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May 15, 2008: Inside The Park

You never know what you’re going to see when you go out to the ballpark.

Tonight I went out to the snazzy new Stadium in the Bronx to see the Yankees take on the Minnesota Twins.

I did not expect to see Phil Hughes pitch a no-hitter. And he didn’t.

I did not expect to see the Yankees score three runs off Twins closer Joe Nathan in the bottom of the ninth. But they did.

I did not expect to see an inside the park home run. But I did.

Here’s how it happened.

Hughes’ control was a little suspect, but overall he kept the team in the game. He gave up two solo shots to slugger Justin Morneau, and also one run on a pair of hits and a sac fly. But none of the four men he walked scored. We’ll probably see better starts from him in the future–this was definitely a step in the right direction from the awful one he had last week.

Meanwhile on the Yankees’ side of the ledger, they were facing Francisco Liriano. Liriano and Hughes must be hanging out together because he, too, is supposed to be a blue chip prospect for the Twins, and a times he has been unhittably brilliant. But tonight his control was suspect, too, and he walked six.

But the Yankees could not break through against him. With two men on in the third, Johnny Damon checked his swing and was called out on strikes on a borderline pitch. Damon protested vociferously and was ejected immediately. Next, Mark Teixeira walked to load the bases, bringing Alex Rodriguez to the plate.

I had brought my friend Rose to the game. She hadn’t been in years, and was amazed to hear how loud the cheers were for A-Rod, and also how bright and numerous the flashbulbs were when he stepped to the plate. It was the first time the tabloid-beleaguered slugger was playing in the New Yankee Stadium, since his return from surgery came while the team was on the road. “But if he strikes out,” I said, “he’ll get booed mercilessly.”

At the time the Yankees were only down 1-0. With one swing, he might make it 2-1, or even 4-1, Yankees. A-Rod might be the story. He might be the hero.

A-Rod struck out. He was booed.

And then Matsui got robbed on a great play by the Twins second baseman to end the inning.

Derek Jeter picked up our spirits some with a solo shot in the fifth, making the score 3-1, but in the seventh, Phil Coke gave up a leadoff home to Joe Mauer. Down 4-1 now, the Yankees had two out when Brett Gardner, who took Damon’s place after the ejection, came to the plate to face Twins’ pitcher Jesse Crain.

I told Rose the story about how my mother picked Gardner as her favorite player in spring training LAST YEAR, because of how fast he was. “Speedy Dynamo,” she called him. “He’s just sooo fast you can hardly believe it.”

This was the moment Gardner picked to hit one down the third base line. Brendan Harris lunged for it, and might have deflected it some, such that Gardner’s dash around the bases went completely uninterrupted. Inside the park home run! Very exciting. I told Rose she had just seen one of the rarest plays in baseball.

In fact, the last time the Yankees had an inside the park home run was almost ten years ago. It was on an afternoon in August 1999, versus the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium. I know this because I was there. It was my first game at the stadium since about 1984 or so. Ricky Ledee hit an inside the park homer when Ken Griffey Jr. misplayed a ball in center.

I only see perhaps 8-10 games a year and so it’s kind of wacky that I was present for both Ledee’s and Gardner’s.

After Gardner’s dash, Tex hit a double, and up came A-Rod again representing the tying run. He walked on four pitches.

In came a new pitcher, named Nijares, to face Matsui. “This guy is left-handed and I’ve never heard of him,” was all I could tell Rose.

Nijares walked Matsui to load the bases, bringing Swisher to the plate. Could Swish be the hero?

No. Popped up to short.

Let’s not forget Joe Girardi mixing and matching with the bullpen, and the fact that Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras had to combin to strike out the side in the top nine in order to get us to the exciting conclusion that awaited.

Gardner led off the inning, and had he not tripped and fallen crossing first base, he might have had his second inside-the-parker of the night! As it was, he fell down, got back up, and still made it to third easily. Teixeira didn’t wait, and brought him in right away with base hit, making the score 4-3, and still no outs.

So now up came A-Rod, representing the winning run. But you know what? Sometimes it’s not about A-Rod. Hard as that is to believe, I know. He walked. He ended the night with four walks and one strikeout.

Matsui then had an epic battle with Joe Nathan, but it ended in a strikeout. Swisher followed, and only a sterling play by Morneau got him out and kept at least the tying run from scoring. The Twins elected to load the bases intentionally by walking Robinson Cano, the man who is ranked as the Yankees’ hottest hitter this season.

So that made it up to Melky Cabrera, facing Nathan with the bases loaded, two out, and a 4-3 deficit. While Cano was taking his four wide ones, the crowd chanted Melky’s name over and over. (From MLB.com: “The fact that I had a chance to be in the position to help the team, I really felt good,” Cabrera said. “[The fans chanting] helped my confidence, and I was just ready to do what I had to do.”)

Melky didn’t wait around. He hit the first pitch into the outfield, a bloop hit that for a moment looked like it might hang up just too long… but then it touched turf, and Teixeira and pinch-runner Ramiro Pena both scampered home to be mobbed, and then joined the mob beating on Melky near second base. The crowd was jubilant, too. I screamed myself hoarse. Melky came out for a curtain call.

All in all, a great night at the Stadium. It was my first night game this season, and the weather was perfect. The wind died down and I was pleasantly warm in shirtsleeves and my lucky Mike Mussina pinstriped jersey. Hopefully this is the start of a great run for the Yankees, and for me in my visits to the Stadium.

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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