Turning Point

Posted by Baseball Bob at 10:07
Apr 292017

At some point in the season of every surprise team, there comes a turning point. That is the point where a hot start begins to realize that they are a good team, or young players begin to really believe that they belong; they can play with the big boys. When the feeling turns from “isn’t this fun? Let’s enjoy it while it lasts” to “this could really be something!”. It is absolutely impossible to detect that point when it happens; it is something to look back on and point to: no matter WHAT they say, NO Red Sox fan watched Dave Roberts steal second against Mariano in the ninth inning down 3-0 in games and behind by a run and said “This is it! The curse is over, we are going to win it all!” We can look back NOW and see that as a critical moment, a pivotal event (if he is called out, a point still in some dispute, then the Sox season is over and maybe the curse is still active today).

Thus it is VERY presumptuous of me to consider that the new look Yankees may have had such a moment last night (last 3 nights really) but I think it possible. If I hadn’t been AT Thursday’s game, last nights game would certainly be my favorite of the young season, even though (as is almost always the case) very bad things had to happen to make it such a thrill. I watched CC struggle mightily – he was in trouble all night, made some good pitches when he had to, limited the damage, but still bad things happened: an infield single, a marginal call that allowed a walk, oops 2 runs. A ball just out of reach, a good pitch hammered anyway by a great hitter, oops 2 more. Down 5-0, Judge hit his 8th HR to close to 5-1, but CC put two runners on (one real hit) and gave way to Brian Mitchell, who took runners on the corners with two outs and with walk (to Machado), HR (to Trumbo) made an in-trouble game into a laugher at 9-1. The Yankees got a run back in the bottom of the sixth, and brought up Judge with a runner at second, and he hit THE HARDEST BALL OF THE STATCAST ERA (the past 3 seasons) for a 2-run HR. The slight hope that the Yanks, now down 9-4, might get back into it were crushed when Machado hit a massive blast (much farther than Judge’s, though not as hard-hit) to stretch the lead back to 7 runs at 11-4. But the Yankees loaded the bases for Ellsbury (batting cleanup, again!) and he parked his 100th career HR and FIRST career grand slam well over the short porch in right, a HR in ANY park, and it was 11-8. Two batters later Judge, looking for his 3rd HR, struck out swinging at a bad pitch.

on to the ninth, when the Orioles ALWAYS rule, except that Zach Britton is on the DL. Still Brach, their emergency closer, was 6 for 6 in saves and hadn’t allowed a run all season, seemed up to the job of protecting a 3-run lead for an inning. But Headley did not swing at any of his six offerings, which went strike, ball, ball, ball, strike, ball and we had a baserunner. Holliday, who had come out of his funk a bit with two hits in Boston on Thursday (both off the monster) hit the ball very hard, rocketing off the right-field wall so fast that he was held to a single, Headley holding third and we were in business, first and third with no outs. Ellsbury, the seventh-inning hero, hit a fairly slow grounder up-the-middle, and Hardy, thinking double-play, tried to field it stretching with his foot on the bag, and dropped the ball. He recovered to tag out Holliday as Headley scored to make it 10-9. Up came Castro, with game-tying HR on his mind, and he swung at a pitch so hard that he went to one knee and almost fell over. But the ball went well into the stands in left for a game-tying HR. 11-11. One out later Judge came up with walk-off HR on HIS mind, and took a mammoth swing at a pitch at the knees and off the plate outside, missing badly. Brach decided that was just the pitch and threw him 4 more of them: he had learned his lesson and didn’t offer at any of them. Judge, on first, broke for second on a 2-2 pitch to Bird which appeared to us all (and to Castillo, the catcher) to be high and possibly outside, so Castillo threw for Judge but he stole the base cleanly. A delayed strike call punched out Bird and ended the inning.

The game was tied but it was clearly advantage Yankees: not only had they engineered the comeback, they also hadn’t used their best relievers: Chapman, Betances and Warren were all still on the bench. Meanwhile the Orioles, in a reasonable effort to close out a game that they had led throughout, had gone through their entire bullpen except for Jayson Aquino and a couple of situational lefties. So Chapman came on for NY (no possible save in extra innings at home) to face Jones, Machado and Trumbo. He struck out Jones, got Machado on a hard grounder to third (nice play by Headley) but Trumbo hit a slow ground ball with the infield playing deep and beat out an infield single. No problem, Chapman struck out Chris Davis to end the frame.

Unlike Chapman, Aquino (relieving Brach) got to face 9-1-2 but not who you think: Aaron Hicks had hit for Austin Romine and stayed in to play left, and Gardner had departed for third-string catcher Kyle Higashioka, still looking for his first major-league hit. Hicks, of course, is dangerous and having a great season so far, so Aquino threw him two straight balls, on which he didn’t bite. He then put one in the zone and Hicks took a vicious swing (he missed) but may have scared Aquino because the next two were not that close, and Hicks was on with the winning run. Higoshioka was OBVIOUSLY there to bunt, and Machado was positioned about 40 feet from the plate (I kid you not) and charged on the first pitch. Kyle squared to bunt but pulled back for ball one: Machado was about 10 (!!) feet from the plate at the conclusion of the pitch. The drama repeated and it was 2-0. When Machado charged a third time Higashioka swung hard (he missed) and I swear that Manny both ducked and swerved – he wound up in the Orioles on-deck circle. But he didn’t really back up (he did stop charging on the pitch) as Kyle squared again, and again pulled back on an outside pitch. Someone should tell Aquino that in this situation you have to throw the ball over the plate, so that it goes bunt, field, throw to second. Instead, he walked Higoshioka on 5 pitches, first and second for Headley. Conventional wisdom again dictates a bunt, but this seems a BAD play with a quality hitter up and a hot hitter (Holliday) to follow. Girardi agreed and Headley was up there to hit, to win the game if he could. He couldn’t: Aquino had learned his lesson and threw strikes, and the at bat went strike (looking), strike (swinging), foul, foul, strike (swinging).  It worked so well on Headley that Aquino threw a first-pitch strike to Holliday, who put it into the bullpen, 414 feet away for a 3-run walk-off HR and an 14-11 Yankee win.

It was the first truly bad starting pitching performance for the Yankees since the first week of the season, AND the worst bullpen performance of the season, but also their biggest offensive performance and a signature win. And it just MIGHT be the moment when the hot start became a team that expects to win. Stay tuned.

One day after I noted that the Yankees led the majors in fewest runs allowed, they no longer due, since they gave up 11 runs. But they are now SECOND in runs SCORED per game, as well as second in runs allowed per game, which means they are doing just fine. As you would expect, they are first in run differential, at +38 in 21 games.

Fun times.

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