Bronx, N.Y., April 2, 2008 — The Yankee offense hit its first peak at 7:23 Wednesday night, when A.J. Burnett fired three straight 94-mph fastballs out of the zone to Johnny Damon. Despite coaxing one soft grounder or fly after another, Mike Mussina was already down 1-0 on an unearned first-inning run, and fans were pumped that their leadoff hitter was all but on in the bottom half. Unfortunately, after a meek Damon bounce out to short on a 3-2 pitch, the second peak came two hours later once Burnett finally did allow his first walk, to Bobby Abreu leading off the home seventh.
By then, the lead had stretched to 5-0, and the ensuing long, two-run Alex Rodriguez homer to dead center allowed the hearty souls remaining in the frigid conditions to root with some hope in the game’s final innings. A-Rod’s bomb ended Burnett’s night with none out in the seventh, but until that point the Toronto righty was totally in control. He pitched around singles in the first, third, fifth and sixth innings, striking out three. The Yanks never managed two base runners in an inning through the first six, and none of their few runners reached second base either. Like his predecessor Roy Halladay the night before, Burnett has great tools, with a nasty slow curve and an effective change, but A.J.’s game is primarily a power one and he dominated the Yanks with fastballs up to 97 mph.
On the other side, Mike Mussina was effective in his own way too, achieving several scoreless innings by confusing hitters with cutters, curves and changes of pace just when they were expecting his high eighties fastball. Mussina worked in trouble all evening once Jason Giambi caused him immediate harm by bobbling David Eckstein’s slow roller to start the game. Shannon Stewart (seeing-eye single to the seconnd base hole) and Alex Rios (bloop over second into no man’s land) followed with singles and the Yanks were in a quick hole. A walk and a single to start the second continued the pattern, but Moose escaped by coaxing his second of three 5-4-3 twin killings of the evening.
With a one-two-three third in his grasp, home plate ump Jerry Meals ruled Moose’s 3-2 cutter to Rios to be outside, and things took an ugly turn when Vernon Wells followed with a first-pitch two-run bomb to left. Still, Mussina held the Jays right there (up 3-0) through five, escaping singles in both the fourth and the fifth innings on a caught stealing and his third 5-4-3 double play. Rios threatened to widen the lead with a leadoff drive to the wall in the sixth, but Damon timed his leap perfectly and pulled the almost home run back for an out. But two outs later Aaron Hill’s 0-2 single scored the fourth run and Manager Joe Giradi had seen enough.
Latroy Hawkins successfully closed that inning, but struggled in one of his own, and the Jays nicked him (in his Yankee debut) for a run in the seventh just before Rodriguez’s homer gave the Yanks a fighting chance. Kyle Farnsworth pitched a scoreless eighth despite a single and triple because he too coaxed a 5-4-3 dp, and Russ Ohlendorf kept the Jays off the board in the ninth after a hit by pitch when the Yanks’ turned their fifth double play, this one a 6-6-3 to short.
Not bad, but the Jays’ pen did even better. Lefty Brian Tallet quieted the home team in both the seventh and eighth by retiring six straight, three on swinging strike outs. The Yanks challenged interim closer (with B.J. Ryan on the shelf) Jeremy Accardo with Jeter and Abreu singles leading off the ninth. But A-Rod whiffed as the potential tying run, and Giambi followed with a long drive to left center that would easily have tied up matters had he pulled it. Robbie Cano popped to left and the game was over in three hours and 10 freezing minutes.
Although Mussina never had a clean inning, he battled effectively and his start would have been perceived as near quality if Burnett had not been so dominant. Moose threw 90 pitches two outs into the sixth, allowing four runs on eight hits. He walked two, struck out two, and threw 17 of 25 first-pitch strikes. He showed no fear despite the constant danger he faced, but the Jays won this game because Burnett was so dominant, and because Rios and Wells, third and fourth in the Toronto lineup, had five hits in seven at bats between them. Rios scored once and drove in two; Wells was 3-for-4 with the home run, he scored two times, and he collected two rbi’s too.
But even with that, Mussina allowed just three earned runs, a total that should more often than not merit him a win when pitching for this Yankee club. He was both hurt and helped by his defense, with Giambi boxing rather than catching two grounders at first on the one hand, but spearing an errant Jeter throw with a lunging stretch in the sixth. Jason collaborated with Alex on a fine play on Stewart with the infield in with a runner on third in the seventh too. Rodriguez slapped the ball targeted for the left field corner down, and Giambi made a fine stretch and scoop on the throw. Jose Molina, who may be shaping up as Mussina’s personal catcher on the Girardi Yankees, threw out a potential base stealer and contributed one of the Bombers’ seven hits. And kudos to Rodriguez for his continuing fine April offense and defense. Former Yank third baseman Scott Brosius tied a record a decade ago by starting four double plays from the third base spot. Alex tied that mark Wednesday.
But this one came down to recent nemesis Burnett dominating Yankee bats yet again. He denied rookie Ian Kennedy a win last September by blanking the Yanks over nine, and he had them off their game to even the season records at 1-1 apiece in games Wednesday. He threw just 12 of 23 first-pitch strikes this night, but the fact that Rodriguez’s homer that drove him from the mound was the first time all night two Yankee batters reached in the same inning says it all. He was tough until the Yanks forced an opening; then he was tougher still.
Rock, Blues and Gospel singer/songwriter Leon Russell turned 66 this day. In his tune Tight Rope, he speaks of,
- [being] on a tight rope
one side’s ice and one is fire.
With Yankee bats flailing in the icy conditions on the one hand, and wilting against Burnett’s heat on the other, I think they know what Leon meant.