Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Yankee Beat

There's a lot of bad news in Yankee-ville, but let's start with the good.

1) Mariano Rivera is featured in a very nice piece by the Times Sunday Magazine this weekend. It's called "Mariano Rivera, King of the Closers." You can read it here, and I've included a few choice excerpts below. It begins in '03:

Before the seventh game of the 2003 American League Championship Series with the Boston Red Sox, Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees star who is widely considered the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball, said a prayer. Rivera, a deeply religious man, prays with his family before every home game. But this was a special prayer, which he delivered within himself, because the two teams, so evenly matched, had fought their way down to this final contest. Rivera’s prayers remained unanswered until the bottom of the eighth inning, when, in one of the great comebacks in playoff history, the Yankees scored three runs against Boston’s ace, Pedro Martinez, to tie the game. Before heading for the mound, Rivera, the most stoical of athletes, had to leave the bullpen for a little shed nearby, where he proceeded, astonishingly, to weep.

All facets of his life and career are covered, including the early days:

But in the course of the divisional series against the Seattle Mariners, he pitched a total of five and a third innings without yielding a run. Gossage took notice when Rivera came on in the decisive fifth game (which the Yankees went on to lose) and got out of a bases-loaded jam with a strikeout. “I just sat there,” the not-easily-impressed Goose says. “Oh, my God — the coolness.”

Even his teammates are in awe:

To talk to players of more middling achievement is to understand how extraordinary is Rivera’s consistency, his grace under pressure. Chad Gaudin, whom the Yankees acquired last year for the bottom part of the starting rotation, said that he had virtually apprenticed himself to the team’s closer-sage. He described a typical exchange:

“What do you do to throw that one pitch where you want it all the time when the situation is heavy — say, 3-1 count, bases loaded, big hitter up?”

“I don’t ever second-guess myself. I don’t say, ‘I can’ or ‘I should’ or ‘I must.’ I will throw the ball where I want to.”

And there's an A-Rod story, of course, which is as good as you might expect.

Rodriguez said that he would be glad to talk about Rivera, whom he described as one of his closest friends on the team. He fiddled with his BlackBerry as we spoke, only looking up halfway through the conversation, when I asked if he had learned anything from Rivera. “You probably don’t have enough time for me to tell you how much I’ve learned,” he said.

“Try me,” I said. A-Rod gathered his thoughts. Rivera, he said, was “the greatest closer of all time” and “even a better human being and a great leader.” Rivera was a force in the locker room. “There’s been a number of times that he’s stood up and said something that was profound and important.” Could he recall any specific instances? No, A-Rod said; that would be private. Here, perhaps, was further proof that Rivera’s example was difficult to follow for people not constituted like himself.

This one is certainly worth a read. I would have liked to learn more about his childhood, but apparently Mo is pretty tight-lipped about that, and his family won't add much information either. But when it comes to his Yankee career, the article is pretty definitive. There's also a sweet video feature that lets you see the cutter from the batter's viewpoint, and demonstrates how Mo can throw the once-in-a-generation pitch with ridiculous accuracy. Over and over and over. Great stuff.

On to the bad news...

2) We may never see Mariano in a game again, because the Yankee offense is in hibernation mode. You have to score at least a run to create a save situation, and that's something they couldn't manage last night against Felix Hernandez and the Mariners. But the entire team is slumping, and if not for a miracle comeback against the Dodgers on Sunday, we'd have lost four straight and scored less than five runs in five straight. Gross.

3) Robbie Cano's batting average is down to .353. He's been in a mini-slump for about two weeks, the kind where you get one hit a game for a long time, but never really break out with a killer performance. It probably sounds ungrateful to ride a guy for 'only' hitting .350+, still good enough for the top spot in the league, but great performance breeds great expectations. And Robbie hasn't been living up to himself lately. In the last 9 games, he's 8 for 36, a dismall .222.

4) Our good record to date owes so much to starting pitching, and now that the men on the mound are beginning to hiccup, the offensive vulnerability is causing real problems. Teixeira and A-Rod may have the best days of the season ahead of them, but the All-Star break is almost here, and they've done nothing but underperform. Especially Teixeira, who still can't seem to hit for consistent power or bump his average above the .230 line. It was fine and dandy back when our pitchers all had ERAs under 3, but things change. AJ is in a horrific struggle, Javy's unreliability still glares, and Phil Hughes has cooled off majorly from a very hot start. That leaves Andy and CC. The latter is an ace at his best, and I expect him to keep improving with the summer, but the former is an aging guy, and you can only expect so much. The bats have to pick up the slack. Otherwise, we'll be staring at third place in our own division. They don't give you a banner for that.

5) To end on a positive note, the Yankees experienced the same exact troubles last year just before the break. We lost a series to the Washington Nationals on the road, and it took a visit from Cashman to Atlanta to spur the team on. That reassuring fact reminds me the season is long, and gives me hope that we're not standing on shaky ground, on the verge of an unpreventable downslide. But maybe our GM needs to hit Expedia and start booking flights anyway. It's a long season, but it can get short in a hurry.

I am utterly exhausted today, so I'm going to cut things off there. I'll be back this afternoon with God knows what. Oh, and to end on a really positive note, I've been with my wonderful girlfriend for one full year as of yesterday. If I had to describe our time together with a sports simile, I'd say it's been like hanging out with Rafa Nadal and Robbie Cano on a sweet camping trip where we all discover an awesome dinosaur skeleton and get really rich.

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