Results tagged ‘ New York ’

If it’s not the Twins, can the Yankees win?

Last year the Yankees were ousted from the playoffs at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, losing the deciding Game Five on Oct. 6. This year will be a much different story, considering the American League Division Series won’t even begin until Oct. 7 – 2012 already a longer postseason than 2011 for the Bronx Broskis.

By the end of tonight’s all-or-nothing Wild Card play-in game the Yanks will know where they’re headed for the first two games of the ALDS: they’ll either be getting on a plane set on course for Texas to play the Rangers, or they’ll be heading to Baltimore to face the Orioles.

Before they square off with their first round opponents, there’s an ALDS history lesson that needs to be taught. In 2001, the Yanks eliminated the Oakland A’s in five games. Since then have had an easy time with one particular team in the first round of the playoffs, but haven’t had much luck against virtually anyone else.

2002 ALDS: Yankees booted by the Los Angeles Angels, three games to one. Loss

2003 ALDS: Yankees defeated the Minnesota Twins, three games to one. Win

2004 ALDS: Yankees duplicated ’03, beating the Minnesota Twins, three games to one. Win

2005 ALDS: Yankees once again booted by the LA Angels, this time three games to two. Loss

2006 ALDS: Yankees eliminated by the Detroit Tigers, three games to one. Loss

2007 ALDS: Yankees forced to an early exit at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, three games to one. Loss

2008: Didn’t make playoffs

2009 ALDS: Yankees sweep the Minnesota Twins, three games to none. Win

2010 ALDS: Yankees once again broom the Minnesota Twins, three games to none. Win

2011 ALDS: Yankees eliminated by the Tigers, three games to two. Loss

Obviously there’s a pattern here. The Yankees have no problem beating teams in the ALDS – teams that are only named Minnesota Twins, that is. The Angels, Tigers, and Indians have crushed the Yankees’ dreams in the ALDS, so it begs the question that’s been on my mind since last October:

If it’s not the Twins, can the Yankees win?

Either way, New York has a great deal of experience playing each of its potential 2012 first round opponents. This writer has been asked who he’d rather see the Yankees play in this year’s ALDS: the Rangers or Orioles. I’m not quite sure because the way I see it, there are pros and cons of facing either team.

Texas Rangers

Pros

  • The Rangers played incredibly sloppy baseball to close out the 2012 regular season, committing three errors on the way to a one-sided 12-5 loss to the Oakland A’s on Wednesday, blowing the AL West in the process– and it didn’t start there. Texas lost seven of its last 10 regular season games.

  • No Cliff Lee this time. If it wasn’t enough for Lee to hand the Yanks their only two losses in the 2009 World Series, he came back for seconds in the 2010 American League Championship Series; dominating the Bombers in a crucial Game Three with a masterful 13-strikeout performance. He was a huge part of the Rangers’ past success vs. New York – and he’ll be a non-factor this postseason. Speaking of past success…
  • Past success in the ALDS vs. Texas. The Yankees played the Rangers in the ALDS in 1996, 1998, and in 1999 – and knocked them out all three years while twice sweeping them (‘98 and ’99). Although the Rangers knocked the Yanks out in the second round of the playoffs in 2010, the Yanks have never had a problem with them in the first round. Numerically in fact, the Yankees are 9-1 vs. Texas in ALDS play.

Cons

  • The first two games will be played in Arlington. Along with the changes made to the Wild Card, MLB changed the rules in terms of home field advantage. Instead of the team with home field advantage playing the first two games at home, then going on the road for two, then coming home for a Game Five (if necessary), the team with HFA starts on the road for two games, then comes home for the final three (games four and five of course, if necessary). Therefore, the Yankees will have to play the first two ALDS games in Texas, which is a difficult Stadium to win at.

  • Facing Yu Darvish. The Yanks won’t have to worry about the young man from Japan in Game One of the ALDS if the Rangers take the Wild Card, as he’ll be starting the winner-take-all game vs. Baltimore tonight. However, if the Yankees do happen to cross paths with him, they should keep Tuesday, April 24 in mind: the night Darvish shut them down with an 8.1-inning, 10-strikeout masterpiece to lead the Rangers to a 2-0 win. His name might not be Cliff Lee, but Darvish was a virtuoso that night; reminiscent of a Lee performance.
  • Pitching to Josh Hamilton. In the 2010 ALCS Hamilton punished the Yankees, clubbing four home runs, driving in seven, and batting .350. He went on to win the ALCS MVP, and later the American League MVP. His batting average for 2012 may not have been the highest of his career (.285) but Hamilton still smacked 43 homers and batted in 128 runs. He is one of the most dangerous hitters in the big leagues – and obviously he’s more dangerous playing in October, when it matters.

Baltimore Orioles

Pros

  • Familiarity. The Yankees are no strangers to Camden Yards, having played nine games there this year. Yankee fans flock down from New York to root for the team, sometimes giving Oriole Park the feel of Yankee Stadium. And in case you’re wondering, six of the Yanks’ nine wins vs. Baltimore this year were road victories.
  • The Orioles’ postseason drought. Baltimore hasn’t danced in October since 1997 – and their last taste of playoff baseball ended on a sour note: the Indians beating them in the ALCS. It’ll be interesting to see just how the Orioles respond when all eyes are on them this October.
  • The absence of longtime Yankee nemesis Nick Markakis. The 28-year-old outfielder – also a career .295 hitter – was struck by a pitch on his thumb on Sept. 8, fracturing the bone and thus ending his season. With Baltimore boasting such a potent offensive lineup with the likes of Mark Reynolds, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters, Markakis is one less problem for the Yankee pitching staff to worry about.
  • Inexperience on the part of the Orioles’ third baseman. Manny Machado was called up from the Double-A Bowie Baysox on Aug. 9. He’s done a fine job on offense in his infantile career, with seven homers and 26 RBIs. But on Monday, some shoddy defense at third cost his team a game vs. Tampa Bay – a game the Orioles needed to win in order to stay in contention with the Yankees for the AL East. If Machado falls through the cracks on defense, it might cost the O’s in the playoffs, the same way it did vs. the Rays.

Cons

  • The Orioles knew how to win in extra innings this year. Baltimore posted 16 extra-inning victories in 2012, and won nine games that lasted 12 innings or longer. Some of their dramatics included a 15-inning win, a 17-inning win, and an 18-inning win this year. For the Yankees, playing only nine innings is key, given the O’s dominance in extra frames.
  • Pitching to Mark Reynolds. The Orioles’ first baseman smacked 23 home runs this year – and seven of those 23 were off Yankee pitchers. Reynolds posted a .294 average vs. the Yankees in 2012 and knocked in 14 runs against New York. All season long Reynolds has been a thorn in the Yanks’ side, and he has a chance to continue it in the playoffs.
  • Jim Johnson at the end of the game. Baltimore’s closer nailed down 51 saves this year in 54 save opps. Up until Tuesday, the Yankees were 0-for-58 when trailing after eight innings. Johnson is not a pitcher the Yankees would ideally want to be facing in a late, close game. Johnson was 3-for-3 in saves vs. New York this year.

  • Resiliency on the Orioles’ part. Case in point: Thursday, Sept. 6. At Camden Yards, the Yankees fell behind early and trailed the O’s 6-1 after seven innings. New York rallied for five runs in the top of the eighth to tie it at six – only for Baltimore to answer with a four-run bottom half of the eighth. When it looked as if the momentum swung the Yankees’ way, the Orioles made sure to show the Bombers they possess the ability to battle back. Baltimore went on to win, 10-6.

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As always, there are upsides and downsides of playing any postseason opponent. I’m not one to make predictions, but ESPN is: and 11 of 28 analysts in Bristol, Conn. say the Yankees will be going to the Fall Classic – and six of those 11 have the Yankees winning it all.

This writer can only hope those six are right.

It’s only too bad the Twins aren’t playing for the Wild Card this year. I know the Yankees would be rooting hard for them – and I think, given the history, I’d say the Yankees’ odds of winning the first round would be pretty favorable.

But it’s not the case. It’s not the Twins and if the Yanks want World Series number 28 this season, they’ll have to do what good teams do: find ways to win.

End of the Year Awards

The Yankees were winless, in fact 0-for-58 this year, when trailing after eight innings entering play last night. They couldn’t have picked a better time to change that in game number 161 of the regular season; needing a victory to remain a game ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in first place.

Thanks to the timely hitting and clutch offense of Raul Ibanez, the Bronx Bombers put on a drama show, beating the last place Boston Red Sox 4-3 in a bona fide thriller. The Yanks’ win now sets up these possible scenarios for today:

  • A Yankee win over Boston: New York takes the AL East.
  • A Yankee loss to Boston and an Orioles loss to Tampa Bay: New York takes the AL East.
  • A Yankee loss to Boston and an Orioles win over Tampa Bay: a New York vs. Baltimore game at Camden Yards on Thursday to determine the AL East winner and the second Wild Card team.

What’s more, pending the outcome of the Oakland A’s/Texas Rangers game this afternoon, the Yankees have a chance to enter the postseason with the best record in the American League. If the A’s beat the Rangers – and the Yanks win tonight – they’ll go into October as the top seed, having won the most games of any team in the AL.

While we’ll all have to play the waiting game for division winners and playoff seeds, it’s that time of the year to hand out end-of-the season awards. There are a number of Yankees who have stood out this year, and they deserve to be recognized in one way or another. So without any further ado, here are the 2012 Yankee Yapping awards!

Most Valuable Player

Winner: Derek Jeter

It always seems that just when you think the Yankee Captain is done, he just adds more to his mind-bogglingly illustrious career. Last year he made history, clubbing a home run for his 3,000th hit – a nice, astronomical number to go along with his five World Series titles, seven pennants, his ’96 AL Rookie of the Year, his 2000 World Series MVP, his 2000 All-Star Game MVP…you get the picture.

On Sept. 14, as part of a 19-game hitting streak, Jeter put another notch on his accomplishment belt, passing the legendary Willie Mays on baseball’s all-time hits list, Jeter now in 10th place all by himself.

Jeter will finish this season with a batting average above .300 and he currently has 215 hits, which leads the majors. He’s also at double digits in home runs (15), and if he scores a run tonight, he’ll have 100 runs scored, as he currently sits at 99 for the year.

With more history made this season and a fine offensive campaign, Jeter has earned arguably the most prestigious accolade of his career: the Yankee Yapping MVP. Congrats, Derek!

Best Season from a Newcomer

Winner: Raul Ibanez

After last night, it’s only fitting Raul Ibanez claims this distinction.

I’ll be the first to admit, when Ibanez was signed by the Yankees basically on a dime, I was confused. A 40-year-old designated hitter who was chosen over Johnny Damon?

It didn’t make sense to me at the time. In fact, I dubbed him, “Grandpa Ibanez.”

The joke was on me, because grandpa showed me – and everyone – that he still has a lot of baseball life left in him; with 91 hits, 62 RBIs, and 19 homers – none more important than his blast in the ninth inning of last night’s game.

Not only did Ibanez prove his worth at the plate, but for an aged player signed to be a primary DH, he did a nice job playing left field for Brett Gardner, who sat out most of the year with injuries. Ibanez showed, despite his age, he was worth the signing.

And for that, Raul, we thank you. Congrats on a great season.

Walk-off Hero

Winner: Russell Martin

All season long, Russell Martin was thrown under the microscope for hitting below .200. But all the chatter and criticism probably motivated him to swing the bat better, because look at him now: hitting .210 with a career-high 21 home runs.

All of his long balls were meaningful, but two stand out in my mind.

On Sunday June 10, Martin came up to the plate in the ninth inning against Jon Rauch of the Mets. Tied 4-4, Martin launched a ball deep in the air to left field for a solo, walk-off home run, giving the Yanks a 5-4 win to complete a weekend sweep of the Mets.

Then on Friday Sept. 21, he duplicated the feat vs. the Oakland A’s.

Knotted at one in the bottom of the 10th, Martin lifted what turned out to be another game-winning home run off Oakland reliever Sean Doolittle to push the Yanks past the A’s 2-1 in a crucial game the Bombers needed.

With a flair for the dramatic, Martin got it done. Congrats on not only persevering in terms of your batting average, but also saving the day with some power (twice) this year, Russell.

Ace of the Year

Co-Winners: CC Sabathia & Hiroki Kuroda

Considering the fact CC Sabathia spent time on the disabled list this year, it almost surprised me that he finished with the numbers he did. His 2012 totals aren’t what you’d expect from an ace, but nonetheless, 15 wins with only seven losses and an ERA of 3.38 isn’t too shabby.

What helped put Sabathia in the running for this award was that, despite his DL stints this year, he still logged 200 innings and struck out 197 batters. Plus, having struggled mightily throughout the month of September, Sabathia turned it around to finish strong, striking out 29 batters over his final three outings of the season – going 2-0 over those three games with the Yanks winning all three of them.

And then there’s the guy who piggy-backed him.

Although his 15-11 record isn’t exactly indicative of a standout year, Hiroki Kuroda did a fantastic job this season – better than his record indicates. Basically being thrown into the role of ace in Sabathia’s absence, Kuroda pitched extremely well, albeit he didn’t receive the type of run support I’m sure he would’ve hoped for.

Kuroda pitched 212.2 innings – and obviously that total will go up tonight, as he’s starting this evening’s game. Opponents are only hitting .249 against him, and he’s given up less than a hit per inning going into his final start (198 hits allowed).

There’s no doubt Kuroda proved his value through his impressive pitching this year, and teamed up with Sabathia to make a pretty fearsome 1-2 punch. Congrats on the award, fellas.

Reliever of the Year

Winner: Rafael Soriano

The Yankee clubhouse was said to have the feel of a morgue on May 3 when Mariano Rivera blew his knee out shagging fly balls in Kansas City during batting practice. The great Rivera was carted off the field and diagnosed with a torn ACL, his season over and the Yankees unsure of his future.

Superman lost his cape. Or, Thor lost his hammer.

Manager Joe Girardi tried plugging David Robertson into the closer role, only for him to blow his first chance at a save. As it turned out, Robertson wasn’t the right fit for the closer role, and in fact, scuffled in a lot of his appearances throughout the year; currently with a 2-7 record.

Enter the man whom I call “the silent assassin,” Rafael Soriano.

In 46 save opps this season, Soriano has nailed down 42 – quite impressive for a reliever who wasn’t the closer for a full year. When Rivera went down, Soriano stepped up in a huge way, a way the Yankees needed.

Without him, there’s no telling where the Yankees would be right now; perhaps eliminated from playoff contention, without his spectacular ability to finish off opponents in the final inning.

Congrats on a wonderful season, Rafael. You won Yankee Yapping Reliever of the Year.

Untuck!

Slugger of the Year Award

Winner: Robinson Cano

It seems as if the Yankees’ second baseman has made his whole life baseball. Aside from maybe Derek Jeter, personally, I don’t think there’s a player who works harder than Robinson Cano. In my mind, he’s one of the best all-around players in the game today.

Cano went through a couple of dry spells this year at the plate, but that didn’t stop him from hitting .308 with 31 homers and 88 RBIs. He clubbed a pair of grand slams this year and kept the Yankees in many games with his clutch hitting and flashy defense.

On Monday Cano smacked his latest home run, a moon shot that caromed off the Mohegan Sun sports bar over the center field wall at Yankee Stadium. Prior to the game Cano’s cousin (also a ballplayer, who actually played for the Hudson Valley Renegades – the team I interned for in 2010 and covered this year) was tweeting.

He posted, “Add ‘ya heard!’ to the end of all your tweets.”

I tweeted to him, “Robinson Cano will hit a homer tonight. YA HEARD!” He replied simply with “!!!”

Sure enough, I called that shot. I had to point that out after it happened.

Overall Cano had yet another remarkable season. There are only more good things to come in his career, and at this point in time, he’s the best hitter on the team. Congrats, Robinson!

Home Run Champion

Winner: Curtis Granderson

For the second consecutive season, Curtis Granderson has smacked 40 home runs or more, this year currently with 41 dingers. When it comes to hitting for power, Granderson sure knows what the heck he’s doing, and has emerged as one of the premiere power hitters in the AL.

On April 19 this season, Granderson proved that.

In a game at home vs. the Minnesota Twins, he cracked three homers in the first four innings, becoming at the time only the 12th player in MLB history to go yard three times in a single game. On the strength of his power surge, the Yanks went on to beat the Twinkies, 7-6.

Although he can hit for power, Granderson must improve on his average stroke. Going into tonight’s 162nd game, Granderson is only batting a measly .230 at the plate – hitting for average probably being the only facet of the game he seems to struggle with.

But this isn’t the “Batting Average Champion” award. It’s the Home Run Champion award. And Curtis, you’ve earned it. Congrats!

Best Trade Deadline Pickup/Earned a 2013 Contract

Winner: Ichiro

The Yankees added two pieces before the trade deadline passed. One being a small pickup, Casey McGehee – a utility man a lot of fans probably forgot about, by now. But there’s no way anyone forgot about the second player the Yanks traded for.

Ichiro joined the team on July 23 and since then has basically not stopped hitting. He brought 12 years of excellence with the Seattle Mariners when he was swapped, and has reached base safely 77 times (72 hits, five walks) in the 66 games he’s played in pinstripes. He has also ignited the team on the base paths, stealing 13 bags.

Something tells me Ichiro is going to perform well in October, in what will be his first postseason since 2001. And although he’s somewhat up there in age, 38 (he’ll turn 39 on Oct. 22), I feel he deserves a chance to come back to the Yankees and play in pinstripes in 2013.

Ichiro is a lot like Jeter: ageless. It doesn’t matter how old he is because his numbers have never really seen a steady decline; he is always close to 200 hits a year.

For his experience and veteran know-how, the man from Japan – in my humble opinion – earned another season in the Bronx, and was a solid acquisition over the summer.

Domo arigato, Mr. Suzuki. Congrats!

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Well there you have it. Congrats to all the 2012 Yankee Yapping award winners, and make sure to check back here at the Yankee Yapping blog throughout the playoffs. I’ll be posting previews, recaps, and I’ll be writing about anything newsworthy this October.

Also check out the YY Facebook page and my Twitter for postseason news, updates, and of course my witty observations!

The Grand Tour

With the Texas Rangers’ win over the Los Angeles Angels tonight, the Yankees have officially clinched a spot in the postseason this year, but they will go in knowing full well it took almost all 162 games to get into the party.

This afternoon was an indication of that.

Tied with Baltimore for the AL East lead entering play today, the Bronx Bombers weren’t helping themselves when they trailed the Toronto Blue Jays 5-1 after five innings; Phil Hughes pitching about as poorly as it gets in a hugely important game.

Thankfully for him, the offense bailed him out.

The Yanks pieced together an epic rally, shredding away at the Jays’ four run lead, scoring one run in the sixth, three in the seventh, and two in the eighth and ninth innings for a necessary 9-6 victory.

Unfortunately for the Yanks, the Orioles also won their game this afternoon, beating the Red Sox 6-3 at home, and thus leaving the AL East in a stalemate going into the final three games of the 2012 regular season.

While the Yankees staged their comeback on the road, I spent the better part of my day at their home – Yankee Stadium. My friends and I were fortunate enough to take a tour of the ballpark, a trip I’ve wanted to go on for a long time.

We even took the tour with Ichiro’s brother!

Just kidding. But he looked almost exactly identical to him.

The first stop on the tour was the Yankee museum inside the Stadium. Our tour guide, a nice guy by the name of Tim, showed us the new Mickey Mantle exhibit. He then told some neat stories (most of which I already knew about) highlighting Mantle’s career.

For instance, during the 1951 World Series Mantle tore all the cartilage in his knee chasing down a fly ball struck by Willie Mays of the Giants – one of the multiple injuries Mantle suffered over the course of his legendary career.

I first learned of that story in the movie 61*

From the museum, we journeyed to Monument Park, behind the center field wall. I’ve been to Monument Park a number of times, and never knew the story behind the door.

According to Tim, there originally was no door linking the Yankee bullpen to Monument Park. Mariano Rivera made a special request for a door to be put in – all because of his pre-appearance ritual. Before every time Rivera runs in from the bullpen, he goes into Monument Park and rubs Babe Ruth’s monument.

Don’t ask me why. For luck, I suppose? Like he needs it…

At any rate, it was a nice little factoid; nothing I knew about before. I also bent over and picked up a rock from behind the Monument wall, and discreetly put it in my pocket for keeping. I’m not sure if was allowed to do that or not…

But I won’t tell if you don’t. I just wanted to keep a piece of the day – and Yankee Stadium – for myself.

After our tour of Monument Park concluded, we made our way to the Yankee dugout, which in my opinion was the best and most fun part of the tour. We were allowed to snap pictures and make all the funny poses we wanted. My friends and I actually came up with a small running joke for this picture:

I was told I could be “Ellen Page’s boyfriend.” Don’t ask.

We then decided to pretend we were in the middle of a heated game, and posed as if the Yankees crushed a walk-off home run. We made sure to take full advantage of the dugout photo-ops.

I’ve always dreamt what it was like to be in the Yankees’ dugout – and it was pretty cool knowing that, in only a matter of hours, the entire team would be back and buzzing; right in the same spot I was in, as the Yanks come home to host Boston tomorrow, Tuesday, and Wednesday to close out the year.

Before we left, I sat down and slid my rear end across the entire bench, then declared,

“Derek Jeter always sits on this bench. And now I did, too.”

The two security guards laughed hysterically at my shenanigan.

We were then taken into the clubhouse, but with one small caveat: no pictures allowed. The organization feels the clubhouse is the Yankee players’ personal space, and snapping photos inside that personal space isn’t right.

I have to agree – if I was in their shoes, I wouldn’t want people coming in and taking pictures of my locker and my personal belongings which it holds.

Some things I did take notice of, albeit I don’t have pictures – and some clubhouse facts from Tim:

  • Boone Logan has a Yankee lawn gnome in his locker.
  • Jayson Nix had a bottle of what looked like prescription pills in his locker. And an iPhone charger.  
  • For most of the season, Derek Jeter has two lockers: one for his baseball equipment and one for fan mail and gifts from his sponsors. In fact, Tim said, “If they could fit a Ford truck into this clubhouse, they would, and it would be right in that locker with the rest of Jeter’s stuff.”
  • With all the September call-ups, Francisco Cervelli is using Jeter’s second locker, for now.
  • David Aardsma, who was just activated, didn’t have a name/number plate above his locker. That was to be expected, however. He hasn’t pitched at Yankee Stadium yet.
  • Ichiro’s locker is the same locker Hideki Matsui used.
  • The visiting clubhouse is “big and nice, but not as big and nice as the Yankees’ clubhouse.”
  • When leaving the new Stadium, the players don’t have to leave from the outside of the building – unlike the old Stadium.

The elevator from the clubhouse took us right up into the Great Hall where the tour started, and Tim gave everyone a little souvenir: a Yankee Stadium tour keychain. My friends and I then took a walk over to the Hard Rock Café for some lunch, which surprisingly was very affordable and not overly pricey. (My friend Alicia over at Ballparks on a Budget would appreciate it!)

We watched the Yanks take the win over the Jays as we ate, and before we left, we basically got a little bonus. It turns out part of the frieze from the old Stadium is now sitting outside Heritage Field. We went over and took some photos with it, and I placed my hand on it; kind of touched it with my heart, in a way.

As much as I like the new Stadium, I truly enjoyed the original House that Ruth built. And it felt only right to pay homage to a relic.

Overall, it was one of the best and most fun days of my life.

Was I the happiest kid in New York today?

Yes. But then again, I was probably the happiest kid alive.

Something to hang our hats on

Tonight Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale dominated the Yankees, and for as crummy and as inconsistent as Phil Hughes has been this year, he didn’t pitch poorly. Hughes, allowing just two runs in a solid seven innings pitched, came up on the short end of the stick – as did the Yankees, losing 2-1 and getting swept in three games at the hands of the pale hose.

The best part of this trip to Chicago for the Yankees, aside from leaving: Derek Jeter, who homered in all three losing efforts. It marked the first time in the captain’s career he went deep in three straight games.

Thankfully for the Yankees, they will not play the White Sox again during the regular season. However if the two teams meet in October, Chicago can head into the series with a positive mindset, knowing they took five of seven games from New York this season.

If you saw my tweet from earlier tonight, the White Sox scare me.

But the Yankees can concern themselves with the postseason when the time comes, and for now worry about  fending off the Tampa Bay Rays – who have pulled to within three games of the AL East lead. That once comfortable nine-game division gap has thinned and the Rays now have a chance to swipe the East from the Yanks.

Better pitching and series wins are what the Yankees need to put first and foremost in their minds down the stretch and into September.

For tonight, though, I’d like to make reference to something that not a lot of people really know about; perhaps it’s my way of dealing with the recent sweep and being at the mercy of the White Sox.

If you follow football, which is rapidly approaching, you know that the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in February, beating the New England Patriots, 21-17. Their last game before the Super Bowl, as most fans know, took place in San Francisco. The Giants beat the 49ers in the NFC Championship game on a game-winning field goal booted through the uprights by Lawrence Tynes.

What most people don’t know is that Kyle Williams – San Francisco’s punt returner who fumbled the ball, setting up the Giants’ game-winner – is the son of White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams.

That’s right. The White Sox GM’s son was the goat of the NFC Title game.

Chicago may have completed its little sweep of New York tonight, but if you ask me, the NFC Championship game is proof of why Chicago is called the “second city” and New York is number one – which they’ve proven 27 times in baseball and most recently in football.

It may not be much, but hey, it’s something to hang our hats on.

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.

Clean Rocket Fuel

Perjury was the case that they gave him. And he’s innocent.

Innocent?

In May, 2007 I sat in a sports bar with my dad. Roger Clemens had just agreed to return to the New York Yankees days before, having spent three seasons with the Houston Astros, dipping in and out of retirement.  I overheard another fan sitting at a nearby table, fawning over Clemens’s comeback.

“He is THE greatest pitcher of our era,” he said to his friend. “I’m so glad he’s back.”

Clemens went on to have a mediocre half-season for the Yanks, finishing 6-6 with a 4.18 ERA. He had to leave his only postseason start vs. Cleveland in the ALDS early with a groin injury.

Knowing Clemens’s history – admitting his career was over, only for him to rejoin his team halfway through the year – I never expected his start vs. the Indians in the ‘07 ALDS to be his last game. I got the feeling that Clemens, even at 45 years old, would somehow find his way back to the majors in 2008.

That is, until the can of worms was opened on Dec. 13, 2007; the possible secret to his longevity revealed.

Clemens was named in the infamous Mitchell Report, a 409-page document which deeply explored steroid usage in Major League Baseball.  The Rocket’s name was mentioned 82 times. Upon the release of the report, and his name being linked with steroid usage, Clemens vehemently denied using performance-enhancing drugs, steroids, HGH, or any other illegal substance in order to gain an unfair advantage on the diamond.

The main whistleblower in the whole ordeal was Brian McNamee, a former personal strength coach of Clemens and his former teammate and friend, the recently hobbled Andy Pettitte. McNamee confessed that he personally injected Clemens with steroids, sparking a huge he said-she said case.

In a nutshell, McNamee claimed, “Yes, Roger took steroids. I know because I gave them to him.” Clemens contended, “No, I didn’t take them. Brian is lying.”

Determined to tell his side of the story, Clemens appeared on 60 Minutes in January of 2007 to plead his case. In the interview, he stated that McNamee only injected him with Lidocaine (a pain reliever) and B-12 (or Vitamin B).

What particularly stood out to me in that interview was his response to Mike Wallace’s question about the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Wallace inquired about what Clemens’s chances of making the hall might be, given the steroid allegations.

“What makes you think I give a damn about the Hall of Fame?” Clemens answered, in clearly a frustrated tone.

That did it right there for me. That response alone wiped away a great deal of respect I once had for the Rocket. No player, no matter what, should ever speak that way about the Hall of Fame, because being a member of that exclusive club is an honor every player should “give a damn about.”

The saga continued in February of 2008 when Clemens stood before congress and claimed he never used PEDs, steroids, or HGH. Being that Clemens swore under oath he never used steroids, if it came out that he was lying, he could have faced jail time – such is the punishment for lying under oath, or in judicial terminology, perjury.

The host of congressmen were divided during the hearing. In fact, I recall watching the coverage of the hearing and it seemed half of the committee believed Clemens and the other half sided with McNamee.

Talk about giving new meaning to the phrase, “a house divided.”

Clemens was indicted in August 2010 and his trial began July 13 of last year. The case was declared a mistrial and as a result Clemens was retried.

This whole mess finally came to a head 11 days ago, Monday, June 18, when Clemens was found not guilty on six counts of lying to congress about using steroids, HGH, and performance-enhancing drugs.

Where was I when I learned of the Rocket’s innocence?

Of all places, Yankee Stadium. I guess that’s poetically just.

Perhaps in a way to celebrate his successful trial, Clemens attended a Boston Red Sox game recently. He sat in the Green Monster seats, protected by a group of security guards. Maybe it was the Rocket’s way of attempting to endear himself back into the hearts of his baseball fans in Boston, where he started his career and flourished.

But it was for naught. Clemens was booed by the Fenway Faithful.

Clemens, to me, will now forever be a mystery. Now I have a barrage of questions that I’m not sure will ever be answered.

Should the fans, now knowing he technically didn’t lie, forgive him and consider him one of the most elite pitchers in not only Yankee history, but baseball history?

Does the fact that he was found not guilty really prove he was innocent? Or in other words, did he get away with perjury?

If he really was telling the truth, is he the rightful “greatest pitcher of our era?”

Despite his asinine comments, is he worthy of the Hall of Fame now?

If he came back to Yankee Stadium and sat amongst the bleacher creatures, how would he be received by Yankee Universe in comparison to how Red Sox Nation reacted to his presence?

I don’t know. And I might never know, for sure.

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.

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