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Archive for March, 2008

March 17, 2008: Another winner!

March 17, 2008 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Spring Training

The Yankees beat the Red Sox today. Yeah, sure, you can say it was only spring training and that the games don’t count and that if it were a real game, for example, Andy Pettitte probably would have pitched more than 3 1/3 innings. But it was the Red Sox, which always adds excitement, and it was St. Patrick’s Day, meaning that the crowd looked rather like it had sprouted moss overnight, in addition to looking somewhat rusted, thanks to all the red jerseys that appeared for the matchup. It felt even more like a real game than the day before.

The theme of today was pitching. Pettitte did not give up a hit until the third inning, while Boston’s starter, Bartolo Colon (yes, that Bartolo Colon) did not make it out of the first inning.

Colon looked very sharp against leadoff hitter Johnny Damon, but maybe Damon is suffering from the allergies that have hit over the past two days as the pollen count has spiked near 11 (on a scale that goes to 12). Colon simply could not locate his fastball for a strike, and after walking Wilson Betemit, the number 8 batter, was lifted having given up four runs.

Julian Tavares took over, got the final out, and then gave up three runs in the second on a two-run Abreu blast, which followed sweetly after Jeter had been hit by pitch, and a sharp Giambi double over Dustin Pedroia’s head and a Matsui single were all it took to make the score 7-0. After 9 Yankees had come to the plate in the first, eight batter in the second, meaning Pettitte had more than 20 minutes to sit, two innings in a row.

He was not as sharp in the third inning, having trouble finding the strike zone from time to time. And he wasn’t helped by Damon who lost a ball in the sun that went for a double. Andy gave up two runs in that rally, one on his own wildness as a pitch in the dirt scooted between Posada’s legs and allowed the runner on third to score, and in the fourth he gave a solo homer to Kevin Youkilis. Still, compared to both Colon and Tavares, he looked brilliant.

Heath Philips, one of the many lefty control pitchers to get an invite to camp, took over, and did not pitch well, giving up another run on four hits, while both outs he records were both line drives to second, snared by Cano.

Everyone else for the Yankees pitched great. Jonathan Albaladejo, Billy Traber, Brian Bruney, and Scott Strickland kept the Sox in check, limiting their offense to two hits over the final five innings and no more runs.

All in all, a very pleasant afternoon.

***

STICK SHTICK
Jeter has always had some interesting rituals associated with his game, like rubbing Don Zimmer’s head and having Joe Torre hold his bat in the dugout. (Which makes me wonder… who holds his bat now?) This year prior to every at bat he seems to have adopted a procedure by which he uses the tick of pine tar, and then throws it at Bobby Abreu, usually hitting him in the stomach.

SCHIZOID FANS
It being a Red Sox-Yankees matchup, there were plenty of “mixed marriages” in evidence, and the Yankees, perhaps in a diplomatic move, invited an acapella group from Yale University to sing the National Anthem. (Though the boys were all wearing Yankees’ caps, no doubt provided by the team). Sitting in front of us was a man and his full grown son, both wearing Red Sox hats. But when Jorge Posada came to the plate, the man called out “Hip Hip!” starting a rousing round of Hip-Hip-Jorge. His son turned around and tried to take the man’s hat away. “Now now!” he said, grabbing the hat back, “I’m from Rhode Island! I’m allowed to root for both teams if I want!”

DANGER ROBINSON
Every inning in baseball is almost universally preceded by the first baseman tossing grounders to the other three infielders while the pitcher throws eight warmup pitches. After the final pitch, the catcher throws down to second as if catching a base stealer, and then the inning can begin. Well, at the start of the second inning, Robinson Cano was chatting away with Jeter all through the warmup tosses, and when Jorge was ready to throw through, Cano wasn’t in place. He waved his arms until Cano got in position and then threw down. Before the third inning, once again Cano missed his cue to cover second and Jorge, apparently fed up with waiting, just threw the ball into center field.

P.S. My interview with David Cone is up at Gotham Baseball magazine, here.

March 16, 2008: Run Through

March 16, 2008 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Spring Training

Today’s game at Legends Field (soon to be re-christened George M. Steinbrenner Field, but they haven’t had the official ceremony yet, though the local government already voted in the change) was almost like a Real Game! With Real Excitement!

It’s difficult for fans who live and die by the Yankees to grasp just how laid back Spring Training games can seem. Winning the game is not the goal. Each player has things that he is working on, like mastering a specific pitch, or testing the health of his knees, and so on. Getting in shape to play in April is the goal of playing in March.

This means that in crucial situations in a spring game, you might see the very effective starting pitcher lifted because he’d reached his pitch count and the game handed over to some no-name journeyman who is fighting for a spot on the roster, and who is likely not to succeed in either pitching well in the exhibition or making the team.

A good analogy is to think of these games like dress rehearsals. You’ll see a lot of the understudies instead of the stars, and just when you are getting into the swell of emotion of a really good song, they keep breaking in and changing things around. If you’re disappointed by watching the rehearsal because it wasn’t like the Real Thing, well, guess what, you need to buy a ticket to The Show for that.

But, today, the Yankees pulled off a pretty bang up rendition of an exciting cast with a big production number at the end.

Things started well, with Chien-Ming Wang on the mound with a nice 1-2-3 inning, which included strikeouts of Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner. His second inning did not go as smoothly, as he gave up three runs, but still ended the inning with a strikeout to David Dellucci. He then sat down six of the next seven, the only hit being a pop fly into no man’s land that dropped for a hit. In the fifth he showed a little fatigue, perhaps, as Grady Sizemore, oopsie, got a hold of one and hit a long homer, and then after striking out Dellucci again, walked Hafner and was declared done for the day.

Scott Patterson (no, we hadn’t heard of him either) followed, getting them out of the jam with a 6-4-3 double play, and then pitching a 1-2-3 sixth. Darrell Rasner pitched the final three innings and, oopsie, gave up another homer to Sizemore, and they nicked him for one more in the ninth, giving the Indians a tally of 6 runs.

The Yankees were perpetually playing catch-up in the game. After Wang had given up the three in the second, Giambi led off the bottom of the inning with a walk, followed promptly by a Shelley Duncan dead-center blast that was absolutely crushed. Much earlier this spring, Joe Girardi had remarked that he didn’t understand why any pitcher would ever throw him a fastball ever. Apparently C. C. Sabathia had not gotten that memo, though and the shot made it 3-2 Indians.

In the fourth the Yankees tied the score, as Cano led off with a hit, stole second, and then came in on a Jose Molina double. Molina is one of the few catchers I’ve seen who does not look as though he is running perpetually uphill into the wind. He even tagged up and took third on a fly ball to right. Unfortunately, he was stranded there, and the Yankees were unable to take the lead. After Sizemore’s two homers it was 5-3 Cleveland, and the Yankees scratched back one more in the bottom of the eighth on a Greg Porter triple (yes, he plays for our side… we’re in the understudy territory now) andd a Bernie Castro RBI single. Castro nearly scored the tying run on the next hit, but ended up gunned down at the plate.

After the Indians got that insurance run off Rasner in the ninth, things were not looking good. 6-4 in Cleveland’s favor with Chad Moeller, Brett Gardner, and Justin Christian coming up for the Yankees.

But Moeller is no slouch, a former big league backstop who is currently jobless and looking to hook on with a team after the Nationals released him about a week ago. And Gardner is the guy my mother just loves. “This guy can run like crazy!” is her scouting report on him. Every time he’s come to bat this spring, my mom has said to me, “I hope he hits the ball so we can see him run.” The crowd, which had been sun-lulled all afternoon, came to life with a “Let’s Go Yankees” cheer.

Moeller doubled, and Gardner did not get to show off his speed–at least not right away–because he walked on four pitches. (That did not keep my mom from cheering “Way to go Speedy Dynamo!”) Justin Christian then tried to hit a ball in the big hole between short and third, but ended up lining to the left fielder. Damn.

So up came Kyle Anson in the DH slot. This is a guy who was a third base prospect but the Yankees converted him to catching because of the strength of his arm. I have no idea if he’s any relation to Cap Anson, the great 19th century baseball player. Anson doubled and Moeller scored. Now it was 6-5 Indians with one out and two men on… Gardner the Speedy Dynamo at third, and Anson at second.

Up came Nick Green, who at least most casual Yankees fans have heard of, even if they couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup. The sparse crowd was on its feet and he did not make them wait. He hit the first pitch for a single, bringing in the tying and winning runs with one sweet, walk-off stroke, and the strains of Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “New York, New York” filled the house.

Not bad for a dress rehearsal.

March 15, 2008: Duncan Donuts, and other Tampa tales

March 15, 2008 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Spring Training

DUNCAN DONUTS
After all the sturm und drang of the previous two matchups between the Yankees and Rays (collision at the plate, catcher broken wrist, Duncan slid spikes high, bench-clearing brawl, suspensions levied, okay now you are caught up…), there was absolutely nothing to report about conflict or tension between the two teams at all.

Shelley Duncan, the player who landed at the center of the controversy after his slide into Rays 2B Akinori Iwamura, had the following to say after the game. “It was a normal baseball game. We could just play baseball.”

When asked if conversations at first base were any different than usual, he said no, there was just the usual “standard first base talk,” which led the writers to ask… so… what is standard first base talk?

“Oh, you know, I always say hi,” Duncan explained. “You know, if they walked, congratulations on your walk. That kind of stuff.”

And if the batter had been hit by pitch? “Where’d he get you? Was it a cutter? Does it hurt? Don’t rub it! Doooon’t rub it!”

BROADBAND JOEY G
Joe Girardi is different from Joe Torre. He rocks in his chair as he holds his daily postgame with the writers, and his office door is often closed… because he’s rarely in there. He is more likely to be sitting at a table in the coaches’ locker room, talking with them, than to be at his own desk. Where Joe Torre drank green tea, the Styrofoam cup on Girardi’s desk smells distinctly of sweet hazelnut. (I presume it’s coffee.) And this morning, as the writers were all leaving the clubhouse prior to batting practice, Joe called everyone into his office to show them something on his laptop. (If Joe Torre had a laptop, I don’t remember it.)

“Take a look at the weather forecast for Tuesday!” he enthused.

On the screen were the predictions for Blacksburg, VA, where the Yankees will play a game at Virginia Tech. “On like March 1st I said it would be 65 and sunny when we got there,” Girardi said, then pointed out one of the longtime writers. “You said it was going to be like thirty-nine.”

Another writer confirmed that both statements were true. The weather forecast is calling for 66 degrees and partly cloudy. “And that means partly sunny, right?”

Apparently I don’t even have to make one of those glass half-full analogies for Girardi’s outlook on success, because his sunny outlook is even better.

TOP OF THE HILL
Mike Mussina is no longer alone. He’s the eminence grise of a whole club of pitchers who do crossword puzzles, now. This morning Moose, Billy Traber, and Daniel Giese (both non-roster invitees) all worked on a puzzle together. Traber held the pen. Giese also did a sudoku.

Traber was described by Joe Girardi today as “a very intriguing guy for us.” The non-roster invitee was added to the 40 man roster today. He is one of a passel of control pitchers invited to camp to try to make the bullpen (including Giese and Heath Phillips). Girardi described his former experience as a starter as valuable because “he developed all his pitches and he can get lefties and righties out.”

When asked about his improved status, Traber was happy but kept his emotions in check. “Me being healthy and being able to pitch is exciting, too,” he said, when asked how he felt about the move. “I’m pleased that I’m getting an opportunity to pitch and get innings in. I don’t want to get too caught up in the contract [technicalities]. I just play.”

OLD HOME WEEK
Many of the Yankees’ staff members are still in touch with their cohort who went to the Dodgers with Joe Torre, including former bullpen catcher and BP pitcher Mike Borzello. Borzo is apparently on the current trip to China that the Dodgers are taking part in, the travel team being managed by Tommy Lasorda–and is coaching first base. In the first game they played, there was a close pickoff play at first, and Borzo got to witness firsthand a Lasorda Dodger-blue-in-the-face argument.

FROM THE CLUBHOUSE TODAY

Overheard: “Okay, your job is to go into the gift shop, find this guy’s parents, bring them to the front desk and make sure they get passes and all taken care of for today’s game. Oh, and make sure they get 50% off in the gift shop.”

***

It’s hard not to notice that Jason Giambi’s beard stubble is quite gray. Especially since he still dresses like he’s 19.

***

Pitcher Darrell Rasner smelled something amiss. Very amiss. “Do you smell dog poo?” he asked a gaggle of writers standing nearby. Writers all checked their shoes… nothing. Rasner checked his locker… nothing. Someone was probably pranking someone but by the end of the day the joke had not come out. Later, Chien-Ming Wang and Kei Igawa, who locker right near Rasner, also expressed displeasure with the odor. Sadly, Igawa really stunk up the joint once he got on the mound.

***

More to come tomorrow and Monday, when we’ll see the Red Sox… or at least who of the Sox make the trip to Tampa and aren’t already packed to go to Japan.

March 13 2008: Live from Tampa

March 13, 2008 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Uncategorized

It’s a gorgeous day in Tampa, Florida, today. Sunny and warm and dry, not humid or hot, nor chilly or rainy. And with Spring Training games about half done with, it was a perfect day for some diversion.

CRYSTAL CLEAR
Much of today’s hullabaloo revolved around Billy Crystal, who lived a dream for his 60th birthday where he was signed to an actual contract with the Yankees organization, worked out with the team for a couple of days, and then today took a turn in the batting order. He led off the game against Pirates pitcher Pat Maholm, who pitched him exactly like he would any other right-handed leadoff man. A lot of cutters inside. The one pitch he threw on the outer half of the plate, Crystal fouled sharply down the first base line.

Perhaps the best thing about the comedian’s turn with the Yankees was just how serious he took it all. Crystal did not approach this as a media stunt at all, nor did the Yankees. Derek Jeter suggested the idea and was the one to get the ball rolling, but Crystal himself handled it all with grace and humility. He began his own workouts with a hitting coach, Reggie Smith, earlier in the spring, and took batting practice with the Yankees yesterday and today.

Young Cody Ransom gave up his number 60 so that the 60-year-old Crystal could wear it, and also ended up lockering next to the “non-roster invitee.” This meant that although Cody hit a home run today (Aside: A homer I called, when I saw it was Byung-Hyun Kim warming up and I turned to my mother to say “Look for a home run soon.” I’m almost sorry I was right. B. K. is a sweet kid, but he’s never adjusted to the United States nor to major league hitting. Every time it seems like he’s getting it together, something happens like… he gives up a home run and gets Korea eliminated from the World Baseball Classic. For example. On the other hand, he ended up the Winning Pitcher in today’s game, only because the Yankee pitching who follow him were worse.) which put the Yankees on the board after a six inning drought, he had to stand aside wearing nothing but a towel, waiting to get dressed because the media horde were surrounding Crystal.

We also knew Billy Crystal was a “real Yankee” when during BP he had perfected the ability to always be facing away from the cameras. “Most of the comedy today came from Robin Williams who was sitting right by the dugout,” said Joe Girardi. “We could hear him the whole game.”

MOOSE CALL
Mike Mussina wishes umpire Mark Carlson would be behind the plate for all his games. He got a lot of called strikes in the first, and as the game wore on, he looked better and better. He had an outstanding changeup today, and although he was not going to the big yakker as often as he did last Saturday, he threw all his pitches for strikes.

Manager Joe Girardi summed it up nicely. “Moose was excellent today. That is as good as he can throw.”

Indeed, in five innings (64 pitches, 41 for strikes), Moose gave up the proverbial “bupkus.” No hits, no runs, no walks. Five perfect innings. “He was living on the corners, changing speeds,” said Girardi. “Leading me to believe he’s going to have a very good year.”

GOOD EYE
Some things I noticed in the Yankees clubhouse today.

Yogi Berra does not fall for the shoulder tap trick. Come up behind him and tap him on the right shoulder while you’re actually on the left… and he turns to the left.

Andy Pettitte has what looks like a larger-than-usual box of fan mail waiting by his locker. (It’s still nothing compared to Jeter’s–Derek has a whole separate locker just for his mail.) I have to wonder if the whole HGH-Clemens-McNamee kerfuffle has generated extra mail for him.

What’s up with Morgan Ensberg wearing #21? He’s the first man to wear the number since Paul O’Neill retired, and the longstanding surmise among fans and the media is that O’Neill’s number will be retired. Does wearing the number make it more or less lkely that Ensberg will make the team?

On the whiteboard next to Mike Mussina’s locker, someone with very neat handwriting had written “5 innings + 0 hits = Gutsy.” It was signed “Kennedy.” Presumably Ian Kennedy, the youngster whose stuff is often compared to the Moose’s.

Joe Girardi’s office door is closed a lot more often than it was when it was Joe Torre’s office. That’s because Girardi does not seem to spend much time in there. He grabs his lunch from the clubhouse spread and takes it into the coach’s locker room to eat.

Figures from past dynasties abound. From the 90s, David Cone, Paul O’Neill, and Tino Martinez are all here. Tino threw BP to Melky Cabrera and some other young hitters in the cage under the stands this morning, while Cone and O’Neill both worked the YES Network broadcast today. Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles, Mickey Rivers, and Reggie are all in attendance from the 1970s “Bronx Zoo” crew. You don’t, however, see so many people hanging around from the Yankees’ fallow periods.

Melky Cabrera’s clubhouse nickname is “Leche,” which is Spanish for “Milk.”

On the section of cinderblock wall between Mussina and Philip Hughes’ lockers, Hughes hung a poster that looks like a window to brighten things up. Next thing you know, some of the other guys added a sill and curtains to it, and have decorated around the “window” with vintage gas station advertisements and the like.

After the game, Paul O’Neill came down to the clubhouse, bummed some new sneakers and some workout clothes off the clubhouse attendants and then declared “I’m gonna go get some iron in me.” He was last seen in the weight room.

COMING NEXT
I’ll be reporting again from Tampa on Saturday, and don’t miss my exclusive interview with David Cone, slated for Gotham Baseball’s web site.

March 8, 2008: Spring Rolls

March 08, 2008 By: Cecilia Tan Category: Spring Training

It is raining, freezing and cold here in the North, but I am heartened as I spend this Saturday afternoon listening to Spring Training broadcasts from Florida. As it turns out, it’s chilly and rainy in Florida, too, which is not really what I want to hear, but, well, there are many things about the reports from Florida that one must accept.

I want to hear, of course, that Mike Mussina is sharp, that he’s looking like the pitcher with the glare in his eye who nearly pitched a perfect game at Fenway Park in 2001. I want the news to be sunny, in other words. But although Mussina’s outing is encouraging (2 2/3 inning, one run on a solo homer, two hits, five strikeouts but two walks), it is riddled with missed calls and/or missed pitches.

This has been an ongoing theme for Mussina in recent years, ever since he lost the edge off his fastball and started to rely more on deception. He’s always had a variety of breaking pitches including a big yakker, the knuckle curve, and every other possible pitch you’ve heard of, but he didn’t need to rely on them until late in his career.

It was at a game at Yankee Stadium last year when I was talking with a colleague of mine who is now a top writer for ESPN. We were in a rain delay and sitting in the press box amusing ourselves by talking baseball. I asked him what he thought about Mussina and the umpires. “His pitches are so good, it’s not only the batters who are fooled,” he said.

So how does a man get past the fact that his pitches are so deceptive that he cannot get them called for strikes? The result of all the called balls is more men on base, longer innings, more pitches thrown per batter, shorter outings, an inflated ERA… the list goes on and on. And if he throws more obvious strikes? Well, you have what we’ve seen, which is Moose giving up more home runs.

The one he gave up today was a windblown flyball that the weather ended up carrying over the wall. Overall, Mussina showed the shtuff that will keep him in the rotation, eating up inning at the back end. He’s no longer an elite pitcher, and you won’t see him turning to a syringe to try to chase induction to the Hall of Fame.

In contrast, we have Kyle Farnsworth. Where Mussina is considered hyperintelligent and a respected eminence griese in the clubhouse who throws with finesse, Farnsworth has been viewed as a troublesome fireballer who is at best something of a blockhead and at worst is a total head case. The truth, of course, is not necessarily what is in the papers, but Farnsworth’s awful stats cannot be denied.

Joe Girardi has a history with Farnsworth, though, as he was a catcher with the Chicago Cubs back when Farnsworth was “good.” Wrigley Field is not exactly a pitchers park, either. Girardi’s first task as new Yankees manager (and upon seeing that the only bullpen help he would be getting this offseason was a new mop-up man in LaTroy Hawkins) was to build up Farnsworth’s confidence. The “I believe in you” message has supposedly been drilled into Farnsworth all spring.

And who is to say that is more or less important than the fact that pitching coach Dave Eiland also rebuilt Farnsworth’s mechanics? Eiland identified a hitch in his delivery that supposedly was the reason his ball was up. Indeed, although Farnsworth’s first pitch of the spring went over the wall for a home run, since then the majority of his pitches have been at the knees, right where they should be.

So, maybe some of the news is sunny after all.

By the way, I head to Tampa on Tuesday for my annual trip and will be reporting daily from there. Tune in to Why I Like Baseball for all the news!

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