The Defense Ponies Up

Bronx, N.Y., June 22, 2019; Yankees 7, Houston 5 — How many days will Yankee fans refrain from booing Giancarlo Stanton following his four-rbi performance Saturday night against Houston in their 7-5 win? It was a contest in which he also played a stellar left field. Admittedly, he had plenty of help from his teammates on both sides of the ball. As a matter of fact, in a season where defense has not been this team’s strength, their collective play in the field may have been their finest showing of the year.

Though not anywhere as in command as he was last time out, Masahiro Tanaka had a solid outing, which could have netted him the win, but he did so by hitting bats, not missing them. He got 25 swings and misses against the Rays Monday night; tonight he got two. This is what made the defense so critical, throughout the game, even after the veteran righty left the game after six. Though neither play was a tough one, third baseman Gio Urshela got him out of two-on, two out situations with an unassisted putout at third in both the second and third innings. First baseman Luke Voit, who sat and watched Edwin Encarnacion make several beauties at first in Friday’s win, came next, virtually shutting the Astros down in the fourth. He recovered from a full body dive at the line stopping Josh Reddick’s leadoff base hit bud just in time to shovel the ball to a hard-charging Tanaka at the bag. Two pitches later, Voit successfully did battle with the rail in front of the Yankee dugout to snare Tyler White’s foul popup.

These plays were critical, because while the visitors had six baserunners through the first five frames, the Yankees started that inning having had veteran lefthander Wade Miley retire 12 of 13 batters he faced on a mere 50 pitches. A leadoff DJ LeMahieu walk in the first was promptly removed on a double play and, while Yankee “D” had kept them in the game, Voit reached second in the fourth on errors by both the center and right fielder on the same play. Stanton followed with the best hit ball so far (it had very little competition), but it was a liner right to the left fielder. An Edwin Encarnacion strike out led off the fifth, when Miley stumbled. Following a five-pitch walk to Aaron Hicks and a fly out, Urshela not only got the Bombers’ hit; it was a two-run homer to right field, 2-0 Yanks.

Despite continued help from his fielders, Tanaka couldn’t hold the lead. Yordan Alvarez led off the sixth with a single, and Stanton chipped in with a superb catch on a Yuli Gurriel liner to the left field wall. It was not the last time Gurriel would rue coming into contact with Giancarlo’s play. Flexing Texas muscles, however, Reddick homered to right for the 2-2 tie. A tight defensive battle quickly morphed into an offensive free-for-all, though Yankee defense had another signature moment in the midst of it, with Aaron Judge easily pegging out Max Stassi, trying to stretch a single, at second to end the top of the sixth.

Miley pitched himself out of the game by walking two to start the home sixth, a start worsened when Voit lifted a soft fly single to short left. Righthander Will Harris relieved, and fell behind Stanton 3-1. When Giancarlo smashed a hard one-hopper toward Gurriel at third, it caromed off his glove into left, and the home team retook the lead, 4-2.

At 88 pitches, Tanaka was done. Although he earned a win (that he would not get), his biggest shortcoming was perhaps that he could not give Aaron Boone seven innings. No matter how many solid relievers a team has (and the pinstripers are blessed to have five, with Dellin Betances still on the shelf), you can’t use them all, every day, for quantities of pitches in high-pressure situations. Needing to cover three grueling innings, Boone went to Jonathan Holder, who admittedly is having a dreadful year. And it looked like the Yankees might get lucky. Following a popup to first, the pesky Jose Altuve seemed to have a sure single to short left center, but Hicks swooped in to make a ridiculously great catch. Houston challenged the call, thinking he may have trapped the ball against the outfield grass (shh!, but I think they had a point), but the out call was upheld.

Still, two outs do not an inning make, and back-to-back singles brought power-hitting lefty DH Yordan Alvarez to the plate. If I had a dead chicken with me — a la the film Major League back in the day — I would have attempted to put a curse on his bat. Smacks of a little desperation perhaps, but I am sure I stand with legions of fans who both dreaded and knew what was coming. Holder battled him gamely through seven pitches, the last of which delivered the hammer: a three-run jolt to right for a 5-4 Houston lead. It was greeted, of course, by a chorus of “Boos!”, but to my ear, they didn’t quite equate to the level of vitriol poor Giancarlo is being greeted with each time he comes to the plate.

Instant — and surprising — offense got the Yanks back in, as Austin Romine delivered his second home run of a forgettable offensive year to right with one down in the bottom of the seventh. A following infield single, catcher’s interference call, and wild pitch advanced the drama. One out later, it was Stanton smashing yet another vicious shot toward Gurriel. If anyone questioned the hit call in this situation the inning before, they would not doubt this one. The ball caromed off Gurriel’s glove into short left, and the Yanks had a 7-5 lead.

Adam Ottavino came on for the eighth, and did what he does. Master of a mesmerizing slider few can hit, it unfortunately fails to find the zone from time to time. He walked two but struck out two to get it to the ninth, where southpaw setup man Zack Britton subbed for spent closer Aroldus Chapman to try to nail it down. But following a ground out, he suffered the same fate he did Friday, putting the tying runs on via back-to-back walks. The defense to the rescue yet again, as Urshela made a fine play on a swinging bunt toward third, but the tying runs were in scoring position. Following a ball. Robinson Chirinos, pinch hitting for Reddick, was intentionally walked, but as 40,000 strong held their breath for an unhealthily long time, White lined out to Judge in right, and the Yanks had an eighth straight win, 7-5.

Worthy of mention, of course, is that the team has won eight straight. And with Urshela’s drive in the fifth, not to mention Romine’s in the seventh, the Bombers have managed to tie the 1941 team’s franchise record of having homered in 25 straight games. Ironically, however, they came away winners in this one when power-hitting Giancarlo Stanton hit two high-velocity ground balls toward third that delivered the key four runs of the seven the Yanks plated.

And by the way, the lead above presented a trick question. The answer is zero, as certainly someone in the crowd at Stanton’s next game will have missed this game, or will dismiss it: He’ll be booed next time out, which is not very important in the overall scheme of things. Fans at tonight’s game were able to see on the out-of-town scoreboard that the second-place Rays had already lost, and that traditional rivals the Red Sox lost 8-7 to the Blue Jays to a late-game bullpen meltdown. The team continues to trail the Twins in the AL, and the record of the seeming juggernaut Dodgers in the NL. But even with the prospect of facing Cy Young winner Justin Verlander Sunday in the Bronx following the Old Timers’ Day festivities, the team knows they are ahead in their division.

This Saturday serves as the 121st anniversary of the birth of iconic anti-war novelist Erich Maria Remarque. With AL East rivals stumbling, and the Dodgers and the Twins continuing to rise, when we scan the 2019 baseball world at this moment in time, a look toward the third division in the AL reveals that it is,

All Quiet on the Western Front