The I-Team

May 8, 2012, Bronx, N.Y. – With a 5-0 James Shields toeing the mound as the tied-for-first Tampa Bay Rays came to the Bronx Tuesday night, it was incumbent on Yankee righty Ivan Nova to bring out his “A” game. After a leadoff single by Ben Zobrist and a first-pitch ball to Carlos Pena, fans weren’t sure what they would get. Then Ivan dropped his first slider on Pena at 1-2, and we all calmed down.

Nova’s been a puzzle, but a good one; what else can you say about a guy who wins more often than his stuff and numbers say he should? He was beaten last time out to break a string of 15 straight wins, but 45 hits and nine walks in 30 innings coming in was certainly a cause for concern. His mid-nineties fastball is a good pitch. He throws a decent curve and a change of pace too. But more often than not when Ivan’s got them flailin’ and failin’, it’s his darting slider that’s dropping the hammer on ’em.

He used his artful dodger to whiff four straight spanning the first two frames, then got Pena swinging again in a one-two-three fourth after which he had tamed the visitors on just 41 pitches. Meanwhile “Big Game James,” as they call Shields in Tampa, threw 55 to survive a two-walk first, and a leadoff single in the third. Shields is unique in that his best pitch is a changeup, by definition a pitch used to “change up” what a hurler is doing. Neither his ancillary pitchers nor his control were quite good enough Tuesday, a description I make with this caveat: He did pitch, after all, six innings and allowed just three runs, a quality start by the most measures.

But Shields’s luck ran out in the fourth. A leadoff Robinson Cano double had him in trouble, with a fielder’s choice moving Robbie 90 feet and forcing the ever-overshifting Tampa infield into a weird configuration against Nick Swisher, with the lead run 90 feet away. Three infielders were grouped on the right side, all of them in close on the dirt. Shields got what he needed, a six-pitch roller to second off the change with Will Rhymes pegging Cano out at the plate. But the battle wore on the Tampa righty, and five tosses later DH Raul Ibanez beat him on his 70th pitch of the night, driving a home run deep to right for a 2-0 Yankee lead.

And although Shields retired Nunez and Derek Jeter to start the home fifth, it would prove the second straight tough inning. It took a toll, as Curtis Granderson, with horrible numbers facing this Tampa hurler against him, fouled off six two-strike pitches before lifting another homer to right. A seven-pitch called strike three to Alex Rodriguez allowed “Big Game” to retreat to the dugout, but now down 3-0 and with 100 bullets spent.

Tampa’s lineup does not match its rotation, but they do put up professional at bats. They challenged Nova in an 18-pitch, two-hit fifth, then ex-Yank Jose Molina homered in the sixth for 3-1. Two drives to right started the seventh, a long out by Matt Joyce, then a Luke Scott homer for a 3-2 score. A six-pitch walk and Rhymes double over the first base bag set the Rays up with the tying and winning runs in scoring position with just one down. This brought the street fighter in Nova out, the guy who gets hit but wins. With Joe Girardi’s infield in at the corners Sean Rodriguez lofted a fly to right, with Swish’s peg to the plate making the Rays glad that Jeff Keppinger on third had not run. Then Nova ended his night by striking out Molina on three pitches, this time with his curve.

The Yankee two-run lead would be promptly restored, as Ibanez homered off the right-field foul pole to start the home seventh. A two-run cushion would survive at the end, but not the 4-2 score. Zobrist reached Rafael Soriano for a leadoff triple in the eighth, then scored on a wild pitch after the first two of Raffy’s three strike outs. But Alex Rodriguez reached hard-throwing southpaw Jake McGee for a leadoff double in the bottom half, and Mark Teixeira finally beat Joe Maddon’s maddening overshifts, slashing a two-base hit over Pena at first to forge the 5-3 final.

The drama was far from over, though, as David Robertson proved a far different closer than what we’ve become used to with Mariano Rivera. Allowing a walk and single around a bouncer to second and swinging strike out, he then moved the tying runs into scoring position with another walk, to Zobrist, who reached base four times. But Roberston snuck a third strike past Pena, and the victory was complete.

Nova was very good, allowing just two runs on six hits and two late walks through seven. He poured in six first-pitch strikes each of three complete turns through the Tampa lineup, or 18 successes in 27 tries. The 59/34 strikes/balls ratio was good, and he used the darting slider to get 15 swings and misses and eight punch outs.

But even two runs over seven might not have been enough against Shields on “Big Game” days. Ivan got his fourth win with some help, with Yankee batters taxing the Tampa righty all game. Swisher made a good play and throw on the Rodriguez fly in the seventh, and Teixeira started and finished a masterful 3-6-3 in the sixth. And Tex’s hard double following A-Rod’s eighth-inning two bagger and Curtis Granderson’s 10-pitch homer were critical as well.

As often happens with this team, the home runs are key. They used three long balls to beat Kansas City on Sunday and three bombs carried them to victory Tuesday. Neither matched what the team did on this day in 1994, as consecutive home runs by Danny Tartabull, Mike Stanley, and Gerald Williams carried them to an 8-4 win over Boston.

May 8, 1994, is also, sadly, the day that movie and TV star George Peppard passed away. In his hit TV show, The A-Team weekly won out against much stronger forces, always defying huge odds. Nova and the Yankees managed to beat Shields and the Rays Tuesday with an A Team of their own. But the effort was keyed by Raul Ibanez long balls, and Ivan Nova’s killed slider:

The I-Team