Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 21, 2013

In A Season Of Uncertainty, Score That Play 4-6-5-6-5-3-4!

In these early days of the longest season, the small sample size of the games that have been played no doubt leads to any number of false hopes and misplaced disappointments. Will the Braves really win 117 games, even as the Red Sox win 114? Are the Angels, with Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, really going to finish 20 games below .500? The highly likely answer to all of the above is no. Of course that virtual certainty has stopped neither excited fans of teams off to a fast start from daring to dream; nor anxious supporters of squads that have stumbled out of the gate from fretting anxiously over each unhappy box score.

But in the Bronx of all places the first weeks of the new season have been marked by neither excitement nor anxiety so much as uncertainty. The big Stadium at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue is an odd place to find such an emotion. For nearly two decades postseason play has been as much a part of the Yankees’ annual calendar as Spring Training and Old Timer’s Day. Since 1995 the Yankees have gone to the postseason 17 times in 18 years, advancing to the World Series 7 times while claiming 5 titles.

But it has been clear since New York was swept from the ALCS by Detroit last October that this year, and indeed the next couple of years, represented a new era for the normally free-spending Yankees. After forking over nearly a quarter billion dollars in luxury tax payments during the past decade, and faced with an escalating tax rate that will hit 50% this season, managing partner Hal Steinbrenner made clear his determination to rein in payroll and bring the Yankees below the projected $179 million salary cap for 2014.

The financial logic of such a move is unassailable. Steinbrenner correctly points out that plenty of teams have proven capable of winning the World Series without exceeding the salary cap. Only the 2009 Yankees and their record $226 million payroll took home the title while spending so extravagantly. Plus if New York’s payroll drops below the cap for even a single season, their luxury tax rate for future years will reset back to the base level of 17.5%.

But because the team’s roster is built around a number of very expensive multi-year commitments, Steinbrenner’s edict effectively took the Yankees out of the free agent market during the offseason. All of the most desirable free agents were naturally seeking both big dollars and multi-year commitments, and the Yankees were in no position to offer either. Thus they pursued none of the marquee free agents from other teams, and stood idly by as right fielder Nick Swisher, catcher Russell Martin, and key backups Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez all departed.

In their place the Yankees signed one-year deals with a number of veterans widely viewed as being in the twilight of their careers. These fill-ins and backups suddenly took on far more important roles when a rash of injuries sidelined several New York starters before the season even began. Alex Rodriguez had hip surgery in January. Team home run leader Curtis Granderson was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken arm in his first at-bat of spring training. First baseman Mark Teixeira went down with a partially torn wrist tendon during the World Baseball Classic. Shortstop Derek Jeter’s recovery from the broken ankle he suffered in the ALCS seemed to be taking longer than expected; a situation that was finally explained just this week with the news that an examination had revealed a new fracture.

When the Yankees took the field on Opening Day, the only two position players who had been in the lineup one year earlier were Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner, and Gardner was playing a new position. Late in spring training GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi had been promoting the idea that the Yankees starting pitching would keep the team competitive until the offensive stars returned, but with the exception of 40-year old Andy Pettitte the starters were uniformly awful the first time through the rotation as New York lost four of its first five games.

But then two things happened. As Cashman and Girardi had promised the other starters began to earn their keep. Then, unexpectedly, the collection of the formerly famous making up the Yankees batting order began to hit like they had been in pinstripes their whole careers. Winners of nine of twelve since their dreadful start, the Yankees hitters now lead the AL in home runs and are third in batting average; while their starting rotation has the fourth best ERA in the league. With the exception of closer Mariano Rivera, who has five saves in as many chances, it is the bullpen that is now suspect, with the highest ERA of any relief corps in the league.

Of course all of that is based on the aforementioned small sample size. Granderson and Teixeira are still weeks away from taking the field in the Bronx, and Jeter and Rodriguez won’t play until sometime after the All-Star break. How any of them will perform when they do return is a further unknown. Yet among all the uncertainty and doubt that is likely to accompany the Yankees throughout this unusual season, for the moment the fill-ins are rising to the occasion. A week ago Friday, they even showed they could make some Yankees history.

It was my first trip of the season down to the Bronx, and rain was my companion for most of the drive from New Hampshire. Passing through the Worcester hills the rain turned to sleet for a time, the icy pellets bouncing off my windshield. From Stamford I took the Metro North train into the Bronx, and as I came down the steps from the 153rd Street station for the short walk to the Stadium a cold mist was falling. Thankfully that stopped by game time, but a chill north wind blew in from center field. The thermometer read 42 degrees when CC Sabathia threw his first pitch against the Baltimore Orioles, but it felt much colder.

Sabathia didn’t seem to mind the cold. While his fast ball never topped 90 on the radar gun, he mixed his pitches well and kept the Orioles off-balance. It was a 2-2 tie in the last of the 7th when a pair of walks and a hit batsman loaded the bases for Vernon Wells, brought over from the Angels late in spring training. Wells took two pitches outside the strike zone and then hit a sharp line drive to deep center. Gold Glove outfielder Adam Jones appeared to catch up to the ball, but it bounced off his glove and Wells had cleared the bases, putting the Yankees up 5-2.

Then in the top of the 8th Sabathia surrendered back to back singles to Alexi Casilla and Nick Markakis. Third baseman Manny Machado worked a full count, and then sent a sharp ground ball right at Robinson Cano. The second baseman fielded it cleanly on a short hop, and flipped the ball to shortstop Jayson Nix for the force out on Markakis.

The automatic play for a shortstop in that position is to throw to first for the double play. But Nix’s natural position, whether at Colorado, Chicago, Cleveland,  or Toronto, hasn’t been shortstop. He was filling in for Eduardo Nunez, who had been hit by a pitch earlier in the contest. Perhaps because of that, perhaps because of fate, he instead turned toward third base. Casilla was still well short of the bag, so Nix threw to Kevin Youkilis, late of Boston and Chicago. Youkilis had Casilla in a rundown, and threw back to Nix before receiving a return throw and tagging the base runner for the second out.

Suddenly in the stands we could see what was about to unfold. Seeing the rundown between second and third, Machado had taken a wide turn around first base. Charging down the base patch between third and second Youkilis could see it as well. He fired the ball to first baseman Lyle Overbay, who had been released by the Red Sox during the last week of spring training. Signed immediately by the Yankees, he was told he had three days to prove he should head north with the team.

Apparently he did enough during that abbreviated tryout, because it was Overbay who took the throw from Youkilis even as we in the stands rose to our feet in anticipation. I heard someone scream “Get ‘em all!” not realizing at first that the voice was my own. As the trapped Machado turned and raced hopelessly to second, Overbay threw to Cano, who applied the tag and looked at the umpire, waiting for the inevitable sign while grinning from ear to ear.

These Yankees may not know each other all that well yet, and in the end this Yankees season may end earlier than most. But as they high-fived one another and ran off the field like a happy bunch of Little Leaguers, having turned the first triple play in the Bronx in 45 years, these Yankees had earned their place in the team’s long story. And as we stood and cheered them in the stands, a wintry night suddenly felt like a balmy mid-summer’s eve.

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