Bronx, N.Y., July 28, 2006 — It would overstate the case to say that the manner in which Chien-Ming Wang dispatched the frustrated Devil Rays Friday night in the Bronx lacked excitement. It’s just that once he retires the side while facing just three batters on 12 pitches or less in seven of nine innings, things start to get a bit predictable.
So you could hardly blame the Stadium Scoreboard crew for starting up their end-of-inning music after Dioneer Navarro’s one-out sixth-inning grounder to Miguel Cairo. Jonny Gomes had battled Wang for eight pitches before grounding out to short to start the inning, so of course they just assumed that nine tosses in, the frame must be over.
But if Wang quieted the Rays in methodical fashion, it hardly translated into boredom in the stands. Chien-Ming has become a crowd favorite in New York, and the fans buzzed as the hard-throwing righty pounded his way through three innings of Tampa batters on 33 pitches, 23 of them strikes. Eight pitches later, he was through four innings untouched, and a happy and calm throng stopped gazing in wonder at the unexpected pleasant skies and focussed hard on the game afield.
The Yankees made it easy for the fans to relax, with a little help from the Rays. Johnny Damon reached rookie starter Tim Corcoran for a leadoff double in the first, and Derek Jeter moved him to third with a ground ball to first. All seemed for naught when home plate ump Tom Hallion punched out Designated Hitter Jason Giambi on a borderline 3-2 pitch, but a certain infielder purported to “never” come though in the clutch calmly delivered Damon with a first-pitch poke past third baseman Ty Wigginton.
Off a three-hit game in Texas Wednesday, Andy Phillips got it started in the second with a bingle to center, and when Tampa shortstop Julio Lugo mishandled Corcoran’s peg of Melky Cabrera’s roller to the box, the Yanks were set up again, even though Lugo’s protest that he had recovered in time to get the force seemed the correct call. Miguel Cairo’s picture-perfect sac bunt moved the runners up, but the home team was in need of yet another two-out hit when all hands had to hold on Damon’s sharp one-hopper to short. Good thing the on-deck hitter was Captain Jeter, as Derek smacked a 3-1 liner to right for a 3-0 lead. The Yankee shortstop led the way with three hits this night, upping his batting average into the rarified .350-plus level.
Jeter was at it again in the fourth, dusting himself off after an 0-1 fastball near his head sent him sprawling. Derek belted a triple in Texas early this week after similar treatment, and after a couple of foul balls tonight he lashed a double to the left field corner. It was all Rays pitching from there, as the Yanks plated two as Corcoran surrendered three walks in a row and reliever Chad Harville chipped in with a fourth. Harville notched a crazy number while carrying the action through the home sixth. He would face 11 Pinstripers by throwing first-pitch balls to seven straight, then pegging the next four first pitches across the plate.
So with a 5-0 lead, Wang took the mound in the bottom of the fifth. He broke Ty Wigginton’s bat on a 1-1 fastball, but the dying quail was well placed and it dropped for a hit in short center. A Yankee crowd that has unfortunately rarely showed class toward their own players this year did so this time, giving Wang a nice hand after his no-hit (and perfect game) bid was busted.
Travis Lee followed with a fly to deep center, but that was as close as the Rays would come. A Lugo bouncer that glanced off Cairo’s glove with two down in the sixth was ruled a second hit and Carl Crawford walked, but Rocco Baldelli lifted a 1-0 fly to center. Wang allowed a second walk in the eighth, but it was fine plays all around as A-Rod started a 5-4-3 on Gomes. When Navarro lofted a 1-0 fly to Damon in center, the only question was would Joe Torre let Wang try for the complete game.
It will come as no surprise that Wang’s numbers were superb, though no more so than in some earlier contests. He coaxed 18 ground ball outs in 27, a good number, but he has managed 16 infield outs in 21 before. He threw just 17 of 30 first-pitch strikes, and the 65/38 balls/strikes ratio, though very good, has been better too. It was a surprisingly pleasant evening after booming thunderstorms dotted the New York area much of the day. But although crowd favorite Bernie Williams had stretched the lead to 6-0 on a tracer over the wall in dead center in the home sixth, few of the 54,000 in attendance made for the exits until the end was just an out or two away.
I was disappointed to see that the board in honor of the Mickey Mantle postage stamp in center field has been replaced by a more generic Post Office ad. And the eighth-inning Cotton Eye Joe[y] segment, which has been predictably brought to us “from the control room” all year, displayed a slightly different look, as a sign flashed just as Joey was fading away indicated that he is “Sal’s Pal.” Just guessing, but this must be a reference to new Yankee backup catcher Sal Fasano. Sal was born in the nation’s second city, but he sure has a New York look.
Once reliever Ruddy Lugo retired the Yanks on two strike outs in the eighth, the bullpen doors stayed closed, and Wang came out to finish what he had begun. Chien-Ming hit 44 bats this night, five of them in the ninth, when he sent the Jays down in order on two grounders sandwiched around a liner to left. He picked a great day to have a great start, as today was the 15th anniversary of the perfect game tossed by Dennis Martinez of the Expos in 1991. And exactly three years later, one-time Yankee Kenny Rogers, who is having a great year in Detroit, also retired 27 of 27, playing with Texas before joining the Yanks.
Chien-Ming Wang’s starts may be methodical, but 54,000 fans voted tonight: Thay are neither boring nor routine. Remember that when (if?) his Perfect Game comes along.