Joe Girardi isn't a taskmaster. The Yankees' manager might occasionally get thrown out of a game, but he's not much of a screamer or yeller and rarely draws attention to himself. Billy Martin he is not.
Girardi is a perfectionist, even if he drives his point across in a low-key fashion. However, that doesn't mean that Girardi is perfect. The Yankees' 65-36 record is the best in the major leagues and they are coming off a World Series victory. Yet Girardi has his foot firmly on the gas pedal, especially in the difficult American League East where the top record in baseball is good for only a slim lead.
"We're having a good season, but I think we can play better," Girardi said. "I think we can be a lot more consistent. We can be more consistent in the bullpen. Our offense can be more consistent. It's not that I'm unhappy with the way we've played by any means, but in my mind if you're not looking to improve then you're going backward, and we can't afford to go backward in our situation.
The Yankees hold just a two-game lead in the AL East over the Rays, who have the second-best record in the majors at 63-38. The Red Sox are also lurking at 7 1/2 games back. The Yankees and Rays open a three-game series tonight at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.
"Anybody would like to have a 10-game lead, but everyone knows this is the toughest division in baseball," Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. "We knew coming into the season it was going to be a dogfight and it has been. You can't relax and that's fine. It's better to earn your way into the postseason."
As far as Girardi's contention that the Yankees need to get more consistent with their relief pitching and hitting, well, you can at least give him the point on the bullpen. The Yankees are eighth in the majors and third in the AL in runs allowed with an average of 4.11 a game but are 16th in the majors and eighth in the AL with 4.293 WXRL. However, it is hard to empathize with Girardi about his lineup, as the Yankees lead the majors in runs scored with a 5.42 average and have six regulars with a TAv of .288 or better in second baseman Robinson Cano (.316), right fielder Nick Swisher (.307), catcher Jorge Posada (.299), first baseman Mark Teixeira (.295), left fielder Brett Gardner (.293), and Rodriguez (.288).
However, if there are weak spots in the lineup—and that's relative to the rest of the regulars more than the league—they are center fielder Curtis Granderson (.267), shortstop Derek Jeter (.259), and designated hitter Juan Miranda (.247). While Granderson and Jeter, El Capitan himself, are not going to be benched, the logical place to upgrade for the Yankees is DH, especially since it appears Nick Johnson might not play again this season following May wrist surgery.
The Yankees ideally would like a hitter who can play third base, so Rodriguez can spend a few days getting a partial rest at DH, and the corner outfield spots. As usual, several names have been linked to the Yankees including Nationals first baseman Adam Dunn and infielders Cristian Guzman and Adam Kennedy, Mariners third baseman Jose Lopez, and Orioles infielder Ty Wigginton. It appears the Yankees are most serious about Wigginton.
Closer is certainly not a problem for the Yankees, as Mariano Rivera is as good as ever with 2.849 WXRL. However, Girardi has removed Joba Chamberlain (0.188) from the eighth-inning role and is playing musical chairs in set-up situations with David Robertson (1.022) getting the most consistent work in that role lately, as he is the only Yankees reliever besides Rivera to have added at least one win above replacement-level this season.
Toronto left-hander Scott Downs is the Yankees' primary bullpen target with the non-waiver trading deadline looming at 4 p.m. Saturday. However, the Red Sox also have serious interest in Downs. The Yankees, too, have been linked to closers David Aardsma of the Mariners and Kevin Gregg of the Blue Jays.
Girardi is aware that trade rumors dominate the baseball conversation during this time of the year. He also knows general manager Brian Cashman is looking to make upgrades to the roster. However, Girardi insists that he does not spend time keeping up with the latest rumors.
"I get my trade rumors straight from Brian," Girardi said with a smile. "It's a fun time of the year, though, if you like baseball. It's kind of like the offseason when teams start signing players. I think everyone has a natural curiosity to see what teams are trying to do to get better."
The Yankees, of course, seem to get involved in talks concerning every player on the trade market, just as they do with free agents. Yet, despite all the rumors, it is tough to tell if Cashman will be able to make a deal of significance.
"Either way, we're prepared," Girardi said. "Everyone is always looking to improve, but I'm certainly prepared to play the rest of the season with the players we have right now and feel very good about our chances of winning a lot more games".
The Reds are in position to go to the postseason for the first time in 15 years, when they won the first-ever National League Central title in 1995. They hold a ½-game lead in the division over the Cardinals. Yet, it seems the Reds will not make any major moves between now and Saturday.
"Very quiet," Reds GM Walt Jocketty said in assessing the trade front. "We've had conversations with clubs. There seems to be a lot of media chatter, but I don't think much is happening—at least as far as the clubs I've been talking with."
Thus, Jocketty rates the chances as "very good" that the Reds might make no trades. He would like to add help to the bullpen but believes he may not be able to acquire anybody better than veterans Jason Isringhausen and Russ Springer, two veteran right-handers who were recently signed as free agents and assigned to Triple-A Louisville.
"I really don't see one that's out there and available that would really serve the purpose," Jocketty said. "That's why we protected ourselves by signing Springer and Isringhausen. Springer's pitched well, and Izzy is still going through spring training."
It will be quite interesting to see if clubs start asking their players to tone down post-game celebrations in light of Marlins left fielder Chris Coghlan becoming the second player to be injured in such a situation this season.
Coghlan, last year's NL Rookie of the Year, suffered a meniscus tear in his left knee last Sunday while smearing teammate Wes Helms in the face with a shaving cream pie followings the Marlins' victory over the Braves, their fourth walk-off win of the week. That came after Angels first baseman Kendry Morales suffered a season-ending broken left ankle on May 29 when he jumped on home plate after hitting a game-winning grand slam.
"You hate for this to be the cancellation of the celebration, but you can't take celebrations too far," Helms said. "Any time you go after a guy like that and chase him down, it's very dangerous. It really is. Anybody can get stepped on. You can turn an ankle. This year with Morales and now Coghlan, it has maybe opened up, not just to us but to the whole league, that, hey, these celebrations, we need to be careful and keep these guys in the lineup and not on the DL."
Coghlan, though, feels taking steps to curb celebrations are not necessary and that his and Morales' injuries were fluky occurrences.
"It wasn't like I was trying to be hurt," Coghlan said. "It was just as simple as being excited and happy for my teammate for winning the game, and I just landed on it wrong."
Sabermetric studies have shown that clutch hitting is not a repeatable skill. The Angels have certainly been living proof of that this season.
The Angels hit .285 with runners in scoring position last season, leading the major leagues and setting a franchise record for batting average in those situations. This year, they are 21st in the majors and eighth in the AL in RISP with a .262/.340/.408 line with runners on second or third. Compounding matters is that the Angels' .318 overall on-base percentage is 24th in the majors and 11th in the AL.
"If you look at our average with runners in scoring position, we're middle of the pack," Scioscia said. "That's not good, but it's not atrocious. It's the number of runners that have been on base. We're in the bottom third and that has to improve. The number of runners we've been able to get into scoring position has been noticeably down, and that's obviously affecting our production."
The Angels had a deal in place to acquire Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, but he used his no-trade clause to veto it this week. The Angels have also inquired about Dunn and Astros first baseman Lance Berkman but felt the asking price is too high.
"The talent we have is not playing to its potential right now," Scioscia said. "We feel good about this team, we feel good about moving forward with them, and we just need guys to keep that focus and visualization where it needs to be productive."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Rockies aren't ready to declare themselves sellers and likely aren't going to make that decision until late tonight when they could put left-hander Jorge De La Rosa, left-handed reliever Joe Beimel, second baseman Clint Barmes, and right fielder Brad Hawpe, on the trading block. The White Sox and Padres both have interest in Hawpe, though Chicago is primarily targeting Berkman. … The Angels are another team thinking about becoming last-minute sellers and seeing if they can get anything for left-handed reliever Brian Fuentes, infielder Maicer Izturis, right fielder Bobby Abreu, and designated hitter Hideki Matsui. … The Mets scouted Fausto Carmona's start against the Yankees on Wednesday, but the Indians are reluctant to deal the right-hander. … The Phillies have joined the large pool of teams with interest in Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista, who can play six positions. … The Giants have shifted their trade focus from hitting to bullpen help and have interest in Aardsma, Gregg, and fellow closers Matt Capps of the Nationals and Matt Lindstrom of the Astros. … After trading right-hander Roy Oswalt to the Phillies, the Astros have taken right-hander Brett Myers off the market. … The Rays have decided not to make any major roster additions before the deadline.
Scouts' takes on various major-leaguers:
Twins center fielder Denard Span: "He's really made himself into a good all-around player, but he is falling into bad habits on the bases. He's become real tentative. He's getting picked off and not getting good jumps."
Angels center fielder Torii Hunter: "He looks really tired, like he has the weight of carrying his club on his shoulders. His bat is slow and he seems a half-step slow in the outfield. He's still a good player, but he isn't getting any younger."
Braves utility man Omar Infante: "I know Charlie Manuel took heat for picking him to the National League team in the All-Star Game, but the guy is valuable. He plays good defense at just about every position on the field and he has the softest pair of hands you'll ever find."
Astros right-hander Brett Myers: "People poke fun at (Astros GM) Ed Wade for always signing ex-Phillies, but he struck gold this time. I've never seen Myers pitch this consistently well in his entire career. He's solid every time out."
Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs: "He's got a lot of talent but he really needs to refine his skills. He goes into some long funks where he just starts flailing at everything. If can get that under control, he has a chance to do some good things."
Giants right fielder Andres Torres: "He has to be the most improbable success story of the entire major-league season. He washed out as a prospect and was a Triple-A guy who was roster filler. All of a sudden, he has become an indispensible player on a contender. There is no logical explanation for what he's doing, but he's been great."
Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla: "He's always hit for power, but I like his overall approach at the plate right now. He's going to the opposite field a lot more and he's doing a good job of staying back on the ball. He's not the all-or-nothing guy he's usually been."
Interesting stories from newspapers across the country:
Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes that Alex Rodriguez's pursuit of 600 career home runs is A-Fraud any way you slice it.
Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe writes that there is no reason for five no-hitters being thrown this season.
John Smallwood of the Philadelphia Daily News writes that the Phillies might be hard to describe but right now you can call them winners.
Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups and all times Eastern:
Twins (56-46) at Rays (63-38), Monday-Thursday Aug. 2-5
Carl Pavano vs. Jeff Niemann, 7:10 p.m.; Brian Duensing vs. David Price, 7:10 p.m.; Scott Baker vs. Wade Davis, 7:10 p.m.; Kevin Slowey vs. Matt Garza, 12:10 p.m.
Padres (60-40) at Dodgers (54-48), Monday-Thursday Aug. 2-5
Clayton Richard vs. Chad Billingsley, 10:10 p.m.; Mat Latos vs. Hiroki Kuroda, 10:10 p.m.; Wade LeBlanc vs. Vicente Padilla, 10:10 p.m.; Kevin Correia vs. Carlos Monasterios, 10:10 p.m.