Bronx, N.Y., September 21, 2004 — The Yankees have been making a habit lately of dropping the first games of series, and then proving that that’s not such a bad thing more often than not by recovering to win the night(s) after. They evened up their series with the Blue Jays on Tuesday night with a 5-3 win on a gorgeous night in the Bronx. Although the Stadium was not packed to what has become the usual 50,000-plus total, the 36,675 in attendance seemed quite a lot when compared with the 10,000 who dotted the seats in the schedule-patched contest the night before.
Although their win allowed them to retain their 4.5-game cushion over the Red Sox in the East, and the best record in the AL (with the home-field advantage in the playoffs that comes with it) by an even healthier margin, the contests the Bombers engage in during the season’s last two weeks are important ones that will give Manager Joe Torre either the opportunity to answer some perplexing roster questions, or to muddle the picture even further.
Due to the months-long injury problems of Designated Hitter Jason Giambi, the back issues and then broken hand of starter Kevin Brown, and the disturbing inconsistency of young Javier Vazquez, Torre confronts a puzzle designing a postseason team that probably has more uncertainties than this squad usually has even when they start Spring Training each year. Several of the players with the biggest questions on their backs performed on Tuesday night. Some, but not all, did well.
Now that it has been accepted that John Olerud will be the team’s first baseman (rather than the incumbent Giambi), the starting nine (or 10, with Lofton spelling Williams) is fairly well set, and the order too. And the top of the order is as dangerous as any in baseball. On Tuesday, number two hitter Alex Rodriguez made a bid to give the Yanks the early lead on an impressive blast to center, but was denied on a sparkling instance of outfield thievery by Vernon Wells. Undaunted, Gary Sheffield calmly restored order by giving the Yanks that lead anyway with an impressive bomb of his own.
Fans fidgeted nervously nonetheless, fearing they would rue the missed run Wells stole. After all, despite a three-strike-out top of the first, emergency starter Esteban Loaiza has pitched consistently poor baseball since arriving in the Contreras trade, and in some of those games he was good for perhaps one run through the opposition order, before collapsing under a deluge of hits and walks. And Esteban did not disappoint those fearing the worst. He battled Eric Hinske leading off the second, but disaster loomed when the Blue Jays third baseman worked a leadoff walk. Alex Rios sent Hinske to third on a single up the middle and Loaiza backed himself further into a corner with a walk to left field prospect Gabe Gross to load ‘em up with no outs. The Yankee veteran righted himself somewhat with a swinging strike out of DH Crozier, and the sac fly to Dave Cash tied the game but produced a second out. But a walk to shortstop Adams and a wild pitch to Orlando Hudson put the Jays up 2-1. The crowd relief was palpable when Hudson bounced to Cairo to end the threat.
But then the game experienced a double turning point. Jorge Posada stroked a one-out single and DH Giambi worked the count off Roy Halladay, coming back from the disabled list himself, to 2-2. Giambi has been flailing at and missing hittable pitches for months, but he did not miss Roy’s fifth. Not only was it a typical Giambi blast in its height and its hang time, but it went the other (the longer and harder) way and cleared the fence in left center by the retired numbers.
Torre had sat Jason during the last two against the Red Sox and against the lefty Monday, and is only trying to get him time to see if he can find some timing. If Joe was hoping the lefty-hitting slugger would make his job easy by continuing to fail, he did not get his wish. In other at bats, Giambi followed a swinging strike out (after three two-strike fouls) with a hard-hit shot almost past first, flagged on a good dive and catch by Carlos Delgado, and a sacrifice fly down the left field line. Jason definitely put in his bid for significant postseason time this night.
And although it seems silly even to write it, Loaiza made a tiny claim too. Because after the painfully ineffective second inning (where he allowed two on only one base hit, by the way), Esteban retired the last 11 batters he faced, while throwing only 36 pitches. He did allow a Hinske hard liner to the left field corner that Matsui caught up to on a fine play, and a Rios drive to the track in right that Shef hauled in, but he dominated in the third, fourth, fifth, and one batter into the sixth for the most part. When the Yanks held on, Loaiza would get his 100th career win, and crafty handler of people that he is, Torre deliberately removed the righty mid-sixth, so Esteban could hear the crowd that had booed him four innings earlier rise to their feet and cheer him as he left.
The fact that the dangerous lefty combo of Delgado and Hinske were due up eased Joe’s decision, of course, and also gave an opportunity to another 2004 reclamation project in lefty relief specialist Felix Heredia. Heredia faced just one batter Monday and retired Hinske on a grounder. Tuesday he coaxed a high pop to short center from Delgado and then struck Hinske out swinging on four pitches. Paul Quantrill, who allowed just a single in his 80th appearance — a Yankee season record — on Sunday, came on for the seventh, but he struggled as he has for much of the season’s second half, and as he did Monday night when he promptly turned a 4-1 deficit to 6-1 on four hits allowed in a span of five batters.
Gordon and Rivera brought the win home, though Mariano did struggle again, allowing the Jays a third run on two singles for the 5-3 final. But it is always a joy to see Rivera in the Cathedral, and Tuesday was no exception. The Stadium personnel upped the ante this time, flashing the words of Metallica’s Enter Sandman on the auxiliary boards down either line as Mo made his way in and warmed in front of an adoring, exciting, and dancing public. And speaking of seeing new things in the ballpark, the overshift-on, infield-in alignment the Jays employed against Giambi with none out and the bases loaded in the home seventh was a new one on me.
July 21 has not been a particularly fortunate day in Yankee history, and it was nice to see the team turn in a win. At least two opposing pitchers have earned their 20th wins of their seasons against the Bombers on this day, Dave McNally of the Orioles in 1971, and David Wells pitching for these same Blue Jays four years ago this day. New York lost 5-3 decisions to the Orioles and then the Kansas City A’s, respectively, on this day in 1961 and 1963. And perhaps most frustrating of all, the Yankees fell to the Red Sox by a 13-9 count on September 21, 1956, despite a 5-for-5 day from Moose Skowron and a 500-foot jolt to the back of the Fenway bleachers by Mickey Mantle. The frustrated visitors set a record with 20 left on base that day. Perhaps Loaiza’s 100th career victory has turned the Yankee tide on the day.
And speaking of the Yankee loss in Baltimore on September 21, 1961, that was also the day that Earle Dickson, the inventor of the band-aid, passed away. Joe Torre saw five pitchers Tuesday night, and six the night before. He will continue to give his armed corps a long hard look in the remaining 11 regular season games. Will Brown make it back? Will Vazquez improve? In a southpaw race, I’d wager Joe will take Herdia into the post, but we’ll see. What of Quantrill? Does Joe have unshakable confidence, or could Paul be pitching his way off the roster, or at least down the depth chart? I think it’s clear that Lieber will stick either in a starting role or join Tanyon Sturtze in long relief. Could Scott Proctor make the list, or Steve Karsay? And did Loaiza give himself a shot?
The pitching staff undoubtedly holds the most questions. But what of Giambi? I think it’s clear that he fits on the roster, even with Tony Clark. Perhaps even Bubba Crosby anchors the bench. But will Jason be sitting near the end with Tony and perhaps Bubba, or does he get extended DH time, as the first two series allow for that possibilty? Which of these guys are band-aids to finish out the year? And which are players the Yanks will be counting on for the post?