashi.

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AAA prospects: a status report

Photo Credit: Cataffo/ Ny Daily News

Mike does a great job compiling all of the stats and happenings across the Yankees’ minor league system in his nightly Down on the Farm series. From Staten Island to Scranton, we have a pretty good sense about how our players did, even if we mostly only care about Montero, Romine, ManBan, Ramirez, Warren, Z-Mac, Stoneburner and a handful of other players.

But after a while we sometimes get “stuck” in the numbers — we forget how the guy that’s just gone 0-5 with 4 K’s during last night’s game is very often the same guy that went 4-5 with two home runs the night before. So I’m going to be doing a recap of how some of the AAA farmhands have performed thus far, all of which came from milb.com or minorleaguesplits.com. Many of the players on this list are on Mike’s Preseason Prospect List, where you can get a better look at their long term prospects. In this AAA installment I chose to recap players that are actual prospects, most of which will likely (if they haven’t already) see major league action this year. Not too many are interested in seeing Amaury Sanit’s progress, though I’m betting we’d all love to find out if Kei Igawa sleeps with those awesome sunglasses on (I’ll do some digging and try to find out for you all).

Next week we’ll take a look at how some of the AA guys are looking. Also, because there’s a Montero Watch present in the sidebar and most DotF are comprised of MonteroTalk, we’re going to leave him out on this one.

AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre

Kevin Russo, 2B: With the big league club having apparently suffering a pandemic of Mets-itus, a few AAA players have seen some promotions. Chief among them, and for good reason, is utility player Kevin Russo. Russo, a former 20th round draft pick out of Baylor in 2006, had hit .302/.383/.425 as Scranton’s second basemen before jumping to Massachusetts after Robinson Cano was hit by a Josh Beckett fastball. He got only two plate appearances but Russo’s versatility – he can at least play three infield spots and man the corner outfield positions – defensively, his solid on-base skills, and good contact ability make him a good candidate to stick in the big leagues for a long time. With Ramiro Pena‘s mounting struggles with the bat (which was inevitable, really), Russo may take him over as a super-utility guy at some point. He’ll have to show he can at least play SS passably, though, and there’s no guarantee of that. Bonus: if there are minors fantasy leagues that exist (I’m hoping they do), he’ll soon have CF eligibility, too. He’s played there of late.

Season line in AAA: .301/.388/.416

Last ten games: .310/.383/.405

Time in New York: .000/.000/.000

Eduardo Nunez, SS: Most people saw this coming. Nunez got off to a torrid pace, as Greg Fertel and even RAB’s own Mike Axisa have noted in his DotF postings. Consequently, Nunez has really tailed off, displaying why we shouldn’t fall in love with early season small sample sizes. With a few middle infielders ahead of him in the pecking order and poor defensive skills (albeit with a great arm), Nunez is unlikely to see any big league action this year. If he does it will because of ghastly circumstances. Poor defense, weak power, unrefined on-base skills with very good contact ability, plus speed and a wonderful arm. That may translate to some modicum of minor league success, but I don’t see it happening on the major league level for a middle infielder (and really one in name only).

Season in AAA: .321/.371/.400

Last ten games: .244/.262/.268

Juan Miranda, 1B: Miranda was a big-money IFA signing of the Yanks from Cuba back in 2006. You may remember he was once considered the future first baseman of the Yanks. While that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, Miranda, in his final option year, is playing for a contract for a big league club next year. The book on him was that though he really nails right handers, he struggles with lefties and his defensive play is by no means great, even for a first baseman. Last year he took positive steps in correcting those problems, hitting lefties with a triple slash of .291/.367/.507. So far, in AAA, he’s continued that pace, hitting .313/.389/.563 in 33 plate appearances (note: this is according to minorleaguesplits.com, which is a bit behind in their stats). Oddly, he’s struggled against righties, hitting .222/.354/.364 in 66 plate appearances. He’s been in New York for a few games, and with Nick Johnson possibly out for a few months, Miranda may stay in New York as a DH. Considering Johnson’s injury history, the team couldn’t be caught too surprised by that. This may be make or break for Miranda.

Season line in AAA: .260/.371/.438

Last ten games in AAA:.250/.357/.417

Time in New York: .143/.250/.286

Photo Credit: Mike Ashmore

Ivan Nova, SP

Nova’s rocketed up Yankee top prospect lists over the last two years as he’s finally started to harness his very good stuff. He’s been up in New York after the injury bug hit and he’s largely impressed, though he’s probably the guy sent back down with Park coming back from the DL. In his first appearance, Nova, signed by the Yanks and returned after being selected as a Rule V from the Padres, came in and threw two scoreless innings and in today’s game he again looked fairly good. With a likely ceiling as a back-end starter in the AL East (which really isn’t all that bad when you think about it), Nova is very likely to be the first guy up again with another injury, first because he’s already on the 40-man roster, and second because a groundball pitcher with good stuff is always a valuable commodity. He also has an outside shot at a rotation spot next year depending on how things shake out.

AAA season: 37 IP, 2.43 ERA, 35 hits, 32 K, 12 BB, 1.78 GO/AA

Last two starts: 13 IP, 3.84 ERA, 17 hits, 7 K, 4 BB

Time in New York: 3 innings, 0.00 ERA, 4 hits, 1 K, 0 BB

Zack McAllister, SP

Z-Mac has had an up-and-down in his first run at AAA. Arguably the Yankees’ top pitching prospect, McAllister ran into some issues in late April, early May, giving up over 6 runs in two of three starts. Still, he’s sprinkled in some good games and has strung two consecutive 7-inning performances of good ball. A polished groundball pitcher, McAllister may wind up trade bait or perhaps in the rotation as early as next year. He, like Nova, has back rotation or possibly #3 starter potential, but he’s going to need to get that groundball rate up again. A 34% GB ratio is not going to work at the big league level for a guy with his skill set. It wouldn’t hurt to develop a true out pitch, either.

Season in AAA: 45 IP, 4.40 ERA, 52 hits, 32 K, 9 BB, 0.52 GO/AA

Last two starts: 14 IP, 2.14 ERA, 14 hits, 8K, 1 BB

Romulo Sanchez, SP/RP

The last of the famed “Fat Sanchezes,” Romulo has been very impressive in his time in Pennsylvania and also in New York. Sanchez has a great fastball, occasionally hitting the high 90’s with his 4-seamer, but he likely profiles best as a reliever in the future due to his erratic control and fringe-average off-speed pitches (a changeup and slider). If he can locate that big fastball and keep hitters off balance with one of the off speed offerings, he could definitely stick with the big club over the year. His numbers in Scranton are a bit misleading. In April he gave up 10 earned runs in only 2.1 innings. Otherwise, he’s been among the better pitchers in the upper minors.

AAA season: 32 IP, 5.34 ERA, 30 hits, 32 K, 16 BB, 1.22 GO/AA

Last 2 starts: 14 IP, 1.42 ERA, 9 hits, 17 K, 2 BB

In New York: 3.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1 hit, 3 K, 1 BB

Mark Melancon, RP

The final name on our list, Melancon entered last season with high expectations and didn’t live up to them in limited action. I recall his propensity for hitting opposing batters (along with old favorite Mike Dunn). It was probably just jitters because he returned to AAA and fell right back where he’d been before his callup. He came back up again briefly and showed signs of life, causing many of us to think he’d be up in the Bronx to start the year. Well, hasn’t happened yet but it seems like just a matter of time. Melancon has again been very good in Pennsylvania in 2010. A look at his splits reveals some quirks, though. You might look at his numbers against righties and say, “Wait a second, this doesn’t look right.” And to some extent, you’d be right. But aha! Along with a BABip against righties of .462, he’s also giving up a line drive rate of 26.2%, yet checking in with an FIP of 3.05. Look a bit further over and you see why. He’s striking out 16.55 righties per nine innings this year. Wow, that’s strange data. Against lefties he’s getting lots of groundouts, another promising sign. I’d be fairly shocked if we don’t see Melancon in the Bronx very soon.

AAA Season: 23 IP, 2.74 ERA, 21 hits, 31 K, 8 BB, 1.71 GO/AA

Last 4 appearances: 5.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 4 hits, 13 K, 2 BB

Miranda finally called up, Russo sent down, CHoP to start rehab

This one took a little longer to materialize than we originally expected, but Juan Miranda has in fact been called up, and is in the lineup at first base today. Mark Teixiera is getting a half-day off as the designated hitter, but I expect everyone to get a full day off given the weather forecast in Detroit. To make room for Miranda, utility player Kevin Russo was returned to Triple-A Scranton. Unsurprising, but still slightly disappointing. Hopefully Miranda gets regular at-bats, because this nonsense about a rotating DH needs to stop.

Meanwhile, Marc Carig reports that Chan Ho Park will begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton tomorrow. He’ll probably need two or three minor league outings before being ready to return to the big league team, so that puts him on target for a return next week. The bullpen sure could use him.

Miranda recalled to add lefthanded thump

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

With Nick Johnson stuck on the disabled list for the foreseeable future, the Yankees’ lineup is lacking two things: a regular designated hitter, and a productive lefthanded bat. Curtis Granderson‘s absence makes the latter even more obvious. We can dream about Jorge Posada DH’ing most of the time with Frankie Cervelli assuming starting catcher responsibilities, but the team appears to have no interest in doing that. Adding a third catcher (likely Chad Moeller) to a team with a (usually) four man bench is less than ideal as well.

In an effort to correct that missing lefty bat, the Yankees summoned Juan Miranda from Triple-A Scranton today. There’s still no word on who’s going down to make room, but hopefully it’s one of the 13 pitchers. Preferably Boone Logan, but I digress.

Once upon a time Miranda was expected to be the Yanks’ first baseman of the future, but Mark Teixeira hitting the open market changed those plans. Instead, he’s been stuck in the minors for most of the last three years, save for September call-ups in each of the last two seasons. He’s actually hit pretty well in his limited big league at-bats, a .430 wOBA with one wallop of a homer and a walk-off single in 23 plate appearances. Overall, Miranda’s got a .371 wOBA in over 1,000 plate appearances at the Triple-A level, and has proven all he could at the level.

Miranda’s arrival does several things for the Yanks’ roster. For one, it helps settle the DH and leftfield situations, plus the overall lineup picture, all of which have kind of been in a bit of flux over the last week because of injuries both minor and major. Now, Joe Girardi can employ a straight platoon of Miranda and Marcus Thames at DH and in the 7th spot of the lineup. Randy Winn can’t hit, but he catches everything he should and then some, so now he’ll get regular playing time in the outfield. It’s not the prettiest picture, but at least now everyone has a defined role and we all have some peace of mind.

An added benefit is that the Yanks will now get an opportunity to evaluate Miranda for an extended amount of time at the big league level. It’s not just an audition for a possible DH job with the Yankees next season, it’s an audition for the other 29 clubs. If Miranda performs well and the Yanks deem him expendable – remember, he’ll be out of options next season, so he has to stick on the big league roster or go through waivers – they can use him in a trade to shore up another area of the team. A fringe benefit is that it also keeps Thames from being exposed against righthanders (dude’s got just four singles since Granderson got hurt).

I said during the offseason that I didn’t think Miranda could be a productive full-time designated hitter for the Yankees this year because of his troubles against lefthanders, but in a platoon situation he’s an acceptable option. CHONE projects a .341 wOBA with 17 jacks, and I’m willing to bet he could top that wOBA with limited exposure to southpaws. Even if not, it’s still more than we could ask for at this point. The Yankees just need Miranda to come in and help restore a semblance of normalcy to the lineup and roster. The constant juggling is no way to run a contender.

Yanks have a bit of an injury mess

In the past few days the Yankees have had to deal with a number of injuries. Most of them have been mild in nature, but that still causes problems for the roster. In fact, mild injuries can cause more problems than DL trips in some cases, because the player is not available and there is no one to take his place on the roster. Right now the Yankees have three players nursing injuries who won’t hit the DL, so that’s three inactive roster spots. It can make managing the lineup and bullpen a bit tricky.

The Yankees do have options, though, and will likely make a number of moves during the next few days to keep their roster up to speed. The moves will include recalling an infielder tomorrow, and then probably an outfielder early next week. They’ll need an extra OF if Marcus Thames is going to take more reps at DH. Let’s start with what they’ll do tomorrow.

Send down: David Robertson or Boone Logan. Recall: Kevin Russo

Marc Carig reports that the Yankees have scheduled no tests on Robinson Cano‘s knee, so chances are he’ll just sit out a day or two. The Yanks could probably get by with just four infielders, but it’s probably advisable to have a backup. Kevin Russo makes the most sense, since he can play all infield positions and is already on the 40-man roster. I’d be very surprised if this didn’t happen tomorrow.

The Yankees currently have 13 pitchers, which is two too many. Logan and Robertson pitched last night, so they’re the most likely to go on an optional assignment. Mike wrote about demoting Robertson yesterday. Boone Logan writes about his own demotion every time he walks a batter.

Disabled list: Nick Johnson. Recall: Greg Golson

The Yankees sent down Golson before today’s game, meaning that under normal circumstances he’d have to spend 10 days in the minors. With the injury to Johnson, though, the Yankees can bring him right back. If, as Carig reports, they’ll use Thames at DH, they’ll need a reserve outfielder. Golson is the best option right now.

Possible alternative: Moeller instead of Russo or Golson

Both Golson and Russo are really just emergency options. They’re nice to have around, and the Yankees have the flexibility to keep them around as insurance. They could, however, opt to give Jorge some reps at DH. That way they can get his bat into the lineup without risking his legs by playing him at catcher. That would require a third catcher, which would be Chad Moeller.

This is something I can see happening after the need for Russo expires. Once Cano is back to playing the Yanks don’t need two utility infielders, so Russo will likely head back to Scranton. That does leave a roster spot free. The Yankees could opt to recall Chad Moeller as Francisco Cervelli‘s backup and give Jorge reps against righties at DH. They could even ease him back into catching, making sure that his leg issues really are behind him.

Alternative two: Option Russo, recall Miranda

If the Yankees are prepared to let Jorge return to catching full-time, they could opt to replace Russo with a platoon partner with Thames at DH. I like this just about as little as I like carrying a third catcher. Miranda can back up Teixeira at first, and Thames can play the OF if need be, but neither presents a good option. Then again, with these injuries that doesn’t come as a surprise.

I’d probably support recalling Moeller more, because it provides the added bonus of getting Jorge’s bat into the lineup while making sure his calf is ready for the rigors of squatting for an hour and a half each night. Also, Miranda hasn’t played since May 4, so there might be something there.

Rain? That might help

There is rain in the forecast today, and while I’m not normally one to hope for a washout, it might not be the worst thing in this case. Rescheduling this afternoon’s game as a doubleheader later in the year accomplishes a few things.

  1. It pushes the whole rotation back a day. CC would pitch on Sunday, and then Burnett would go Monday against the Tigers. Vazquez could then go Tuesday as scheduled, followed by Hughes on Wednesday. Could Andy Pettitte pitch on Thursday? I doubt it, but there’s a non-zero chance.
  2. It gives Jorge and Robbie a free day. It sounds like Jorge could catch today, but giving him another day couldn’t hurt, especially if there’s no game to win that day. Cano won’t play today, so a rainout will only help there.
  3. It means no Joe Buck and Tim McCarver.

No one likes to see injuries, especially ones to key players. The Yankees have weathered a few trips to the infirmary this year, but they’re in an even tougher spot now. They do have options, though they’re starting to get a bit thin.

Could Miranda be the full-time DH in 2010?

Juan Miranda reminding Kyle Farnsworth that he's Kyle FarnsworthThe Yankees have three main holes to fill this offseason: leftfield, designated hitter, and number three starter. Sure, they can – and probably will – look to upgrade some other positions as well, but the team is generally in good shape there. The Bombers seem pretty intent on bringing Johnny Damon back to play left, and I think everyone believes the Andy Pettitte situation will work itself out and solidify the rotation.

That leaves DH as the biggest question mark. It’ll be tough to replace Hideki Matsui‘s 2009 production, even if they bring Godzilla himself back. The popular thought is that the Yanks can use the DH spot to rest Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, etc. on a rotating basis, but I can’t see the team actually going through with that. If they did, that means more at-bats for the Ramiro Penas and Brett Gardners and Frankie Cervellis of the world, and that’s not a formula that will win the cut-throat AL East.

There are always more DH types available than DH spots open, so the Yanks certainly have options. However, the team is said to be looking to scale back the payroll a bit, and if they can’t retain Matsui on favorable terms, the team might be better off filling the DH spot from within rather than dropping seven figures on a guy in the decline phase of his career. I’m not talking about that silly rotating DH thing when I say filling the spot from within, I’m talking about Juan Miranda.

The Yanks signed Miranda back in 2006 after he defected from Cuba and gained citizenship in the Dominican. He signed a four year Major League contract worth $2M, and the idea was that he’d take over first base on an everyday basis near the end of Jason Giambi‘s tenure. After splitting 2007 between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, Miranda’s spent the past two seasons with Triple-A Scranton. In 2008 he hit .287-.384-.449 with 12 homers, and his .371 wOBA ranked 14th in the league (min. 400 plate appearances). One problem was that Miranda couldn’t hit lefties, like at all. In 125 PA against southpaws, he hit just .200-.264-.287 with a grand total of six extra base hits. The second problem is that the Yanks brought in Mark Teixeira in the offseason, putting Miranda in baseball purgatory.

Sent back to Triple-A in 2009 because there was no spot on the big league roster for him, Miranda improved in almost every way. He hit for a higher average (.290) and more power (.498 SLG, IsoP jumped from .163 to .208) in his second stint in the International League, but most importantly, Miranda improved considerably against lefthanders. In 169 PA against southpaws, he hit .291-.367-.507 with 18 extra base hits. It’s an amazing turn around in just one year, but you have to be a little careful because it’s not a huge sample and it could very easily be a fluke. For what it’s worth, he was pretty bad against lefties in 2007 (.216-.293-.371, 12 XBH in 133 PA).

Even though he used his three option years in 2007-2009, Miranda qualifies for a fourth option because he still hasn’t played in his fifth pro season. Brian Cashman confirmed it. That means the Yanks could easily stash him away in Triple-A for a third straight year if they so choose, there won’t be any consequence. That also gives them some flexibility, because if Miranda starts the year in bigs but needs to be demoted because he isn’t performing, they can do it without worrying about losing him on waivers.

Not that the sample size is meaningful (23 PA), but Miranda’s actually hit big league pitching pretty well: .368-.435-.579. He collected a walk-off single off old buddy Kyle Farnsworth on Sept. 29th of this year, then three days later he took Dale Thayer way deep (someone he’s surely faced numerous times in Triple-A over the last two years) for his first career homer. In limited action, Miranda’s certainly been productive at the Major League level.

Using the wonderful MLE Calculator, we can see that Miranda’s Triple-A batting line this year would have translated to .249-.318-.412 with 15 homers in the big leagues, though I don’t think the MLEc has been updated to reflect the homer happy New Yankee Stadium yet. For the sake of context, that’s basically what Aaron Rowand hit this year. The same Aaron Rowand whose .323 wOBA ranked 68th among all outfielders with at least 400 PA in 2009. Need more context? Melky Cabrera was 63rd with a .331 wOBA. So yeah, it’s not very good.

Of course that’s just one look at it. Part of me is curious to see what Miranda could do with a full season of at-bats in the big leagues, but at the same time I don’t think the Yanks can afford to experiment at such a crucial offensive position. I don’t think his massive improvement against lefties is sustainable, nor do I think he’s as bad against them as he was in 2008. In reality, he’s probably somewhere in the middle, which means the Yanks would need to pair him with a righthanded caddy (tying up another roster spot) for all the lefty starters in the division (Lester, Price, Matusz, Cecil, Romero).

So, getting back to the original question about Miranda possibly being the full-time DH in 2010, I’m going to say no. Not for a team trying to win a championship. Lefty hitting first base/DH types that have historically struggled against lefthanders aren’t exactly a rare commodity, and given the Yanks’ current roster construction and needs, Miranda doesn’t really have a place. He’s a better fit for a rebuilding team or an NL club that can live with below average defense at first or needs a bat off the bench. With all due respect to Mr. Miranda, I hope the Yankees look elsewhere for a DH should Matsui move on.

Photo Credit: Kathy Willens, AP

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.