Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 2, 2013

After A Strong Start, Uncertainty In The Bronx

Steamy Gotham was well into the first heat wave of the year on Friday. Seeking temporary relief from the scorching sun some residents headed for the shade of one of Central Park’s many leafy quadrants; while fifty blocks south others waded into the chill waters of the fountain in Washington Square Park. But Yankees fans knew that of late the place to go to cool off quickly was 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx. I was among the dispirited crowd Thursday night watching the Mets complete their first sweep of the Bombers since the start of interleague play. That four game debacle was preceded by a loss to Tampa Bay last Sunday, meaning the Yankees had lost five games in a row for the first time all season, and seven of their last nine.

The loss of several key players to free agency during the offseason and management’s decision to eschew expensive replacements in order to lower the team’s payroll had many pundits relegating New York to also-ran status back during spring training. When the remaining lineup was gutted by injury before Opening Day those initial forecasts seemed prescient. At one point the Yankees had more than $110 million in salary consigned to the disabled list, a figure higher than the payrolls of more than half of the other big league teams. GM Brian Cashman restocked the depleted roster with a combination of journeymen castoffs from other teams and faded stars at the tail end of their careers. But after a bumpy first week New York’s patched together lineup responded in a manner that exceeded all expectations. Until the current tailspin the new-look Yankees had climbed to 12 games over .500 and their familiar perch atop the AL East.

Irrespective of an individual player’s previous numbers, it is always possible to change and, hopefully, improve. A new hitting coach might tweak a batter’s style, or a pitcher might alter his mechanics, on occasion with wondrous results. But more often than not, especially if the previous numbers include results from multiple seasons, the past is a good guide to what the future holds, with obvious adjustments for the inevitable decline as age takes its toll. Any player can get hot, so a lifetime .270 hitter can find a groove that results in a .360 average for the month of April. Once in a great while that torrid start may presage a banner year. But a far more typical result, especially over the longest season, is that a player’s statistics ultimately revert to the mean.

This unpleasant truth was one that I and the other Yankee faithful could not avoid as the replacement Bombers bats turned ice-cold over the past ten days. New York plated just ten runs in the five consecutive losses. In three of those games the Yankees tallied but a single score, including Thursday night. The Mets started 27-year old right hander Dillon Gee, who took the mound with a 2-6 record and a garish 6.34 ERA. Not even the most avid Mets fan would mistake Gee for the second coming of Tom Seaver, but he certainly looked the part at the Stadium. After not getting past the 5th inning in his five previous starts, Gee went 7 1/3 during which he struck out 12 while allowing just four hits. Robinson Cano’s 3rd inning drive into the right field seats accounted for the Yankees’ only run in the 3-1 loss. There was little solace in the fact that I looked down at an infield that had players named Brignac, Adams, and Overbay stationed where I am accustomed to seeing Jeter, Rodriguez, and Teixeira. The growing sense was that the lineup of these and other fill-ins was inevitably reverting to the mean.

So it was with almost as much trepidation as anticipation that I ride the #4 train up from Midtown early Friday evening. The victorious Mets had moved on to Miami, where they would quickly fall back to earth. In their place the Boston Red Sox had moved into the visitors’ dugout for a weekend series. Like the Yankees, the Sox were dismissed by most of the preseason pundits. But they too have surprised the experts through the first two months, and arrive in town in first place thanks to the Yankees’ recent swoon.

With the announcement of the starting lineups a ripple of hope sweeps through the crowd. For with this game that impressive tally of salaries on the DL has finally started being reduced. Back after missing the better part of a month with a back sprain is Kevin Youkilis. Youk is himself a replacement player, signed to a one-year deal after A-Rod underwent hip surgery in the winter. But he was a significant contributor to the Yankees’ early success, and as the owner of a pair of championship rings from his days with Boston is a proven winner. Of even greater import is the return of Gold Glove first baseman Mark Teixeira. It will be Tex’s first game of the season, after a lengthy recovery from a partially torn tendon sheath suffered while readying for the World Baseball Classic in early March. The loudest cheers during player introductions are those that welcome back Teixeira.

As a practical matter neither of the two can be asked to carry the team to victory. In their first game off the DL, and Teixeira’s first of the entire season, neither will be in midseason form. But their presence on the field is a badly needed boost to morale for teammates and fans alike. Teixeira walks and scores the game’s first run, while also making a couple of solid plays in the field. Playing as the DH, Youkilis singles home the Yankee’s third run in the 5th inning. In all the Yankees plate four runs, a decided improvement on their recent meager output.

That is more than enough for CC Sabathia, who wins for the first time in five starts. As much as fans have lamented the number of players who have been absent, they have also worried about the team’s ace. Sabathia hasn’t gone anywhere, but his dominance seems to have. In every start this season his fastball has rarely topped 91 miles per hour, and more often been clocked at 89. That’s a sharp drop from past years, and a worrisome sign for a hurler whose career has been built on overpowering hitters. But perhaps CC is as buoyed by the return of a couple of key players as are we in the stands. Tonight the radar gun is consistently reading 94, and his command is sharp. He strikes out the first two men he faces, and by the time he leaves with one out in the 8th he has fanned eight more Red Sox while walking no one. David Robertson and Mariano Rivera close out Boston, and New York’s losing streak is finally over.

The heat will still be present but I will be back in New Hampshire by the next evening, when Phil Hughes serves up a grand slam to Mike Napoli and Boston tees off late against rookie reliever Adam Warren in an 11-1 rout. It is a reminder that for all the hopeful signs Friday evening, any one game is just that; a single contest from which no grand conclusions should be drawn. For that matter, the same can be said about streaks. Over the course of the Great Game’s unparalleled number of regular season contests, every team faces periods of adversity. Last season at one point the Giants dropped five in a row and seven out of eight. A few weeks later San Francisco hit another bad patch, losing seven out of nine. But in the end, the Giants and their fans got to have a parade.

Are the Yankees hitting the turbulence through which every squad must fly, or are the recent results an indication that this season’s injury-plagued team and its cobbled together replacements, for all of the latter’s good efforts, simply over performed in the early going? The answer to that question is still several months, and more trips to Gotham, away.

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