Bronx, N.Y., July 18, 2009 — A little more than a month ago, Yankee Stadium was abuzz with a big crowd in anticipation of a classic pitcher’s duel as the Yanks hosted the crosstown Mets. But although 2009 free-agent signee A.J. Burnett fulfilled his half of the bargain for the Yankees, the Mets’ Johan Santana responded with his worst start in years. The hometeam pounded the Flushing southpaw and coasted to a 15-0 laugher. But Detroit’s Justin Verlander and New York’s CC Sabathia produced on the big stage Saturday afternoon.
Things did not get off to a good start for either ace. Sabathia needed three swinging strike outs to escape the first two frames around two hits and two walks on 51 pitches. Verlander had a brief stumble too, as Derek Jeter lined his second pitch for a single, but the hard-throwing Detroit hurler righted his game once Jeter was caught stealing and he snagged Johnny Damon’s liner back to the box. Verlander would not allow a hit to a Yankee not named Jeter until Damon doubled down the right field line with two down in the home sixth. He pounded 97- and 98-mph heat and recorded first-pitch strikes against the first 11 Yankee batters he faced. He allowed no runs, three hits, and one lonely walk while averaging a strike out an inning through the first six frames.
Sabathia’s outing was more mindful of the first one he battled through in this Stadium, when CC struggled through 122 pitches in six innings against the Indians while allowing just one run. His seventh three-ball count Saturday resulted in a leadoff walk to Magglio Ordonez, but he had already mostly righted his game by that time because he suddenly discovered the ground-ball out, and with it, the double play. When Robbie Cano charged a Placido Polanco soft roller and nipped him at first to start the third, it was the first grounder that CC coaxed on the day. A Miguel Cabrera single and Marcus Thames grounder to short followed; the 6-4-3 had CC back on the bench after nine throws.
Yet another 6-4-3 got Sabathia out of the fourth when Brandon Inge was hit by a pitch one out after Ordonez had reached on the free pass. And he retired the side in order for the first time in the fifth with the second out coming on a Curtis Granderson popup to short left field. Three popups would free CC from the biggest Detroit threat in the sixth, one of them when Cano retired Cabrera leading off. First base ump Jeff Nelson ruled that Thames beat Jeter’s throw to first on a grounder to the shortstop hole, and when Ordonez lined an 0-2 pitch to the wall in the right field corner, the Tigers were set up in a scoreless game with runners at second and third with one out. But Sabathia, whose fastball registered 94 much of the day, got it to 96 and 97 in this inning, and Ryan Raburn lifted a high fly to short left that kept Thames pinned at third. When Inge popped out to Cano, CC had escaped. Already at 103 pitches, he answered the bell for the seventh and got himself a win for doing so when two grounders and a liner to short got him back in the dugout after 10 economical throws.
Velander, meanwhile, though mixing in the occasional change and curve, was still throwing heat, reaching 98 mph several times as the game dragged on. Though he had only allowed four baserunners through six, some long at bats were taking a toll on him. In the midst of a no-contact day (three strikes outs, one walk) Teixeira battled him to an eight-pitch K in the first and 19 throws through his first three plate appearances, and although Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui grounded out to short back-to-back in the second, they saw 16 hard pitches between them while doing so. Justin’s 1-1 pitch to Alex Rodriguez leading off the home seventh was his 91st, and Alex lofted this fast ball deep to right, a row or two beyond Ordonez’s game leap at the wall. The Stadium rocked as the Yanks finally had the lead.
Jorge Posada had taken 10th place on the all-time Yankees doubles list Friday night, but he flied out to center on the pitch after Matsui did the same to left, and Verlander had two quick outs, down just 1-0. But the inning wasn’t over. Cano grounded a single up the middle and Nick Swisher lined a double down the left field line. “Midafternoon Melky,” who seems to shine in the latter stages of afternoon games in particular, fouled off four straight pitches, then rolled one toward short. When he crossed the first base bag to yet another Nelson safe call, the lead was 2-0.
And it was a good thing that Yankee bats had staged that sudden two-out rally. Alfredo Aceves came on for the top of the eighth, and although he looked dominant in strking out two, Thames lined a home run into the front row over Damon’s leap to close the score to 2-1. Lefty Bobby Seah retired the Yanks in the bottom half, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the drama was over when Enter Sandman heralded the arrival of Mariano Rivera to close it out. Mo got Raburn swinging, but Inge bounced one past A-rod’s try, and Jeter corraled it deep in the hole. The patented leap, spin, and toss was both poetry and power; the peg beat Inge by half a step to roars all around. No one minded that that Gerald Laird was retired in more routine fashion on a popup to second.
Friday night’s game featured a hot, uncomfortable steambath followed by a real bath, good for a rain delay of about an hour, but Saturday dawned bright, clear, and sunny. July 18, 2009 is the 10-year anniversary of a pretty big day in Yankee lore, and pregame the crowd was treated to David Cone throwing the ceremonial first pitch to Joe Girardi, the guy who caught the 86 offerings it took him to retire 27 straight Montreal Expos in a 6-0 Perfect Game victory. His shirt was blue and not pinstriped, but otherwise Cone looked ready to sneak his “laredo” by hitters still. It is the 22-year anniversary also of the day Don Mattingly matched Dale Long’s yet to be surpassed record of having homered in eight straight games (though Junior Griffey later joined the eight-games club). The Yanks don’t play the Tigers as much as they did years ago, but the two teams have had some great battles. It was the Tigers who put an end to the longest Yankee winning streak at 19 games when they beat the Bombers 8-0 on July 18, 1947.
Yes, it’s hard to get away from some great baseball feats and history (and why would you want to?) when attending Yankee games. And we’ll be poignantly reminded of this in less than 24 hours when the team hosts their annual Old Timers Game, the first in the new Stadium. When celebrating recent Yankee history, as with the Cone Perfecto, Yankee fans have been cheering to the exploits of Rivera and Jeter, with the 507th save and the leaping play, for a long time, but it never gets old. Their play and the big win had the crowd dancing. They danced in their seats, in the aisles, and in the Great Hall as they exited the Stadium.
Today was also the birthday of Motown star Martha Reeves. And yes, Yankee fans were Dancin’ in the Streets too!