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May 22, 2010

One-Hoppers

Game Story: Yankees at Mets, May 21

by Jay Jaffe

Fourteen seasons since interleague play was first introduced, it's fair to say that even the small handful of natural rivalries which drive these annual matchups have lost some of their luster. So it appears to be with the Yankees-Mets Subway Series, which began on Friday night surrounded less by buzz than buzzkill. Not only did both teams enter the weekend's series reeling from injuries and late-inning defeats, but amid an 18 percent drop in attendance at CitiField, the Mets were reduced to the indignity of giving premium tickets away to former season ticket holders.

The Yankees limped into Citi having lost eight out of their previous 12. Despite their lineup's scrubbiness — Randy Winn, Marcus Thames, Francisco Cervelli, Juan Miranda and Ramiro Pena had all seen extensive action throughout the week, owing to the absences of Nick Johnson, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and now Jorge Posada — the Yanks had scored a respectable 5.2 runs per game across that stretch, maintaining their spot as the majors' most potent offensive team thanks to the recent resurgences of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. Alas, their pitching staff had let them down, allowing 5.6 runs per game, a problem owing a fair deal to the bullpen's sudden decrepitude — 20 runs allowed in 16.1 innings across their last five games, playing a major part in the four defeats they'd suffered since I'd seen them at Yankee Stadium last Saturday.

Still, their 25-16 record and second-place standing put them miles ahead of the Mets, who'd lost nine of 12 — including one game on a walkoff wild pitch and another on a walkoff throwing error, rekindling uncomfortable memories of last season's debacles — and entered with a 20-22 record, bad enough for last place in the NL East. As has been the hallmark of the latter-day Omar Minaya regime, an air of constant crisis once again enveloped the club. Earlier in the week chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon had flown to Atlanta for impromptu organizational meetings that put manager Jerry Manuel's job status in doubt; the deathwatch on his regime has begun.

To make matters worse — and these days, it almost goes without saying that the Mets are major league baseball's foremost experts in doing so — injuries continue to decimate the club, exposing the winter's scrimping. Where the Yankee' recent championship gives them the latitude to view their injuries in the context of the big picture, the battered Mets have become all too prone to treating key maladies with the panic of a claustrophobe in a broken elevator — one full of hungry alligators, at that. How else to explain the conflicting stories arising from multiple clashes between player and team over diagnoses, doctors, rehab plans, and endless setbacks involving stars such as Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran? While it's tempting ascribe the constant siege under which the team finds itself to a ravenous New York media the reality is that any team with a sub-.500 record over the past season-plus while carrying one of the game's top five payrolls might as well paint a target on its back.

As first pitch approached on Friday, the Mets' freshest crisis was less than 24 hours old. Thursday night's starting pitcher, John Maine, had been pulled from the game after throwing just five pitches due to a lack of velocity, despite his vehment protestations. Adding fuel to the fire, pitching coach Dan Warthen subsequently called the injury-plagued Maine "a habitual liar" about his own health amid a statement salted with more complimentary descriptions like "competitor" and "warrior." Further fanning the flames, Maine reacted to the brass' reasonable if hamfisted effort to protect him from himself, pouting and showing disregard for how his subpar performance might adversely affect the already-reeling team: "I don't care if it's 95. I don't care if its 75 mph. I just want to go out there and pitch," he told reporters, also offering to throw left-handed.

Unfortunately for the Mets, Maine wasn't their only starter out of commission. Oliver Perez's continued erraticism had forced him to the bullpen in favor of knuckleballing R.A. Dickey, who'd given the team a solid six-inning effort on Wednesday night. Meanwhile, Jon Niese's hamstring woes necessitated yet another fill-in for Friday's start. The call went to Hisanori Takahashi, a 35-year-old Japanese southpaw in his first stateside season. Despite his unimposing stature — 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, with an average fastball speed of 88.5 mph — Takahashi's herky-jerky delivery and deep offspeed repertoire (changeup, slider, curve) nonetheless has caused hitters fits; he'd whiffed 11.4 per nine in 15 relief appearances, pitching well enough to put up putting up a 3.76 Fair Run Average and rank second on the club in WXRL.

Taking the hill for the Yanks was Javier Vazquez, making just his second start in 20 days after being torched for a 9.78 ERA over his first five starts. He'd pitched well in his return to the rotation, a seven-inning, two-run effort against the Tigers under frigid conditions in Detroit on May 12, but as before, manager Joe Girardi had opted to skip his next turn against the Red Sox, instead using him for a spot of relief that had Yankee fans shuddering in recollection of the last time that happened.

Despite such uninspiring circumstances, the two pitchers simply traded zeroes over the first six innings of Friday night's game. Takahashi attacked the Yankee hitters by throwing first-pitch strikes to seven of the first eight hitters and 17 out of 23 in all, scattering five hits and one walk while striking out five. Cool, calm, and collected, he stranded runners in scoring position three times. In the third, Cervelli led off with a walk, followed by a Kevin Russo single (his first major league hit) and a Vazquez sac bunt, but Takahashi recovered thanks to Jeter taking three called strikes on 90ish fastballs on the the inside corner, and Brett Gardner grounded out. In the fourth, with one out A-Rod beat out an infield single to the third-base side of short, with Reyes throwing a 27-hopper over to first base in vain, then Robinson Cano followed with a double off the left center field wall. Takahashi regrouped and whiffed Swisher on a low-and-away changeup so far outside the zone that the Coast Guard radioed the ballpark to check in, then got Cervelli to fly out to center field to end the threat. With Rodriguez at second after a two out double in the sixth, he capped his night by striking out Cano on his 101st pitch, a sinker that simply kept sinking. Mets fans, meet your new number three starter.

As for Vazquez, if there's one thing we knew about him going in, it's that he can thrive against National League hitters. Though he threw just half a dozen pitches above 89 MPH — three of them in the service of striking out Ike Davis to end the first inning, and just two after the second frame — he simply baffled the Mets, throwing first-pitch strikes to 11 out of the first 15 hitters and taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning before Angel Pagan's one-out blooper dropped safely into left field. He missed plenty of bats, striking out six, yet was economical, throwing just 70 pitches A pair of Alex Cora walks, one erased when he was caught stealing to end the fourth, were his only other blemishes besides Pagan's single

Alas, Vazquez's night ended under unfortunate circumstances, as he bruised his index finger in the service of a sacrifice bunt in the top of the seventh; x-rays proved negative, but his next start is still in doubt. By that point, the Yankees had put a pair of runs on the board against Elmer Dessens, Maine's replacement on the roster and the answer to the age-old query, "Which pitcher is named after and will soon be turned into a non-toxic glue?" Swisher singled to lead off the inning, Cervelli grounded into a fielder's choice which second baseman Alex Cora airmailed over Reyes' head and into left field, with the runners taking second and third. Russo, continuing his big night, doubled down the right field line to plate both runs, his first major league RBI, and advanced to third on Vazquez's fateful sacrifice. One could argue that given that the hapless Dessens had put the first three batters on base and that there was no threat of a double play, Girardi could have let him swing away, but you don't get to be a candidate for Overmanager of the Year by doing that, and anyway, who figured that a pitcher with eight seasons in the NL would be a hazard to himself with the bat in his hands?

Following a Jeter groundout which failed to bring Russo home, Manuel brought in Perez, making just his second appearance in his new role. He promptly walked Gardner on five pitches before getting Teixeira to fly out. Thus began a battle of mix-and-match bullpen efforts which ground what had been a brisk game into a halting affair featuring nine relievers. Girardi used three pitchers to work into and out of a jam in the seventh, with David Robertson and Damaso Marte facing a combined total of three hitters and putting two of them on, the second, Davis, on a throwing error by Cervelli. Joba Chamberlain, who'd allowed seven of the Yankee bullpen's runs over his previous two appearances, came on to face David Wright. After falling behind 3-1, he struck Wright out looking at a low-and-away slider of the type the Mets third basemen must be seeing in his sleep these days. He whiffed Pagan to end the seventh as well as Rod Barajas to start the eighth, sticking around to finish a spotless frame.

Manuel pulled his favorite levers in the eighth, calling upon both Fernando Nieve and Pedro Feliciano to make their major league-leading 25th appearances. Regarding Nieve, the mystery is why; carrying a 4.71 Fair Run Average and a 15/14 K/BB ratio, he's not exactly stopper material, and here he walked Rodriguez to lead off the eighth. Feliciano came on and whiffed two hitters in dousing any potential rally, and Manny Acosta worked a scoreless ninth.

So it all boiled down to Mariano Rivera protecting a 2-0 lead in the ninth inning. He'd endured a rough week, yielding a grand slam to the Twins' Jason Kubel on Sunday for his first blown save of the year, then taking the loss two days later against the Red Sox as Marcus Thames' ninth-inning dropped fly ball led to two unearned runs. Such troubles appeared to be behind him as he got two quick outs against Reyes and Cora, but Jason Bay, who'd come into the game hitting a relatively punchless .281/.371/.405, bashed a long fly ball off the left center field wall to keep the Mets' hopes alive. One pitch later, Davis drilled a double into the right center field gap to put them on the board and bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Wright, by now in the throes of a 4-for-32 slump pocked with 14 strikeouts, putting him on a 210-K pace.

While it's tempting to apply some pop psychology and attribute his game-ending first-pitch groundout to some desire to avoid the spotlight or claim that he swung like he had an idling taxi to catch, the reality is that Rivera left a cutter in the heart of the strike zone, a hittable pitch that the Mets' third baseman simply didn't do enough with, bouncing it to Cano to end the game. That won't provide much solace to the Mets or their fans, but these days their problems are much, much bigger than one good hitter's bad jag.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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