Saturday, June 30, 2012

Yankees reward Syracuse faithful with big win

The New York Yankees gave the Syracuse faithful exactly what they wanted today: a big win in a quick game played in sweltering heat.

Today was the second annual SU Day at Yankee Stadium. Being a proud Syracuse University alumni, I bought my ticket when they first went on sale months ago. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything although I must admit that the expected hot temperatures made me wonder if I was crazy to show up for that game. But I’m glad I did because I was treated to my favorite event on a baseball field: a strong pitching performance, by none other than Hiroki Kuroda, who after a rough adjustment period has pitched beautifully for the Yankees.

But there were good times to be had even before the game started with my fellow Syracuse alum and I taking part in the Turkey Hill pre-game picnic. Many of the Syracuse faithful got on a 5 in the morning bus to make the trek to Yankee Stadium and would be returning immediately after the game so I’m glad the Yankees made their trip worthwhile. Otto the Orange came by to greet us and stopped to say hi to me specifically while I was eating. He motioned about being hungry and I asked him if he wanted some of my watermelon, to which he nodded enthusiastically. But poor Otto could barely drink from the water bottle that his helper slipped under his head, let alone actually eat. Even in the shaded area, with those temps, it must have been brutal for Otto. I love Otto, but I would not want his job.  

I also got a chance to try out my Yankees Universe pass for the first time. Membership promises fast-track access into the Yankees Museum and it delivered on that promise as I got to bypass that ridiculous long line, which I myself have stood on many times, to get into the museum. Once inside, I got to see the new Mickey Mantleexhibit, which was cool because it had a lot of good memorabilia, including his 1956 Most Valuable Player Award trophy. Unfortunately, I did not get any photos because I couldn’t figure out how to turn off the flash on my new camera. I guess I will have to read that manual now.  

So after two hours at the stadium, it was finally game time. I had a good feeling about the game, especially after seeing two-time Super Bowl-winning Giants football coach (and former SU student-athlete) Tom Coughlin head out to the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Talk about positive vibes.

Kuroda, backed by three solo home runs from the Yankee hitters, made the trip to the ballpark in the uncomfortable, and quite frankly dangerous, heat worth it. Many a Syracuse fan went home very happy today, including yours truly. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bad break for Pettitte means trouble for Yankees

Has a first-place team ever experienced such bad luck?

Out of an abundance of caution, the New York Yankees put ace lefthander CC Sabathia on the disabled list due to a groin injury. Out of necessity, the Yankees announced his #2 Andy Pettitte would join him on the disabled list just hours later. So the team with the best record in baseball suddenly looks like it could be in a lot of trouble.

I wasn’t terribly concerned about Sabathia’s injury, which appears to be relatively minor. Heading into the All-Star break, I thought it was absolutely the right move to be cautious and not let Sabathia risk worsening the injury by trying to pitch through it. But the Yankees had to be exasperated by the misfortune of Pettitte getting hit with a comebacker that broke his fibula, forcing him off the mound for at least the next six weeks.

I feel really bad for Pettitte. Despite my personal feelings over his actions during the Roger Clemens trial, Pettitte had stepped up to help right what had been a struggling Yankees rotation both by pitching extremely well and serving as counsel and mentor to guys like Phil Hughes. I admire Pettitte’s bulldog mentality in trying to stay in yesterday’s game, but I cringed after he threw that first pitch after getting hit with that comebacker because it was obvious that he was in an extreme amount of pain. The silver lining of this injury, as Brian Cashman noted, is that the 40-year-old Pettitte will be really fresh when the Yankees truly need him in September and October.

So for the time being, the Yankees rotation will comprise of Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and Hughes, with some help from Freddy Garcia and a couple of Yankee minor leaguers. Kuroda, Nova and Hughes have all pitched well of late, but I do worry that they might put too much pressure on themselves to try to make up for not having Sabathia or Pettitte. As for Garcia, this is a great opportunity for him to show that he still has something left in the tank and should not be relegated to mop-up duty.

It’s going to be a challenge, but I think the Yankees can survive the next two weeks without their star lefties. But it’s going to take a lot of luck, something that doesn’t seem to be on the Yankees side right now. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Yankees play it safe with ace CC Sabathia

I knew things were going too well for the New York Yankees.

The good vibes from a terrific performance by Phil Hughes extending the Yankees winning ways and the controversy over the catch that wasn’t a catch have been quickly cast aside by news that CC Sabathia is heading to the disabled list. It appears to be a relatively minor injury, but the Yankees, cautious by nature, are nottaking any chances with their ace, putting him on the DL instead of just skipping his turn in the rotation in the hope of a quick recovery. Can’t say I blame them.

CC being injured explains a lot about his inability to hold a four-run lead against the New York Mets last weekend. Yes, his defense failed him miserably, but he usually pitches around errors. And perhaps my expectations for CC are unfairly high (though he has mostly lived up to and surpassed them in his Yankee years). But the fact that he allowed that game to be tied by the Mets really took me by surprise. It’s not like the CC we know and love to blow that kind of a lead and the injury may explain why (although Sabathia would never use it as an excuse because he is a no excuses kind of guy).

Joe Girardi didn’t seem too pleased by Sabathia’s failure to inform the team of the injury he first felt on Sunday night. But he can’t really be surprised either. His ace is a bulldog who always wants the ball. He wanted to only miss a start rather than go on the DL with what he probably sees as a nuisance injury rather than a serious one. But CC lost that argument to Brian Cashman and Girardi, who know it’s more important to have their ace on the mound in September than late June, particularly with the Yankees on such a winning streak.

With the Yankees going so well, they can afford to be without their ace for two weeks, particularly with the All-Star break coming up. But it can’t be for much longer than that or the Yankees could find themselves in trouble. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Happy Birthday, Derek Jeter!

What do you get for the man who has everything? Well, Derek Jeter doesn’t really have everything. He is still fighting for that 6th World Series championship ring, which is all he really cares about on the baseball field.

Jeter heads into his 38th birthday today mired in a bad slump, which hopefully won’t get all the “is he getting too old” talk started again. Before his birthday month began, Jeter was having an unbelievable season, batting near .400 and stabilizing the New York Yankees offense when everyone else was struggling.

He has been surpassing great names on the all-time hits lists on his way to possibly challenging Pete Rose for the top spot (if he decides to play that long, which Bud Selig and Major League Baseball would love). Next up, the guy who made it possible for tall guys like Jeter to play shortstop: Cal Ripken Jr.

But Jeter has little patience for talk of records and lists. That doesn’t mean he isn’t honored to take his place among these legendary greats. It just means that he is too busy playing baseball to care right now. And that’s one of the reasons Yankee fans (and a lot of other baseball fans) worship the captain.

Happy Birthday, Derek!

Feisty Mets put up a good fight

I have a lot of respect for a Mets team that just lost five of six games this month to their cross-town rival New York Yankees.

If the Mets miss out on the baseball playoffs this year by a couple of games, they are going to rue the 2012 versions of the Subway Series. But in truth they played pretty well this weekend, putting up some good at-bats against the Yankees top two pitchers in CC Sabathia (who hasn’t really pitched like the ace we all know he is despite his solid numbers) and Andy Pettitte (who had a rare misstep in his inability to escape a first-inning jam on Friday). They might have even swept the Yankees if not for manager Terry Collins’ debatablepitching moves although he can’t really be blamed for being afraid to go to his shaky bullpen.  

But the games were all pretty close, which was great because the Subway Series always has more meaning when the Yankees and Mets are both competitive. Despite their lack of power and shaky bullpen, the Mets are still within striking distance of the Washington Nationals for the National League East division lead. It will be a lot of fun this summer to see if the Mets can hold on and compete for a division title or one of those wild card slots. It would be terrific for the franchise if the Mets actually make the playoffs. It could help banish the dark cloud cast by the Bernie Madoff scandal for good.

The Mets were scrappy on the field and very feisty off of it, seemingly never believing the conventional wisdom they are out of the Yankees league. This feistiness was reflected by Mets closer Frank Francisco’s eagerness to start a minor New York tabloid controversy by calling the Yankees “chickens.” Francisco did back up his trash talk by closing out the Mets’ sole victory in the Subway Series although he also quickly headed to the disabled list. Was he really hurt that bad or is he the real chicken? We probably won’t know until next year, unless the Mets and Yankees somehow meet up again this year in the World Series. How awesome would that be? 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Happy birthday, Phil Hughes!

Ah, to be 26 again!

If I was 26 years old again, I probably wouldn’t be dealing with this achy back, unless I was a professional athlete like Phil Hughes. I do consider myself a professional spinner, or at least an obsessed one. But truth be told, I’m in much better health in my 30s than I was in my 20s. I can only hope for Phil’s sake and the New York Yankees that his health problems are behind him too.

Hughes seems to have righted himself after losing much of the 2011 baseball season to a baffling arm injury and getting off to a rough start in 2012. His last outing aside, Hughes has been on quite a roll in the month of June, giving up only 4 runs in three victories, including that masterful performance against the Detroit Tigers. My birthday wish for Hughes, and probably his wish for himself, is that the rest of the year looks more like those three starts in the middle of the month than his last one.

Happy Birthday, Phil!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Pettitte’s cocoon of silence won’t protect him from the truth

Andy Pettitte didn’t want to talk about Roger Clemens’ acquittal on perjury and other charges. I don’t blame him. If I were Pettitte, I wouldn’t want to talk about how I put my hand on a Bible, swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then completely bent the truth to save my old pal.

Clemens was acquitted for many reasons, but Pettitte’s suddenly hazy memory didn’t help the prosecution’s case. I’m still quite shocked that the jury couldn’t bring itself to find Clemens guilty of even one charge. But the members of that jury were not baseball fans – some of them had never even heard of Clemens – and didn’t understand the context of just how much damage Clemens and the other performance-enhancing drug users did to the game and how he should have been punished for that.

It’s amazing how my opinion of Pettitte has completely changed since his appearance at the Clemens trial. I root for him to pitch well for the New York Yankees’ sake and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the starters have been on such a hot streak since he came back. (Phil Hughes, brilliant of late, has openly talked about how much of a help Pettitte has been to him). But I get no joy from watching Pettitte pitch. Not anymore. I went from being uncontrollably excited about Pettitte’s comeback when it was first announced to completely disappointed at his off-the-field actions.

By the way, I couldn’t disagree more with Derek Jeter about the acquittal being good for baseball. I know that the Yankees Captain grew fond of Clemens as a teammate, but what Clemens and the other baseball cheaters did has put a permanent black mark on the game. I believed that the biggest names among the cheaters, Barry Bonds and Clemens, had to pay for what they did for the game to truly begin to heal and neither of them did.

But Pettitte’s cocoon of silence won’t protect him from the fact that he went out of his way to bend the truth to get his friend off the hook. And that is something he will have to live with.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

All right in baseball land as Yankees take 1st place

The New York Yankees are right where they belong: in first place.

After struggling the first couple of months of the 2012 baseball season, the Yankees finally find themselves at the top of the American League East division, just ahead of both the Tampa Bay Rays and the surprising Baltimore Orioles. It’s only a one-game lead, but considering how awful the Yankees have looked at times this season, I’ll take it.

The Yankees can thank superior starting pitching for their rise to the top. Aside from an uncharacteristically erratic CC Sabathia, the Yankee starters have been brilliant in recent weeks, consistently putting up zeros and shutting down opposing teams. And they have to be near perfect, as they haven’t gotten much in the way of run support from their “can’t get a hit with runners on base” offense.

Yesterday’s game was a good example of the Yankees’ turnaround from the start of the season. After sleepwalking through seven innings against young Mike Minor (who truly deserved a better fate after his strong outing), the Yankees finally came alive in the 8th, led surprisingly by Alex Rodriguez, who tied the legendary Lou Gehrig with his 23rd Grand Slam. That was quickly followed by a two-run blast from Nick Swisher that put the Yankees in the lead for good. And even after his rough first inning, Sabathia did exactly what a true ace should do in gutting his way through seven innings to give the overworked bullpen some much needed relief.

So the Yankees are in first place. All seems right in the baseball world again. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Subway takes NY Mets for a ride

The New York Mets were feeling pretty good about themselves this year, with the first no-hitter in franchise history highlighting what had been a season of overachieving. That has all come crashing down in the last week, with the New York Yankees, to no one’s surprise, landing some painful and perhaps fatal blows.

In the first game of this year’s Subway Series on Friday, the Yankees treated Mets ace/no-hitter extraordinaire Johan Santana like their personal punching bag. Then the Mets could not get much going against a resurgent Phil Hughes apart from a couple of solo homers en route to another loss. Finally, a comedy of errors on Sunday (actual errors, not metaphorical ones), led the Mets to waste a 3-0 lead and ultimately succumb to the Yankees when Russell Martin hit his second home run of the game to lead the Yankees in a walk-off victory, which, FYI, should never be celebrated by leaping onto home plate.

Can the Mets recover from this weekend’s sweep? Perhaps, but the Mets’ weaknesses were exposed for all in the baseball world to see. The Mets cannot hold a lead to save their lives, with an angry Jon Rauch not even waiting until Martin’s ball landed in the seats before walking off the mound in disgust and shame in the bottom of the ninth on Sunday. Their starting pitching has been very good, but it’s not good enough to survive all the errors in the field. And with the exception of David Wright, the Mets just cannot hit consistently.

The Yankees must be thrilled by the sweep of their cross-town rivals, although they would never publicly admit that. The Mets have gotten praise for overachieving this season while the Yankees have been criticized (including by yours truly) for their mediocre play even though the two teams had roughly the same record before the weekend. But the expectations are far higher in Yankee land and the Bronx Bombers are not supposed to struggle for more than a few games in a row. You now get the sense that the Yankees have really started to right the ship, with all elements of their game coming together (if they could only just hit a little better with men in scoring position).

So this weekend’s Subway trip was long and unpleasant for the Mets. They’ll be hoping for a smoother ride in a few weeks at Citi Field.   

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hughes silences Santana talk with dominant start

Johan Santana’s no-hitter has some people openly talking about the New York Yankees making a play for the Mets lefthander. But the Yankees would have to sacrifice one of their young starters in return and the name that has popped up, of course, is Phil Hughes. Today, Hughes once again showed the Yankees and their fans why they should not give up on him.

The Yankees almost traded for Santana once, but balked at giving up the young Hughes as part of the package. I think it was the right call for Brian Cashman back then and I hope he makes the same choice if the Mets make their ace available. I don’t think anyone would knock Cashman if he traded Hughes for Santana, but it seems like the Yankees general manager would prefer to stick with the younger, less expensive pitcher. And I don’t think the Mets would really consider trading Santana to the Yankees, not unless they want to start a mutiny in Queens. They certainly can’t do so right now while they are overachieving, but if they were to lose momentum and consider giving up their ace, they would demand a king’s ransom in return.

Not that I wouldn’t love to have Santana in the Yankees starting rotation. No question CC Sabathia and Santana would make a fearsome 1-2 punch. Hughes hasn’t yet fully reclaimed his first half 2010 dominance that had him being mentioned as a possible #2 to Sabathia. But this afternoon, Hughes brushed off a terrible start in his hometown to put forth a dominant performance against a Detroit Tigers lineup with two very dangerous hitters. Again staked to an early lead, he didn’t falter this time, even after giving up a solo home run to Prince Fielder. In fact, he got better as the game went along, so much so that Joe Girardi showed tremendous faith in sending Hughes out to finish what he started, a brilliant, confidence-boosting move by the Yankees manager.

I know some Yankee fans are frustrated by the inconsistency of Phil Hughes, but they shouldn’t be so eager to sacrifice him for Santana. Today, Hughes once again proved what he is capable of

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Congrats to Santana and long-suffering Mets fans

Congratulations, New York Mets fans! Your suffering is over. No longer will you be mocked for never experiencing one of the greatest accomplishments in baseball history.

The Mets have been overachieving all season, surpassing all expectations and playing to within a game of first place in the National League East (and one game better than the New York Yankees). Now a Mets pitcher has finally accomplished a feat that some people doubted would ever happen: Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in franchise history. After all the near misses and the agony of watching former Mets throw no-hitters and perfect games for other teams, this one has to feel good.

It seems right that Santana is the guy to make Mets history, especially considering how well liked he is all across baseball. The congratulations quickly started pouring in when word of his no-hitter got around and the praise all seemed quite genuine, with many of his former teammates expressing pure joy at their friend’s feat.

Santana has had a terrific career, winning not one but two Cy Young awards. The Mets have had so many terrific pitchers over the years, namely the great Tom Seaver. But Santana is the one to finally put the Mets on the map when it comes to no-hitter pitching history. He did right by the Mets and by Mets fans, saluting them for their support that night and through his struggles with that injured shoulder. He also made a short and simple clubhouse speech that choked me up a bit when he told his teammates that they all did this together.

And a big bravo to Terry Collins for having the guts to let his “hero” stay in that game despite the possible damage throwing so many pitches could do to Santana’s surgically repaired shoulder. It was not an easy call. Yankees fans remember when Joe Torre pulled David Cone from a game against the Oakland Athletics with a no-hitter through seven innings in his first start coming back from an aneurysm. Collins wasn’t going to do that, not to his ace, not in front of those long-suffering Mets fans, who have stuck by the team through September collapses and Bernie Madoff.

Congratulations to Johan Santana for a feat 50 years in the making. And to those hard-core Mets fans, including my uncles, who stood by the Mets through all the tough times. You all deserve this moment.