Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 16, 2012

The Turning Point Arrives, And Swisher Delivers

A truism of the Great Game is that while each of the more than 2,400 regular season games are played under the same rules and on fields that are essentially identical save for the distance to the fences, no two contests are ever exactly alike. While dozens of individual matchups over the course of the longest season may end with identical scores, the manner by which the final tally is reached is subject to endless variation. Many contests have some degree of ebb and flow, the action favoring one team for a time before the other nine has its own moment or two to shine and perhaps tip the balance. Some games are lopsided from the first pitch, one squad so clearly superior on that particular day that the outcome is never in doubt. Then every once in a while, there will be a bout between two closely matched teams, where the ultimate outcome truly turns on a single moment; one play in the field, one battle between pitcher and hitter. It is as if the result is fixed to a hinge, ready to turn in an instant in one team’s favor. Sometimes, just sometimes, even as it is happening everyone in the stands knows that the game’s hinge moment is at hand. Such was the case Tuesday night in the Bronx.

It was a warm summer evening. There was a touch of humidity in the air, but an earlier threat of thunderstorms had dissipated. The contest was the second of a four game set between the Yankees and the visiting Texas Rangers. While not great historical rivals, the recent past and current standings gave the series added meaning. The Yankees annual goal is to play for a championship; yet it was the Rangers who represented the American League in the last two World Series. This year both teams sat atop their divisions and were essentially tied for the best record in the league. The best regular season mark is about more than bragging rights; the team that can claim it is assured of home field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

During the last off-season the Yankees lured right-hander Hiroki Kuroda away from the Los Angeles Dodgers, signing the free agent pitcher general manager Brian Cashman had openly coveted to a one-year contract. Kuroda was inconsistent in the spring, but as the weather warmed so did his performance on the mound. His record at one point was 6-7, but he then recorded four straight victories while steadily lowering his ERA. However while he continued to pitch very well, the 37-year old hadn’t posted a win in three weeks, going through three outings with two no-decisions and one loss as his teammates failed to provide him with much run support. In those three games the Yankees twice scored just two runs while Kuroda was in the game and once failed to score at all.

On Tuesday night Kuroda took the mound and from the start dominated the powerful Texas lineup. A one-out walk in the 1st inning was followed by a double play. In the 2nd he set the Rangers down in order, striking out both Nelson Cruz and Michael Young. A second free pass in the 3rd inning was preceded by two ground outs and followed by another. The Rangers again went in order in the 4th, and when Adrian Beltre flied to center for the third out it was the first ball a Texas batter had managed to hit out of the infield. Two more perfect frames followed, and when Kuroda struck out second baseman Ian Kinsler to end the 6th, a current ran through the more than 44,000 at the Stadium. The game was two-thirds over, and Texas had yet to hit safely.

The problem was that for all of his dominance Kuroda was still locked in a scoreless duel. Matt Harrison of the Rangers had seen his own bid for a no-hitter last all of three pitches. Leading off as usual while serving in this game as the designated hitter, Derek Jeter looked at two balls before hitting a single to left to start the bottom of the 1st. But Jeter was stranded at first base, and while the Yankees had produced base runners in every inning but the 5th and had a runner on second in the 2nd and the bases loaded in the 3rd, they had yet to send a man home. Even as we in the stands dared to begin dreaming of our starter writing himself into the team’s history books, the thought of his recent run of being left to his own devices by his offense was a disconcerting presence in the back of our minds.

Having thrown just 77 pitches through six innings, Kuroda took the hill for the 7th. His 78th pitch of the night was an off-speed slider to Elvis Andrus, which the Texas shortstop hit on the ground back up the middle. Jayson Nix ranged to his left and managed to spear the ball just on the outfield grass behind second, but he had no chance to turn and throw out Andrus. In the flash of the speedy Ranger racing down the base path, the chance of a no-hitter was gone. Even as a collective groan echoed through the Stadium, we rose to salute Kuroda’s effort. Josh Hamilton then lofted a sacrifice fly to right. After fanning Beltre for the second out, Kuroda’s first offering to Cruz bounded past catcher Russell Martin. Andrus raced to third as the ball went to the backstop. Before Texas could spoil both the no-hitter and the shutout in the same inning, Kuroda got Cruz to ground harmlessly to second baseman Robinson Cano to end the inning.

So it came to the last of the 7th, and with one out the Captain singled to center. Over his years in pinstripes Jeter has started innumerable rallies, and now there was a sense of urgency about this being another one. For the sixth time in seven frames New York had a man on base. If the Yankees again failed to score, surely the Rangers, having finally dented Kuroda and come close to scoring, would take heart.

At that moment Texas manager Ron Washington made a fateful decision. With Harrison at 106 pitches and right fielder Nick Swisher coming to the plate, Washington headed to the mound and signaled to the bullpen for reliever Alexi Ogando. By switching from a left-hander to a right-hander, Washington was turning the switch-hitting Swisher around at the plate. Ogando’s first pitch was a 97 mile per hour fastball that was called a strike. He second was two miles faster, which Swisher just nicked foul for strike two. In a deep hole, it looked like Swisher was about to validate Washington’s pitching change.

Twice more Ogando delivered heat that was just shy of 100 on the radar gun, but both missed the strike zone, and now the count was even. A fifth and sixth fastball followed, and both times Swisher got just enough of the ball to stay alive. For the seventh pitch of the at bat Ogando offered a slow slider, hoping that the Yankees’ right fielder would be guessing fastball and wind up looking foolish. But Swisher stood his ground, and the umpire signaled ball three. With that a gradually building noise level in the Stadium reached a crescendo. What had appeared to be a dispiriting and overmatched plate appearance had become heroic. On the verge of quickly striking out, Swisher had fought his way back, battling the flame throwing hurler to an extended draw. Of course, ultimately one or the other had to prevail. With a certainty that was palpable, in the stands we knew that the moment was at hand, the hinge about to swing in one direction or the other. Swisher stepped in, Ogando went to the set, and the noise level somehow reached new heights.

The eighth pitch of the at bat was a 98 mile per hour fastball, letter high and over the outside portion of the plate. Swisher’s bat made clean contact out on the fat portion of the barrel; and at that moment of contact, as the ball was launched into the sky the outcome was no longer in doubt. In the moments that it took for the horsehide to travel out beyond the reach of any Texas fielder, we fans began to emit a frenzied roar. Nick Swisher stood watching his handiwork disappear into the Yankees bullpen, and then began a triumphant trot around the bases, finally touching home behind Jeter. In my section high up above first base, we were all standing and screaming like everyone else, total strangers high-fiving each other like old friends.

Mark Teixeira followed Swisher to the plate, and completed the scoring by lining Ogando’s fourth pitch into the right field seats. Kuroda allowed one more single to start the 8th, but David Murphy quickly grounded into a double play. One inning later, when Teixeira took a toss from Cano to retire Andrus for the final out, Kuroda’s two hit masterpiece was complete. As the Yankees assembled in the infield for the ritual of congratulations, Teixeira handed the ball from the final out to the Yankees’ superlative starting pitcher, even as competing TV crews prepared to interview Kuroda and Swisher. Over the course of the longest season there are many turning points, many hinges. On this warm night in the Bronx, in the microcosm of one game, this one swung the Yankees way.

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