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
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
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
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?