Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Score a Run, Score Another: Two to One is Fun, My Brother

For the third straight game, the Yanks beat their opponent by a 2-1 score. This time, Godzilla got the walk-off jack and a pie in the face for good measure.

Boston dropped their third straight, and we've achieved another first place tie in the AL East. With Baltimore and Oakland filling this week's schedule, my guess is that we'll stay on top for a while, possibly the rest of the year. I brought this up yesterday, and I'll repeat it now: Boston is in trouble. They're 8-0 against the Yankees, which means that against all other opponents, the Yanks have been 8 games better. That's a pretty dramatic disparity. Of course, 8-0 is dramatic too, but even Boston fans will concede that the likelihood of a second half repeat is infinitesimal. If the trend continues, their playoff hopes are in serious jeopardy.

The question is, which team could sneak up and steal the wild card? I don't see any AL Central team making the leap. The Texas Rangers are lasting longer than anyone thought, but their second half schedule is tough and I don't think their rotation is strong enough to hold up during the home stretch. That leaves one team, Tampa Bay, last year's AL Champion. If they can put together a strong July and August, win the head-to-head games against Boston, and hold their own against the Yanks, I like them to maneuver their way into the 4th playoff spot.

Back to the good guys. What do these 2-1 wins mean? Two things. Let's start with the bad news:

*We're not stringing together big innings. We're not hitting well with men on base. Opportunities to manufacture runs the old fashioned way go begging. Five solo home runs have accounted for almost our entire offense the last three days, and other than Verlander on Saturday, the pitchers haven't been spectacular.

Last night, Baltimore's David Hernandez had over 50 pitches after two innings. We loaded the bases and came close to scoring in the first, and Hinske hit a solo blast in the second. We were on pace to knock him out of the game by the fifth inning; all that remained was to maintain plate discipline, work him over, and beat up on the Oriole long relief. But impatience undermined us, as it often does. He got through the third and fourth on less than twenty pitches, and ended up throwing only 103 through six innings. That allowed the Os to bring in their stronger set-up men and bypass the pen's below average arms. Instead of an easy win, it took two brilliant defensive plays and a Matsui walk-off in the bottom of the ninth to secure the game.

This is an all too familiar pattern. And while it results in six innings and 103 pitches from David Hernandez, a similar approach against Beckett will engender a complete game shutout. But with consistent patience, and improvement from A-Rod and Robbie Cano, we'd streak past the paper tiger stage and advance right to juggernaut.

*On to the good news: the pitching is unbelievable. The starters are great, sure, but Joba and Andy have a lot to prove before we consider their strong outings anything more than a fluke. But the bullpen...oh my, the bullpen. From the seventh inning on, I'm willing to call our relievers the best in baseball. Coke, Hughes, Aceves, and Mariano are studs, and it's to the point that if our starters can give six strong innings, it's lights out in the Bronx. I love it. We're now 10-0 on the year when tied after seven innings. Mariano has blown just one save. Phil Hughes is looking like Joba circa 2007. You can't underestimate the importance of the bullpen, and our progress this year has been spectacular.

That being said, a good bullpen can't make up for poor starting. I have full confidence in CC and AJ, but Joba needs to show mental consistency, and Andy is a fourth starter at best. Where does that leave us? In uncertain territory, to be sure. We could really, really use Halladay. And everyone else in the league can say the same. In fact, any contender who picks up the Toronto ace probably becomes the immediate World Series favorite. It's certainly true for New York and Boston, along with both LA teams and, to a lesser extent, Philly. Over the next ten days, the Yanks need to take a hard look at Roy, and make sure that if he doesn't come here, he goes somewhere in the NL.

That's it for today. I'm besotted with the remnants of last night's Nyquil, and I don't have my fastball. Bring in Hughes to face the rest of Tuesday.

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