Results tagged ‘ American League ’

Makin’ Moves

Despite going 2-5 on their recent road trip which included a sweep at the hands of the suddenly “Moneyball” Oakland Athletics team, the Yankees still possess the best record in baseball at 59-39 and continue to sit atop the AL East, looking eight games down at the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays, and 10 1/2 games down at the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox.

A number of things have happened in Yankees Universe and the baseball world in general these past couple of days. Therefore in the spirit of old-fashioned blogging, I figured I would give some thoughts, opine on some topics, and even throw in a story or two – just for old time’s sake.

Ichiro Joins the Yankees

Before Monday’s series opener vs. the Mariners huge news broke via the Twitter wire: the Yankees had acquired Ichiro Suzuki from the Mariners in exchange for minor league pitchers D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar.  

Just like that, Ichiro is a Yankee.

The news came as a shock to most Yankee fans, as well as me, seeing as how Ichiro spent his entire MLB career with the Mariners. Not only that, but the move was on no one’s radar; nobody saw it coming. It was obviously a trade General Manager Brian Cashman kept under wraps until it became official.

The first notion that entered everyone’s mind was the jersey number. Throughout his career Ichiro has always worn number 51, a number that has meant a lot to the Yankees – being that Bernie Williams wore it for 16 years in pinstripes.

To everyone’s relief, Ichiro chose to take 31, respecting Williams and the jersey number. Unfortunately Dave Winfield didn’t seem to take too kindly to Ichiro taking 31.

Right on, Dave.

In his first three games as a Yankee, Ichiro has collected three hits and has stolen a base. He hit eighth in the batting order in his first two games, and led off yesterday, showing his versatility in the lineup. Plug him in anywhere and he can still hit.

This was a good move for the Yankees. With Brett Gardner’s season over and Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones signed to be designated hitters and fourth outfielders, the trade makes sense. The Mariners organization is becoming tailor-made for young players and the veteran Ichiro, 38, didn’t feel he fit in with them – hence why he requested the trade.

Hats off to the Mariners not only granting his wish, but commenting on how he deserves to a chance to win a title before his career ends. It’s obvious Seattle isn’t going anywhere this season while the Yankees, now with Ichiro’s help, could potentially go very far.

After the final out was made in yesterday’s 5-2 win over the M’s, Ichiro waved goodbye from right field to the Mariners faithful. The fans seemed heartbroken at the thought of their golden boy for so many years leaving town.

The sight of it all made me sad. I couldn’t help but remember the way I felt when Joe Torre managed his last game in October, 2007. When someone has meant so much to a franchise, I know first-hand that it’s extremely difficult to see them leave.

Alex Rodriguez out 6-8 Weeks

On Tuesday night in Seattle, Alex Rodriguez was beaned on the left hand during an at-bat in the eighth inning – the third HBP in the game (Ichiro and Derek Jeter had previously been plunked). Rodriguez fell to the dirt in agonizing pain and left the game.

Afterward it became known that A-Rod has a broken hand and will miss 6-8 weeks; the Yanks are hoping to have him back by the middle of September.

Losing A-Rod is a blow, but perhaps it’s better the Yankees lost him now as opposed to a time when they really needed him. For example, if this injury occurred in 2005 or 2007 when Rodriguez put the team on his back and carried it, the Yanks would be in serious trouble.

Thank God we live in the year 2012.

Because now there are several players who are capable of coming up in big spots to bring the runs home, like Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Robinson Cano, among others. Not to mention in ’05 and ’07 the Yanks were constantly battling for first place, locked in a dogfight with the Red Sox for the division.

Obviously that’s not the case this year.

Although taking Rodriguez’s bat out of the lineup basically takes an offensive threat and a presence out of the Yankees’ arsenal, there’s more than enough power to compensate for it.  As far as defense is concerned, Ramiro Pena was called up to fill A-Rod’s roster spot and will obviously see time at third base along with Eric Chavez and yesterday’s hero, Jayson Nix.

There’s also speculation the Yankees might go after Chase Headley, the Padres’ third baseman, before the trade deadline on Tuesday. Headley, 28, is hitting .267 this year with 12 homers and 51 RBIs.

A-Rod looked devastated after the game; he was clearly not just in physical pain from the HBP and the fracture, but emotional pain as well. It was apparent the news of him missing more time due to another injury impacted his psyche and left him in disbelief, as evidenced by his words when he met with the press.

“It’s difficult; tough break,” he said, masked in a shell-shocked expression. “I never thought ‘fracture’ but it was. Tough blow. Tough blow.”

Rivalry Renewed

The Boston Red Sox will visit Yankee Stadium for the first time this season tomorrow night, as the Bombers and BoSox get set for a three-game weekend series. The last time these teams met, the Yankees took three of four from the Sox in Beantown.

The Red Sox are coming off a losing series to the Texas Rangers while the Yanks (as it’s known) just took two of three from the Mariners.  Aaron Cook (2-3, 3.50) will start for Boston tomorrow night while the Yanks will counter with Phil Hughes (9-8, 4.09 ERA). 

Saturday afternoon in a match-up of aces, CC Sabathia (10-3, 3.30 ERA) will toe the rubber, facing off with Jon Lester (5-8, 5.46 ERA). Finally on Sunday night, 10-game winner Hiroki Kuroda will gun for win number 11 – while Boston has not yet listed a starter for the finale.

MLB posed an excellent question a couple days ago:

Has the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry lost its luster?

Right now, I think it’s almost dormant. With Bobby Valentine shooting off his big mouth about Derek Jeter over the off-season, I thought for sure the rivalry would be ignited and something would happen this year; perhaps the boiling of some bad blood.

So far, however, nothing. But I suppose it’s not necessary when the Red Sox are AL East cellar dwellers and not pushing for first place at all. If Boston was in the pennant race, there might be more of a competitive element thrown into the mix.

Yet, it is clear that the days of A-Rod and Jason Varitek duking it out are long gone; Curt Schilling wanting to “make 55,000 people from New York shut up” is surely passé. It could take awhile – maybe even a number of years – before the Yankees and Red Sox go back to where they were in 2003, 2004, and even 2005.

Then again, you never know. It only takes one bean ball to start a fire.

Some Encouragement from Sandberg

As promised, I’ll throw in a little story to close this one.

The last time I blogged, I wrote about my experience covering the Hudson Valley Renegades, as most readers probably know by now, the same team I interned for.  I wound up covering them again last Friday after I saw “The Dark Knight Rises” (go see that movie if you haven’t yet done so).

Escaping damage in the ninth inning and with some eighth inning heroics, the Renegades beat the Aberdeen Ironbirds 3-2 – the Ironbirds being a farm team of the Baltimore Orioles, for the record.

After the game I went from the press box to the clubhouse and interviewed Jared Sandberg, the Renegades’ skipper, former Tampa Bay Devil Ray, and nephew of Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg.

Tampa Bay Rays’ 2011 first round draft pick Taylor Guerrieri once again started, and Sandberg actually noticed that I had been there for Guerrieri’s previous start.     

“You were here the last time Taylor pitched (against Mahoning Valley) weren’t you?” he asked me after the interview.

“Yes,” I answered.

Jokingly he looked at me and asked, “Oh, so you only cover the games Taylor pitches?”

I let out a chuckle and said, “Well, we’re a newsweekly with so many coverage areas, so there are a lot of games and only so many we can get to every week.”

Sandberg answered, “Oh, I understand. I was just kidding. Which paper are you with again?”

The Examiner,” I replied.

“Oh, I saw that article from last week!” he exclaimed. Frightened, I had no idea what he was going to say next.

 “That was really well-written and very nicely done; nice spread – and the pictures came out great, too.”

I thanked him and told my editor about it. He was happy Sandberg saw it and basically said, “Now the pressure’s on us. He might expect great articles from now on.”

Honestly though, I am having a great time covering this team. They are performing extremely well, and are in first place in their division in the New York-Penn League, ahead of the likes of the Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten Island Yankees.

I’m looking forward to covering more of their games and I’m anxious to see how they are going to finish. When I interned for them in 2010, they ended at 39-36, missing the playoffs. At 24-13 right now, it looks as if they will indeed eclipse their 2010 record and go who knows where.

Hopefully to a League title.

A Minor Assignment

Yesterday afternoon was almost awesome for the Yankees, in their series finale vs. the Los Angeles Angels. But what’s that old saying? “Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”

With the tying run on second base, the potential winning run on first base, and two outs in the ninth, Alex Rodriguez had a chance to channel his inner 2007 and walk off the Yankee Stadium field a hero. Instead he came up short, popping the ball up behind first base; the cowhide falling into waiting glove of Albert Pujols for a 10-8 loss.

Nonetheless, the Yankees still own the best record in baseball at 54-34, and remain in first place in the AL East, a cool eight games ahead of the second place Baltimore Orioles.

While the Yankees were taking two games out of three from the Angels this weekend, I had the opportunity to cover the same minor league team I interned for in 2010, the Hudson Valley Renegades, who are connected to the Tampa Bay Rays.

Since the high school sports scene is obviously voided for summer vacation, my editor thought it might be fun for me to cover some Renegades games, just to give me some work and a chance to cover some professional baseball.

Saturday evening I made my way to up Dutchess Stadium, much like I did every game day two years ago, to cover the Renegades’ game vs. the Mahoning Valley Scrappers – a minor league team affiliated with the Cleveland Indians.

It was a different feeling on the way to the ballpark, however, knowing I’d be sitting up in the press box rather than setting up for the game and handling all the oftentimes unpleasant tasks interns have to do. Like this…

When I walked into the Stadium, it felt surreal. Not having been there in two years and having so many memories – and all those memories coming back to me in that moment – was a little overwhelming. All of the players (including Robinson Cano’s cousin Burt Reynolds) and interns who were there in 2010 have moved on; it was so strange looking around and not seeing all the familiar faces.

Wearing my press pass, I made my way up to the breezeway, past the luxury boxes and into the press box, where a number of MiLB personnel and beat writers were.

A group of them were conversing about the recent draft, and speculating about which players were going to make an impact in the future. They also shared with each other some stories about traveling, going from city to city following their respective teams. It was a little intimidating for me, knowing these reporters are the real deal; not that I’m not the real deal, but they are writers that get to experience professional baseball on a daily basis.

I guess it was only natural to feel intimidated; me being just a fresh, relatively new high school sports reporter who was given an assignment – they being writers with years of experience in the business. I’ll admit I was nervous – nervous, but not scared. Believe it or not, a Tweet from one of my former co-workers at the Renegades put my mind at ease.

Thanks, Dan.

The other writers eventually left though, and took seats down the left field line in a designated area for press members. I elected to remain in the press box with another reporter, the official scorer, and the girl who runs the Renegades’ Twitter page. The group of us shared a lot of laughs and banter throughout the game.

Before the game started, I kind of soaked it in; took in the view.

The Renegades led off the bottom of the first with a home run from their center fielder Joey Rickard. They then took a 2-0 lead after two innings when their left fielder, DeShun Dixon, led off the bottom of the second with a home run.

Dixon would knock in a run on an RBI single in the third after an RBI single off the bat of Renegades’ shortstop Ryan Dunn (Yes, Ryan Dunn. I’m aware he shares the same name as Bam Margera’s late friend).

Leading 4-0 heading into the fourth, the Scrappers put up two runs on back-to-back RBI doubles off reliever Brandon Henderson. Renegades’ starter, 19-year-old Taylor Guerrieri – who was Tampa Bay’s top pick out of Columbia, S.C. a year ago – left the game after three innings, using up a lot of his pitches.  

Following the back-to-back RBI doubles, the ‘Gades bent but didn’t break. They held the score until the seventh when second baseman Tommy Coyle blasted a two-run homer, the Renegades’ third round-tripper of the night.

Trailing 6-2, the Scrappers threatened in the ninth. Mahoning Valley loaded the bases with nobody out, but again, the Renegades refused to fold. Reliever Ryan Garton induced a 6-4-3 double play, which allowed a run to come home, before notching the last out.

Final score: Renegades 6, Scrappers 3

It marked the Renegades’ eighth win at home this year, and they are only a game out of first place in their division behind the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets’ farm team.

I left the press box and went to the clubhouse where I caught up with Jared Sandberg, the Renegades’ manager, ex-Devil Ray, and nephew of famed Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg. I had to ask him what makes his team so good when they’re playing at home.

“We get the last at-bats, we make it exciting, and we get the chance to put on a show for the home crowd,” he said.

“The crowd comes out and supports us every night, with 4,000-plus, and it’s fun to play in front of a big crowd. They get behind us and it’s good energy.”

I then questioned him about the home runs, seeing as how a power surge led to the win. He admitted the long ball raised his eyebrows.

 “We haven’t hit many homers this year, so it was a little bit of a surprise,” he said.

“It was also good to see because guys aren’t trying to hit home runs and they’re hitting home runs. Any time Joey Rickard can lead off the game with a homer and give us that boost, that’s nice, and then DeShun Dixon hits a two-run homer with a flick of the bat. Then obviously Tommy Coyle’s late home run gave us some breathing room.”

With the top pick on the mound, and a decent job from the relief corps, I inquired about how well the Renegades’ pitching has been anchoring the team.

“The pitching is keeping our season going in the right direction,” Sandberg said.

“We can lean on the pitchers right now because they’re throwing strikes and competing extremely well. The team is playing relaxed but we’re going out there competing every night and that’s what a manager wants.”

Overall I was extremely satisfied with how it went. My editor thought I did a great job with the story, and I hope this is just serving as a warm-up; the start of what I pray is a long career covering pro baseball.

Perhaps I’ll be one of those beat writers in the press box, talking about the new draft picks and sharing stories about life on the road, covering pro baseball teams.

Maybe someday. Until then, I have this story: getting the chance to cover a pro baseball game for the first time.

Bottom line: I loved it.

Yankees Are Swinging, Red Sox Must Rise

This week Spiderman once again webbed his way onto the big screen and into our hearts. In just about two weeks’ time, Batman will yet again make everyone say “oooohhhh” and “aaaahhhh” when “The Dark Knight Rises” hits theaters.

While Spiderman and Batman will be squaring off against their sworn enemies – the Lizard and Bane, respectively – the Yankees will do battle this weekend against their primary foes, the Boston Red Sox.  The Yanks will travel into enemy territory tomorrow and play four games (including a doubleheader on Saturday; making up a rainout from April 22) in three days.

The Yankees are standing about as tall as the caped crusader on top of a Gotham City skyscraper at press time; 49-32, in first place, five games ahead of the second place Baltimore Orioles in the AL East. The Red Sox on the other hand look more like a defeated Joker, at 42-40 in fourth place in the east.

Tomorrow night Hiroki Kuroda (8-7, 3.17 ERA) will put on his cape and cowl, to do battle with one of New York’s fiercest adversaries, Josh Beckett (4-7, 4.06 ERA). Kuroda has only faced the Red Sox once in his career – and it was a losing effort – but did not see many of Boston’s current hitters in that game.

However, two hitters Kuroda must look out for are Adrian Gonzalez and Cody Ross. Gonzalez is .261 lifetime off Kuroda with two homers and five RBIs. Ross is just as pesky, as he is .263 in his career with a homer and four RBIs against him.

Beckett has to watch out for Robinson Cano, who currently owns a .302 lifetime BA against him with two homers and 10 RBIs. Curtis Granderson has also punished Beckett in the past, hitting .241 with three home runs and four RBIs.

If they want to escape tomorrow night with a win, the Yanks have to step up. Despite his poor numbers on Cano and Granderson, last year Beckett puzzled the Yankees, going 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA against the Bronx Bombers.

Although it hasn’t been formally announced yet, Phil Hughes (9-6, 4.29 ERA) will throw on his cape and start one of Saturday’s games, coming off his spectacular winning performance on Sunday over the Chicago White Sox. Hughes will likely go head-to-head with Franklin Morales (1-1, 2.50 ERA).

Hughes is in a groove right now, but does not have good career numbers against Boston (2-5, 6.65 ERA).  He must be on the lookout for David Ortiz, who yesterday clubbed his 400th career home run. Two of those 400 came off Hughes, and he’s knocked in seven runs off the 26-year-old righty – all while possessing a lifetime .471 batting average against him.

The Yankees haven’t seen much of Morales, but Russell Martin does have an RBI on him.

Freddy Garcia (2-2, 5.94 ERA), almost playing the role of Robin filling in for Batman – helping fill the rotation void for a hobbled Andy Pettitte and an injured CC Sabathia – is slated to start the other game of the doubleheader.

Last time Garcia toed the rubber in Boston, it wasn’t pretty. At least not to begin with.

The Red Sox put a hurting on him, lighting him up for five runs in just 1.2 innings pitched on April 21. With some super-duper heroics, the Yankee offense bailed him out though, rallying from a huge deficit to beat the Red Sox, 15-9.

Felix Doubront (8-4, 4.42 ERA) started Boston’s losing effort on April 21, and will probably face Garcia again. Doubront has to beware of Granderson: he homered off Doubront last time and drove in two.

Who knows? Maybe Garcia vs. Doubront II will be another roller coaster ride; one that would put butterflies in the stomach of the Incredible Hulk.

Finally on Sunday night Ivan Nova (9-3, 4.05 ERA) will suit up to take on lefty Jon Lester (5-5, 4.33 ERA). Nova will look to get back in the win column on the road, having suffered his first loss away from Yankee Stadium since June 3, 2011 on Tuesday at the Rays.

No Red Sox hitter has numbers against Nova that jump out, except Dustin Pedroia, who has a .600 BA vs. the 25-year-old righty and two RBIs. Lucky for Nova and the Yanks, Pedroia has been ruled out for this weekend’s series with a thumb injury.

Lester meanwhile needs to be careful with several Yankee hitters. Granderson, Derek Jeter, Andruw Jones, Nick Swisher, and Mark Teixeira have each homered off Lester in their respective careers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jayson Nix in the lineup Sunday, as he sports a .333 average against Lester with two homers and five RBIs.

When facing the Yankees Lester must feel like Lex Luthor, trying to beat Superman. But his biggest form of kryptonite has to be the Yankee third baseman.

Alex Rodriguez has three homers lifetime off Boston’s southpaw, with six RBIs. A-Rod has a chance to add to that total and hurt the Red Sox ace even more to close out the series.

Like Spiderman, the Yankees are swinging. But the Red Sox need to be more like Batman – and rise – if they wish to keep their postseason hopes and dreams alive.

And this weekend could be their only chance.

If the Yankees were to unleash a Boston Massacre, and sweep these four games in three days, it would put the Red Sox in a position where they would need to do nothing but win after the All-Star break.

Phil’s Fails: Is it Time to Say Goodbye to Hughes?

They say all good things eventually come to an end, and the Yankees’ 10-game winning streak came to an end on Tuesday night. The Atlanta Braves were able to sneak out a 4-3 win to stop the Bombers.

In the rubber game of the series yesterday afternoon, Phil Hughes took the mound, looking to steer the Yankees back into the win column. But, like the majority of his starts this season, Hughes cracked. He allowed six earned runs in the 4.1 innings he pitched, serving up a career-high four home runs to the Braves.

The Yanks went on to lose, 10-5.

Hughes has now given up 19 homers this season, and is 7-6 with an ERA of 4.94. Facing teams with records above .500, Hughes is 2-6, and in six of his 14 starts this year, he’s given up four or more earned runs.

Only one question needs to be asked right now: how many more anvils are the Yankees going to let this guy drop on them?

When he pitches, this is basically what we’re all forced to witness:

Before Hughes first debuted in April, 2007, he was dubbed the “Pocket Rocket” – being compared to a young Roger Clemens; a power righty with a sidesplitting fastball and dazzling breaking stuff. Hughes lived up to the nickname on May 1, 2007 – the night he spun a gem and nearly no-hit the Texas Rangers in Arlington.

A hamstring injury forced him out of the game and he lost his bid for the no-no at Texas. In a lot of ways that scenario has defined his career. Hughes has always been close to achieving greatness, but it seems to elude him.

Case in point: 2010.

For the first half of the season, Hughes was as dominant as a Cy Young candidate; blowing hitters away with his, dare I say, “Phil-thy” stuff. But after registering the loss for the American League in the All-Star Game, everything went downhill for him.  

Hughes went on to lose two important games in the American League Championship Series to the Texas Rangers, and in 2011, was shut down with a fatigued arm. Which brings us to this year – and his inconsistency; his inability to defeat viable opponents.

Two of Hughes’s seven wins this season are legitimate victories. On June 3 he tossed a complete game against the Detroit Tigers on the road, allowing just one earned run on four hits. Being that Hughes pitched well against a team (that at the time was) near the top of the AL Central – and a lineup which holds Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder – it was a solid win.

On Friday Hughes faced off with the NL East’s best, the Washington Nationals. He threw up six innings, while only allowing one earned run. Hughes struck out nine and walked two on the way to another road victory. The win over the Nats marked the first game this season Hughes started in which he did not allow a home run.     

The rest of Hughes’s wins this year have come against teams who the Yankees have no business losing to: the Mets (June 9), the Kansas City Royals (May 6 and May 22), and the Minnesota Twins (April 19).

As for his losses: (along with the Braves) the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, and Rangers have each lit him up. The Los Angeles Angels have beaten him twice.

If you ask me, Hughes’s biggest problem is his mechanics.

Just from watching him pitch these last few seasons, I’ve noticed a little bit of a pattern. Hitters who face Hughes usually see a lot of his pitches, and more importantly foul a lot of his pitches off. His fastball a lot of the time has life on it, but never a whole lot of movement; it has no tailing action, it’s as straight as an arrow.

In baseball, hitters can absolutely feast on a flat fastball. And the same goes for off-speed pitching.

When Hughes’s opponents see his breaking ball enough times, they are eventually able to catch up to it. Quite a few of the home runs he’s allowed this year have come on breaking balls; he’s been hanging them up in the zone for the batters to crush.

It’s obvious an adjustment needs to be made in order for him to be successful. Yet, for a five-year veteran who was once compared to Roger Clemens, shouldn’t that adjustment have already been made?

The Yankees signed Hughes to a one-year deal on Jan. 16 this year worth $3.25 million. The way I see it, the team has two options. They can either let him finish out this year and let his season play out, or trade him before the end of July.

If the Yankees allow him to stay on board and his 2012 season pans out to a record barely above .500 combined with an elevated ERA, they don’t have to re-sign him – and I don’t they will. They’d probably rather let him walk away and hope Michael Pineda can fill what would be the void.

The Yankees also have the option of trading him this year. The 24-45 Chicago Cubs have said they are willing to hear offers for virtually anybody, and have a few starting pitchers that could potentially be successful in New York – Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster, to name a couple.

If the decision was up to me, I would put Hughes on the trading block; throw his name out there and see if a National League team might want to take a chance on him. The alternative of trading him as opposed to keeping him on the team might pay dividends. Why keep him aboard and risk him losing important playoff games, as he did in ’10?

His next start will come on Tuesday at home against the Cleveland Indians, a team currently above .500 at 36-32. Hughes last faced the Indians in 2011 – and lost.

At the end of the day, Hughes hasn’t exactly been the “Pocket Rocket.” At most he’s been an unreliable, inconsistent pitcher whose claim to fame (thus far) has been a good season as a reliever in 2009.

Thankfully for me – and most Yankee fans who are growing tired of watching him fail – his time in pinstripes could be coming to an end.

Catching Up with Eli Manning

Look out, baseball world. The Yankees have caught fire.

A power surge in the eighth inning of last night’s game led to a 6-4 win for the Yanks over the Atlanta Braves, the fifth consecutive win for the boys from the Bronx. The Yankees have now won 15 of their last 19 games and are in sole possession of first place in the American League East – a game ahead of both the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays.

Alex Rodriguez did his best Superman impression, saving the day for his team. The Bombers trailed 4-0 in the eighth, and with the bases chucked, Rodriguez delivered. He launched a game-tying grand slam, a screaming line drive off reliever Jonny Venters that took practically no time to leave the yard.

It marked A-Rod’s 10th homer of the season and his 23rd career trip to granny’s house, tying him with another Yankee, Lou Gehrig, on baseball’s all-time grand slams list.

One more homer with the bases loaded, and Rodriguez is the all-time leader.

Nick Swisher then finished the job with a two-run homer later in the frame, his ninth of the year, to put the Braves away for good.

While the Swisher and A-Rod came through in the clutch last night, this week I had the opportunity to meet and interview (along with a number of other reporters) another New York sports hero who always comes up big when it matters: two-time Super Bowl Champion and MVP Eli Manning.

For the sixth straight year Manning hosted the Guiding Eyes for the Blind Golf Classic in Mount Kisco, N.Y.  The Giants’ quarterback was asked by Pat Browne, a blind golf champion and friend of the Manning family from New Orleans, to attend the event six years ago. He happily accepted and each year since, he’s come back.

When I got the call from my editor to cover Manning’s appearance at the golf outing on Monday, I was absolutely ecstatic. Obviously I followed the Giants during the regular season this past year, and certainly enjoyed their Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots on Feb. 5.

I arrived to the Mount Kisco Country Club where the tournament was held and there were a lot of other media outlets present – both local and national. The Journal News, Patch, News 12, the New York Daily News, and even ESPN were all on hand.

Manning arrived and met with the press in what’s called a “media scrum,” or an informal press conference in which journalists/reporters gather around an interview subject and ask questions. On the High School sports scene, media scrums aren’t very common, so it felt extremely good to be a part of one among a group of fellow press members.

That’s me…well, the back of my head, on the right, next to the cameraman.

One reporter asked him about the recent arrest of teammate David Diehl, who was charged with a DWI earlier this week. Not knowing a lot about the situation, Manning had no comment.

After he fielded some questions, the reigning Super Bowl MVP then stood on the practice green for a demonstration. He sank a putt blindfolded, getting the feel for what blind golfers like Browne experience when they are putting.

He felt attempting to golf without sight was more difficult than throwing a game-winning touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of a football game.

“I don’t think I could play football blindfolded,” Manning said of the demo. “It’s a totally different game and I had no idea how long I was going to hit that putt.”

I then got a chance to ask him how excited he was, being that not only was he at a good event for charity, but after the golf classic he was heading to mini-camp with the Giants.

“It’s always been the day before mini-camp starts, so it’s an exciting week,” Manning answered me.

“The tournament is fun and it seems that it’s just grown and grown each year, and Guiding Eyes has grown – it’s moved on to helping kids with autism, so I’m just happy that it affects so many different people and helps peoples’ lives.”

Since no one had mentioned anything about it up until the end, I just had to go there…

“I heard Denver got a new quarterback during the off-season, and I heard he’s pretty good. If the Giants happen to play the Broncos in the future, what are you going to be thinking about?” I asked.

Manning kind of shot me that all-too-familiar “awww shucks” expression; he darted his eyes and smirked, right after I mentioned the Broncos.

“I’ll be thinking, how are we going to get some points on the board against that guy?”

Manning, myself, and the scrum of reporters let out a good-spirited laugh.

Overall, it was a great experience; one I hope to experience again with other big-ticket athletes. Manning was a great interview subject and it was a little bit of a challenge for me to keep my cool; maintain my excitement level (even as a reporter) being such a huge fan of his and the Giants.

Because at the end of the day, that’s what I am: a fan.

The Riot Act

Yesterday night the Yankees snapped a three-game losing streak, beating the Kansas City Royals, 3-2. In typical fashion as of late, the Yanks didn’t make it easy on themselves, putting the tying run on third in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Yankee Universe held its collective breath as Rafael Soriano got Alcides Escobar to ground out, just missing an infield single that would have tied the game.

Yes the Bronx Bombers won, but claimed victory in the ugliest way ever: on a wing and a prayer.

Lately the team has struggled overwhelmingly on offense, getting outscored 36-18 over the last week. The Yankees have lost seven of their last 10, good enough for fourth place in the American League East. Barely keeping their heads above water, the Bronx Broskis are 22-21, just a game above .500.

It’s not as if the other teams are necessarily winning these games. On the contrary, the Yankees are losing them; beating themselves by not cashing in on chances they create. The team seems to fail at every opportunity with runners in scoring position; in fact, in Monday night’s 6-0 loss to the Royals, they went 0-for-13 with RISP.

Plenty of players need to be held accountable for this recent string of sucktitude.

Curtis Granderson

 

It’s pretty unfortunate when arguably the best hitter on the team can be read the riot act.

On Saturday the Yankees trailed the Reds 6-3 entering the ninth inning. They fought back however, pulling to within one run with the tying run on third base and two outs. Curtis Granderson worked the count to 3-0, but made some of the worst decisions a hitter could make as the at-bat progressed.

On 3-0, he swung, fouling the ball off to the right. Still in good shape on 3-1, he check-swung at an inside breaking ball that dipped out of the strike zone, a pitch that would have undoubtedly been called ball four to keep the line moving.

Then, with a full count, Granderson beat the payoff pitch into the dirt, grounding out to first to end the game. Yankees lost 6-5, the resilient magic running out of power at the last minute.

Right after I watched them lose, one thought entered my mind: “In 2009, they would have won this game.” Not only that, but it killed me to see Granderson not take a pitch, being in a hitter’s count for basically the entire at-bat.

Granderson is batting .250 for the year, and his BA with runners in scoring position is just .219. He is still leading the team with 13 home runs for the year but hasn’t homered in a week, cementing the Yankees’ slumping status.

 

Mark Teixeira

The Yankees’ first baseman has been battling some sort of bronchial infection, and he did not start this past weekend’s interleague series vs. the Cincinnati Reds – a series the Yankees lost, two games to one.    

Teixeira has only collected 35 hits in 153 at-bats this year, with five homers and 20 RBIs.

I don’t want to say Teixeira is on the decline, because he’s hit 30 or more home runs every year he’s been in the majors since his rookie year – and even in his rookie year (2003) he hit 26. Yet, if Teixeira isn’t hitting a home run, he only seems to pound the ball into the infield shift for a groundout.

Last night he got lucky, weakly squeaking a hit through the shift for a single.

Right now Teixeira’ batting average is at a miniscule .229, his on-base percentage is just .281 and his slugging percentage is only .386. In key spots, when Teixeira is up, the Yankees have to be cringing.

It’s obvious an adjustment has to be made. Whether it’s his batting stance, his swing, his bronchial ailment, or a mental block, Teixeira has become a hitter that the Yanks can’t depend on at the moment.

 

Russell Martin

There’s an old saying about catchers: if a team has a catcher that can hit, it’s a bonus. For a long time the Yankees had that bonus in Jorge Posada, and it continued for them when they signed Russell Martin.

Lately however, Martin must have forgotten that he is a hitter because he’s on the interstate at .179, with only 19 hits in 106 at-bats. He’s smacked four homers and has driven in 10 runs.

Martin isn’t having the worst offensive season; it could be worse. But like the rest of the team, he is not coming up with hits when chances are created. His groundball percentage is 70% with runners in scoring position for the year.

What also puzzles me is that Martin is known for calling a good game behind the plate, yet when the ace of the staff pitches, he is on the bench. Chris Stewart is CC Sabathia’s personal catcher, and unlike Martin, Stewart poses virtually no offensive threat, whatsoever.

In a nutshell, not only is he almost as useful as a screen door in a submarine at the plate, he can’t catch when the Yankees’ number one pitcher is on the mound.

 

Alex Rodriguez

On Monday night Alex Rodriguez struck out in the ninth inning, getting blasted by a deafening chorus of boos and jeers as he walked back to the dugout. After the game the press questioned him about getting booed at home. Like a true professional however, he owed up to it, saying he deserved it for his lack of production.

What’s scary about A-Rod’s slump is that he has stated his physical condition is fine. Usually when he struggles offensively there is more to it; a lingering injury or some soreness.

But it’s not the case.

He was recently quoted as saying that he’s fine physically, capable of hitting for power. Obviously that statement has not exactly gone well-founded, considering he hasn’t hit a home run since May 6. With RISP, A-Rod is scuffling just as the rest of the team is, with a groundball percentage of roughly 61 and a .154 average.

Not so good for a player who claims to be in perfect health.

 

Hiroki Kuroda

The 37-year-old starter certainly hasn’t been what the Yankees had anticipated, as he currently leads the majors in losses with six. His latest defeat came on Monday when he surrendered three earned runs on seven hits to the Royals, striking out four and walking three in 5.1 innings pitched.

Although the stat column for his last start doesn’t sound incredibly poor, Kuroda was absolutely shelled on May 16 in Toronto. The Blue Jays lit him up for seven earned runs on eight hits in just five innings. Kuroda served up three home runs in the loss, and is now 1-3 over his last four starts.

What I can’t understand is his position in the rotation. Clearly he isn’t pitching up to his potential, and it’s costing the Yankees. Maybe a move from the number two slot in the starting five could help him; perhaps Joe Girardi should push him down to the fourth hole and see how it goes.

 Either way, something needs to be done.

 

Phil Hughes

In 2010 Phil Hughes won 18 games, pitching extraordinarily well throughout the first half of the season. After the All-star break he seemed to just fall off the face of the earth; he hasn’t been the same, consistent pitcher since the first half of ’10.

Lately Hughes has been making a case to change that, winning three of his last five games – but those three wins on his ledger are deceptive.

Hughes beat the Seattle Mariners on May 12, a team that has been no-hit this year. He then followed it by beating the Royals, a team eight games below .500, twice. In between he was beaten by the Blue Jays and also lost to the Orioles – two of the three teams in front of the Yankees in the East.

Last night Hughes gave up a home run to Jeff Francoeur and is now the first pitcher since Runelvys Hernandez (2006) to give up at least one homer in each of his first nine starts of the season.

Possibly Hughes’s biggest Achilles Heel has been his pitch count. I lost track last night of how many hitters fouled off his pitches, but I do know that he was up over 70 in the fifth inning. It’s pretty much the story of his every start: the opposing hitters just put good swings on his flat, straight fastball and his pitch count steadily climbs.

Now that Hughes is on a bit of a good streak, I think this is the perfect opportunity for the Yankees to see what they might be able to get for him on the trade block. For awhile now, I’ve heard a lot of chatter about how his value is down and nobody would want him.

But since he’s pitching well at the moment – and he isn’t even signed for next year – I say the Yankees should cut their losses and say goodbye to him. As nicely as Hughes is pitching now, I don’t expect it to continue late in the season against teams like the Rangers, Tigers, and Rays.

Odds are his arm will tire, as it has these past two years, and he will crack down the stretch.

…………………………………………………………………..

There are so many other players that deserve to be called out.

Dewayne Wise has only collected three hits in 23 at-bats, and yet is in the starting lineup.

Nick Swisher is batting .239 right now.

Robinson Cano had 31 RBIs on May 23 last year. He has 17 on May 23 this year (barring any RBIs in tonight’s game).

CC Sabathia has lost his last two starts.

Ivan Nova’s ERA is 5.69.

The bullpen is about as makeshift as ever without Mariano Rivera and backup closer David Robertson, not to mention third string closer Rafael Soriano came dangerously close to blowing the save last night.

The whole team is contributing to this mess.

Some serious changes need to be made if the Yankees want to pull this sinking ship from the depths of the ocean that is the AL East. Because the way they’ve been playing, it’s crazy to even put the words “World Series” and “Yankees” in the same sentence.

After one of the recent losses, Derek Jeter made a declaration:

“I don’t see anybody popping champagne in May.”

While the Captain is right, he should heed that currently there are a lot of teams better than his at this point in the season. If the Yankees, for whatever reason, don’t make the playoffs, it will be the second time in Jeter’s career (2008) he won’t be popping champagne.  

And for the first time in his career the Captain will be eating crow.

Red Sox Learn the Lesson They Taught

The game was in the bag. The Red Sox tore apart Yankees’ starter Freddy Garcia and led 9-0 going into the sixth inning, ready to avenge their 6-2 loss to the Yank…Highlanders the day before – the day they celebrated Fenway Park’s centennial.

But Boston learned what they taught the Yankees in October, 2004: no lead is safe.

Mark Teixeira hammered a solo home run over the Green Monster in the sixth. The round-tripper was followed by a seven-run barrage by the Yanks in the seventh inning. If that wasn’t enough, the Bronx Bombers continued to slaughter the Boston bullpen, adding another seven runs in the eighth to complete an improbable comeback, finishing the Red Sox off, 15-9.

Incredible. An enormous lead and a surefire win for the Red Sox wiped away; another humiliating loss to their most hated rivals.

And to the Yankees and their fans: yet another feather in the cap; another triumph.

I watched the game up until the sixth inning. Basically I saw Teixeira’s solo home run, watched Philip Humber complete his perfect game vs. Seattle, and left the house, having covered a girls’ lacrosse game earlier in the day, and having been invited out to dinner by a group of friends last evening.

Assuming the Yankees were going to lose, I didn’t listen to the game on the radio in the car. I was left in utter disbelief when I found out the Yankees had pulled to within one run – and even more stunned when I heard they came back to win it.

As a matter of fact I was so excited, I did cartwheels in the rain. Here’s the proof:

Here’s what I made of the whole game…

Implosion

These past few seasons, the Yankees have a strange way about them when it comes to facing pitchers they haven’t seen. They don’t seem to generate sufficient offense against pitchers they have never faced. Because of that, it came as no shock to me that Felix Doubront was mowing the Bombers down one by one through the first six innings.

But Teixeira’s home run chased Doubront from the game and Boston’s bullpen – which is thin and weak – blew it. The Red Sox ‘pen pitched three innings, surrendered 14 runs (13 earned), issued four walks, and only struck out two batters.

It’s impossible to win when the relief corps can’t finish the game. Boston proved that yesterday.

Giving the Red Sox ‘pen the most problems was Nick Swisher, who not only clubbed a grand slam in the seventh inning, but picked up a go-ahead two-run double in the eighth which gave the Yankees a 10-9 lead.

Swisher finished the day with six RBIs – and he wasn’t the only Yankee with that many runs driven in.

Teixeira also punished the Boston relievers, notching six RBIs. He hit a three-run homer in the seventh to pull the Yanks within one run and later gave his team a cushion, smacking a two-run ground-rule double in the eighth to pad the lead.

Overall, what I took away from the bullpen collapse: a huge hole in their arsenal; a major vulnerability. If the Yankees were able to overcome a gigantic deficit and dismantle the Red Sox relievers, any team can – especially when the closer is blowing the game.

Alfredo Aceves is filling in for Andrew Bailey, the closer Boston signed to supplant Jonathan Papelbon.  The Red Sox have played 14 games this young season, and Aceves already has two blown saves.  He took the loss yesterday and his ERA is currently a bloated 24.00.

And it’s not just him.

Five of the six relievers the Red Sox used yesterday have an ERA over 4.00.

Boston is 4-10 right now, good for last place in the AL East. And if they don’t straighten out that bullpen in a hurry, things are only going to get worse for the boys from Beantown.

Freddy Garcia

Last weekend I covered a high school baseball game. It was a tight one, with one team winning by just one run, 4-3. The winning pitcher’s brother drove in what turned out to be the deciding run, and when I interviewed the pitcher after the game, he had one thing to say about his brother’s clutch hit that secured a win for him:

“I’ll be making a big dinner for him tonight.”

Freddy Garcia probably did the same for Swisher and Teixeira. They bailed him out of what would have been his second consecutive loss.

Garcia has not pitched a good game this year, at 0-1 with a 9.75 ERA. He’s averaged just four innings pitched per start, and only lasted 1.2 innings yesterday. The Boston offense did a nice job knocking him around in the early-going. Garcia let up five earned runs on seven hits without walking a batter and without recording a strikeout.

Not good.

It’s obvious his spot in the rotation is in jeopardy with Andy Pettitte about two and a half weeks away from being ready to re-join the show.

Via Twitter and Facebook yesterday, I read a lot of fan complaints about Garcia’s pitching. Lucky for them, he probably won’t be in the starting five much longer. When Pettitte returns, Garcia will most likely be relegated to the bullpen while the veteran southpaw gets slid into his rotation slot.

Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira

 

Twelve of the 15 runs the Yankees scored were driven in by Swisher and Teixeira. Both have been so streaky and hot-cold, but in the early part of this year have in a lot of ways cemented their value to the Yankees.

Swisher played a pivotal role in the second series the Yankees played this season in Baltimore, blasting what turned out to be the game-winning home run on April 11. The switch-hitting right fielder has 20 RBIs, which at the moment leads the American League.

There has been a lot of speculation (at least among some fans) about Swisher possibly being traded this year. But right now it’s not an option; the Yankees would be foolish to let him go, considering the way he’s been swinging the bat.

To bottom line it: Swisher is raking, and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

As for Teixeira…

I don’t know how many times I heard Tim McCarver proclaim yesterday how much of a “notoriously slow starter” Teixeira is. Not that I usually agree with anything McCarver really ever says, but it’s true. Historically, the Yankee first baseman never comes out of Spring Training strong.

But in mid-2009 Teixeira claimed that his “home runs come in bunches” – and while it’s true he typically never gets off to a hot start, Teixeira’s statement about home runs coming in bunches is true.

Case in point: his two homers over the Green Monster yesterday.

Teixeira now has three homers on the year and is batting .288 with 11 RBIs. I wouldn’t exactly call that a slow start, but he has to become more of a situational hitter – like he’s been, so far.

Bobby Valentine

Throughout his tenure as Red Sox skipper, I never had anything negative to say about Terry Francona. I thought he did a lot right by his team; keeping troublemakers like Manny Ramirez in check and dealing with the unconventional, fun-loving ways of David Ortiz.

He led the Red Sox to the playoffs five times in the eight years he served as manager, winning two World Series titles along the way.

Francona will always be a beloved figure in Boston, like Joe Torre is in New York.

But after failing to make the postseason the last two years, the Red Sox brass moved him out as manager and moved in the always-controversial Bobby Valentine – who is a polar opposite of the type of manager Francona was.

Valentine has dug himself a fine hole, and hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the Red Sox fans. In both losses to the Yankees this weekend, the capacity crowds at Fenway Park in unison chanted, “We Want Tito!” at Valentine, showing their displeasure at how he has handled his team thus far.

I can’t say as I blame them.

Valentine has done a lot of talking and not a lot of winning, and I can see why that has rubbed the Red Sox fans the wrong way. He called out Kevin Youkilis, questioning the veteran third baseman’s commitment to the team. Valentine also agreed to appear on Michael Kay’s ESPN New York radio show once a week – another reason the BoSox fans are unhappy with him.

I’m not one to ever make predictions, because there’s an old saying about never being able to predict baseball. But looking at things objectively right now, I don’t see a way Valentine keeps his job all the way through the season. In other words, by the time the year is up, I don’t think he will be Red Sox skipper.

He may have been hot stuff in Japan, and he was able to maintain his post as head of the Mets for awhile, but Boston is a different type of baseball city. Valentine is a long way from Japan and even though New York and Boston are only 206 miles apart, he is light years away from his days as Mets’ manager.

The only way I see Valentine staying in Boston is if he closes his mouth and does some winning. Otherwise…

The game tonight has been postponed due to rain – probably the best thing to happen to the scuffling Boston team.

The Yankees (9-6), on the other hand, will go to Texas to play the Rangers tomorrow night, looking to roll their three game win streak into four.

Centennial Spoiled: Yankees Beat Red Sox

I can’t even begin to imagine what life was like 100 years ago. People my age were getting ready to fight in the First World War, the Titanic sank like a stone to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and gas cost 7 cents per gallon.

Oh, and Fenway Park opened. And while many things have changed a century later, the home of the Boston Red Sox has not. Fenway has such a rich history and what some people may not know is that the 100-year-old ballpark once belonged to the Red Sox most hated rivals.

That’s right. The Yankees once owned Fenway Park.

When the Yankees signed Babe Ruth, the deal included a $300,000 loan backed by a mortgage on Fenway Park. Ergo, not only did the Yanks receive Boston’s best player, they owned Fenway Park at the time. 

But the Red Sox eventually gained back ownership of their home. And yesterday Boston’s favorite sons honored their ballpark’s centennial with a beautiful pregame ceremony – and to a Yankee fan like myself – an even more beautiful 6-2 loss to the Bronx Bombers…or should I say the New York Highlanders.

A lot to go over here.  First of all…

Pregame Respect

The Red Sox celebrated Fenway’s 100th year with a wonderful ceremony before the game. Countless players from the days of old were brought back and honored, not unlike the last game at the old Yankee Stadium in September, 2008.

I have to admit, watching it gave me goosebumps. The Red Sox fans are just as passionate and as sentimental about their players (past and present) as the Yankee fans are. The history is another comparable aspect of both teams. Obviously a comparison can be drawn, considering the long and storied existence of the Red Sox and Yankees.

Personally, I got a little teary-eyed when I saw legends Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky in wheelchairs, being wheeled out to the field by recently-retired Red Sox Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek.

Doerr and Pesky mean so much to their franchise, and it was nice to see them get the ovation they did.

It seemed the loudest reaction of the afternoon went to ex-manager Terry Francona. Tito came out and Fenway became unglued. I think the Boston faithful truly miss him, and would rather have a smart leader at the helm of the team (like him) rather than what they have now in Bobby Valentine.

Towards the conclusion of the ceremony, the Red Sox offered (an awkward) toast to the fans and to the ballpark. Longtime Yankee nemesis Pedro Martinez saluted the crowd, then he and Kevin Millar grabbed microphones, and had some words while everyone went bottoms up.

“Who’s Karim Garcia?” Martinez asked, referencing the Game 3 brawl the Red Sox had with the Yankees in the 2003 ALCS.

“One more time,” Millar shouted. “Cowboy up!” – his catchphrase during the ’03 and ‘04 playoffs.

After that bizarre exchange of words, the ceremony ended. And with the Red Sox sporting the uniforms the team wore in 1912 – and the Yankees donning the vintage Highlander outfits, the game began.

Ivan Nova

What can you say about this young stud, other than that he has been the Yankees’ most consistent pitcher thus far. Ivan Nova tossed six strong innings and gave up just two earned runs on seven hits.

He didn’t issue a walk and struck out five batters.

Nova has really done a lot of good for himself, only three starts into this young season. It’s obvious he is locked in and focused; mixing his pitches, attacking batters with his slider, fooling hitters with his curve, and getting them to groundout with that tricky sinkerball.

What’s more, he isn’t killing himself with walks. He’s only issued two free passes this season – and both base-on-balls came in the same game (last Sunday vs. the Angels). He isn’t going out there and beating himself, to say the least.

With the win, Nova has now been the winner in his last 15 decisions, going back to last June – he hasn’t lost since June 3, 2011. His streak is the second-longest in Yankee history, behind Roger Clemens who won 16 consecutive decisions back in 2001.

Now at 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA for the year, Nova will have at least one more start this month (Wednesday April 25 @ Texas). If he manages to beat the Rangers, who are one of the hottest teams on the planet right now, I think it’ll be safe to say Nova is undoubtedly going to go on to have a wonderful year; possibly a Cy Young Award candidate when it’s all said and done.

It never hurts a pitcher to get off to a great start.

Long Ball

Derek Jeter reached base on an error by Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia in the top of the first; as a matter of fact, “Luis Castillo” trended on Twitter because of the miscue. Alex Rodriguez came up later in the frame, smacking a single to bring Jeter to the plate.

But from that point on, it was a home run derby, Highlander-style.

Nick Swisher took Boston starter Clay Buchholz deep in the second inning, an opposite field homer over the Green Monster. Later in the frame Eric Chavez took Buchholz’s offering over the centerfield wall.

And he wasn’t done.

Chavez homered in his next at-bat, another shot that just cleared the wall in center. It marked the first time since Sept. 18, 2005 that Chavez smacked two home runs out of Fenway Park. He previously accomplished the feat as a member of the Oakland A’s.

After Chavez’s homer barrage ended, it was Rodriguez’s turn. A-Rod absolutely slaughtered a ball over the Green Monster, out of the park and onto Landsdowne Street. It marked Rodriguez’s 631st career homer, and with it he passed his old teammate Ken Griffey, Jr. on baseball’s all-time home runs list.

A-Rod is now in fifth place on the all-time homers list. In front of him? Now, only Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.

You’d think that would be enough taters for one day, but it wasn’t.

In the top of the sixth, Russell Martin got a hold of one, smacking a home run over the monster and hitting the Sports Authority billboard. It was Martin’s first home run of the year, and it was all the Yankees needed to beat Boston.

What surprised me the most was that each home run the Yankees hit today was a solo home run; not one runner was on base when each hitter went yard.

Buchholz gave up all five solo blasts – and it wasn’t the first time this year a Boston starter surrendered five round-trippers in a single game. Josh Beckett gave up five home runs to the Detroit Tigers on April 7.

It’s encouraging to see the Yanks hit some bombs, but there’s an old saying about “living by the home run and dying by the home run.” They cannot be reliant on the long ball all year, but I suppose if you get an exemplary start, as Nova gave them today, it doesn’t matter.

Overall

This was a big win for the Highlanders…Yankees today. Beating the Red Sox the day they celebrated their ballpark’s centennial: that’s huge.  

Imagine if the Yankees had hosted the Red Sox instead of the Baltimore Orioles in the final game at the old Yankee Stadium – and the Red Sox had beaten them. What kind of feeling would every Yankee fan have had?

Probably a very sick feeling. And that’s probably the feeling the Boston fans had today. As for the Yankee fans…it’s just another reason to gloat; another notch in our belts.

It was a major battle won for the pinstripe patrol, but the war is far from over. In fact, the soldiers will be right back out on the battlefield today at 4:00.

Freddy Garcia (0-1, 6.97 ERA) will lead the Yankees into battle, facing off with Boston starter Felix Doubront (0-0, 5.40 ERA).

Home Opener Thrills and Chills

F-18 Navy Hornets, gigantic American flags, player introductions, the Mayor and…

Kermit the Frog!

All the wonderful elements of the Yankees’ home opener this afternoon against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. What sweetened the whole deal? A 5-0 shutout of the Halos behind a brilliant outing from new Yankee Hiroki Kuroda.

The Japanese-born starter twirled an absolute gem, tossing eight-plus innings while not allowing a run. Kuroda allowed just five hits, walked two, and struck out six.

Talk about a fine way to introduce yourself to the Yankee faithful.

Kuroda probably would have finished the game had he not given up a leadoff infield single to Bobby Abreu in the top of the ninth, but he was at 109 pitches, therefore gave way to David Robertson.

Robertson got Albert Pujols to ground into a 6-4-3 double play before fanning Kendrys Morales for the final out.

Kuroda and Robertson were backed by a solid amount of run support, started by a bases-clearing double off the bat of Nick Swisher in the bottom of the first. The two-base hit plated Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Mark Teixeira.

Up 3-0 in the bottom of the third, Rodriguez added a run with one swing. The slugging third baseman crushed a leadoff home run deep to centerfield, a shot that landed in the netting above Monument Park. With that homer, A-Rod tied his former Seattle Mariner teammate Ken Griffey, Jr. for fifth place on the all-time home runs list with 630 career round-trippers.

Curtis Granderson put the icing on the cake with a screaming line drive bullet home run over the right field wall in the fifth. Granderson’s solo blast gave the Yanks all the offense they needed to put the Angels away and boost their win streak to four.

Analysis:

Hiroki Kuroda

The Yankees couldn’t have asked for more out of their number two starter. The bullpen had thrown 11.1 innings in the final two games the Bombers played in Baltimore, and after an off-day yesterday, the relief corps basically received another day of rest.

Length was key, and Kuroda gave the Yanks more than enough.

It was a nice rebound start for Kuroda, having given up six runs in 5.2 innings in Tampa Bay last Saturday. He used his fastball to his advantage and his slider was dancing all over the strike zone.

Not even the mighty Albert Pujols could figure Kuroda out.

He didn’t utilize his split finger much, but he didn’t need to; he neutralized the strong hitters like Pujols and Morales without giving an inch.

In Japan, the best pitcher on the staff wears the number 18. Kuroda chose to wear number 18 upon his arrival in the Bronx and today he earned the right to wear that number. A crackling fastball, a moving slider, six K’s against a deep Angels’ lineup, and a win – that’s enough to sell me on him.

Now at 1-1 on the year, he will look for his next win Wednesday at home vs. the Minnesota Twins.

Alex Rodriguez

Manager Joe Girardi chose to bat Alex Rodriguez third in the lineup today. Having only collected three hits in the first five games of the season without knocking in a run or hitting a homer, it was clear A-Rod needed to move from the cleanup spot on account of lack of production.

All that changed today. The move clearly had an impact.

A-Rod went 3-for-4 this afternoon and belted his first home run of the year, a bomb that landed in Monument Park – not a cheap homer.

With the home run, Rodriguez tied his old buddy Ken Griffey, Jr. for fifth place on baseball’s all-time home runs list. It was A-Rod’s 630th career homer. He also raised his batting average from .174 to .259.

That’s the beauty of baseball: one day can turn everything around.

Nick Swisher

The Yankee right fielder is becoming a valuable asset to the team in the early-going. Nick Swisher has reached base in every game this season. He’s hit safely in six games and in the one game he didn’t reach base by way of a hit, he drew two walks.

Last Saturday against the Rays, it looked as though the Yankees were done in the ninth when Swisher stepped up to the plate. He proceeded to cream the ball for a home run to keep the Yankees alive, although they eventually lost 8-6.

In the series finale at Camden Yards vs. the Orioles, Swisher came up huge with what proved to be the game-winning home run, a two-run blast that gave the Bombers a 6-4 lead they held onto for the victory.

Today Swisher had the huge double in the first to clear the bases and give the Yankees an early lead and a ton of momentum.

So far this year Swisher has two homers, nine RBIs, has seven hits, has drawn five walks, and has scored three runs.

If there is a Yankee hero at this moment, it’s Swisher. Right now, he can do no wrong.

Honorary First Pitch

A special dignitary tossed out the honorary first pitch this afternoon: recently-retired catcher Jorge Posada. The Yankees stood behind the mound out of respect to their former teammate and watched as he threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

There was a lot of speculation as to what was going to transpire during this particular part of the Opening Day festivities. I had heard a rumor Posada was going to go to the mound, then one of his teammates would switch with him – and he would actually catch the honorary pitch rather than throw it, because that’s what he is most known for in Yankee lore.

But that didn’t happen.

While his teammates and family watched, Posada threw the first pitch to his dad who stood behind the plate to catch it. Following the first pitch, Posada emotionally hugged each of his Yankee friends.

It was a touching moment and Posada received a well-deserved standing ovation from the Yankee Stadium crowd.

Overall

It was a promising win for the Yankees. The Angels are the only team with a lifetime winning record against the Bombers and with the additions of Pujols and starter C.J. Wilson (who the Yankees will get a look at tomorrow afternoon) they only got stronger; more difficult to beat.

But they got beat today – stifled by a lights-out performance from Kuroda.

Curtis Granderson’s bullet home run marked the second year in a row he has gone yard in the Yankees’ home opener. He homered last year in the Yanks’ win over the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium.

Phil Hughes toes the rubber tomorrow against the Angels, gunning for win number one on the year. Hughes threw the ball well in his first start on Sunday in Tampa Bay, but came up just short.

He will look to pick up his first win and roll the Yankees’ win streak over to five games.

…………………………………………………………………………………

On a side note, is anyone else growing tired of the promos for the new “3 Stooges” movie?

If the three stooges walked up to me and paid me $50 to see this abomination, I would hand them a $100 bill and simply say, “Let’s pretend this never happened.”

I understand it’s totally irrelevant to the Yankees, but the TV spot kept popping up during YES’ broadcast of the game this afternoon. I just know a bad movie when I see one – and I won’t be seeing the “3 Stooges.”

Breathing Down Our Necks

The 2012 MLB season is just about three weeks away. Players are currently in camp fighting for roster spots, getting in shape, and preparing for what will be a summer-long grind.

29 teams have the mentality of, “let’s put a good team together and have a fun season.”

The Yankees on the other hand have the mentality of, “when camp breaks we need to win the division, win the pennant, and then win the World Series.”

Good logic.

And as usual, it won’t be easy. A number of teams have bettered themselves during the off-season, and will pose huge threats to the Yankees bringing title number 28 home to the Bronx in October. A few teams will be breathing down the Yankees’ neck and they need to keep a sharp eye on them.

The top five are…

The Rays

When the Tampa Bay Rays first entered the league, they were almost a laughingstock; a joke that always finished at the bottom of the AL East. But in 2008 they came out of nowhere, capturing the division over the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and then going on to win the AL pennant.

Since then, the Rays have been pests; a team that won’t go away, no matter how many times a knockout blow is delivered to them. Last year they swiped the AL Wild Card from underneath Boston’s nose, and have been to the playoffs three of the last four years.

On offense this season, Tampa Bay might be under the microscope, at least a little bit. The Rays didn’t re-sign Johnny Damon in the off-season, but signed Luke Scott – who hit just .220 last year – to supplant him. After a year with the Chicago Cubs, Carlos Pena is returning to the Rays – and he only averaged .225 at the dish in 2011.

One of the only true powerhouses the Rays have at the plate is Evan Longoria, who only batted .244 last year, yet clubbed 31 homers.

With their seemingly thin offense, one might get to thinking, why are the Rays such a threat?

The answer is their starting pitching.

Number one man James Shields went the distance last year, tossing 11 complete games to lead the league in that category. He also threw four shutouts to lead the league, winning 16 games along the way.

Behind him is the pride of Vanderbilt, southpaw David Price. Last year Price compiled a 12-13 record; not the best numerically, but he was an All-Star and was coming off a season in which he won 19 games. He did prove to be a workhorse despite his uneven record, logging 224.1 innings and making 34 starts, which led the league.

Behind the 1-2 punch of Shields and Price is a supporting cast of excellent arms. 24-year-old Jeremy Hellickson is the reigning AL Rookie of the Year. He threw 189 innings in ’11, won 13 games, and notched an ERA of 2.95.

Jeff Niemann won 11 games last year, as did Wade Davis, giving the Rays five pitchers with double digit wins.

If a team has that kind of efficiency out of their starting five, they are going to be very tough to beat.

The Red Sox

Boston seems to be in a little bit of a state of flux. This off-season was busy in Beantown, as they let go of revered manager Terry Francona and signed on the ever-colorful Bobby Valentine to be their skipper. They allowed closer Jonathan Papelbon to walk, as he took his flame-throwing arm to Philadelphia to be the Phillies’ closer.

Two of their big-ticket starters, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, have undergone Tommy John surgery. Lackey will miss the entire 2012 season and Dice-K will be out until at least June or July, leaving the Red Sox with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester as their top starters.

Other than Beckett and Lester, the Red Sox have a ton of questions marks as far as their rotation in concerned. How will Daniel Bard make the transition from the bullpen to the rotation? Is Clay Buchholz going to perform at a high level?

Will Felix Doubront be a factor? What about Alfredo Aceves, who has had back problems in the past?

The starting pitching is not the only part of the team under scrutiny. Boston signed Andrew Bailey to replace Papelbon in the closer role, and will insert former Yankee Mark Melancon into the setup spot, supplanting Bard.

How will Bailey handle closing in Boston as opposed to Oakland? Will Melancon rise to challenge of setting him up in close-game situations?

All of these questions won’t be answered until the season commences, but if the Red Sox score runs – and they are capable of scoring runs – it won’t be a problem. Although Boston got off to a horrendous start and a fatal finish, they still scored 875 runs, which was good enough to lead the majors in ‘11.

And they always seem to give the Yankees a hard time.

Last June Boston swept the Bombers in three games at Yankee Stadium, being led by Yankee killer David Ortiz. Big Papi smacked two homers in the series, and stirred up controversy when he flipped his bat in what many felt was a move to show up the Yanks.

Bottom line: Ortiz proved he still has it when it comes to making the Yankees’ lives miserable.

Along with Ortiz, 2008 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia will undoubtedly be swinging a hot bat this year, as will All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who hit .338 last season with 27 homers and 117 RBIs.

Like the pitching, speedy left fielder Carl Crawford and butch third baseman Kevin Youkilis are question marks. Crawford is dealing with a wrist injury that many analysts say caused a decline in his numbers last year. Youkilis had season-ending thumb surgery last August.  

If Crawford and Youkilis come back – and return to form – the Yankees, and all American League pitchers for that matter, need to look out. These two sluggers have the potential to cause major problems for the Yankees when they are at 100%.

All things considered, the Red Sox will have a potent lineup. And no matter what anyone says, the Red Sox are always in the back of the Yankees’ minds. Always.

The Tigers

Last October the Detroit Tigers dashed the Yankees’ hopes and dreams of winning the World Series, eliminating the Bronx Bombers in five games in the ALDS. New York was forced to watch the Tigers celebrate on their soil, as the team from the Motor City proved to be too much for the Yankees to handle.

And it may have just gotten more difficult to beat them.

This off-season the Tigers signed power-hitting lefty Prince Fielder, who clobbered 38 home runs and drove in 120 runs last year. The hefty first baseman has twice averaged .299 at the plate (2009, 2011) and in 2007 Fielder led the National League in homers with 50.

It’s what you can expect from a big guy, but don’t let the size fool you.

Despite his heavy, 275-pound frame, Fielder is durable. He has played in all but one game since 2009, appearing in all 162 games in 2011 and 2009. He played in 161 games in 2010.

Fielder will join the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Delmon Young, two powerhouses who have already proven their worth in Detroit. Last season Cabrera led the league in doubles (48) and batting average (.344). Like Fielder he is also durable, as he appeared in 161 games in ’11.

Young dazzled in last year’s ALDS vs. the Yankees, punishing them with a .316 BA while clubbing three homers and posting a .789 slugging percentage. He collected six hits in the five game series and drew two walks, showing his worth when the stakes were high.

Detroit is obviously the front-runner to once again win the AL Central, and behind ace Justin Verlander – the reigning AL Cy Young winner and AL MVP – their chances of taking the central are high. The other teams in that division pose virtually no threat, and potentially the Yankees could face the Tigers in the ALDS again this year.

If a rematch is in the cards, the Yankees have to adjust accordingly. It didn’t work out for them in last year’s postseason.

The Rangers

It’s no secret that Texas is one of the prime teams to beat, as they have represented the American League in the World Series the past two years. The Rangers lost their number one starter C.J. Wilson to a division rival, the LA Angels, but something tells me it’s not going to matter. The Rangers’ pitching will still be top notch.

Colby Lewis won 14 games last year, as did Matt Harrison. If you were to ask manager Ron Washington, he would probably say both Harrison and Lewis possess the stuff to be number one aces.  Alexi Ogando went 13-8 last year with a 3.51 ERA and he’ll be another weapon in the Rangers’ rotation.

Throw Neftali Feliz and Yu Darvish into the mix, and you have quite a set of pitchers, although there are some questions surrounding Feliz and Darvish.

Feliz is making a transition from the bullpen to the rotation, so much like Bard in Boston, his performance depends on how well his stuff translates; how well he works being stretched out. If it goes well for him, and he throws as hard as he did working in the closer role, he’ll be a feared pitcher in the American League.

Like Feliz, Darvish is making a transition – but not from the bullpen. He’ll be making the switch from Japan to MLB. In his native country, Darvish was one of the finest and most revered pitchers. Last year alone Darvish struck out 276 batters over 232 innings of work, and won 18 games with a 1.44 ERA.

Those numbers can be deceitful, however.

Ask Matsuzaka, or Hideki Irabu, or Kei Igawa, or any pitcher who sparkled in Japan and fell apart here. Pitching in the states is much different than pitching in the Far East, so Darvish is basically going to be an enigma until we really see what he can do – and we won’t know what he can do until he logs some innings here in the good ol’ U.S.A.

As far as the Rangers’ offense goes, they won’t have many problems if Josh Hamilton stays healthy. Even if he spends time on the disabled list, they have plenty of power to make up for it. Mike Napoli, the Rangers’ catcher, smacked 30 homers and drove in 75 runs last year.

You know you’re going to be alright when you’re getting that kind of production out of the catcher spot.

Along with Hamilton and Napoli, there’s Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus, and Michael Young – a perfect combination of veteran and youthful offense.

A message to the Yankees: when you’re in Texas, look behind you. ‘Cause that’s where the Rangers are going to be! (I couldn’t resist the cheesy/obscure Walker, Texas Ranger reference).

The Angels

In recent times the Angels have almost had the Yankees’ number, being the only team with a lifetime winning record against the Bronx Bombers. LA’s pesky hitting coupled with their stellar pitching are going to make the Halos one of the best teams in the league this season, if not the best.

And it starts with one of their gigantic off-season acquisitions.

The biggest, obviously, is first baseman Albert Pujols. The slugging 3-time NL MVP signed with the Angels on Dec. 8 – and, as if LA wasn’t hard enough to beat already, they just got that much more difficult; that much deeper.

Pujols adds a surefire power bat to the lineup that already includes scrappy, young hitters like Howard Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis, and Mark Trumbo. Former Yankee Bobby Abreu gives the Angels a veteran presence, as do outfielders Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells.

Last year LA scored 667 runs. Expect that number to go up in 2012.

Along with their strong offense, the Angels have stacked the deck as far as their pitching is concerned. As noted, the Halos snatched the Rangers’ ace C.J. Wilson over the winter, and he will join Dan Haren and Jered Weaver – who were both in double figures in the wins category last year. Haren notched 16 Ws while Weaver put up 18.

Ervin Santana sealed 11 wins last year with an ERA under four. If he does the same working in the back end of the Angels’ rotation this year, they are going to win a lot of games.

The Angels are pretty much the team that has it all; the complete package. If you were to ask me for my World Series pick, on paper, it would be the LA Angels.

But as Yankee Captain Derek Jeter always says, “on paper doesn’t win you ballgames.”

True. But the Angels look awfully dangerous, and have eliminated the Yankees from the playoffs twice, in 2002 and 2005. The last time the Yankees and Angels met in October (2009) the Yankees came out on top, beating the Halos in six games.   

They may need to do it again if they want to win number 28.

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