Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 10, 2012

After Weekend Sweep, The Yankees Still Rule New York

Controversial when it was first introduced in 1997, interleague play is now an accepted part of the Great Game’s schedule every season. One of its greatest features is that interleague play allows contests between teams that would be natural geographic rivals but for the fact that they play in different leagues. Some of MLB’s attempts at such rivalries seem a bit forced; just because both play in Ohio doesn’t really give games between the Reds and Indians any extra intensity. But where a single city or metropolitan area is home to both an NL and AL team, the rivalry between friends and neighbors can be intense indeed. If that is true in the Washington-Baltimore area, in northern or southern California, or in Chicago, it is even more so in New York. Across the five boroughs fans swear allegiance to either the Yankees or the Mets, and are quick to hold the other team in disdain.

Perhaps because I am a Yankees fan living in New England I hold no special animus toward Gotham’s less accomplished franchise. The Metropolitans, from whom little was expected, have played surprisingly well through the first nine weeks of the longest season. Whether they can sustain that level of play through the final 100 or so games remains to be seen; but if they are able to do so then playoff games at Citi Field in October are not out of the question. But when it comes to deciding who rules New York, there is no doubt about where my loyalties lie.

The first half of the six scheduled contests between the Yankees and Mets took place at the Stadium this weekend. The two teams came in with virtually identical records, the Yankees at 31-25 and the Mets at 32-26. On Friday night, while I was still in New Hampshire, the Mets’ Johan Santana made his first start since throwing the team’s first no-hitter ever one week earlier. Whether it was a product of the 134 pitches Santana threw in that effort, or the extra days rest he was given to recover, he was simply no match for the Yankees’ bats. The Bombers tagged Santana for four home runs, including three in a row in the third inning and Hiroki Kuroda pitched seven innings of one-hit ball as the Bronx beat Queens 9-1.

I was in my usual seat high above first base 24 hours later for the second game of the series, as Phil Hughes took the mound for the Yankees. Like Santana for the Mets the night before Hughes was coming off a personal achievement in his previous outing. While nowhere near as grand as a no-hitter, he had thrown his first ever nine inning complete game in beating Detroit the previous Sunday. When he needed 40 pitches to navigate through the first two scoreless innings it was quickly apparent that this time Hughes was unlikely to be around for the finish. But he pitched into the 7th and but for a pair of solo home runs to Omar Quintanilla and David Wright mostly kept the Mets’ hitters off-balance. When manager Joe Girardi came to get him with one out in the 7th Hughes left to a warm ovation. By that time the Yankees were leading 3-2 thanks largely to a two-run drive into the right field seats by Mark Teixeira in the bottom of the 6th. Center fielder Curtis Granderson added a solo homer in the last of the 8th, and substitute closer Rafael Soriano worked around a leadoff walk and a two-out single to record his ninth save, as the Yankees won the second game 4-2.

So the goal on a warm Sunday afternoon was simple; finish the sweep. Many of us in the full house were aware that the Yankees had failed to sweep a series at home so far this season. Ending that unfortunate trend against their cross-town rivals would be a particularly fine way to close out the home stand. But the early advantage went to the visitors. After both teams went down in order in the first, Scott Hairston led off the second with a shot down the third base line off Andy Pettitte. The ball rolled to the corner and Hairston had an easy double. One out later Vinny Rottino, getting the start at first base in place of the struggling Ike Davis, put the Mets on the board with a grounder into center field. A walk put runners on first and second, but then for a moment we in the stands thought Pettitte and the Yankees would contain the damage at a single run. Catcher Mike Nickeas grounded softly up the middle, and second baseman Robinson Cano moved over behind the bag to snare it. But instead of a sure double play a groan went up from the Yankees fans, and a matching cheer from those wearing Mets gear, as Cano dropped the ball. Given a second chance the Mets capitalized when Jordany Valdespin doubled to right, putting the visitors ahead 3-0.

Just when it looked like Sunday might turn out to be a very bad day for Pettitte and the Yankees, the veteran settled down. After the Valdespin double he issued a walk to Andres Torres, but then ended the inning by striking out both Jason Bay and David Wright. Pitching through the 6th inning, Pettitte faced a total of 14 batters after the walk to Torres. He retired 12 of them at the plate, and the other two on the bases. Throughout his career the left-handed Pettitte has been known for a devastating pickoff move to first base. Scott Hairston singled for the Mets in the 3rd, and Pettitte promptly caught him leaning the wrong way. With no chance to beat Pettitte’s throw to first Hairston headed for second and was a sure out in a run-down. Two innings later Wright singled with two outs and Pettitte performed an encore, catching the Mets star leaning the wrong way and ending the inning with an easy run-down out.

But while Pettitte was containing the Mets and striking out eight, Jon Niese was blanking the Yankees. When the first two batters reached in the home half of the second, Niese came off the mound quickly to field an attempted sacrifice bunt by Nick Swisher and was able to force the lead runner at third. He then fanned Andruw Jones and Russell Martin to end the inning. He was helped by double play balls in the 3rd and the 6th, and as the string of zeroes for the Yankees grew on the scoreboard so did the anxiety of their fans.

That anxiety would be replaced by hope, then joy, then gloom, then sudden exultation over a wild final three innings. After yet another double play left the bases empty in the last of the 7th, Andruw Jones tapped a grounder to Wright at third, and the inning appeared over. But Wright’s throw across the diamond was in the dirt, and Rottino couldn’t come up with it. As the Mets had capitalized on an error earlier, now it was the Yankees turn. Catcher Russell Martin stepped in to face Niese. Martin’s been having a horrible year at the plate, with his average only recently climbing barely above .200. But he sliced Niese’s third pitch into right field, the ball glancing off of Hairston’s glove and into the stands for a two-run homer. The three-run deficit was now down to one, and there was hope.

One inning later Bobby Parnell jogged in from the bullpen in relief of Niese. Parnell faced four Yankees and failed to record an out. Derek Jeter grounded a single into short center field. When shortstop Quintanilla bobbled the ball and it rolled away from him Jeter never broke stride, sliding safely into second on the error. Granderson singled to right to put runners on the corners, and then Teixeira singled up the middle to plate Jeter and move the speedy Granderson to third. Finally Alex Rodriguez blooped the Yankees’ fourth consecutive single into shallow right, just beyond the reach of three Mets’ fielders. Granderson strolled home, the Yankees led 4-3, and there was joy.

On came Soriano in the top of the 9th. He had converted all nine of his save opportunities since stepping in for the injured Mariano Rivera and David Robertson. But on this day he promptly gave up back to back doubles to Lucas Duda and pinch hitter Davis. The save was blown, the score was tied, and there was gloom. Though Soriano couldn’t get out of the inning, the Yankees were able to, thanks to a fine defensive play by Jayson Nix and two outs of relief work by Boone Logan.

Catcher Martin was the leadoff batter for the Yankees in the 9th. Given his offensive struggles and his early home run, asking for further production seemed a stretch. Five times reliever Jon Rauch threw the ball, and five times Martin watched it go by. The home plate umpire’s call alternated; ball, strike, ball, strike, ball. On the sixth pitch Martin swung, and there was never a doubt. The ball was launched into the sky toward the left field seats. If this one was going to glance off a glove, it would be one belonging to a child many rows back of the outfield wall. Martin rounded the bases, the other Yankees raced from the dugout to home plate, and we in the stands knew the sudden and perfect exultation of a walk-off win.

The Mets will have a chance to get even at Citi Field two weekends hence. Perhaps they will, for they are beating everyone’s expectations so far this season. But the Yankees have 27 championships and have represented the American League in 40 of the 107 World Series, those interleague contests that are about so much more than local bragging rights. In the three game sweep the Yankees got three quality starts from their rotation, outscored the Mets 18-7 and out homered them 8-2. For now at least, in Gotham, the natural order of things is firmly in place.

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