Everyone seemed to be ready to settle into Opening Day at George M. Steinbrenner Field Wednesday afternoon quietly, feeling their way, making a mistake here and there, and zipping through a pitching-dominated game. The lowly Pirates were the visitors, with some interesting one-time Yankees in tow, and the crowd size was minimized by the 55-degree temps, a whipping wind and the all-too-intermittent burst of sun.
The Yankees supplied their usual bells and whistles, highlighted by the distinctly not usual feature of Manager Joe Girardi joining a band of former Yankee champions and current team Captain Derek Jeter on the mound with the 2009 World Series Trophy. There were fireworks over the left field fence, a flyover by two F-18s, a large American flag displayed in short center field, and the entire Yankee squad assembled on the field in their white pinstriped uniforms for the only time this Spring season.
Pittsburgh Manager John Russell certainly couldn’t be accused of bringing a skeleton squad on a Grapefruit League road trip, fielding a lineup featuring at least five or six of his starting position players, a few bona fide prospects and nine pitchers, each of whom tossed one inning, most of them quite effectively. Starter Paul Maholm and ex-Yankee Ross Ohlendorf started by quieting the Yanks in the first two of five one-two-three innings and the Yanks failed to get a hit until Alex Rodriguez ripped a single to center field to start the home fifth off Chris Jakubauskas. DH Marcus Thames was then hit with a pitch, and Rule-5 trade acquisition Jamie Hoffman moved both runners up with a fielder’s choice after failing to sacrifice. The Pirates righty went 3-0 on Brett Gardner, who one pitch later just missed with a liner up the middle snagged by shortstop Ronnie Cedeno. Fancisco Cervelli rolled to short to end the threat.
Yankee pitching was tough to solve too, with Chad Gaudin, Sergio Mitre, and Alfredo Aceves each making their cases for the fifth spot in the rotation with two scoreless frames apiece. Although Acebes finished strong and retired six straight, he benefited from a team behind him that suddenly seemed in midseason defensive form. Hoffman in right and Gardner in left made stellar grabs on fly balls lofted high toward their respective walls, both caught up in swirling winds, both punctuated by post-catch sprawls on the warning track. Ramiro Pena then made two dives and throws to first on hotshot grounders, separated by one Ace punch-out (of Bucs third sacker Andy LaRoche) and a Curtis Granderson catch of a tricky popup in short center that the wind kept bringing further from him.
The game then changed suddenly with each team facing an ineffective hurler and a botched play. Pena followed up his glove and throw work by homering on a 3-2 pitch from ex-Yank Steven Jackson to start the bottom of the sixth. Nick Johnson, in his first at bat in pinstripes in six years, doubled in Eduardo Nunez, then scored a third run on a miscue by Pirates shortstop Argenio Diaz. But the Pirates matched the three-spot almost instantly off Jonathan Albaladejo, who started the top of the seventh by hitting Delwyn Young with a pitch. Ex-Yank prospect Jose Tabata stroked an 0-2 single into short right, and backup catcher Eric Kratz doubled in two with a drive to the wall in left center; he cruised onto third when Greg Golson’s throw eluded everyone and rolled into the infield. It was a critical error, as ex-Met Ryan Church scored Kratz with a weak grounder off lefty Royce Ring, who answered the “bell” quite effectively on what would have been Alexander Graham Bell’s 163rd birthday, garnering a harmless fly and two strike outs after the grounder. The latter was to Bronx school star and Number One Pirates draft pick Pedro Alvarez.
It was a predominantly well-pitched and played ballgame, with a few curious odd streaks. Neither team walked a batter, and the team’s hurlers split 15 strike outs between them, but 12 of those came in the sixth to eighth innings. And, as mentioned, there was the fine defensive streak the hometeam displayed while Ace was in the game. But it was obviously a training game too, an early one, with the rust showing in quite a few places. PA announcer Paul Oldin oddly announced the umpires in this order: around the bases, and then home plate. The scoreboard people posted many player names as they batted, but skipped quite a few others, and they played the Harry Belafonte soundbit usually reserved for hometeam offense (“Day-O, dum dum dum and I want to COME HOME”) while Bucs catcher Ryan Doumit batted with a man on second in the first. Four innings after the pregame flyover, just one of the two F-18s made the opposite pass over the field, heading back in the direction from which they had both come behind home plate earlier.
Finally, when outfielder Colin Curtis came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, the scoreboard posted that in his earlier at bat he had “grounded out to right field.” This last was not much noticed, or for long either. With all their regulars long gone, the Yankee offense entered the 3-3 bottom of the ninth having made seven straight outs, five of them on strike outs. But third baseman Brandon Laird and DH Jon Weber started the final frame with back-to-back singles. Eschewing the bunt, David Winfree flied out, which brought Curtis to the plate. March 3 was kind to Colin a year ago, as he started a ninth-inning rally against Team USA with the team down by two with a single on a 1-1 pitch, eventually scoring. This time around he showed no such patience, lashing Virgil Vasquez’s first pitch deep to right for a walkoff home run and a 6-3 win.
The Yankee team blistered the competition last year with its unrelenting walkoffs, highlighted perhaps in the regular season by the 14th-inning Melky Cabrera shot off the A’s and Alex Rodriguez’s blast that ended a scoreless epic battle with the Red Sox in the 15th frame. It didn’t end until Mark Teixeira sliced a liner to left in ALDS game two vs. Minnesota, already the victim of three Yankee walkoffs last year. It intrigued me enough to write a piece on the 20 Yankee seasons most affected by walkoff home runs that appears in Maple Street Press’s Yankee Annual 2010, available on newsstands or from the publisher online.
Things that happen repeatedly like that get people talking. We could spend our time, for instance, discussing March 3, 1960, the day a 14.5-inch snowstorm gave New York its 10th largest snowfall (ninth until a week or so ago). Fascinating, huh? Or, Spring Training game or not, a walkoff is a fun event to witness. I vote we talk about that.