Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 10, 2010

Three Down, Eight To Go

It’s a lovely autumn evening in the Bronx on Saturday as I make my way from the 153rd Street Metro North train station toward the Stadium. On this Columbus Day weekend trip to the City, I’ve been utterly unable to find reasonably priced accommodations in Manhattan, so I am staying just north in Rye. No matter, one can get to the Stadium in any number of ways. While the #4 subway from Midtown East remains my route of choice, one can always take the B or D trains up the West Side, or drive (as I have a few times this season), or take a water taxi from two different embarkation points in Manhattan. Or this year for the first time one can ride the Metro North commuter rail from the Westchester and Connecticut suburbs to a brand new station right next to the site of the now-demolished old Stadium. It was an easy 30 minute train ride down through Mamaroneck, New Rochelle, and the various stops in the North Bronx. At each one the engineer reminded boarding passengers that this train would not be going to Grand Central, because this was the Yankee train!

Indeed it was, populated with fans clad in team garb hoping to see the local nine complete a sweep of the Twins to win the Division Series, the first round of the Great Game’s playoffs. As the Wild Card entrant into the post-season, the Yankees had to open play on the road. Twice in Minnesota they fell behind the Central Division champions. But twice they rallied, winning game one 6-4 behind a so-so performance by C. C. Sabathia, and game two 5-2 behind 7 strong innings by the beloved Andy Pettitte. So they come home to the Bronx with a chance to end this first round quickly and rest up for nearly a week before the League Championship Series gets underway.

On the mound will be the young Phil Hughes, making his first ever start in post-season play. In his first full season as a starter, the 24-year old Hughes has had a breakout year, going 18-8 and earning his first All-Star berth. Following a year in which he pitched out of the bullpen, the Yankees have been careful with Hughes down the stretch as his innings count mounted. But now that they are into the post-season, they will ride him as long as they can.

Just before the Yankees take the field the capacity crowd is treated to a reminder of Yankee greatness. Out of the dugout comes 85-year old Yogi Berra, owner of ten world championship rings, to throw out the first pitch. All present know that less than three months ago Berra was an unexpected no-show at the annual Old-Timer’s Day game, when he fell at his New Jersey home the day before. That was the same week that the Yankee Universe was subdued by the twin passing’s of public address announcer Bob Sheppard and owner George Steinbrenner III. For all of us in the stands, seeing Yogi walk unassisted out onto the playing surface and toss a strike (even if it’s from all of about 15 feet), is a moment of pure and simple joy.

Now at last the game is underway, and in the early going Phil Hughes is magnificent. From his first pitch, a 92-mile per hour fastball strike, he is ahead of the hitters. He goes through the Twins’ order flawlessly the first time through the lineup. He finally surrenders a single in the top of the fourth, but a double play means that through four frames he has faced the minimum 12 batters. In doing so he has thrown just 41 pitches.

Meanwhile the Yankee offense has begun to go to work against Twins starter Brian Deunsing. Second baseman Robinson Cano leads off the bottom of the second with a triple to deepest center field. One out later Jorge Posada notches his 41st post-season RBI with a single that plates Cano. An inning later right fielder Nick Swisher, coming off a career offensive season, doubles to left-center and scores when Mark Teixeira rips a bullet off the wall in left.

Then comes the last of the fourth. Cano opens by hitting a slow roller wide of the mound. A desperate dance ensues between Deunsing and the first and second basemen. In the end the toss to first is too late, and Cano is aboard. There is a comic moment at the expense of first base coach Mick Kelleher. The late toss to first base is missed, and catches Kelleher in a particularly unfortunate spot a bit below the belt. He goes down like a rock. But the throw wasn’t particularly hard, and he is up again in a moment or two, as the big screen in centerfield shows Cano, Twins first baseman Michael Cuddyer, and the Yankees trainer all grinning and trying hard not to laugh out loud.

The hoots turn to shouts of joy a moment later, as designated hitter Marcus Thames launches Deunsing’s offering into the bleachers in right for a two-run homer. The cheers are still echoing around the Stadium when next Curtis Granderson reaches, then steals second and races on to third as the throw skips into center field. When Brett Gardner lifts a fly to deep left, Granderson scampers home and the lead is now 5-0.

But all of that offense has taken nearly 30 minutes to unfold; and that can be a long time for a pitcher to sit. When Hughes comes back out, he has lost his early control. The hurler who needed just 41 pitches through four innings requires an additional 50 to make it through the next two. But while the Twins put two men on base in both innings, Hughes reaches within himself and ends the 5th on a strikeout and a popup and the 6th on a strikeout of Minnesota’s cleanup hitter. In the top of the 7th, no doubt knowing that his evening is coming to a close, he regains his earlier mastery and sets Minnesota down on just 8 pitches. As he leaves the mound we rise in a triumphant salute. Drawn-out chants of “Hughes” rain down on the young hurler in pinstripes.

In the last of the 7th a Nick Swisher home run adds to the lead, and now we are just six outs away from a sweep. Mid-season acquisition Kerry Wood is summoned to pitch the 8th. He has emerged as a redoubtable set-up man, but tonight he is off his game, lacking both control and bite on his pitches. He faces five men but retires only one, and leaves with a run in and the bases loaded. But even as tension begins to build in the stands, manager Joe Girardi goes to situational pitching. He brings in lefthander Boone Logan whose single pitch is popped up by Jason Kubel for the second out. Righthander Dave Robertson follows and gets Delmon Young to lift a soft fly to the glove of Gardner in left field.

Again we are on our feet, cheering the end of the Minnesota threat. Now just three outs remain. When the top of the 9th arrives, Girardi is taking no chances. Though the 6-1 score means this is not a save situation, the bullpen door swings open and the first chords of “Enter Sandman” ring out as the familiar slender figure emerges. Approaching his 41st birthday, Mariano Rivera isn’t perfect. As the Yankees stumbled through September, he blew saves on three occasions. But that was one more than he had in the entire season to that point, and this is October. We in the stands have no doubt about the outcome.

Twelve pitches, one strikeout and two lazy fly balls later, our certain faith is rewarded. New York is the first team in either league through to the League Championship Series. While we are in ecstasy in the stands and while there will soon be a celebration in the clubhouse, on the field the immediate reaction is muted. After Brett Gardner collects the final out, there is no mosh pit of players behind the mound. Rather as after every victory and like all teams, the Yankees form a line between the mound and second base; the line then circles back on itself to form two facing lines of players tapping gloves and shaking hands on another win. Every player knows that for this franchise there is only one true measure of success. That goal is still eight victories away.

Getting there is surpassingly difficult, as every player on every nine across the land is well aware. The next opponent will be hard, and likely favored. Tampa beat out New York for the Division and bested the Yankees 10-8 during regular season face-offs. While Texas has the least wins of any AL playoff team, they have gotten hot at the right time, and swept New York in a three game series at Arlington just last month. Plus they now count Cliff Lee in their rotation. Beyond that, if there is a beyond that, will await a National League team happy to have home field advantage in the World Series for the first time in years. And the four squads representing the senior circuit are all formidable; perhaps none more so than last year’s World Series opponent Philadelphia. The Phillies now have two Roy’s in their rotation; Halladay who threw a no-hitter in his very first post-season appearance, and Oswalt who was the ace in Houston for years.

But on this fine Saturday evening, we are allowed to set aside those future concerns. It will be almost a week before the League Championship Series begins in either Florida or Texas. Tonight Sinatra’s “New York, New York” echoes across the emptying Stadium. Tonight a young pitcher proved worthy of the faith that this franchise placed in him. Tonight a young hitter who barely made the squad out of now-distant training camp homered to break the game open. Tonight eight of nine in our lineup reached base, and the ninth contributed with a sacrifice fly. A franchise whose history is replete with individual greatness swept away a worthy opponent playing as a team. In the unbridled hope of spring, 30 teams dreamt the dream. When October arrived, 8 played on. Come next weekend, 4 will remain. We are the first of those four. Whatever may come, on this night it’s party time in the Bronx!

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Responses

  1. Great post bud! I wish that we could have seen the Reds-Phillies series more competitive, but I think it’s a testament as well to how good the Phillies are. I’m not really sure that any of the Giants, Braves, Rays, Rangers and Yankees stand a chance in a 7 game series against the depth of this Phillies squad. It is going to be a very interesting post-season for Major League Baseball, and as a fan wouldn’t a Yankee-Phillie world series be the icing on the cake? Also, you think you could check out my blog cuz I really wanna hear your thoughts. http://chrisross91.wordpress.com/2010/10/10/choosing-the-philadelphia-phillies-is-a-no-brainer/


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