Bronx, N.Y., August 29, 2008 — The good news was that coming off a 16-month injury hiatus last weekend, Yankee righthander Carl Pavano had thrown well enough for a win. The bad news? “Well enough” would not be good enough vs. A.J. Burnett and the visiting Blue Jays Friday night.
Although earning the respect of his teammates and re-establishing some quality pitching cred is obviously a concern for Pavano, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in working his way back into the good graces of fans almost four years into his disastrous Yankee experience. If a few mumbled sentences in the smattering of interviews we’ve seen hadn’t made this point, his pitching style certainly did.
Fans love the strike out; nothing thrills as much as a hurler who can dizzy the opposition into consitently swinging at and missing both the hard heat and the darting off-speed benders. Pavano not only did not post a strike out Friday until Alex Rios went down swinging against his final pitch of the night to close the top of the sixth, Carl coaxed but three swings and misses the whole night. The ground ball is another fan favorite. Repeated bouncers and rollers routinely turned into outs by defensive experts stationed around the infield have a calming effect on crowds hoping to see a win. No such luck with tonight’s Yankee starter, however. Not only did Pavano record just four ground-ball outs over six frames, one was a sac bunt in the first, and two were posted in the same at bat when Lyle Overbay bounced into a 6-4-3 twin killing following the only walk Carl allowed in the second inning.
Which is not to say that Pavano pitched poorly. Clearly he did not. He matched Jays co-ace Burnett pitch for pitch through three, and then hung onto the two-run lead his mates scratched for in the fourth. Bobby Abreu doubled to score the two-for-three (with the only walk Burnett allowed) Johnny Damon, and Jason Giambi plated the eventual game winner for the second straight game once his sac fly delivered Abreu one at bat later. Burnett dominated the home-standing Yanks the old-fashioned way, pounding eight strike outs and garnering 12 ground-ball outs in a complete-game seven-hit loss. Pavano, on the other hand, got 13 of the 18 outs he hunted down over six on fly balls. The crowd was forced to hold their collective breath hoping for catches of long flies to right and then left field by Vernon Wells and Rod Barajas respectively in the first and then the fifth innings. Mark Scutaro and Joe Inglett added hard liners to left, the latter just one at bat before Scutaro would halve the Yankee lead with a single to center with two down in the sixth.
Coming off almost two years of injury and rehab, Pavano closed the sixth up 2-1 on just 73 throws, but newly aggressive skipper Joe Girardi turned to his most potent and reliable weapon. He decided his bullpen would hold the one-run lead over three innings, and Brian Bruney popped out Wells to the catcher leading off the top of the seventh. Damaso Marte retired back-to-back lefties, and Jose Veras came on for the eighth inning. But after buckling Barajas’s knees on a slow curve, Veras surrendered a double into the corner, then a walk, and the thin Yankee lead was in peril. Lefthanded outfielder Travis Snyder had started the Jays’ sixth-inning rally and scored their only run after a long double to dead center. With his pen almost empty, Girardi summoned Edwar Ramirez with his mesmerizing change of pace to replace Veras.
After falling behind 2-0, Ramirez got the job done, whiffing Snyder on a low outside fastball once he stumbled swinging from his heels on a 2-1 change of pace. Girardi’s immediate response was a signal to Mariano Rivera to try for the five-out save, and Mo did not disappoint. He struck out three in getting the final five outs, posting a punch out and fielder’s choice grounder after Wells looped a single to right with one down in the ninth.
Although New York stands at just 2-2 in a key homestand, they had played the first three straight under ideal conditions. Not Friday. Intermittent raindrops threatened the proceedings early, and returned every few innings much of the night. But the game itself wasn’t threatened, and despite the iffy conditions and the tight contest in one of many must-win games, the crowd enjoyed themselves. Unfortunately, the “enjoyment” included them waving with in the sixth with the tying and lead Jays runs on base. And worse still, one clueless nimrod raced in from the rightfield field boxes and slid into second at the game’s tensest moment two frames later. The inestimable Mr. Rivera was forced to cool his heels and patiently wait with the tying run on second as “Johnny Miscreant” was escorted from the field.
Some actually cheered the young man’s insistence that the festivities come to a pause so 50,000-plus could watch his bad behavior; some called for a night in jail to think about his bad act. No jail time needed according to my enlightened point of view: Let him simply refund each and every one present the equivalent of their ticket price for having been forced to witness his “acting out.” Assuming an average ticket price of $35, the bad behaver gets off with a bill of a measly $175,000. That ought to stop it, don’t you think?
So despite their offensive woes, the Yanks have copped two straight wins, with Girardi manipulating his bullpen for all they’re worth. (In Mo’s case, at least, that’s quite a bit.) It has become clear that for whatever reason, this team will score nearly 200 runs less than their 2007 counterparts. It’s time to accept the pattern we see, and stop fretting over the cycle of failed at bats with runners in scoring position. If the 2008 team is to extend the long string of playoff appearances, the teams the Yanks chase will have to stumble, and the Yanks will have to continue to win despite the meager offense.
Learning to win on two and three runs a day won’t be the first “cycle” the Yanks have experienced on August 29. It was this day in 1972 that the much beloved and recently deceased Bobby Murcer posted the next-to-the-last Yankee cycle, garnering a single, a double, a triple, and a home run in a 7-6 win over the Texas Rangers. The 2008 Stadium faithful will have to get used to living with a lot less offense than the team came up with that day, but if they can get consistent starts, and if Girardi can continue to manipulate his bullpen effectively, the 2008 team could extend play in the old ballpark into October yet.