Results tagged ‘ American League ’

El Duque’s rocky road shown in “Brothers in Exile”

When I was a kid I had an Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez poster hanging on my wall. To me he was one of the most unique pitchers the Yankees had, with his unorthodox leg kick and wild arm angles. The fact that he dominated opponents and led the Yankees to victory countless times also made me take a liking to him.

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This past Tuesday, ESPN ran its 30 for 30 piece on El Duque and his brother Livan Hernandez entitled Brothers in Exile. There was so much more to the two brothers from Cuba that met the eye. For anyone that missed it or didn’t care to watch it, here’s (sort of) a BuzzFeed style article filled with did-you-knows and tidbits from the documentary.

The film was jam-packed with the Hernandez brothers’ story, so bear with me in terms of the length of this article and such. Maybe it’ll be so good BuzzFeed will pick it up and hire me, and I’ll get one of those special blue check boxes next to my Twitter name…

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Dare to dream.

Anyway, here goes.

1) Orlando and Livan Hernandez are half-brothers

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They share the same father, but not the same mother. Their father was a semi-pro pitcher, so you have to figure the baseball genes were passed down. Orlando is 10 years older than Livan, and the two didn’t meet until Livan was five years old.


 2) The Duke of Havana

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Long before Orlando Hernandez was fooling MLB hitters he was a stud in his native land, Cuba. He racked up 126 wins in the Cuban league throughout his career. His winning percentage was .728, good enough to give him the record for highest winning percentage by a pitcher – a record that still stands today in Cuba.

Orlando pitched for the Industriales, a team much like the Yankees. The Industriales had the best players, were tremendously successful, and maintained a huge fan base. What’s more, Orlando pitched for the Cuban national team from 1988-95. During that span, the team was undefeated in international play.

Becoming a superstar, as it was, Orlando went to visit Livan in school in later years. Livan’s classmates went insane; “fan-boyed” for his brother, because he was the best pitcher in Cuba.

He was the Duke of Havana. El Duque.


 3) Times got tough

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Cuba was economically dependent on the Soviet Union up until 1990, when the Soviet Union dissolved. Fidel Castro, the Cuban President, declared a “special period” on the island, although the only aspect of this period was poverty – and there is nothing special about that.

The special period didn’t just impact regular folks; baseball players were affected too. Orlando was paid three Cuban pesos per game, and if he played a doubleheader, he was only compensated for one game.

“That was tough,” El Duque described.

To combat poverty, ballplayers strived to play for the international team. That way, they could compete overseas and sell their jerseys for money, as well as accept gifts from fans in private. Players had to accept favors privately, because taking from fans was not permitted.

Resources were so scarce that Livan had to take soap and shampoo from hotels to bring back home. By 1994 the special period morphed into an economic crisis. Tons of people started leaving Cuba on makeshift rafts and boats, in hopes of reaching the United States.


 

4) Defection by way of Joe Cubas and Juan Ignacio Hernandez

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A man by the name of Joe Cubas was the agent that recruited players to defect to the United States – and yes, it is indeed ironic that his last name is Cubas and he dealt with Cuban ballplayers.

His cousin, Juan Ignacio Hernandez was his helper, and would follow the Cuban national team around the world to scout potential defectors. El Duque said, “The thought of playing baseball in the majors was intriguing. But the thought of defecting also scared me.”

Orlando’s family was a priority. He had a wife and two daughters who he’d lose if he defected.

“I didn’t want to do it because I have two daughters. It was hard, it really was.”

Livan on the other hand was single and was growing tired of the poor conditions in Cuba.


 

5) Livan defects

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In 1995 Livan was pitching for the Cuban national team. The Cubans went over to Japan to work out with the Tokyo Giants; Livan spent 45 days there. Of those 45 days (along with baseball) he spent 20 collecting soap and shampoo to bring back home. Security told him, though, that if they found anything that he was trying to sneak back to the island in his suitcase, he’d no longer be allowed to travel. He had to throw away all the soap and shampoo he’d gathered – which made him angry.

“I don’t want to go through this, anymore,” he said.

On the next trip – which was to Monterrey, Mexico – Livan started the process of defecting. He obtained Cubas’s phone number from a woman asking for autograph, which just goes to show how strict conditions were. Everything had to be done discreetly.

Livan was picked up by Juan Ignacio Hernandez in Monterrey and went to the Dominican Republic from there. In the D.R. all he had to do was gain residency in order to become an MLB free agent. He did just that, and was on the board. 


 

6) Orlando’s thoughts

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Livan was free; out of Cuba and about to be taken by an MLB team. He told his brother what was happening and that his mind was made up, to which El Duque responded,

“Don’t worry. I support you no matter what. If that’s what you want to do, go for it.”


 

7) Livan went to the Marlins, but other teams wanted him

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In the Dominican Republic Livan was showcased and sought by the (then) Florida (now) Miami Marlins. A few other teams were watching him, namely the Yankees (shocking, right?) and the Toronto Blue Jays.

Coming from Cuba, the Marlins made the most sense. Miami is a Spanish-speaking city and Livan would likely be most comfortable there. The right-hander signed for $6.5 million with a $250,000 signing bonus. At the time it was the biggest contract given to a Cuban baseball player. 


 

8) After landing the deal, Livan went splurging

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Livan never had money before. When he came into the big bucks on account of the contract, Livan bought cars and lived the lifestyle most young, rich and foolish people live; spending money on expensive material. He also started gaining weight; eating at fast food joints such as McDonald’s.

The Marlins kept Livan in the minors for the bulk of the 1996 season as not only way of getting him to shape up, but also a way to spread some discipline on him.

It worked. Livan eventually wised up and everything panned out for him.


 

9) Back at home, things got unfair

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The Cuban government began to feel Orlando might follow in Livan’s footsteps and defect, even though Orlando had a family and made it clear he was afraid to defect. It didn’t matter. He was harassed by Colonel Mesa – the man in charge of security for the national team.

El Duque told Mesa he didn’t support his brother’s decision (in contrast to what he told Livan) but nonetheless he respected him.

After that, Orlando started to suspect something was up.

Juan Ignacio Hernandez cut ties with Cubas, and got arrested for holding false travel documents, hoping to use them to get Orlando to defect. Police found the fake visas and they turned their attention to El Duque.

In fact, they brought him in and interrogated him.

The government wanted Orlando to testify against Juan Ignacio Hernandez, but he wouldn’t do it. Yet, even without El Duque’s testimony, they sentenced Juan Ignacio Hernandez to 15 years behind bars.

El Duque was also sentenced, but not to serve prison time. He was given a lifetime ban from Cuban baseball, essentially for not doing anything.

One cop even went as far as asking him for identification while he was sitting on his own front porch. When Orlando asked why he needed ID, the rude officer said,

“You used to be El Duque, now you’re a nobody.”


 

10) He wasn’t making a living playing ball – but he still played

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Orlando’s feelings were not just hurt; they were shredded and left for dead. When he was banished, he vowed that he would play baseball again. It didn’t matter if “he was 65 or in Haiti,” he said he was going to play baseball again no matter what.

Since he couldn’t step foot on an official field, like the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana, El Duque played in unofficial pickup games on Cuban sandlots.

Orlando was basically the Benny “the jet” Rodriguez of his group: the best of all of them, who went on to play bigger and better games, as Scotty Smalls described it in the movie. El Duque didn’t pitch in these pickup games because it wouldn’t have been fair to the other players, but he hit and played the field.


 

11) Livan makes his mark

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In 1997 Livan got the call to the show – and he was impressive, to say the least. He started the year with a 9-0 record, which was the best start from a rookie pitcher since Whitey Ford in 1950. The Marlins captured the National League Wild Card in ’97, and Livan pitched brilliantly.

Brilliant, in fact, was the operative word. In Game 5 of the National League Championship Series he went the distance and pitched the Marlins to a 2-1 win, striking out 15 Atlanta Braves along the way. He took advantage of home plate umpire Eric Gregg’s Grand Canyon-like strike zone. Livan’s 15 strikeouts in Game 5 set an NLCS record for most Ks in a single game.

He had also picked up the W in Florida’s 5-2 victory in Game 3. When it was all said and done, he was named NLCS Most Valuable Player.

It only got better for Livan in the ’97 World Series. He won Game 1, won Game 5 and was subsequently named World Series MVP. In hoisting the trophy over his head, Livan declared,

“I love you, Miami!”


12) A thought provoking World Series win

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El Duque watched most of Livan’s excellence from back in Cuba. He was proud his brother was succeeding, but felt bittersweet about it. Orlando thought he could’ve been in the same position Livan was in: playing baseball freely.

He listened to Game 7 of the World Series on the radio, and rejoiced when the Marlins walked off to win the title. But after Livan became a winner, El Duque’s thought process changed; he considered defecting himself.


 

13) Help from an unlikely source

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Cuba’s relations with the Catholic Church improved in ’97. Pope John Paul II visited the island and President Castro allowed the Christmas holiday to legally be celebrated in Cuba for the first time since 1960.

El Duque decided that, since everyone would be preoccupied with the holiday, he would stage his escape on Christmas night; the members of the Coast Guard wouldn’t be as alert and he’d be able to narrowly depart. His best friend Osmany Lorenzo helped orchestrate his flight from the island.

But, give an assist to the Pope.


 

 

14) Nerves were in the way

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Just because El Duque decided he was fleeing Cuba didn’t make the idea of defecting any less scary. A study showed that between 1959 and 1994 an estimated 16,000 people died at sea attempting to leave Cuba for the United States.

Orlando could’ve made it to the U.S.A. or he could’ve become just another statistic.

He also had to leave his mother and two daughters behind, which pained him.


 

15) Not an easy exit

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On Christmas night ’97 Orlando, his (now second) wife Noris, Lorenzo, and a smattering of other escapees set off for Caibarien – a city in Cuba where many defectors went to try and leave the island. They left Caibarien in a small fishing boat at 7 a.m. on Dec. 26, and had to hit the deck as to not be seen upon departure.

If hiding face down in order to leave the island wasn’t bad enough, the motor on the boat stalled not long after they left, and thus the owner of the boat wanted to turn back. El Duque protested, and the man swam into the water to fix the engine. After he managed to correct the malfunction, they continued on.

Jeesh. Not as simple as just speed-boating away.


 

16) Like Robinson Crusoe, it was as primitive as can be

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The boat took El Duque and the group of runaways to a Bahamian island called Anguilla Cay. There they were to await another boat that was to come and ferry them to the U.S.A.

Seemingly everything was working out, as the first part of the plan had been executed, but they weren’t in the clear just yet. The second boat never came. The group was basically stuck, Gilligan’s Island style waiting for help that wasn’t showing up. El Duque’s wife Noris even noticed makeshift crosses on the island – figuring they were graves.

People had come to Anguilla Cay and never left. The thought struck terror into Orlando and everyone involved. Four days passed before the Coast Guard discovered them and brought them to Nassau, Bahamas.


 

17) More help

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If you were a Cuban refugee, the Bahamas were not where you wanted to be. Cuba had a treaty with the Bahamas stating all refugees in the Bahamas were to be extradited back over to Cuba. When the Coast Guard brought El Duque to the Bahamas, they arrested him.

But he used his phone call wisely.

He dialed up Cubas, who was able to help him. He set up a press conference on Orlando’s behalf, and El Duque finally got to tell his side of the story to the media and the world; that he was trying to reach the United States in hopes of obtaining the freedoms and rights that were stolen from him in Cuba.

By Cubas’s doing, Orlando and his wife were approved for visas. He made sure Lorenzo, his friend, was approved for one as well. From there El Duque gained residency in Costa Rica, thus making him eligible to become an MLB free agent.

Just like Livan, El Duque was set up. But what team would get his services?


 

18) The big deal

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Scouts from multiple MLB teams attended an El Duque tryout staged by Cubas. Orlando wasn’t particularly lighting up the radar guns, topping out around 88-90 mph, but the fact that he wasn’t throwing hard didn’t negate his value.

Gordon Blakeley, a scout for the Yankees, took an interest in him. However, General Manager Brian Cashman was a bit iffy about signing him, coming off a bust in the form of inking Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu. Blakeley assured him not to be afraid to go after him – and added if the Yankees didn’t grab El Duque, they could’ve been missing out on a potential Cy Young Award winner.

El Duque proclaimed his Yankee fandom, and when the Bombers offered him four years and $6.6 million, he gladly took it.


 

19) Reunited and it feels so good

Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez (L) and brother Livan

When everything fell into place for El Duque, he eventually reconnected with Livan. They attended a press conference together, and when they saw each other they embraced. They cried tears of joy. They had a Kodak moment, if you will.

One reporter asked what kind of advice Livan would give Orlando, now that they were both major leaguers living in freedom. Livan’s answer:

“Stay away from McDonald’s!”


 

20) The Duke of New York

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On June 3, 1998 Orlando made his MLB debut at Yankee Stadium. He was nervous, but when he looked up to the stands walking in from taking his warm ups in the bullpen – and saw Cuban flags fluttering around in the stadium’s upper deck – he calmed down. The show of support even brought tears to his eyes.

The first batter he faced in MLB was Quinton McCracken of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. El Duque pitched seven innings, and puzzled every hitter he faced, giving up just one earned run on five hits. He walked two and struck out seven on the way to his first big league win, the Yanks pounding Tampa Bay 7-1.

“He’s a warrior,” Livan said of his brother’s first MLB outing. “He proved it in that game.”


 

21) Not a simple catch

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Jorge Posada mostly caught El Duque in 1998. And in looking at his record and ERA on paper, one would think they had an easy go of it most of the time when they went to work: Orlando finished 1998 with a 12-4 clip and an earned run average of 3.13.

Yet, much like El Duque’s path to the US, it wasn’t smooth sailing through calm seas.

“He wasn’t easy to catch,” Posada said, adding Orlando would shake him off a lot. “I’d go to the mound … Orlando, what do you want to throw?

“Fastball.”

“I called for the fastball twice and you said no both times!”

Apparently El Duque didn’t want to throw a fastball when Posada called it. He wanted to throw a fastball when a hitter least expected it, to get inside his head.

Very tactical, El Duque was. His numbers and approach gave him a fourth place finish, in fact, for ’98 American League Rookie of the Year.


 

22) Like brother like brother: playoff hero

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The Yankees won a record 114 regular season games in 1998, and made it to the ALCS, where they were pitted up against the team that had eliminated them the year before, the Cleveland Indians. Down two games to one, they turned to El Duque in Game 4, who came up with a spectacular performance of seven shutout innings to lead the Yankees to a 4-0 win, keeping the pinstripers from going down 3-1 in the series.

Unlike Livan, Orlando didn’t capture the LCS MVP in ’98 – that honor went to David Wells. But El Duque did pick up the award the next year, winning the ALCS MVP in 1999 after the Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox in five.

El Duque went on to start Game 2 of the ’98 fall classic against the San Diego Padres. The Yankees were up 1-0 in the series thanks to some grand Game 1 heroics off the bat of Tino Martinez. The Cuban import made sure the Yanks stayed on point, tossing seven innings and letting up just one earned run on six hits.

He walked three and fanned seven on the way to a 9-3 Yankee win.

“He looked like a veteran of 15, 20 years,” teammate Mariano Rivera said.


 

23) Family first

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The Yankees continued their assault on the Padres in Game 3 of the World Series, teetering on the brink of a world title. Yet El Duque’s thoughts were elsewhere. He couldn’t get his daughters, his ex-wife and his mother off his mind, thinking about their hardships back home.

Then finally, he got his chance to reunite with his family.

A woman by the name of Pamela Falk lobbied to bring his daughters, his mother and his daughters’ mother to the states. Falk used the positive relations between Cuba and the Catholic Church to her advantage, reaching out to New York Cardinal Archbishop John O’Connor.

After his conversation with Falk, O’Connor spoke to President Castro about the possibility of El Duque’s family coming to New York. Long story short Castro obliged, and even spoke highly of Orlando, calling him “a good muchacho; one of the glories of Cuba.”

And the rest was history. El Duque’s family was cleared to embark for the Big Apple.


 

24) A reunion in Teterboro, then a parade down the canyon of heroes

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The Yankees swept the Padres in the 1998 World Series, giving the franchise its 24th world championship in history. El Duque found out his family was coming the night the Yanks clinched the series.

Doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

The next night his family landed at the Teterboro airport in New Jersey. El Duque walked right up the runway, to the plane to greet his family. He said he wasn’t nervous, just excited; he hadn’t seen his girls in about a year.

“I’m complete,” he said, embracing his daughters on the steps of the plane. “Finally happy.

His daughters then rode with him in the victory parade in New York City the following day.

“During the parade he was so happy that his family was there to celebrate with him,” Posada described. “He was so emotional during that time; we won but more importantly his family was there.”

His wife Noris couldn’t believe toilet paper rained down from the skyscrapers into the streets of New York – being that in Cuba they didn’t even have toilet paper, whereas in New York it was being thrown from windows.

When the Yankees reached City Hall, El Duque made the brotherly connection:

“I just want to tell you … Last year my brother shouted ‘I love you, Miami!’ And this year I declare, I love you, New York!”

Livan went on to say,

“There are players with 20-year careers who never won the World Series. But my brother and I did.”


 

25) Never going back

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Both Livan and Orlando went on to have careers in MLB that anyone would sign up for. El Duque won three more world titles (two more with the Yankees, 1999-2000; 2005 with the Chicago White Sox) while Livan pitched in over 500 games and became a two-time All-Star.

Both are retired now, but maintain that sibling love. They live near each other in Miami, and both are doing well these days with their families. They can sit on the porch on hot summer nights and smoke fine Cuban cigars together, and share life stories from here on out; reflect on the good ol’ days pitching in the big leagues.

Oh, and neither has since gone back to Cuba – and they’ll never have to.

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The Boone Identity: Remembering the Radical 2003 Yankees-Red Sox Saga

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If you’re a Yankee fan, Oct. 16 holds a warm place in your heart. The memory of a mighty swing by Aaron Boone in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series to crush the dreams of Red Sox Nation has held up, and will continue to hold up forever more.

In honor of the 11th anniversary of this profound piece of Yankee history, this writer is going to take you on a ride back to the past and muse about the goings-on of the 2003 Yankees-Red Sox saga; perhaps point some things out that didn’t necessarily meet the eye to the average fan.

Join me, will you?


 

The background

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It took a long time before the Yanks and BoSox reached the climactic Boone game. A really long time, in fact. The two hated rivals had faced each other 25 times in ‘03 leading up to Game 7 of the ALCS. Their 26th meeting in the decisive game was historic, in the sense that no two teams – in any sport – had faced each other more times in a single season.

But so much more happened before Game 7.

In squaring off against each other so many times, the Yankees and Red Sox had generated some disdain for one another. Earlier in the season on July 7 in the Bronx, Pedro Martinez, Boston’s ace, had plunked both Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter – bean balls that were so intense they sent the two hitters at the top of the Yankees’ batting order to the hospital.

Jeter was hammered on his right hand while Soriano suffered a shot on his left hand. The after effects of the HBPs were so great that, after more than two weeks later, both hitters felt the pain of Martinez’s missed location; the captain’s hand was still swollen and Fonsy felt some aches just by checking his swing.

Roger Clemens, the Yankee ace, in return struck Red Sox first baseman and team ringleader Kevin Millar with a pitch. Millar, a colorful and outspoken player who had urged his team to “Cowboy Up,” would later express anger towards Clemens for the Yankees act of retaliation.

The late Yankee owner George Steinbrenner even got in on battle. The Boss was asked if Martinez was headhunting; throwing at the Yankees with intent. His response:

“I can’t answer that. But if he was, he’ll regret it.”

Steinbrenner had every reason to be suspicious about whether or not the hit-by-pitches were deliberate. In the past, 2001 to be exact, Martinez told the Boston Globe,

“I’m starting to hate talking about the Yankees. The questions are stupid. They’re wasting my time. It’s getting kind of old … I don’t believe in damn curses. Wake up the damn Bambino and have me face him. I’ll drill him in the ass, pardon the word.”

New Boston Red Sox ace pitcher Pedro Martinez resp

Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino then got his jab in, giving the Yankees a moniker in homage to the Star Wars franchise. He dubbed the Bronx Bombers “The Evil Empire.” Yankee Universe happily (or at least sarcastically) welcomed the nickname.

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So was Jeter Darth Vader? Sure, that makes sense.


 

How we got there

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The physical and verbal blows during the regular season were only the beginning, laying the groundwork for what was to come in the playoffs. The Yankees finished 2003 with a record of 101-61, six games ahead of Boston for the AL East. The 95-67 Red Sox captured the AL Wild Card – keep in mind that in ’03 there was no play-in game; the BoSox were automatically in the eight-team postseason tournament without having to fight their way in the door.

Most fans may not remember that the ’03 Yankees-Red Sox ALCS clash wouldn’t have happened if the Oakland A’s didn’t collapse. In the ALDS the A’s handed Boston a 5-4 loss in Game 1; Oakland winning in the 12th on a walk-off bunt single by catcher Ramon Hernandez. Game 2 wasn’t any better for the Red Sox, as the A’s poured it on and beat Boston 5-1 – Oakland was only one win away from the next round.

Yet, maybe in the spirit of some foreshadowing, the Red Sox fought back.

Boston won Game 3, 2-0. They then took Game 4 by a count of 5-4, and completed the comeback with a 4-3 win in Game 5. The Yankees were already waiting for the winner of the Boston-Oakland series, having disposed of the Minnesota Twins in four games to reach the League Championship Series; the Yanks outscoring the Twins 16-6 in their divisional round.

The rally vs. the A’s and the thrashing of the Twins set the New York-Boston rivalry up for an epic showdown. Yes, the Baseball gods had done it again.

Players on both sides knew the World Series was not just at stake, but bragging rights were up for grabs and in a lot of ways, the ending or the continuation of Curse of the Bambino was on the line.

“Everyone says, ‘we played them towards the end of the year, does it get any bigger than that?’ Well, yeah it does. And this is it,” Jeter told MLB before the ALCS.

The Red Sox took Game 1, beating the Yankees 5-2. However, the first salvo seemed to be fired in the seventh inning when reliever Jeff Nelson hit Red Sox big man David Ortiz with a pitch. The Yanks went on to take Game 2 with a 6-2 win, but in terms of the HBP battle, Boston punched back.

Future hero Boone was beaned by Red Sox starter Derek Lowe and Soriano was plunked by Bronson Arroyo. The ALCS was split 1-1, tensions were at an all-time high, and the teams were beginning to get rather physical.

What’s the worst that could happen in Game 3?


 

And then, everything explodes

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The energy level at Fenway Park on Oct. 11, 2003 was off the charts – not that I was there, but listening to the words of the players and examining everything that had led up to Game 3, everyone from the fans to the media was on edge.

What’s more, the fact that Clemens and Martinez were on the hill for their respective clubs made it even more enticing. During batting practice, Millar was about as hyped up as an 8-year-old after consuming 50 sugar cubes, enthusiastically saying,

“We got Roger and Martinez, Game 3 split, Championship Series, American League, all eyes on the Sox!”

To this day I wonder if even he knew how jumbled that sounded. Mic’d up, he stood next to Ortiz and yelled,

“You’ve got to be going with the Sox! This is the Sox Nation! Two thousand and three! And screw that curse!”

Ortiz couldn’t help but laugh at Millar’s zeal, but a few short innings later, no one was laughing.

In the top of the fourth, Martinez let up an RBI ground rule double to Nick Johnson, which gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead. The very next hitter, outfielder Karim Garcia, took a pitch behind his head which appeared to nick him on the shoulder for another hit-by-pitch.

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Soriano came up next and grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, though another Yankee run scored. Leaving the field, Garcia had some choice words for the Red Sox and a heated exchange ensued.

Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, chest protector and shin guards on, came out of the dugout looking like a Roman centurion ready to attack Martinez. The two feisty foes got into some jaw-jacking and a bit of a “pointing battle” – Martinez using his index finger to point at his temple, as if to say to Posada, “I’ll hit you there.”

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The Yankees, in a nutshell, were unhappy with Martinez’s antics, and had no problem expressing their grief. Yet somehow the umpires settled matters down.

That is, until the bottom half of the inning.

Clemens delivered a high and tight 1-2 fastball to hothead Manny Ramirez, who believed there was intent behind the pitch – when clearly there wasn’t.

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Ramirez angrily tried to approach Clemens with the bat in his hand before being subdued by his teammates when the benches cleared. Needless to say all Hell broke loose at Fenway, but the victim of the fracas wound up being a coach, not a player.

Yankee bench coach, the late Don Zimmer (72 at the time) lunged towards Martinez, who grabbed him by the head and force-fed him to the ground. The Yankee trainers were able to help him up and get him back into the dugout free of serious injury, but the ugly incident further proved how the Yankees and Red Sox were at extreme odds.

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Eventually the situation calmed, and Clemens fanned Ramirez with a fastball on the outer part of the plate to get the game going again; the players back to their professional ways.

But just when it seemed everything was back to normal, it became a mess again.

An altercation broke out in the Yankee bullpen in right field between Nelson and a Boston grounds crew member, Paul Williams. Garcia, stationed in right field, also sampled the action. He hopped the wall into the ‘pen and got involved; a scrum of police officers, security officials, and Yankee relief pitchers creating an unpretty scene.

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Days later the Yankees’ personnel, notably president Randy Levine, defended the New York relief corps. Meanwhile the Red Sox brass were less than happy, and went to bat for their groundskeeper, explaining that he did nothing wrong. The Yankee side relented, though, and contended Williams had antagonized Nelson, and wanted an apology issued from the Boston side.

Yeah. That never happened.

Once the roller coaster ride finally ended, the Yankees escaped with a 4-3 win and a 2-1 ALCS lead. The reaction by a couple of individuals after Game 3, however, was unlike anything this writer had ever seen in sports – ever.

In terms of the Martinez-Zimmer incident, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg went on the record saying, “If that happened in New York, we would’ve arrested the perpetrator. Nobody should throw a 70-year-old man to the ground, period.”

That would’ve been quite a sight: the Red Sox ace being cuffed and escorted off the Yankee Stadium diamond by New York’s finest.

BoSox skipper Grady Little only had this to say:

“I think we’ve upgraded it from a battle to a war.”

The war raged on. The Red Sox won Game 4, 3-2, to even the series, then the Yankees grabbed Game 5 with a 4-2 win, taking a 3-2 series lead back to the Bronx. The Red Sox raised the eyebrows of the world by beating the Yanks 9-6 in Game 6, overcoming both Andy Pettitte and a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd.

Game 7. Roger and Pedro, again. He we are.


Is this happening?

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Before Game 7 took place, Boston sportswriter Howard Bryant caught up with Willie Randolph, a longtime pinstriper who had endured the “Bronx Zoo” era of the late 1970s as a player, and enjoyed the year-by-year success of the dynasty of the ‘90s as the Yankees’ third base coach.

Bryant asked Randolph what he thought about the deciding game. What do you think?

“Listen,” Randolph said. “Every single time we’ve had to beat them, we’ve beaten them. Tonight’s not going to be any different.”

But in the early going, it was  different – a lot different. Clemens struggled, surrendering a second inning, two-run home run to Trot Nixon. Later in the frame a throwing error by starting third baseman Enrique Wilson allowed Jason Varitek to come in, making it 3-0 Red Sox.

Clemens pitched into the fourth, although “the rocket” was all but gassed by then. Millar backed up some of his talking by sending Clemens’s offering into the seats in left field, a solo blast to give the Red Sox a 4-0 lead. Yankee manager Joe Torre had told starter Mike Mussina that he might use him out of the bullpen, which would’ve been the first time in his MLB career he would’ve pitched in relief.

A caveat, though:  Torre had told “Moose” that, if he were to use him, he’d bring him into the game when nobody was on base. That plan went by the wayside, as Mussina was summoned to mop up a first-and-third, no out mess.

Number 35, cleanup on aisle four.

Mussina was brilliant, striking out Varitek by utilizing his patented knuckle curveball, and followed by getting Johnny Damon to bounce into an unassisted 6-3 double play to skim out of further peril.

After the game Mussina teased Torre, inquiring, “I thought you said you were only bringing me in if there weren’t going to be men on base.”

Torre quipped back: “I lied.”

Jason Giambi, whom the Yankees had acquired after the fall of the dynasty in 2001, kept the Yanks close with two solo home runs off Martinez – a bomb in the fifth and another in the seventh.

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The Yankees trimmed the deficit to 4-2 but in the top of the eighth, Ortiz played pepper with the short porch seats, homering off another starter playing the role of reliever that night, David Wells. The solo job (that left Wells in utter disgust, putting it mildly) gave the Red Sox a run right back, making it 5-2 in favor of Boston.

Now Martinez, his pitch count over 100, came out to toss the bottom half of the eighth with a three-run lead, and while most members of Red Sox Nation thought this might ultimately be the year the Curse of the Bambino would be vanquished, some fans back in Beantown were not so convinced.

Baseball historian and Red Sox fan Doris Kearns Goodwin explained:

“When Pedro came back out in the eighth inning, we all started screaming ‘No! No! You can’t be doing it!’ I mean, fans think they know more than the managers – and often we don’t – but at that point everybody knew the pitch counts that Pedro would suddenly fall off the cliff, if he were over that pitch count.

“He was way over that pitch count, and so there was this huge sense of dread when he came to that mound.”

That dread was well-founded and soon realized.

Jeter pounded a one-out double off the wall in right field. Bernie Williams brought him in with a well-struck single in front of Damon in centerfield, cutting Boston’s lead to 5-3. The RBI base hit prompted a mound visit from Little, who shockingly stuck with his ace; Martinez not leaving the mound after the powwow, even with hard-throwing righty Mike Timlin and lefty specialist Alan Embree going double-barreled in the Red Sox bullpen.

Hideki Matsui, a left-handed hitter, was due up next. Embree would have been the obvious choice to match up with Matsui, but Embree could only watch from the ‘pen as Matsui ripped a ground-rule double down the line in right field off a tired Martinez, passing the baton to Posada.

The switch-hitting Yankee catcher, batting from the left side, punched a blooper into centerfield, falling in the middle of shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, second baseman Todd Walker and Damon to bring both Williams and Matsui to the plate. Posada reached second base – getting the last laugh off Martinez, thinking back to their chinwag in Game 3 – and Game 7 was tied, 5-5.

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Martinez then departed to a Bronx cheer; there was no undoing the damage the Yankees had done. The decision to keep Martinez in the ballgame haunted Red Sox Nation for a year. Fans were outraged at Little for not removing Martinez before the game turned, but Martinez – and others – have defended the move.

“I was just trying to do it,” Martinez said. “That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. Why didn’t Pedro give away the ball? Well, they didn’t ask me to give away the ball. They asked me if I could face the guys. I said yes! Of course I can! I’m in the middle of the game; I’m here to do this.

“When Grady came out, the simple question was whether I could pitch to Matsui or not. And I said yes.”

Former Red Sox favorite Johnny Pesky (for whom the foul pole in right field at Fenway Park is named) also was a proponent of allowing Martinez to stay in the game, and was quoted as saying,

“When he’s your best pitcher, and he tells you, ‘skipper, I got enough left in my tank’ you’re not going to take him out.”

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The fans on the other hand turned their ire on the call, and even went as far as constructing a poem about it, penned by Boston loyalist James Bair:

Why Did You Keep Pedro In?


We couldn’t have got there without you.
We were five outs away from a win.
You were the smartest guy in the stadium.
But why did you keep Pedro in?


We don’t believe in those curses.
We could care less about old Harry’s sin.
But with such a powerful bullpen,
Why did you keep Pedro in?


Oh, Pedro was awesome for seven,
And it looked like he could hang in.
Those two liners showed he’d become shaky—
Why did you keep Pedro in?


Though whacked cold, Johnny Damon kept waving;
The guys always want to stay in.
Of course, Pedro’d say he could blow them away,
But why did you keep Pedro in?


He could have left the hill as a hero—
We’d say Pedro had smoked them again!
You could not deny that his pitch count was high,
Why did you keep Pedro in?


We know there is one consolation:
We know you’ll never do it again.
Still the cry rises from Red Sox Nation:
Why did you keep Pedro in?


With each move you had out-managed Torre.
Yankee cheering was growing quite thin.
With such talented benches for backup,
Why did you keep Pedro in?


You made us now root for the Marlins,
And we hardly know how to begin.
You almost upended the Empire,
Why did you keep Pedro in?


You brought new pizzazz to the clubhouse:
The crew found the cowboy within.
You did so much for the guys, but with tears in our eyes,
We say, why did you keep Pedro in?

 

The question could be asked until the end of time. But it was moot. The game was knotted at five, and the Yankees used the unflappable closer Mariano Rivera for the 9th, 10th, and 11th innings. The stage was set. The question was no longer, “why did Grady leave Pedro in?” Rather it became “how is this saga going to finally end?”


 Sleeping on the X-Factor

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What probably gets lost in the shuffle was the fact that Boone had come into the game as a pinch-runner during that eventful bottom of the eighth. He took over at third base for Wilson on defense, who was surely not the Yankee fans’ favorite player that evening, because remember – he committed that costly error in the third which led to a Boston run.

It’s funny to me because, personally, I can recall the “due up” graphic in the middle of the 11th inning, watching in my Yankee pajamas from my bed in Beacon, New York; soon to be a droopy-eyed high school junior the following day, but the exhaustion coming with the excitement of a possible World Series berth. I even said to myself,

“Aaron Boone. Forget it, easy out. The next few guys have to hit, though! Let’s win this game!”

Perfectly logical assumption. In 31 postseason at-bats, Boone collected just five hits. The Yankees, however, had a lot more faith in Boone than this scribe did. Before he went into the on-deck circle while knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was warming up, Torre told Boone,

“Just hit a single. It doesn’t mean you won’t hit a home run.”

Randolph then issued the ultimate sign of faith:

“That inning, he came to the dugout and I met him at the top step. I patted him on the back and I said, ‘listen. You’re my sleeper pick. You’re the x-factor of the series.’”

Keith Olbermann – a bright sports pundit and someone for whom I have respect, albeit I disagree with him on plenty of topics – analyzed Boone’s at-bat this way:

“The odds were favoring a hitter in a slump. Because a hitter in a slump’s timing is already off. A knuckleball pitcher throws your timing off. Put a guy with bad timing, and add more bad timing to him, suddenly he has good timing – it’s a zero sum game in terms of timing.

“So you’re thinking, who on earth is going to get the base hit for the Yankees? Who can do anything against Tim Wakefield? Boone.”

Sure enough, the timing worked out. Everything worked out.

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Aaron Boone after hitting homerun in 2003 ALCS

Boone slaughtered Wakefield’s first pitch for a home run deep into the New York sky; the ball landing behind the wall in left field to give the Yanks a 6-5 win, sending the Bronx Bombers to their 39th World Series in franchise history. Pandemonium commenced; Yankees Stadium completely erupted, became unglued.

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The Red Sox were crushed, the pennant was won, and the Curse of the Bambino was alive and well.

Boone was speechless after clubbing the death blow, and managed just a few words:

“Derek told me the ghosts would show up eventually. And they did.”

The Captain verified those words postgame, saying,

“I believe in ghosts, and we got some ghosts in this Stadium!”

Torre went on to admit he thought there was some divine pinstriped intervention, later saying,

“It is weird to me that certain things happen that don’t seem logical. Yeah, you have to believe we’re getting some help from somewhere.”

What’s also not well known is that, after the bliss of a love-fest at home plate for Boone and the champagne celebration; after the presentation of the Will Harridge Award, and after Rivera was named ALCS MVP, the Yankee players made a pilgrimage out to Monument Park, donned with championship hats soaked in champagne. Specifically, they made a visit to Babe Ruth’s monument.

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“Look, he’s smiling! He’s smiling!” the Yankees gleefully exclaimed, whilst rubbing the forehead of the Great Bambino’s likeness on the monument.


 The aftermath and the impact of another curse

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While Little was quickly fired by the Red Sox and the image of Boone’s home run was tattooed on the minds of Red Sox fans everywhere, the Yanks were in the 2003 fall classic, matched up with the Florida Marlins – who Chicago Cubs fans felt had snaked their way in on account of fan interference in the ’03 NLCS. The Cubs had been winning 3-0 in the eighth inning of Game 6, and had they held on would’ve punched their first ticket to the World Series since 1945.

Steve Bartman, a Cubs fan sitting in the front row of the left field stands, accidently reached for a foul ball that was perhaps catchable for left fielder Moises Alou near the wall. Bartman got his hand on it, and the ball took a wrong bounce back into the seats, not going for an out – much to the infuriation of not only Alou, but every Cubs fan in the ballpark. Almost right after the gaffe, the Marlins wound up rallying to score eight runs to win the game, and carried on to win Game 7 by a count of 9-6.

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Not unlike the Red Sox and their Curse of the Bambino, the Cubs had the Curse of the Billy Goat hanging over their heads – a long story about a Chicago bar owner, who in 1945 was asked to leave Wrigley Field because the stench of the pet goat he brought to the park was bothering other fans.

He proclaimed, “Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.”

Subsequently the Cubs haven’t won the World Series since 1908.

I can’t help but think how the ’03 World Series would’ve gone had it been Yankees-Cubs, the matchup America wanted to see, instead of Yankees-Marlins – a bland fall classic that ended in a six-game series win for the fish.

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Would the Yankees have been able to beat the 1-2 punch of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior? Would they have been able to silence the bat of Sammy Sosa, who just five seasons earlier had smashed 66 home runs, and had hit 40 during the ’03 regular season? Would the Curse of the Billy Goat been upheld in the fall classic, the same way the Yanks kept up the Curse of the Bambino in the ALCS?

Would 2003 have been the year of title number 27 in the Bronx, if only the Yankees faced the Cubs and not the pesky Marlins, equipped with the likes of scrappers Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Josh Beckett and Juan Pierre?

We’ll never know.

To this writer, though, the ALCS was the World Series in 2003. Passion, heat, unmitigated physicality, the will to win intense rivalry games, and excitement that puts you on the edge of your seat – you want nothing more than that as a fan, or at this stage in my life as a journalist.

Hopefully we see it again, in baseball, sometime soon.

And hopefully, again, it’s between the Yankees and Red Sox.

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 SOURCES FOR THIS PIECE: Websites: Baseball Almanac, Baseball Reference.

DVDs: The Boston Red Sox vs. The New York Yankees: The Ultimate Rivalry (2005)

Ken Burns: The Tenth Inning (2010)

End of the Year Awards

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This past Sunday the 2014 MLB regular season ended, effectively finishing the Yankees’ activity until pitchers and catchers report to Tampa in February.

Fans are already going through so-called “pinstripe withdrawal.” However, the radical Royals-Athletics Wild Card game Tuesday night was certainly enough to divert attention off the fact that the Yankees aren’t playing and good baseball is still existent now that we’re in the month of October.

Yet, this is Yankee Yapping, not Royals or A’s Yapping. And the Yankees are about tradition. A tradition since the inception of this blog in 2009 has been the end of the year awards. Not one to break to tradition, this year is not any different. Therefore, YY proudly presents the sixth annual end of the year awards.

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It’s only fitting to start with a born winner.

Yankee Yapping Lifetime Achievement Award

Winner: Derek Jeter

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Proverbs 18:8 says, “The words of a talebearer are like dainty morsels that sink into one’s inmost being.”

The stories Derek Jeter has told us with his bat and with his glove over the years have not only sank deep into our inmost being, but are a part of us all forever.

Last Thursday Jeter captivated us with one final tale at Yankee Stadium, winning the game in dramatic fashion. It left everyone – everyone being the entire population of the country, because that’s who was watching – in disbelief. A 5-2 game became a 5-5 game by way of the baseball gods.

A 5-5 game then became the Yankee Captain’s game to win with a sharp single into right field to knock in the deciding run. Add the walk-off base hit in his final game in the Bronx to the laundry list of accomplishments and huge hits Jeter has racked up over the years.

World Series titles, All-Star Games, we can go on all day about how much of a winner Jeter is. But his attitude makes him even more of a winner; his humility and respect for everyone and everything only enhances his heroic image.

Now that he is officially retired from baseball, it’ll be interesting to see where life takes the former Yankee shortstop. I’m sure whatever adventures Jeter has in his life post-baseball, he’ll appreciate them all with dignity and grace.

His first adventure seems to be a blog for fans to connect with pro athletes entitled The Players Tribune, as announced today. Not a bad project to start right away, in this writer’s view.

Congrats on the YY Lifetime Achievement Award and congrats on a legendary career, Derek!


Yankee Yapping Most Valuable Player

Winner: Brett Gardner

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I can’t count how many times this year I heard, “How crazy is it that Brett Gardner is our best player?”

Numerically Gardner proved it this year, setting career highs in home runs with 17, RBIs with 58, and plate appearances with 636.

For a guy that signed a big extension at the outset of the season, Gardner certainly gave the Yankees hope moving forward; perhaps showing that his best days are yet to come. It also helped that, in a Yankee season riddled with age and injuries, the 31-year-old outfielder could stay on the field, being that played 148 games.

Consistency also helped Gardner win the YY MVP. He was pretty solid overall. As the leadoff hitter for most of the year, he generally was able to get the job done.

Congrats Brett!


Yankee Yapping Ace of the Year

Winner: Hiroki Kuroda

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After the Yankees’ 5-3 win on Sept. 19 over the Blue Jays – a game Hiroki Kuroda won, getting there by tossing 6 2/3 strong innings – Jeter said, “if we scored any runs for him, he’d have 17, 18 wins.”

How can anyone object?

Kuroda went 11-9 this year with a 3.71 ERA, though his record doesn’t (at all) reflect the type of season he put together. Not only did he pitch well when Yankee run production was in short supply, he outlasted his fellow starters on the staff in terms of staying healthy.

A lot was talked about how the Yanks lost 80 percent of their starting pitchers to injury, and it was almost overlooked that Kuroda was the 20 percent who remained in the rotation and gave his team a chance to win every time he took the ball.

Kuroda pitched 199 innings this year, almost matching the 201 1/3 he threw last year. In 2013 he scuffled at the end of the season, citing arm fatigue as the reason for his late-season trifles. A year older this year, there was no such scuffle; no tired arm in the dog days.

Addressing the media on Monday, Yankee skipper Joe Girardi said he doesn’t know what Kuroda’s plans are as of now, and only that he went home for the offseason. It’s been rumored he might stay in Japan to finish his career in his native land. There’s also word he could retire, given his age: 39 now, 40 on Feb. 10.

If 2014 was the end of Kuroda’s time in New York, he gave the Bronx Bombers three serviceable years. And in his last year he went out an ace – at least in this scribe’s eyes.

Domo arigato, Mr. Kuroda. Congrats!


Yankee Yapping Rookie of the Year

Winner: Masahiro Tanaka

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In a word, it’s unfortunate that Masahiro Tanaka didn’t pitch his entire rookie season, because he not only may have won the YY ROY, he may have been named AL Rookie of the Year by MLB. He was on pace for probably 20 wins or more and with all due respect to Jose Abreu of the White Sox (the likely winner) Tanaka could’ve swiped it from under him.

Or at least he’d have given Abreu a run for his money.

Before his partial UCL tear was revealed on July 8 after his start in Cleveland vs. the Indians, Tanaka was pitching like a virtuoso; an artist who had the ability to paint some elaborate and beautiful portraits. Mostly those portraits involved major league hitters looking like a herd of deer in a pair of headlights, as he could fool any hitter with his brilliant splitter.

He missed a big chunk of the summer when he was sidelined, but credit him in fighting back to make two last starts before the end of the season. Tanaka didn’t look like a pitcher with a partial UCL tear on Sept. 21, tossing 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball against the Blue Jays. He scattered five hits, didn’t allow a walk and struck out four to notch his 13th win of the year.

Yet it was a little disconcerting to not only see Tanaka give up seven runs (five earned) on seven hits in just 1 2/3 innings this past Saturday in Boston, but also hear Girardi say in his presser on Monday that he’s worried about Tanaka’s health moving into next year.

Totally warranted fear. One has to hope Tanaka’s arm makes a full recovery without needing Tommy John surgery, which is always a possibility when dealing with a UCL ailment.

Notwithstanding, I saw Tanaka pitch twice in-person this season. In those two starts he struck out 16 batters, going 1-1 (a 3-1 Yankee win over Toronto on June 17 and an 8-0 loss to the Orioles on June 22). After seeing how strongly the crowd gets behind this young man and the confidence he exudes, it’s easy to get excited about whatever the future may hold for Tanaka.

But as for his rookie year, he did a fantastic job. Minus getting hurt, that is.

Domo arigato, Mr. Tanaka. Congrats!


Yankee Yapping Best Trade Deadline Pickups

Co-winners: Chase Headley and Martín Prado

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July 31 is always an interesting day in baseball, as GMs across the board are scrambling to add and subtract pieces to their respective team’s puzzle. Brian Cashman was a busy man this year, collecting quite a few players to help keep the Yankees glued together.

Chase Headley came over from San Diego on July 22 and made an immediate impact upon arrival. Walking into the Yankee dugout in the middle of the Bombers’ game vs. Texas, he greeted all his new teammates with handshakes and salutations.

The game went into the 14th inning and he came up huge, delivering a game-winning single to beat the Rangers 2-1. On Sept. 4 he outdid himself, crushing a walk-off home run to beat the Red Sox 5-4 in the Bronx, capping a huge ninth-inning rally.

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Headley also exhibited heart, playing in games after being hit in the face with a fastball on Sept. 11 by Jake McGee of Tampa Bay. Any other player could’ve packed it in for the season sustaining such an injury, but he kept at it, knowing the Yanks needed his bat and tremendous defense at third base, as they stayed in the thick of it for that second Wild Card spot until the final six days of the regular season.

With Alex Rodriguez expected to return from suspension next year – and Headley now a free agent – there’s no telling whether or not he dons the pinstripes again. If not, He finishes his career as a Yankee with six homers, 17 RBIs, and a .262 BA.

Although Headley may not fit into the equation next year, Martín Prado is guaranteed to be back in the Bronx in 2015; under contract until the end of 2016, in fact. He was acquired from Arizona for catching prospect Peter O’Brien nine days after Headley, and didn’t really disappoint, collecting 42 hits in 133 at-bats. He ended the year with 16 RBIs with the Yankees, a .316 BA in pinstripes and drove seven balls out of the park.

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It’s also worth mentioning Prado won a game for the Yankees on Aug. 22 with one swing: a walk-off single to give his new team a 4-3 win over the White Sox, specifically showing he can make a difference at the plate. A utility man, Prado offers skills at basically every position save for pitcher and catcher, so moving forward he’ll be a true asset to the team.

Both Headley and Prado fit in fine once they switched sides, thus earning this award.

Congrats fellas!


Yankee Yapping Bring ‘Em Back Award

Winner: Brandon McCarthy

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Like Headley and Prado, Brandon McCarthy came over in a trade. The Yankees dealt Vidal Nuno to the Diamondbacks and in return received the lanky right-hander. His first tweet in New York – a reference to the classic TV show Seinfeld – and his solid pitching quickly made him a fan-favorite.

Re-mastering his cut fastball, McCarthy won seven games with the Yanks this year and posted an ERA under 3 at 2.89. He filled one of the many holes in the starting rotation, and without question proved he was an important player.

In particular his start against Houston on Aug. 21 comes to mind.

McCarthy basically obliterated the Astros, twirling a complete game shutout. He only allowed four hits, didn’t walk a batter and struck out eight. He not only led the Yanks to a 3-0 victory, but wasted no time doing it; making it the quickest game in the history of the new Yankee Stadium at just two hours and seven minutes.

What’s more, McCarthy tossed an immaculate inning on Sept. 17 in Tampa Bay, striking out three straight batters on nine pitches – a rarity in baseball.

Yes, immaculate Brandon. Your praises we sing.

If anyone has earned more time in a Yankee uniform, it’s McCarthy. He’s a veteran; he battled and could be a great middle-of-the-rotation starter next year. In the case he doesn’t come back to the Yankees, he’ll definitely find a landing spot.

But, the Yankees would be wise to bring him back. Congrats on opening some eyes this year, Brandon!


Yankee Yapping Best Season by a Newcomer

Winner: Jacoby Ellsbury

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Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens and Johnny Damon could probably attest that the transition from Boston to New York is a real adjustment. All three thrived in both Beantown and the Big Apple along with countless others who’ve made the leap from “the nation” to “the empire.”

It’s nothing new. Since the beginning of time, it’s been happening; from Babe Ruth to Kevin Youkilis. When the Yankee front office retooled this past offseason, Jacoby Ellsbury became the latest turncoat.

This year it seemed Ellsbury made a pretty easy transfer, putting up some respectable numbers for his first year in New York: 16 homers, 70 RBIs and a BA of .271. Ellsbury added 39 stolen bases in 44 attempts, 27 doubles, and 71 runs scored.

Good general numbers, sure. Specifically, though, he offered a clutch dynamic, hitting some game-deciding home runs in extra innings away from Yankee Stadium. On May 24 he took a mighty hack in the 10th inning at U.S. Cellular Field to lift the Yankees over the White Sox 4-3. On July 9 he was at it again, helping beat the Indians 5-4 with one swing in the 14th at Progressive Field.

Winning extra inning games on the road has been such a lost art with the Yankees, especially in recent years. Ellsbury helped bring it back this year, a little bit.

Keeping healthy was also a gigantic concern in acquiring Ellsbury last winter, but in playing 149 games he demonstrated that he can stay healthy and be an effective player.

Congrats on a good year, Jacoby. Here’s to a lot more!


Yankee Yapping Relievers of the Year Award

Co-winners: David Robertson and Dellin Betances

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There was no way I could decide one winner of this award. Both of these guys deserve it.

Last year Mariano Rivera retired, leaving his job open with astronomically high expectations attached to it. David Robertson was named closer, and had a reputation of getting into jams easily, although as setup man he was typically always able to wiggle his way out of danger.

Hence, his nickname “Houdini.”

Closers can’t exactly live on a reputation of constantly getting into predicaments and skimming their way out; they’re supposed to be automatic, which Robertson was anything but entering 2014.

Yet this season Robertson almost washed away that “Houdini” moniker, slamming the door 39 times in 44 save opps, finishing third in the AL in saves. He had his moments of difficulty, but always bounced back with ease.

By the way, he’s credited with five blown saves, but four in my book – the baseball gods intervened on Sept. 24 in order to allow Jeter to win the game.

Robertson can walk if the Yankees don’t re-sign him, and you can bet he’ll receive some good offers from other teams, because he was nothing short of outstanding this year. In my personal opinion, I’d like him to stay in New York. He’s a homegrown pinstriper, he’s now a proven closer, and he’d be a good guy to keep around moving forward.

Not to mention I like tweeting #AlabamaSlam every time he nails down a save.

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Dellin Betances set Robertson up incredibly this year, striking out 135 batters to break a franchise record: most Ks by a reliever in a single season.

The man whose record he broke? The Great Rivera.

Betances’s ERA of 1.40 and record of 5-0 further show just how lights out he was. Mixing 90-100 mph fastballs with 80 mph changeups and frazzling hitters around the league, Betances rightfully was an All-Star this year – and something tells me he’ll be on another AL All-Star squad in the future.

If Robertson winds up walking this winter Betances would make a fine closer, but for now I like what he did as a setup man in ’14. It’d be nice if both relievers were around next year, giving the Yanks a 1-2 punch out of the ‘pen and shortening the game by two innings for the starting pitchers.

Whichever way it goes, these guys were rock solid this past year; both worthy of some end-of-the-season recognition. Congrats gentlemen!


Yankee Yapping Titan of Twitter Award

Winner: David Cone

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Twitter has become a part of sports culture. Disseminating information about games, quotes from athletes, and the general idea of what’s going on around the sports world are all done through the advent of tweeting these days.

I created a Twitter page for Yankee Yapping in November of 2013. Within just one baseball season (and less than a year, to boot) it amassed over 1,200 followers.

(To those who have followed, thank you, by the way!)

It almost came as a shock to me that former Yankee, perfect game pitcher, World Series champ, and current YES broadcaster David Cone followed YY on Twitter. It was pretty cool to think he thought so highly of the blog to follow, let alone mention it during the telecast of a game!

Thank you again, Coney. You deserve an award for recognizing Yankee Yapping!


Yankee Yapping Rooting For You Award

Winner: Don Mattingly

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This is an award I dislike giving out, because in October I usually like rooting for the Yankees. Alas, since the Yankees are watching the MLB postseason in front their TVs, it’s only right to pick a team to root for this month.

However, I’m not so much pulling for the Los Angeles Dodgers so much as I am former Yankee Don “Donnie Baseball” Mattingly, the Dodgers’ current manager.

The beloved Yankee first baseman of the 1980s to the mid-90s missed out on a World Series ring by just one year. Back problems forced Mattingly to retire after 1995, and as we all know 1996 was the start of the Yankee dynasty.

Mattingly, to my knowledge, is the only Yankee player to have his number retired without winning a World Series. For his sake, it would be cool to see him finally get the elusive piece of jewelry he never obtained in New York.

He’s got plenty of studs to help him get there; Clayton Kershaw, Yasiel Puig, and Hanley Ramirez to name a few.

As far as other candidates for this award: there’s no way I’d root for Joba Chamberlain to win (what would be his second ring) with the Detroit Tigers – and I don’t want to see Buck Showalter win it all as the Orioles skipper.

For me, it’s got to be Mattingly, who was a Yankee in the purest sense of the word, carrying the team through a number of lean years.

Go Donnie!


Well, that about wraps up the end of the year awards. Be sure to check back with Yankee Yapping throughout the winter for updates, highlights, and stories!

Dear Derek

Sept. 25, 2014

 

 

Dear Derek,

I know after yesterday’s loss you are disappointed. Elimination from the playoffs, to you, is probably the equivalent of failing a test you’ve studied extremely hard for. After the game you called it “rough” and “frustrating.” This will only be the third time in my life as a true navy blue Yankee fan you and your teammates won’t be playing autumn baseball in New York – but trust me, I’m not trying to make you feel bad or drudge up negative feelings.

On the contrary, I’m writing to give you the praise you rightfully deserve, and say thanks.

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I can’t even really remember my first Yankee game. I was too young; the picture of it in my head is about as fuzzy as a 1950s analog TV. My parents brought me to Yankee Stadium when I was practically in diapers. My earliest memories were just looking out and seeing the Stadium’s green grass.

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1995, I’ve always felt, is the season I became a true fan. At eight years old I was overcome with investment in the New York Yankees. ’95 also happened to be your first season; and not to mention the year before all the glorious seasons of the Yankee Dynasty.

Although 1995 ended in tragedy at the Kingdome, the feeling of winning the World Series at the end of 1996 almost made me completely forget ’95 altogether. Additionally in ’96 you were named A.L. Rookie of the Year unanimously, to which you modestly remarked to the New York Times, “Unanimously? I think I had some family helping me out with the voting.”

While I’m sure your family – who raised you so well – would’ve voted for you, you didn’t need any help in terms with the voting. Hence, why you beat out James Baldwin of the White Sox by 76 points; 140-64.

Thanks for helping teach me humility.

1998 was arguably the best season the Yanks have had in my lifetime, and ’98 also happened to be the year I started playing Little League in Beacon, N.Y. – a city some 70 or so miles north of New York City in the suburbs. Everything about Little League in Beacon was fashioned after the major leagues, from the team names down to the uniforms. God must’ve had it in for me, because the team I wound up on was the Yankees.

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Yeah, Tino Martinez was my favorite at the time, but believe me when I say you and him were basically tied for first.

 

Anyhow, it was my first year playing organized ball, and I had a rough go of it. If I wasn’t striking out I was grounding out. Once in awhile I drew a walk here or there. What’s more, I mostly stood out in left field idly; fly balls rarely ever coming my way.

Nonetheless, I learned how to play the position; how to back up throws to third base and how to hit the cutoff man. I never quit. I kept playing the game, even after wanting to give up after a slew of dreadful “0-for” days.

At last in one of the final games of the regular season, against the Indians, I hit a laser shot into centerfield for not only my first base hit, but my first RBI. When I reached base safely I heard the assistant coach say from the dugout,

“Look at that hit! That was like Derek Jeter, right there!”

That comment meant the world to me, at the same time giving me some much-needed encouragement. A season full of woes, I get one nice hit and all of a sudden it earns me a comparison to you. We beat the Indians, if you were wondering, and afterwards, the coaches gave me the game ball, which I still have encased.

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It wasn’t until just now I realized you hit your first career home run against the big league Indians – perhaps a little baseball parallel between the two of us.

From that point on whether it was in Little League, Babe Ruth League at the high school level, in gym class or just playing ball with the kids in my neighborhood, I always wanted to emulate you; the way you have carried yourself: respectfully, gracefully and dignified – and not just on the field. I’ve never done drugs or smoked, because I know that’s not what Derek Jeter would do.

Thank you for leading by example.

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Throughout my years as a Yankee fan I’ve seen you play live in the pinstripes countless times. I haven’t taken those times for granted. Though with each passing year, it seemed, you got better and better as opposed to the majority of other players, whose numbers steadily decline as they grow older.

You truly are a fine bottle of wine, getting better with age, as the old adage goes.

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On six separate occasions, you have hit home runs in my presence. Of those six games, the Yankees emerged winners in five of them. The only game I saw in-person, in which you hit a home run and the Yanks lost, was against the Mets on June 29, 2002.

But hey, in the 2000 World/Subway Series – which you were an integral part of winning – you gave me and every other Yankee fan bragging rights forever more in beating the Mets in front of the world on baseball’s grandest stage.

Thanks for those bragging rights.

In May of 2010 I graduated from Mercy College in New York with a degree in journalism. It took a lot of hard work to earn that diploma. You’ve preached your entire career about how hard work pays off, and when I walked across the stage and was handed my degree, I finally understood what you meant.

You were right all along. Thanks for beating the hard work concept into my brain.

A couple months after graduation, in July ’10, I had the chance to interview Brian Sweeney, a relief pitcher who (like me) is a Mercy College alumnus. At the time he was pitching for the Seattle Mariners. Sweeney had faced you at the big ballpark in the Bronx just a few weeks prior to my chat with him. He, an opponent, spoke highly of you, saying,

“Obviously Jeter is one of the most celebrated ballplayers on the Yankees. He was a nice challenge.”

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However, Sweeney did add, “I wish he had gotten into the box a little faster. Maybe he was trying to slow me down? It could just be his routine.”

A t-shirt should be made: “Derek Jeter: frustrating opposing pitchers since ’95.”

Earlier this year, on May 12 to be exact, I covered an event hosted by fellow New York sports captain Eli Manning. The Giants’ quarterback and two-time Super Bowl MVP does wonderful work with charity, namely Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Guiding Eyes’ annual spring tee-off event came just a week after Eli and his brother Peyton visited you at Yankee Stadium.

Eli had nothing but great things to say about you.

It is my hope that one day I am able to interview you, Derek. Even if I’m one of 100 reporters standing in a media scrum and I only get to ask you one question. I’d gladly welcome a funny response to a question from you, as you’ve been able to mix in some humor with the press all your life.

If I ever get that interview or that chance to ask you a question in a scrum, thank you in advance.

Tonight, Derek, you leave us – but only in the flesh. Everything you’ve done in New York, for New York, and for the fans will never be forgotten. In spirit, you’ll be with us for all of time. I wish you luck in starting your family and hope you enjoy your life after baseball. You have more than earned your days to sit back, take in the sweet aroma of the roses, and bask in the fruits of your labor.

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Hopefully in five years, when you’re ticketed for permanent enshrinement in Cooperstown, I’ll be covering the joyous occasion and I’ll see you there.

Until then, for all the wonderful memories, Derek – thank you.

Sincerely,

A.J. Martelli “Yankee Yapping”

We Made a Me-Mo-ry

If the Yankees somehow make the playoffs this year, tonight will go down as the game that saved them. Every team in front of the Yankees won – and this late in the season, the Bronx Bombers can ill afford to lose any more ground in terms of the standings. Down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning against Koji Uehara, and more specifically the pesky Red Sox looking to play spoiler, the future didn’t exactly look bright; the season all but dangling in the balance.

Then Mark Teixeira came up.

Earlier this season in Milwaukee vs. the Brewers, Teixeira tied the game in the ninth with one swing against Francisco Rodriguez, who like Uehara is another established closer.

Did he have it in him again?

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Yes. He sure did. The Yankee first baseman sent a “Teix message” into the second porch in right field, knotting the game up at four in the most dramatic way.

But that wasn’t even the best part.

Teixeira’s tater set up Chase Headley later in the frame, and the third baseman got around on a hanger, blasting Uehara’s offering into the bleachers in right field; a spectacular shot to give the Yanks a 5-4 win, keeping them alive in the AL Wild Card race.

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Should the Yankees go on a run, this will be a game everyone will make reference to as the turnaround; it’ll be looked at as the game that kept them from drowning altogether and falling out of the postseason hunt for good.

It will be, in a word, remembered.

This writer, however, will not just remember Sept. 4 as the day the Yankees maintained a pulse in 2014. It will also go down as the day I met Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer to ever live.

On Sept. 22 last year, when the Yankees honored Rivera and retired his number 42, I never would’ve guessed I’d have the chance to meet him not even a year later. Yet when my friend had mentioned that he was going to be doing an appearance in Ridgewood, N.J. and asked if I’d be interested in going, I couldn’t pass it up.

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Rivera was at a store called Bookends promoting his autobiography, The Closer.

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On the way there, my friends and I were just on edge.

“He’s the best. What are you going to say to him?”

I hadn’t thought about it.

When it was my turn, I simply walked up to Mo, one of my childhood heroes and one of the most respected baseball players in history, and merely introduced myself. “Hi, I’m A.J. Nice to meet you” and shook his hand. With his regular, patented ear-to-ear Mo smile, he said – with kindness beaming out in his voice,

“Nice to meet you too!”

They took our picture and before I left I shook his hand again and sincerely said,

“Thank you. For all the wonderful memories.”

He was still smiling, but his expression changed after I thanked him. It’s hard to describe but he gave me almost a look of awe. His expression shortly morphed back into his regular smile, and before I walked away he patted me on the back and said,

“Awwww, thank you, buddy!” He stressed the words “thank you.”

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I basically left the bookstore with the same expression Mo shot me when I thanked him – awe-struck; mesmerized. I’m not quite sure what other adjectives I could use to properly word how I felt, except “amazing” or “awesome.”

Amazing.

Awesome.

Unbelievable.

Surreal.

All of the above.

Overall, it was a phenomenal experience, even if it was just for a brief couple minutes.

Driving home, I also thought to myself how significant the meeting might be in the future.

Rivera resides in New Rochelle, N.Y. and attends/hosts numerous events throughout Westchester County, N.Y.

Working for a Westchester newsweekly, it’s not crazy to think I might someday have to cover an event that Rivera is on hand for, and perhaps interview him. By meeting him today, though, I got the manner of being “star-struck” out of the way. Now, if I cross paths with him again as a reporter (and not a fan) I won’t be as mind-blown as I was today.

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For example, when I first interviewed New York Giants’ quarterback and two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning, I was admittedly overwhelmed – even as a reporter. But after interviewing him multiple times, there’s not as much pressure talking to him anymore. To me, interviewing Manning is just business as usual – which is how it’ll likely be now, if I interview Mo, because I’ve already met him.

If that makes sense.

Nevertheless, it was a memorable day. For the Yankees, for the Yankee fans, and for a reporter who happens to be a Yankee fan.

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.

A Bronx Tale: The Hall of Fame Story of Joe Torre

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It was a chilly night October 8, 2007. The mood was somber. A melancholy atmosphere. The Yankees were in the postseason, having to claw their way back from a record under .500 at the All-Star break to even be playing autumn baseball in New York. They had captured the American League Wild Card in a season where their playoff hopes looked unreal for most of the way.

Towards the end of the season they built up some momentum, but the Yanks found themselves not only trailing the Cleveland Indians two games to one in the ALDS, but were down 6-3 in the top of the eighth in Game 4 facing elimination; looking at a third straight early October exit. Like so many times before, Yankee skipper Joe Torre walked out to the mound with his regular stoic expression on his face.

Fans at Yankee Stadium – all 56,315 of them – knew full well this could be the final pitching change Torre ever made in pinstripes. The manager took the ball from Jose Veras and handed it to his closer Mariano Rivera, hoping to keep the score right where it was to perhaps give the Yankees a fighting chance to come back and force a deciding Game 5.

Deep down everyone knew, though. This was it. As Enter Sandman traditionally blared through the Yankee Stadium sound system, everyone was on their feet, applauding and chanting the name of the man who led the Yankees to the playoffs 12 consecutive years; the man who took the Yankees to six World Series – winning four of those six fall classics, all four within a span of five years.

The end of the Torre era in New York was, in a word, sad. For some Yankee fans, this writer included, Torre was the only skipper they knew since becoming fans in 1996. Yet his last game will hardly be what Yankee fans – and all baseball fans, for that matter – will remember him for.

Now a brighter memory will be made as the unflappable Torre will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown – a more fitting lasting impression for a man who helped bring the Yankees out of a tailspin, and turned them back into the perennial winners they once were during the golden age of baseball.

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Looking at the bigger picture and not just how his time in New York came to an end, Torre will be remembered for, what one of his former players described as “social genius.” The Yankees could win a game 15-0 or lose a game 15-0, and Torre’s demeanor wouldn’t change. He appeared cool, calm and unbreakable, even in the wake of what critics thought were questionable decisions. Even facing fire from an owner in George Steinbrenner, who could (in the nicest way) be characterized as “difficult.”

Case and point: right before Game 2 of the World Series in 1996.

The Yankees had lost the first game in unflattering fashion, 12-1, when Steinbrenner met with Torre to chat about the state of the team.

“George Steinbrenner walks into my office before Game 2 and he says ‘this is a big game.’ Well yeah, I know it’s a big game. Only seven games you get to play here. For some reason I was in a goofy mood. I didn’t feel the same stress that I felt later on.

“But I said to him, ‘you know George, (Greg) Maddux is pitching against us. We’re not really playing well right now; we’re a little out of whack because we hadn’t played in so long.’ I said we may lose again tonight. But we’re going to Atlanta – that’s my town. We’ll win three there and then next Saturday we’ll come back and win the series for you.

“And I walked out of my office.”

Torre’s words became true; the rest of the ’96 World Series played out exactly that way.

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In his decade at the helm of the Bronx Bombers, he once said he had only one regret: not appealing for a timeout during the infamous “bug game” otherwise known as Game 2 of the ’07 ALDS. He admitted he should’ve asked the umpires for a game stoppage until the midges migrated out of Progressive Field (then known as Jacobs Field) in Cleveland.

Torre didn’t even regret the decisions he made in the 2004 ALCS – which as we all know, didn’t end particularly well for the Yankees. He backed up his choice of starting Kevin Brown, a faltering pitcher far past his prime, in the deciding Game 7 of that historic-yet-woeful round before the ‘04 World Series.

Tomorrow, for the good and the bad; the wins and the losses; the triumph and heartbreak, Torre will be immortalized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He, along with Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox, were unanimously elected to baseball’s hallowed hall for their managerial prowess and the important impact they each made on their respective clubs; LaRussa with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cox with the Atlanta Braves, of course.

When I traveled up to Cooperstown on June 12, a lot of Torre’s mementos and artifacts were all over the place, as they’ve prepped for this big day since it was announced he was to be enshrined.

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The Yankees are going the route of MLB, and will also personally recognize Torre’s contributions to the game by retiring his number 6 on Aug. 23. Rightfully, Torre will be eternalized at Yankee Stadium with legendary skippers from the days of old like Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, and Billy Martin.

We could go on all day about Torre; how he always defended his players, no matter the situation; how under his leadership the Yankees won 1,173 games. How he may have made some not-so-favorable remarks about the organization in his 2009 book The Yankee Years but turned around and basically recanted the bad feelings, making amends with his beloved ballclub in the process.

A player, a manager, a social genius and an upstanding man, there might not be anyone who deserves the honor of the Hall of Fame more than “Mr. T.” And his response to all of this adulation? Well, you couldn’t have expected anything less:

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Keys to the Kingdom

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‘Tis the season of the cracking of the bat and the popping of the leather. Yes, MLB Spring Training is finally here, and yesterday the Yankees began their string of exhibition games. As it is, the Bronx Bombers dropped both of their first two Grapefruit League games to Pittsburgh, losing 6-5 Wednesday and 8-2 today – though we all know final scores are probably the least important stat when it comes to Spring Training.

It’s all about fine tuning and getting ready for April, when the scores count and the Yanks embark on their quest for World Series title number 28. Yankee Captain Derek Jeter, who as we all know announced his retirement after this upcoming season, declared today that he wants to go out a winner:

“We’re the last team standing and we win the championship.

That’s the only way I envision it ending.”

In order for that happen, a lot has to go right. First of all…

CC Sabathia needs a bounce-back campaign

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Last year CC Sabathia faced arm problems, really for the first time ever in his career. The Yankee ace lost 13 games in 2013 and only won 14, coming off 2012 when he won 15 – a far cry from the 21 and 19-win seasons he put up in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Last season Sabathia’s ERA was 4.78, the highest earned run average he’s ever posted in his career.

If you’re the type of analyst who likes to throw wins and ERA out the window, here’s something to chew on: Sabathia let up 28 home runs in 2013 – another career-high for a single season. If that isn’t enough, here’s something else to consider: Sabathia served up more taters than Phil Hughes last season, the former homer-happy Yankee and now-Minnesota Twin. Hughes allowed 24 hitters to leave the yard last year compared to Sabathia’s 28.

Yes. You know it’s bad when you’ve given up more long balls than Hughes.

There’s no debating the fact that Sabathia needs to turn it around; be the ace the Yankees bought him for prior to 2009, or at least be close to what he was. It’s not too much to ask, mostly because he’s already proven the type of anchor he can be to a pitching staff.

To his credit, Sabathia slimmed down and lost some weight. According to Michael Kay of YES, Sabathia came into Spring Training last year just under 300 lbs., whereas this year he showed up around 275 and visibly thinner.

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Obviously Sabathia is taking serious steps towards getting back to form, but he needs to cut down on the home runs and be clutch this year if the Yankees want to be that last team standing.

Stay healthy, New York

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You cannot predict injuries. It’s a fact of sports life. In recent times the Yankees have had a ton of hard luck when it comes to injuries, and they haven’t been able to field a complete team.

New Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury has failed to appear in 100 games in two of the last four seasons because of injuries. In 2010 the speedy center fielder only played 18 games and in 2012 he played just 74, thanks to fractured ribs as a result of an outfield collision (’10) and a collision on the base paths trying to break up a double play (’12).

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In between he’s been as solid as they come, though. 2011 was Ellsbury’s best season to date. With 32 home runs, 105 RBIs, a .321 batting average, 212 hits, and an All-Star nod, he was arguably the best all-around player in the American League. Being the runner-up for the AL MVP award, while taking home a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, is only a testament to how fantastic he truly was in ‘11.

That begs the question, which Ellsbury will be showing up in 2014? The perennial All-Star or the injury prone player who gives up his body en route to disabled list stints?

And Ellsbury is just one example.

To supplant Herculean second baseman Robinson Cano, who split for Seattle, the Yankees signed Brian Roberts – a 36-year-old second sacker once feared by all as a Baltimore Oriole, but has only played 192 games over the last four seasons on account of injuries. (Roberts managed to play 77 games last year, 17 in ’12, 39 in ’11, and 59 in ’10).

Doing the math, Roberts has missed 456 games over the past four seasons; DL stints and concussions have eaten him up. Keep in mind, specifically, he ruptured a tendon behind his right knee last April vs. Tampa Bay attempting a steal of second base.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays

Knowing all that, will Roberts be a comeback player and offer reliability, or will he simply be unproductive and relegated to the disabled list for a large chunk of the season?

The question marks of Ellsbury and Roberts are of course piled on top of apprehension about Jeter and Mark Teixeira. Jeter (39, 40 in June) as we all know is coming off ankle injuries that limited him to 17 games in 2013, while Teixeira (33, 34 in April) is coming back from wrist problems that only allowed him to play 15 games last year.

How each of these players respond is obviously a “to be determined” but at the same time there is no crystal ball in existence to let us know if they’ll be able to grind out the entire season injury-free.

The bullpen has to be effective

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It’s fair to say the Yankees’ bullpen was probably their weakest link last year, even with the legendary Mariano Rivera at the back end closing everything out – which really tells you the whole story. This writer keeps asking himself,

“If the bullpen wasn’t that good with Rivera last year, what can we expect without him this year?

David Robertson, as of now, is expected to succeed Mo in the closer role, which is scary to think about. If you recall in 2012 when Rivera’s season ended on May 3 on the warning track in Kansas City, Robertson was plugged into his spot as closer, but he didn’t cut it.

In just his second save opp a week after Rivera went down, Robertson failed to protect a 1-0 lead over Tampa Bay, giving up a three-run homer to Matt Joyce. He later gave up another run and the Yankees went on to lose, 4-1. Robertson called it afterward “the worst feeling in the world.”

Luckily in 2012 the Yankees had the option of using Rafael Soriano in Robertson’s stead – an option that worked out well, given that Soriano saved 42 games in Rivera’s absence.

Now, similarly, the Yankees have signed former Oakland A’s closer (and 2009 AL Rookie of the Year) Andrew Bailey, albeit to a minor league contract. Bailey has 89 saves to his name in his short career, with experience as a closer, making him the logical choice to succeed Rivera over Robertson.

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However…

Bailey, like a lot of other Yankees, has a history with injuries. In 2012 he had reconstructive surgery on his right thumb, and just last year an MRI revealed he had a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder.

It’ll come down to whether or not Bailey can make it back from injury and be a shutdown pitcher like he once was. For now though, the Yankees have a premiere setup man in Robertson – and that’s about it, because Robertson isn’t a proven closer.

At least not yet.

Looking outside the back end of the bullpen, the middle relievers need to step up too. Shawn Kelley and Preston Claiborne are going to be two important pieces to the bullpen, along with newcomer Matt Thornton, the tall order who’ll replace Boone Logan (now with the Colorado Rockies) as the main southpaw out of the ‘pen.

Sources are saying former top Yankee pitching prospect Dellin Betances will be vying for a spot in the bullpen this spring, as it’s already been established by Yankee GM Brian Cashman that he will be a reliever in the long run. Betances could either prove to be a key middle reliever or long reliever, yet he has to pitch well enough for the Yankee brass to have faith in him – and well enough to keep himself off mopping duty.

The Opening Day bullpen is likely going to come down to whichever relievers are effective during Spring Training, and the point stands: they have to be effective, whoever they may be when camp breaks.

Masahiro Tanaka has to adapt

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Nobody is expecting Masahiro Tanaka to go 24-0 and post an ERA under 2.00 in his rookie season, but if there is one thing the new, prized Japanese import must do, it’s get acclimated to the MLB style. His numbers in Japan were far better than a lot of the other Japanese-born pitchers who’ve come over from the land of the rising sun, meaning he could potentially have a huge year, but the average fan might not realize a couple of things.

First off, pitchers in Japan throw only once a week, whereas here in the states, Tanaka will have to toe the rubber once every five days. Not only that, but the NPB in Japan also uses smaller-sized baseballs compared to an official MLB rock, therefore an adjustment needs to be made in that respect.

The biggest difference will be the hitters Tanaka faces. Monsters such as David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Prince Fielder will probably pose bigger threats (and are more intimidating) than the more tactical batters he went eye-to-eye with in Japan.

Though one could argue Tanaka won’t be fazed by the Goliath-like giants he faces here in the U.S., given his cool demeanor and calm presence at his introductory press conference.

While it’s perfectly fine to expect Tanaka to succeed – and he will – it’s reasonable to presume he will go through his growing pains. Adjustment is the biggest part of his game.

We’ll get our first live look at Tanaka on Saturday afternoon in the Yankees’ exhibition vs. the Phillies.

They have to make each other better

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The key to any successful team is chemistry. Most of the 2014 Yankees will be first-time teammates, not having played with each other before. While some like Jeter, Teixeira and Brett Gardner have been together for a few seasons, newbies like Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran have not had a chance to jell as teammates.

If you look back to 2009 – and the Dynasty years, for that matter – a player could have an off-night, but the rest of the team would be on. For example,

In 1998, Tino Martinez might have an “0-for” night, but Jeter, Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius, and Paul O’Neill would be firing at will, and the Yanks would win. The next night Jeter could have gone 0-for-4, but Martinez and everyone else would still be en fuego.

Those teams were the masters of picking each other up.

If the 2014 Yankees can perfect that same art, they’ll be as lethal as any team in baseball.

And the kingdom will be theirs.

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Phil Fails: Nothing looking good for Hughes

If you were on Twitter last night and went to the search box and typed in “Phil Hughes” this came up:

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Appropriate, because these days if you’re watching Hughes pitch, you might need aspirin.

In the Red Sox 11-1 thrashing of the Yankees last night, Hughes was the losing pitcher, dropping to 2-4 on the season with an ERA in the sky at 5.37. The big blow yesterday came off the bat of Mike Napoli, a grand slam home run in the third inning, a blast that stuck a pin in the Yankee balloon effectively giving the short-handed Bronx Bomber lineup no chance at a comeback.

Napoli’s slam marked the second time this season Hughes has let up a home run with the bases loaded – and the 12th meatball he’s served up this year. What’s more, it was the 100th tater he surrendered in his career – a career in which he’s made 114 starts, coming out to nearly one home run allowed per start.

Opponents are taking advantage of every pitch Hughes throws at them, on average batting .292 against the right-hander this season. He’s also allowed 69 hits in the 58.2 innings he’s pitched this year, not exactly fooling anyone he faces.

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The 24-32 Seattle Mariners proved that to be true when they beat Hughes up on May 15, chasing him from the game after just two-thirds of an inning pitched in what wound up being a 12-2 Yankee loss. (Worth noting Hughes delivered a grand slam in the first inning of that nightmare stinker to former Yankee Raul Ibanez).

Putting it nicely, this season Phil Hughes has been “Phail Hughes.”

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To his credit, he recently went on record as saying, “Everyone has been taking me out of the park these days.” At least, if nothing else, he’s self-aware of how poorly he’s been pitching. Yet it doesn’t change the fact that every time he toes the rubber, Yankee Universe has to hold its collective breath because there’s usually a good chance Hughes will put the team in a hole, not giving the Yankee offense – which has only mustered 223 runs this year (11th in the American League, 18th in the majors) – a chance to come from behind.

A la, last night.  

There hasn’t been anyone who has been a bigger critic of Hughes than me. Ever since Game 6 of the 2010 ALCS, an elimination game that Hughes lost decisively to the Texas Rangers (the Yankees ousted and unsuccessful in their attempt to defend their 2009 World Series title) I’ve never had faith in him.

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He hasn’t given me reason to trust his stuff. His fastball is flat with no tailing action, he hooks his breaking balls, and he gets ahead in counts, but somehow always manages to fall behind and turn what should be easy innings into long, dragged-out marathons.

Just sitting through a Hughes start is torture.

In what might be an upside for most Yankee fans that are becoming tired of every home run derby that ensues each time Hughes takes the ball, this is the final year of his contract – and he isn’t exactly making a great case for a return to the Bronx in 2014, given his crummy numbers and ineffectiveness. Additionally, considering his age (26, 27 on June 24), one has to wonder,

If he hasn’t found it yet, when the heck will he? There are pitchers younger than Hughes finding significantly more success than he is. If you don’t believe me, talk to Matt Moore, Chris Sale, and Alex Cobb.

On the downside, the Yankees may be stuck with Hughes for the remainder of 2013. Even if the Yankee brass looks to move him, Hughes’s trade value, at this point, is incredibly low. If the Yanks wanted to move him for purposes of finding a player to help them reach the playoffs, the odds of anyone taking him are likely astronomical, despite the fact that he’ll come cheap. I just cannot think of a team that would take him, otherwise.

After all, no team wants a pitcher who does nothing but toss batting practice, right?

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I suppose what the Yankees could do is put Hughes into the bullpen; give him a relief role. To fill his void in the rotation, they can always call on Vidal Nuno, Ivan Nova, or David Phelps – or try to make a trade before the non-waivers deadline, although it’ll be difficult to make a swap, seeing as how the market for a starting pitcher is, as FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal described last night, “uninspired.”

In 2009 Hughes flourished in his role of setup man, bridging the gap to Mariano Rivera in the eighth inning. In fact he pitched so well, he filled in for Rivera a few times and picked up three saves that season; striking out 96 batters in 86 innings and posting a respectable ERA of 3.03 along the way.

That almost begs the question, “Why did they pull him out of a role which he clearly embraced and succeeded at?”

I’ll never know.

Luckily for Hughes, the Yankees (31-24) are only two games behind Boston in the AL East standings heading into their series finale/rubber game tonight; a chance to close the deficit to just one game.

So throughout all the bad news, there’s a shred of decency.

Yet whether Hughes sticks it out as a starter or is placed in the bullpen this season, an adjustment needs to be made; a solution must be found to this ongoing problem. If we see more of what we saw out of Hughes last night – and this entire season, thus far – it’s going to be a long summer.

A very, very long summer.

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