August 2014

Playoffs? You Kiddin’ Me? Yes and No

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It was crushing. Maybe soul-shattering. But not season-ending. Not yet.

The Blue Jays today pulled the rug right out from under the Yankees, rallying late with a power surge to hand the Bronx Bombers a 4-3 loss in Toronto. Melky Cabrera homered to start the comeback, once again proving how all ex-Yankees kill the Yankees. Jose Bautista followed with a home run of his own, and Edwin Encarnacion “walked the parrot” after his home run – which, if he had played that gimmick during the Roger Clemens days, he would’ve earned himself a bean ball.

Munenori Kawasaki delivered the death blow in the seventh with an RBI single.

And that was that.

The Yankees didn’t do themselves any favors this past week in terms of winning series, going 3-4 on their three-city road trip. Now they come home for a nine-game homestand, kicking it off with a series on Tuesday night against the pest-like Boston Red Sox – and you have to have every reason to believe Boston will try to play spoiler.

No doubt the Red Sox would love nothing more than to knock the Yankees down the proverbial Wild Card totem pole.

Even with the recent string of bad luck, the Yanks haven’t flat lined just yet, clinging on with a chance to make the playoffs as the 2014 season enters its final month. After today’s loss skipper Joe Girardi summed it up by saying the Yankees haven’t made it easy on themselves, and added,

“We have nine games at home coming up. And we have to win a lot of them.”

I’m not sure if it’s sad or funny, but any time the words “Yankees” and “postseason” come together in the same sentence, I have coach Jim Mora’s voice in my head yelling,

“PLAYOFFS? YOU KIDDIN’ ME?!”

To be real for a minute though, it will be difficult for the Yankees to make it to October, but the opportunity is there. It’ll come down to whether or not they hit the ball and beat the teams in front of them in September. The key for them is to buckle down and stop giving away games the way they did this afternoon at Rogers Centre.

While the Yanks are treading water, one team that isn’t struggling to maintain a pulse is the Hudson Valley Renegades – the MiLB team I’ve written about a few times this summer on the blog, as I have been their beat writer for The Examiner throughout the New York-Penn League season.

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This past Friday night was the latest game I covered – the ‘Gades hosting the Connecticut Tigers at “The Dutch.” When I got to the press box I was surprised to look at the lineup sheet and see Ben Verlander’s name in the Tigers’ lineup.

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Ben of course being the younger brother of Justin Verlander, the ace of the Detroit Tigers, and the former AL Rookie of the Year, MVP and Cy Young winner.

Oh, and Kate Upton’s boyfriend. #Jealous

At any rate, here is my gamer from Friday night, with quotes from Ben Verlander included, as I interviewed him postgame:

Renegades clinch division, but come up short in extras to Tigers

By A.J. Martelli

After a 5-3 win over the Connecticut Tigers this past Thursday night, the Hudson Valley Renegades celebrated by spraying champagne and dumping the Gatorade cooler over manager Tim Parenton’s head, the Gades having clinched the New York-Penn League McNamara Division and a spot in the postseason.

The excitement and momentum of earning a ticket to the playoffs for the second time in three years didn’t carry over to Friday night at Dutchess Stadium, however, as Hudson Valley came up short in 11 innings to the Tigers, losing 5-4.

“Good ballgame,” Parenton said after the extra inning affair. “Both teams are good teams. It came down to extra innings; they got the hit, we didn’t, and that’s just the way it was played.”

Tied 4-4 in the top of the eleventh inning, Connecticut right fielder Ben Verlander – younger brother of Detroit Tigers’ ace and former American League Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander – led off with a well-struck double to centerfield. Renegades reliever Mike Franco then threw two consecutive pitches that got by catcher Zach Marberry, allowing Verlander to score the decider.

To him, the win was important, as the Tigers are trying to stay alive for a possible slot in postseason as a Wild Card team.

“It was just a crazy game,” Verlander said. “We needed that one as far as the standings go. We try not to look at scores, but we knew in the dugout (the team in front of us) Brooklyn had lost, and to be able to score that run in the eleventh was big.

“It was a big win for us, and just a great team win.”

The Renegades didn’t go down without a fight, putting runners on second and third with two outs in the last of the eleventh. Left fielder Grant Kay stepped up looking to deliver the goods, but struck out swinging to end the game. Parenton feels his team has the ability to put pressure on the other team, even in games they lose.

“We had our chances; had the winning run at second base in the last inning right there, but their pitcher did his job,” he said. “We come out and play the game right; our guys hustle and play hard. We do things that you’re supposed to do.”

The Renegades trailed 2-0 in the third, but were able to take the lead with three runs. Right fielder Hunter Lockwood grounded out to third, allowing second baseman Jace Conrad to score. Designated hitter Bralin Jackson followed by smacking a booming triple into the right field corner, which plated Kay. Jackson then came home on a balk by Tigers starter Spencer Turnbull.

In the sixth the Gades padded their lead, receiving an RBI double swatted down the line in left field off the bat of center fielder Clayton Henning. With Hudson Valley up 4-2 the Tigers answered in the seventh, scoring a run on a wild pitch by reliever Gerardo Reyes, and the tying run on an RBI groundout by Will Maddox.

Renegades starter Nolan Gannon, who came into the game with six wins under his belt and an ERA of 2.77, let up two runs on four hits, but settled down, retiring the last eight he faced over five innings. He walked two and struck out one.

On Saturday the Renegades once again fell to Connecticut, losing 2-1. Parenton doesn’t seem worried though, and is thrilled to be managing in the postseason in just his first year as a professional skipper.

“It’s very exciting, it’s one of the things you play for – you play to win your division and get a chance to go to the playoffs,” he said. “We’re there, now we just have to play and see what happens. We’re going to try and get everybody rested, get our pitching lined up so that when it starts we have a full boat, ready to go.”

The New York-Penn League playoffs begin Wednesday.

Note: I asked Verlander what his impressions were playing at Dutchess Stadium. He said, “The ballpark is great, the atmosphere is great. But I’m not a big fan of turf. It is what it is, though.” The Renegades are one of only five minor league teams that play their home games on artificial turf.

Polar Opposites

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Behind the lights-out pitching of Brandon McCarthy, the Yankees were able to salvage the final game of their three-game series against Houston this afternoon, beating the Astros 3-0; the Bronx Bombers picking up their first win since Sunday. McCarthy danced to a complete game tune, putting on a four-hit shutout performance with eight strikeouts and no walks – an outing that looked more like a Roger Clemens start, circa 2001.

The Yankee offense, which has basically struggled since the end of 2012, scored all of its runs in the second inning this afternoon. Chase Headley swatted a double into the right field corner to bring in Mark Teixeira and Martin Prado, and later came in on a sac fly out to center off the bat of Ichiro.

Other than that, it was McCarthy’s day to shine.

The much-needed victory brought the Yankees to 64-61 this season; now trailing Baltimore for first place by nine games in the American League East. The Yanks are also four and a half games out for the second Wild Card spot – but that comes with the task of hurdling Cleveland, Seattle and Detroit for a postseason seed.

Numerically, the Yankees still have a chance at capturing the AL East, with eight games left to play against the Orioles in the month of September. Realistically however, given the immense lack of hitting and team inconsistency on both sides of the field, it’s fair to just hope for a fight into a sudden death Wild Card game down the stretch.

This weekend the Yanks welcome the Chicago White Sox into town, and before Saturday afternoon’s showdown with the pale hose, will honor Joe Torre with a ceremony. The newly crowned Hall of Famer will have his no. 6 rightfully retired by the organization.

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Whether or not the Yankees take the game from the White Sox that will follow the ceremony remains to be seen, as they’ve had bad luck winning games on days they pay homage to Monument Park newcomers.

Recent history hasn’t been on their side.

In summation, it’s been a very lackluster summer in the Bronx. The season just has not given off the World Series vibes of 2009 and the ‘90s Dynasty years, which is tragic not only because of the amount of money “the brass” spent in the offseason on players; buying some sought-after free agents in hopes of turning the team around – but you would hope in Derek Jeter’s final year, the captain could go out a winner.

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Right now, it doesn’t even seem as though Jeter will play autumn baseball in New York again, let alone collect his sixth World Series ring.

While the Yankees are upsetting fans and not living up to the hype generated in the preseason, a minor league team from just up the Hudson River has been doing what the Yankees haven’t been this year: playing well and consistent. The Hudson Valley Renegades, the New York-Penn League MiLB squad affiliated with the Tampa Bay Rays, have been as clutch and as fun to watch as the ’09 Yankees this year.

The ‘Gades are one of the top teams in the NYPL, and are on track for the playoffs as the season enters its final week and a half. I’m now in my third season covering Hudson Valley and it wasn’t long ago – 2012, in fact – that the Renegades won only their second championship in team history, and first since 1999.

They certainly have a chance to go for their third, and second in three years.

This week was the NYPL All-Star Game in Brooklyn, held at MCU Park where the Cyclones play; the Cyclones, of course the New York Mets farm team. The Renegades sent a record seven players to the ASG. I wrote a little feature about it that ran in the newspaper I work for, The Examiner, this week.

Since the Renegades are playing great baseball – virtually the polar opposite of the Yankees – I figured I’d share my feature on the Hudson Valley all-stars.

Note: The NYPL ASG took place Tuesday night, and as I understand it, ended in a 1-1 tie. Our newsweekly prints on Tuesday mornings, so the story was run timely, but now is actually a couple days late. Nonetheless:

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Renegades to Send Record Seven Players to NYPL All-Star Game

By A.J. Martelli

The New York-Penn League All-Star Game may be taking place tonight at MCU Park in Brooklyn, but a strong Hudson Valley presence will be felt. The Renegades will be represented in the All-Star Game by seven players, a record number for the minor league franchise.

“It’s awesome; a great accomplishment to them,” said Renegades skipper Tim Parenton, who will be managing the game with his coaching staff. “They put up the numbers, they got the recognition by the league president and they’re going to do great.”

Two Renegade outfielders in Bralin Jackson and Hunter Lockwood were selected. Jackson, the Tampa Bay Rays’ fifth pick in the 2012 Major League Baseball draft, has tallied 56 hits in 54 games and has demonstrated a keen eye at the plate, drawing 24 walks. He also hit .324 in the month of July and leads the Renegades with 18 multi-hit games.

Lockwood has been as clutch as they come, leading the league with 13 home runs and 43 RBIs. Three of his 13 round-trippers have been of the walk-off variety, and he’s very excited to be playing in his first All-Star Game.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Lockwood said. “Going there with a bunch of guys that you know and get to play with every day is just going to make it all the more special. We’ve had a lot of guys playing well for us all year; been hitting the ball, throwing strikes and getting the job done when we need it.”

Along with a pair of outfielders, three Renegade infielders will be playing tonight. Utility man Coty Blanchard, second baseman Jace Conrad and first baseman Casey Gillaspie each received the nod.

Blanchard currently sports a .287 batting average, has driven in 24 runs and he leads the league with 20 stolen bases. Meanwhile Conrad has 17 steals, boasts a .277 average, and has knocked in 18 runs.

Gillaspie, the Rays’ first pick in this year’s draft, has been worth the price of admission with his seven home runs this summer, coupled with 38 RBIs and a .273 clip at the plate. The younger brother of Chicago White Sox third baseman Conor Gillaspie is looking forward to the experience.

“It should be a fun time,” Gillaspie said. “We have a good team, the guys work hard. I’m happy for all the guys who got invited.”

Rounding out the Renegades in the All-Star Game are pitchers Nolan Gannon and Hunter Wood. Gannon is currently 5-2 in nine starts with an ERA of 2.68. The tall right-hander has struck out 43 batters in 47 innings while only allowing five walks.

Wood, another lanky righty, has been equally as dominant, with a 3-3 record in 11 starts for the Gades, and a 2.91 ERA.

You can check out my latest gamer on the Renegades’ 6-1 win over the Lowell Spinners last Saturday here. Lowell is the NYPL’s Boston Red Sox affiliate.

Yankees falling after exalting

There may not be anyone daring enough to say the Yankees aren’t the most revered franchise in sports. We could go on all day about the history, the number of championships and the outstanding – or maybe a better word, legendary – players that have made the Bronx Bombers the best in the world.

So when the Yankees honor a player and dedicate a special day just for them, it’s usually fitting for the team to win the game accompanying the ceremony for the Yankee legend, right?

Well, in recent times, that just hasn’t been happening.

Mariano Rivera Day, with a side of Andy Pettitte – Sept. 22, 2013

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It was a sunny Sunday in the Bronx last year when the Yankees bid farewell to their longtime closer Mariano Rivera. Baseball’s all-time saves leader was not only honored by scores of former and current teammates with a beautiful ceremony, but his number 42 was retired by the Yankees, making him the only Bomber to have his number retired while he was still a member of the active roster.

If that wasn’t sweet enough, Metallica rocked out with a rousing, live rendition of Enter Sandman in the spirit of the day.

Andy Pettitte, who like Rivera was a fan-favorite and set to retire at the end of the ‘13 season, was on the hill for the Yankees in their game against the San Francisco Giants after the ceremony. It also happened to be the beloved southpaw’s final game pitched in the Bronx.

Pettitte did a nice job keeping the Yanks in it, throwing up seven innings of two-hit ball. He only gave up two runs in those seven innings showing quality; he walked one and struck out six.

Current closer and then-setup man David Robertson piggybacked Pettitte and got one out in the eighth, before giving way to Rivera. The legendary Mo came in and pitched 1 2/3 innings of scoreless ball, letting up just one hit with one strikeout.

Smooth sailing through calm seas. Nothing new to either pitcher.

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But the brilliant pitching of Pettitte and Rivera couldn’t save the Yankee offense, which showed about as much life as a stiffened corpse. Despite nine hits, the Yanks pushed across just one run on a solo home run off the bat of Mark Reynolds in the third inning.

The Yankees couldn’t win on a day they paid homage to a pair of their most worshipped players during the dynasty of the late 1990s.

On Rivera’s special day and Pettitte’s final Yankee Stadium bow:

Giants 2, Yankees 1.

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 Tino Martinez Day – June 21, 2014

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Tino Martinez made enormous contributions to the Yankees in the mid-to-late ‘90s, and rightfully, the Yanks honored him at the start of the summer with a plaque in Monument Park. Billy Crystal, a famous actor and noted fan of the boys from the Bronx, once said,

“To me, Tino was a real Yankee. You could sense he was a good person. You could just sense that he was a really good guy and that he loved being here.”

So on June 21 before the Yankees’ game vs. the Baltimore Orioles, the organization rewarded the love Martinez had for the pinstripes. The “Bam-Tino” was given the recognition of a plaque in Monument Park; the Yankees this year clearly giving the dynasty of the late ‘90s its earned due.

Martinez delivered a wonderful speech among his former teammates, friends and family, highlighted with such meaningful words directed at the fans:

“You guys don’t know how much you mean to us.”

Still the One by Orleans played as the ceremony ended; good vibes resounded throughout the big ballpark in the Bronx.

That is, until Vidal Nuno toed the rubber.

Nuno let up five runs in 6 1/3 innings pitched – three of those five runs coming by way of the long ball. The Yankee offense didn’t have an answer for Baltimore starter Bud Norris, only getting one run in the form of a famous Mark Teixeira “Teix message” in the bottom of the fourth.

Such a special atmosphere for Martinez, and how did the day end?

Orioles 6, Yankees 1.

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 Rich ‘Goose’ Gossage Day/Old Timers’ Day – June 22, 2014

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees

The day after the Yankees honored Martinez with a plaque in Monument Park, they gave props (if you will) to the flame-throwing Rich ‘Goose’ Gossage, who most consider the best closer in Yankee history behind Rivera. Gossage played seven seasons in New York, won a World Series with the Yankees in 1978 and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.

The mustachioed menace undoubtedly had the credentials and was entitled to a Monument Park plaque.

Now, not only did the Yankees honor Gossage, but they chose to honor him on a special day: Old Timers’ Day. That meant countless Yankee alumni from years past were on hand for Gossage’s ceremony and the Old Timers festivities.

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In fact, this writer was even in attendance that sweaty afternoon – and bounced out of the stadium early on account of how poorly the team played. Once again the Yankees faced off with the Orioles, and yet again failed to generate any offense. Even with mighty Masahiro Tanaka on the hill; with Gossage and the players of old looking on, the Yanks couldn’t get it done.

The day started nicely but ended like this:

Orioles 8, Yankees 0.

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 Paul O’Neill Day – Aug. 9, 2014

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Late Yankee owner George Steinbrenner nicknamed Paul O’Neill ‘The Warrior’ because of his feisty nature, hatred of losing and the disgust he exhibited when he didn’t produce at the plate. O’Neill demonstrated the type of passion every player should possess, Steinbrenner thought – although some may maintain that none of those water coolers he destroyed over the years did anything to deserve the type of punishment they received at his hand.

His former manager Joe Torre described him as “hardcore” and added, “Warrior. George Steinbrenner named him right. In the clutch he was a miracle worker.”

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The Warrior’s old teammate and friend Derek Jeter called him “intense.” Said Jeter: “Paul expected a lot of himself. He was a big part of our championship teams.”

O’Neill gave a fine speech amongst family and former teammates, thanking the fans for never allowing his memory and contributions to the team to be forgotten.

How could Yankee Universe forget? The last time a player tried to wear the jersey number 21 – reliever LaTroy Hawkins in 2007 – he was booed out of the building and had to change his number to 22.

Maybe someday number 21 will be retired for O’Neill, given that it’s been out of circulation since Hawkins forfeited it, but as for today, O’Neill received a plaque to go in Monument Park.

After the ceremony concluded, and Scandal’s The Warrior bounced off the Yankee Stadium walls, the Yanks took on the Cleveland Indians.

Yet again the offense went into its stall mode, getting stifled by Corey Kluber, who struck out 10 Yankees. The Cleveland bullpen added another five strikeouts in relief, meaning the Yankees made 27 outs and 15 of them were Ks.

The day couldn’t have been any nicer in terms of paying tribute to O’Neill, but the way it ended:

Indians 3, Yankees 0.

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In the last four special days the Yankees have held in honor of their former players, the offense has generated a grand total of two runs. They will have an opportunity in a couple weeks to perhaps break the trend of losing on special days when they honor Torre on Aug. 23.

Jeter will also be exalted for what he’s done over the course of his Yankee career on Sept. 7; another day that could potentially end on a sour note if the Yankee offense decides to take the day off.

Already announced for next year is Bernie Williams Day; the beloved and gentle center fielder of the ‘90s and 2000s will be paid homage in Monument Park.

Until then, this will be left as a “to be continued.” Time will tell if Torre, Jeter and Williams witness losses on their respective special days.

But if the Yankees truly want to honor their heroes, they only have to do one thing:

Just win.

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