Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Yanks leaning heavily on Swisher

I've known guys in my life like Nick Swisher. We all have.

I went to college with a dude, I never even knew his name, but he would show up at my 8 a.m. English Lit class amped up like John Belushi at Studio 54. He perpetually wore one of those goofy winter hats with flaps that cover the ears, and and he always, always, had a toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.

I kid you not.

I suppose he did this to show how wacky life was living on campus, or because he's just one of those people who are always cold. Maybe he just had really strong feelings toward dental hygiene. In any event, he was always giggling and making wildly unfunny comments, and sometimes, just sometimes, his ever-boisterous nature made me daydream of punching him in the nose as hard as possible.

But again, that was the case only sometimes, and for the most part I appreciated his jovial attitude toward life, however many inner demons bubbled underneath his exterior. On balance, Toothbrush Guy was a good person.

The same can be said about Swisher, a legitimately nice guy who has certainly embraced being a Yankee (though I suspect Nick would embrace being a Port-o-John cleaner, as well).

The quintessential Swishalicious moment for me came prior to a FOX Game of the Week on April 18, the infamous afternoon in which the Indians systematically removed Chien-Ming Wang's will to live in a 22-4 squeaker. Swisher was asked–okay, he probably begged– to handle FOX's lineup introductions for the Yankees. He proceeded to pour every ounce of himself into the performance, giving each of his teammates zany nicknames and throwing up devil horns when introducing himself as the cleanup hitter.

Clearly, it was pretty awesome.

It's an attitude toward life that makes you almost forgive Swisher for being one of the most unpolished players in recent memory to wear a Yankee uniform. This is likely why Ozzie Guillen daydreamed of, well, punching him in the nose as hard as possible.

Swisher does have his attributes, of course. For starters, he came on the cheap. He was traded for Wilson Betemit, which is kind of the equivalent of the Yankees getting Swisher in return for a tire iron...or lint from a dryer...or a construction boot found in a junk yard. You get the idea.

So right away, we're playing with house money, but there's more. He's a switch-hitter, which makes him a versatile asset in the lineup. He's very patient in his approach (.373 OBP entering Tuesday), a fact I'm sure you know since Michael Kay wets himself every time Swisher works a count to 3-2. He also has some pop–on pace for 31 homers in his first season in pinstripes.

But then there are the negatives.

He cannot play the outfield under any circumstance. I repeat: Under. Any Circumstance. He takes bad routes, he misses cutoff men, and like his compadre Johnny Damon over in left field, you never know if a routine fly ball will rightfully become a routine out. I have this horrible feeling that a defensive miscue in the outfield will cost the Yankees a playoff game–or series–if an upgrade isn't made. Let's hope Brian Cashman is getting this same queasiness in his gut.

Swisher also seems to lack basic baseball instincts. He is a brutal baserunner, best illustrated when he was doubled off base in consecutive nights a couple of weeks back. He also has bunted on his own several times this season, a thoughtless move when considering the lineup he resides in.

Don't get me wrong, Swisher is a useful piece, and his positive attitude is absolutely welcome following a decade of humorless Yankees. It's just that he shouldn't be playing every day.

To the Yankees' credit, they may be sensing the same thing. Brett Gardner's recent surge seems to have won him back the center field job for the time being, a development that also frees up Melky Cabrera to get some time in right. And in the wake of Xavier Nady's season-ending injury setback, Cashman added some corner outfield depth on Tuesday by acquiring utilityman Eric Hinske from the Pirates.

Hinske obviously isn't the answer, though, and you have to wonder if Cashman did his due diligence on Nate McClouth, a talented young outfielder who the Braves managed to acquire on the cheap from the Pirates last month. Cashman, for his part, has maintained in recent weeks that no big trades are imminent. He likes what he has.

This is good news for Nick Swisher and his growing legion of fans. Time will only tell what it means for the Yankees.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Yanks' fate remains tethered to A-Rod

Alex Rodriguez stepped to the plate in the seventh inning Friday against the Mets and proceeded to pulverize an Elmer Dessens offering deep into the bullpen of cavernous Citi Field. It was a raw display of opposite-field power by the three-time MVP, a feat that few of his contemporaries can match.

Sure, the game had already been more or less decided by that point, and yes, Rodriguez has made hitting meaningless homers off the Elmer Dessens' of the world a cottage industry at this point. Nevertheless, the 430-foot drive was profoundly impressive; an example of the serious damage he can inflict upon the opposition.

That's the thing about A-Rod. Just when you have it in your head that he's the worst thing to ever happen to the Yankees, he performs some superhuman act that makes you realize how good the arrogant goober can be.

Look at it this way. Having A-Rod on your team is kind of like having a gleaming yellow Lamborghini parked in your garage. It may be incredibly expensive, completely impractical and more than a touch garish, but damn if it's not fun to show the sucker off to your annoying (and less wealthy) neighbors. He is the perfect symbol of the 21st century Yankees.

We may never know how truly close Rodriguez came to leaving the Yankees following his MVP 2007 season. We do know that his agent, Scott Boras, was playing serious hard ball, orchestrating the ill-conceived opt-out announcement during Game 4 of the World Series, a ploy that vilified both agent and client.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman stated repeatedly that the team would not renegotiate Rodriguez's contract if he were to opt-out, and for a time it seemed the Yanks would stand by that threat.

Enter Hank Steinbrenner, cigarette in one hand, bourbon in the other, who used his nepotist influence to hold the door open for A-Rod's return. Rodriguez, predictably, came crawling back. There simply was no other team in baseball that could match his astronomical demands.

It was just a matter of paperwork from there. After the 10-year deal worth between $275 to $300 million was official, A-Rod said he wanted to remain a Yankee all along (which was probably false) and Cashman said that he was glad to have the slugger back (which was definitely false).

It was landmark signing for the franchise and the biggest indicator yet of the new face of ownership. Whereas George Steinbrenner had gained begrudging respect around the game for pumping his profits back into the team to build a contender, this non-Boss sanctioned move seemed to stink of an ulterior motive rooted in greed.

A-Rod, after all, would be a stately 42 years old by the time his contract expired in 2017. Unless he learned how to throw a knuckleball, the Yankees were destined for their highest-paid player to one day be among their most unproductive. Moneyball, this was not.

Instead, this seemed to be a case where the goals of making money and winning titles became mutually exclusive. Small budget teams often take this type of business model out of necessity, but now the Yankees were putting their own sick privileged twist on it.

In 2007, A-Rod was perceived as the white knight who would one day save the all-time home run record tainted by the blasphemous Barry Lamar Bonds. The Yankees–and partner Steiner Sports memorabilia–dreamed of a grizzled A-Rod connecting on homer No. 763, thousand dollar bills falling from Yankee Stadium's night sky as the third baseman limped around the bases like Mickey Mantle in 1967. "We'll make back that $300 million on commemorative plates alone!" club officials likely squealed with delight.

It goes without saying that the revelations of February 7, 2009, shot that all to hell.

The steroids admission had the the effect of an atomic bomb being dropped on River Avenue. Stripped of his once-iron clad marketability, A-Rod's contract immediately became an albatross as club officials were undoubtedly horrified to realize what they had now invested in.

A-Rod had gone from The Next Great Yankee to a toxic, aging slugger with known PED ties. "How can we sell crystal "763" bats when he can't even get into the Hall of Fame?"

A-Rod was suddenly the faded Lamborghini collecting rust in the garage.

The silver lining in all this is that it's not our money, not technically anyway. I, like most fans, don't really care if this particular deal went sour from a business standpoint...I'm sure Hal and Hank's trust funds are safe anyway.

I do, however, care very much about moments like Friday night at Citi Field, when you realize that A-Rod can still be an MVP-caliber player. As A-Rod goes, so too, go the Yankees–just look at how his play this season has corresponded to the team's success.

While he may already be a regrettable figure in the organization's eyes, he remains wholly capable of helping–hell, even leading–the Yankees to that elusive 27th championship.

The franchise and the star are tethered to each other well into the next decade, for better or worse. As for the fans, we're simply along for the ride, hoping this talented but damaged player can somehow get out of his own head long enough to become a champion.

It's a risky gamble, but there's no getting out now.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The DJ Chronicles: Jeter Through The Years

When Derek Jeter woke up in his Trump Plaza penthouse this morning, he officially (and unbelievably) began the 35th year of his insanely awesome life.

A first-round selection in the 1992 draft, Jeter has been nothing less than the face of the New York Yankees since 1996 when, at 21, he captured the American League Rookie of the Year award and a World Series title.

The 11th captain in Yankees history, Jeter has four rings, a Silver Slugger award, and three Gold Gloves, not to mention a laundry list of beautiful women accumulated during his 13 years and counting run as New York's most eligible bachelor.

Even more impressive, Jeter's done it all with grace, never embarrassing himself and never presenting himself as bigger than his peers, even if he clearly is. If Michael Jackson was the rare true triple threat in the music industry —singer, dancer, composer—Jeter is his equal in the sports world: Talented, successful, respected. The Yankees couldn't have a better person representing the franchise.

To celebrate the shortstop's big day, River & Sunset has compiled a list of Jeter's most memorable moments in pinstripes.

10. The 1992 First-Year Player Draft

Question: What do Phil Nevin, Paul Shuey, B.J. Wallace, Jeffrey Hammonds, and Chad Mottola all have in common? No, the aren't notorious serial killers. Incredibly, all five were drafted ahead of Derek Sanderson Jeter, a skinny shortstop out of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Of the above players, only Nevin had any modicum of big-league success, hitting 208 homers over 12 seasons. Astros scout Hal Newhouser famously quit when the team selected the Cal State Fullerton star over Jeter. Elsewhere, Mottola had a brilliant career...in the minor leagues. Hammonds and Shuey had extended utterly faceless careers. No. 3 pick Wallace doesn't even have a Wikipedia page...that can't be good.

9. Ken Bleeping Huckaby

Jeter was one of baseball's greatest stars by 2003, and also among the most durable, playing in no fewer than 148 games each season of his career. But Toronto Blue Jays reserve catcher Ken Huckaby changed all that on opening day.

Jeter was on first base when Jason Giambi—hitting against the typically-employed extreme shift—grounded back to Roy Halladay, who threw to first. With third base unoccupied, Jeter instinctively made a sprint for the bag. Unfortunately, Huckaby did as well and in a head-first slide, Jeter's left shoulder met Huckaby's shin guard.

Jeter was badly injured, dislocating the shoulder. He would miss six weeks and 36 games. Huckaby, somewhat unfairly, was maligned for the play. Come to think of it, I never saw the guy again. Hmmm...

8. Chad Curtis Spat

One of the most amazing things about Jeter's career has been his ability to avoid bad press. The guy simply never says or does the wrong thing; he is the anti-A-Rod in every imaginable way.

That's what made the sordid tale of Curtis vs. Jeter so odd.

Curtis was a productive role player for the Yankees in the late 90s, but also known to be a serious and religious man with an "old school" approach to the game. When a riff between then-catcher Joe Girardi and Mariners reliever Frankie Rodriguez escalated into an all-out brawl in 1999, Curtis was furious to see Jeter palling around with then-buddy A-Rod after the fight broke up.

According to Buster Olney's fine book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," Curtis confronted Jeter, first in the dugout and then in front of reporters in the clubhouse. The rift was eventually smoothed over, but awkwardness remained. Curtis went on to have one more notable moment in pinstripes—he launched a walk-off homer in Game Three of the World Series that fall—but he was discarded after the season nonetheless.

The lesson? Don't cross Derek Jeter. Like, ever.

7. 2006 American League Most Valuable Player...Well, in a Better World

In terms of production, Jeter has had two standout seasons. The first came in 1999, when he set career bests with a .349 average, 24 homers, 219 hits and 134 runs. Unfortunately, his numbers were lost in the PED shuffle, finishing sixth in the AL MVP balloting behind the sullied likes of winner Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Rafael Palmiero.

Jeter's other benchmark campaign came in 2006—in retrospect really the final season of his prime. At 32 years old, Jeter batted .343 with 14 homers, 97 RBI, 214 hits, 118 runs and a career-best 34 steals. He captured his first and only Silver Slugger award at shortstop and his third straight Gold Glove. He was the glue of that Yankee team, leading them to their most recent AL East title.

Despite that, the captain finished a close second to Twins slugger Justin Morneau in the MVP race. A-Rod had won the MVP the season before, and I always thought Jeter was hurt by the voters relative unwillingness to hand out back-to-back MVPs to teammates. That's right, I said it. Anti-Yankee treachery was afoot!

6. "The Dive"

It is a signature Jeter moment, Yankees vs. Red Sox, July 1, 2004. In the 12th inning of a thriller the Yankees would go on to win in 13 innings, Trot Nixon lifted a pop-up along the third-base line that Jeter locked in on. He sprinted toward the wall and caught the ball in full stride before going head-long into the hard plastic blue seats of the old Stadium.

It was a scary moment—A-Rod's startled reaction was particularly memorable—and Jeter came out of the stands looking like a bloodied and bruised warrior. Which, of course, is what he is...the captain was back in the lineup the next day.

5. Subway Series MVP

Let's face it, the 2000 Yankees were not an especially great team. By far the weakest team of the dynasty run (even the '01 World Series losers were better), the Yankees had nonetheless scratched their way back to the Fall Classic to face the Mets. Jeter was one of the main reasons for that.

Firmly in his prime, Jeter batted .339 with 201 hits and 119 runs during the regular season and he continued his production in the World Series, batting .409 (9-for-22). His leadoff homer in the decisive fifth game—flashbulbs popping all around him through each of the decks of Shea Stadium—is another of the iconic Jeter images.

4. Luis Bleeping Gonzalez

By 2001, Derek Jeter was professional sports' ultimate winner. He had played in five full seasons and had won World Series titles in four of them. He was the face of success...all of which made that season's Fall Classic against the Arizona Diamondbacks even more surreal.

Without getting too much into the gory details, we all know the series went the distance, and Mariano Rivera was handed the ball with the lead in the ninth inning of the seventh game in Arizona. That still hurts even to type.

Then came Luis Gonzalez's broken-bat flair over Jeter's head, touching down just past the infield dirt and setting off a wild celebration by the home team. Derek Jeter had lost. It was a modern day Mighty Casey scenario. Jeter's teams have become no stranger to failure in the subsequent years, but it always remains an odd sight to see such a proud player fall short.

3. The Jeffrey Maier game

Jeter was already a star by the time he stepped into the batter's box against Baltimore's Armando Benitez in Game One of the 1996 ALCS. What happened next would make the rookie shortstop—and a punk kid in Yankee Stadium's right-field stands—household names.

With the Yanks down a run, Jeter lifted a pitch deep to right. The drive appeared to not quite have home run distance, and sure enough right fielder Tony Tarasco was camping under the ball at the wall. But that's when 12-year-old Maier came in, reaching over the wall and knocking the ball out of play.

Umpire Rich Garcia blew the call, ruling it a homer, and baseball history was made. Talented, handsome, and lucky? He was just 22, and already Jeter had it all.

2. Mr. November

The 2001 World Series was filled with memorable moments, so it can't be much of a surprise that Jeter would ultimately be involved in one of them. The September 11 terrorist attacks pushed the Fall Classic back a week, and so it was that Jeter stepped into the box at midnight on November 1 during the 10th inning of Game 4. With the score tied 3-3, Jeter took an offering from D-backs closer Byung-Hyun Kim and lifted it into the right-field seats for a dramatic walk-off solo blast. The stadium was rocking and "Mr. November" was born.

1. "The Flip"

It was the play that signified everything that makes Jeter special. It was Game Three of the 2001 ALDS, and the Yankees had their backs against the wall, down two games to none.

With Mike Mussina nursing a 1-0 lead and Jeremy Giambi on first base, Terrence Long lined a ball down the right-field line and into the corner. Shane Spencer dug it out and fired back wildly to the infield, missing both cutoff men. It was an error that in most every case would allow Giambi to score without a play.

But Jeter was two steps ahead, sprinting to the first-base line to scoop up the dribbling ball before shoveling it backhanded to Jorge Posada. The Yankees catcher tagged Giambi—who inexplicably didn't slide—on the leg just before he touched the plate.

New York went on to win the game, series and pennant. It is perhaps the most iconic Derek Jeter moment, and a true measure of his legendary instinctive nature.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Yanks a hot mess in Hot-lanta

If I were a negative person, I'd probably think that the Yankees' only tangible achievement on Tuesday was snuffing out three hours of my life. Efforts like the 4-0 blanking at Turner Field can turn a heart to stone as hard as Nick Swisher's hands, after all.

Luckily, I'm a half-glass-full kind of guy. I believe Donnie Baseball will get that elusive ring in a Yankee uniform. I think Conan will be successful on The Tonight Show. I trust Stallone will one day release the sequel to Over The Top.

It's this superior attitude that allows me to appreciate the Yankees' effort in the opener against the Braves. Baseball is a long season, and it's hard to keep track of your team for six straight months without losing touch at some point.

Fortunately for us, the Yankees were kind enough to provide a CliffsNotes version of everything that has ground their season to a halt these past two weeks. Who said this organization didn't appreciate its fans?

Consider the condensed failure the one-time Bronx Bombers put on display Wednesday:

We saw a lineup squander multiple scoring opportunities against a pitcher it hadn't faced before. We saw Robbie Cano come up empty in a meaningful RBI situation. We saw Chien-Ming Wang unravel in a big spot. We saw A-Rod take another 0-for-4 and fail to come up with a ground ball that led to a decisive rally. We saw Derek Jeter roll over on a pitch and ground into a back-breaking double play. We saw Jorge Posada make a horrendous throwing error (and take the golden sombrero to boot!).

Thanks Yankees! And thanks Joe Girardi for keeping these guys motivated!

Who am I kidding? This is a disaster. At least the Mets have an excuse for being terrible right now; half of their team is in an MRI tube. You certainly can't say the same for the Yankees. They are essentially healthy, and yet the entire lineup has somehow managed to collectively go into a tailspin ever since they set foot in Fenway Park on June 9. How does this happen?

If you want a silver lining, you can take it in Wang, who seems to be inching away from the days of getting horrifically embarrassed every time he takes the rubber. The tiresome existence of interleague play led to an early Wang exit after five innings and just 62 pitches, but you get the feeling that seven-scoreless-inning type performance is coming up, perhaps as soon as the finale at Citi Field on Sunday night.

But facts are facts and the prodigal ace is now a stunning 0-6 on the season. Like the offense's sudden collective slide into the abyss, some things you just can't make up.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Girardi firmly on hot seat -- or is he?

Joe Girardi doesn't need to be told how important this upcoming six-game road trip is for his team -- the events of the last two weeks have made things exceedingly clear. The Yankees have lost five games in the standings to the Red Sox since June 9, after all, while somehow managing to play worse than their 4-8 record over that span indicates. If not for the reverse heroics of Luis Castillo and Elijah Dukes, we would have an outright free fall on our hands. The sweet taste of Burnett's Famous Whipped Cream Pie suddenly seems so far away.

And while Girardi needn't be reminded how it would behoove his team to turn things around post-haste, you have to wonder if the matter of job security has crept into the second-year manager's head.

Girardi is facing the great unknown in that regard. We all are, really, from fans to the manager to nearly every member of the front office. Ol' George may be still alive ... but he ain't kickin' no more, and with that reality begs the question: How much rope does the manager of the New York Yankees get these days?

Were George still George, you can be certain he'd be going apeshit right about now -- firing off insane missives to the press, sweating through closets worth of white turtlenecks, discontinuing dental care for the help -- you know the drill. And while I believe Girardi would probably still be employed at this point, The Boss would have made it quite clear that falling any further in the standings -- or God forbid losing the first series against the Mets at Citi Field -- would not be tolerated.

So Girardi is extremely fortunate in the sense that a borderline crazy person is no longer running the show in the Bronx. But we're still not sure who ultimately controls Girardi's fate, and how much patience that figure or figures is affording the manager. General partner/head honcho Hal Steinbrenner, president Randy Levine and GM Brian Cashman are probably the most respected figures in the front office and will likely have the loudest voices in the room. Hank Steinbrenner has been effectively muzzled at this point, his brilliant insistence to re-sign A-Rod at any cost seemingly the final move of any significance in his lifetime. Team COO Lonn Trost is ducking the axe himself following his almost impressive firebombing of Yankee Stadium's inaugural season. All you need to know about Trost is that at some point, the following exchange (probably) happened:

Lonn Trost: "So I decided we're going to build a moat -- an actual moat of steel and mortar and concrete -- to keep the real fans away from the best seats in the house. We'll section these off for the corporations, and since America has an unstoppable juggernaut of an economy, these fat cats will pay whatever we demand no questions asked."

Hal Steinbrenner: "Lonn, with all due respect, are you sure that's a good idea?

"Positive. Dude, we're going to give out free ice cream sandwiches. Free. ice cream. sandwiches."

HS: "Right. Okay. Just so you know, you'll be totally and utterly fired if this were to backfire in any way."

LT: (Nervous chuckle) "Yeah, of course. Well, just to be safe I'll have them move in the fences in right a few feet. Nobody will be able to tell the difference. Chicks dig the long ball, right? Classic Trost." (Holds up hand for high five)

(Leaves Trost hanging, walks away) "I think I've made a huge mistake."

Girardi has never been the most popular guy since taking the gig. Though he was more or less absolved of last season's dark October, he hasn't done a particularly good job of making friends during his tenure. His relationship with the local media -- an incredibly important aspect of the job in this town -- can be labeled "uneasy" at best. After a near jihad with the reporters last September -- the scribes felt that Girardi had lied or misled them on certain issues -- Girardi went out of his way to make peace during spring training, promising to be more forthright. Meanwhile, there continues to be rumors of a disconnect between the young skipper and his veteran players. Girardi, of course, played with the old guard, stroking that famous triple off Maddux in the '96 clincher. It's hard to imagine Jeter, Posada, Pettitte or Mo making life difficult for their former teammate, but you have to wonder where all that smoke comes from.

The Yankees are big business. With their own network, a shiny new stadium and nearly half a billion invested in their latest free-agent class, they're bigger than they've ever been.
All of this means success is a necessity, especially in this landmark season in the organization's history. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that -- regardless of the decision makers -- Girardi will be the first to go if the USS Yankee starts taking on serious water.

At 38-31, the Yankees are hardly in a desperate place. But with the Red Sox again looking like a 95+ win beast and the defending AL champ Rays beginning to make noise, the pressure is building to win now and often. All of which makes Joe Girardi's seat by far the hottest place in an otherwise cool and damp New York.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Just who exactly are these Yankees?

The popular thinking among fans and media this week leading up to the Yankees' three-game series with the woeful Washington Nationals all had more or less the same unifying theme. "Nothing less than a sweep!" was the cry, and on the surface it didn't seem to be asking for all that much. The Nats are baseball's worst team, after all. They had entered Yankee Stadium having won just five of their previous 30 road contests while their hot-seat manager had all but been asked what he'd like for his final meal.

But the truth of the matter is that sweeping any team, no matter how moribund it may be, is easier said than done. Baseball is not the NFL or NBA, leagues where the home favorite will almost undoubtedly crush the bottomfeeders. In baseball, the grind of the 162-game schedule coupled with the nature of the game itself -- a Major League pitcher can shut down any team on a given day -- makes the outcome far more difficult to assume. Unless you're sports-almanac-stealing Biff in Back to the Future II, you're not making millions in Vegas betting on the national pastime.

So it was with a stiff upper lip that I handled the 3-2 loss on Wednesday that evened the series at one and eliminated the sweep possibility. John Lannan is a lefty and he isn't half bad, and sometimes you just have to hand it to a dude. He kept the Yanks guessing all night and he went into the ninth inning, so you just have to tip your cap. Despite that, the Yankees still almost won the damn thing, if not for Robbie Cano's latest lesson in why not to trust him in a big spot.

That said, if you consider yourself even a halfway decent team, you have to take care of business in the rubber game last night. Maybe that's the problem here, the Yankees may consider themselves to be a much better team then they actually are. How else can you explain Thursday night's effort? They played the first three innings like they had a flight to catch, everyone that is except for Joba Chamberlain, who labored his way through six uninspired innings. Does anybody remember how exciting it used to be to watch this guy pitch? That seems like a long time ago.

But that's another story for another day. This failure fell on a lineup that managed just two runs in the final 18 innings against baseball's worst pitching team. Inexcusable. The culprits were everywhere, though it must always start at the top of the payroll. Just as Alex Rodriguez energized the team when he came off the disabled list, he is killing them now. His slump -- three hits in his last 10 games -- makes you scratch your head as to how this guy hasn't gotten even one day off since returning. People complained why A-Rod didn't keep the Yanks out of the double play in the ninth by stealing second on Wednesday, but the simple answer is that A-Rod cannot move very well right now. I was at two of the Subway Series games, and I cringed watching him maneuver around the basepaths. The guy looked like Mickey Mantle circa 1968.

Not having Jeter in the lineup was a great detriment, and there are at-bats these days when Hideki Matsui looks like he'd strike out in a t-ball game (see: Matsui v. Villone). Teixeira, meanwhile, has cooled off (5 for his last 27) and no one else on the roster has stepped in to pick up the slack.

The last two nights were nothing less than an embarrassment. This was a team that assumed everything and -- if not for some brutal outfield play from Elijah Dukes on Tuesday -- would've had nothing at all. You can only wonder what Ol' George would have thought about all of this. It's times like this where you really miss the big galoot.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Joba fights back against midges, critics

Full disclosure: I was a bit conflicted about the fate of one Joba Chamberlain last night.

I was rooting for the Yankees, of course (the only scenario I can imagine turning on my team involves a World Series Game 7 in which Don Mattingly digs into the box in Dodgers blue). That said, I wasn't entirely sure how well I wanted Joba to do in the series finale against the Indians at the disgusting bug and seagull pit known as Progressive Field.

Monday's start, you see, was quite a big one for Mr. Chamberlain. Michael Kay and others were scratching their heads last night trying to figure out how the right-hander was touching the upper-90s on the gun in the late innings against the Tribe, but it was all pretty evident to me. He's pitching for his life ... as a starter on this team anyway. If that's not motivation, I don't know what is.

Think about it. For all of Brian Cashman's posturing -- and he's been quite adamant in recent interviews about the topic -- another mediocre start by Chamberlain would have a Hummer full of gasoline on the inferno that is the starter/reliever debate. Chien-Ming Wang looked like Chien-Ming Wang for the first time on Sunday, and it's (hopefully) just a matter of time now before he's inserted back into the rotation. If you ask me, it's already gone too long, but the Yankees don't fancy giving the Wanger respect for whatever reason.

So there I was, sitting on my couch, the idea of a wholly unimpressive Joba exiting the game after five innings in an eventual 9-6 Yankees win dancing in my head. Does this make me a bad fan? I don't think so, not when my secret longing for bad Joba being part of a bigger plan to ultimately make this team better.

Chamberlain didn't do me -- or the rest of the 'Joba-to-'Pen' legions -- any favors in a 5-2 Yankees win. He was simply excellent, retiring the first 11 batters he faced and going a career-best eight innings for his third victory of the season. Most impressively, he needed just 106 pitches to do so. It was a performance that makes it seem like a no-brainer to keep him in the rotation. And if nothing else, it provides a stay-of-execution on that topic ... Chamberlain will certainly get some leeway based on this glimpse of greatness, likely enough time to survive the cut to be made when Wang returns.

All of this is bad news for Phil Hughes, of course, who I suspect may of had the same conflicted thoughts in the dugout yesterday in Cleveland. He is likely ticketed for Triple-A, or possibly the very eighth-inning role that seems to be a tailor fit for his fellow farmboy wunderkind. There are those that say Hughes is a more logical fit in the role, since he only has two established Major League pitches at this point while Chamberlain has four. I don't buy into that at all -- supporters on each side of this debate have brought up some truly stupid points over the months -- but it will certainly be interesting to see how it all plays out.

As for Chamberlain, I still feel he's best suited to help this particular team out of the bullpen and yesterday's fine start doesn't change that. I can't help it, I have visions of Mo-Wetteland dancing in my head and I remember how dangerous that '07 team was before Wang and midges sent it all to hell.

But in a big picture sense, yesterday was another very good day for the Yankees in what has been a very good stretch for the AL East leaders. And if Chamberlain can bottle yesterday's motivation and performance, the seemingly endless Joba debate may finally ... finally ... be put to rest.

Yeah right.