Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 13, 2015

More Smoke And Mirrors, Or A Season Up In Smoke?

Back in New Hampshire after my final visit to the Bronx for the 2015 regular season, it is worthwhile to keep a couple of thoughts front of mind. First, as every fan of the game with the longest season knows full well, making too much out of results from a small sample size is usually a fool’s errand. Second, back in the distant days of February and March, when the Spring Training workouts were underway and fans of every franchise were looking forward to a new campaign, the collective judgment of the professional pundits was that Yankee fans would soon have little reason to cheer. The oldest starting lineup in the Great Game and a rotation filled with injury-related doubt had the all-knowing seers at venerable institutions like Sports Illustrated and ESPN slotting the Yankees into fourth place in the AL East, barely ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays.

As much as we know that relying on just a handful of games can lead to conclusions that later turn out to be laughable, we fans all do it. We live in the moment, and we can’t ignore what we see in front of our faces. That makes for the wild mood swings that take place in every stadium across the land; where the manic cheering of one of our heroes who’s hot early in a home stand is replaced by the depressed booing of the same player gone cold less than a week later.

For most of the days since play began in early April the Yankees sat atop their division. In late July, as the non-waiver trade deadline drew near, New York’s lead grew to as much as seven games. But perhaps due to an inability to vanquish thoughts of those early judgments by so many experts, this fan had the sense that manager Joe Girardi was doing it all with some magical sleight of hand. Surely it was the stuff of smoke and mirrors that allowed Alex Rodriguez to return from a year away from the diamond with power in his bat even as he passed his 40th birthday, or for Mark Teixeira to threaten for the league lead in home runs after several years of steadily declining offensive output. Could anything other than sorcery explain how the bullpen was so consistently good, from long relievers to situational specialists to setup man Dellin Betances to closer Andrew Miller, masking the shortcomings of that fragile starting rotation?

Then the Yankees stood pat at the deadline. While GM Brian Cashman proclaimed himself satisfied with his roster, the reality is that New York remains saddled with ill-advised long-term contracts to aging veterans while desperately needing to get younger. The team will pay more than $68 million each of the next two seasons to just three players, Rodriguez, Teixeira and pitcher CC Sabathia. It is more wishful than logical thinking to believe the first two will perform as well as they did for much of this season; and Sabathia is already but a shell of the ace left-hander who once dominated the mound. The lessons of those contracts are not lost on principal owner Hal Steinbrenner, who is clearly reluctant to spend big on free agents. Cashman in turn is loath to part with any of his most talented minor leaguers, several of whom he clearly hopes will shortly lower the average age of New York’s starting lineup.

Within the AL East Toronto more than made up for New York’s lack of activity at the trade deadline. The Blue Jays acquired shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies and ace David Price from the Tigers. Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos, keenly aware that at 22 years his team’s absence from the playoffs is the longest in the majors, also traded for outfielder Ben Revere and a pair of relief pitchers. In the span of a few days a team that was already long on offense greatly strengthened both its defense and its pitching.

The Blue Jays were a game under .500 at 50-51 and eight back of the Yankees on the day they made the Tulowitzki trade. When they arrived in the Bronx for a weekend series on Thursday they had posted a record of 29-9 since, while the Yankees had managed to barely break even with a mark of 20-19 in the same period, with the grind of the long season taking its toll. Rodriguez had slumped badly since the All-Star break. Teixeira was injured in mid-August, returned briefly and ineffectually late in the month, and is now done for the season.

Thus it was an anxious crowd that made its way across Babe Ruth Plaza and through the turnstiles on Friday evening for the first game of four with Toronto, the original series-opener having been rained out the night before. The Blue Jays surge had thrust them ahead of the Yankees, but our team was just a game and a half back, and still firmly in control of a Wild Card spot.

It took only minutes to confirm there was good reason for the anxiety. Young Luis Severino had shown great maturity on the mound since his recent call-up from AAA, but Friday he located far too many of his pitches over the fat part of the plate. Left fielder Revere led off with a long double to center, and third baseman Josh Donaldson promptly opened the scoring with a home run to left. Severino struck out Jose Bautista, but then allowed another double followed by a single and then a second home run.

By the time Jacoby Ellsbury stepped in to face Price in the bottom of the 1st, Toronto had a fat 5-0 lead. In all the Blue Jays pounded out sixteen hits, including five home runs, against six Yankee pitchers while rolling to an 11-5 victory.

To make up for Thursday’s washout Saturday featured a single admission double-header, an event that was a common and welcome part of every season’s schedule in my youth but a rare occurrence these days when every team seeks to maximize revenue. For we Yankee fans, it was a long dull day, and not just because of the looming low cloud cover that seemed to hang just above the Stadium’s familiar frieze.

For four innings of game one, at least, New York remained competitive. Left fielder Brett Gardner homered in the 1st, and third baseman Chase Headley added another dinger in the 2nd. After Bautista went deep for the Jays to halve the lead, Rodriguez sliced a two-run shot into the right field seats to make it 4-1 Yankees. But then in the 5th Michael Pineda allowed the Blue Jays back into the contest, surrendering a pair of home runs. Eventually the game went to extra innings tied at 5-5. Then in the top of the 11th New York’s bullpen imploded. Around a pair of strikeouts two relievers went walk, hit batter, walk, walk, single, walk, and walk, gifting four runs to Toronto.

Thirty minutes after the disheartening 9-5 defeat, the Yankees took the field for game two. Starter Ivan Nova collapsed in the 2nd inning, yielding six runs on as many hits while unleashing two wild pitches. While New York tallied seven runs in the contest, which was delayed for half an hour in the 6th by rain, the Yankees could never climb out of that early hole, losing 10-7. Between the extra innings of game one and the rain delay of game two, the double-header ended nine hours after it started, with the few thousand remaining fans filing quietly back out into the night.

The utter collapse of Yankee pitching over three games only reminds we fans of how crucial pitching is during the short series of the postseason. Late Saturday evening it seemed that whatever magic Girardi had been working since April had run its course.

Or perhaps that’s a misguided judgment based on three bad games. On Sunday, while I was driving north, Masahiro Tanaka allowed just four hits over seven innings while fanning seven and walking no one, as the Yankees salvaged the final game 5-0. Toronto’s lead is three and a half, but that is less than the four game advantage the Yankees have on the Twins, the would-be Wild Card team on the outs at the moment. And while the Wild Card isn’t the ideal place from which to start the postseason, both the Royals and Giants didn’t do badly from that position last year. Plus whatever these next few weeks hold, there is some satisfaction in knowing that according to the experts, my team’s season was supposed to already be done.

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