Bronx, N.Y., April 6, 2008 — The Yanks evened their record at 3-3 Sunday in a double-well-pitched beaut in frigid Yankee Stadium. Although the offense did not break out, they did have their second consecutive nine-hit game, a hopeful sign. You got the feeling that the offense that broke through and scored a run first would win, as Chien-Ming Wang and James Shields each brought their “A” game.
Though perhaps it would be more correct to give Wang an “O” score for this one, as he certainly brought his OTHER game to the mound this day. The hard-sinker-throwing righty coaxed an uncharacteristic 10 swings and misses from Tampa Bay bats in six innings, and all six strike outs Wang posted were of the swinging variety. Mixing in his mid-eighties slider and in particular an improving 80-mph change of pace perhaps more effectively than ever before, he struck out three in a row spanning the second and third innings, and another with one down in the fourth. He was no respecter of persons either: Both slugging portsider Carlos Pena and shortstop Jason Bartlett, who bats right and collects singles more often, fell victim to Wang twice.
Chien-Ming coaxed 13 ground ball outs and struck out two in seven innings vs. Toronto five days ago. On Sunday, just seven Rays bounced out in Wang’s six innings, with the nicest plays both coming against cleanup hitter B.J. Upton. Alex Rodriguez made a dandy grab of a hotshot toward the shortstop hole in the second, and Wang pounced from the mound to corral Upton’s swinging bunt to the third-base side to end the sixth inning, for the last out he would get this day.
And it was fortuitous that Chien-Ming was sharp and that Jorge Posada called a great game, because Tampa Bay righthander James Shields showed from his first pitch that last year was no fluke; the guy can pitch. He mixed speeds, pitches, and locations all day. He has a nice fastball, an effective sinker and the change of pace he unleashed from time to time was the same one he used to great effect last year. He has a great feel for the pitch, something both Bobby Abreu and Shawn Riggans can attest to. Abreu looked helpless striking out against it three straight times, all of them “K2″ in my scorecard because catcher Riggans had to find the ball, pict ik up, and tag Bobby each time.
Shields had the crowd’s respect early, as he retired six Yankees on just 17 pitches early, even if Derek Jeter managed a first-inning sinking liner to center that Upton made a nice play reaching and Hideki Matsui singled up the middle in the second. With Wang retiring nine of the first 10 Rays he faced, the Yanks wasted a chance with bad baserunning in the bottom of the third. Wilson Betemit, who was playing first with Jason Giambi out with a tweaked groin, was grazed with a pitch leading off, but he made the unfortunate choice to try for third when Melky Cabrera singled to left center. Upton’s throw to third was perfect, which was actually a waste. Anything in the neighborhood would have sufficed; Wilson was out by that much. Cabrera followed Betemit into second and crossed to third when Damon grounded out to short for the second, not the first, out. Jeter bounced to third and the threat was over.
Wang pitched around one of his two walks in the fourth, and Shields got the bottom half off well with his second strike out of Abreu. Alex Rodriguez had pounced on the Tampa pitcher’s first pitch in the second and hit a two hopper to short; now he took one off the plate and two called strikes before lining a double to right center. Matsui took three pitches too, a magic formula this frame, because he crushed a flat change up at 2-1 and sent it toward the last walkway at the edge of the upper deck in right. We didn’t then know that that would be the only scoring hit of the game, but the sudden two-run lead felt bigger than it was.
Robbie Cano, who seems to be coming out of a first-week slump, singled after fouling five straight but Posada’s bid to right died on the warning track and Betemit grounded weakly back to Shields. The Yanks threatened after a leadoff strike out (Melky) in the fifth too, as Damon and Jeter stroked one-out singles, just the second time in five games the one-two batters in the New York lineup have been on base in the same inning. But Shields was up to this task, striking out Abreu for the third time and sneaking a called strike three past Matsui after an A-Rod walk.
This failed fifth-inning rally followed the first of only two threats the Rays posed all day. Third baseman Manny Aybar singled to right with one down, ending a 4.3-inning Wang no-hit bid, and when Jeter shoveled a toss to Cano at second on Riggans’ slow grounder to his right, the ball glanced off Cano’s bare hand, and Aybar cruised into third. Several things remain murky from this sequence: We in the stands assigned the error to Cano, for instance, as the scoreboard seemed disinterested in sharing that information. But more puzzling still was exactly what Tampa did next. As Bartlett bunted through Wang’s next pitch, Aybar broke for home on an apparent suicide squeeze. Or seeing how Riggans never broke from first, was Aybar stealing home? In either case, it seemed stunningly bad strategy, a judgement I feel confident I would have made the same even if it didn’t prove so completely ineffective and self-destructive. Not only did Posada run down Aybar feverishly retreating to third, but Wang struck Bartlett out swinging to close the frame.
Wang pitched around a two-out Pena single in the sixth and Shields was ushered from the game after allowing a Cano double leading off the bottom half. But southpaw J.P. Howell, making his first 2008 appearance, held the Yanks at bay, striking Posada out on three pitches and coaxing back-to-back groundouts to the left side by Betemit and Cabrera. Even with 91 pitches already thrown, Chien-Ming answered the bell for the top of the seventh. But Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske rapped singles to right field for first and third, and sight-for-sore-eyes manager Joe Girardi came out to get Wang. The savvy Yankee crowd knew all too well that Joba Chamberlain was warming in the pen, and the excitement level rose as Wang received a round of applause in honor of his fine work.
Wang threw 56 of 95 pitches for strikes (the scoreboard had 96), and he threw 17 of 24 first-pitch strikes. The six strike outs and two walks combined with four singles his last three innings, but now Joba came on with the tying runs on base and nobody out. Aybar took the first two pitches and no wonder, as Chamberlain started him with a 77-mph slider and then 101-mph (a scoreboard reading) heat, a second throw 24 miles per hour faster than the first one. The Tampa third baseman waved weakly at the next one and took a seat, and Riggans worked the count to 2-2. Tampa baserunning gets an assist in ending this threat with no score too, as Hinske took off on a liner up the middle, one that Cano grabbed in plenty of time to double the foolhardy right fielder off first to end the frame. Chamberlain tossed an eight-pitch, one-two-three eighth, and Mariano Rivera capped an overpowering ninth inning with two swinging strke outs for a 2-0 final.
Single-digit dates in April are often challenging days to play or watch a baseball game, but the 51,000 strong crowd huddled in their jackets and gloves to the end. The Yanks have been showing celebrities after the bottom of the fifth in each home game pull a lever on the jumbotron screen in right center, counting down the remaining regular-season home games in the storied House That Ruth Built. None other than George Steinbrenner pulled the lever that moved the count from 81 to 80 on opening night. Yogi Berra accomplished the task this day, reducing the dwindling number to 75. The crowd gave the beloved star of yesteryear his due as one would expect, but amid the cheers one got the sense that these fans are not eager to say good-bye to the famous old ballpark.
Famed escape artist Harry Houdini would have been celebrating his 134th birthday this day. Looking like a team unable to make up a two-run defcit, the Rays resorted to sleight of hand (and leg) today to “steal” a run or two, to disastrous effect. By running into outs between third and home and on the way to second in the only two innings they threatened with two baserunners, they proved one inescapable fact.
Not everyone can be a Houdini.