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August 29, 2008: The Giambino Saves the Day

The two Yankees who have defined the post-Paul-O’Neill era were the stars yesterday in one of my final visits to Yankee Stadium, Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina.

A look back at their Yankee careers shows a saga of “not quite.” Mussina had two of the ultimate “not quite” experiences, narrowly missing a perfect game in Fenway Park on Labor Day Weekend in 2001 (not even a full month before September 11th would change everything) and then pitching the incredible lights-out 1-0 must-win game in Oakland (the “slide, Jeremy, slide!” game) where if he had let in even a single run, the Yankees would have been going home… only to sit helplessly by while the ninth inning of Game Seven of the World Series unraveled around Mariano Rivera.

Giambi’s initial blush as a Yankee had one incredible Ruthian moment to it, in which with the team down 3 runs in the 14th inning against the Twins, in the pouring rain, Giambi did the seemingly impossible, which was came to the plate with the bases loaded and hit a walk off grand slam. The sports pages reported it as a feat to have only been performed by one previous Yankee, Babe Ruth himself. But the steroid scandal and myriad health problems have plagued Giambi in his time in New York, making him often no better than a bench player who was being paid like a star. Most of us have forgiven him all the steroid stuff, mostly because of all the players named in the Mitchell Report, he is the one still playing who actually ‘fessed up about it, both in the courtroom and in the papers. He’s proved himself to be a regular guy who gets it, who just wants to mash the ball and get cheered, and whose relationship with the fans is as simple and pure as Alex Rodriguez’s is complicated.

Yesterday, the Yankees faced the Red Sox at The Stadium for the final time (unless some miracle pits them against each other in the postseason). On the day Yankee Stadium opened, the two rivals met, and Babe Ruth hit a three-run shot to beat his former team in a fitting inauguration for the House that Ruth Built.

Yesterday, Giambi once again performed a Ruthian feat. With Sox lefty Jon Lester on the mound, Giambi had been given the day off. Mike Mussina took the mound for the Yankees, and pretty much stifled their potent lineup other than one rally where the Sox managed to get two runs (sparked by the return to life of the bat of Jason Varitek, who has been hitting around .200 all year and whose selection by the players to the All Star Game baffled many). As such, when he left the game with the Yankees down 2-0, Mussina would either be the hard-luck loser or get no decision. It’s impossible at this point for me to accept that a pitcher “must” have a 20-win season in order to be elected to the Hall of Fame, when Moose has been a victim of low run support for nearly his entire career (including with the Yankees, go figure). Moose held the Sox to 5 hits over 7 innings, walking two (Big Papi twice, and who can blame him). He contributed to his own demise slightly by hitting Alex Cora with a pitch with two strikes on him, and if Robinson Cano had stepped on the bag and thrown to first on a ball off the bat of Jacoby Ellsbury, they might have gotten out of the inning only giving up one run. Instead he had flipped to Jeter and Ellsbury beat it out, letting the second run in.

But one run or two, it doesn’t matter if the Yankees don’t score.

In the bottom of the seventh, with two out, Cody Ransom, who had been inserted at first base for Giambi in the lineup, came to bat. Ransom, a 32-year-old rookie, for those of you who don’t recall, hit two homers in a spring training game, but no one really wrote about it because that was the day that Billy Crystal “played” for the Yankees. Ransom had also had to give up his number so that Crystal could wear it, and then after the game stood off to the side in a towel and his shower shoes because the media horde around Billy was so large that Cody couldn’t get to his locker to put his clothes on. Ransom also had one of the more unique displays of batting stats when he came to the plate, which showed he was batting 1.000 with 2 homers and 5 RBI. In his first plate appearance of the day he was hit by pitch, and then did strike out against Lester in the fifth. But in the eighth (with his average having plummeted to .667) he doubled off Lester and drove the lefty from the game.

At that point, Girardi sent up Giambi to pinch hit. After the game Suzyn Waldman would report that Girardi picked him in the hopes that he’d tie the game with one swing. None of this “just hoping he’d get on base” stuff. Down 2-0, with Papelbon in the wings, the manager (and everyone in the Stadium) wanted a two run shot.

We got it.

It was, surprisingly, a shot to left center, not the direction that Giambi usually hits the ball. But he has supposedly been working with hitting coach Kevin Long all year on taking the ball the other way. He took it all the way into the Yankees bullpen. Did I mention he hit the shot off lefty Hideki Okajima? Girardi told Waldman that it didn’t matter who they brought in to pitch, whether they left Lester in there or brought in their lefthander from the bullpen, his orders to Giambi were the same. Tie the game.

The very first time I saw Jason Giambi play live was when he was with Oakland. He was, then, my favorite player in the American League who was Not A Yankee. So I always wanted to see him hit a home run. My rule of thumb for seeing teams in other stadium is simple: always root for the home team unless they are playing the Yankees. I saw a game in Anaheim, for example, where when the Angels were winning handily in the late innings, I then rooted for Giambi to hit one for the A’s—and he did. We saw the Yankees play Oakland a few times at the Coliseum, too, and he pretty much hit one each time there—including one that left me totally conflicted when he hit a walkoff homer off of Mike Stanton’s 12-6 curve ball, which you KNEW Stanton was going to throw on the first pitch, because he almost always did. corwin joked that Giambi must have gotten a memo that I was there, and hit it for me.

Anyway, since then, most of the games I have seen live have featured a Giambi home run, since of course he came to the Yankees after that. He even hit one for me the night before, as we sat sulking in the upper deck with the score 11-2 Red Sox. Apparently, he got the memo again.

So, here he did it AGAIN, this time tying the game and sending the crowd into a frenzy. Our entire section of the tier seemed to have been taken over by Red Sox fans, but they were silenced by the blast, and Yankee partisan voices, which had been very subdued all day and also the night before (I’d rarely heard the Stadium so quiet), finally were raised.

Oh, did I mention Jeter had three hits yesterday? It’s probably my imagination, but it feels like he often comes through with a big day the day after the Yankees get humiliated. A-rod, on the other hand, did not have a big day, but at least he wasn’t actively awful like he was in the opening game of the series. Please, Alex, keep up with the therapy, because when you make the mental breakthrough to deal with pressure, you’re going to be a monster. (His numbers according to FanGraphs for this year are not only not clutch, he’s anti-clutch. Last year’s clutchiness was fine, but this year…? Blame Madonna?)

Oh, and did I mention that the Yankees are 19-9 in Mike Mussina’s starts, but are below .500 otherwise? If I wear my Mussina jersey a thousand more times, will Mike Mussina get into the Hall of Fame?

Now, with the score tied 2-2, Joe Girardi did not fool around, using three relievers to retire three batters in the top of the 8th. Brian Bruney got Pedroia, Damaso Marte got Big Papi, and then Mariano Rivera came in for a four-out appearance. Not a save, since the score was tied. According to the Star Ledger this morning, it was the first time since September 22, 1996 that Mo has entered a game at home with the game tied before the ninth inning—and back then he was not even the closer.

Mo retired Youkilis on a fly ball to center. Terry Francona countered with two outs in the eighth, bringing in Justin Masterson to strike out Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod ended the day with three strikeouts (one caught looking on a highly questionable call, but when you’re going bad, stuff like that happens) and one pop up to the infield on the first pitch with two men on in the 6th. Yeah, ouch, but A-Rod is not the story here.

Jeter made a throwing error to lead off the ninth, but Mariano shrugged it off and retired the next three men easily. Jeter has looked somewhat stiff in the field this series, as if his back or legs are stiffening up on him. Old age setting in? Or an injury that’s being well-hidden? I’m curious to see if something will be revealed after the season.

So, to the bottom of the ninth. Xavier Nady, who has been really a nice surprise since coming to New York at the trade deadline, led off with a single off Masterson. Brett Gardner, the guy my mom dubbed “Speedy Dynamo” in spring training, came in to pinch run. Robinson Cano (who has been hitting his traditional post-All-Star-break .320 or so) then hit a line shot … but right into the glove of Lowrie at third. Gardner stole second, so they intentionally walked Matsui. That brought up Pudge Rodriguez, who has been hitting dismally since coming to the Yankees, and who traditionally is an aggressive hitter.

He told reporters after the game that he just kept telling himself over and over “don’t swing if it’s not a strike.” He worked a walk, loading the bases and bringing Giambi to the plate.

Francona brought in Papelbon with no margin for error. With Giambi down 0-2 he left a ball over the plate that Giambi smacked on a line into center field for the game winner. Gardner held up in case it was caught, but crossed the plate easily as Ellsbury merely swiped at the ball in disgust as it came to him. Giambi was mobbed at first base.

We exited into rush hour traffic but creeping along in the car burning valuable fossil fuels is so much easier to take while singing “New York, New York.”

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