Tampa, FL., March 4 — To view Saturday’s 4-1 Yankee loss to the Reds in Legends Field through any other prism than the one entitled “Spring Training” would be to paint a fan into a corner where proclamations best saved for August would have to come into play. The Yanks are 0-3, and with four of nine starters elsewhere and two nursing minor nicks, the name of the game is to work the pitchers and let the kids carry the scoring load. Randy Johnson was reached for a two-run home run and run-scoring double in three innings this day, and a misfiring Yankee offense never recovered.
From this fan’s perch behind third base, there was more good in The Unit’s outing than bad, and a Johnson strong enough to go three innings and throw 48 pitches in March’s first week bespeaks an ace ready to carry a heavy load in 2006. Starters rarely attempt a third inning in their first outing of the spring, and the only two that have in our first three games, Jon Lieber on Friday and Randy today, have paid the price with some trouble as the pitch count mounted. Early, Johnson struggled with his control, walking his second batter on five pitches, and when his fastball in to Edgar Encarnacion caught too much of the plate, the Cinncy third baseman lashed it over the fence in left for a quick 2-0 Reds first-inning lead.
Johnson tried most of his arsenal to generally positive effect, and he retired the next seven visitors in succession. But he was extended to six tosses on an Austin Kearns first-inning strike out and waged an eight-pitch battle with young Chris Denorfia on a bouncer to second leading off the third, so with eight outs recorded he had already thrown 40 pitches. Rich Aurilia and Encarnacion (again) jumped on the next three throws for back-to-back doubles to forge a 3-0 deficit the largely future Yanks could never overcome. Johnson’s 31-17 strike-ball ratio was good, he threw eight of 13 first-pitch strikes, and he used his best slider to notch his only two strike outs (against the one walk) on the only two Reds swings and misses of his three frames.
That the three-run deficit was too big a burden for the home team to overcome was frustrating. That the Yanks fumbled so many glorious opportunities to equal (or exceed) that score made it more so. They bounced into four double plays (and managed to leave 10 on base anyway), responded with a strike out and a bouncer to the box the two times they had the bases loaded with two down, and failed to score in the third against southpaw Mike Williams after loading the bases with nobody out. Surprisingly, Larry Bowa continued to exercise caution from the third base coaching box, and his hold on Gary Sheffield running from second on a two-out Hideki Matsui single to right center in the first cost the Yanks a run that could have turned the game.
And with all that going wrong on the offensive side of the ball, youth fell just short of overcoming for the second day in a row. Hot rookie outfielder Kevin Thompson delivered the only Yankee run with a fourth-inning single, and first-base prospect Eric Duncan set up the potential tying runs in the eight inning with a booming double to right center one at bat after dellivering a game-tying single the day before. Right fielder Mitch Jones, fresh off a 2-for-2 Friday, drove a gap-threatening liner just to left of center as the tying run in the ninth that was barely snagged on a game-saving catch by Denorfia. And speaking of Jones, the Yankee defense remained solid. He threw a strike from right to home to prevent a score in the sixth, and the Reds quaked at testing Gary sheffield’s arm in a similar situation the inning before.
As expressed above, job one in this camp is getting the pitching sorted out, and in following Johnson today, young hard thrower Scott Proctor demonstrated both why he is prized by the team and why he probably will not make the trip noth with them when it’s time to head for Oakland to open the season for real. He coaxed a meek fly ball and grounder around a swinging K in the fourth, but then loaded the bases with nobody out on eight straight balls and an infield single on a sac bunt attempt (looked clearly out to me) to start the fifth. No sweat, as Quinton McCracken held third on a fairly deep fly to Sheffield next and Proctor recovered for back-to-back whiffs, the second after falling behind 3-0.
There are a lot of reasons to attend New York Yankees Spring Training in Tampa aside from hoping to see Yankee wins, and “New York” has a lot to do with it. Fans from remote areas will have to forgive me for this, but the Yankees would not be the Yankees without New York, the biggest city in the country, and the most exciting and fulfilling place on earth. First of all, it is good to escape the lingering winter in that city to attend these games, and Saturday was no exception in that regard, another gorgeous low-humidity, high-sunshine beaut in the 70s. The game went by quickly, allowing us to enjoy another joy central to that wonderful urban hub, in this case visiting some of the diaspora who formerly called the Greater New York area home. We were lucky to make a postgame trip to visit two who took us to dinner at world-famous Santorini’s in beautiful Tarpon Springs. Music was the subject of the day, and we shared tales of shows enjoyed at wonderful clubs like the Bottom Line, the Beacon Theatre, the Ritz, CBGB’s, the Wetlands, the Mud Club, etc.
Win or lose, it’s a great time down here, particularly for those in the latter stages of baseball withdrawal. And the compromised nature of the squad in light of those missing in favor of playing in the WBC makes it easier to focus on progress in key aspects of the team. Games do not need to be won, but the pitching needs to be prepped for April, and individual position players who have a chance to make a telling contribution need to play the game. So expect no Thomas Paine “times that try men’s souls” lament from this Yankee fan. Sure, It was 73 years ago this day Franklin Delano Roosevelt advised the country that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” With all due respect, thanks for the thought, Frank. But the starting pitchers are getting their work in, the vets are playing themselves into game-ready condition, and the kids are putting in bids as candidates for the next American Idol title, Yankee style. If I need the stirring speeches, I’ll give you a call in August.