Results tagged ‘ American League ’

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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Domo arigato, Mr. Matsui

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In 2003 Godzilla came to New York. No, not the monster. Although one could argue what Hideki Matsui accomplished over the course of his MLB career was pretty scary; enough big hits to bring any city in the world – New York, Tokyo, anywhere – to its knees. Today the man from Japan has announced his retirement, the end of an outstanding career. And in a lot of ways, the end of an era in baseball.

What sometimes gets lost when talking about Matsui’s career is the fact that it didn’t begin in the United States. In 1993 Matsui started his baseball career in the Far East, in Nippon Professional Baseball, to be exact. He collected several awards and accolades as a member of the Yomiuri Giants, including three Japan Series Championships in 1993, 2000, and 2002, among countless other notable achievements.

As a matter of fact, there is a museum in Japan dedicated to Matsui’s baseball career. Think about it: the man is basically (and maybe arguably) the Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball. To the fans in Japan who have followed his entire career, today can be considered comparable to the day “the Great Bambino” hung up his cleats.

Throughout his time in pinstripes, Matsui afforded the Yankees many moments of excitement, and now it’s time to once again say goodbye and thank you – or domo arigato – to another beloved Bronx Bomber.

Grand opening

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They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. Matsui made the most of that chance in his debut at Yankee Stadium in 2003. In the first game of the season at home, the left fielder stepped up to the plate in front of Yankee Universe and with one swing became an instant fan favorite.

With the bases chucked and a flurry of light snow falling, Matsui clubbed a grand slam home run which helped the Yanks beat the Minnesota Twins 7-3 in their ’03 home opener – the first Yankee in history to go to granny’s house in his first game at the “House that Ruth built” and a picture perfect way to kick-start a strong tenure in New York.

“I never dreamed of it,” he told the media after the game. “Certainly I feel a little relief.”

Helping stage the comeback

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Matsui pieced together a strong 2003 season. 16 home runs, a .287 batting average, and 106 RBIs were not a bad way for him to introduce himself to the Yankees and for his solid production, he nearly captured the ’03 AL Rookie of the Year Award.

Because of his age at the time, 29, a pair of voters didn’t include him on the ballot – in this writer’s opinion, a whimsical reason to leave any player off the ballot for such an award. If it’s a player’s first season in the league, that said player is a rookie, whether they be 19, 29, 39, or 49.

But the ROTY award seemed inconsequential when Matsui and the Yanks made the ’03 postseason – a World Series title set in sight as opposed to individual titles. Matsui proved to be incredibly valuable to the team down the stretch and into the month of October.

That was never more evident than in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.

What most people remember about that night is, of course, Aaron Boone’s glorious blast in the 11th to send the Yankees to the World Series. The image of Boone swinging at Tim Wakefield’s hanging knuckleball is burned into all of our brains; the cowhide lifted deep into the New York night, and finally landing in the left field seats for an ALCS-ending win over the Red Sox.

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We all know that. However, what sometimes gets forgotten is how the Yankees fought back in the eighth inning that fateful night.  It was 5-2 Boston in the bottom of the eighth.

Derek Jeter leads off with a double.

Bernie Williams brings him in with a single, 5-3 Boston.

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Matsui sharply lines a ground-rule double down the line in right to set up Jorge Posada, who knocked a blooper into center field, bringing both Williams and Matsui home to knot it up, 5-5, thus setting up the game’s happy ending.

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World Series home run: a first

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The Yankees made the fall classic in ’03, but fell in six games to the Florida Marlins, not the most gracious way to finish the season following the amazing fight back vs. Boston in the ALCS.

However in Game 2 of the World Series – a game the Yankees won, 6-1, Matsui became the first Japanese-born player to homer in a World Series game – a round-tripper in the first inning on a 3-0 pitch.

It was merely a small sample of Matsui’s World Series power: something we all became familiar with six years later.

A classy warrior

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On May 11, 2006 the Yankees hosted the Red Sox at home, an early season rivalry game. In left field Matsui dove for a ball and landed awkwardly. He fractured his wrist; an injury that not only landed him on the DL and sidelined him for a good chunk of the season, but put an end to his streak of 518 consecutive games played with the Yankees – and 1,768 games in a row played professionally, going back to his days in Japan.

Matsui became the only player I’ve ever known who apologized for an injury.

He gracefully stood before the Yankee brass and said he was sorry for diving for the ball and hurting himself, something no common ballplayer would ever do.

When Matsui returned to the team on Sept. 12 he showed no signs of rust, going 4-for-4 with a walk, an RBI single, and two runs scored.

2,000 and 100

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Matsui enjoyed two dates in 2007 that marked milestones in his illustrious career.

First, May 6 vs. Seattle at home. While Roger Clemens basically stole the show with the announcement of his comeback, Matsui made history with his 2,000th career hit, professionally; again dating back to his days with the Yomiuri Giants.

If that wasn’t enough, he made history again on Aug. 5, 2007 at Yankee Stadium vs. the Kansas City Royals – and was in the shadow of another Yankee who had just accomplished a career landmark.

The day after Alex Rodriguez smacked his 500th career home run, Matsui belted his 100th career home run (as a Yankee) in the bottom of the third; a homer off Gil Meche that cleared the wall in right field.

I remember the details of that home run fondly, only because I was in attendance that Sunday afternoon; box seats behind the third base dugout.

Matsui became the first Japanese-born player to reach 100 home runs in MLB, a feat that has only since been matched by current Yankee Ichiro Suzuki (104 home runs).

Birthday bashing

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Matsui celebrated his 34th birthday on June 12, 2008 – and celebrated the best way possible: a grand slam home run. Coincidently, it was the only four runs the Yankees scored, as they went on to beat the Oakland A’s 4-1.

It doesn’t get much better than that. But how does he follow it up on his 35th birthday in 2009?

With a three-run shot. Against the Mets at home, Matsui homered in the sixth inning to give the Yanks a 7-6 lead over their cross-town rivals. The Bombers eventually won on a walk-off error on the part of Luis Castillo – another birthday present Matsui undoubtedly appreciated.

2009

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Matsui enjoyed a tremendous amount of success during his final hurrah in the Bronx. After a knee injury forced him out of left field Matsui took on the role of full-time designated hitter, a move that paid off royally for both him and the Yankees.

Comfortably Matsui smacked 28 home runs and drove in 90 runs while batting .274 in ’09, helping lead the Yanks to some big wins throughout the season.

On July 20 vs. the Orioles Matsui ended the game with one swing, crushing a walk-off home run to keep the Yankees’ win streak of four in a row following the All-Star break alive.

He earned the elusive Pepsi Clutch Performer of the Month honor in August, mostly for his mind boggling performance vs. the Red Sox down the stretch and knack for multi-home run games during the month. On Aug. 21 Godzilla homered twice and drove in seven runs on the road vs. Boston on the way to a 20-11 win, becoming only the second player in Yankee history to knock in seven runs in a single game at Fenway Park since Lou Gehrig in 1930.

And he wasn’t done there.

Two days later he once again smacked two home runs in a game, and when he hit his 26th of the season on Sept. 19, he broke the Yankee record for most home runs hit by a designated hitter – a record previously held by Don Baylor.

A banner year like 2009 could only be topped off in one way…

World Series Hero

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The Yanks reached the fall classic in 2009 for the first time since Matsui’s first season in the majors in ‘03; a fitting way to conclude his time in New York, ending it the way it began, with a World Series appearance. And lucky for him (and all of us) it ended in much happier fashion.

The Yankees pummeled the Phillies and took the series 4-2 from them – a fall classic stage which allowed Matsui’s star to shine brighter than it ever had.

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With an 8-for-13 clip (.615 BA) three home runs, eight RBIs, a double, and a walk, Matsui captured the World Series MVP award. He was the premier hitter in the clinching Game 6 with six runs batted in – the first Yankee since Bobby Richardson (1960) to drive in six runs in a single World Series game, the first full-time DH to capture the MVP of the World Series, and yet again, the first Japanese-born player to win the World Series MVP.

All kinds of history. And Matsui made it all.

 

A day for the Champs

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Matsui left the Yanks after ’09 and headed out west, joining the LA Angels, signing as a free agent. And when the Angels joined the Yankees for their home opener on April 13, 2010 and for their 2009 ring ceremony, it was all love for the reigning World Series MVP.

Sure, he might’ve been wearing a different uniform. He might’ve been in the visiting dugout. He might’ve been an Angel, not a Yankee anymore. But Matsui received a deafening ovation from the Yankee faithful.

Being called to claim his ring, Matsui was embraced by his team – his old team – as the memory of his dominance in the ’09 World Series was not far from everyone’s mind that Tuesday afternoon.

It was an emotional moment for the team, but as a fan – a fan who was fortunate enough to see it live, in-person – it was even more bittersweet. I was happy for Matsui, but at the same time, much like today, it’s sad; knowing such a classy and extraordinary ballplayer is no longer playing the game.

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It’s tough to gauge in this day and age whether or not a player is worthy of the Hall of Fame. Those who vote – the writers, I mean – sometimes throw away their votes; don’t care who gets in, suspecting every player of using PEDs.

I’ll go out on a limb and, for now, say Matsui is on the borderline. If you factor in all he accomplished in Japan, and then add it onto what he did in MLB, there’s no doubt he’s locked in.

After all, isn’t it called the NATIONAL Baseball Hall of Fame?

Am I wrong? I mean, it’s not the AMERICAN Baseball Hall of Fame, is it?

Derek Jeter, a no doubt first ballot player, once called Matsui his favorite teammate. Matsui’s numbers speak for themselves, but if you’re voting for the HOF based on class, dignity, and the right way to play the game, Matsui is a first ballot inductee.

If he ever gets the call from Cooperstown, I think we all know which cap Matsui will be wearing on his plaque: one with a proud interlocking NY. Even when he had to trade up his jersey number (55) in 2012 while playing for the Tampa Bay Rays, he chose to wear 35 – in honor of his old Yankee teammate of six years (2003-08), Mike Mussina.

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Even when he was away from the Bronx, it is evident the Yanks were always in his heart of hearts.

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On behalf of Yankee fans everywhere, THANK YOU HIDEKI! Your contributions to the Yankees and us fans will never be forgotten. You will long live in Yankee lore as one of the best hitters of the last decade, and more importantly the first Japanese player to accomplish so much in Major League Baseball.

I think it’s safe to say you have given a lot of young ballplayers in Japan hope for their future.

Domo arigato, Mr. Matsui. (Bow)

New York Yankees World Series parade

So Long, Swish

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Four years ago this very day – two days before Christmas, 2008 – the Yankees agreed to terms with free agent first baseman Mark Teixeira, having already made agreements with free agent studs CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. By signing all three of them, the Yankees poised themselves for a strong playoff run; one that was capped by a 2009 World Series title.

Four years later on Festivus, or Dec. 23, it’s almost as if the Yanks are living in the Bizarro world. Instead of adding key players, the Yankees seem to be losing them.

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Catcher Russell Martin chose the Pittsburgh Pirates on Nov. 29, and just last night, the Yanks’ seemingly only clutch player in October, DH Raul Ibanez, signed back with one of his old teams: the Seattle Mariners.

And now, just this morning, it was reported that free agent right fielder Nick Swisher signed a four year, $56 million deal to play for the Cleveland Indians, a nice early Christmas gift for the tribe.

It was almost common knowledge that Swisher was leaving. The fans didn’t expect him to return, and although I have no way of knowing, I would think the front office didn’t expect him to return, either. After a difficult 2012 postseason, both offensively (5-for-30 at the plate) and defensively (a costly misplay in right field in Game 1 of the ALCS) Swisher’s chances of returning to the Bronx were slim to none.

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What strikes me the most is how the Yankees signed back three players who are older – Mariano Rivera (43), Andy Pettitte (40), and Ichiro (39) – but let two young(er) players in Swisher (32) and Martin (29, 30 in February) walk. Yes, they let Ibanez go, who is 40, but he was also basically the only hitter who did anything worthwhile in the postseason, so perhaps it evens out.

Bottom line: when the Yankees are accused of being a so-called “older team,” there’s no defense for it. If Red Sox fans – or Yankee haters anywhere in the world, for that matter – wish to call them the “Bronx Geezers” they are perfectly within their right, only because it’s accurate.

The youngest player the Yanks signed this winter was Kevin Youkilis – who’s 33 and will turn 34 on March 15, before the regular season begins. Add Youkilis to the mix of the 38-year-old Derek Jeter (39 on June 26 next year), the 37-year-old and injured Alex Rodriguez (38 on July 27 next year), and there’s no way around it:

The Yankees are old.

The way I see it, the only way for them to field a productive, young team again, like they did during the dynasty of the late ‘90s, is for them to draft better players (easier said than done, being that the Yanks will never have the first pick overall) – however, they will receive a first-round pick from the Indians because they signed Swisher and he declined the Yankees’ qualifying offer of one year and $13.3 million, an offer the Yankees made him on Nov. 9.

The Yankees get the pick as a result of a rule instituted under the collective bargaining agreement.

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They also need to develop the minor leaguers they already have in their system now; groom the “Baby Bombers” to be big leaguers instead of letting their young guys fade away into obscurity down on the farm.

But I digress.  Now that he’s officially leaving town, it’s time to say goodbye and thank you to Swisher; remember all the great moments he’s afforded the Yankees and Yankee Universe over the past four years.

 

Out of the ‘pen…sort of

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What sometimes gets lost in the Yankees’ run for the 2009 World Series title is how awful a start they got off to. They were beaten 22-4 in April by the very team Swisher signed with today (the Indians) and in a lot of ways couldn’t buy a win, the Bombers taking their lumps in the early going of a championship season.

On April 13, 2009 – the Yankee bullpen already taxed and in need of assistance – Swisher came in, not from the ‘pen, but like a regular Little Leaguer right from his position in right field, and a tossed a perfect eighth inning on the road vs. the Tampa Bay Rays. It marked the first time Swisher took the mound since he was a freshman in high school.

Swisher was the first Yankee position player to pitch since Wade Boggs came on in relief on Aug. 19, 1997 vs. the Angels.

Manager Joe Girardi laughed about it after the season saying, “You have to wonder why I didn’t bring him in (to pitch) more. Swisher was the only one of our pitchers that didn’t have an ERA.”

September 8 was his date

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The Yanks gradually got a lot better following the rough the start in ‘09, winning 103 games when it was all said and done – none of those wins more important than Sept. 8 at home vs. the Rays.

In the bottom of the ninth tied 2-2, Swisher came up and lifted Dan Wheeler’s offering into the seats in right-center field, giving the Yankees a 3-2 win over the Rays, putting them one step closer to their eventual AL East crown.

Exactly a year later to the day, it was the same story, only against a different division rival.

At home vs. the Orioles on Sept. 8, 2010, Swisher once again came up with a chance to end the game, and did so with one swing. Swisher clubbed the ball deep off Koji Uehara, all the way into the visiting bullpen, giving the Yankees yet another 3-2 win – a win that prevented a sweep.

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Call it coincidence, freak luck; call it what you will, Swisher had a knack for winning games on Sept. 8.

A World Series Homer

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Swisher may not have put together the strongest postseason in 2009 in terms of offensive numbers, but he did manage to do what most players can only dream of doing: he hit a home run in the World Series.

In Game 3, the fall classic knotted at 1-1, Swisher homered to help propel the Yankees to an 8-5 victory over the Phillies, an impressive road win in the hostile environment of Citizen’s Bank Park. The round-tripper was one of only two hits Swisher collected in the World Series, but hey, at least he made it count.

Beating Tampa Bay for Bob Sheppard & “The Boss”

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The Yankees suffered two losses off the field in July of 2010. Bob Sheppard, the “voice of God” at Yankee Stadium had passed away on July 11 – and principal owner George Steinbrenner passed two days later on July 13.

The Yankees were off for the All-Star break when Steinbrenner died and when the news broke of Sheppard’s death. The Bombers faced the Rays in their first game back at Yankee Stadium on July 16, almost a must-win game.

After a beautiful pre-game ceremony, which concluded with Mariano Rivera placing flowers on home plate in memory of the fallen Yankee family members, the Yanks fell behind the Rays; trailed 4-3 going into the eighth.

Enter Swisher, who wouldn’t allow the Yanks to go down easy.

In the bottom of the eighth, Swish tied the game with a solo home run, and then ended it in the ninth with a spectacular, sharply-lined RBI single into right field for a 4-3 Yankee victory – one Sheppard and Steinbrenner would be proud of.

As per his classy personality, Swisher dedicated his big hits to the Boss.

“On a day like this when we celebrate his life, got to take him out on a W,” he told the media after the win. “Today was Mr. Steinbrenner’s day. Regardless of the situation, regardless of anything, we went out there and played that game as best as we could for him today.”

Taking out the Red Sox in grand style

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When the Yankees trailed 9-0 on April 21 this year on the road vs. the Red Sox, most fans (including myself) had given up hope; the game a lost cause and the afternoon a stinker.

But, as the Yankees learned in 2004, no lead is safe. And the Red Sox learned the same lesson they taught, as the Bombers rallied back from a nine-run deficit.

Once again Swisher proved his value on offense, being at the forefront of the comeback. He smashed a grand slam and a two-run double in the seventh to put the Yankees ahead, 10-9. They added five more runs in the eighth and embarrassed Boston 15-9 for a stunning victory; one that left Red Sox Nation in disbelief.

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On Aug. 17 Swisher continued to make the Red Sox collective life miserable.

He smacked two homers on the way to a 6-4 Yankee win over Boston at home; pouring salt in Boston’s wound and adding to forgettable Red Sox season.

To Swisher, at least, the game possessed the atmosphere of a normal, heated Red Sox-Yankees game.

“The way this game started, man, two teams battling it up…it felt just like a Yankee-Red Sox rivalry game.”

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On behalf of Yankee fans everywhere THANK YOU Nick Swisher for four fun-loving years of service. The patented “Swisher Salute” to the bleacher creatures in right field during roll call will be sorely missed, as well as your affinity for big hits and ear-to-ear smiles following Yankee victories.

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Although your time in New York ended on a sour note – a nasty elimination in Game 4 of the ALCS and a round of the blame game to boot – we truly appreciated everything you did in pinstripes.

Congrats on your lucrative, new deal and going back to your old stomping grounds in Ohio.

Best of luck with the tribe.

New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles April 24,  2011

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