There’s plenty to be said about the last four Yankees games, all of which I’ve watched. I’ve got a bunch of other projects in motion, some social engagements, and a fairly pressing need to clear the decks, so I’m just to roll through these with more brevity (late note: riiiiiight) than I’d otherwise prefer lest I miss a chance to jot down a few thoughts. C’est la vie — I wouldn’t trade what I have going on right now for anything but a front-line starting pitcher for the Yanks or a power-hitting first baseman for the Dodgers (or is that the other way around?)
• Andra and I attended Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jays. At the outset I explained to her that Jays’ starter Pat Hentgen used to be a good pitcher, winning the Cy Young award back in 1996, but that he was hardly the same anymore. In the back of my mind, I recalled an email exchange with a certain member of the Toronto front office (you smart kids can connect the dots) about Hentgen in January. My correspondant had noted that while Hentgen’s Defense-Independent Pitching Stats weren’t so hot [a 5.07 dERA], the Jays had been impressed with his second-half performance last year [he went 6-3 with a 3.10 ERA for the Orioles] coming off of Tommy John surgery, his velocity had returned, his breaking ball was very good, and Toronto was taking little risk on his one-year contract. I just nodded to myself, figuring that either my correspondent either had a bit of wishful thinking going on or else was duty-bound to defend his team’s decision.
Anyway, the Yankees didn’t just knock Hentgen off the mound on Wednesday, they knocked him into retirement. In retrospect, it wasn’t at all surprising, because the guy had absolutely nuthin’. While the struggling Jays’ pitcher escaped a two-on, one-out jam in the first unscathed, he found trouble again in the second, loading the bases with no out. Bernie Williams broke a grisly 2-for-41 slump with a single up the middle, and the Yanks kept the line moving, batting around to put up a five-spot, climaxed by Jorge Posada’s two-run single. All of this with Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi sitting, the former with a small, nondisplaced fracture in his hand sustained the day before and the latter having undergone a battery of tests related to his still-sapped strength following that recent parasitic infestation (eeeugh).
In the top of the third, Yankee starter Javier Vazquez, who has not been sharp for the past month (a 7.06 ERA in his previous four starts) found trouble of his own, giving up two runs, ignominiously issuing a bases-loaded walk to backup catcher Greg Zaun. That Zaun, a career .375 slugger was batting in the fifth slot speaks volumes about the Jays’ disappointing season.
The Bronx Bombers kept shelling Hentgen. Bernie delivered another RBI single in the bottom of the inning, and a Miguel Cairo infield single chased the Toronto starter, leaving two men on. Reliever Bob File came in to face Gary Sheffield, who’s been swinging a hot bat lately despite bursitis in his left shoulder. Shef had delivered a game-winning two-run homer the day before, the 397th of his career. His shot had immediately followed Jeter getting hit by a pitch, just one more example of how he’s been the big bat in the Bomber lineup, exacting vengeance and wreaking havoc on opposing pitchers. As File warmed up, I caught Andra up with this news, reminding her that at the outset of the season I’d said repeatedly to anyone within earshot, “Personal feelings about the man aside, there’s no ballplayer I’d rather watch hit than Gary Sheffield.”
Shef stepped into the box, wagging his bat with his usual menace. He turrned on File’s first pitch, crushing it into the leftfield stands for a towering three-run homer that made the score 9-2. One of these days, I’m going to have to devote a whole piece to Shef. You take Barry, I’ll take Gary.
Each team scored one more run before the game was out, with the Yanks’ coming on Enrique Wilson lining a shot down the rightfield line, a perfect illustration that even a blind chicken finds a kernal of corn now and again, especially when a lousy middle reliever is the one scattering it. The only other event of note came in the seventh inning, when Toronto first baseman Carlos Delgado stepped to the plate. A knucklehead in a Yankee road jersey one section over stood up and started berating Delgado with lines like “Go back to the Dominican Republic!” and “Get out of my country!” It took me a moment to piece together what he was saying — Delgado has been the only major-leaguer to speak out regarding the U.S. war against Iraq. As I put two and two together, my blood began to boil, not only because of my own feelings on the matter, but also because the xenophobe in the stands couldn’t even get Delgado’s country right — he’s Puerto Rican, making him a U.S. citizen. Delgado’s got a history of speaking his mind, having protested the U.S. Navy’s history of testing weapons on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, stepping up with money and his good name to back the cause. When I turned and shouted at the knucklehead to sit his ass down, I was heartened by the fact that more people around me were directing their disapproval at him than they were at Delgado; the tough-looking guy a couple rows behind me responding by yelling, “Hey, you get out of my stadium!” Within a minute, said knucklehead, obviously inebriated, was being escorted out by his own friends.
Delgado was conspicuously absent from the field during “God Bless America,” having been removed from the ballgame by manager Carlos Tosca and thus excuse from the rote display of patriotism during the seventh-inning stretch. The local media took note of the whole thing, of course, noting that while “God Bless America” is only played intermittently around the rest of the league, it’s rammed down the throats of Yankee Stadium denizens every single game.
• I missed Thursday afternoon’s ballgame because I was at work, but I watched parts of it during YES Network’s encore presentation Friday morning. With the Yankee starting rotation in tatters, the rejuvenated Orlando Hernandez twirled an absolute gem. With his knee-high socks and his cap brim low, El Duque was the nationwide badass of old, baffling the Jays’ hitters, pitching seven shutout innings and striking out ten while scattering a mere four singles and one walk. But the crafty 38-year-old Cuban was matching zeroes with former Yankee Ted Lilly, who was slightly less dominant but no less effective through 6.2 innings before giving way to the Toronto bullpen. The game stayed scoreless into the bottom of the ninth. Vinny (The Incredible) Chulk impressively struck out Sheffield and Alex Rodriguez, but Ruben Sierra lofted a 2-1 fastball over the fence for a 1-0 victory, only the second time in Yankee history a 1-0 game had ended in such a way, and the first time in 15 years that the 39-year-old Sierra had hit a walk-off homer — or as we prefer to call them around here, a Get Off My Property Home Run. Sierra’s reemergence has been one of the more heartening sidebars to the Yanks’ season, as the once-promising-but-petulant slugger has exhibited nothing but class and maturity while providing a big bat off the bench and in the DH slot.
• Volumes could be written about Friday night’s battle between the Yankees and Red Sox in Fenway Park. With the Yanks having sent the Sox reeling by sweeping them at the turn of the month — capped by that incredible 13-inning affair in which Jeter dove into the stands at full speed — the two teams entered the series nine games apart in the loss column, with the Sox more focused on maintaining the AL Wildcard than fighting for the division crown. The Yanks struck first against Bosox blowhard Curt Schilling with a Sheffield homer over the Green Monster, but the Sox roared back against shaky Yankee starter Jon Lieber, putting up three runs in the second, capped by Bill Mueller’s two-run homer.
Boston extended its lead to 4-1 with a homer by Kevin Millar in the fourth, the YES announcers noting that the “Cowboy Up!” sloganeer had failed to walk the walk this season until breaking out earlier in the week. I had swapped emails with my friend Nick regarding Millar, the context of which was a rumor that Boston would trade for Houston centerfielder Carlos Beltran, recently acquired from the Kansas City Royals before the Astros went in the tank. I explained my understanding that with Johnny Damon enjoying a fine season, the Sox would put Beltran in right, with Trot Nixon and Manny Ramirez sharing left and DH, David Ortiz taking over first base and Millar being sent to the little girls’ room with all of the other .380-slugging first basemen. I would soon be eating that crow.
The Yankees clawed for a run in the fifth, knocking Schilling out of his groove with a bunch of singles and a walk; Schill needed 25 pitches to get out of the innings. But the Yanks delivered an even harsher blow in the sixth. A-Rod reached on an infield single and then Giambi, who hasn’t had a base hit since July 11, worked a walk off of the Boston pitcher with an epic ten-pitch at-bat. Posada won an eight-pitch affair with an RBI single up the middle. Hideki Matsui grounded into a fielder’s choice which sent Giambi to third. Joe Torre, sensing he had Schilling on the ropes — he’d already thrown another 26 pitches in the inning — sent up Sierra to pinch-hit for Enrique Wilson. Five pitches later, Sierra chopped a pitch that a charging Millar fielded halfway between first and home. Giambi had gotten a good enough jump that he was already mid-slide by the time the Boston first baseman found the handle; in his hesitation he missed an opportunity to tag Sierra as he passed by, and when he turned to throw to first base, nobody was there. All hands were safe, and the score was now tied at 4. Immediately following that, Kenny Lofton smoked an RBI double down the rightfield line just under Millar’s glove, giving the Yanks the lead. That spelled the end for Schilling, and Mike Timlin came on in relief. But Bernie Williams further tormented Millar by lacing another double down the rightfield line, scoring two runs, both charged to Schilling’s room. Chalk up another five-spot for the Yanks.
The long inning had made Torre’s decision to pull the shaky Lieber academic, and Paul Quantrill cameon in relief. Quantrill quickly gave up a solo Monster shot to a penitent Millar, trimming the lead to two. He coughed up another run in the seventh on a Johnny Damon single and a Jason Varitek double. In came spot lefty Felix Heredia; calling him a one-out guy is overly charitable, as Heredia had already failed at the simple task of retiring a single batter five times this year. He took that total to six by walking David Ortiz. But Tom Gordon came in and induced a double-play grounder from Manny Ramirez. He plunked Nomar Garciaparra in the back of the shoulder — unintentionally, it appeared, but who knows? — but retired Trot Nixon on a flyout to end the threat with the Yanks clinging to a 7-6 lead. But Gordon’s magic wore off as Millar led off the eighth with his third homer of the game, another no-doubt Monster shot that tied the game. Gulp.
Boston closer Keith Foulke came on in the ninth inning and got Jeter — back in the lineup after a mere day’s rest — to fly out, but Sheffield hammered a double high off of the massive leftfield wall and then A-Rod drove him home with a single to left, helping to erase memories of his miserable Fenway series back in April. Mariano Rivera nailed the game down in the bottom of the ninth, and with the victory came the murmurs that the Sox, now ten games back in the loss column and 37-38 over their past 75 games, were D.O.A. Alas, I missed the game’s money shot — Curt Schilling sobbing in the dugout alone following the final out. Oh well. So long as he’s unhappy, I’m that much happier.
• Further suspicions that the Sox had flatlined came in the early innings of Saturday’s game, the start of which was postponed for over an hour by rain. The Yanks scored two runs off of Bronson Arroyo in the second inning and had just added a third in the third when A-Rod stepped into the box. The young Sox hurler had already hit 12 men in 89.1 innings, the highest rate in the league, when he plunked Rodriguez on the elbow on a 1-1 pitch. Livid, the Yankee third baseman barked some choice four-letter words at Arroyo before Sox catcher Jason Varitek got in his face. A-Rod told Varitek to come on, and the Sox catcher, still wearing his mask, decked him in the face. From the look of the replays (which were of course repeated ad nauseum, with Fox annnouncers Tim McCarver and Joe Buck bloviating all manner of macho bullshit), it appears as though A-Rod got Varitek in a headlock and delivered a few choice blows himself as both benches emptied. Yankee starter Tanyon Sturtze joined the fray, battling a tag-team of reserve Sox outfielder/bodybuilding prettyboy Gabe Kapler and already-suspended behemoth David Ortiz, emerging with blood trickling from his left ear.
It took several minutes for the umpires to restore order while Fox cut to a clip of the two teams’ May 20, 1976 fight at home plate following a collision between Lou Piniella and Carlton Fisk, the one in whch Sox pitcher Bill (Spaceman) Lee got his collarbone broken by Graig Nettles. Varitek comically resumed his position behind the plate before umpire Bruce Froemming told him to take a hike, and he got a massive ovation from the Fenway faithful upon exiting. Rodriguez was ejected as well, as were Kapler and Kenny Lofton, who was nowhere near any of the fray, at least as seen on TV. As the rest of the inning ended without further incident, speculation abounded as to whether Sturtze, clearly ready for war, would continue, and how soon before he would retaliate. The Fox idiots went so far as to wonder how it would look if Torre had another pitcher warming up while Sturtze drilled somebody, anticipating his own ejection.
Patched up with some goop over his ear gash, Sturtze did indeed return to the mound, his adrenaline obviously pumping. He gave up a single to Millar and a double to Bill Mueller, and then Millar scored on a Mark Bellhorn grounder. Another infield grounder scored Mueller, and the Sox had cut the lead to 3-2. Sturtze left after that inning, with reports that the Yankee pitcher had sustained a bruised pinky on his right (pitching) hand. Owie! Rookie Juan Padilla, incongruously wearing sunglasses on an overcast day, came on in relief and immediately shifted the game to a new kind of ugliness — bad relief pitching. The two teams had called upon a combined total of seven relief pitchers in Friday night’s emotional rollercoaster, most of them doing little besides pouring gasoline on the fire. With the Yanks forced to go to their pen early, they could only hope for the best while expecting the worst. And it was the worst they got. Padilla walked Ortiz, gave up a double to Manny, and allowed three straight singles to score two runs and load the bases with nobody out. He got lucky when he reacted quickly to a comebacker from Mueller, throwing home to begin a snappy 1-2-3 double play and then escaping on a Bellhorn lineout. But the Sox had taken a 4-3 lead.
The Yanks finally struck back in the sixth, still facing Arroyo. Wilson, who’d replaced Rodriguez in the batting order, reached on an infield single, and then Posada doubled. Matsui followed with a two-run double to rightfield to retake the lead. Arroyo got the next two hitters, but Miguel Cairo slapped a single up the middle to score Matsui. Bernie singled, ending Arroyo’s afternoon. Curtis Leskanic walked both Jeter and Sheffield, forcing a run home. Wilson, likely setting a personal record with two positive events in the same inning, singled home two runs, and then Leskanic walked Posada as well. Mark Malaska came out of the bullpen to restore some order, striking out Matsui to cap the Yankee rally at six runs — the third time in four days the Yanks had put up five or more in a single inning.
With the game now 9-4, it looked like a laugher in the Yankees favor, the Bronx Bombers finally stepping on the Sox’s collective neck. But Padilla remained in the ballgame, quickly allowing the first two hitters to reach. Joe Torre replaced the rookie mid-count with Quantrill, who yielded a single to Millar to load the bases. On each of the next three hitters, Quantrill yielded a run, with the best result being a sac fly to Mueller. He struck out catcher Doug Mirabelli, who’d replaced Varitek, and then Torre called upon Heredia to do more damage. The Lefthanded No-Out Guy (LNOGY isn’t as catchy an acronym as LOOGY, is it?) gave up walks to both Ortiz and Ramirez, allowing a run to cut the lead to 9-8. But rookie Scott Proctor saved the Yanks’ bacon by coming on to blow away Nomar with some high-90s heat. Still, by the time the dust settled, the two teams had scored ten runs in an inning that lasted over an hour.
Ruben Sierra looked to set things right for the Yanks by homering over the Monster on Malaksa’s third pitch of the next inning, and the Yanks then loaded the bases on three consecutive Boston errors, the hometown team looking something like the Bad News Bears. Alan Embree forced Tony Clark at home on a play that echoed the Yanks 1-2-3 DP, but Boston couldn’t finish the job, leaving Embree to strike out Sheffield on three pitches (how often does that happen?) and then retire WIlson.
Proctor continued his impressive pitching until he gave up a two-out single in the eighth inning, whereupon Torre called upon Mo to get Manny (where was Jack?), which he did on a first-pitch fly ball. By this time it was ten minutes to eight, and Andra and I shut off the TV to head over to Nick’s for a dinner party. The league’s best reliever on the mound with a two-run lead against a team they were 9.5 games ahead of in the standings? No reason for the dinner bell to go unanswered.
And it was just as well. My pals and I have a saying: “At this point, if the Yankees aren’t going to win this game, I don’t want to watch.” So we were spared the fiasco of the ninth. I was shocked when I got to Nick’s that he didn’t have the game on, but he’d been out all afternoon and was so wrapped up preparing an authentic taco fiesta that he hadn’t even bothered. We turned on the TV just in time to see somebody — Mueller it turns out — being mobbed at home plate by his Sox teammates as the Fenway crowd went wild. We cursed, immediately turned off the TV, gnashed our teeth a few times while uttering a few more choice words, cracked open a round of beers, reminded ourselves that this wasn’t Aaron Boone, and commenced partying. The Sox may have won, and the Sunday papers would be full of their rhetoric and the blow-by-blow descriptions, but we had better things to do than suffer.