May 2013

Moms are just awesome

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There’s something sweet every year on this day in baseball. The pink bats, the pink wristbands, pink cleats, and for the first time this year, pink seams lacing together each piece of cowhide. And whether they express it or not, every MLB player takes the field with one special person on their mind.

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The one who drove them to baseball practice over the years. The one who came to every game to sit in the bleachers and watch. The biggest fan: mom.  

The Yankees today couldn’t have done a better job honoring their moms, scratching out a 4-2 win over the Kansas City Royals. The Yanks are now winners of five straight and have taken sole possession of first place in the AL East in front of Boston (by two games) and Baltimore (by one game).

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Yes, the Yankees – sans Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Kevin Youkilis – are in first place. That is not a misprint, it is a fact.

It’s difficult to explain how the Yankees continue to do it. It’s not as if they are blowing teams out. With the exception of Friday’s 11-6 win in KC, the rest of the victories during the Bronx Bombers’ current win streak have been decided by two runs or less.

Sure, run scoring remains to be an issue, but when a team is receiving outstanding starting pitching and the bullpen is as solid as a rock, it’s a “no harm, no foul” picture. As a matter of fact, going into yesterday night’s 3-2 win the Yankee bullpen was 5-1 over the previous 14 games with an ERA of 2.23.

Now that’s efficiency.

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Using his pink bat this afternoon Robinson Cano set off a bomb that landed in the seats in right field, a two-run tater that gave the Yanks a lead 2-1. Right after he left the yard Vernon Wells – who has found new life in pinstripes – did him one better: a spectacular solo shot to left field, back-to-back jacks to give the Yanks a 3-1 lead. Wells added an RBI single in the fifth, and that was all the runs the Bombers needed to win.

Though I can’t say for sure, I’m convinced it’s a safe bet to say the Yankee mothers would be proud.

On Mother’s Day I usually like to pull out a special baseball and hold it. When I was 10 years old in 1997 my grandmother gave me a baseball with the printed signatures of the first five inductees of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, which by the way are Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner.

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My grandmother passed away in 1998, the year after she gave it to me. I’m going to keep the ball forever, and it’s just a special keepsake I’ll always have.

Along with holding the ball every Mother’s Day a tradition, for me, is the retelling of a classic story proving why my mom is the greatest of all-time.

The night before my fourth or fifth birthday, my mom slaved away all night making me a Batman cake. She baked it, and then labored trying to ice it. My birthday is on June 15 – and it was apparently a hot night. The blue icing kept melting, so my mom had to keep putting the cake in the freezer, thus having to start over several times.

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After all the hard work, it looked perfect. (I had a picture of me next to it, but unfortunately it’s stored away somewhere and I don’t have it and obviously couldn’t include it). When I woke up the next morning she expected me to be overwhelmingly excited at how the cake turned out.

Actually, not so much.

According to her, my exact response upon first view of her hard work was, “it’s great, mom. Where’s my cereal?”

The fact that she didn’t get angry – or even kill me after saying that – is a testament to what type of person she is.

When you’re young you take everything for granted. But as an adult, you start to recognize the types of things your mom does for you; you tend to appreciate her a lot more. Without taking anything for granted, I truly appreciate everything my mom has done, and continues to do, for me.

Yes, I love my mommy. I hope that makes me a good son.

And as for the Yanks: they’ll be looking to keep on making their moms proud tomorrow. In Cleveland they’ll play a doubleheader vs. their old friend Nick Swisher and the Indians, making up two games which were rained out on April 10th and 11th. David Phelps (1-1, 5.02 ERA) is on the bump in the first game, and as announced after this afternoon’s win, newcomer Vidal Nuno (0-0, 0.00 ERA) gets the ball in the second game.

Good luck, DD

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On Tuesday night the Yankees were shut down and shutout 2-0 by the Colorado Rockies in Denver, in what was another dead effort in run scoring. Going into last night’s game the Yanks were 17th in the majors with 133 runs scored for the year, their wins being mostly one or two-run games. Case in point: last night’s ugly 3-2 victory over the Rockies to even the series up 1-1, scoring and stranding baserunners being two issues for the Bronx Bombers.

In the last three games alone the Yankees have left 36 men on base (18 in Sunday’s 5-4 loss to Oakland, 11 Tuesday night, eight last night), clearly struggling to generate runs and bring runners to the plate.

Maybe a crash course in “Run Scoring 101” is in order. That, or just actually hitting with runners in scoring position.

Either way this Yankee team, which sometimes looks more like a team you’d see in the final inning of a Spring Training game, will look to take the series from Colorado this afternoon; CC Sabathia (4-3, 3.31 ERA) trying to get back on track after a slew of starts that have been unlike the typical, dominant outings we normally see from him.

Throughout it all the Yanks (19-13) are still hanging in, numerically in second place in the AL East (behind Boston and Baltimore, who are tied for first) and just one game out of first place in the division – a stark contrast from the Miami Marlins, who are 10-25, in dead last in the NL East.

Over the winter the Marlins made a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays: Yunel Escobar for a name I recognized – infielder Derek Dietrich. The fledgling Marlins called Dietrich up yesterday morning, and later that day he made his MLB debut in Miami’s game in San Diego vs. the Padres. Dietrich started at second base, although all the times I saw him play, he was a shortstop and spent some time at third.

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Over the summer of 2010 (as most regular readers know) I interned for the Hudson Valley Renegades, the short-season Single-A affiliate of the Rays. Dietrich was on the team that season, climbing his way up the minor league rungs, and now he’s made it.

Always one to be pithy, I have a great story about the Marlins’ new second baseman.

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As an intern, one of our many jobs was to help entertain the fans in between innings – and if you’ve ever been to a minor league baseball game, you know it’s commonplace for wacky, tacky games to be played to keep the crowd interested while the players warm up.

We usually kept everything theme-oriented. For example one night our theme was “Groundhog Day” and in honor of the classic and quotable Billy Murray movie, we played the same exact game every inning, in accordance with the déjà vu Murray’s character Phil Connors experiences in the film. At the end of the night we had a groundhog mascot come out and dance on the field – suffice it to say, it was fun for everyone involved.

And that’s just one example. There were plenty of more nights similar to the Groundhog Day game.

One particular game was deemed “Rain Delay Night.” The cheesy, wacky tacky games in between innings involved us squirting each other with super soakers, and pretending the games in between innings were “rained out.” A blue pool tarp was even laid down in foul territory where we usually held these games.

Yeah, that’s how far we took it. Give us credit for committing to the bit, though.

At any rate, as we were stationed in the first base pit next to the Renegades’ dugout, Dietrich apparently thought our shenanigans were quite amusing, because he joined in on the action. I vividly remember him sitting near the edge of the dugout; on the top step plotting his course.

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He went over to the water cooler in the dugout and poured himself a cup. But instead of drinking it, he ran by and splashed the water on us, leaving us standing there like some puzzled, wet ducks on a rainy day.

Dietrich 1, interns 0. But we got our revenge.

In the top of the eighth he walked past us down the right field line towards the bullpen with an ear-to-ear grin; almost begging us to shoot him with our water guns and retaliate. I remember leaning over to another intern, Anthony, (who we called “Yeti” because he was tall and large, like the Yeti) and asking him if Dietrich was coming back to the dugout. I’ll never forget his answer:

“If he comes back down this way, he’s a dead man,” he playfully responded, cocking back his super soaker.

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Eventually the Renegades won the game and Dietrich came back from the bullpen – and right to the first base pit. Not even stopping to take congratulations on the field with the team, he came right up to us and turned his back, as all of us pulled our triggers and fired at will.

On second thought, in reality, we “watered” at will; completely drenched him. When I say we got him good, we got him good – good enough for two points in the water war, I’d say.

Interns 2, Dietrich 1.

The image of the damp “3” and “2” on the back of his (#32) jersey will forever be burnt into my brain. The laughter that ensued by us and Dietrich is also burnt into my brain – truly a fun and lighthearted moment between a player and the ballclub interns.

In his MLB debut today Dietrich went 1-for-3, collecting his first big league hit on a line drive single to right field to lead off the top of the third inning.

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Bear in mind, this is just one story involving one player. There were countless other exchanges and moments during my internship with the Renegades that were just as funny and memorable. In my mind I’ve kicked around the idea of writing a book about that summer and telling a lot of the stories similar to the water war with Dietrich.

I think it’d be a fun read. Wouldn’t you…?

In the meantime, I’m wishing the absolute best of luck to Dietrich in his MLB career. Just know, I was part of a team that once beat him in a water fight…we totally won.

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Hey, we’re not so bad! Yankees survive, raise eyebrows in April

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A weak lineup full of holes. A shoddy pitching rotation. One or two strong arms in the bullpen. No Derek Jeter, no Alex Rodriguez, no Mark Teixeira, and no Curtis Granderson.

No faith; no belief.

The mentality of most Yankee fans on Opening Day was, to put it mildly, not good. The Bombers bombed on April 1, losing in convincing fashion, 8-2, to their most hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox; a bad loss on their home diamond to begin the season. But after a couple of games they started to get it right, and here we are a month later, the Yanks looking at a 17-10 record – in second place, and just two games out of first.

Get some faith. Start to believe.

As usual, a few storylines have enveloped the first month. First, and probably most important…

Mariano Rivera is back & better than ever

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On May 3, 2012 Mariano Rivera’s future looked bleak. After suffering a torn ACL on the warning track shagging fly balls in Kansas City, the “hammer of god” watched the majority of last year from the sidelines. With the veteran, 43-year-old closer’s future in question, he opted to return in 2013.

And boy, has he made his comeback mean something thus far.

Rivera slammed the door 10 times in the month of April and upon sealing last night’s 5-4 victory over the Astros has 11 saves for the year. The best part of it all: he is 11-for-11 in save opps.

Mo has been his usual, perfect self.

I attended Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Blue Jays, and sat in the right field bleachers above the Yankee bullpen. When Rivera got up to start warming, readying himself to enter the game and eventually close the game, he received a huge ovation – even before he customarily ran out of the ‘pen.

Expect this to be a recurring theme all season, given the announcement of his retirement at the end of 2013. Not to mention other teams have (and will) go out of their way to send Rivera off in a respectful manner. And it’s all well-deserved.

What can you say? He is bigger than the game.

Low-scoring affairs and one-run wonders

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For a team beat up, battered and bruised, the Yankees have obviously been able to keep their collective heads above the proverbial water. However, it hasn’t exactly been easy to do. Of their 17 wins this year, there haven’t been too many blowouts; not a lot of huge wins.

Aside from a 14-1 thrashing of the Cleveland Indians back on April 9, the Yankees have played in some incredibly tight ballgames. Three of their last four wins have been one-run victories, and their two previous wins before those last four victories were decided by just two runs: a 5-3 win on April 25 and a 6-4 win on April 26 – both over the Blue Jays.

It would be nice to have a few more of those 14-1 type games, and see the Yankees put some runs on the board. Yet it’s not as if the formula isn’t working, because the Yanks are 10-1 in games decided by two runs or less this season – which is good for the best in the bigs in games of that kind.

If nothing else, they’re becoming battle-tested in close games, which down the stretch will help them.

Robinson Cano still swinging a hot bat

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A power outage was anticipated when the Yankees lost Nick Swisher (24 home runs in 2012) and Russell Martin (21 home runs in 2012) – that of course went with temporarily taking away all the power numbers Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter provided.

But the one constant power player in the lineup is Robinson Cano.

Last night Cano clubbed his eighth home run of the year, which put him at 185 taters for his MLB career, tying him with another Yankee warrior – Paul O’Neill – for 17th place on the all-time Yankee home runs list.

O’Neill, by the way, who is NOT portraying Ted Danson’s character Sam Malone in a Cheers remake.

In any event, Cano is carrying the offense; lighting up the scoreboard on the Yankees’ side in most of these games in the early going. His sweet swing keeps getting sweeter and his defense continues to be top-notch. There’s no doubt his RBI count is going to climb higher and higher, and his average will be significantly over .300 throughout the course of the year.

Having Cano on your side is almost the same as playing a game of doubles in tennis, and having a brick wall as your partner. And the Yankees have that brick wall.

CC Sabathia sharp (but twice not sharp)

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I’ll be the first to admit I was a little bit worried (and dejected) when CC Sabathia got absolutely shelled in Game 4 of the ALCS last year, the big ace losing the final game of the Yankees’ season to the Detroit Tigers. My worries were well-founded and even multiplied when I found out he wasn’t pitching at 100% and needed surgery in the offseason on his pitching arm.

Then Opening Day happened: four earned runs on eight hits, four walks and five Ks in only five frames to a loss to the Red Sox.

Not very encouraging to see, but as usual he turned it around. He won his next three starts, beating the Baltimore Orioles, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the very team that slaughtered him in the playoffs last year, the Tigers.

Then came Sabathia’s last two starts.

The big man was once again shellacked, this time by the Tampa Bay Rays. In seven abysmal innings he let up five earned runs – three of which were served up on home runs. He hit a batter, walked two, and in his only good stat of the night, struck out eight.

His fastball was flat, he was hanging his breaking ball, and needless to say it wasn’t pretty.

Things seemed to be going in the same direction in his last start vs. the Blue Jays: a dead fastball and bad breaking stuff. He turned it around though, and battled back to actually pick up a win in one of the most valiant efforts of this young season.

Sabathia went 4-2 in April, and believe it or not, this marks the first time in his career he’s picked up four victories in the first month of the season. I think it only proves that Sabathia is so good that even when he isn’t doing well, he’s doing well.

We’ll see how everything carries over on Friday when he toes the rubber vs. Oakland in his first start in the month of May.

Injury bug still chomping away

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There’s an old saying about foul weather: when it rains, it pours.  And coming into the season without Jeter, Teixeira, Granderson, and Rodriguez, the Yankees were short-handed enough.

So it rained, right? Well. Then it poured.

Francisco Cervelli and Kevin Youkilis became two more bruised Bombers, Cervelli fracturing his hand behind home plate on Saturday and Youkilis out with a bulging disc in his back. What hurts even worse is the fact that both players were doing a fine job offensively in a lineup that clearly needs not only effective hitters but more specifically, right-handed bats – Cerv and Youk both being right-handed hitters.

The front office’s hand was forced because of these particular injuries: catcher Austin Romine was called up from Triple-A Scranton to supplant Cervelli, and as announced after last night’s game, the Yankees traded for infielder Chris Nelson, acquiring him from the Colorado Rockies for a player to be named later. Nelson was obviously moved to aid in Youkilis’s absence.

Youkilis was placed on the 15-day disabled list, but Cervelli was put on the 60-day DL. Anymore of these injuries happen, the Yankees might need to start pulling fans out of the bleachers to play.

“You know where the outfield is? Great! Here’s a glove, go stand out there.”

Making a splash

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The day after Opening Day is always an off day. I’m not sure I quite understand why, but as long as I can remember, it always has been. On the off day this year, I was covering a girls’ lacrosse game when my dad called me. It turns out he met Vernon Wells while doing some work at his job.

A very impromptu meeting – nothing major; according to my dad, he just said hi to him, didn’t bother him too much.

The day after his meeting with my dad, Wells hit a home run and he’s been raking ever since. So far the veteran outfielder has smacked six home runs and he’s batting .298, which isn’t bad by any means. In fact, it’s quite a pleasant surprise, and Wells is a reason the Yankees are in such a good position right now.

I’ll go ahead and just say it: Wells is doing…well.

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Then there’s Travis Hafner, who also has six long balls and 17 RBIs. The lefty-hitting slugger known as “Pronk” or “Project Donkey” is helping make up for whatever power was lost to free agency during the offseason.

Brennan Boesch isn’t jumping off the page as much as Wells or Hafner, but for what it’s worth, he’s making contributions to the team when needed. The same can probably be said about Ben Francisco, but in fairness he had a home run last night that narrowly crept over the wall in left field, his first dinger of the year.

If one of them can be as heroic as Raul Ibanez was last year, I think I can safely say we’ll all be happy. However, the four of them are sure as heck a step up from anything Andruw Jones did last year.

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April wasn’t a bad month for the Yankees.

What do ya got, May?

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