Tampa and Sarasota, Fla., March 7, 2011 — “I saw them ALL,” gushed the young girl who climbed to our section to rejoin her parents in the redone Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida. A Yankee split squad was playing the Orioles Monday evening, and Sarasota, with apologies to the big stars in the Yankee outfield, was lucky enough to have the infield-dominated Bombers group make the hour-plus drive. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez lead this every-city popularity phenomenon, with Robbie Cano and Mark Teixeira bringing up the rear.
It was a cool and delightful evening after yet another beautifully stunning day. On a sun-dappled afternoon of a Monday when the Yanks played two games in two cities, A.J. Burnett had already led the outfield squad as they slapped Roy Oswalt and the Phillies around and silenced hordes of Philly fans who had invaded George M. Steinbrenner Field. Eleven Yankee pitchers performed well on the day, allowing 11 hits and one lonely run over 18 innings of baseball. Burnett was solid in the first inning of game one, with a little help from Curtis Granderson, who made a long run and fine stab on a Placido Polanco drive to deep right center. But A.J. kicked it up a notch in the second and third, delivering every pitch with a fluid motion, throwing hard, but never missing the zone by more than an inch or two. If catcher Russell Martin heard any of the horror stories of explosive wildness, wild pitches and hit-by-pitch batters, he must have been pleased receiving Burnett’s pitches. Joba Chamberlain and Pedro Feliciano followed with perfect innings, the latter striking out two, and Joba benefitting from a long run into foul territory in which Nick Swisher grabbed Polanco’s next fly before somersaulting over the Yankee bullpen wall.
Spoiled Yankee fans that we are, how could we help but notice when Hector Noesi set down the first two Phils in the sixth that, based on 17 up and 17 down, we were looking at “doesn’t count” history? But Wilson Valdez snapped us out of it when he broke the no-hitter, perfecto, and shutout up by homering to left. Shane Victorino followed with a single to extend the lone good moment of the day for Phillies fans, though their hopes did rise later when Ross Gload fouled off eight pitches before lofting a fly to deep right, only to have Jordan Parraz dash their hopes on a fine catch.
The middle of the lineup did most of the damage, even if it was Eduardo Nunez, batting in the eighth spot, who broke up the scoreless tie with a three-run homer to left off Oswalt in the second. Curtis Granderson and Eric Chavez, who both reached all three times they batted, scored ahead of the Yankee shortstop, and Granderson put a nail in the coffin of Oswalt’s start with a two-run rainmaker (had there been a cloud in the sky) in the third. Jorge Posada, who has not been hitting, lined a double the other way to left off Vance Worley, a prospect (Phillie fans tell me) who followed Oswalt, and Chavez’s second of three singles scored Jorge, then didn’t. Seems Posada missed third base as he turned, the Phils picked up on it, and he was called out with the run erased from the board. I believe it’s scored a 5UA (third base unassisted).
Brett Gardner’s first of two walks leading off the home fifth, a Granderson walk, and singles by Chavez and Posada restored run No. 6 and added a seventh tally, setting up the 7-1 final that Valdez’s homer completed one frame later. Noesi added a scoreless inning, as did the solid-looking Mark Prior and Luis Ayala, with the visitors notching one hit in each of those innings.
Three hours-plus later, the infield-dominated squad resumed play in Sarasota. Sergio Mitre got his first start and went three scoreless, a little surprising because he had not been allowed to go more than inning yet in a couple of relief appearances. He was effective, even though he did allow three of the six hits the O’s would stroke all night. Pesky Brian Roberts led off the bottom of the first with a perfect drag bunt for a hit past the first-base side of the mound, but died on first. Leading off the second, Sergio jumped ahead of power-hitting but strike-out-prone Mark Reynolds, new to the AL East, by an 0-2 count, but he lined the next pitch to deep right for a two-base hit, and then motored around third on Adam Jones’s single to center. Greg Golson’s strike to Austin Romine at the plate nailed Reynolds. Little did the record 8,471 in attendance realize that they had just seen the only real scoring opportunity of the night.
The Yanks would scratch together four hits against hard-throwing lefty Zachary Britton and four relievers, and only Alex Rodriguez (second-inning single followed by a walk), Derek Jeter (third-inning base hit, moved up on a fielder’s choice), and young outfielder Melky Mesa (ringing double into the left-field corner in the fifth) would reach second base. On the other side of the ball, four relievers following Mitre got the job done, with former Royals lefty Andy Sisco standing out with an eight-pitch, one-strike-out sixth. Neither team seemed likely to score at any time, but it was exciting to witness a few of the younger players we’ve seen in recent years with the Staten Island Yankees who got into this one late, including outfielder Jack Rye and infielder Damon Sublett, with the latter collecting the fourth and last Yankee hit in the ninth.
Those players in some cases were wearing numbers we had seen on others, as numbers, particularly high numbers, in this setting can be more a suggestion than an absolute. Given that, count as my most bizarre sighting a young-looking No. 87 coaching first base for the Yanks in the later frames. Could that have been righty David Phelps, also No. 87, who closed the Yankee 10-8 victory over Houston on Sunday afternoon?
It needs to be added that I’ve attended games at Ed Smith Stadium since 1986, witnessing several baseball hosts, including the White Sox and Reds, both currently training in Arizona. The Orioles, who have been something of baseball nomads for the last few years once their facility in Miami closed down, including spending several years playing on the Fort Lauderdale field the Yanks used before moving to Tampa, have struck gold in Sarasota. The job this west coast Florida city has done in rebuilding this facility is nothing short of amazing. It is gorgeous, professional, and fan-friendly. The White Sox and Reds may be happy transplanted to Arizona, but in addition to the NL East titans in Philly and most-year playoff participant Minnesota, the west coast of Florida now hosts all five teams of the clearly best division in baseball, the AL East.
What was left of the crowd voiced their disappointment when it was announced late that if neither team scored it would end in a tie after nine innings, but although I would drop everything and stay here watching baseball in this weather forever if given the chance, I doubted a score was forthcoming and accepted that end. We had the drive back to the hotel to consider, packing, and flying back north Tuesday after the finest 10 days I’ve experienced down here that I can remember.
I’ve seen the Yanks play better over the years, but in Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos, each of whom I saw pitch in several innings, and Andrew Brackman, whom we did not see pitch due to minor injury, I have never witnessed the Yankees loaded with so much solid young pitching talent, and I have been doing Spring Training for almost 30 years. With a strong close, we saw the boys play to a 4-4-2 mark, though it would be five losses, only we did not travel to a 2-0 loss in Bradenton to the Pirates about one week ago.
The Yankee pitching has varied from solid to spectacular and the struggling hitting has improved. I see good signs all around.