Lord of the Mound

Bronx, N.Y., September 21, 2012 – Despite the dramatic turnaround a five-game winning streak signified, the fanbase that filtered into Yankee Stadium Friday night to watch the team start a key series against the A’s was a trifle skeptical that the Yanks were back. The two of three against the equally struggling Rays was nice, but Toronto is in freefall, and the three-game sweep of the Jays was not to be trusted.

But far more concerning than the Bombers’ inability to fashion a two-game win streak in over a month has been the absence of their horse, their mound ace, the key ingredient to their 2009 Championship, the lone one (so far) to have been earned in the new Stadium. DL’d twice in 2012, southpaw CC Sabathia has been unable to lead the way and, although he lost to a three-run rally built on a series of bleeders one week ago, that loss did follow some clearly subpar performances. Fans weren’t so much doubting that postseason play was in the club’s future as wondering how invested in October play they could be without an ace to lead the way.

And Friday night’s first inning, although it ended with Sabathia having struck out the side, did get off to a shaky start. CC struck out Collin Cowgill, but Jonny Gomes worked a walk, and Josh Reddick lined a 1-1 pitch down the line in right. The one-time Boston prospect’s ball sailed two feet outside the foul pole, denying the A’s a chance at a 2-0 lead, and beginning a night Reddick would rather forget. Not only would he become CC’s second strike-out victim, but his fifth, and his 10th as well. The lone threat averted, CC was back.

The Yankee vet then retired 14 A’s in a row before shortstop Stephen Drew broke up his no-hit bid with a single leading off the sixth, a frame that came to a close when Gomes took strike three. A two-out walk to Chris Carter following swinging K’s in the seventh went for naught, and Sabathia worked around another Drew single, a Cowgill infield topper and a hit by pitch to keep Oakland off the board in the eighth as well, surviving that frame by retiring favored whipping boy Reddick on a first-pitch fly to left.

The Yanks, meanwhile, were not doing much better against righty Jarrod Parker. The red-hot Ichiro Suzuki’s one-hopper back to the box in the third into Parker’s jersey became the Yanks’ first hit, but the young righty struck out the next two for his fifth K; he would not notch another until the seventh, but he pitched well. The lone glitch: Nick Swisher singled leading off the fourth, and scooted around to third on Alex Rodriguez’s first of two hits, both of them soft liners into right center. Curtis Granderson would strike out three times this night, but not once home plate ump Dan Bellino indicated a called strike at 1-1; Curtis fouled off three of the next four, then lifted a fly to left to score Swisher, 1-0 Yankees.

And that’s how it stood for the next four innings. Parker not only helped himself by not walking a batter all evening, the 3-2 pitch Swisher singled on in the fourth was the only three-ball count. Ichiro was thrown out trying to stretch a single in the fifth, and Derek Jeter and Eduardo Nunez singles in the sixth and eighth, respectively, led to nothing, although Nunez did manage to steal second.

Sabathia was quietly dominant, just the way you wanted him to be. Using a reliable low-nineties fastball and a great change, he struck out the side in both the first and fifth innings. He walked two and allowed three singles, one of them an infield hit. The 71/42 strikes/balls ratio was solid, and he pounded 12 first-pitch strikes the first two times through the order; however, as the tension built, he found the zone on first tosses just three times to the last 12 A’s for a 15-15 night.

Rafael Soriano came on for the save, but Yoenis Cespedes drove Granderson to the wall leading off the top of the ninth, and pinch hitter Brandon Moss tied the game with a long drive to right on a 2-2 pitch. The A’s put two more on, but Raffy stiffened. Facing hard-throwing lefty Sean Doolittle, who replaced Parker to start the ninth, A-Rod singled with two down, but the game went to extras.

David Robertson threw a one-two-three 10th, while the A’s stuck with Doolittle to start the bottom half. Oakland closer Grant Balfour had warmed but, perhaps influenced by the fact that lefthanded batters Chris Dickerson and Suzuki would follow, Doolittle was used to face Russell Martin. “Russell the Muscle” has strugged with the bat all year, but despite a batting average in the low 200s, 13 of his 17 home runs have [actually had] come in the Bronx. Make that 14 of 18; the Yankees win, 2-1.

So now the Yankee winning steak has stretched to six games. With Baltimore’s win in Boston, they kept pace, hanging one game back. But the Oakland loss pushed the Birds one up on the A’s for the first Wild Card. In addition, it was a four-game sweep in Oakland – each game by one run – that is largely credited with having sent the Yankee season south more than a month ago. That the Yanks won a pitcher’s duel, and beat the A’s by one run in doing so, had to be satisfying.

But the A’s are just one potential postseason impediment on the way to Championship No. 28. There is no point in overhyping one win over them, even though it comes in late September. If Baltimore continues to win, and if the A’s continue to roll once they leave New York, perhaps both teams will be ahead on the October schedule.

Although easily half of Friday night’s crowd was unaware of it, the Scoreboard thankfully did pause a few times to pay tribute to September 21, 2008, the day the last game was played in the House That Ruth Built across 161st Street, amazingly already four years ago. Also, it was this day in 1923 that Babe Ruth was named American League MVP, back when that distinction could be won but once per player. And the Yanks clinched the AL East on this day in 2002, with a 3-2 win over Detroit.

September 21, 1937, is the day that J.R.R. Tolkien published his first shire-inspired book, The Hobbit. Although it’s a fine story that stands on its own, many see the tome as a prequel to the trilogy that would follow, the last book of which has a title that also could be used to express how Yankee fans about what CC Sabathia gave them this Friday night:

The Return of the King