Getting Smarter

Bronx, N.Y., April 19, 2012 – There couldn’t have been more than a handful of fans among the 40,000-plus attending Thursday night’s Yankee game who weren’t muttering some version of a similar mantra either to themselves or to their companions: “Phil Hughes is running out of chances. If he has a shot, the first thing he needs is a clean, low-pitch first inning.”

So when Phil finally got Chris Parmalee to fly out to Raul Ibanez in left with his 32nd pitch to end the top of the first with the Yanks down 4-0, things had obviously not gotten off to a swimming start. And it would be foolhardy to try to convince anyone that Hughes deserved the “W” he was rewarded with this evening. Phil may have managed to pitch less bad for a time, but he, and the Yankees, prevailed in the 7-6 win simply because the right-hander’s teammates battered Minnesota pitching for four home runs, three of them by center fielder Curtis Granderson.

Just as they had done in the Monday and Wednesday losses to this Twins team, the Bombers responded with a loud first-inning counterattack once the visitors plated multiple runs in the initial frame. The red-hot Derek Jeter, who actually stroked the ball well four out of five times, was out on a grounder to short before Granderson swatted Anthony Swarzak’s seventh pitch to him to right center for the shot that put the Yanks on the board. Alex Rodriguez followed with his first of two singles and one out later Mark Teixeira went yard for his first home run of the year to make it a 4-3 score.

Hughes pitched around Denard Span’s bunt base hit and Raul Ibanez made a nice play flagging Joe Mauer’s deep opposite-field fly to left in the top of the second, and the Yanks were all over Swarzak again, but not until there were two outs. Eduardo Nunez, subbing for the DH’ing Robinso Cano at second base, and whose bobble on a routine grounder in the first made all four runs unearned, got it started with a line double off the wall in left. Jeter promptly delivered him and tied the game with an rbi single to right, and Granderson followed with a longer home run for a 6-4 Yankee lead.

As alluded to just now, the four-run first-inning trouble wasn’t all Hughes’s fault. Had Nunez retired Mauer on a routine grounder, Phil’s out in 21 pitches and no score. In addition, Joe Girardi’s decision to deploy a severe overshift not only on DH Justin Morneau, who punished the Yankees with two homers Wednesday night, but also first baseman Ryan Doumit, who had a good night but is not in that class, backfired as well. Perusing the largely unoccupied left side of the New York infield, the latter poked a soft liner that way on the first pitch he saw for two quick runs. The Danny Valencia two-run double that followed was legit though, and would have rattled off the left field wall against any defense.

If the sloppy fielding and questionable defensive positioning were not Phil’s fault, however, much of the pitch count problem was. The struggling starter missed the zone on first pitches 15 of 25 times this night, and his strikes/balls ratio following the first (17/15) and second innings (25/21) smack you like a flat hand slap to your temple: He throws too many pitches off the plate!

But now that Hughes had a lead, that began to change. Back-to-back 10/6 frames ushered in his best three innings of the night during which he finally began creating some distance between the strikes and balls totals. He threw 29 of 44 pitches for strikes retiring nine of 10 hitters through the fifth, and even made a fine play covering first on a ball Teixeira smothered against Jamey Carroll in the fifth. We’re talking small victories here, but Phil took the mound in the sixth inning for the first time in three tries with a 7-4 lead, because Granderson had stroked another singleton home run in the fourth, a huge run, as it turned out.

Hughes battled Morneau gamely to start the sixth, but finally walked him (Morneau received his only two walks, not a stupid move against a dangerous lefty power hitter in the Bronx), and Doumit made him pay by homering to right to close the score to 7-6. Phil stuck around to strike out Valencia, and the Yankee pen carried the action from there. Hughes ended up having an OK day, along with his win. Continuing to pump fastballs up to 94 mph, he had four strike outs, with just the two walks and six base hits. Only two of the six runs he allowed were earned. He got outs on all his ancillary pitches as well, the curve, the change, the slider, and the cutter. Given the poor early numbers, the 62/41 strikes/balls ratio was a nice accomplishment, almost as impressive as recording an out in the sixth inning.

The relief corps did a superb job, but three of the four guys had uncharacteristic trouble. Boone Logan gave up a double to lefty hittter Parmalee before finishing the sixth, and Rafael Soriano pitched around a two-hit seventh by striking out the side. Even more surprising, the generally dominant David Robertson allowed yet another booming Valencia double leading off the eighth before coaxing three outs and handing the lead to Mariano Rivera. But Mo pitched a one-two-three ninth on just seven pitches, and the 7-6 win was secured.

On offense, the obvious hero was Granderson. With three home runs by the fourth inning, the Stadium crowd was alive wondering if he would tie the record with a fourth. But to Curtis’s credit (to the surprise of no one; he’s as classy an individual and ballplayer as there is), he had two more good at bats, singling twice for a 5-for-5 night. Mark Teixeira had his third two-hit game of this series, but it was good to see his first home run of the season. Nunez had a big hit, and the Captain drove him in, huge on a night when the winning margin was one. Alex had two hits as did Raul Ibanez.

The fact that Ibanez delivered four rbi’s in his first Yankee game was celebrated on the Scoreboard; he’s just the second of the Bombers to do it, with Roger Maris, the first, having done it on this day in 1960, four big runs to ruin Patriot’s Day in Boston with an 8-4 Yankee win. And on this day in 1949, the first ever monument was erected in Yankee Stadium, in honor of the recently deceased Babe Ruth. If you love the game, this is huge to you as well.

Lastly, it was this day in 1946 that the Yanks opened a somewhat remodeled stadium, updated in that it could host night games, and that the home dugout was switched from the third base to the first base side. The team prevailed over Washington that day, 7-6, and Joe Page, famous as a Yankee reliever, got the start. But the win went to righty Steve Rosen, as the home team prevailed with a two-run ninth inning. Joe DiMaggio was the hitting star with three rbi’s.

Speaking of the old Stadium, which opened in April 1923, that was the month that TV actor Don Adams, the famed Maxwell Smart of sit-com fame, was born; he would have been 89 six days ago. Along with the Chief and Agent 99, bumbling Maxwell earned his fame on Get Smart, of course. In light of the mid-innings upturn, hopefully Phil Hughes has a mantra of his own (or should):

Getting Smarter