Pen Power

A welcome late-morning sight

The only people happier than baseball fans are typographers, at least with these two classic clubs playing the game.

Bronx, N.Y., March 31, 2011 — Twenty-four hours removed from all but starting the 2011 season on the disabled list, Curtis Granderson flew into New York a day after his teammates and ended up having the best day of all in a 6-3 Opening Day victory over the Tigers in a damp and very chilly Yankee Stadium Thursday afternoon. Facing ex-Yankee southpaw Phil Coke leading off the seventh inning, Curtis broke a 3-3 tie with a no-doubt-about it blast to right field. Oh, and he made a few plays in the field too.

Staff aces Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia did their respective jobs, each going six innings under less than ideal conditions. Verlander mixed 96 mph heat with off speed curves and changes to retire the Yanks through six while allowing just three hits. Although his two-walk first cost him 31 pitches and he walked four on the day, he pounded eight strike outs to eliminate all the trouble he faced, except the slider that got away from him for a three-run Mark Teixeira home run inside the right field foul pole in the third inning. A wicked wind knocked down Alex Rodriguez’s bid for a homer in the sixth, and the hard-throwing righty struck out two straight to escape the one-out double off the wall.

Moose and Hip-Hip

A rare Jorge Posada 2011 catching assignment: handling Mike Mussina's circle change before the game.

Sabathia, on the other hand, pitched well, although he didn’t have his best change of pace, easy to understand under the conditions. CC struck out seven, but garnered just three ground ball outs, two of them on nice plays by Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in the top of the fifth when Detroit tied the score. A leadoff single by Austin Jackson got the Yankee lefty in trouble, trouble that was compounded when Robbie Cano dropped the throw at first on an ensuing sac bunt for an error. Magglio Ordonez fouled off four straight, then smacked a bouncer into the shortstop hole that Jeter not only corralled going away, but wheeled and fired to second in time for the force. Following a Miguel Cabrera tying sac fly, A-Rod pegged Victor Martinez out with a barehand grab and throw of his swinging bunt.

A Brandon Inge ground single past a frozen A-Rod plated run No. 2 in the fourth, after a Martinez hotshot off Jeter in the second led to the game’s first score in the second, but Tigers batters were sending balls airborne all game. Defending with Sabathia and the three superb relievers that followed him this day required tracking down and catching fly balls, which gave Granderson his big opportunity. In the first he made a diving catch on a sinking Wil Rhymes liner to short center, and a fine runner on Alex Avila’s dunker into shallow left center with the go-ahead run on second in the sixth. And then playing shallow with one down in the ninth, Curtis turned and made an improbable catch running under Brandon Inge’s fly to deep straightaway center for his seventh putout of the game.

Tex Opening Day

Mark Teixeira, emerging from the dugout during pregame introductions, got his team off to a quick start.

Joe Girardi’s much anticipated lineup featured Brett Gardner leading off with Derek Jeter second. But the speedy Gardner never did reach base even if he nearly beat out both of his sac bunts, the first when I assume he was bunting for a hit following a Russell Martin single to start the third inning. Jeter reached on a walk and Teixeira turned on a 1-1 pitch that cost Verlander his chance. The Yankee Captain not only scored on the home run, he also lined sharply to center for a sac fly for the game’s last score in the seventh. And Martin had a good game, stroking one of the five Yankee hits, with a stolen base, and his speedy run to first on a bouncer to third in the seventh forced the lone Detroit error of the game.

Sabathia threw a textbook 2-to-1 strikes/balls ratio (70/36) in a workman-like outing, allowing two earned runs on six hits through six. Seventeen of his 27 first pitches found the zone, and he set a tone Yankee pitching followed all day, with CC coaxing 14 of the 19 Tigers swings and misses on his own. The pen picked up for him superbly, with Joba Chamberlain (the winner), Rafael Soriano, and Mariano Rivera (2011 save No. 1) retiring the last nine visitors. Each went one frame, coaxed a strike out, and mercifully put an end to an exhilarating, yes, but absolutely frozen win.

Yankee Stadium, while beautiful, was not a hospitable place to see a game. It rained intermittently both before and during the game, snowed in the eighth inning, and the unrelenting wind froze all in the stands well beyond any low number on a Fahrenheit or any other scale could accurately measure. It was a welcome sight that they replaced the Championship banners around the Stadium’s roof with the American and National League pennants in the order they finished last season, as had been the practice in the old Stadium, even if it did show Tampa just before the Yankees in deep right field. (The Championship banners are represented by small blue pennants around the facade of the luxury seating around the park).

Curtis being announced

Curtis was delighted to be announced into the Opening Day lineup, but no happier than the 49,000-plus in the stands.

Guesting on David Letterman Wednesday night, CC said the pitchers have the advantage on a cold day, and that they did. But Coke gave up the lead three pitches into the seventh, and the Yankee pen did an immensely more effective job. This was the 2011 team as advertised, with the best pen in the AL routinely cashing in the leads they’re handed, and holding opponents within range of Yankee Thunder in games in which the team has fallen behind.

And the thunder was real, a message for all looking at the numbers and seeing yet another game in new Yankee Stadium with multiple home runs to right field. Both Tex’s and Curtis’s drives were mashed, move-your-frozen-body-from-the-seat lasers that would have cleared anywhere. Ironically, the Stadium cost the Yanks a home run this game, the A-Rod double off the 385 mark in the sixth. There was no mystery as to why the Yanks prevailed in this one:

Pen Power