The Yankees won their second straight after the 1-4 start, exactly matching their record-breaking 1998 campaign. The primary difference: you don’t expect this Yankee team to win. I watched this whole game last night, and while it was happening there was NEVER a point where I felt that they were likely to win! Let me step you through it.
The Yankees opened the scoring with a home run by Chris Young. Michael Pineda was on the mound, but he seemed to be laboring in the early going. Only a matter of time, I said. In the fourth inning, sure enough, the laboring broke through. A series of hits caused the Orioles to take the lead 2-1. One of those hits was a hard ground ball down the third-base line. No, the Yankees weren’t shifted, and I expected Chase Headley to field that ball, though not necessarily to be able to recover and get an out. But Headley wasn’t AT third base – it was Alex Rodriguez. At this point in his career, and after TWO hip surgeries, he has the range of a cigar store Indian, and the ball was into left field for a double. Well, I thought, the onslaught has begun, and there is no way the Orioles are going to lose this home opener.
Then Pineda decided to find his stuff and retire about 10 Orioles in a row, Mark Teixeira hit his third home run of the young season (all from the right side, go figure) and the game was tied at two. Only a matter of time, I felt, even though the objective evidence was there in front of me that the O’s were have a terrible time scoring, too. But Pineda allowed a baserunner, and was allowed to pitch to Adam Jones, and I could feel the apprehension rise. And Jones put a charge into the ball and put it in the seats for a 4-2 Oriole lead, and my concern was clearly justified.
Righty Hunter replaced lefty Chen for the seventh, to face Young and Murphy, two Yankee right-handers, and I knew this inning would be a bust. Not quite: Young singled and Hunter lost the strike zone, walking Murphy. Two on and no one out, but Brian Matusz was ready in the bullpen, and the next four Yankee hitters were Gregorius, Petit, Ellsbury and Gardner. All but Petit hit lefty, and Petit doesn’t hit at all. So Matusz would come in, shut down the Yanks, and that would be that. No, Showalter left Hunter in. He got Gregorius to fly out, and the Yankees pinch-hit lefty Garrett Jones. Oh, I thought, THAT was what they were waiting for: get light-hitting Gregorius out, get NY to commit to the lefty pinch-hitter, and THEN bring on Matusz. Didn’t happen, they stayed with Hunter. Announcers speculated that Matusz, having thrown two innings the night before, wasn’t really available, but was a deke by crafty Showalter. Anyway, THAT worked for Baltimore, too, as Jones flied out, no advance.
Ellsbury up, and it works AGAIN as he makes weak contact and pulls a ground ball toward second. But the contact is SO weak that the second baseman has to charge and throw off-balance, and the first baseman couldn’t handle the throw, and it was ruled a hit because it did require more than “ordinary effort” but clearly the Yankees did nothing to deserve the bases loaded. Still, with Gardner due up and STILL no Matusz, there was a flicker of hope until I realized that it was Steven Drew, he of the 118/118/118/236 line, coming in to hit for Gardner. Gardner was hit on the wrist by a pitch in the first inning, and apparently it had swelled up and he had to come out. I guess Showalter figured that ANYONE could handle Drew, especially a hard thrower, but darned if Steven didn’t get hold of a meatball (94 MPH but right down the middle, belt-high) and park it in the seats in right-center for the first pinch-hit grand slam by a Yankee since Jorge Posada in 2001. 6-4 New York.
And STILL I had a bad feeling about the game. Pineda came out for the seventh, even after his shaky sixth, and single, strikeout, single ended his day with the tying runs on base. Dellen Betances came in, which SHOULD have inspired confidence but in fact he has struggled all spring, and into his limited appearances in the first week. He couldn’t locate his fastball, so he was throwing mostly breaking balls, which is NOT what inspires confidence about him, and Caleb Joseph (only playing because Wieters is still hurt) singled sharply to left. Gardner and his laser arm were no longer out there, but Clark had moved from right to left (Jones in right, Drew at second), and he got off a throw which caused the runner to scamper back to third: bases loaded, one out, and leadoff batter De Aza at the plate. Nervous, nervous, nervous. He hits a ball slowly to Drew, who has been shaky at second, but Drew fields it fairly cleanly and throws to Gregorius at second, whose relay to first is so far off-line that Teixeira has to make an all-world play, fully horizontal with no part of his body within a foot of the ground to keep a second run from scoring and a tie game.
Betances is wild, and two straight balls are nowhere near the zone – on the second De Aza steals second without a throw, so a hit now puts the Orioles ahead. Pearce walks on 5 pitches, bringing up Chris Davis with the bases again loaded. Davis has struggled, and had already struck out three times, but still: Betances wild, the man with more HRs than any other the past two seasons at the plate, in his team’s home opener, in a homerun haven of a ballpark, with 55,000 enthusiastic fans shouting encouragement – you just KNOW that something bad is going to happen for the Yankees. Betances throws him four pitches. The first is low and he swings over it. The next is inside and he pulls it hard, foul. The third is low and away, and he lets it go by. The fourth is a curve ball in the dirt, and he swings at it and strikes out. 6-5 Yankees, two innings to go.
Betances comes out again for the eighth and allows a leadoff single to Adam Jones, and you just KNOW that the Orioles are going to at least tie up the game. Jones breaks for second, getting a good jump, on a 2-2 pitch (ball three) and John Ryan Murphy, who has had throwing problems, chooses this moment to throw a perfect low strike, and Jones is out. One pitch later Snider walks, and you STILL know the O’s are going to rally, with the dangerous Manny Machado at the plate. But Girardi has seen enough of Betances, and he brings in Andrew Miller for a 5-out save. A year ago this is inconceivable: he removes the righty Betances, and brings in lefty Miller to face righty Machado. Has to backfire, right? Miller, too, is a bit wild, and throws four straight pitches out of the zone, but Snider swings at the third one for a foul strike. He pumps a fastball in there for a called strike, and breaks off a nasty slider that Machado misses for a strikeout. He strikes out Shoop on three straight pitches – it is hard to tell but I’m not at all sure that ANY of them would be strikes if taken. One inning to go.
Three quick outs and Miller is back out for the ninth, to protect a 1-run lead. And NOW, finally, I begin to wonder if NY might actually win this game. Baltimore came into this game leading the AL in HRs (and they hit another in the game) but they are now tied for the league lead with (can you guess?) the much-maligned Yankee offense, who have 3 in this game for 12 in 7 games. Miller strikes out Cabrera in an 8-pitch at bat, but Caleb Joseph really launches one on a mistake fastball. The announcers think it might go out, but it is hit to straightaway centerfield, where there is room in every ML park, and Ellsbury CAN cover ground. He makes a nice catch, not actually spectacular but pretty good, and I can breathe again. Just as I think the drama is over, he hits Young (batting for De Aza) with a pitch. He throws two balls to Pearce, then a called strike (taking all the way) and induces a ground ball to Drew. Drew bobbles it (heart in mouth) but recovers and has plenty of time to throw to Teixeira to end the game. Whew!
Meanwhile, elsewhere, the Red Sox pound “best team in baseball” Washington 9-4, the Tigers win streak is done at 6, falling 5-4 to the Pirates, and KC demolishes pitiful Minnesota 12-3 to remain perfect. Fun times.
I LOVE this game!