Results tagged ‘ Jose Molina ’

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!

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Sabathia’s Maturity Got Him Through Rough 8th

 

ALDS GAME 5: KEY MOMENT

Baseball pundits have made a cottage industry out of criticizing the New York Yankees for the advanced age of their team as if the second a player turns 30 he starts hitting like Jose Molina or pitching like Kevin Millwood.

But one of the reasons they have a number of players who 30 years old or older is the same reason why CC Sabathia beat the Baltimore Orioles on Friday to advance the Yankees to the American League Championship Series.

In Sabathia’s first five postseason starts up to when he was age 28, he was 2-3 with a 7.92 ERA. In the past four postseasons with the Yankees up to age 32, Sabathia is 7-1 with a 3.09 ERA.

Entering the eighth inning of Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Orioles, Sabathia had given up just one hit and one walk while he had a seemingly comfortable 3-0 lead.

But things began to look as if they were unraveling when Matt Wieters led off the inning with a solid single to left and Sabathia walked rookie Manny Machado on just five pitches.

From this point on in the inning, the game was at a tipping point because if any of the Orioles hit a home run at this juncture then the game would be tied. If Sabathia might have been a younger and less experienced pitcher in postseason play he might have cracked.

After a strikeout of Mark Reynolds, Lew Ford followed with a single to left to score Wieters.

Now if any Orioles hitter were to hit a home run, the Orioles would take the lead. You could bet there were a few Tums moments in the Yankee dugout for manager Joe Girardi. He wanted his ace pitcher to get out of this but he also realized that the team’s success was more important.

Crazy plays happen in baseball all the time. They pop up at strange moments like this and they did when Robert Andino bounced a ball to the right of Sabathia.

Sabathia sprang off the mound to field it but he realized that he could not throw the ball to third because Eric Chavez was not on the base. Andino has some speed so first would have been out.

So Sabathia threw the ball to second but Ford slid into the bag before the ball arrived.

A lesser experienced postseason pitcher might have completely unraveled at this point. The bases were full and there was only one out.

On top of that, the Orioles best hitter in the series, Nate McLouth, was up with nowhere to put him.

 

“It’s what I’m here for,” Sabathia said, “It’s what I play the game for. I guess I should feel a little pressure or something like that, but I don’t.”

 

Girardi had right-hander David Robertson throwing in the bullpen but he stuck with his experienced ace left-hander against McLouth even though McLouth had narrowly missed hitting a home run in the sixth inning.

A crowd of 47.081 huddled in the October chill crossing their fingers and praying Sabathia could hold onto this most precious of leads. The Yankees’ hopes for a 28th world championship were riding on it.

Sabathia had learned by the time he came to the Yankees there was a big difference between throwing and pitching. Early in his career, Sabathia could throw hard and so that is all he did. Now Sabathia throws less hard but he is even better because he mixes in his curve, his slider and change-up more.

That is what Sabathia did with McLouth.

His first pitch was a called strike, a slider at 83 miles per hour. McLouth then weakly fouled off a 95-mph fastball. After Sabathia tried a 82-mph slider in the dirt for a ball, he came back with a higher 82-mph slider with which McLouth was unable to make contact.

Two out.

Sabathia then had face J.J. Hardy, a power-laden shortstop who bats right-handed.

The big left-hander started Hardy off with a change-up off the outside corner for a ball. He then muscled up on a 94-mph fastball that challenged Hardy but Hardy took it for a strike.

Sabathia then put Hardy into a huge hole by getting him to offer and miss at another change-up.

Then catcher Russell Martin and Sabathia agreed to try Sabathia’s trademark slider that runs down the middle of the plate like a fastball but takes an abrupt turn right and dives to the inside corner on a right-handed hitter.

Hardy did make contact, but all he could do was roll it weakly back to Sabathia. The veteran lefty moved about three steps toward first and flipped the ball gently to Mark Teixeira to get out of a harrowing bases-loaded jam with the game on the line.

 

“He was just dominant — he shows why he’s making all that money,” Martin said. “He’s the man. He’s the horse of this team. It’s fun to be back there and try to direct him. He’s been awesome.”

 

Girardi’s faith in his ace proved to be well-founded. Sabathia was able to pitch his way out of trouble instead of throwing as hard as he could like he did when he could hit 98-mph on the radar gun.

Sabathia would go on to retire the Orioles in the ninth for his first postseason career complete game and the Yankees rode his back into the American League Championship Series.

Along with Sabathia, the Yankees have Andy Pettitte as a starter at age 40 and Hiroki Kuroda at age 37. But do not mistake the advanced age of their pitchers to be synonymous with old, washed up has-beens.

The reason why the Yankees win in the playoffs is because their pitchers and their players like Raul Ibanez at age 40 do not panic. They simply play the game and let it come to them instead of trying too hard.

Sabathia proved that in the eighth inning when he bent but did not break. He was tested but he remained calm. That is what experience gives you that raw talent could never surpass.

 

“He is our ace,” Girardi said. “That’s the bottom line. He has been there and done that.”

 

 

Martin Catches Fire At Right Time To Save Season

The New York Yankees have reached the end of the regular season as champions of the American League East and they have the best record in the league. It was not easy but they are now ready for the playoffs. It is time to look at the players that got them there and give them grades for the season.

CATCHER – RUSSELL MARTIN (21 HRs, 53 RBIs, .211 BA)

If you were judging Russell Martin’s first half you would say that it was a foregone conclusion he would not be back with the Yankees after this season.

At the midway point, Martin had eight home runs, 21 RBIs and he was hitting an anemic .184. Though the Yankees love his defense behind the plate they also realize having a catcher that unproductive hurts the offense. Opposing pitchers were using Martin to escape from innings with men on base.

But what a difference a second half makes.

Martin,29, found his lost stroke as the season progressed and he hit 13 home runs, drove in 32 runs and batted .242 in the second half. In his first season with the Yankees he hit 18 home runs, drove in 65 runs and batted .237. So it is safe to say that Martin may have saved his job with his good work in the second half.

Martin was particularly good when it counted most – in September. From Sept. 1 on Martin batted .258 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs. It was, by far, his best month of the season.

September is usually the time where catchers wear down from all those games behind the plate and all the nicks and bruises they incur during the season. But for some reason Martin just got better as the season progressed. He saved his best for last.

Compared to his 2011 season, Martin was quite durable. He started 116 games behind the plate and caught in 128 games overall.

His defense, as advertised, was very good.

He nailed 24 percent of the runners attempting to steal on him. That was down from his career average of 30 percent but it was still very respectable. He committed only six errors though he did have a a high total of nine passed balls.

His overall fielding percentage of .994 was the same as the Rays’ Jose Molina, who is considered the best defensive catcher in the league.

But a lot of Martin’s game behind the plate goes unquantified.

His agility and cat-quick reflexes prevent a lot of wild pitches by the way he blocks pitches in the dirt. Though the Yankees traded A.J. Burnett, they still had a lot of pitchers who test a catcher with nasty breaking pitches such as Freddy Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda and Boone Logan.

Catching such a diverse staff is no day at the beach but Martin handles it exceptionally well.

He also is able to communicate with his pitchers and he calls a great game. He commands the respect of the pitching staff and he is smart enough to help pitchers get out of jams.

He certainly helped Kuroda’s transition to the American League since he caught Kuroda when he played for the Dodgers. At the same time he helped in the development of rookie right-hander David Phelps.

Martin’s contract with the Yankees expires after the season ends. Martin had sought to sign an extension before the season began but it never happened. With the Yankees looking to trim payroll it unclear whether Martin will be offered a new contract or will be allowed to become a free agent.

If it were based on his first half, he would be gone. But his second half and performance in the playoffs could save him.

It helps that a some of the Yankees’ catching prospects were hampered by injury or are a few years away.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C-

SECOND HALF GRADE: B

OVERALL GRADE: C+

BACKUP – CHRIS STEWART (1 HR, 13 RBIs, .241 BA)

Chris Stewart came to the Yankees in a trade with the San Francisco Giants made on the last day of spring training. Because Stewart was out of options, Francisco Cervelli lost his job as Martin’s backup and was shipped off to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

So Stewart was replacing a very popular player in Cervelli. But he handled it well and won over some Yankee fans with his exceptional work behind the plate.

Backup catchers are not paid to hit. They are paid to call a good game, play defense, deter the running game and block pitches in the dirt. Stewart did all of those things well.

Stewart, 30, also became the “personal” catcher for CC Sabathia throughout most of the season and he seemed to have built a great rapport with the ace left-hander.

Stewart started 46 games and caught in 54 games overall.

The only red flag in his defense was that he committed a career-high eight passed balls in 395 innings, But that may have been a fluke because Stewart nailed 23 percent of the base-runners who tried to steal and committed four errors for a .990 fielding percentage.

Stewart drew praise for his defensive work even from opposing teams’ TV announcers. That means his good work was being noticed.

Martin started of the season hitting better than Martin. He was hitting .270 with nine RBIs at the season’s midpoint. Some fans even suggested Stewart replace Martin.

But Stewart ended up with one home run, 13 RBIs and he hit .241 on the season.

He hit just .220 in the second half, which is more in line with his career average of .217. So Stewart won’t be replacing Martin. But he complimented him well in 2012.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C

SECOND HALF GRADE: C

OVERALL GRADE: C

The Yankees catching depth was reduced a bit this past winter when they traded 21-year-old prospect Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for right-hander Michael Pineda. The Yankees were not convinced Montero would develop the defensive skills to be able to play the position regularly.

So they sent his potent power bat to Seattle and he hit 19 home runs and drove in 74 runs and batted .267 in his first season in the majors. But he only started 55 games behind the plate. So maybe the Yankees were correct about his defense.

But the Yankees will miss his power and production.

Cervelli, 26, spent the entire season at Scranton despite the fact he was the team’s backup catcher in 2010 and 2011.

Cervelli hit .246 with two home runs and 39 RBIs in 99 games with Scranton. He was recalled to the majors when the roster expanded but he did not get much of a chance to play.

Though Cervelli is a bit better with the bat than Stewart, the Yankees have not been a big fan of Cervelli’s throwing behind the plate. He only nailed three of 27 base-runners (11 percent) in 2011 and he committed a lot throwing errors.

At Scranton this season, Cervelli committed only five errors but he was charged with 15 passed balls. Though other parts of Cervelli’s defensive game are good, manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena (both former major-league catchers) believe Stewart was superior defensively.

Cervelli likely will look to improve his skills to stick next season or he could be shipped to another team. But as long as Stewart is around, Cervelli’s path back to the major leagues is blocked.

The Yankees had hoped their young catching prospect Austin Romine would make an impact in spring training. However, Romine was an early casualty when he succumbed to back spasms and he did not catch a single inning this past spring.

In fact, the Yankees cautiously held him out of game action for most of the season to allow his back issues to subside.

He caught only 17 games at Scranton and 31 games overall.

Romine, 23, hit .243 with four home runs and 15 RBIs. Though Romine will never hit like Montero, the Yankees believe he is capable to being an excellent defensive catcher in the major leagues right now. Next spring, he will push Stewart (if he is re-signed) and Cervelli for the backup catching job.

But with the Yankees always erring on the side of caution, Romine could end up at Scranton and the Yankees would monitor his back as the season progresses.

The Yankees are very lucky to have two very good young catching prospects in J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez.

Muphy, 21, hit .231 with four home runs and 16 RBIs at Double-A Trenton this season after advancing from Class-A Tampa, where he played in 67 games and hit .257. Murphy can also play third base and he has above-average defensive skills behind the plate.

Sanchez is currently the team’s No. 1 rated young prospect and with good reason. Sanchez, 19, hit a combined .344 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs in 116 games between Class-A Charleston and Class-A Tampa this season, Unlike Montero, Sanchez does have some defensive ability behind the plate. He has a plus arm but his other defensive skills took a step backward this season.

But with his booming bat and his overall potential, Sanchez appears like he could eventually surpass Montero when he reaches the majors. His future is ultra-bright.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: C

With Martin unsigned, this position will be in state of flux unless the Yankees decide to offer Martin a contract to remain with the team.

Considering the fact that Stewart is only considered a backup and Cervelli is looked upon the same way, Martin’s chances of returning are pretty good. Good free agent catchers are scarce and throw in the fact that Romine has had recurring back issues and you have a very compelling case for the Yankees to keep Martin.

But Romine, Murphy and Sanchez do point to a bright future ahead for the position. It is still a strength of the team to have this much depth at the position despite the trade of Montero.

 

‘Super’ Nova Continues His Mastery Over Cold Rays

GAME 55

YANKEES 4, RAYS 1

Through the first third of the season the Yankees have not gotten much consistency from 25-year-old right-hander Ivan Nova, who entered Wednesday’s contest against the Rays with a 5.60 ERA.

Perhaps Nova finally found his groove or the Rays’ offense is in a severe deep freeze. Whatever the reason, Nova looked dominant and he had the Rays in control on the Yankee Stadium mound.

Nova pitched eight-plus innings and just missed pitching a complete-game shutout as New York downed Tampa Bay for the second night in a row and they now have won 10 of their last 13 games.

Nova (7-2) gave up a single to Desmond Jennings to start the game and he did not allow another hit until Sean Rodriguez stroked a one-out double in the eighth inning. In the ninth, Jennings and B.J. Upton hit back-to-back triples to spoil the shutout and end Nova’s evening.

It was the Rays’ first run of the series and their first score in their last 19 innings.

Nova gave up just the four hits, walked one, hit a batter and struck out five to win his third straight start. He faced the minimum in five of his eight innings of work and at one point he retired 13 straight batters.

Rafael Soriano entered the game in the ninth with Upton on third and no outs and he retired Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and Hideki Matsui in order to collect his eighth save in eight opportunities.

Meanwhile, Nova received all the support he really needed on a pair of solo home runs.

With one out in the second inning, Mark Teixeira smacked a 0-1 hanging slider from right-hander Alex Cobb into the second deck in right-field for his 10th home run of the season and his fifth in his last 11 games.

Two innings later, Robinson Cano connected off Cobb (2-2) on 2-0 fastball and he lined a rope into the first row of seats over the auxiliary scoreboard in right-center for his ninth home run of the season. It was his fifth home run in his last 13 games.

Those two home runs were only two hits the Yankees managed off Cobb until the bottom of the eighth.

Raul Ibanez led off the inning with a single into right. With Dewayne Wise pinch-running for Ibanez at first, Nick Swisher laced a double down the right-field line that scored Wise easily. Eric Chavez followed with a double off the wall in left-center that scored Swisher to give the Yankees a 4-0 lead.

Cobb left having given up four runs on five hits and one walk and he struck out four in seven-plus innings.

With the victory, the Yankees pulled into second place in the American League East with a 31-24 record, a half-game behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Rays’ season record is 31-25 and they fell into third place in the division.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Nova was at his absolute best on Wednesday. He retired 13 of his 24 outs on ground balls and threw 69 of his 103 pitches for strikes (67 percent). Nova also has run his career record against the Rays to 4-0 and he is 2-0 against them this season. Nova’s effort lowered his season ERA to 5.09.
  • Soriano came to the rescue in the ninth with one run in and a runner on third with nobody out. But he induced Joyce to pop out in foul territory, he fanned Zobrist on a pitch in the dirt and Matsui’s high fly ball to right died at the warning track. Soriano remains perfect in save situations and he lowered his ERA to 1.90. Soriano also has not been scored upon since the Rays scored a run off of him on May 10 at Yankee Stadium, a string of 10 consecutive scoreless outings.
  • Teixeira’s return to driving the ball has led to a recent flurry in which he is 14-for-42 (.333) with five home runs and 12 RBIs over his last 11 games. In that span he has raised his season average from .226 to .249.
  • Despite being hit on the left forearm in Tuesday’s game, Cano was able to play Wednesday and homered. Cano had been in tailspin that had dropped his season average to .286 but he now has a modest four-game hitting streak and he is 5-for-14 (.357) during that span.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • The Yankees had a hard time mustering much offense against Cobb, a rookie right-hander. Part of the problem is that Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson were 0-for-7 against Cobb at the top of the lineup. They were 0-for-8 overall and they only managed to get one ball out of the infield.
  • After showing signs of coming out of his season-long funk on Tuesday with a three hits, including a grand-slam home run, Russell Martin was 0-for-3 with a strikeout on Wednesday. That lowered his batting average back to .206.
  • Alex Rodriguez committed a stupid base-running play in the fourth inning. He drew a walk from Cobb with one out and Cobb’s second pitch to Cano bounced under the glove of catcher Jose Molina. However, Molina was able to retrieve it with Rodriguez halfway between first and second base. Rodriguez tried to get back to first but Molina gunned him down easily. Cano homered on the next pitch and Rodriguez’s mistake cost the Yankees a run.

BOMBER BANTER

Closer Mariano Rivera learned the issue with a blood clot in his right calf has been resolved and he is scheduled to undergo surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn meniscus in his right knee next Tuesday in New York. Rivera, 42, said he hopes to be able to pitch in 2013.  . . .  All-Star setup man David Robertson will throw a bullpen session on Thursday at Yankee Stadium and he could possibly pitch in a minor-league game on Sunday. Robertson has been on the 15-day disabled list since May 14 with a strained left oblique.  . . .  Brett Gardner will play for Class A Advanced Tampa on Thursday and he could be activated as soon as Sunday. Gardner has been on the disabled list since April 18 with a strained right elbow.

ON DECK

The Yankees will be looking for a clean sweep of their three-game home series against the Rays on Thursday.

They will call upon ace left-hander CC Sabathia (7-2, 3.68 ERA) to get that sweep. Sabathia gave up three runs on eight hits and two walks and fanned five batters in eight innings of work last Friday in a victory over the Tigers. Sabathia is 10-7 with a 3.11 ERA in his career against the Rays.

The Rays are countering with left-hander David Price (7-3, 2.44 ERA). Price struck five in 7 1/3 innings last Friday while giving up four hits and two walks in a victory over the Orioles. Price is 5-3 with 4.15 ERA in his career against the Yankees but one of those losses was this season and Sabathia outpitched him in that game.

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

 

Robertson’s Dramatic Punchout Saves Nova’s Win

GAME 29

YANKEES 5, RAYS 3

Harry Houdini is known as the greatest escape artist of all time and Mariano Rivera is regarded as the greatest closer in the history of baseball.

On Tuesday night, David Robertson paid homage to them both by escaping a bases-loaded, two-out jam to strike out Carlos Pena looking to record his first save since Rivera sustained a season-ending right knee injury last week in Kansas City.

Meanwhile, Ivan Nova may have had his 15-game winning streak snapped in his last outing but Rual Ibanez’s two home runs and three RBIs and Curtis Granderson’s solo shot gave him the offense he needed to start another one as New York held on to defeat Tampa Bay on a rainy and cool night at Yankee Stadium.

Nova (4-1) pitched his best game of the season, giving up two runs on six hits and two walks while striking out eight batters over seven innings.

The Yankees were able to pin the first loss of the season on Rays right-hander James Shields (5-1). Shields limited the Yankees to three runs on four hits and three walks and he struck out four in six innings of work. However, two of the hits left the yard.

Ibanez gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning with a two-out, two-run home run to right-field right after Robinson Cano was cut down at home plate trying to score on a Nick Swisher grounder to second baseman Will Rhymes. Ibanez has only three hits in 46 at-bats career against Shields and two of them have been home runs.

Granderson victimized Shields in the following frame with a two-out blast into the fourth row of the right-field bleachers. It was Granderson’s 10th home run of the season, which leads the team.

The Rays clawed back to within a run on a pair of solo home runs – one from Jose Molina in the sixth and another from Luke Scott in the seventh.

However, Ibanez led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a blast off reliever Burke Badenhop that struck high off the foul pole in right-field.

The Rays got that run back in the eighth when Ben Zobrist led off the inning with a triple and he later scored on a wild pitch from reliever Rafael Soriano.

The Yankees reclaimed their two-run edge in the bottom of the inning when Mark Teixeira stroked a one-out double into the corner in right-field to score Alex Rodriguez, which set up the dramatic ninth inning.

With one out, Robertson walked Rhymes and Sean Rodriguez followed with a single in the hole to left. Robertson was able to strike out pinch-hitter Brandon Allen swinging but he walked Zobrist tio load the bases.

With intermittent rain showers having held down the paid crowd of 37,086 to about half of that total, most of them were on their feet as Robertson dueled Pena with the game on the line.

After getting two quick strikes, Robertson missed with his next two offerings. But, the former setup man now closer was able to place a 94 mile-per-hour fastball perfectly on the outside corner that caught Pena looking and ended the game.

It was the fourth career save for Robertson and his first of the season.

With the victory, the Yankees improved to 16-13 on the season and they gained a game on the first-place race in the American League East. The Rays are 19-11.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Nova bounced back nicely after two consecutive poor outings in which he gave up 11 runs on 20 hits and seven walks in 11 2/3 innings. The key was Nova had command of his fastball, curveball and slider and it translated into eight strikeouts, which tied his previous season high against the Angels on April 15.
  • Ibanez is proving to be a very good free-agent signing for the Yankees. It was Ibanez’s 15th career multi-homer game and his first with New York. After hitting .241 in April, Ibanez is hitting .353 in May. He now has five home runs and 16 RBIs on the season.
  • Robertson’s high-wire act in the ninth may have looked like nerves but Yankee fans are well aware that Robertson is prone to issuing his share of walks. Robertson entered the game with a 0.00 ERA and he had struck out the last eight batters he faced and 10 of the last 11. He left the mound with a 0.00 ERA and he now has 23 strikeouts in 13 innings this season. He has not been scored upon in his last 26 1/3 innings over 12 appearances dating back to last September.
  • Granderson’s home run puts him second in the American League with 10. That would have tied Josh Hamilton of the Rangers but he was busy hitting four home runs in a game on Tuesday against the Orioles.

HOLEY-MOLELY, FOLEY: By the way, the Yankees owe a big thank you to Rays third-base coach Tom Foley. In the seventh inning, Scott had just brought the Rays to within a run of the Yankees with his one-out solo home run. Nova walked Jeff Keppinger and then surrendered a double to Rhymes that rolled into the corner down the right-field line. Foley could have sent Keppinger home but he elected to play it safe and held him. Sean Rodriguez then lofted a fly ball midway into right-field and down the line. Swisher made the catch and fired the ball on the fly – but off to the left of home plate – to catcher Russell Martin. Again, Foley chose not to risk sending Keppinger. But the prudent approach backfired when Nova fanned Molina swinging on an 0-2 pitch and the Rays were thwarted.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Martin is really struggling at the plate. He was one of two Yankee starters who did not have a hit (Swisher was 0-for-4) and his 0-for-3 night dropped his season average to a pathetic .184. Martin’s exceptional defense is valuable in and of itself, however, it would be nice of he started hitting more consistently.
  • Soriano looked a bit shaky in his new eighth-inning role. The leadoff triple to Zobrist was bad enough but he compounded the problem by unleashing a wild pitch with two outs to allow the Rays to draw to within a run. Soriano ended the frame by striking out the side but it was too late.
  • Swisher came up in the fourth and eighth innings with a runner on third and only one out. In both cases he failed to get the runner in. In the fourth, he bounced a ball to Rhymes that ended up with Cano being thrown out. In the eighth, he bounced a ball to Pena at first and the runner (Teixeira) was unable to score.

BOMBER BANTER

It’s official! Andy Pettitte will be activated on Sunday and he will make the first start of 2012 comeback against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday. “I think everybody is in agreement that he’s not really going to benefit from any more time down below,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told reporters on Tuesday. Manager Joe Girardi said the club is not willing to discuss who will be dropped from the rotation in favor of Pettitte.  . . .  No date has been set for the season-ending right knee surgery for Rivera. Rivera met with team physician Chris Ahmad as well as Dr. Russell Warren and Dr. David Altchek on Monday, all of whom concurred with the diagnosis of a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus. There also was a complication found during the examination but the Yankees are not commenting on it. Cashman only said it would not prevent Rivera from pitching in 2013.  . . .  Brett Gardner played in a game at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday as part of rehab assignment. Gardner (strained right elbow) hopes to be ready to be activated from the disabled list on Thursday.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their three-game home series against the Rays on Wednesday.

Rookie right-hander David Phelps (0-1, 3.74 ERA) will make his second start of the season for the Yankees. Phelps gave up only two runs on six hits against the Royals last Thursday. But a high pitch count limited him to only four innings and he took the loss. Phelps has no record against the Rays.

The Rays will counter with right-hander Jeff Niemann (2-3, 4.05 ERA). Niemann gave up three runs on seven hits and two walks while striking out five against the Mariners last Thursday to win his second game of the season. Niemann is 3-0 with a 3.10 ERA in his career against the Yankees.

Game-time will be 7:05 p.m. EDT and the game will be telecast nationally by ESPN and locally by the YES Network.

 

Rivera Proves He’s Human In Opener Against Rays

GAME 1

RAYS 7, YANKEES 6

Ben Zobrist hit a game-tying double and Carlos Pena stroked a bases-loaded single in the bottom of the ninth as Tampa Bay rallied to defeat New York in both team’s season opener on Friday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL.

Newly acquired right-hander Fernando Rodney (1-0) pitched a scoreless ninth inning to get credit for the victory. Closer Mariano Rivera (0-1) was tagged with both a blown save and a loss.

The Yankees rallied from a 4-0 first-inning deficit to take a 6-4 lead in the third inning on the strength of new designated hitter Raul Ibanez, who had four RBIs including three on a three-run home run in the third off Rays starter James Shields.

Pena, however, also added a grand slam home run in the first inning off Yankees ace CC Sabathia for five RBIs.

Neither Sabathia or Shields were particularly sharp in their first outings, although after the first inning Sabathia gave up only one run (on an Evan Longoria solo home run in the third) on six hits, one walk and seven strikeouts. Shields gave up six runs on nine hits, three walks, one hit batter, a costly wild pitch and he struck out three in only five innings of work.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Ibanez struggled through most of spring training until the final 10 days and it carried over into the opener. He drove in the Yankees’ first run on an infield grounder in the second and then added his three-run shot into the right-field bleachers that turned a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 lead the Yankees held until the bottom of the ninth.
  • The Yankees turned in a pair of sensational defensive plays and in both instances the victim was Desmond Jennings. In the fourth inning, Jennings lofted a sinking popup into shallow right but Nick Swisher charged it, slid feet first and caught the ball just before it hit the artificial surface. In the sixth inning, Jennings laced a bouncing liner into left that Brett Gardner cut off and as Jennings tried to stretch the hit into a double, Gardner unleashed a bullet on the fly to Robinson Cano to nab a sliding Jennings.
  • “Houdini” did it again. David Robertson always seems to be able to get into and out of jams like they are nothing. Robertson started the eighth by walking Sean Rodriguez and Pena followed a single to advance Rodriguez to third. But Robertson then fanned pinch-hitter Stephen Vogt, Jose Molina and Matt Joyce in succession to preserve the one-run lead.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • It is a shame that Sabathia was so out of sync in the first inning. He walked the right-handed hitting Rodriguez to load the bases to pitch to a lefty in Pena with two out. But instead of getting out of the jam, Sabathai left a 3-2 fastball up and paid the price for it.
  • The old runners in scoring position bug bit the Yankees in the rear end again. They were 2-for-11 (.182) with RISP position and they left a dozen runners on base in the game. The Yankees left the bases loaded in second, fourth and seventh innings. So instead of blaming Rivera for blowing the save perhaps it would be more insightful to blame the Yankees for not extending their lead when they had plenty of chances.
  • So Rivera is human. He gave up a leadoff single to Jennings and Zobrist followed with his game-tying triple. Manager Joe Girardi chose to walk Longoria and Luke Scott intentionally. Rivera struck out Rodriguez but Pena was able to get a ball into a drawn-in outfield to score the winning run.

BOMBER BANTER

Yankees right-hander Michael Pineda will remain behind at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa, FL., when the team heads north and it is unlikely he will be activated in April. Pineda is recovering from right rotator cuff tendinitis and he was placed in the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 31. Pineda threw about 25 soft tosses on flat ground on Thursday and reported no issues with his shoulder.  . . .  Yankees left-hander Boone Logan was available to pitch on Friday despite the fact he was suffering from back spasms on Wednesday.  . . .  The Yankees plan to start Eduardo Nunez on Saturday against the Rays left-hander David Price. That means either Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez will serve as the team’s DH.

ON DECK

The Yankees will continue their three-game holiday weekend opening series with the Rays on Saturday.

Free-agent right-hander Hiroki Kuroda will make his Yankee debut. Kuroda was 13-16 with a 3.07 ERA with the Dodgers last season and he is coming off a very good spring with the Yankees. He has never faced the Rays.

Price will start for the Rays. He is 4-2 with a 4.02 ERA in his career against the Yankees.

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

 

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