Bronx, N.Y., Apr. 30, 2003 — This game was over in less than a half hour and 59 pitches. The Yankees backed their starter, Andy Pettitte, into a corner on the game’s third pitch, when Bernie Williams failed to take charge on Ichiro’s popup to short center. The back-pedaling rookie shortstop Almonte would take the “E,” but it was Bernie’s ball and the fact that it ticked off Erick’s glove shouldn’t change that. The speedy Ichiro was off and running on Andy’s first pitch to Randy Winn, and there we were, coming off being shut out the night before, with the go-ahead run on third with nobody out. But nobody told Andy the situation was dire, and he simply delivered 13 strikes in the next 16 pitches, and strode off the mound with the scoreless tie intact and three strike outs on his ledger.
And although the Yankees butchered their first play the Mariners did no such thing, as Cirillo grabbed Alfonso’s 3-1 hard grounder down the third base line and made it look like a fairly routine 5-3. But Joe has noticed Todd Zeile looking ready to snap out of his season-long (after an early homer) funk and penciled him in the second spot, and Todd singled into the shortstop hole with one out. Of course, it seemed harmless as the continuing-to-struggle Giambi popped to third for the frame’s second out. But then Moyer walked Bernie on five pitches and when Matsui singled hard off shortstop Carlos Guillen’s glove, the Yanks, so close to being down 1-0 a few moments earlier, had themselves a two-out rbi and a 1-0 lead of their own. Moyer came close on Posada several times, but walked him on six pitches and with power-hitting righty Mondesi coming to bat with the bases loaded, a turning point had arrived.
Raul wasted no time, driving the 1-1 pitch beyond both the left field wall and Randy Winn’s leaping try, and the Yanks were up 5-0; the game, as I’ve said, was over. Nick would follow with a hard single of no consequence, and the Yankee bats went cold again, scratching two more singles through seven, but the game was over. Moyer became brilliant. The first inning cost him 40 pitches, but he almost got through the next four on that same number. He would hold the Yanks to that first-inning score though six, whiffing four, walking no more, but he retired to the bench still down 5-0 after six.
My initial impression was that Zeile’s participation in the pregame toss around was fortuitous, as he paired off with Nick Johnson, and the nos. 27 and 36 throwing together just looked right. Both numbers are divisible by nine, and it got me off on a numbers thing early in this game. I was undaunted, by the way, that the pairing next to them displayed no such numerical neatness, with Raul (43) throwing to Bernie (51), but a quick look at April 30′s in history revealed the birthday of early math prodigy and revolutionary theorist Carl Friedrich Glauss on this day in 1777. No wonder this was a numbers day.
There was precedence, too, for the first-inning dramatics, what with the eventual first Mariano Rivera appearance of the campaign, the first time I just walked up and bought a ticket this season, my first experience with an mvp tier box ticket (essentially I paid $37 for the same relative seat in Box 609 that I pay $30 for in Boxes 603 and 622 through my two season plans) on a night where Misters Matsui, Williams and Zeile displayed some first-rate defense, despite the team’s three ugly miscues. After all, it was the anniversary of the day in 1789 that George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States.
Before I give my take on some of the differences in sitting down the first base side (as I did tonight) from the third base side I usually frequent, there is another new fun game the scoreboard crew are running to keep the people entertained between innings that we have yet to discuss. Held between the top and bottom of the fourth inning, it is called “Match Game NY,” although it’s nothing like the old TV game show of that same name. This one actually resembles the even older TV game show “Concentration,” as they display a grid of nine pictures of Yankee players one at a time in 3×3 tic-tac-toe-like fashion. What the uninitiated don’t know is that there is always at least one player (and sometimes two) whose picture is displayed twice, and when the showing is done, a random fan is asked to identify the windows behind which the two pics of this one player can be found. If the player-name-spelling attempts and the “know your baseball terminology” games show the Stadium experience’s rough edges (as fans are always wrong on those), this game displays the opposite, as I have yet to see anyone fail to pass this game’s concentration test.
One of the things fans viewing games from the third base side generally focus on is the Yankee dugout. Most are here to root their favorites on, but even if you are a member of that significant minority I always seem to find who enjoy the baseball experience simply because it gives them the opportunity to boo and berate millionaires, the objects of attention of both groups spend much time in that dugout, and watching them mill about and interact becomes a game in itself.
From the first base side one can see into the visiting dugout and that is fun too, but not as interesting as with the Yanks. The thing I like to focus on from the right side (aside from the game of course) is the out-of-town scoreboard, which shows other games’ scores three at a time on a regular rotating basis. It is a whole different game staring at these scores because all one sees are the inning, the current score and the numbers of the pitchers who are pitching. Thus, when I saw that the reeling Mets had fallen behind the Cardinals 5-0 after one and 7-0 after two, I could check the pitcher number (34) and see that it was the recently off-the-DL Pedro Astacio who was taking the pasting. I find looking at these valuable, as you slowy learn the numbers of the pitching staffs on all the other teams. (I check these out from the left field side too myself, but from there you have to remember to keep checking. From the right field side, it’s always in your field of view.)
Despite the finest (?) efforts of Juan Acevedo in particular, but of Chris Hammond too, the Yanks not only hung on to win this game, they preserved Andy’s much-deserved “W” too. Andy struck out eight (as Roger had in a losing cause the night before) while surrendering only two walks and four base hits. He threw 108 pitches over seven innings (two more than Moyer over six), had a 16/13 first pitch strike to ball ratio, and deserved to leave the game with his shutout intact (after all he did to preserve it in the game’s first inning). Unfortunately, Alfonso’s embarrassing failure to snag Ichiro’s seventh-inning pop got the M’s on the board before Andy left.
Matsui definitely had the advantage between the two biggest Japaneses stars in American baseball on this night. Ichiro sufferd through an 0 for 5 while Hideki knocked in the game’s first run with a single, singled and scored again on Zeile’s infield hit that pushed across two in the eighth, and made a fabulous running stab on Dan Wilson’s hard no-out liner to the left field wall with Cirillo on in the fifth. But there is something a baserunner like Ichiro does to defenses that is hard to quantify. He reached base on the two badly mishandled popups, but perhaps his most impressive accomplishment of the evening was beating out the almost 1-6-3 in the fifth. Andy took the bouncer and fired to Almonte streaking across, who fired to first as he crossed second. Everything was done correctly, and I had to erase the 1-6-3 that I had written in because the speed-burning Ichiro simply outran the thrown ball.
The Mariners made it interesting with a three-run uprising in the eighth. Acevedo could not have had a worse transition from closer to setup, as he gave up a first-pitch bomb to Boone in the eighth and followed with five consecutive balls as he walked Edgar and gave up a single to Cameron. Hammond almost pulled off a nifty escape, as he coaxed pinch hitter Mabry to fly to Matsui and got Guillen on a called third strike. But he couldn’t get Cirillo to swing at some close pitches, walked him on seven pitches and Wilson’s 2-2 single up the middle plated two.
But the madness stopped as Zeile corraled Matsui’s soft liner and all that remained was to see if the Yanks would force the returning Mariano to attempt a save with a one-run lead and Boone and Edgar due up. You would have needed an industrial strength caliper to measure my smiles when he began warming in the pen at 9:51. But the Yanks and Nick Johnson provided some cushion (so much that it was no longer a save situation), and the decibel level in the Bronx rose dramatically when we heard the first strains of Enter Sandman in the cool Bronx evening at 10:06 pm (when this game turned exactly three hours old).
Despite gving up a run on Cameron’s booming double Mariano survived multi-pitch at bats by Winn and Boone, and gathered two strike outs in the process. The best closer ever is back in the Bronx, and all is right with the world.