This week’s Hit List was composed amid a hangover of sorts brought on by Wednesday night’s Yankees-Red Sox match, an interminable 15-9 win for the Yanks that lasted four hours and eight minute. Four-hour affairs aren’t really my bag any more — I routinely avoid Yankees-Orioles games like telemarketers phoning at dinner time — and it’s not like a Yanks-Sox matchup needs anything to ratchet up the tension any further. Normally, one consumes beer at a ballgame to enhance the enjoyment, but this one required drinks just to tolerate.
The Yanks jumped out to an early 3-1 lead, as Bobby Abreu hit a two-run homer to right field and Alex Rodriguez immediately followed with a towering solo shot to left, his 522nd of his career, passing Ted Williams and Willie McCovey to move into 15th place on the all-time list. Both shots came at the expense of Clay Buchholz, a highly-touted rookie who threw a no-hitter last September and who wound up battling Joba Chamberlain for the top pitching spot on prospect lists.
Buchholz didn’t have it on Wednesday, but neither did Chien-Ming Wang, who had two-hit the Sox the previous Friday night. Having already surrendered a first-inning run courtesy of a Manny Ramirez double, Wang couldn’t hold the lead, as the Sox added runs in the second and fourth innings to tie the score at three apiece.
It was then that things got crazy. The Yankees broke the tie in the bottom of the fourth via a double by third-string catcher Chad Moeller, recalled from Dunder Mifflin a couple days prior after backup backstop Jose Molina tweaked his hamstring. A nine-year vet with a career line of .224/.284/.346, Moeller is the kind of generic backup catcher you can pick up at the service station just off the interstate. His hit was hard won, the result of an impressive eight-pitch at-bat against Buchholz, and it opened the floodgates. “The Moleman” — my friend Nick’s instant Simpsons-themed nickname for the new catcher — would go on to collect two more hits and a walk on the night. Meanwhile, the Yankees scored three more runs before the inning was out, two on a Derek Jeter single which chased the rookie hurler and a third on a wild pitch by reliever Julian Tavarez.
Wang could do nothing to hold the lead. He fell behind 3-0 on leadoff hitter Dustin Pedroia before allowing a double, and then surrendered four straight singles which cut the score to 7-6 and spelled his early exit. Ross Ohlendorf, a rookie reliever obtained in the Randy Johnson trade last year, came on in relief and made an instant impression by striking out Jason Varitek, but he yielded an RBI single to Sean Casey, the last of seven runs charged to Wang’s room. Ohlendorf found further trouble by walking Jacoby Ellsbury after another strikeout, then surrendering a two-run single to Pedroia — his second hit of the inning — to run the score to 9-7 Boston.
Undeterred, the Bronx Bombers roared back with four more runs in the bottom of the fifth, the first on a Jorge Posada double, the second on a Robinson Cano single, and the last two on a broken play. With the bases loaded, Melky Cabrera grounded to Pedroia at second. He flipped to Julio Lugo for the force, but Lugo’s throw got away from Casey at first, and two runs scored. The outburst completed a stretch where 14 runs scored in the span of eight outs, as the game blew past the two-hour mark and threatened to reach three before the seventh-inning stretch. According to the wire service summaries, the bottom of the fourth lasted 23 minutes, the top of the fifth another 31. Had the Yankees not taken the lead in the bottom of that fram, I might have chewed a limb off to get out of the ballpark.
The Yankees’ LaTroy Hawkins and the Red Sox’s David Aardsma — the nitwit who displaced Hank Aaron atop the game’s all-time alphabetical register — brought some semblance of order to the game, as the next three half-innings went by without even the threat of a run. Billy Traber, who got Ortiz to pop out on his only pitch of the game, and a much slimmer, shaggier Brian Bruney than I remember, pieced together the top of the eighth inning. The Yanks more or less put the game out of reach in the bottom of the inning, beating up Mike Timlin, now 42 and with his best days blessedly behind him, for four more runs. Three doubles by A-Rod, Posada, and Jason Giambi provided the scaffolding for the rally.
It also served as enough of a cushion to give Mariano Rivera the night off. Bruney made things a bit interesting by allowing two of the first three hitters to reach base, but he dispatched the Sox before Ortiz and Ramirez could get one last lick.
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Starting pitching has been the Yankees’ weakest link thus far; as I noted in the Hit List, the team’s Fair Run Average (their runs allowed per nine innings, adjusted to divide the responsibility for inherited runners between starters and relievers based on the base-out situation) ranked just 11th in the league, and youngsters Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy had combined for an 8.87 ERA. Since then, the two pitchers have both fumbled another start against the O’s (and no, I couldn’t really bear to watch), and the Yankee rotation’s FRA has fallen to 13th out of 14 AL teams. Hughes and Kennedy aren’t even averaging four innings per start combined (27.1 innings in seven starts), and as a team the Yanks have now fallen below 5.0 innings per start (94.1 innings in 19 starts). The bullpen has been one of the game’s best; they rank second in the AL in Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL) but their combined 70.1 innings leads the majors. Ohlendorf (14.1 innings) actually has thrown more innings than Kennedy. If that pace continues, it will make Yankee fans pine for the days when Joe Torre tried to pitch Scott Proctor’s arm off.