Results tagged ‘ Ben Zobrist ’

Yankees, Rays Look To Be Class Of Tough A.L. East

The American League East is a division loaded with talent. It consists of a world champion, a playoff team, the winningest franchise in baseball history and two power-laden clubs with some pitching. Of those five teams it is possible that three teams could claim playoff spots. Let’s look into the magic ball and see what we can predict. In no particular order let’s look at the teams:

NEW YORK YANKEES

After an injury-marred 2013 season managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner loosened the pursestrings and allowed general manager Brian Cashman to throw out nearly $500 million to free agents. That brought in the best available pitching free agent in Masahiro Tanaka, the best in catcher available in Brian McCann, two All-Star outfielders in Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, a left-hander for the bullpen in Matt Thornton and two important infielders in Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts.

Needless to say the Yankees are not planning on winning 85 games and missing the playoffs as they did in 2013.

Added to what the Yankees already had, this team is loaded for a playoff run. The rotation is five deep with CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Tanaka and the sensational return of Michael Pineda this spring has the other teams in the division worried. Only the Tampa Bay Rays can boast a rotation close to this and they only have four healthy starters at the moment.

The bullpen is missing Mariano Rivera and no one will tell you that David Robertson will make anyone forget the greatest closer in history. But no one can believe he can’t do as well as Rafael Soriano did in 2012. The rest of the bullpen has undergone a makeover because of the loss of Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain. Shawn Kelley and Thornton will handle the late-inning work. The addition of 6-foot-8 rookie Dellin Betances is going to give the bullpen depth because Betances might have the best stuff of the group.

Add to this corps three starting pitchers shifted to the bullpen, David Phelps, Adam Warren and left-hander Vidal Nuno. Phelps and Warren are holdovers from last season and Nuno, 26, gives the Yankees a second lefty to go with Thornton.

The Yankees only need to hope that Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter return to form. They both missed virtually all of the 2013 season and both are being counted upon to help the offense. They also are hoping that Johnson can fill in for the suspended Alex Rodriguez and Roberts can fill the huge hole left by the childish and petulant departure of Robinson Cano. The Yankees issued Cano’s No. 24 to spring training invitee Scott Sizemore. That tells you what they think of Cano after he left.

Ellsbury will combine with Brett Gardner to provide speed and daring on the bases. McCann and Beltran will join Teixeira and last season’s acquisition Alfonso Soriano to give the Yankees a lot of power in the middle of the lineup. Johnson and Roberts can provide double-digits power as well at the bottom of the order.

The bench features the catcher many teams wanted this spring in Francisco Cervelli, All-Star outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and a pair of hot-hitting rookie infielders in Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte. Slick-fielding shortstop Brendan Ryan starts the season on the disabled list with an upper-back injury.

Top to bottom the Yankees are loaded with talent, power, speed, a great rotation, a solid bullpen and a versatile bench. They will go a long way in deciding who wins the division and who ends up in the playoffs.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

The Rays are a product of a similar model that used to keep afloat the small-market Minnesota Twins. You try and keep a small corps of good young players together long enough to win until they start leaving via free agency. Of course, this method requires that you keep all the plates spinning at once for a long, long time.

If you don’t you lose.

The Rays were fortunate to keep left-hander David Price off the open market for a year. He will join left-hander Matt Moore and right-handers Alex Cobb and Chris Archer to provide the only rotation in the division that can rival the Yankees. Jeremy Hellickson begins the season on the disabled list but he has not been real effective when he has been healthy so I am not sure how his season will go.

The Rays dumped Fernando Rodney because he blew too many saves and was shaky in those he did save. Enter former Rays right-hander Grant Balfour, who was not signed by some other teams because of some medical questions. Balfour has only had one season as a closer and there is no guarantee the Rays can get another season out of him.

The rest of the bullpen is good. Balfour’s fellow senior citizen, Joel Peralta, is the setup man. He is joined by lefty Jake McGee and former closer Heath Bell. Right-handers Josh Lueke, Brandon Gomes and lefty long man Cesar Ramos round out a pretty solid corps.

The Rays are really lacking speed this season. Their only real base-stealing threat is Desmond Jennings, who is been doing a very bad imitation of Carl Crawford since he arrived.

Now the Rays are looking to generate lots of power with Evan Longoria and Will Myers in the middle of the lineup. The problem is Matt Joyce is coming off a disappointing season and he has not lived up to expectations at all. They also have to hope an aging Ben Zobrist can bounce back after a down 2013 campaign.

The additions of James Loney at first base and Yunel Escober at shortstop helped the offense and defense last season. They hope Ryan Hanigan can provide defense and leadership behind the plate this season.

As always, manager Joe Maddon will mix in spare parts like Sean Rodriguez, David DeJesus and Jose Molina. In addition, he will shift his defense to drive opponents nuts, But if the Rays should falter, Price will be on the trading block before the league deadline. If that happens, the Rays season is over.

In any event, this will be Price’s last year with the Rays and the Rays have to roll the dice they win the division this year. Otherwise, it’s lights out at Tropicana Field for their fan base of 7,500. If things don’t pick up at the gate the team could be headed elsewhere.

BOSTON RED SOX

Most Yankee fans forgot what happened in 2013 so we will leave it at that.

The Red Sox prospects for 2014 would seem to be bright. After all, they hope to have the same rotation they finished with back this year.

They are counting on Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront to be just as good in 2014. Problem is Lester is notch below what an ace should be. Look at most fantasy drafts this season and you will find Lester going in the middle rounds because of his high ERA and even higher walks-to-innings-pitched (WHIP) ratio.

Clay Buchholz also is going late in drafts because he has had a hard time staying healthy. His recurring back problems are not going away. He can only treat it to stay on track.

Lackey and Peavy are also on the north side of their usefulness. Both are crafty veteran pitchers and they will win their share on guile. But this group pales in comparison to the Rays and Yankees. That does not even take into account Doubront, who if you look as his 2013 numbers you wonder why the Red Sox like him so much.

To be sure, Koji Uehara was a miracle worker for them after the Bosox tried a number of unsuccessful closers since Jonathan Papelbon left years ago. But Uehara turns 39 on Wednesday and there is no net for him if he fails to do what he did late last season.

Boston does have lefty Andrew Miller and Junichi Tazawa back and they added Edward Mujica. But they do not have Craig Breslow at the start of the season and this bullpen is just a lot less deep than it was in 2013.

The same can be said for the starting lineup. Instead of bringing Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Daniel Nava off the bench they will have to play to fill holes when Ellsbury, Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia left the team.

Grady Sizemore actually beat out Bradley in center but the Red Sox know they can’t just run the oft-injured former All-Star out there every day. Bogarerts at short, Will Middlebrooks at third and center are unsettled positions with unknown quantities in them. A.J. Pierzynski takes over behind the plate and should be an offensive upgrade from Salty but teams are going to run wild on him on the bases.

The Red Sox just hope they can get another year out of fading DH David Ortiz, who at age 38 is well beyond borrowed time. He had a horrible spring and players at 38 do not get better. They fade.

The Red Sox will still revolve around Dustin Pedroia at second and they just hope that Shane Victorino (who begins the season injured), Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp can still do what they did last season. But as we know it is hard to repeat as champion. The last team to do it was, well, the New York Yankees in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Red Sox Nation remembers that period of time.

So I do not think there is going to much in the way of magic at Fenway this season. It just not in the cards.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

The Jays are all about redemption.

They gave a fading infielder out of Pittsburgh Pirates and a disappointing third baseman out of the Cincinnati Reds a place on the team and they were rewarded with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Those two players form the most feared middle-of-the-order pair in baseball. Both could easily hit more than 40 homers apiece.

The Blue Jays even rehired manager John Gibbons even after they fired him three years ago.

So the Blue Jays were the cool team to pick in 2013 after they added Melky Cabrera and Jose Reyes to what they already had in Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus. But their recipe for success did not count on a complete meltdown of their starting rotation.

Ace R.A. Dickey pitched with a bad back, Brandon Morrow was also hurt and former ace Ricky Romero forgot completely how to pitch successfully. Last season was just not pretty for the Jays.

But they have renewed hope in 2014. Dickey is healthy again and Mark Buehrle can still eat up innings with his soft-tossing junk. Add to that a healthy Morrow and you have the makings of a staff, But the other two spots will go to Drew Hutchison, who at 23 hopes he can establish himself as a starter this year, and an old friend Dustin McGowan, who last pitched as a regular in the Jays rotation in 2008. he is now 32 and he is an expert in rehabs.

Now that is some reclamation project.

Casey Janssen fell into the closer role when Sergio Santos was injured and now both form a nice tandem at the end of the game. Lefty Brett Cecil and hard-throwing righty Steve Delabar make the Jays bullpen one of the best in the division this season.

But bullpens have a way of wearing down when the starters do not succeed and have to be taken out early. In the rough and tumble American League East, the Blue Jays rotation just lacks the ability to hang with the big boys.

There is no doubt their offense is impressive. They will hit their share of home runs. But they also will lose a lot of games by scores of 9-7 and 8-5 because of this shaky rotation.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Cashman pointed out this spring what was painfully obvious. The luck the Orioles used to make the playoffs in 2012 was bound to be paid for in 2013. Orioles manager Buck Showalter took offense. But the truth always hurts, Buck.

The Orioles did not win those one-run and extra-inning games they won in 2012 and they finished with the Yankees in a tie for third place in 2014.

It is hard to see how the Orioles make it much better in 2014 even with the addition of right-handers Ubaldo Jimenez and Bud Norris and outfielder Nelson Cruz.

The issue with the Orioles is the same as last season. The starters Jimenez, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Wei-Yin Chen and Norris are all fine pitchers in their own right but who, for Pete’s sake, is the ace? And is that ace better than the pitchers they face routinely like David Price, Masahiro Tanaka, Clay Buchholz, R.A. Dickey or Matt Moore?

The answer is no and Showalter will learn that quickly.

Jimenez is just a middling starter and Norris just looked good compared to all the awful pitchers the Astros kept running out there. Neither make the Orioles much better.

The addition of Cruz is curious because the Orioles are loaded with offense in mega-power threat Chris Davis added to Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and J.J. Hardy. Cruz adds to that power but it is hard to see how that helps keep runs of the board.

The Orioles bullpen also took a major hit when Jim Johnson left for Oakland and took the 101 saves he recorded for the O’s the past two seasons with him. The Orioles are asking journeyman right-hander Tommy Hunter to do a job he has never done before and close games.

They did not add much around him either. They still rely on right-hander Darren O’Day and left-hander Brian Matusz to set up. Getting to them may be an issue because none of the rest of Orioles bullpen is really proven.

So Showalter just has to hope that his team can score runs in droves night after night to cover for a weak pitching staff. The mix of this starting staff and bullpen may be the worst in the division because the Blue Jays actually boast a much stronger bullpen.

Showalter may be an excellent manager but he can’t turn cubic zirconium into diamonds. There just no magic left for the Orioles.

 

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

 

1) NEW YORK YANKEES

2) TAMPA BAY RAYS 

3) BOSTON RED SOX

4) TORONTO BLUE JAYS

5) BALTIMORE ORIOLES

 

I see a close race between the Rays and Yankees and both will easily make the playoffs. The Red Sox will not collapse but I do see them fading as the season progresses when their rotation routinely starts breaking down. The Blue Jays will win their share of games with their offense and bullpen. But there will be days when good pitching will beat good hitting. On those days the Blue Jays will lose. The same for the Orioles. If they do not average seven runs a game they are in a heap of trouble. No team can do that consistently enough and no one can in this tough division. They will fall to the basement with a loud thud. Sorry, Buck. The truth hurts, huh!

 

 

Wind-Aided Homers Propel Rays Over Yankees

GAME 8

RAYS 5, YANKEES 4

Desmond Jennings blasted a three-run home run in the fifth inning that tied the game at 4-4 and two batters later Matt Joyce hit a wind-aided solo shot that was the eventual game-winner as Tampa Bay edged New York in an exhibition game on Wednesday at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, FL.

A steady 10-mile-per-hour wind with higher gusts were blowing out throughout the game.

Both home runs for the Rays came off right-hander Robert Coello (0-2), who was pounded for four runs on three hits in only a third of an inning to take the loss.

Non-roster invitee Erik Bedard (1-1), who is competing for the fifth spot in the Rays’ rotation, threw three scoreless innings of relief to get credit for the victory. Right-hander Jake Odorizzi struck out Pete O’Brien with two on and two out in the ninth to earn a save.

The Yankees scored a pair of runs in the first inning off Rays starter Cesar Ramos on an RBI single by Russ Canzler and an RBI groundout by Kelly Johnson. They added two more runs in the fourth inning off Rays closer Grant Balfour on Brett Gardner’s two-out, bases-loaded single, which gave the Yankees a 4-1 lead.

The Rays cut the Yankees’ 2-0 lead to 2-1 in the bottom of the first when Ben Zobrist lifted a solo home run to left off Yankee starter Adam Warren in his first at-bat of the spring.

The Yankees’ Grapefruit League record is now even at 4-4. The Rays improved to 4-1.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Gardner’s two-run single in the fourth produced his first two RBIs of the spring. Gardner is off to a very good start to the spring, going 4-for-10 (.400) and an on-base percentage of .500 in the four games in which he has played. With a four-year, $52 million extension in hand and all the trade rumors quashed, Gardner is hoping to build on his solid 2013 season.
  • Warren, 26, actually pitched pretty well despite giving up the leadoff home run to Zobrist in the first inning. He gave up just the one run on four hits and no walks while he struck out two in 2 1/3 innings. Warren still hopes to earn the No. 5 starting job with the Yankees after spending most of his rookie season in 2013 as a long reliever.
  • Yangervis Solarte came through again on Wednesday. The 26-year-old switch-hitting middle infielder was 1-for-3, reaching on a single and an error and scoring a run. Solarte is 8-for-12 (.667) with two homers and six RBIs in six games so far. “He’s going to get a good look. He’s got some versatility. We’re looking for versatility because of our infield situation, and he has that,” manager Joe Girardi told reporters.
  • Dellin Betances is quickly inserting himself into the bullpen mix and he was awesome again on Wednesday. Betances, 26, threw 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, giving up no hits, walking one and striking out two. The 6-foot-8 right-hander has always had a crackling mid-90s fastball but he seems to have conquered the control problems he had as a starter.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • The annual award for the “Putrid Pitching in Pinstripes Award” may have been locked up for this spring by non-roster invitee Coello, 29, who has now surrendered nine earned runs on eight hits (three of them home runs), a walk and a hit batter in three appearances covering 1 2/3 innings. His spring ERA is a stratospheric 48.60! Coello, who has pitched briefly with the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Angels, sports a 2-3 record and 5.90 ERA in his career. I have two suggestions for him: (1) Either try to hook back up with the Red Sox or (2) Look for another line of work. He, in a word, stinks.
  • John Ryan Murphy had some early success at the plate this spring battling for a backup catching role behind Brian McCann. But he took a giant step backwards on Wednesday. Murphy, 22, popped out with one out and the bases loaded in the fourth inning and killed a two on, one out rally in the sixth by grounding into a double play. The Yankees lost by one and he left five runners on base. That is not good.

BOMBER BANTER

After battling through a serious form of the flu, outfielder and designated hitter Alfonso Soriano is scheduled to make his spring training debut on Thursday, Girardi told reporters. Soriano has been limited to batting practice and off-field workouts.  . . .  Thursday will also mark the spring debut of first baseman Mark Teixeira, who is recovering from surgery on his right wrist. Teixeira was limited to just 15 games last season before requiring surgery. Teixeira hopes to get two or three at-bats in the game.  . . .  Former Yankee right-hander Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez has joined the Yankees as a minor-league pitching instructor. Hernandez, 48, spent nine seasons in the major leagues after defecting from Cuba and was 90-65 with a 4.13 ERA. He won three World Series rings with the Yankees from 1998 to 2000.

ON DECK

In addition to the debuts of Soriano and Teixeira, the Yankees will give their first starting assignment to Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka as they travel on Thursday to Clearwater, FL, to face the Philadelphia Phillies and Bright House Field.

Tanaka, 25, pitched two scoreless innings of relief against the Phillies on Saturday at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, FL. The Yankees were pleased and the Phillies were impressed with the $155 million free agent.

The Phillies will start veteran right-hander Kyle Kendrick, who was 10-13 with a 4.70 ERA in 30 starts last season.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EST and the game will be broadcast live nationally by the MLB Network.

 

Soriano ‘Steals’ Show As Yankees Shade Rays in 11

GAME 130

YANKEES 3, RAYS 2 (11 INNINGS)

When the New York Yankees acquired Alfonso Soriano from the Chicago Cubs on July 26 they desperately needed him for his power from the right side. As a bonus, they also got whatever was left in his 37-year-old legs.

On Sunday the Yankees found out there was still plenty left in those old legs to help win them an important game against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Soriano delivered a one-out double in the top of the 11th inning, then stole third and scored on Curtis Granderson’s sacrifice fly as New York salvaged the final game of a crucial weekend series against Tampa Bay in front of a paid crowd of 34,078.

With the game tied at 2-2, Soriano lined a 2-1 pitch from Jamey Wright (2-2) into left field for a double. With Granderson at the plate, Soriano then surprised the Rays by taking off for third and sliding in head first ahead of the throw from catcher Jose Lobaton.

Granderson then skied the next pitch into deep center-field to score Soriano easily with what proved to be the winning run.

Boone Logan (4-2), who came into the game in the bottom of the 10th with one on and one out to retire Lobaton on a inning-ending double play, was credited with the victory.

Mariano Rivera needed only six pitches to retire the Rays in order in the bottom of the 11th to earn his 38th save of the season and notch only the Yankees’ sixth victory in their past 22 games at Tropicana Field dating back to July 21, 2011.

The game featured a pitching duel between a pair of young right-handers in 26-year-old Ivan Nova for the Yankees and 25-year-old Alex Cobb for the Rays.

The Rays struck in the bottom of the first off Nova when newly acquired David DeJesus led off with a single, Ben Zobrist drew a walk and Evan Longoria plated DeJesus with a sharp single to left.

But the Yankees responded in the top of the fourth when Robinson Cano lifted a one-out line-drive opposite-field home run to left for his 24th home run of the season to knot the score at 1-1.

The Yankees then took the lead in the top of the sixth when Ichiro Suzuki reached first on an infield chopper to second. Cano then followed with a double to the wall in right-center for his 84th RBI of the season.

But the lead was short-lived because in the bottom of the inning, Longoria launched a blast into the left-field bleachers off Nova with out to even the game back up at 2-2.

Cobb gave up two runs on seven hits and three walks while he struck out five in 5 1/3 innings.

Nova also yielded two runs on six hits and six walks while he fanned three in 6 2/3 innings.

The Yankees bullpen of Shawn Kelley, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Logan and Rivera held the Rays hitless and scoreless over the final 4 1/3 innings to give the Yankees the opportunity to win the game in extra innings.

With the victory the Yankees improved their season record to 69-61 and they are seven games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. However, the Yankees drew to within 3 1/2 games in the wild card standings. The Rays fell to 74-54.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Soriano continues to pay dividends as a trade-deadline acquisition. He was 2-for-5 with a single, a double, a stolen base and a run scored.  Along with his 26 home runs this season (nine with the Yankees), Soriano has stolen 14 bases (four with the Yankees). That is most stolen bases Soriano has racked up since he stole 19 bases for the Cubs in 2008. Along with his 384 career homers Soriano has 284 career steals.
  • Cano entered Sunday’s game with just one single in his past 12 at-bats. But he heated back up Sunday, going 3-for-5 with a single, a double and a homer, a run scored and two RBIs, In his past eight games, Cano is 15-for-34 (.441) with two homers and eight RBIs. His season average is .307, one point below his career batting average of .308.
  • The Yankees won with their bullpen, some timely double plays and some great throwing from Chris Stewart behind the plate. The bullpen shut the Rays down without a hit over 4 1/3 innings. The Yankees turned four double plays on the Rays including one with the bases loaded in the first, one in the third, one in the fourth and one to end the bottom of the 10th. Stewart nailed Yunel Escobar attempting to steal in the fifth and then gunned down DeJesus in the seventh. Stewart has thrown out 15 out of 48 base-stealers this season (31 percent), which is just below his 33 percent career average.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Nova walked two batters in the first inning and ended up issuing six walks overall, a season high for him. Nova entered the game having walked 27 batters in 93 2/3 innings, which is less than three walks per nine innings. But he was bailed out by the four double plays and Stewart’s arm.
  • Mark Reynolds connected for a home run in his first at-bat as a Yankee on Aug. 16 at Fenway Park against the Red Sox. Since then he is 4-for-25 (.160) with nine strikeouts. On Sunday, playing third base in place of resting Alex Rodriguez, Reynolds was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.

BOMBER BANTER

Derek Jeter completed a three-game stint with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and will be in uniform with the Yankees on Monday when they open a series with the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Jeter, who was a rehabbing a strained right calf, was 3-for-9 with one walk, a double, two runs scored and an RBI. The Yankees want Jeter to take it easy running the bases so they may keep him healthy as much as possible for the final 32 games. In order to get Jeter on the roster the Yankees are expected to trim one of their 13 pitchers.

ON DECK

After sweeping the Jays in four games at Yankee Stadium they will try to sweep them for three at Rogers Centre.

Right-hander Phil Hughes (4-12, 4.88 ERA). Hughes held the Blue Jays to two runs over six innings but did not get a decision. It was his 11th quality start of the season but he has not won a game in his past eight starts. He is 5-5 with a 4.80 ERA lifetime against the Jays.

Knuckleball specialist R.A. Dickey (9-12, 4.49 ERA) will match up again with the Yankees. Dickey gave a two-run home run to Soriano in the eighth inning on Wednesday to end up with a loss in his last start. He is 3-3 with a 3.44 ERA in his career against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 7:07 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.

 

Rookie Almonte’s Debut Helps Yanks Deflect Rays

GAME 73

YANKEES 6, RAYS 2

For years the Yankees have stockpiled minor-league talent simply so they could trade them away for well-traveled veterans. This season, out of necessity, they are having to let some of those youngsters play. One of them helped spark the Yankees to victory on Friday in his first major-league start.

Zoilo Almonte was 3-for-4 including his first major-league home run as New York got 5 2/3 innings of solid pitching from David Phelps and downed Tampa Bay in front of a paid crowd of 41,123 at Yankee Stadium.

Almonte, 24, was part of what was an offense that emphasized “small ball” against sinkerball right-hander Roberto Hernandez (4-8).

Brett Gardner opened the first inning with a bunt single and Ichiro Suzuki followed with a hit-and-run single to right that advanced Gardner to third. Robinson Cano then gave the Yankees an early lead with a sacrifice fly to center to plate Gardner.

The Rays tied it in the top of the third on a two-out single off the bat of Ben Zobrist that Cano nearly fielded to retire the side. Instead, the ball caromed off the tip of Cano’s glove and Yunel Escobar scored from third.

The Yankees reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the inning when Austin Romine led off the frame with a double and he was advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Gardner. Suzuki followed with a slow roller to the Hernandez down the first-base line that allowed Romine to score.

The Rays tied it back up in the fourth on a one-out single by Luke Scott that slid under Cano’s glove in right-center and James Loney scored from second after Phelps had uncorked a wild pitch.

But the Yankees took the lead in the fourth for good by loading the bases with no outs against Hernandez. Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay and Almonte hit a succession of ground-ball singles that found holes in the infield.

Jayson Nix then hit into a double play that scored Hafner and advanced Overbay to third. David Adams followed with a slow roller to Evan Longoria at third and Longoria’s throw got past Loney at first base in what was scored as an infield single, which allowed Overbay to score.

Almonte then extended the Yankees’ lead to 5-2 in the sixth by launching a towering shot that landed in the Yankees’ bullpen in right-center. The fans rose to their feet and implored Almonte to take a ceremonial curtain call, which he did to the delight of the crowd.

Meanwhile, the Yankees bullpen quartet of Boone Logan, Shawn Kelly, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera held the Rays to to just one hit and struck out four over the final 3 1/3 innings to preserve the victory for Phelps.

Phelps gave up two runs on eight hits and one walk while he struck out four in 5 2/3 innings.

Hernandez yielded five runs on nine hits and no walks while he fanned four. He is career record in 13 games against the Yankees is now 1-7.

With the victory the Yankees improved their season record to 40-33 and they remain 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in third place in the American League East. The Rays dropped to 38-36 and they are now six behind the Red Sox in fourth place.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • In only three games, Almonte is quickly winning over Yankee fans. He is now 4-for-6 (.667) with a home run and an RBI. Almonte hit a low-inside fastball and used a quick uppercut stroke to launch it over the wall. Almonte is a very impressive young switch-hitting outfielder who was hitting .297 with six home runs and 36 RBIs in 68 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He was called up to replace Mark Teixeira on the roster and, by the looks of things, he may be staying for some time.
  • Overbay was 2-for-4 with a run scored and he closed out the Yankees’ scoring with a two-out RBI single in the eighth off reliever Cesar Ramos. Cano set up the score with a one-out single and he stole second and scored easily on Overbay’s hit. The veteran first baseman now has 33 RBIs, which is tied for second on the club with Hafner.
  • Phelps, 26, might not have had dominant stuff and he may have been in trouble in just about every inning. But he did manage to limit the damage to two ground balls that barely eluded Cano. Phelps has more than held his own as the fifth starter since he replaced Ivan Nova in May. There seems to be no reason to take him out the rotation either.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Nix had a game he would just as soon forget. He was the only Yankee starter to fail to get a hit and to reach base. Nix was 0-for-3 and hit into two double plays. Nix is 0-for-6 in his past two games after he was 15-for-49 (.306) in his previous 13 games. Nix also fouled two pitches off himself in his second at-bat. It just was a bad day at the office for him.

BOMBER BANTER

Nova, 26, will be recalled from Scranton in order to make a spot start on Sunday against the Rays. Nova was scratched from a scheduled start with the RailRiders on Friday and he will pitch for the Yankees because both Phil Hughes and Hiroki Kuroda would have had only three days rest from their starts in a doubleheader with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday. Nova is 2-0 with a 2.04 ERA in three starts with Scranton. He was 2-1 with a 5.12 ERA before he landed on the 15-day disabled list with a strain in his right triceps.  . . .  The Yankees on Friday recalled infielder Alberto Gonzalez from Scranton and designated Reid Brignac for assignment. The Yankees were disappointed with Brignac’s lack of production with the bat. He was 5-for-44 (.114) in 17 games with the Yankees. Gonzalez was hitting .224 with eight RBIs in 23 games for the RailRiders.  . . .  The Yankees also shored up its roster on Friday by trading for Brent Lillibridge of the Chicago Cubs in exchange either for a player to be named later or cash considerations. Lillibridge, 29, is a career .207 hitter who was 1-for-24 in eight games with the Cubs earlier this season. Lillibridge has played second base and third base this season with the Cubs but he has played every position in the major leagues except catcher. He was hitting .281 in 48 games with Triple-A Iowa.

NOTE: Because of blackout restrictions where I live I am relegated to having to watch the Yankees on the Rays on their SunSports network. Their post-game show featured former major-league first baseman Orestes Destrade bemoaning the bad luck for Hernandez because of the Yankees’ series of ground-ball hits that helped them win the game. There is nothing like partisan pity parties after a game. But if Destrade had been accurately reporting things he would have told the viewers that the Rays scored their two runs off Phelps on ground balls that just eluded Cano at second base. Two can play that game, Orestes.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their four-game weekend series with the Rays on Saturday.

Left-hander CC Sabathia (7-5, 3.93 ERA) will get the start for the Yankees. Sabathia gave up just two runs in eight innings in a victory against the Los Angeles Angels on Sunday. Sabathia is 10-11 with a 3.48 ERA lifetime against the Rays.

Sabathia will be opposed by rookie right-hander Alex Colume (1-0, 0.00 ERA). Colume allowed just one run in 5 2/3 innings in a victory over the Miami Marlins on May 30. Colume was 4-6 with a 3.07 ERA at Triple-A Durham.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.

 

Overbay’s Homer Allows Yankees To Eclipse Rays

GAME 48

YANKEES 4, RAYS 3 (11 Innings)

Teams that win often seem to have this never-say-die attitude that carries them through difficult spots in games. The New York Yankees faced that in the ninth inning on Saturday when they were down 3-1 with two out and Tampa Bay Rays closer Fernando Rodney on the mound with a 3-2 count on Lyle Overbay.

The Rays were within one strike of victory but Overbay drew a crucial walk and the Yankees rallied to tie the score in the ninth and Overbay smacked a two-out solo home run in the 11th inning to give New York a dramatic come-from-behind victory over Tampa Bay in front of 25,874 at Tropicana Field.

After Overbay walked, Rodney was called for a balk that allowed Overbay to take second.  Then pinch-hitter Brennan Boesch, who was just called up on Saturday to take the roster spot of injured outfielder Curtis Granderson, slapped an excuse-me-swing opposite-field double to left to score Overbay.

The Yankees then tied it when they were again down to their final strike as Brett Gardner poked a 1-2 pitch into centerfield that allowed Boesch to score just ahead of the throw of Desmond Jennings and the tag applied by catcher Jose Lobaton.

Rodney, who sported an 0.60 ERA and saved 48 games in 2012, has now blown a major-league-leading five saves this season and his ERA is 5.40.

Ivan Nova further frustrated the Rays in the 10th inning when he walked Ben Zobrist to load the bases with one out. But Nova escaped the jam by striking out James Loney swinging and retiring Matt Joyce on a routine grounder.

That set the stage for Overbay’s heroics in the 11th inning against right-hander Josh Lueke (0-2).

With two out and 1-0 count on him, Overbay drove an inside fastball deep into the rightfield bleachers for eighth home run of the season.

Mariano Rivera, showing a huge contrast between the teams’ two closers, came in the bottom of the 11th and he needed only nine pitches to strike out Lobaton swinging, getting Yunel Escobar on a routine groundout and fanning Jennings swinging to end the contest.

Rivera earned his 18th save in 18 chances this season.

The Yankees opened the scoring in the first inning off left-hander Matt Moore, who entered the game 8-0 with a 2.29 ERA.

Gardner opened the contest with a double in the rightfield corner and he scored two outs later on a lined single up the middle by Travis Hafner.

The Yankees held that lead until the Rays finally got to rookie left-hander Vidal Nuno in the fifth on a one-out double by Jose Molina and a two-out RBI double by Jennings to tie it at 1-1.

Moore left after six innings having given up five hits and two walks while he struck out a pair.

Nuno opened the seventh by giving up a leadoff single to Loney.

The usually reliable bullpen of the Yankees, however, was unable to keep the Rays from scoring a pair runs in the frame. Shawn Kelley yielded a double to the pinch-hitting Joyce and Boone Logan was unable to keep pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson from stroking an RBI single that scored Loney.

Joyce was able to score on a fielder’s choice when a ball off the bat of Escobar was fielded by Jayson Nix but catcher Austin Romine was unable to prevent Joyce from sliding home underneath his tag.

But, fortunately for the Yankees, they did not give up when they were down 3-1.

In fact, after having their American League record 19-game winning streak when they scored first in a game snapped in Baltimore on Tuesday, they were able to make it 20-1 behind Overbay’s remarkable at-bats in the ninth and the 11th.

With the victory the Yankees improved their season mark to 30-18 and they remain a full game ahead of the second-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. The Rays not only have lost the three-game series but they dropped to 24-24, six games behind the Yankees in fourth place in the division.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Overbay, 36, may be hitting only .255, but he is providing the Yankees with some quality at-bats, clutch hits and nearly flawless defense at first base. His eight home runs are tied for third on the club and his 28 RBIs are second on the team to Robinson Cano’s 34. It is going to be hard for Yankees to cut Overbay loose when Mark Teixeira returns but they may be forced into it.
  • Nuno, 25, was absolutely brilliant in his second major-league start. He surrendered two runs on five hits and one walk while he struck out two over six innings. That means Nuno has given up just one run on eight hits and four walks while fanning five in 11 innings in those two starts. That is an ERA of 0.82.
  • Gardner started the Yankees off with a leadoff double and he scored the Yankees’ first run in the first. In the ninth he delivered a key two-out RBI single that tied the game. Very quietly Gardner is beginning to pick up his offensive game. He has delivered at least one hit in eight of his past nine starts and he is 10-for-33 (.303) with a home run and five RBIs during that span. In fact, his two-run home run in the fourth inning was a key blow in Friday’s victory over the Rays.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Kelley and Logan did not do their jobs in the seventh inning and it cost the Yankees two big runs. Kelley was unable to retire Joyce and Logan was victimized by the lefty-swininging Johnson. One run was charged to Nuno and the other was charged to Kelley. But both Kelley and Logan should be ashamed of themselves for the way they pitched.
  • It is official: Vernon Wells is in a full-blown slump at the plate. He was 0-for-5 in the game and he did not get a ball out of the infield. He is also 0-for-10 in the series and he also has no hits in his past 11 at-bats. That has lowered his season average to .270 and it is falling fast.

BOMBER BANTER

The Yankees placed Granderson on the 15-day disabled list with a fractured knuckle on his left pinky finger and he is expected to be sidelined for at least four weeks. Boeach, 27, was recalled from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he was hitting just .179. Boesch hit .209 with two homers and five RBIs in 20 games in his earlier stint with the Yankees.  . . .  The Yankees also on Saturday claimed right-hander David Huff off waivers from the Cleveland Indians. Huff, 28, made three relief appearances for the Indians, giving up five runs in three innings. He was 3-1 with a 4.07 ERA in nine games (two starts) with Triple-A Columbus. To make room on the 40-man roster, the Yankees designated for assignment left-hander Francisco Rondon.  . . .  Hiroki Kuroda completed a full bullpen session on Saturday and he said he believes he will have no problem making his next start on Tuesday at Citi Field against the New York Mets. Kuroda was struck in the right calf on Wednesday in a game against the Orioles. Meanwhile, David Phelps reported that his right forearm felt a little sore after he was struck by a ball off the bat of Zobrist in the eighth inning of Friday’s game against the Rays. Phelps is scheduled to pitch in Wednesday’s game against the Mets but that will depend if he is able to throw a bullpen session.  . . . Left-hander Andy Pettitte (sore left trapezius muscle) said he felt fine after a bullpen session on Saturday and he expects to come off the 15-day disabled list on June 1, when he is eligible to be activated.

ON DECK

The Yankees will have their brooms out on Sunday for a potential sweep of the Rays at Tropicana Field.

Left-hander CC Sabathia (4-3, 3.43 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Sabathia settled for this third straight no-decision after allowing a one-run lead to slip away against the Orioles in the seventh inning on Monday. He is 10-10 with a 3.30 ERA lifetime against the Rays.

Sabathia will be opposed by right-hander Alex Cobb (5-2, 2.73 ERA). Cobb held the Toronto Blue Jays to one run on three hits in 6 1/3 innings for a victory. He is 2-1 with a 2.22 ERA in his career against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 1:40 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by TBS and locally by the YES Network.

 

Phelps Tops Rays But Granderson Sidelined Again

GAME 47

YANKEES 9, RAYS 4

Friday was just like any other night for the Yankees. They lost two players to injuries at Tropicana Field but they still won the game.

David Phelps pitched into the eighth inning before being struck on the right forearm on a line drive off the bat of Ben Zobrist while Curtis Granderson left the game in the fifth inning with a broken fifth knuckle on his left hand after being hit by a pitch. But New York still was able to steamroll to victory over Tampa Bay.

Phelps (3-2) was throwing a perfect game through 4 1/3 innings until James Loney doubled to right to break it up.

Meanwhile, the Yankees batted around and scored three runs in the second inning off right-hander Roberto Hernandez (2-5). Lyle Overbay keyed the inning with a two-run double and Jayson Nix followed with a RBI single that scored Overbay.

The Yankees padded their lead to 5-0 in the fourth inning on a two-out single by Chris Stewart and Brett Gardner deposited his fourth home run of the season into the bleachers in right-field.

Hernandez left the game after yielding five runs on six hits and three walks while he struck out three in four innings.

But the Yankees batted around again in the fifth off left-hander Cesar Ramos.

With one out the Yankees loaded the bases and Ramos then walked Nix to force in a run. Stewart followed with an RBI single and Ramos then forced in another run by hitting Robinson Cano with a pitch with the bases loaded and two out.

Down 8-0, the Rays finally got to Phelps with consecutive singles by Jose Lobaton and Yunel Escobar to begin the sixth inning. Matt Joyce laced an RBI double to score Lobaton and Zobrist and Luke Scott drove across single runs on an infield groundout and a sacrifice fly, respectively.

The Yankees added a run off right-hander Jamey Wright in the seventh on a one-out triple by Nix and he later was able to score a wild pitch by Wright.

The Rays then added a run in the seventh on a one-out triple by Kelly Johnson and a sac fly by Sam Fuld.

With two out in the eighth, Zobrist then ripped a line-drive off the right forearm off Phelps. Manager Joe Girardi immediately replaced Phelps with left-hander Boone Logan.

Phelps surrendered four runs on six hits while he struck out four and did not walk a batter over 7 2/3 innings.

With the victory, the Yankees improved to 29-18 and they maintained their one-game lead over the second-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East. The Rays dropped to 24-23 and they are five games behind the Yankees in fourth place in the division.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Despite giving four runs, Phelps was absolutely brilliant in his fifth start of the season. In his past four starts, Phelps is 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA. Phelps, 26, has given up eight runs on 19 hits and nine walks while striking out 22 over 27 1/3 innings in those starts. It appears Phelps has earned a spot in the rotation and will keep it as long as he continues to pitch this well.
  • The lower part of the batting order gave the Rays fits. David Adams (sixth), Overbay (seventh), Nix (eighth) and Stewart (ninth) combined to go 8-for-18 (.444) with a double, a triple, six runs scored and five RBIs. Teams are finding that pitching tough against the heart of the order is fine as long as you don’t underestimate the lower half. It is obvious that a lot of pitchers are doing just that and they paying the price for it.
  • Rays manager Joe Maddon said Gardner’s two-run home run off Hernandez in the fourth inning was the back-breaking hit of the game. Gardner entered this season with 15 major-league home runs and the most he ever hit in a season was seven in 2011. He now has four in the 47 games he has played this season. His career high is real jeopardy this season.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • The Yankees very well might have been able to break open the game even wider of they had gotten anything positive out of Vernon Wells. The 34-year-old outfielder was 0-for-5 and made the final out with the bases loaded in both the third and fifth innings. He left a total of eight men on base and, after reaching base on a fielder’s choice in the eighth inning, he got thrown out trying to steal third.

BOMBER BANTER

If you are absolutely sick to death about reading about Yankee players dropping like flies daily please feel free to skip this section of my report.

X-rays taken of Granderson’s left hand indicated a broken knuckle of his pinky finger. Though the team did not indicate a timetable for Granderson’s return, he will miss a minimum of four weeks and the team will have to place him on the 15-day disabled list on Saturday. Granderson missed the team’s first 37 games of the season due to a fractured right forearm he suffered after being hit by a pitch on his at-bat of spring training on Feb. 24. Granderson had played in only eight games and was 7-for-28 (.250) with a home run and three RBIs.  . . .  There was better news regarding Phelps. X-rays taken of his right arm were negative and the team reported he only suffered a mild bruise. The team Phelps is expected to be able to make his next start.  . . .  The Yankees activated right-hander Ivan Nova from the 15-day disabled list and assigned him to the bullpen. Nova, 26, was 1-1 with a 5.68 ERA in four starts until he was placed on the disabled list April 27 with a strained right triceps. He would have returned on May 13 but  –  in typical Yankees’ luck this season  –  he suffered a strained left oblique, which set him back two additional weeks. In order to make room on the roster for Nova, the Yankees sent right-hander Dellin Betances back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Betances, 25, had no record and no ERA, giving up one hit and two walks while striking out two in three innings covering two appearances.  . . .  Mark Teixeira expects to begin a minor-league rehab stint with the Double-A Trenton Thunder next week and his return to the major leagues could come soon after. Teixeira has been sidelined since early March with a partially torn sheath in his right wrist.  . . .  Stewart returned to the starting lineup on Friday for the first time since May 16 and he was 2-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI. Stewart had been unable to start behind the plate due to a strained left groin suffered May 15 in a game against the Seattle Mariners. Rookie Austin Romine started in his place.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their weekend road series against the Rays on Saturday.

Rookie left-hander Vidal Nuno (1-1, 1.13 ERA) will start for the Yankees in place of left-hander Andy Pettitte. Nuno threw five innings of three-hit shutout baseball against the Cleveland Indians on May 13. In fact, Nuno had pitched eight scoreless innings to begin his major-league career until Nate McLouth nailed him with a solo home run to lead off the 10th inning in Tuesday’s game in Baltimore that the Orioles won 3-2. Nuno has not pitched against the Rays.

The Rays will counter with left-hander Matt Moore (8-0, 2.29 ERA). Moore held the Orioles to one run over seven innings on Sunday to extend his winning streak to eight games. He is 3-2 with a 3.99 ERA in five career starts against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 4:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by the MLB Network and locally by the YES Network.

 

Rays Pay Steep Price In 9th On Ichiro’s 2-Run Hit

GAME 18

YANKEES 4, RAYS 3

Ichiro Suzuki entered Tuesday’s game batting just .200 and it was beginning to look as if all those years of playing baseball were starting to take its toll. But the Tampa Bay Rays found out there is no hitter more dangerous than a great hitter in the throes of a horrible slump.

Suzuki slapped a two-out bases loaded single off reliever Fernando Rodney to drive in two runs to break a 2-2 tie in the ninth inning as New York edged Tampa Bay in front of an embarrassingly small paid crowd of 17,644 at Tropicana Field.

David Robertson (1-0) pitched a perfect ninth inning in relief of starter Phil Hughes to earn credit for the victory. Though Evan Longoria greeted him with a first-pitch home run in the bottom of ninth, Mariano Rivera retired the next three hitters to earn his sixth save in as many chances this season.

Robinson Cano started the ninth inning with a single off Rays starter David Price (0-2). Rays manager Joe Maddon then elected to bring Rodney to face left-hander Vernon Wells.

Wells struck out but Cano was able to swipe second base, which forced Maddon to walk pinch-hitter Travis Hafner intentionally to set up a potential double play.

However, Lyle Overbay was able able to draw a walk on a 3-2 pitch from Rodney to load the bases and, after Chris Stewart popped out, Suzuki came to the plate.

Suzuki also was instrumental in allowing the Yankees to tie the game in the eighth with a one-out single and he advanced to third on a single to left by Jayson Nix. He then scored on a infield groundout by Brett Gardner.

Price entered the eighth with a 2-1 lead on a two-out RBI single by Jose Molina that scored Matt Joyce.

Price gave up three runs on eight hits and no walks while he struck out five in eight-plus innings of work.

However, Hughes matched him pitch-for-pitch after a shaky first inning in which he gave up a walk to Desmond Jennings, a double by Ryan Roberts and sacrifice fly to Ben Zobrist that scored Jennings.

Hughes then settled in giving up just two runs on six hits and two walks and he struck out six batters in seven innings. It was his second consecutive strong outing but he has received a no decisions in both of them.

With the victory the Yankees improved their season ledger to 11-8. The Rays fell to 9-11.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Suzuki, 39, has had the Yankees concerned because he slumped miserably in the final three weeks of spring training and began the season in the same hitting funk. Manager Joe Girardi elected to bench him in favor of Brennan Boesch twice against left-handers in the past week. Hopefully his two hits in the last two innings, scoring the game-tying run and driving in the game-winning runs will get him going.
  • In his last two starts, Hughes has given up four runs on 12 hits and two walks and he has fanned 12 in 14 innings. After giving up the sacrifice fly to Zobrist in the first inning, Hughes retired 16 of the next 19 batters he faced until he opened the seventh inning by walking Joyce. Joyce eventually scored on Molina’s hit and it likely cost Hughes the victory. But Hughes is pitching well after two dreadful starts to begin the season. He lowered his season ERA to 5.14.
  • Cano was 2-for-4 and both his hits set up runs. After Eduardo Nunez reached first to lead off the fourth inning on a wild pitch on a swinging third strike, Cano advanced him third on a single. Wells then drove in Nunez with an opposite-field single to right that tied the game at 1-1. Cano raised his season average to .342, which currently leads the team.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • It is just about decision time for the Yankees on Ben Francisco, who started for a second consecutive game as the designated hitter. Francisco was 0-for-3 in the game and he is hitting a miserable .080 on the season after hitting a combined .308 with eight doubles, three homers and nine RBIs for the Cleveland Indians and the Yankees in spring training. The Yankees chose to keep Francisco over Juan Rivera, though Rivera also had a good spring. Rivera is currently a free agent and could be signed by any club.
  • The Yankees are finding out their Achilles’ heel is left-handed pitching. With Kevin Youkilis out of the lineup for a third straight game with lower back stiffness, the Yankees were forced to start Francisco at DH in place of Hafner, the lefty swinging Overbay at first and Nix at third. After Matt Moore shut them down on one run and two hits on Monday, Price held them to two runs on seven hits on Tuesday until the ninth inning when they rallied off the right-handed Rodney.
  • The Yankees were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position until Suzuki delivered his game-winning single in the ninth.

BOMBER BANTER

Youkilis was held out of the lineup for a third straight game on Tuesday and he now is not expected to play until Thursday. Youkilis originally injured the back in the fifth inning of Saturday’s game in Toronto against the Blue Jays and re-aggravated the injury on Monday during batting practice in St. Petersburg, FL.  . . .  Mark Teixeira admitted on Tuesday that he will not meet his stated goal to return to the lineup by May 1. Though Teixiera has been cleared to take dry swings from both sides of the plate, he has not advanced far enough to begin hitting a baseball. Instead of remaining in Tampa to continue his workouts, Teixiera will return with the team to New York after Wednesday’s game.  . . .  Derek Jeter will be in New York on Thursday and will hold a press conference. Jeter, who found out last week that he sustained another small fracture in his surgically repaired left ankle, has not made any public comment since he learned will be out until after the All-Star break.

ON DECK

The Yankees will have a chance to win the rubber game of their three-game set with the Rays on Wednesday.

Veteran left-hander Andy Pettitte (3-0, 2.01 ERA) will start for the Yankees. Pettitte is coming off another strong 7 1/3 innings in a victory over the Blue Jays on Friday. Pettitte, 40, gave up three runs on six hits and a walk while he struck out five. In his last 10 seasons, Pettitte is 16-5 with a 4.13 ERA against the Rays.

The Rays will start right-hander Alex Cobb (2-1, 2.53 ERA). Cobb also allowed three runs in 7 1/3 innings in a victory over the Oakland Athletics on Friday. He is 1-1 with a 3.15 ERA in three career starts against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 7:10 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by the YES Network.

 

Yankees Will Prevail In 2013’s ‘Game Of Thrones’

The New York Yankees open defense of their American League East championship on Monday against the Boston Red Sox with pundits and even their own fans criticizing them for their many injuries and their reluctance over the past few years for opening their wallets to get quality young players. I will try to examine how I believe the division race stacks up and predict how it might go. You may be surprised by my conclusion.

REAL LIFE GAME OF THRONES

If you are a fan of HBO’s series “Game of Thrones” you might notice that the American League East is a lot like the many kingdoms in the show.

The Yankees, with their money and dominance, are a lot like the Lannisters. The Boston Red Sox are a lot like the Starks, highly principled and loyal folk who fight the good fight only to suffer myriad indignities and failures. Of course, you also have those teams like the Toronto Blue Jays, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Baltimore Orioles who also are swirling around the periphery of Kings Landing believing they have a rightful claim to wear the crown.

The 2013 season will play out a lot like the television series and I can tell you why I believe that.

A DOMINANT KING

Since 1995 the Yankees have only missed the American League playoffs once (in 2008) and they have won the division championship in 16 of the past 17 seasons. If that is not dominance than what is? Like the Lannisters, the Steinbrenner family has lavished riches of the kingdom on the best knights to defend the realm and their loyal subjects have been a fairly happy lot for the most part.

But their knights have grown old and their battle wounds have been severe. Some are ready for the fight in 2013 but others are not. Their apparent weakness has given their rivals confidence they take the crown away and you saw that play out this spring.

THE KING NORTH OF THE WALL

The Blue Jays had a legendary team in the early 1990s and they won two world championships during that period. But since then they have fallen into a barren abyss of failure. But their general manager Alex Anthropoulos engineered a winter campaign to load his roster with the best players the Miami Marlins and New York Mets could offer him.

They boast a starting lineup with the speedy Jose Reyes and a line-drive hitting machine in Melky Cabrera to add to their long-ball threats Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They also pried away National League Cy Young Award-winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets to add to right-hander Josh Johnson and left-hander Mark Buerhle from the Marlins to form a strong rotation with their own holdover Brandon Morrow.

The kings of North think they now have a team that storm the wall protecting the kingdoms that lie s to the south such as Kings Landing in 2013.

But there are some warning signs that could give them pause before they are able to proclaim victory.

One is the Blue Jays’ bullpen. I was listening to their broadcasters this spring lamenting about how weak this group appears to be.

Closer Casey Janssen is coming off shoulder surgery and they HOPE he will available for Opening Day. Behind him is failed closer Sergio Santos and his awful 7.88 spring ERA and Esmil Rogers and his 6.39 ERA.

Of all the teams in the A.L. East, this bullpen projects to be the worst in the division, especially if Janssen is unable to capture lightning in a bottle and return as the closer he was last season when he saved 22 of 25 games. The Blue Jays may have to cover there bullpen weakness by asking their starters to go longer than they should.

That tends to weaken the starters and it also could be discouraging when the offense builds a 6-1 lead after six innings and they end up losing the game 7-6. That will get mighty old for the Rogers Centre faithful this summer.

The offense has its own issues.

Third baseman Brett Lawrie plays the game all out and he also tends to get hurt a lot. He enters the season banged up and there are questions about how good centerfielder Colby Rasmus, catcher J.P. Arencibia and designated hitter Adam Lind really are. They have yet to establish themselves as quality major-league players.

There also is a major questions about whether Reyes, whose talents in the past have been held back by leg issues, will be able to play a full season on the hard artificial surface of Rogers Centre without issues at age 29.

So instead of automatically installing them as the kings of this division, you may want to look deeper into these drawbacks. Teams do not win championships on paper. Just ask the 2012 Marlins.

THE LORDS OF BALTIMORE

The Orioles remind me of the twisted and tortured King Stannis, who attacked Kings Landing in season two of the “Game of Thrones” only to be turned back at the gates by the eldest of the Lannisters and his men just as if seemed they were winning.

Stannis had a magical sorceress behind him convincing him that he could win the battle, but he failed in the end. She later told him he still could prevail even as he was licking his wounds in defeat. Manager Buck Showalter is much like this sorceress. His skill of masking weaknesses and enhancing strengths of a ballclub made the Orioles seem much stronger than they appeared to be in 2012.

They won such a ridiculous amount of one-run and extra-inning games that they qualified for the playoffs as a wild card only to be dispatched in Game 5 of the American League Division Series by the CC of Sabathia. They were at the gates of the kingdom of The Bronx only to be turned away by their elders, Prince Derek Jeter and the eldest of Lannisters, Raul of of the House Ibanez.

Showalter still believes his charges can storm the gates of the castle and take the throne in 2013. But, unlike most teams in this division, he did not add much of anything to this team. He is largely counting on the same black magic of 2012, which rarely happens.

Those one-run victories in 2012 can easily turn into one-run losses in 2013. Those extra-inning miracles can become extra-inning nightmares a year later.

Their rotation of Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Jake Arrieta really scares no one. Nobody is going to get up out of bed at the hotel and say “Oh no, we have no chance of winning because Arrieta is pitching tonight!”

The bullpen with closer Jim Johnson is solid but hardly merits superlatives.

The team largely returns the same cast in 2012 minus Mark Reynolds and with the return of second baseman Brian Roberts, who has not played a full season in the majors since 2009.

Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are marvelous talents and Nick Markakis is healthy after missing the stretch run. But I have to wonder if all the magic Showalter spun in 2012 really will return in 2013. Teams like this usually fall back to the pack and that is what I see for the Birds.

DRAGONS AT THE PORT CITY

The Tampa Bay Rays remind of the Targaryens, who once sat upon the throne in 2008 when they faced the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series but have been unable to mount the offensive to get back there.

They have been trapped wandering in a hot climate in Florida and they have been restricted by the lack of soldiers and a lack of money to really win it all.

One year they lose Carl Crawford and Matt Garza. Another year they lose B.J. Upton and James Shields. They try to compensate with their own farm system because they lack money to compete with the Lannisters or the Starks of this division.

They only have the fire of their small but growing dragons who someday might destroy the mightier armies they have to face. For now, it appears the dragons are way too small and too inexperienced to go the entire distance.

The Rays rely on a pitching staff led by the American League Cy Young Award-winner David Price. How ironic that a team that has to pinch its pennies would be beholden to man named Price.

Behind him on promising youngsters like Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb. But there are problems here.

Hellickson spent most of the spring throwing much less than fire at opposing batters. He was rocked often and ended up with a 6.75 ERA. Moore did not fare much better. His velocity was way off and his command was even worse. He finished the spring much better but his once-high promise has faded some.

The Rays have to rely on these pitchers and their bullpen led by reclamation project Fernando Rodney and his 48 saves because the offense leaves a lot to be desired.

Without Upton, the Rays will have to rely on Evan Longoria even more for power. Longoria himself has a problem staying healthy and, if he is missing for any portion of the season, the Rays can kiss their hopes bye-bye.

They have a semblance of an offense with Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings and new shortstop Yunel Escobar. But they also are starting guys like Matt Joyce and Luke Scott, who have not proven they can establish careers for themselves and help a team win.

They also are still counting on Jose Molina to do a bulk of the catching at age 37.

The Targaryens in the television series did not have enough money to purchase the ships to ford the sea leading back to Kings Landing. That kind of jives with the subjects who live in Tampa, FL, who are unwilling to lay down their riches or mount their horses to ford the bridge that leads to the Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

The low attendance puts even more stringent strains on the team’s coffers to keep players like Price in the kingdom for their entire careers.

The Rays, with their young dragons, should remain afloat long enough to mount a serious challenge to take the throne. But the rich Lannisters in the Bronx still have the wisdom and wherewithal to stem the tide. Like in the series, men do not blindly follow the bravest warriors but remain loyal to the men with the gold.

The gold remains in the Bronx.

THE STARKS OF BOSTON

In Season Two of “Game of Thrones” the elder Stark loses his head, the eldest daughter is enslaved to the Lannister king, the youngest daughter is lost in the hinterlands, the two youngest boys have their home burned while the man’s widow and the eldest son plot to overthrow and vanquish the Lanisters to avenge the patriarch’s death.

That pretty much wraps up the Red Sox of 2012. Winterfell befell Landsdowne.

Their king (Bobby Valentine) had his head lopped off and served to the media, they abandoned their home fans and cast adrift a lot of their high-priced talent in order to restock and rebuild to defeat their arch-enemy in the rich Bronx. It was indeed a completely lost season for the Red Sox and the Starks.

They hold out hope that a new manager (Jon Farrell) and a team built around Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury will help get them back to the promised land they have failed to reach since 2007. In fact, they have failed to make the playoffs in the last three seasons.

They want left-hander Jon Lester and right-hander Clay Buccholz to pitch better while young Felix Doubront develops and they pray retreads Ryan Dempster and John Lackey (all kingdoms must have their lackeys) have something left. The problem is that this was the division’s worst pitching staff in 2012 and no swordsmanship will make it much better in 2013.

The bullpen has undergone a two purges since Jonathan Papelbon rode off for the riches of the Phillies. They are now hoping a Pirate can plug the leaks in the hull of the bullpen. Joel Hanrahan has come over from Pittsburgh to be the closer while former closer Andrew Bailey and lost child Daniel Bard try to figure out what happened to their talent.

Bailey is the team’s setup man while the Bard (in true Shakespearean fashion) has been cast into the dungeons of the minor leagues. For shame, for shame!

It also appears that the kingdom’s version of Hodor, David Ortiz, is finally showing signs that those seasons of carrying excess weight have a price. He has a bad heel and he can’t even trot, let alone run. Without Ortiz, most of the power and production will fall upon first baseman Mike Napoli.

There are lots of weaknesses everywhere, including shortstop (Stephen Drew, really?) and catcher, where Jarrod Saltalamacchia hits home runs in small bunches and strikes out in major droves.

Though young outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. promises to give the Fenway faithful something to cheer about when the team is dredging the bottom depths of the division, the ponderous weight of the anchor of this foundering team will keep them from even getting a whiff of the roses near the Iron Throne.

THE RICHES OF KINGS LANDING

The Evil Empire in the Bronx has paid its knights Alex Rodriguez, Jeter, Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Mark Teixeira handsomely over the years. Along with the reward of titles and championships, the team has also fallen short of its goals of late due to injury and the age of these players.

It actually started last season when spring injuries to Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain was just a mere hint of what 2012 would bring. Rodriguez missed time, CC pitched with a sore elbow, Pettitte was lost for a time, Jeter hobbled until he broke in the playoffs,

Speedy outfielder Brett Gardner played in only 18 games.

So why should 2013 be any different?

The rich Lannisters are already missing Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones because payroll concerns were such they were ordered to cut back on their excesses.

Injuries to Teixera, Curtis Granderson, Phil Hughes and a slow recovery by Jeter this spring heightened the concerns of fans who have loyally followed this team over the years. The town criers, the scribes and pundits all denounced this team and said it was dead. They would not win the title in 2013.

They may even finish last.

STARK REALITY

But an odd thing happened on Friday. The team that was battered all spring played a Washington Nationals team that many say will win the world championship in 2013 fell to the Yankees. Oh, it was just an exhibition game. I know it did not count.

But what you saw in the Yankees was a semblance of a very good team. Pettitte pitched well and the bullpen proved to be as strong as ever.

The major surprise was the offense with Robinson Cano, Kevin Youkilis, Eduardo Nunez and Vernon Wells seemed to respond and it all seemed to come together in one cohesive package.

Rays manager Joe Maddon said earlier this spring that he fails to believe that the Yankees will be bad in 2013. He said he thinks they will be as difficult to beat as they always have been. I agree.

You see injuries do heal. The Yankees will get Jeter, Hughes, Granderson and Teixeira back at some point this season. They also might get Rodriguez back.

They are a team that has always gotten off to slow starts and got better as the season moved along. I see the same scenario this season.

The pitching with Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte, Hughes, Ivan Nova and David Phelps is deep. They have Rivera in the bullpen for one last season and David Robertson, Chamberlain and Boone Logan form a strong setup group for the King of Closing.

The offense features the two best singles hitters of their generation in Ichiro Suzuki and Jeter along with the speedy Gardner. Cano, who is due to become a very rich free agent signing after the 2013 season, is poised for breakout season of offense and defense. He could very well win the Most Valuable Player award this season.

Youkilis looks like the Youkilis of 2007, when he led the rival Red Sox to their last championship. You add Granderson and Teixera to that and you have a good offense to go along with strong pitching.

The “new guys” Wells, Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco and Travis Hafner will have pressure on them to keep the team afloat until the stars come back. They might fail but they can’t be any worse than last season’s Yankees that failed to hit with runners in scoring position.

It also behooves manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman that the Yankees are looked upon as dead meat awaiting a fork to be thrust into them. Perhaps lower expectations is a good thing for the Yankees after always being the team expected to win.

Girardi has a chance to really manage this season and Cashman has staked his reputation by finding these veteran pieces to fill in while the wounded heal in the tent.

That is why I truly believe that some how, some way the Yankees, the rich Lannisters of the Bronx, will have just enough to win this division again.

They may stumble in the playoffs. That is almost as much expected by their fans. But I do see victory here.

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. YANKEES
  2. BLUE JAYS
  3. RAYS
  4. ORIOLES
  5. RED SOX

For fans of the show “King of Thrones” I must add a note that Season Three premieres tonight at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO. If you liked this analogy to the A.L. East please pause a moment miladies and milords to send me a raven. 

 

Yankees Repel Rays With Walk-Off Homer In 10th

GAME 28

YANKEES 7, TAMPA BAY 6 (10 Innings)

TAMPA  –  There are times when things may look its bleakest but a proud team decides it needs to make a statement. On Sunday the Yankees made a bold statement that they they will not go down without a pretty fierce fight.

Kevin Youkilis launched a pair of long-distance two-run home runs and Ronnier Mustelier cracked a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 10th inning as New York defeated Tampa Bay in a see-saw affair in front of a paid crowd of 10,894 at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

Youkilis reclaimed the lead for the Yankees in the bottom of the eighth inning with his second home run of the game his fifth of the spring. However, the Rays rallied for a run in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 6-6 on an RBI double by Jake Hager off David Aardsma.

That set the stage for Mustelier’s fly-ball home run off a 3-2 offering from Josh Lueke (2-1) that just cleared in the wall in left-field.

Preston Claiborne (1-0) retired the only two batters he faced in the top of the 10th to gain credit for the victory.

The Yankees improved to 12-17 this spring. The Rays fell to 14-14.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • It appears that signing the Youkilis to replace Alex Rodriguez at third base while he recovers from hip surgery was about the smartest thing that general manager Brian Cashman accomplished this winter. With batting coach Kevin Long’s help, Youkilis has lowered his hands a bit and he’s making solid contact again. With his 2-for-4 day and two home runs, Youkilis now leads the team with five homers and 12 RBIs this spring and he is hitting .262.
  • Mustelier, 28, could not have picked a better time to hit his second home run of the spring. Though it appears his chances of making the team out of spring training are near zero, he is making a big impression on the front office with his .324 batting average.
  • Other than Aardsma, the Yankees bullpen was near flawless in the 5 1/3 innings they pitched. Vidal Nuno, Cody Eppley, Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, Josh Spence and Claiborne combined to give up no runs on five hits and three walks while striking out six batters.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Though Youkilis drove in four runs it ended up being a wash because his error on a ground ball off the bat of Jose Molina with a runner on third and two out in the fourth inning opened the floodgates for four unearned runs to score that inning. Youkilis won a Gold Glove with the Boston Red Sox as a first baseman in 2007. However, he is not as accomplished as a fielder at third.
  • Aardsma, 31, simply did not get the job done in the bottom of ninth inning. He issued a leadoff single by Ben Zobrist, Jason Bourgeois bunted him to second and Hager scored him with his double. Aardsma’s spring ERA is now to 3.86 and it is unclear if he will make the bullpen coming out spring training.
  • There was some bad base-running that cost the Yankees in the fifth inning. After one out, Eduardo Nunez singled but was thrown out attempting to steal by Molina because he got a bad jump off first. Than Ichiro Suzuki rolled a ball down the line in left and was thrown out because he rounded first too far allowing Matt Joyce to gun him down.

BOMBER BANTER

Derek Jeter reported that he was experiencing soreness again in his surgically repaired left ankle and the team has ordered him to rest for at least two days. Cashman said it is looking extremely unlikely that the 38-year-old shortstop will be available on Opening Day. The team likely will place him on the 15-day disabled retroactively so that he could be activated as soon as April 6.  . . .  Reports indicate that the Yankees and Angels are trying to work out a trade that would send outfielder Vernon Wells to the Yankees. Wells, 34, is a fifth outfielder with the Angels but he was hitting . 361 (13 for 36) with four homers and 11 RBis this spring. Wells has a no-trade clause in his contract but he reportedly would be willing to waive it to get more playing time. The big stumbling block is how much the Angels will pay of the $42 million left on Wells’ contract.

ON DECK

The Yankees will take their third day off of the spring on Monday. On Tuesday they will play host to the Houston Astros.

CC Sabathia will make his final spring tuneup before pitching for the Yankees on Opening Day on April 1. The Astros have not named a starter.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast live by the YES Network and by the MLB Network.

 

Yankees Do ‘Little’ Things To Cloud Rays’ Horizon

GAME 146

YANKEES 6, RAYS 4

Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon out of necessity to cover for his team’s weak offense employs a combination of aggressive base-running, bunts and forces the opposition into making mistakes. There also is an old axiom of sports if that a team loves to employ a certain strategy they really hate it when you turn the tables on them.

The Yankees did just that on Sunday by frustrating the Rays with four stolen bases, two sacrifice bunts and they forced two errors as New York played a little “small ball” to send Tampa Bay out of Yankee Stadium with a series loss and pushed them a game further back in the pennant chase.

The Yankees batted around and scored five runs in the bottom of the third inning to send left-hander Matt Moore (10-11) to the showers early using two walks, two stolen bases, a sacrifice bunt, a wild pitch and finally a good old-fashioned home run to put the Rays in a deep hole early.

Eduardo Nunez sparked the uprising by drawing a leadoff walk and stealing second base after Moore had made four attempted pickoffs. Derek Jeter followed with a single into center in which center-fielder B.j. Upton’s throw was off-line, allowing Nunez to score and Jeter to take second.

Nick Swisher, on his own, laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Jeter to third and Alex Rodriguez singled up the middle through a drawn-in infield to score Jeter.

Moore compounded his misery by throwing a pitch in the dirt to Robinson Cano that got past catcher Jose Lobaton and allowed Rodriguez to take second. Rodriguez amped up the pressure by stealing third base and a frustrated Moore walked Cano on four pitches.

Moore then had Russell Martin down 0-2 in the count but Martin battled back to a 3-2 count before he slapped a four-seam fastball to the opposite field and it landed out of the reach of right-fielder Sam Fuld and into the first row of the bleachers in the short porch in right-field for Martin’s 17th home run of the season.

The damage left Moore pitched out, having thrown 45 pitches in the inning. It also gave Hiroki Kuroda (14-10) a nice cushion to work with.

Kuroda came out blazing against the Rays, striking out the side in the first two innings.

But Ben Zobrist nicked him for a solo home run to lead off the fourth inning. From there Kuroda sailed through the Rays’ lineup until the sixth inning.

The Yankees then used an error, two stolen bases, a walk and sacrifice fly to score an unearned run in their half of the fourth.

Nunez reached first after reliever Brandon Gomes misplayed his comebacker to the mound. Nunez then stole second and third base. Jeter walked and, one out later Rodriguez launched a sacrifice fly to the warning track in right-field to score Nunez.

Kuroda, meanwhile, was pitching a gem through five innings, having given up just the one run on two hits and he had walked no one and struck out nine. But he stumbled in the sixth.

The 37-year-old right-hander walked Lobaton to open the frame and Desmond Jennings followed with an infield single. Kuroda then walked Zobrist to load the bases.

Evan Longoria then hit a potential double-play grounder to Rodriguez at third but the ball took a big hop over his glove and two runs scored on the single as Zobrist raced to third.

Matt Joyce followed with an actual double-play grounder to score Zobrist, which drew the Rays to within two runs.

However, the Yankees bullpen shut the Rays down over the next three innings with rookie David Phelps striking out Jennings looking with runners at first and second and two out in the seventh to preserve the lead.

David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth and Rafael Soriano came in to toss a scoreless ninth to pick up his 40th save in 43 chances this season.

How frustrating was the loss for the Rays? They drew two ejections.

Maddon was ejected from the game in the third inning after home-plate umpire Paul Emmel chose to warn both teams after Moore had thrown a pitch that buzzed over the head of Curtis Granderson two batters after Martin’s home run. When Maddon questioned Emmel’s warning he got the heave-ho.

Joyce was tossed from the game by Emmel after he struck out looking on a Robertson curveball to end the eighth inning.

With the victory the Yankees improved their season ledger to 83-62 and they also maintained their one-game lead in the American League East over the second-place Baltimore Orioles. The Rays are now 78-68. They are five games in back of the Yankees in the division and trail in the wild-card standings by four games.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Nunez has brought back the one element the Yankees have been lacking all season: Speed on the bases. Nunez stole three bases in the game, which gives him 10 on the season. He is second on the team and he trails Rodriguez by three despite the fact he has been at Triple-A most of the season. Nunez is also hitting .294, which means he might be a more viable option as a right-handed DH then a slumping Andruw Jones.
  • Martin’s home run is part of a huge resurgence for him since Aug. 21. Martin is 19-for-67 (.283) in that span with four home runs and 14 RBIs. That has finally raised Martin’s season average over the “Mendoza line’ and he is now hitting .209. All Yankee fans can say to him is “It is about time, Russell.”
  • Kuroda’s line did not indicate just how well he pitched despite the sixth inning. He did give up four runs in six innings but Kuroda ended up giving up just four hits and two walks while he struck out 10. Unfortunately for him, both of those two walks ended up scoring. The bottom line is Kuroda is the true ace of the staff at this point of the season.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

I have been hoping for a game like this where there was some “small ball” mixed in with some long-ball. It was, for the most part, a well-pitched game and the Yankees were able to keep their lead in the division with the toughest part of their schedule now behind him. Nothing to criticize about that.

ON DECK

The Yankees will get a day to rest their bumps and bruises before resuming their homestand on Tuesday starting a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

The atmosphere will be electric as left-hander Andy Pettitte (3-3, 3.22 ERA) will make his first start since he went on the disabled list on June 27 with a fractured left ankle. Pettitte will be limited to about 70 pitches. Over the past 10 years, Pettitte is 12-9 with a 4.84 ERA against the Blue Jays.

Left-hander Ricky Romero (8-14, 8.57 ERA) will start for the Jays. Romero is in the midst of a 13-game losing streak, which ties him with the franchise record for futility. He is 3-7 with a 5.00 ERA lifetime against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast by MY9.

 

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