Bronx, N.Y., July 31, 2007 — A gorgeous full moon (well it was full two days ago) peeked from behind the Bronx County Courthouse beyond the right center field fence while Andy Phillips was batting in the bottom of the eighth Tuesday night. I’m sure those astronomically inclined will assure me that the heavenly orb was located in the western sky exactly where it should have been. But it sure seemed like Luna (or Selene in Greek Mythology) was seeing if it was finally safe to come out.
This game started a little strangely to begin with, what with a crowd 54,000 strong knowing on the one hand that the team simply needs to run off a string of victories if they have any shot at a title, but thrilled at the opportunity to perhaps witness (and snap a live-action picture of!) Alex Rodriguez hitting his 500th home run on the other. People were focussed on the long ball; given the bizarre results, a study of crowd “vibes” and their effect on the physical world certainly should provoke renewed interest. The Yankees pounded the White Sox 16-3 almost entirely with the long ball, and it seemed as if every Yankee player but A-Rod went yard.
In a game that displayed awesome Yankee offense, a string of superior defensive plays, and not a bad outing from Yankee starter Mike Mussina, this one was dotted by one strange occurrence after another. Moose retired the Sox in the top of the first three straight, even if Melky Cabrera had to make a stellar play to run down third baseman Josh Fields’s long drive to right center. But if you’ve seen Melky playing “D” this year, you know there was nothing strange there.
But we did not have to wait long for things to turn. Johnny Damon began the bottom of the first by legging out an infield single, but then when first base ump Tom Hallion ruled that Derek Jeter had held up on an 0-2 pitch batting second, Chisox Manager Ozzie Guillen went ballistic with home plate ump Phil Cuzzi. He apparently argued that Cuzzi should have seen that Derek went around and ruled punch-out on his own. Within several battling minutes, the White Sox were without their manager.
Jeter stroked a hit and run single, and Bobby Abreu blasted Jose Contreras’s second pitch into the right field upper deck for a 3-0 Yankee lead. A-Rod worked the count full then flied to medium-deep right amidst a hail of flashing cameras. Hideki Matsui started putting the finishing touches on his own jubilant July with a homer to right, and Jorge Posada doubled to left center. Bizarro moment number one was a bombastic first where the Yanks cleared two fences, Alex flied out, and Guillen took the night off.
Chicago got a decent start to their second when Paul Konerko lifted a broken-bat, dying quail over second for a single, but Andy Phillips made a good play to force him at second on an A.J. Pierzynski bouncer, and Rodriguez robbed a Jermaine Dye bid for a double past third with a perfectly timed full-body dive. Resulting in another force at second, it was the only hard-hit ball as Moose seemed to be settling in, an impression that did not change when Scott Podsednik pounded an eight-(or so)-bouncer up the middle for a single. Mike’s count went full against Juan Uribe, who took the next pitch and launched it into the netting over the retired numbers in left, 4-3 Yanks. Just like that, a comfortable vigil for a record-breaking moment came crunching to earth and morphed into a tight game. The well-defensed, mostly well-pitched, but ultimately threatening top of the second was bizarro moment number two.
Suddenly it was a tight, well-pitched game for six outs, or eight actually, through the top of the third. Abreu got the bottom half started with a leadoff single up the middle, and A-Rod had his closest try, a long drive that had it been stroked to most anywhere but dead center would have given Alex the milestone and a packed house the party they were seeking. But Owens squeezed Alex’s deep liner and then Abreu was out stealing and a promising inning was on the verge of coming to a quiet close. And it probably would have on any other night. But Matsui walked, Posada singled him to second, and Robbie Cano finally reached the .300 mark he’s been stalking with a line home run into the right center field bleachers. Andy Phillips’s routine grounder to short was then bobbled for an error, and Cabrera homered to the first row down the left field line for a sudden — and bizarrely built (no. 3) — 9-3 lead.
Brilliantly played baseball returned as the Sox responded with a well-stroked Konerko double down the right field line to start the fourth. Pierzynski slashed Moose’s next pitch up the middle, but Cano made a dazzling pick of the hotshot and held Konerko while throwing A.J. out. Dye followed with another base hit bid over second but Robbie grabbed it and threw him out, a nice play but not in the same class as the one it followed. Moose ran down Podsednik’s slow bouncer toward first. When Scott stopped to avoid the tag, Moose waited for him, then backed up and stomped the bag for out no. three.
The visitors joined the lively contest over game’s best play by catching back-to-back, overhead, hard liners by Abreu and A-Rod to start the fourth. Owens flagged down Bobby’s at the track in center, and Dye snatched Alex’s missile just before it would have hit hard off the top of the wall in right. Although it got the Alex fan club going, it would not have cleared the fence. It wasn’t clear that the Sox right fielder held on until he waved his glove in the air lying on his back on the warning track. Knuckleballing reliever Charlie Haeger had replaced Contreras to start the inning. He got two quick outs with no one on, but Haeger clearly wasn’t fooling anyone.
The only bizarro aspect of the game as it continued then was the strange sense one had witnessing A-Rod’s third attempt at the big number in just four frames. And then with two down and the bases clear Matsui walked again to bring Posada up, and one pitch later Jorge joined the home run parade. Bizarro frame four came to a close on a Cano liner to center with the Yanks ahead 11-3.
Jim Thome singled to center as the scoreboard produced a 16-year flashback by revealing that the big lefty DH had hit his first career home run in Yankee Stadium on October 4, 1991. “A ninth-inning game-winner off Steve Farr,” I recalled in an instant. The team was more mediocre than I realized back then, and closer Farr was putting the finishing touches on a 2-1 win for Alan Mills on Don Mattingly’s two-run home run. There were two down in the ninth, and I remember wondering what the correct pronunciation of “Thome” was. Suddenly we were down, and lost, 3-2.
With Thome on first Tuesday, the 2-for-2 Konerko batted, and he battled Moose through eight pitches. Sure that Mussina had missed on number nine, Konerko leaned toward first, but then Cuzzi punched him out. Spirited conversation continued as Paul retreated to the dugout, and after an emphatic Cuzzi gesture, we knew the Sox would be fielding another guy at first (Darin Erstad) in the bottom half. Mussina popped Pierzynski out to third, then fanned Dye swinging to end his night. He threw 95 pitches, 65 for strikes, and pounded 17 of 24 first strikes. Aside from the single surprising three-run blast in the second he allowed just three hits, one each his last three fames. And bizarrely, although he notched just two K’s the first three innings, he closed it out by striking out four of six in his last two. Four of the six K’s were of the swinging variety, and Mike wasted nothing. He coaxed just five swings and misses on the night to get those four, bizarro fact no. five.
But although Moose was done, the Yanks weren’t. Abreu singled again, this time against third Sox hurler Gavin Floyd, to start the home sixth, and Alex failed in his fourth try by flying out to left. As if to show his teammate the way once again, Matsui homered to right for a 13-3 lead. Posada singled for his fourth straight hit, and Cano doubled him to third. Andy Phillips lofted a long fly to deep left center on the next pitch. A spoiled crowd wilted just a bit when it came down on the warning track into Owens’s glove, and Posada scored the first of 17 runs (two-team total at the time) that wasn’t driven across on a home run. Whether it’s the second Matsui bomb, the instant offense, or that Phillips’s ball did not clear, I’m calling that bizarro event no. six.
We did not have to wait long for number seven. Joe Torre replaced Abreu with Shelley Duncan in the seventh, as Kyle Farnsworth came on in a hail of boo’s to retire the side one-two-three. To this point the game was on track to last 3.5 hours at least, so the quick frame was appreciated. No such luck with the Yanks in the bottom half, though, as Johnny Damon did what has seemed impossible for weeks and weeks now, he blasted a leadoff home run into the upper deck. This gave the home team seven home runs, and everyone in the starting lineup but Phillips, who just missed, Jeter and A-Rod had cleared a fence, with Alex getting close twice too. But not to be outdone, Duncan made it eight homers with a one-out jolt to left to forge the 16-3 punishing final score. The eight homers tied a Yankee record and boosted the bizarro number to seven. A-Rod hit a soft liner to short center, and Matsui was retired for the only time this night.
Mike Myers and Sean Henn pitched the eighth and ninth innings around the Yankee eighth, where Phillips was greeted by the dazzling moon in right center. Both Myers and Henn allowed leadoff singles, but in what I’m calling the eighth and last bizarro event of the night each coaxed quick double plays. The nine quick outs to end the game finished the proceedings in two hours and 59 minutes, a seeming impossibility just two innings earlier.
Singer/songwriter Carole King had a chart topper 36 years ago this day with I Feel the Earth Move [Under My Feet] from her megahit album “Tapestry.” I felt the Stadium move eight times Tuesday, and I’m not sure my old friend The Moon would have EVER showed in the Bronx sky had one of the blasts causing all the stir been struck by Alex Rodriguez. He willl continue his search for number 500 tomorrow night. And when he hits it, the reception will be dazzling and explosive.
But this is team sport, and the Bombers made a big stride this night. Twenty-nine years ago, the second-place Yanks closed the gap between themselves and the Red Sox to seven games with a win over Texas on July 31. Tonight they did exactly the same thing, this time against the White Sox.