April 23, 2016; Bronx, N.Y.; Yankees 3, Rays 2 There was a point early in the 2015 season where the Yankees seemed to have found a recipe for success. They had stormed into contention largely on the strength of unexpected power from the middle of their order, but years of playoff disappointments in the early 2000s had shown that riding the home run to postseason success is a risky strategy.
It was the top of the order that carried them into midseason success. With twin speedsters Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner batting for high average, stealing bases, and populating the base paths for the power to follow, their offense kicked into gear, something hard to imagine following all the offensive ineptitude the team has been displaying in 2016. But have we seen a beacon of hope the team has shown through back-to-back wins over the Tampa Rays?
Ellsbury keyed a come-from-behind victory Friday night with his daring, shocking steal of home in the fifth inning, and his late two-run double assured the win. And today, Gardner not only stroked the walkoff homer with two down in the ninth, he had three hits. The second bounded off the body of Tampa lefty Xavier Cedeno to knock in Brian McCann with the tying score, the kind of runners-in-scoring-position at bat that has been missing for three weeks, driving the fanbase into distraction. Things have been so bad during the 1-5 mark the team posted against Seattle and Oakland to start this home stand that fans have been routinely more stressed when they get runners on than when they don’t.
Which made for a pleasant start to this game, even if the struggling Alex Rodriguez’s home run bid in the first inning was pulled down by a leaping Desmond Jennings at the wall. This came on the pitch after the home team had taken a 1-0 lead on a wild pitch from young southpaw Blake Snell, making his major league debut. And quite a first start it was, as the hard thrower struck out the side in the second, and held the Yanks off the scoreboard through innings two through five. The only opponent to get into scoring position against him in that time was Ellsbury, who reached second following his one-out, third-inning single on Snell’s second wild pitch.
That single, and one off the bat of Mark Teixeira in the first, were the only hits he allowed. Pounding a 96-mph fast ball while teasing with a low 70s curve, he struck out six Yankees, three of them on called strikes, the team’s bête noire of late. (They took seven called third strikes while whiffing 13 times in a loss to Oakland Thursday night.) Snell walked just one — Carlos Baerga, who scored on the first-inning wild pitch — but went to eight, three-ball counts, which largely contributed to his departure after five frames, on 90 pitches.
The crowd was sitting back enjoying the Babe Ruth bobble heads, handed out before the game, and the one-run lead, as Masahiro Tanaka was throwing another effective game, and the Yankee offense gave little reason to be involved. Tanaka threw seven solid innings, getting seven strike outs by mixing in his devastating split finger with a fast ball that reached 94 mph, easing concerns about his arm from Spring Training. But a too-fat four-steamer to Cory Dickerson on an 0-2 pitch led to a double off the wall and a 1-1 tie in the fourth, and when Kevin Kiermaier’s high drive to right in the fifth clanged off the foul pole, the Rays had a lead. And the fans now had a reason for concern.
In a similar situation Friday night, Ellsbury had taken matters into his own hands with a sixth-inning, two-out steal of home to tie the game. In this one, Gardner, following two walks and a catcher’s interference, delivered the tally that knotted matters on a hard one-hopper up the middle that caromed off the pitcher. Had the hot shot not hit the lefty it may have gotten through and plated two, but as it was, it tied the game, 2-2.
That put the game in the hands of relievers Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, who proceeded to retire six of seven on four strike outs, three by the amazing Betances. Still, the game remained tied once Chase Headley ended the home eighth after back-to-back singles by bouncing out to first. The bottom of the ninth started oh so quietly as Didi Gregorius and Ellsbury grounded out on just three pitches, but Gardner got up in the count off righty Erasmo Ramirez 3-1, then lofted a no-doubt-about-it drive to right to send 40,000 home happy.
There are still problems in the Yankee arsenal. The power has largely not been there so far, and new righthanded bats Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks have struggled of late, though Castro enjoyed a stellar week and a half to start the campaign, with eight quick rbi’s. Sunday will mark four straight southpaws starting against them, though switch-hitting Teixeira has delivered four hits the last two days, and Brian McCann homered off a lefty Friday. But Carlos Beltran is slumping with runners in scoring position, and A-Rod is just slumping all the time.
But all the starters have delivered at least two solid starts, and the bullpen is amazing, so perhaps they can live without the power for a while. That the twin engines that could at the top of the order seem to be rounding into form is nothing but a good sign going forward.