Sarasota, FL., March 30 — The weather reviews on today’s battle with the Reds in Sarasota were a smash hit, as Paul Wilson’s 1:05, first-pitch strike to Derek Jeter came under bright-blue cloudless skies; the 76-degree temp claim will be disputed by anyone sitting in the hot sun. It was hot and sticky upon our arrival last Friday and will be again on the weekend (though not in the Bronx Sunday evening), but the weather the last few days has been magnificent.
Unfortunately, the team came up short by a 5-4 score, but some guys played very well, and some less so. The very top of the plus ledger contains the name Ruben Sierra, who continued his hot hitting. Sierra not only homered for the third time in four games, he also tripled, scored twice, and knocked in two. The fourth-inning leadoff jack struck the highest branches in one of the fruit trees that grow 20-30 feet beyond the high right-field wall in Ed Smith Field, and Ruben sent centerfielder Ryan Freel midway to the warning track in dead center the only time he was retired. And he played a flawless left field in a National League city.
Of course, of particular significance was the work of pitcher Carl Pavano, the Yanks’s second-game, regular-season starter appearing in his final tune-up of the spring. Although Carl’s report card is more mixed, he did retire the Reds on just 26 pitches across the second, fourth, and fifth innings. He surrendered only six hits through six frames, and he struck out five while throwing 20 of 27 first-pitch strikes. His strikes/balls ratio of 57/36 was a bit off though, and once he was given a 3-2 lead on four Yankee sixth-inning safeties, he did allow the two runs that really made the difference. But on the other hand he retired five in a row early and eight more across the middle innings.
Last Friday in Clearwater, young Chase Utley singled on Pavano’s third pitch of the game, and Bobby Abreu promptly doubled on the very next offering. One hopes that coincidence is at work and no pattern is being established, but it seems that each time Carl has allowed a hit, the next one or two at bats turned small-hit molehills into mini-rally mountains. Thus, when Wilson stroked a single to left leading off the home third, ex-Yank d’Angelo Jimenez followed a force on a diving stop by Jeter with a triple to right center. Similarly, following each of ex-Royals third sacker Joe Randa’s two booming doubles, Pavano walked the next guy on four straight. It cost the Yanks the game when Austin Kearns and Jacob Cruz tacked on an additional double and a sac fly under these circumstances in the sixth.
On the other hand, however, until that late streak against the tiring righty, Carl did some of his best pitching as the game wore on. After one strike out through four, he added four in the last two frames; he made the Reds swing and miss not at all early, but 10 times in three of his last four innings. In short, the Pavano report card was both good and bad.
Neither Hideki Matsui nor Jorge Posada made this trip, and A-Rod was nowhere to be seen either. It was this day in 1984 that the Bombers made the regrettable move of shipping star third baseman Graig Nettles to San Diego, but Russ Johnson subbed ably for Rodriguez at the hot corner this time around. Johnson made a few nice stops early, and pulled off a sparkler in pegging out Felipe Lopez from deep in the shortstop hole to close the home fourth. He also kicked in two hits, including an eighth-inning rbi double that almost saved the day.
The NL-savvy Pavano tried to help himself with his bat, barely missing a single on a soft liner to right in the second, pulling off a perfect sac bunt in the sixth, and actually leading off the visiting fifth with a double down the left field line. But once Jeter moved him with a first-pitch grounder to second, the baseball gods seemed to be at work once Bernie Williams’s 2-1 foul pop actually struck Jackie Robinson’s retired number 42, displayed in front of the press box with seven Reds’ retired numbers. Williams fouled the next pitch on a half swing, then went down looking on a borderline high inside slider.
In other positive news, Steve Karsay looked strong yet again in a 1-2-3, two-strike-out eighth inning, and young shortstop Deivi Mendez made the kind of bad-hop grab on a scorcher up the middle that really can’t be taught. Somehow he just knew that ball was there. But Buddy Groom allowed a booming home run to a weak hitter to start his inning, and Bubba Crosby’s seventh-inning drag bunt was struck so much too hard that I could have retired him at first.
Tomorrow we close the Phillies’ Clearwater home schedule against the Blue Jays at one, and then cap Legends Field 2005 Spring Training with a 7:15 tilt with the Devil Rays. We’re not eager for the fun in the sun to end, but Sunday at 8:00pm in the Bronx beckons. It is a call that we — and the Yankees — will answer.