Bronx, N.Y., July 5, 2004 — Young lefty Nate Robertson never really stood a chance Monday night. He started his night in the Bronx horribly by walking Bernie Williams, playing centerfield and restored to lead-off in Manager Torre’s American League baseball lineup, on four pitches. Someone was going to have to pay for a lost weekend in Flushing, and the four pitches off the plate had the Yanks thinking they had their fall guy.
Even though Robertson came within an inch or two of escaping the first frame unscathed, he was in trouble from the start. He followed the Williams walk by retiring Jeter and Sheffield on seven pitches, but Alex Rodriguez’s hot shot down third couldn’t be handled. Alan Trammell decided to deploy a pretty straightaway defense on the slowly recovering designated hitter Giambi, and paid the price when Jason singled sharply to right to score Williams, who had moved to second on Rodriguez’s infield hit.
Jon Lieber, meanwhile, was looking effective if a bit challenged. He actually managed the first two of six swinging strike outs in the first two innings, and escaped the only early threat when Tony Clark’s 3-6-3 double dip on Bobby Higginson to close inning two removed Dmitri Young, who had singled up the middle. But the Tigers fouled 14 pitches the first two innings, and elevating Jon’s pitch count with their aggressive swings appeared to be a workable strategy.
Until the bottom of the second, that is. Robertson fell behind Tony Clark before the lumbering first sacker singled into left. Second baseman Cairo split the outfielders with a drive to left center on an 0-1 pitch to set up ducks on the pond, and Williams’s double to right center promptly upped the Yankee advantage to 3-0. Jeter lined hard to right center on a 3-2 pitch, and Shef followed by walking in four.
The conventional wisdom of late seems to be to pitch around the Yankee right fielder Sheffield while the reigning MVP at third base struggles. And perhaps if Robertson had come right at Rodriguez, the strategy would have worked. But he missed the plate twice, and caught too much of the middle with the third toss. A-Rod did not miss the 2-0 pitch, while his hard, low drive to left did miss the foul pole, on the fair territrory side. 6-0. And the Yanks did not stop there. Showing more strength daily, Jason Giambi singled up the middle on a 1-1 pitch, was wild-pitched to second on the first toss to Posada, and took third when Jorge lined to deep center. A Matsui single plated the seventh Yankee run, and put this one in the win column early, in effect.
From that point on the Yanks went yard three times, while the Tigers reached a tired Lieber for three on four hits in the seventh, for the 10-3 final. The Tigers continued to foul Lieber’s pitches, and they got him to 67 pitches after four innings. But they weren’t in the game, and he got through six guys spanning the fifth and sixth on just 14 more pitches to save his night, and the Yankee pen.
Jon, as expected, has all the numbers. Even after the four-hit seventh cost him 28 tosses, he only threw 109, and 77 of them were for strikes. He recognized the advantage the big lead got him. So although his six out of nine first-pitch strikes the first time through the order is a perfectly acceptable ratio, he followed it by hitting the zone 14 out of 16 times. The most surprising thing, perhaps, were the six strike outs, and that he got all six of the guys swinging adds to the mystery. But home plate ump Wegner only called 13 pitches that Jon threw strikes, the same amount he got swinging. The six strike outs notwithstanding, Lieber earned the win on the 51 pitches that hit bats, not the 26 that didn’t.
And it helped that the Yanks brought the “A” defensive game they have used much of the year, the forgettable sweep just past being an exception. Dmitri Young had one of those at bats that would not be easily denied in the fourth, lining six hard fouls before bidding for a single on a shot over Jeter. But Matsui made a fine charging grab, although it wasn’t quite as good as the dive Sheffield used to snag Higginson’s short liner to right in the fifth. Defensive honors, however, go to super sub Tony Clark, who used a full- (and huge-) body dive to snag Sanchez’s bid for a double down the line in the sixth. And while we’re at it, Tigers second baseman Infante made a nice play on an Enrique Wilson bid for a hit in the home seventh.
Enrique entered the game in sixth to run for A-Rod, after a one-out walk. Rodriguez was the center of some controversy. He faced Esteban Yan, who replaced Robertson, in the fourth. After having homered his last time up, and immediately after a Sheffield bomb to open fourth, Yan came in high and hard on the 0-1 pitch. Wegner tossed Yan immediately, much to Trammell’s chagrin, but in light of the nonexistent umpiring hand last Thursday, I’ll support Mike on this call. And by the way, lefthander Colyer almost hit Bubba Crosby with his second pitch to him in the seventh. He didn’t miss with the 3-2 pitch.
The Yanks have historically had some big days on July 5. Lou Gehrig hit his fourth grand slam of the 1934 campaign in an 8-3 thrashing of the Senators on this day. And three years later Joe DiMaggio hit the first four-run bomb of his career while the Yanks were taking two from the Red Sox, 15-0 and 8-4. There were no grand slams in this 2004 victory, but the Yanks did punish their opponent, and hit four home runs while doing so. It’s no secret that the Yanks have just played three high-profile series. And although they won five of the nine games, the losing sweep in the last three could have had a continuing negative effect. But they took it to an inferior opponent, won behind their fourth starter, and got the most important guys in their pen a blow in the process.