New York Yankees: April in Review

IMGP3377 Jacoby Ellsbury can hit, Carlos Beltran can play everywhere and the injury bug didn’t stay in 2013.

Let’s start on the injury front shall we?  They sure popped up early and often in April.  Mark Teixiera went down first with a grade 1 hamstring pull, and closer David Robertson quickly followed him onto the 15-day DL with a groin strain.  Both came back after the two weeks were up, and have looked good in a small sample size.  Then, Derek Jeter missed he final two games of the Red Sox series.  And in that final game (a win) against Boston, Francisco Cerveilli ended up on the 60-Day DL with a grade 2 hamstring strain, Brian Roberts went down with a back injury, and not to mention a scare with April revelation Yangervis Solarte. But the biggest loss? It came after a blowout loss against the Tampa Bay Rays.  Starter Ivan Nova, who many thought would have a break out season after a strong finish to 2013, is heading for season-ending Tommy John surgery.  The young righty has a torn UCL injury, which already claimed all of 2014 for another one of New York’s up-and-coming stars, the Mets Matt Harvey.  The month ends with Brett Gardner nursing a sore foot, and Ellsbury has a day-to-day hand issue.

Considering they started the season with 13-straight games (their first two series were in domes), coupled with the injuries, the Bombers should be very happy with their record.  It’s only April, and they’ve already changed their fortunes in the AL East.  They only won 6 games against Boston last year, yet they’ve already taken down the defending World Champs 6 times in one month of baseball here in 2014!  They lead the division early, only lost 2 series the entire month, and are over .500 in the East. Sabathia continues to search for a way to be successful with his new stuff, but one thing about the big guy you can’t take for granted. He gives you length every start. They might not be the sharpest innings late, but he finds a way to not kill your bullpen.

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Best Starter: Masahiro Tanaka – That 24-0 last season in Japan does NOT look like a fluke. Sure it’s early, and the league needs time to catch up, but man does Tanaka look like the real deal.  Tanaka’s 3-0 to start his MLB career and has a ridiculous 46 strikeouts to just 6 walks in 35.2 innings. His first start got off to a shaky start, giving up a lead-off homer to Toronto’s Melky Cabrera, but he sure settled down.  3-runs in 7 innings.  Then he did it again, going a complete 8 in a shut-out win over the Orioles, striking out 10 along the way in his Yankee Stadium debut. And what about his dominance over 8.1 against the Sox in Fenway! He’s been nothing short of dominant. His one bug-a-boo?  The long ball.  He’s so in the zone, that balls tend to fly out easily.  The good thing is they’ve been solo shots for the most part.  (Honorable Mention: Michael Pineda – I could’ve easily made him the best with his 2-1 record, minuscule 1.00 ERA coming off two years of arm issues.  If Tanaka has been number 1, Pineda has been 1a for the Yankees pitching staff. Too bad this all came to a screaming halt with a 10-game suspension due to pine tar, followed by a lat strain that will sideline him for another 3-4 weeks.)

Best Reliever: Shawn Kelly – Outside a bad outing in a non-save situation, Kelly did a wonderful job sliding into the closer role while Robertson was on the disabled list.  Adam Warren has the other save recorded this season, and without the legendary Mariano Rivera closing games, and a big injury to D-Rob, who would’ve thought they’d make it through April without any blown saves? (Honorable Mention: Adam Warren – He’s adjusted to the short reliever role very well.)

Best Hitter: Jacoby Ellsbury – For any Yankees fans that thought liking his former enemy would be hard, you were very wrong. He’s come in and not only torn the ball off the cover, he’s run the bases better than anyone this team has seen since a young Alfonso Soriano was stealing 40 a year. And no, I’m not omitting Brett Gardner here, who has blinding speed, but doesn’t always take advantage of it on the base paths. (Honorable Mention: Carlos Beltran – Power, power, power.  He leads the team in HRs, RBIs, OPS and Slugging %.  He’s been another great addition to the Yankees outfield and lineup.)

Biggest Surprise: Yangervis Solarte – He spent the first 7 years of his career in the minors. He wasn’t even supposed to make the team! Yet Solarte hit his way onto the team out of spring training, hitting Eduardo Nunez off the team completely.  He can and has played every position on the diamond and has done it well.  And talk about a doubles-machine!  He’s also tied with Beltran for the team lead in RBIs with 13.

Record vs AL East: 10-7

Overall Record: 15-11 (1st in the East)

So that was April.  Coming up in May, the Yankees are on the road a lot, including a 3-game series against the Leagues top team, the Milwaukee Brewers.  The Bombers also play their cross-town rivals, as well as the Nation League representatives in the World Series last year, the St. Louis Cardinals.

Yanks Lose as Mo Exits Stage Right

The Yankees lost 4-0 to Tampa Bay, but all anyone can talk about is Mariano Rivera’s final home appearance.

Rivera came in with 1 out in the 8th to thunderous ovation.  But it was his exit with 2 outs in the 9th that will live on forever.  The legendary closer watched with a smile on his face as long time teammates and Core Four brothers Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter came to the mound to take him out.  He handed the ball to Pettitte, and just cried into his fellow pitchers arms.  They say there’s no crying in baseball, but if the greatest closer in the history of the game wants to cry, you let him.  And probably, as I did, cry right along with him.

The crowd showered him with several minutes of applause as Rivera shared an embrace with every teammate, before one final Yankee Stadium curtain call.

Lost in the love was a dominant performance from the Rays Alex Cobb in a game that meant a lot Tampa.  They have yet to clinch a playoff spot.  But even so, the Rays, who seem to be on hand for many Yankee moments (Jeter becoming the Yankees all-time hit leader and picking up number 3000), paid respect to Mo by letting him have his moment.  They all gave him a standing ovation, showing that Rivera, is a figure that is and will always be greater than the game.

It may be one of the first and only times a Yankee Stadium crowd didn’t care that their team was shutout.  Sure, one last save would have been the icing on the cake, but this team is tired, and with no playoffs to get ready for, this home stand was all about Mo.  And everyone knew it.

So now the calendar reads 3.  Just 3 more Major League games for Rivera, to be played in Houston.  Fitting, since his friend Andy Pettitte will be exiting stage right along with Mo come the end of the season Sunday.  The Astros are the only other team Pettitte has ever played for, and the Texas native makes his final start there Friday night.

Two legends, and another night Yankee and baseball fans alike shall not soon forget.

Make or Break Homestand Awaits the Yankees

A 2-4 road-trip was the last thing the Yankees needed as they make a late season playoff push.  But that’s exactly what they got this past week from stops in Tampa Bay and Toronto.  New York entered the series 12-1 on the year against the Blue Jays, but floundered as teams ahead of them continued to win.

The series loss to Toronto was particularly hard, as the bombers saw a 3rd straight rough outing from Hiroki Kuroda.  Kuroda, who has been the Yankees most consistent starter all year, is now just 1-4, with an 8.10 ERA in the month of August.   This after a dominant July (3-0, 0.55 ERA).

After being as close as 3.5 games in the Wildcard, the 2-4 trip put them 5.5 back heading into a crucial 10-game homestand against the Orioles, White Sox and 4 against the Red Sox.  The O’s and Boston are teams they’re chasing in the division and Wildcard, while the White Sox swept the Yanks last month in Chicago.

New York got some help on their off-day, with losses by Boston, Oakland and Cleveland.  Baltimore is the closest foe in the standings that they play (none left with the Indians, though the Yankees hold the tiebreaker should it come to that), so a big series for the bombers would leapfrog them past the birds.  And by big series, I mean sweep.   2 out of 3 obviously helps but as the calendar flips to September, games are at a premium.  If you’re the Yankees, a 9-1, 8-2 record would go a long way to keeping them in the hunt.  Going anything less than 7-3 might just put a nail in the injury plagued, inconsistent 2013 season.

So the Yankees turn to CC Sabathia in the first game of the series.  The lefty has been anything but ace-like this season (11-11, 4.81 ERA), and the bombers desperately need him to get back to his former self this weekend against the Orioles.  Especially with Yankee killer Miguel Gonzalez on the hill for game one.  Gonzalez is 0-1 against New York this season but he has posted a 2.25 ERA in two starts at Yankee Stadium.

Probables for Saturday: BAL Scott Feldman (4-3, 4.56 ERA) vs NYY Ivan Nova (7-4, 3.14 ERA)

Probables for Sunday: BAL TBA vs NYY Andy Pettitte (10-9, 4.05 ERA)

Baltimore is of course fighting for a place in October, and hold a 7-5 edge in the season series.

*** Injury Notes:

Eduardo Nunez, who suffered a knee sprain in Tuesdays win, had an MRI, and they came back negative.

Robinson Cano, who also suffered a left hand contusion Tuesday is expected to play Friday night after missing Wednesdays finale in Toronto.

Unlikely Heroes Help Yanks Take Two, Gain Ground

Doubleheaders are never easy to sweep.  But heading into the Yankees double dip with the Blue Jays, New York needed to do just that.  If they want to make a late season run, losing to a last place team isn’t an option.

Game 1 starter Ivan Nova has been nothing short of spectacular since his return to the majors.  One big inning could have sunk the righty, but Nova rebounded from a 4-run second to give the Yankees length, and time to chip away.

Down 4-3 in the, catcher Chris Stewart came to the plate with two on, and two out.  Hitting in the low .200’s, and lacking power, Stewart came through in a big way.  A three run shot to left, just his 4th of the year, and first since May, lifted the bombers to an 8-4 win.

Robinson Cano had a big game as well, going 4-4 and smacking his 200th career homer in the win.  Ichiro Suzuki also picked up 3 hits, moving him to 3,999 in his career combined between his time in Japan and in Major League Baseball.

Game 2 featured Phil Hughes who was coming off one of his better performances of the year, a 3-run, 6 inning performance against the Angels.  But Hughes has struggled not only this season, but his entire career at Yankee Stadium.

But after a first inning run, Hughes was impressive.  Finally mixing in his secondary pitches, the big righty gave the Yankees 6 innings of 2 run ball.  Unfortunately for Hughes, his lack of run support continued, and he left down 2-1.

In the 7th, Jayson Nix would tie the score with his 3rd homer of the year, saving Hughes from his 9th straight loss at the stadium.  The bullpen shut the Jays down in the 8th and 9th, giving the bombers a chance for their sixth walk-off of the season.

The newly acquired Mark Reynolds would be walked to lead off the inning, and then pinch ran for by Suzuki.  Eduardo Nunez than laid down a beautifully executed sacrifice bunt to move Ichiro to second, with one out.  Nix, fresh off his game tying shot, was up next.  Though already in scoring position, Ichiro attempted to steal 3rd, and if not for a better throw from Jays catcher Josh Thole, would’ve been easily out.  But he was safe.  Nix would then play the hero and give the Yankees the 3-2 walk-off win with a solid single to left.

Two wins, one day.  The Yankees needed every bit of it, and they also got some much-needed help from the teams they’re chasing.

A day after passing Kansas City in the Wildcard standings, the Royals were shut out by the White Sox, putting some distance between them and the Yanks.  And of the 5 teams ahead of them, 3 lost (Boston, Oakland and Baltimore).

The bombers are now 5 games out of a Wildcard spot, and if they can leap-frog the Indians (who they own the season series against), they have games left with all four teams ahead of them.

If Hughes can continue giving the Yankees quality outings, and if role guys like Nix and Stewart can help lengthen the lineup even more, you can’t count the 2013 Yankees out just yet.

And don’t overlook the contributions of catcher Austin Romine, who is finally starting to show some offensive punch.  3 hits last night, along with a great throw to nip a runner at second.  Romine is a better option to start over game 1 hero Stewart, and has been highly thought of by the Yankees organization.  If Romine can continue to provide some pop and grow with the staff, the future behind the plate for the Yankees may not be so scary, especially with prospect Gary Sanchez who was recently promoted to Double-A.  In 12 games, he’s hitting .290 with Trenton.

***Game 3 of the 4 game set with Toronto continues tonight with long reliever Adam Warren making a spot start for the Yankees against last year’s NL Cy Young winner R.A Dickey.