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May 16, 2010

One-Hoppers

Game Story: Twins at Yankees, May 15

by Jay Jaffe

On paper, a series between the Yankees and the Twins — the league's second and third-ranked teams on the most recent Hit List — ought to be a competitive one. The Yanks are of course perennial contenders who've made the postseason 14 times in the past 15 seasons, while the Twins have reached October five times in the past eight years. Yet if there's one sure thing about the two teams over the latter span, it's that the Yankees have pushed the Twins around consistently. From 2002 through 2009, they won 41 of 55 regular season contests between the two teams, and nine out of 11 in the postseason, ending the Twins' title hopes in 2003, 2004, and last October. They've particularly mastered the Twins at home; Friday night's come-from-behind win, fueled by Alex Rodriguez's seventh-inning grand slam, marked their 24th victory in the matchup's last 27 regular-season contests in the Bronx.

That game seemed to be handed to the Yankees on a silver platter by Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. Protecting a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the seventh, the skipper defied a pair of small sample size showings heavily tilted in favor of the marquee slugger. With two on and one out, Gardenhire ordered reliever Brian Duensing to intentionally walk Mark Teixeira to load the bases and face Rodriguez, who to that point had gone 3-for-3 with a homer and 10 RBI on such occasions — to say nothing of the man's 18 career grand slams. Gardenhire then tabbed Matt Guerrier, against whom Rodriguez was 4-for-6 with three homers. Small samples, yes, but so decisive that one would have expected gut instinct to trump statistical significance. Two pitches later the Yanks led 7-4, Rodriguez owned his 19th grand slam (tied with Eddie Murray for third all-time) and even spiffier splits, and the notion that the Twins have been snakebit in the Bronx was further reinforced.

That one in the books, Saturday's matchup paired two southpaws on comeback trails of sorts, Andy Petttitte and Francisco Liriano. Ever the stubborn plowhorse, Pettitte had much to his chagrin skipped a previous turn in the rotation after elbow stiffness forced an early departure from his May 5 start. The injury interrupted what had been the best season-opening stretch of the 37-year-old's career thanks to his aversion to the longball. Looking at his first six starts of each year (not including his relief appearances):

Year     IP    H  HR   BB   SO    ERA
2010   39.0   34   1   13   27   2.08
1997   42.7   38   3   13   27   2.32
1998   40.3   42   1   16   33   2.45
2001   44.3   48   3    7   30   3.05
2007   34.0   35   2   15   22   3.18
2005   39.0   39   3    9   24   3.23
2004   33.3   26   1   14   36   3.51
1995   37.3   42   5   13   19   3.86
2008   36.7   41   5   11   20   3.93
2003   36.3   38   2   11   30   3.96
2009   39.0   42   5   11   23   4.38
2000   31.3   36   4   16   24   4.88
2002   25.7   37   3   13   13   4.91
1996   36.0   46   3   11   21   5.00
1999   35.0   40   4   14   22   5.14
2006   36.0   47   7   13   29   5.25

The fickle thoroughbred Liriano's return, on the other hand, is from the edge of oblivion reached in the wake of the 2006 Tommy John surgery which provided a bitter end to a dazzling rookie season. He missed all of 2007, made an uneven showing punctuated by some battles with club brass in 2008, then was stomped for a 5.80 last year. Only recently has he begun to look like the 2006 model ace-in-the-making again; thanks to a 23-inning scoreless streak back in April, he brought a 2.36 ERA and 8.4 K/9 into the game, and had yet to allow a homer in 42 innings — numbers good enough to rank him fifth in the league with a .663 Support Neutral Winning Percentage.

Both lineups exhibited dents due to injury. For the Twins, J.J. Hardy's wrist woes had Ron Gardenhire playing Brendan Harris at shortstop and Nick Punto at third; no member of that trio is hitting much, but the man with the highest True Average of the three (a whopping .250) was the one absent. The Twins' lineup also featured Joe Mauer as the designated hitter, with Drew Butera behind the plate. Phenom Wilson Ramos, who when Mauer was sidelined by a bruised heel collected four hits in his major league debut and then three more the next night, was sent down earlier in the week once the superstar's 10-day respite from the tools of ignorance had ended. With Mauer at DH and a lefty on the mound, both struggling Jason Kubel (.224/.345/.316) and slugging Jim Thome (.250/.379/.528) were consigned to the bench.

Mauer's opposite number, Jorge Posada, was also DHing, with Francisco Cervelli behind the plate, an alignment that may become more common given the combination of Posada's recent knee injury, the general decline of his receiving skills, Nick Johnson's wrist injury (which could cost him most of the summer) and Cervelli's sparkplug play. On Friday night, the 24-year-old backup backstop had kindled the decisive seventh-inning rally with an infield single to lead off the frame, and one inning later he ripped an RBI triple down the first base line, lifting his batting line to .415/.483/.528 and triggering further discussions of Jazayerli's Law of Backup Catchers. With Curtis Granderson on the shelf until next month due to a groin injury and a southpaw on the mound, lefty-mashing Marcus Thames drew the start in left, with Brett Gardner shifting over to center. Nick Swisher, who had departed Friday night's game in the second inning after aggravating a mild strain in his left biceps, was back in the lineup despite by his own admission being well below 100 percent; his injury apparently isn't as much of a problem batting from the right side.

Pettitte was sharp from the beginning, getting ahead of all three hitters in the first, while Gardner set the tone for the day by tumbling to snare Denard Span's dying quail to lead off the first inning, one of a handful of highlight-worthy plays the Yankee defense would make on the day and which both the pitcher and manager Joe Girardi would laud effusively after the game. Pettitte closed the frame in impressive fashion, freezing Mauer with an 82-mph cutter on the inside corner. He dug himself a hole in the second, yielding a Justin Morneau single and walking Michael Cuddyer, but he got a room service 6-4-3 double play against Delmon Young, and made a nice snag of a knee-high comebacker against Harris.

Liriano's day was a study in contrasts. His slider was downright nasty; of the seven strikeouts he'd collect, six came via the pitch, as opposed to just two of the Yankees' hits. On the other hand, his fastball was eminently hittable; he didn't get the Yankees to swing and miss at his 93-95 mph heater even once. Six of their first seven hits came on fastballs, including a Derek Jeter single up the middle to lead off the first. Jeter took third on a one-out Teixeira single, then scored when Rodriguez laced a single up the middle on a slider — the most consequential damage the Yanks would do all day via that pitch.

The Yanks added another run in the second, as Liriano hit Thames on the foot with a slider to lead off the inning. Cervelli, despite his hot hand and the fact that four of the first seven Yankee hitters had reached base, laid a sacrifice bunt down the third base line. Two batters later, Jeter dunked a single into right field, and Thames hustled home just ahead of a very good throw by Cuddyer to open up a 2-0 lead.

That score held until the sixth, punctuated by by a few notable defensive plays by the pinstripes. In the third inning, Swisher laid out for a diving catch of a Butera bloop. Gardner, who would later concede that catch topped his own ("That's what [Swisher] says, too," he told reporters later) nearly collided with Robinson Cano while battling the sun to catch Denard Span's short popup one batter later. In the fourth, Cano would snare consecutive line drives off the M&M boys, with Morneau's shot leading to Orlando Hudson being doubled off first to end the inning.

Pettitte had to dodge the M&M boys one more time on the day, which made for a worthwhile spectacle. With two outs in the sixth and the lead still at two runs, he walked both Span and Hudson on a total of nine pitches, bringing up Mauer for the game's pivotal moment. Petitte fell behind 3-0 on a trio of low-and-away pitches as the Yankee bullpen sprung to life, but he got a called strike on the outside corner. On his 26th pitch of the inning, he induced Mauer to sky a high fly ball to the fattest part of the ballpark in left center. Some 46,347 fans watched with bated breath as Gardner ran the ball down on the warning track to end the threat.

"In the first inning, I felt sharp but it wasn't a great day as far as continuing to hold it, conceded Pettitte after the game. "I made some mistakes and the guys made great plays behind me. I got a little tired in the sixth inning, my legs went on me a little bit, I lost my focus, and almost let the game get away from me, but I was able to get the fly ball there. I felt very fortunate."

Despite flagging, Pettitte returned to battle Morneau in the seventh, retiring him on a generous called strike on the outside of the plate. It was one of just two Ks he'd have on the day to match the bare two hits he allowed, both singles. In all, he generated just three swings and misses over the course of his 95-pitch afternoon, but got ahead of 14 out of 22 hitters with first-pitch strikes, and wound up providing the Yankees with yet another bend-but-don't-break performance in a seemingly endless line of such outings.

By the point of his departure, the Yankees had expanded their lead to 3-0, as Posada poked a Liriano changeup for a ground-rule double down the right field line to lead off the sixth, followed by Thames lining an RBI single up the middle after battling to a full count. Liriano escaped further damage in that inning, departing having thrown 101 pitches and allowing nine hits.

For the second game in a row, the Twins bullpen made a hash of things in the seventh — something of a surprise given that they'd come into the series with a Fair Run Average well under 3.00 and the league's WXRL lead (they're now down to second). Jesse Crain quickly got ahead of Swisher 0-2, then broke out his shovel to dig a big hole by nibbling his way to four straight balls. He worked Teixeira to a full count, but the Yankee first baseman crushed a 94 mph fastball for a towering homer that landed in the narrow club level in right field, a difficult target to hit from 429 feet away.

As noted in this week's Hit List, Teixeira's simply been Mr. May. After hitting just .136/.300/.259 in April — the worst numbers he's ever put up over the course of a full month — he's at a torrid .333/.406/.649 since the calendar turned, with five homers in 64 plate appearances. Lobbed a batting practice fastball after the game as far as what had changed for him this month, he didn't miss: "Just hitting the ball harder and they're finding holes." So true: his BABIP this month is .333, up from .148 in April.

Rodriguez's placement of another rather flat Crain heater wasn't quite as accurate as Teixeira's; he knocked one some 400 feet off the top of the right center field wall for a double. Cano grounded out to send Rodriguez to third before Gardenhire replaced the righty with lefty Ron Mahay — an odd choice given that the switch-hitting Posada's numbers against lefties are slightly superior to those against righties, both over the course of this year and his career. Three pitches in, he launched a Mahay fastball 431 feet into center field, where it caromed off the dividing wall between the Yankees bullpen and the new ballpark's pitifully decrepit excuse for Monument Park. The ball landed in the hands of a fan sitting on the patio atop the ominous tinted glass of the sports bar which has replaced the famously barren black batter's eye of the old park (sigh).

That ran the score to 7-0, and for all intents and purposes, it was the ballgame. Girardi mixed and matched his relievers after Pettitte departed. David Robertson pitched a shaky third of an inning, allowing two baserunners, but Damaso Marte, nearly the previous night's goat, struck Thome out looking to end the threat. Despite throwing just six pitches, Marte disappeared for the eighth in favor of another lefty, Boone Logan, who scattered four hits and yielded one run (Mauer singling in Span, who'd reached on a fielder's choice in the eighth) over the final two innings to save the Yankees' A-list relievers the trouble.

The victory lifted the Yankees' record to 24-12, keeping them a game behind the Rays in the AL East race and three ahead of the Blue Jays in the Wild Card standings, and offering some reassurance as far as several of their banged-up players were concerned. The loss, coupled with a Tigers win, shrank the 22-14 Twins' cushion in the AL Central to a game and a half and once again had them scratching their heads over how to win in the Bronx.

Saturday's trip to Yankee Stadium also marked a milestone of sorts. Well into my 10th season of covering the Yanks from my couch and the cheap seats, I was granted my first press credential and thus got to glimpse life behind the scenes at the ballpark. I have to admit that the day felt a bit anticlimactic, perhaps because I don't hold the new ballpark in the same esteem I held its predecessor; even in the deep recesses of the carpeted clubhouses, it still has that new stadium smell instead of the old Stadium's weathered if spartan charm. Perhaps also because I needed to show restraint in the press box, channeling my reflexive urge to cheer into private text messages to friends and semi-detatched expressions of marveling wonder ("wow, what a play") rather than uncurbed enthusiasm.

Still, I'd be lying through my teeth if I didn't admit that this provided me with a fresh point of view after some 150 trips to the ballparks in the Bronx. I got a particular charge out of walking onto the field to watch a few minutes of batting practice on a gorgeously sunny day, seeing the venerable "Core Four" — Jeter, Posada, Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, who've meant so much to me as a fan over the years — milling about both before and after the game, standing among the horde of cameras and microphones as Pettitte, Gardner, Cervelli and Teixeira discussed their afternoons, and even lobbing my softball question to the latter, who certainly wasn't wrong given those BABIP numbers.

This was only the first of what I hope will be a substantial number of trips to ballparks in this capacity; a warm thank you to Jason Zillo and Mike Margolis in the Yankees' Media Relations department for helping this long-held dream come true.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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