Tagged: ALCS

Top 12 of 2012

Following the untimely and bitter end of the 2012 season last night, the Yankees are undoubtedly heading back to Yankee Stadium to clean out their lockers, and are going to prepare for what will be about a five month layover until Spring Training kicks up in February.

Now that the season has come to a close, it’s time to reflect on everything that made 2012 a great baseball season. There’s no need to dwell on the tragic ALCS sweep at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, so instead, let’s take a look back at some of the best moments and times of this past season.

Just a note, I’ll be including some personal highlights as well; some moments that made it personally a fun season for me, as a writer, a reporter, and most importantly, a fan. Without any further ado, Yankee Yapping is proud to present its Top 12 of 2012!

12. Catching up with Bernie Williams

Believe it or not, one of the best highlights of the season (for me) came before the season even began!

While I was covering a high school girls’ basketball game in February, I happened to be sitting next to none other than the former Yankee center fielder, Bernie Williams. His daughter Bea led her team to a win, and getting to sit next to a Yankee legend – and a proud father – while it happened was truly an honor.

Read all about my evening with Bernie here!

11. The return of Andy Pettitte

He had an itch to come back, and he went ahead and scratched it.

In March, retired longtime Yankee favorite Andy Pettitte announced that he would be coming out of retirement. He signed a contract, got back in shape, and unfortunately it didn’t work out for him in the end.

Pettitte was sidelined for the majority of the season after getting struck in the left ankle with a come-backer on June 27 – fracturing his fibula.

I’ve discussed my feelings on the whole “coming-out-of-retirement” spiel, but when Pettitte went down, I legitimately felt bad for him, knowing he wanted to pay dividends for the Yankees. At the very least, however, he pitched well in the postseason, as he always does.

10. Home opener shutout

There is nothing like Opening Day. Spring; the feeling of new life is in the air, and baseball is back.

The Yankees made their home opener this year one to remember, beating Albert Pujols and the LA Angels 5-0 behind a brilliant start from Hiroki Kuroda. The Yankee win was one of the first of their 95 victories in 2012, setting the table for yet another strong, winning campaign.

9. Beating up the BoSox

On April 20 the Yankees’ most hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox, honored Fenway Park; their home that turned 100 years old. Red Sox Nation could only hope a nice ceremony and a champagne toast would be followed by a Red Sox win over the Yankees.

No such luck.

The Yankees beat the Red Sox quite decisively, 6-2, ruining their centennial celebration.

And it only got sweeter the next day.

Boston rebounded from the loss with a bang, touching up the Yanks for nine runs through the first six innings. Leading 9-1 in the seventh, the Red Sox had seemingly answered their loss with a win, but things are rarely what they seem in Beantown. The Yanks came back with a vengeance; plating seven runs in the seventh and adding another seven in the eighth, clawing their way back for a huge, 15-9 win over Boston.

Without question those two losses took a lot of air out of Red Sox Nation, and the BoSox went on to have one of their worst seasons since the 1970s.

8. A YES contribution

On June 8 the Yankees absolutely clobbered the Mets, beating their inferior cross-town rivals, 9-1. Robinson Cano led the way with two homers off Mets’ ace Johan Santana, and Nick Swisher and Andruw Jones followed with homers of their own.

As a matter of fact, the Yanks smacked three consecutive homers that night.

During the game, I submitted a tweet to the YES Network, and they used it on their “Extra Innings” postgame show – marking the third time they have used my insight on TV.

Hosts Jack Curry and Bob Lorenz even agreed with my comment.

More YES Network action to come later.

7. A win over Atlanta

There’s nothing like going out to your first game of the season. It took me a couple months, considering covering Minor League Baseball basically consumed my summer, but on June 18 (three days after my birthday!) I finally got out to the big ballpark in the Bronx.

The Yanks hosted the Atlanta Braves in an inter-league showdown, and backed by a dominant, complete game performance from CC Sabathia, won 6-3. The victory kept a 10-game Yankee winning streak alive; Cano and Mark Teixeira each going yard to pace the Yanks at the plate.

I did get out to one more game on Aug. 31 – yet it wasn’t as memorable, the Yankees losing 6-1 to the team they eventually ousted in the ALDS, the Baltimore Orioles.

6. Welcome, Ichiro!

The Yankees made a splash before the trade deadline, acquiring Ichiro from the Seattle Mariners. The 38-year-old veteran outfielder joined the team on July 23, and certainly did a fine job on both sides of the field.

Ichiro played in 67 games for the Yankees – and 162 overall, proving just how durable he really is. In those 67 games in pinstripes he recorded 73 hits and scored 28 runs with 14 stolen bases, 13 doubles, and five homers.

Yes. He’s still got it. Much like Derek Jeter, Ichiro has shown he is ageless. And he certainly helped propel the Yankees down the stretch and into the postseason.

Domo arigato, Mr. Suzuki.

5. YES Network Games

Another game, another YES Network appearance.

On Aug. 6, my tweet was used on the YES Network, during their “YES Network Games” competition. Michael Kay even admitted my question was difficult, although he, John Flaherty, and Meredith Marakovits all came up with the correct answer.

It’s only too bad the content and nature of the question in a way foreshadowed the season’s end.

4. Not so fast, Oakland

The 2012 Yankees had a handful miraculous late-game wins under their belt – maybe not as many as the ’09 Yankees – but when the Bombers fought back this season, you could be sure they would win.

Case in point: Sept. 22 at home vs. Oakland.

Tied 5-5 in the top of the 13th, the A’s were able to score four times and take a 9-5 lead.

Facing a surefire loss, the Bombers showcased some resiliency, and battled back to knot it up at nine, highlighted by a game-tying, two-run homer off the bat of Raul Ibanez. Ichiro later scored on an error for a 10-9 Yankee victory.

To think, while all this was happening I was hanging out with (of all people) Hulk Hogan.

3. Taking the tour

Game after game, the Yankees sit in their dugout; chill in the clubhouse. On Sept. 30 I got a taste of what that feels like.

The Yankee Stadium tour is offered year-round and on Yankee off-days during the regular season. It was something I had wanted to do for awhile, and I finally had my day.

Read all about my Yankee Stadium tour here!

2. Raul Ibanez’s heroics

Baseball in October is sometimes defined as, “unlikely hero.” And the Yankees certainly had one this year.

At the end of the regular season and into the postseason, Raul Ibanez proved to be the Yankees’ most clutch player. With game-tying and game-winning hits, he made a name for himself and earned the respect and love of all Yankee fans.

Trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth on Oct. 2 vs. Boston, Ibanez slammed a two-run home run, tying it all up, 3-3. Three innings later he came up and sank the Red Sox with a walk-off single – a hit that gave the Yankees a 4-3 win over their humiliated hated rivals, but more importantly, kept them alone in first place in the AL East going into the game number 162 of the regular season.

Talk about enough drama for one season. But it was only the beginning.

Against the Orioles – the team that crept up on the Yanks for first place in the AL East towards the end of the year – in Game 3 of the ALDS, Ibanez put on an encore performance.

Down 2-1 this time in the ninth, Ibanez swung his bat hard, lifting the ball deep into the New York night and into the seats for another incredible, game-tying homer. He came up, again in the 12th, and clubbed another death blow; another long ball to give the Yankees a 3-2 victory, sending the Bronx faithful home with smiles on their faces.

Two game-tyers and two game-winners within eight days of each other. And he still had some left.

Last Saturday in Game 1 of the ALCS when defeat looked imminent, Ibanez tied the game with one swing yet again, taking Detroit closer Jose Valverde’s offering into the seats in right field.

Sadly for Ibanez and the Yankees the magic stopped there. But there’s no question that Ibanez had the best October of any Yankee player on the roster.

1. Getting past the O’s

The ALCS may not have ended the way the Yankees would have hoped for, but if nothing else, they should take winning the ALDS away from this postseason as a huge step in the right direction.

After all, the Yankees had not beaten a team in the ALDS not named the Minnesota Twins since 2001, when they beat the A’s. By the numbers, the Yankees were 4-0 vs. the Twins in the ALDS – and 0-5 vs. everyone else. The biggest question on my mind entering October was, “if it’s not the Twins, can the Yankees even win?”

Yes, they can. And moving forward, hopefully it gives them confidence. Let’s say (hypothetically) the Yankees are up against the Chicago White Sox, or the Texas Rangers, or the Angels – or even the Tigers again in the ALDS next year. With the win over the Orioles this year, they now know they can win an ALDS against a team other than the Twins.

Beating the Orioles may have taken a lot of effort, but perhaps it gave them some knowledge.

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Honorable Mention: The Hudson Valley Renegades

As I’ve written about several times, I had the pleasure of covering the Hudson Valley Renegades this season, a MiLB team. The ‘Gades were a huge part of my summer. I spent many nights in the Dutchess Stadium press box, watching the team battle to win after win.

The Renegades went on to beat the Tri-City Valley Cats in the New York-Penn League Championship Series, winning their first league title since 1999 – and only their second league title in team history.

I had so much fun covering the Renegades, and it meant a lot when their manager, Jared Sandberg, told me that not only had he read several of my articles about the team/game recaps, but he was impressed with how well-written they were.

Very encouraging to hear, especially from a former big leaguer and the nephew of a Hall of Famer.

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It’s tough to say goodbye to the 2012 baseball season, because it was one heck of a time.

My only hope now is that 2013 will be just as awesome.

The bitter end

The Yankees made all kinds of history in the American League Championship Series. Unfortunately for them, it was the type of history they didn’t want to be making. For the first time since 1976, the Yankees were swept in a four-game postseason series, thus ending their run for what could have been their 28th World Series title.

The Detroit Tigers have clotheslined the Yanks to the canvas on their chase for 28.

There’s always blame to go around when the postseason ends prematurely, but most of it lies on the lack of production at the plate. The Yankee offense went about as frozen as a cooler in Antarctica, batting .188 overall for the playoffs and a miserable .196 with runners in scoring position.

Any self-respecting manager or coach would say those numbers will just not get the job done in October, and obviously it didn’t for the Yankees.

Up until CC Sabathia’s rough Game 4 outing, the pitching was certainly a bright spot for the Bronx Bombers in the ALCS. As a matter of fact, every pitcher (save for Sabathia this evening) turned in a quality performance. Phil Hughes left Game 3 early, but David Phelps and the bullpen piggy-backed him, and the Tigers only scored two runs – the Yankee offense flaking and falling 2-1.

It’s clear pitching wasn’t the problem this postseason.  The bats just died.

Now with the off-season on the horizon, the Yankee front office has a number of decisions to make. The hitters have around 4-5 months to think about what happened in 2012, but will some of them be back in pinstripes in 2013?

Let’s start with the giant elephant in the room.

Alex Rodriguez

A-Rod was once again the center of October attention – and again, not in a good way.

After being benched in Game 5 of the ALDS for batting .125, Rodriguez only saw seven at-bats in the ALCS. He finished with an overall BA of .130 with no homers, no RBIs, and 12 strikeouts.

Aside from 2009, A-Rod has been a non-factor in the postseason.

What really caught everyone by surprise were his antics in the dugout during the ALCS, sending the ball boy to give two women (reportedly models) sitting in the stands a baseball with his phone number on it. His act garnered all kinds of media attention, and may have led to his benching in the ALCS. He only played in six of the Yanks’ nine postseason games.

Then, out of nowhere, speculation and trade rumors came up about the Yankees possibly moving Rodriguez to the Miami Marlins. General Manager Brian Cashman quickly squashed the rumors as bunk, but later several sources claimed the possible deal wasn’t as false as Cashman initially said it was.

During his postgame interview Rodriguez didn’t indicate that he wants to leave New York – and he does have a no-trade clause in his contract, although according to sources he told his close friends he’d approve a deal to be traded, if it meant going to another big-market team.

“I will be back,” he said after tonight’s loss. “I have a lot to prove. I’ve never thought about going to another team. My focus is on staying here. Let’s make that very, very clear.”

If A-Rod opts to stay, it will be a tough road moving forward for the Yankees. Rodriguez has been plagued by injuries these last few seasons, his offensive numbers have steadily declined, and as evidenced by this October, he struggles in the postseason – to the point where they’re paying him, a key player, to sit on the bench in important games.

The way I see it, if the Yankees can move A-Rod and receive decent, younger players in exchange for him, jump at the chance. Rodriguez is 37 and will be 38 next year – and he is under contract for another five years.    

Bottom line: if you can get out of it, get out of it, Yanks.

Nick Swisher

Unlike Rodriguez, Nick Swisher is a free agent. He durably played in 148 games this season and hit 24 home runs, knocked in 93 runs, and batted a respectable .272 for the season.

Sadly for Swisher, once the postseason begins everyone forgets about those solid numbers.

Swisher absolutely tanked in the playoffs, batting .167 with no homers, just two RBIs, and 10 strikeouts. He came up short in several key spots in the ALDS and ALCS, and wasn’t his normal self before Game 2; not even facing the crowd in right field while warming up. He also missed a ball in the lights in Game 1, which in turn helped lead to the Yankees’ loss.

Yankee beat writer Bryan Hoch at one point tweeted, “The Yankee faithful have seen enough of Swisher, I’m afraid.”

I’m afraid he may be correct.

Although Swisher did hint that he does in fact want to return to the Yankees, there’s a good chance it might not happen. He will certainly find another team willing to take him on if he doesn’t come back to the Bronx, because he offers such a strong, positive presence wherever he goes – and his success reflects that.

It’s just unfortunate that in what could have been his last game at Yankee Stadium, the fan-favorite was booed and jeered off the field – an ungracious way to bow out, if it was indeed his last game in pinstripes.

Other Free Agents & Decisions

  • Hiroki Kuroda. The righty from Japan signed a one-year deal during the off-season and won 16 games – and probably would have won more had he received better run support. If I’m Brian Cashman, I’d certainly try to return Kuroda. He earned it.

  • Andy Pettitte. I’ll be the first to admit, I was at first a little unhappy when Pettitte decided to come out of retirement (in my personal view, I feel he went back on his retirement, a la Roger Clemens and Brett Favre). However, when he was struck in the leg by that come-backer, and he was sidelined for the majority of the season, I felt bad for him, because I know he wanted to pay dividends for the Yankees, and he didn’t exactly get the chance to. I could see him returning for 2013 but ultimately it’ll be a decision he makes over the winter. If he does come back, I’d expect him to come back for a cheap price.
  • Rafael Soriano. The man who filled in so nicely for Mariano Rivera this year can opt out of his contract and attempt to test the open market for more money. If so, the Yankees will have to decide whether or not to pursue him in free agency. But will they have to if…
  • Mariano Rivera returns? Rivera is a free agent and reportedly made a decision about retirement following 2012, but after his season-ending knee injury in May he told the world he will be back. I can’t imagine him being with another team other than the Yankees, especially if 2013 is his final year.
  • Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones. The way I see it, the Yankees have to get younger. Chavez and Jones are both past their prime; their best playing days behind them. I covered a high school football game last week, and as it was, I happened to catch up with the school’s baseball coach – also a Yankee fan. He raised a legitimate question: “Where’s our versions of (Bryce) Harper, (Mike) Trout, and (Manny) Machado?” I answered him, “Playing for the Seattle Mariners,” referencing Jesus Montero. The Yankees have to breed their younger guys better – and they can’t do that clinging to the older guys.

  • Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. Both made their respective debuts in 2007, and both were touted to be the future aces of the Yankees. Six years later, neither has lived up to the hype; both with injury-ravaged careers and mediocre-to-subpar numbers. The Yankees are facing a tough decision with Hughes and Chamberlain. I could see them bringing one back and not the other, but right now I couldn’t tell you which would stay and which would go.
  • Raul Ibanez. About as clutch as clutch can be in the postseason, Ibanez is now a free agent. However, he’s also 40 years old. If he does return, I can’t see him coming back for a lot of money; he’d have to sign back for an inexpensive price. Looking at it objectively though, he may have earned himself another contract, simply by his late-inning October heroics. It’s just another decision the Yanks will be faced with.

  • Ichiro. Although he’ll turn 39 on Monday – and this kind of goes against my plea to develop younger players – Ichiro this year proved he can still field, hit, and run just fine. If it were up to me, I’d try to get him back. It’ll be interesting to see if the Yankees make him an offer to play next year, and if they do, what type of money they’ll offer him. I’d imagine it’d only be a one-year deal. Anywhere between $7-9 million, perhaps?
  • Derek Lowe. No I don’t expect him back. He was a rental.
  • Jayson Nix. He’s a maybe. We’ll have to wait and see.

There are also a number of free agents on the open market; potential players from other teams the Yankees can pursue. I’m anticipating a busy off-season, given the number of possible moves the Yankees can make. I’m also anxious to see what happens, considering Cashman and the front office are hoping to keep the payroll under $189 million.

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As per the end of every season, I’d like to thank the loyal readers of Yankee Yapping! I know 2012 didn’t end with a World Series Championship like we wanted, but it was still a fun year for baseball and the Yankees.

Be sure to keep up with YY during the off-season. I’m sure I’ll have stories, and analysis and highlights of what’s happening as the hot stove cooks. Also be sure to follow me on Twitter (@AJ_Martelli) and keep up with YY on Facebook (#ShamelessPlug)

Thanks again, everyone. And Go Yankees!

In peril and fading fast

Funny, how in a matter of 48 hours, everything changes. On Friday Yankee Universe was in a state of euphoria. Fast forward to now and Yankee Universe is in a state of flux.

The Yankees had no times to rest after ousting the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS, but still celebrated with happiness and champagne in the clubhouse. The good feeling of moving on to the last round before the World Series was short-lived however, given the circumstances surrounding the first two games of the American League Championship Series.

New York dropped Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday night, even after staging an incredible game-tying comeback in the ninth inning, and then proceeded to drop Game 2 yesterday without plating a run.

Just like that, the Yankees are down 0-2 in a best-of-seven, heading into the Motor City.

There are several reasons – well, culprits – for the Yanks’ deficit. It’s difficult to single out just one player, or one event in which the Yankees squandered a chance to take a lead or win an ALCS game. Therefore, it’s only fitting to place the blame on all those who deserve it – basically all of the Yankee hitters that are guilty of folding in key spots.

Nick Swisher

On Saturday in the top of the 12th, the game tied 4-4, Nick Swisher misplayed a ball struck by Delmon Young in right field. Miguel Cabrera scored as a result and later in the frame Don Kelly came to the plate on a single by Andy Dirks.

The miscue proved to be the difference in the game, the Yankees losing Game 1, 6-4.

The situation may have been forgivable had it not cost the Yankees the game – and if Swisher wasn’t batting .154 with eight strikeouts, no homers, and one RBI for the playoffs. What added a fair amount of fuel to the fire was the fact that later in the inning the Yankees’ worst nightmare manifested itself, Derek Jeter suffering a postseason-ending ankle fracture.

Swisher didn’t help his cause, not only barely acknowledging the bleacher creatures before Game 2, but also claiming the fans blamed him for Jeter’s injury.

“I missed that ball in the lights and the next thing you know I’m the reason that Jeter got hurt. It’s kind of frustrating. They were saying it was my fault.”

Nobody can rightfully blame Swisher for Jeter’s injury; it wasn’t his fault, and injuries in baseball can never be predicted. However, Swisher shouldn’t make excuses or in any way call out the fans. The media jumped all over it, saying he blamed the fans for his current trifles.

He’s always been a fan-favorite, but there’s already been plenty of chatter about whether or not Swisher will return next year. If he doesn’t turn things around in Game 3 and moving forward, his leave will not be very gracious; Swisher might bow out of the Bronx in a not-so-endearing fashion.

 

Curtis Granderson  

In the final game of the ALDS on Friday Curtis Granderson lifted a solo home run to help put the Orioles away. Many Yankee fans probably thought the round-tripper was the end of his terrible funk, considering he struck out nine times in the Division Series with a batting average of .158.

If the fans thought that, they were wrong.

Granderson hasn’t yet recorded a base hit in the ALCS, and added five more strikeouts in seven at-bats. His BA has sunk to a measly .115 and his on-base percentage is a joke: .207.

While I was covering a high school football game on Friday, I happened to be standing on the sidelines next to the school’s baseball coach. Before the football game began we were discussing Granderson’s batting stance and mechanics. The coach mentioned that Granderson’s stance and his swing look incredibly awkward, and he’s always trying to uppercut the ball.

This writer can’t argue. Looking at each of his strikeouts this postseason, he’s whiffing on breaking balls in the dirt, swinging under them; almost as if he’s trying swing a nine iron, and horribly missing the tee. His swing isn’t level and it’s costing him.

His offensive neurosis is inexplicable but in a lot of ways isn’t surprising. Granderson homered 43 times during the regular season and knocked in 106 runs. But if you sum up his home run and RBI total, it doesn’t even add up to the number of times he struck out this season: 195.

Bottom line, when he hits, he hits. When he misses, boy does he miss. And he has been missing a lot lately – the wrong time to go ice cold.

Robinson Cano

Another classic case of a hitter going from juggernaut to jugger-not.

Robinson Cano set a career-high in home runs in 2012 with 33 and finished the year with a solid .313 batting average. He closed out the regular season with a bang, homering twice while knocking in six in a 14-2 win over the Red Sox – a nice hitting show to end the year.

Too bad it was curtains for Cano’s hitting show once the postseason began.

The Yankees’ second baseman is batting a mind-boggling .063 this postseason with no hits thus far in the ALCS. Instead of lifting the ball he has been beating it into the ground for easy outs, mostly pulling it to the right side for the first baseman to make unassisted plays.

Unlike Granderson, Cano’s offensive slump has been surprising. He has always had an easy, effortless, and otherwise sweet swing. It seems as though he’s been swinging late at pitches he normally hits, fouling them off then missing them altogether.

If the Yankees want to win, he needs to straighten himself out. Cano has been the best hitter on the team throughout the year – and when your best hitter isn’t hitting, winning is rare. Trailing by two games in the ALCS, Cano must come alive, because .063 just will not cut it.

Alex Rodriguez

Notorious for being a poor producer in the month of October, minus 2009, it doesn’t come as a shock that Alex Rodriguez is struggling as much as he is. It seems as if every key spot which requires the Yankees to score a run comes down to A-Rod – and in each of those spots, he fails.

Unfortunately, with every failure comes boos and jeers from the Yankee faithful.

Rodriguez struck out nine times in the ALDS and tacked on three more Ks in the first two ALCS games. Not that it’s saying much, but his batting average (.130) is at least better than Granderson’s and Cano’s. He hasn’t doubled, tripled, homered, or driven in any runs this postseason.

At this point, it’s a safe bet to say it’s a mental issue with Rodriguez. Even at his worst times, he has never been this bad.

Is he pressing and trying to do too much in every trip to the plate? Yes.

Is he really this bad, though? I don’t know.

In Game 5 of the ALDS Rodriguez was benched – which I saw mostly as a “mental health day,” hoping he’d take the day off and come back with a vengeance. It proved to be ineffective as it was, because he went right back to not hitting when the ALCS started.

At this point, I don’t know what the answer is for A-Rod. Hitting Coach Kevin Long can only do so much, and extra batting practice can only go so far. Rodriguez’s swings are some of the weakest hacks I’ve seen him take.

My advice would be to get him to a psychiatrist. Or maybe just give him a hug and hope for the best.

Other Problems

  • Derek Jeter is out for the remainder of the playoffs. It comes as a huge blow to the Yankees, being that the Captain was one of the only players actually hitting. Jeter left the postseason with a .333 BA, a double, a triple, and two RBIs. His ankle fracture will take three months to recover from, and he won’t be with the team in Detroit. The Captain will be in Charlotte, NC seeing a specialist for his injured ankle.
  • Second base umpire Jeff Nelson made a costly mistake in Game 2 yesterday, calling Omar Infante safe when he was obviously out, trying to get back to the base. The blown call proved to be a game-changer because the Tigers, clinging to a small, 1-0 lead in the inning, went on to score two runs following the blunder. Not that Nelson should be blamed for the Yankees’ dead offense, but different scenarios are possible with a 1-0 lead and a 3-0 lead in the late innings – just ask Raul Ibanez.

  • RoboCop…errm…Justin Verlander is starting Game 3. Verlander, the reigning Cy Young Award winner and AL MVP doesn’t exactly have his work cut out for him; not that he ever really does, considering how dominant he always is. Facing a nearly extinct Yankee offense without Jeter, Verlander and the Tigers must feel invincible going into tomorrow night’s game.
  • The Yankees stranded 12 runners on base in just three instances in Game 1, leaving the bases loaded three times. With that, they made postseason history. And no, not in the good way.

On the Bright Side?

  • CC Sabathia will start Game 4. Even if the Yankees drop Game 3 tomorrow, it’s possible they salvage a game in this ALCS, what with the big ace on the hill in Game 4.

  • June 3. Phil Hughes pitched a complete game, four-hit shutout in Detroit, the Yankees winning 5-1 – a victory over Verlander. He’ll match up again with Verlander tomorrow night; the history on the Yankees’ side.
  • The starting pitching overall this postseason. All four of the Yankee starters have gone out and given the team a chance to win. In fact, every start has been a quality start. The problem lies in run support, as the root of the losing problem stems from the non-existent offense.

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Nothing has really fallen the Yankees’ way over the first two ALCS games. Perhaps losing Game 2 will be a wake-up call, and the bats will come alive; the offense finally breaking out and scoring some runs for the battling starting pitchers.

Maybe Joe Girardi needs to call an angry meeting. Maybe A-Rod needs therapy. Maybe Brian Cashman needs to storm the clubhouse and recreate the scene from Moneyball that portrays A’s General Manager Billy Beane lighting a fire under his players, calling them out on their dead bats.

Something needs to happen. Or else this could very well be the end of the 2012 Yankees.

Yanks oust O’s, now out for RAWR-demption

It wasn’t the Twins, but the Yankees still won.

Coming into the 2012 playoffs, the Yankees were 0-5 against teams not named the Minnesota Twins in the American League Division Series. Finally, they got over the hump; eliminated a team other than Minnesota with a 3-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles last night to advance to the American League Championship Series.

Although they did leap the ALDS hurdle, it will only get more difficult for the Bombers from here. Waiting for them in the ALCS are none other than the Detroit Tigers – the team that not only beat them in five games in last year’s ALDS, but booted them in four in the first round of the 2006 postseason.

The Yankees have a lot going for them in the ALCS, but at the same time, a lot is working against them.

Advantages

  • The possibility of only facing Justin Verlander once. It took five games for the Tigers to finish off the Oakland A’s in the ALDS, and the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner and MVP pitched twice. In a best-case-scenario, they deal with Verlander once and be done with it.
  • Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, and Derek Jeter’s numbers vs. Detroit’s Game 1 starter, Doug Fister. Teixeira has a homer and four RBIs in 12 at-bats lifetime off Fister, while Swisher holds a homer and two RBIs over his head. Jeter owns a .385 batting average with two RBIs off him. If they can swing the bats the way they have in the past off Fister, they might be able to take some wind out of the Tigers’ sails, right from the start.
  • Andy Pettitte starting Game 1. It kind of goes with the “taking the wind of out the Tigers’ sails” motif. Pettitte is battle-tested in the postseason, and if he takes the ball tonight and gives the Yankees quality, there’s a good chance the Bombers can get a quick, 1-0 series lead. Pettitte always affords them a chance to win.
  • June 3. Phil Hughes, who hasn’t been consistent this year to say the least, pitched his way to a complete game, four-hit victory in Detroit. Hughes only allowed one earned run to the lead the Yanks to their 5-1 win – and it’s worth noting he outdueled Verlander for that win. The long ball was a problem for Hughes this season (35 homers allowed, second most in the majors), but if he turns in a performance like he did in Game 4 of the ALDS, it’s good news for New York.
  • CC Sabathia and a rested bullpen. Sabathia really strutted his stuff in the ALDS – especially in the clinching game last night, going the distance. Not only did he give the Yankees an extreme amount of confidence going forward, but he rested a rather taxed bullpen, what with two ALDS games going beyond nine innings.

  • The Tigers’ bullpen. Jose Valverde blew a key save to keep the Oakland A’s alive, and is notorious for flirting with disaster. In a close, late-game situation the Yankees can easily capitalize on his mistakes. Valverde saved 35 games for Detroit during the regular season, but he’s not exactly Mariano Rivera, or even Rafael Soriano.

Disadvantages

  • Obviously, the way the Yankees have been swinging the bats. Offensively, the Yankees had about one inning in the ALDS – the ninth inning of Game 1 – in which the bats were clicking on all cylinders. Other than that one frame, the Bombers have been (to put it mildly) struggling at the plate. Swisher, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Ichiro, and, well…virtually everyone might benefit from some extra batting practice.

  • The psyche of Alex Rodriguez. It’s no secret when it comes to the postseason, A-Rod is constantly being thrown under the microscope; then being ragged on for folding at the plate. Outside of the 2009 playoffs, it’s not unfair to say Rodriguez has been an October goat. In the four games he played in the ALDS A-Rod was 2-for-16 with no homers, no RBIs, and the stat that sticks out like a sore thumb: nine strikeouts. He was benched for the deciding game because of his poor performance in the ALDS, but he has an opportunity to channel his inner 2009 and put it behind him. In my opinion, it’s a mental issue – one that he must get over in order to be successful.
  • The King with three crowns. Miguel Cabrera, for his entire career, has never been an easy out for the Yankees; in fact, he’s a Yankee killer. And if you’re talking about the all-time champion Yankee killers – players like Ken Griffey, Jr., Edgar Martinez, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz – Cabrera must be mentioned in the same breath. It’s going to be quite the task pitching to him, and the guy behind him, big Prince Fielder. The poisonous 1-2 punch in the heart of the Tigers’ batting order will undoubtedly pose the biggest offensive threat and potentially supply the Tigers with plenty of offense.

 

  • Verlander. Kind of tough to ignore the giant elephant in the room. Verlander may not have had the best season numerically vs. the Yankees, but he’s still one of the most feared pitchers in the American League. Like Sabathia he closed out the ALDS with a brilliant complete game gem. I’d like to see what it’d be like if he matched up with Sabathia in the ALCS; a showcase of virtuosos and a pitcher’s duel would be my bet.
  • Postseason history vs. Detroit.  The Yankees were able to get over beating a team not named the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS, but now can they get over a team that has twice eliminated them in October?

Well, now that I mention it…

The last time the Yankees faced a team in the ALCS that had twice eliminated them in the ALDS: the Angels, in 2009. They were able to get over the halo hurdle in six games, then go on to claim the World Series. If the Yankees are lucky, history will repeat itself.

But they have to tame the Tigers if they want it to.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Before the ALDS, my cousin C.J. from Baltimore (yeah, I know about the A.J. – C.J. thing, heard it a million times) wrote me a little message on Facebook:

“Here come the O’s, buddy. Gonna be a good series!”

I responded, “Definitely! O’s have a fire in them, but it’ll be tough to cool off Robinson Cano. May the best team win.”

Obviously it wasn’t tough for them to Cool off Cano, but the Yanks still won. I wrote back last night,

“Good series, cuz. O’s battled like warriors, came up just short. Hope the Yankees can knock off the Tigers now!”

C.J., the class act he is, replied, “Aw man, what a classic series. Already can’t wait for next year. Best of luck to you guys!”

I’d just like to thank C.J. for being (in a way) a gracious loser; not making me, a Yankee fan, feel bad about winning the ALDS, him being an O’s fan – and even going as far as wishing me luck (as a fan) in the next round.

Thanks again, Ceej. And it was a classic series. I hope the Yankees and O’s meet again in the playoffs next year. I’m up for another series.  

If it’s not the Twins, can the Yankees win?

Last year the Yankees were ousted from the playoffs at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, losing the deciding Game Five on Oct. 6. This year will be a much different story, considering the American League Division Series won’t even begin until Oct. 7 – 2012 already a longer postseason than 2011 for the Bronx Broskis.

By the end of tonight’s all-or-nothing Wild Card play-in game the Yanks will know where they’re headed for the first two games of the ALDS: they’ll either be getting on a plane set on course for Texas to play the Rangers, or they’ll be heading to Baltimore to face the Orioles.

Before they square off with their first round opponents, there’s an ALDS history lesson that needs to be taught. In 2001, the Yanks eliminated the Oakland A’s in five games. Since then have had an easy time with one particular team in the first round of the playoffs, but haven’t had much luck against virtually anyone else.

2002 ALDS: Yankees booted by the Los Angeles Angels, three games to one. Loss

2003 ALDS: Yankees defeated the Minnesota Twins, three games to one. Win

2004 ALDS: Yankees duplicated ’03, beating the Minnesota Twins, three games to one. Win

2005 ALDS: Yankees once again booted by the LA Angels, this time three games to two. Loss

2006 ALDS: Yankees eliminated by the Detroit Tigers, three games to one. Loss

2007 ALDS: Yankees forced to an early exit at the hands of the Cleveland Indians, three games to one. Loss

2008: Didn’t make playoffs

2009 ALDS: Yankees sweep the Minnesota Twins, three games to none. Win

2010 ALDS: Yankees once again broom the Minnesota Twins, three games to none. Win

2011 ALDS: Yankees eliminated by the Tigers, three games to two. Loss

Obviously there’s a pattern here. The Yankees have no problem beating teams in the ALDS – teams that are only named Minnesota Twins, that is. The Angels, Tigers, and Indians have crushed the Yankees’ dreams in the ALDS, so it begs the question that’s been on my mind since last October:

If it’s not the Twins, can the Yankees win?

Either way, New York has a great deal of experience playing each of its potential 2012 first round opponents. This writer has been asked who he’d rather see the Yankees play in this year’s ALDS: the Rangers or Orioles. I’m not quite sure because the way I see it, there are pros and cons of facing either team.

Texas Rangers

Pros

  • The Rangers played incredibly sloppy baseball to close out the 2012 regular season, committing three errors on the way to a one-sided 12-5 loss to the Oakland A’s on Wednesday, blowing the AL West in the process– and it didn’t start there. Texas lost seven of its last 10 regular season games.

  • No Cliff Lee this time. If it wasn’t enough for Lee to hand the Yanks their only two losses in the 2009 World Series, he came back for seconds in the 2010 American League Championship Series; dominating the Bombers in a crucial Game Three with a masterful 13-strikeout performance. He was a huge part of the Rangers’ past success vs. New York – and he’ll be a non-factor this postseason. Speaking of past success…
  • Past success in the ALDS vs. Texas. The Yankees played the Rangers in the ALDS in 1996, 1998, and in 1999 – and knocked them out all three years while twice sweeping them (‘98 and ’99). Although the Rangers knocked the Yanks out in the second round of the playoffs in 2010, the Yanks have never had a problem with them in the first round. Numerically in fact, the Yankees are 9-1 vs. Texas in ALDS play.

Cons

  • The first two games will be played in Arlington. Along with the changes made to the Wild Card, MLB changed the rules in terms of home field advantage. Instead of the team with home field advantage playing the first two games at home, then going on the road for two, then coming home for a Game Five (if necessary), the team with HFA starts on the road for two games, then comes home for the final three (games four and five of course, if necessary). Therefore, the Yankees will have to play the first two ALDS games in Texas, which is a difficult Stadium to win at.

  • Facing Yu Darvish. The Yanks won’t have to worry about the young man from Japan in Game One of the ALDS if the Rangers take the Wild Card, as he’ll be starting the winner-take-all game vs. Baltimore tonight. However, if the Yankees do happen to cross paths with him, they should keep Tuesday, April 24 in mind: the night Darvish shut them down with an 8.1-inning, 10-strikeout masterpiece to lead the Rangers to a 2-0 win. His name might not be Cliff Lee, but Darvish was a virtuoso that night; reminiscent of a Lee performance.
  • Pitching to Josh Hamilton. In the 2010 ALCS Hamilton punished the Yankees, clubbing four home runs, driving in seven, and batting .350. He went on to win the ALCS MVP, and later the American League MVP. His batting average for 2012 may not have been the highest of his career (.285) but Hamilton still smacked 43 homers and batted in 128 runs. He is one of the most dangerous hitters in the big leagues – and obviously he’s more dangerous playing in October, when it matters.

Baltimore Orioles

Pros

  • Familiarity. The Yankees are no strangers to Camden Yards, having played nine games there this year. Yankee fans flock down from New York to root for the team, sometimes giving Oriole Park the feel of Yankee Stadium. And in case you’re wondering, six of the Yanks’ nine wins vs. Baltimore this year were road victories.
  • The Orioles’ postseason drought. Baltimore hasn’t danced in October since 1997 – and their last taste of playoff baseball ended on a sour note: the Indians beating them in the ALCS. It’ll be interesting to see just how the Orioles respond when all eyes are on them this October.
  • The absence of longtime Yankee nemesis Nick Markakis. The 28-year-old outfielder – also a career .295 hitter – was struck by a pitch on his thumb on Sept. 8, fracturing the bone and thus ending his season. With Baltimore boasting such a potent offensive lineup with the likes of Mark Reynolds, Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters, Markakis is one less problem for the Yankee pitching staff to worry about.
  • Inexperience on the part of the Orioles’ third baseman. Manny Machado was called up from the Double-A Bowie Baysox on Aug. 9. He’s done a fine job on offense in his infantile career, with seven homers and 26 RBIs. But on Monday, some shoddy defense at third cost his team a game vs. Tampa Bay – a game the Orioles needed to win in order to stay in contention with the Yankees for the AL East. If Machado falls through the cracks on defense, it might cost the O’s in the playoffs, the same way it did vs. the Rays.

Cons

  • The Orioles knew how to win in extra innings this year. Baltimore posted 16 extra-inning victories in 2012, and won nine games that lasted 12 innings or longer. Some of their dramatics included a 15-inning win, a 17-inning win, and an 18-inning win this year. For the Yankees, playing only nine innings is key, given the O’s dominance in extra frames.
  • Pitching to Mark Reynolds. The Orioles’ first baseman smacked 23 home runs this year – and seven of those 23 were off Yankee pitchers. Reynolds posted a .294 average vs. the Yankees in 2012 and knocked in 14 runs against New York. All season long Reynolds has been a thorn in the Yanks’ side, and he has a chance to continue it in the playoffs.
  • Jim Johnson at the end of the game. Baltimore’s closer nailed down 51 saves this year in 54 save opps. Up until Tuesday, the Yankees were 0-for-58 when trailing after eight innings. Johnson is not a pitcher the Yankees would ideally want to be facing in a late, close game. Johnson was 3-for-3 in saves vs. New York this year.

  • Resiliency on the Orioles’ part. Case in point: Thursday, Sept. 6. At Camden Yards, the Yankees fell behind early and trailed the O’s 6-1 after seven innings. New York rallied for five runs in the top of the eighth to tie it at six – only for Baltimore to answer with a four-run bottom half of the eighth. When it looked as if the momentum swung the Yankees’ way, the Orioles made sure to show the Bombers they possess the ability to battle back. Baltimore went on to win, 10-6.

……………………………………………………………………………………………….

As always, there are upsides and downsides of playing any postseason opponent. I’m not one to make predictions, but ESPN is: and 11 of 28 analysts in Bristol, Conn. say the Yankees will be going to the Fall Classic – and six of those 11 have the Yankees winning it all.

This writer can only hope those six are right.

It’s only too bad the Twins aren’t playing for the Wild Card this year. I know the Yankees would be rooting hard for them – and I think, given the history, I’d say the Yankees’ odds of winning the first round would be pretty favorable.

But it’s not the case. It’s not the Twins and if the Yanks want World Series number 28 this season, they’ll have to do what good teams do: find ways to win.

I’m Not OK with It

On Feb. 4, 2011 veteran starting pitcher Andy Pettitte announced his retirement from baseball. The crafty southpaw sat in front of an audience of his peers and teammates, emotionally declaring he was done with baseball at the age of 38. Pettitte last pitched in 2010, making 21 starts for the Yanks and finishing the year with a record of 11-3 attached to a respectable 3.28 ERA.

As a player, Pettitte has accomplished nearly everything one can accomplish. He owns five World Series rings, and has been on pennant-winning teams eight times – seven trips to the fall classic with New York, and one with Houston. He is a three-time All-Star, and even earned the honor of the 2001 ALCS MVP.

Pettitte has also shown that he can get it done on the big stage with 19 wins in the postseason under his belt. His 19 victories make him the winningest pitcher in playoff history.

Really the only accolade Pettitte never captured was the Cy Young Award, and he could have easily won it several times. In fact, in 1996 he was the runner-up to Pat Hentgen. In 2003 Pettitte won 21 games which put him in the running for the Cy, but ultimately he lost out to 22-game winner Roy Halladay.

It was nice to see Pettitte bow out of the game gracefully last winter. Although I was disappointed to see him hang up his spikes, I was happy to see him give it up on his own terms. His teammates, the Yankee organization, and the fans all seemed fine with his decision.

Throughout 2011 Pettitte was asked several times if he would come out of retirement, and whenever he was asked, he remained adamant that he was staying retired. And for that, I respected him. I truly admire when players retire – and stay retired.

And yesterday, all of that changed. My respect, my admiration…all gone.

Jack Curry of the YES Network (That’s right Jack Curry, and no one else) broke the news that Pettitte, who had been in Yankee camp serving as a special instructor, is planning on coming out of retirement. He was offered a one-year minor league deal by the Yankees worth $2.5 million.

According to sources Pettitte threw a discreet bullpen session in front of the Yankee brass on Tuesday morning, and they liked what they saw. Both sides were interested and just like that number 46 is coming back. Yankee fans everywhere are ecstatic to see Pettitte return to the team, granted he has to fight for a spot in the rotation.

But unlike most Yankee fans, I’m not too happy about it.

If it’s one thing that I absolutely cannot stand in sports, it is players who make a big fuss about retiring, hold pressers, become overwrought with emotion, and declare that, no matter what, they are done with the game – only for them to come back and play, for whatever reason.

Following the 2003 season Roger Clemens announced his retirement from baseball. The Yankees sent him off with a Hummer and congratulated him on a wonderful, Hall of Fame-worthy career.

Clemens then hopped in his new Hummer and drove it all the way to Houston, where he pitched for three seasons. Come to think of it, Clemens announced his retirement for the second time following the first annual World Baseball Classic in 2006. Of course that was before he re-joined the Astros midway through ’06 and the Yankees in the middle of 2007.

I hated that. It irked me to see Clemens flip-flop so many times. And considering how close Clemens and Pettitte were during their respective tenures on the Yankees and Astros, I couldn’t help but make the comparison in the case of Pettitte coming out of retirement yesterday.

To Pettitte’s credit, he is taking far less money than Clemens did back in ’07. The Rocket was getting paid somewhere around a $million a game, whereas Pettitte will only make $2.5 mil overall – so in that regard, it’s a little different.

But it doesn’t change the fact that he retired and should have stayed retired. Whenever players play the “I’m retired, I’m not retired” card, I lose respect for them. If Pettitte wanted to remain involved within the Yankee community, he could have just as easily grabbed a blazer and a microphone and gone to the YES booth with his former teammates David Cone, Paul O’Neill, and John Flaherty.

Or better yet, he could have sought a job as a pitching coach. Obviously Larry Rothschild is occupying the job at the big league level, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have gone out for a job coaching one of the minor league teams and worked his way up.

What also doesn’t make sense to me is that the Yankees are already at a surplus as far as starting pitching goes. The Bombers have six arms fighting for five rotation spots. Manager Joe Girardi has already said only two hurlers have guaranteed jobs: CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda.

Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, Freddy Garcia, and Michael Pineda are currently battling for the final three rotation spots and now the competition just got stiffer. All because Pettitte just couldn’t stay retired.

Something else that confuses me is his problems staying healthy, dating back to the last season he pitched. On July 18, 2010 Pettitte made a start against the Tampa Bay Rays, and came out after just 2.1 innings of work. He hobbled off the mound, sustaining a groin injury. Pettitte didn’t make another start until Sept. 19, exactly two months and a day later.

In an interview yesterday, Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman admitted he is “concerned about Pettitte’s lower half,” and even Pettitte himself said he has to “get the lower half in shape.”

With that in mind, why even bother trying to make a comeback?  He’s only a year older, what makes him think his problems concerning his lower extremities are going to be solved? The last time he pitched his season was basically injury-ravaged. So why would he test himself, risking those types of injuries again?

Now to be fair, Pettitte hasn’t made the team yet. In all likelihood he’ll throw in extended spring training and won’t join the team until the end of April or May, or maybe even later. It all depends on how well he is pitching and how long it takes him to get ready for the regular season.

However in that respect, it’s almost another way he’s comparable to Clemens; coming out of retirement and not joining the team until after the season starts.

The bottom line is: I dislike the signing and I have lost an amount of respect for Pettitte. A lot of Yankee fans are probably going to disagree with me, and that’s fine; they don’t have to agree with me. I fully understand I am in the tiny majority of fans who think his decision to come out of retirement is not the right move.

I have a feeling the next baseball conversation I have with anyone, I’m going to take a lot of heat for my stance on this issue. But I’m not going to budge. Even if Pettitte goes on to have a remarkable season – and I hope he does, for the Yankees’ sake – the fact that he went back on his retirement will never sit well with me.

Hot Flashes

Every so often a player will come along in any sport, and set the world on fire. Big plays, clutch performances and wild finishes typically define these players, as they become the talk of the town upon emerging.

The latest player to set the world ablaze: New York Knicks’ point guard Jeremy Lin.

The 23-year-old phenom is a classic feel-good story. Lin was a nobody; just days away from being cut. When the Knicks were scuffling he was given a chance to play – and it’s safe to say he made the most of that opportunity.

Among some of his accomplishments, “Super Lin-tendo” outscored basketball god Kobe Bryant on Friday, netted the game-winning 3-point field goal vs. the Toronto Raptors last night, was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, and became the first player in NBA history to score at least 20 points and record seven assists through his first four starts.

“Linsanity” has swept the nation. Even I have caught the fever. I bought this the other day:

Lin is on a roll, but keep in mind, he has only dominated a small number of games – six to be exact. He has certainly shown what he can do, seeing as how the Knicks are undefeated in the so-called “Lin Era.” The question has to be raised however:

Will Lin be a mainstay or just a flash in the pan?

After last night’s dramatics, Lin has me sold. I truly feel he will be a great player for a long time, as he has demonstrated remarkable ability to elevate his team. The Knicks were getting their faces rubbed in the dirt. Lin came along, picked them up, dusted them off, and made them relevant again.

This whole “Lin-credible” craze got me thinking about the Yankees: which Bombers came out of nowhere, made an immediate impact, and lifted the team?

Here are a few names that came to mind…

Kevin Maas

Never heard of Kevin Maas? Neither did I, until I began my research for this blog entry.

According to what I read, Maas was a first baseman who played for the Yankees from 1990-93. He crushed 10 homers in just 77 at-bats and finished his first season with 24 homers, playing in only 79 games.

A lot of people even went as far as saying Maas was going to be Don Mattingly’s heir.

But it all declined for him. His numbers slowly but surely decreased as the time passed. Despite clubbing 23 homers in ’91, he hit just .220 in 148 games. He only hit 11 homers the following year and nine the year after.

Maas eventually went to the Minnesota Twins in 1995 and was cut after only 22 games. I suppose he will just remain an anomaly; a one-hit wonder who set the baseball world aglow literally right before I started following the Yankees.

I’m actually very surprised I didn’t know about him until today.

Shane Spencer

In September of 1998, a 26-year-old outfielder who tore apart the minor leagues was called up to the show. Shane Spencer, who in 1997 hit 30 homers and knocked in 86 runs for the Columbus Clippers (the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate at the time), took New York by storm.

Unexpectedly, Spencer smacked 10 home runs in the month of September, in only 67 at-bats. Of those 10 homers, three of them came with the bases loaded. A lot of the veteran Yankee players and fans were right behind Spencer, on the edge of their seats every time he stepped up to the plate.

Much like the barrage of Lin nicknames, fans in the crowd held signs that read,

“Shane Brings da Pain!” Not to mention even the Sports Illustrated recognized his outburst.

Unfortunately for Spencer, in a lot of ways, he was just a one-hit wonder. Aside from his spectacular “September to Remember” he didn’t accomplish much else of note, save for a few accolades. Spencer did collect three World Series rings, being with the Yanks from ’98-00, and hit two home runs in the ‘98 ALDS vs. Texas.

He also smacked a home run in the 2001 Fall Classic vs. Arizona, while only securing a .222 batting average in eight postseason series.

It’s kind of sad what happened to him after the hype vanished. Spencer got in some off-the-field trouble for drunk driving and reports surfaced that he had problems with the Florida police around Spring Training, 2004.

Nevertheless, his late-season spark of the ‘98 Yankees may never be forgotten by the most devout pinstripe faithful.

Aaron Small

In 2005 the Yankees were coming off arguably the worst time in their franchise history. The 2004 Boston Red Sox rallied back from an 0-3 ALCS deficit to not only beat them, but also embarrass them.

Boston made history. The Yankees became history.

The following season however, the Bombers re-tooled by signing the overpowering southpaw Randy Johnson, as a lack of solid starting pitching was cited as their 2004 playoff downfall.

But the Big Unit couldn’t do it all by himself.  Other starters had to step up.

Cue Aaron Small, a 34-year-old right-handed journeyman. Small had stints with six other ball clubs before finding his way to the Bronx. He emerged at just the right time, filling a hole in an injury-ravaged starting rotation. He made his first start on July 20, 2005, beating the Texas Rangers.

Small would go on to win 10 games in 2005 – without ever losing. In fact, he became the first Yankee to win his first nine decisions since Tommy John (1979) and just the fourth player in MLB history to win 10 games without recording a loss.

He turned Yankee Stadium into “Smallville,” I guess you could say.

The Yankees began the ’05 season with a lopsided 11-19 record through their first 30 games. Considering where they were, it’s not crazy to say Small played a huge role in terms of getting his team back into the playoff hunt.

Much like Spencer, Small’s success didn’t last. He recorded the loss in Game 3 of the 2005 ALDS vs. the Los Angeles Angels, and went on to go 0-3 in three starts for the Yanks in 2006. Small was designated for assignment on June 17, 2006 and signed a minor league deal with the Seattle Mariners prior to the 2007 season.

He was released by the Mariners in May and shortly after called it a career.

Small’s contribution in ’05 was remembered by the Yankee brass, as he has been honored at two Old Timer’s Days (2008, 2011). Before his appearance at Old Timer’s Day ’08, Small won a battle with encephalitis, which had put him in a coma for eight days.

To me, Small will always be remembered as a winner; a player who stepped up when everyone else was struggling. If you ask me, by no means is that a bad way to be remembered.

Shawn Chacon

Much like Small, Shawn Chacon emerged at the right time. The Yanks’ starting rotation in ‘05 was in disarray and the starters needed to step it up. The 28-year-old righty was having a rough go of it in Colorado, going 1-7 for the Rockies before being dealt to the Yanks for minor leaguers Ramon Ramirez and Eduardo Sierra.

He came to the Yankees with low expectations, but went above and beyond what anyone could have hoped for. Right from the get-go Chacon made a splash, tossing six innings without surrendering a run to the Angels in his first start in pinstripes. Although he didn’t get the decision, the Yanks beat the Halos behind Chacon, 8-7.

Chacon ended 2005 with a 7-3 record for New York while notching a 2.85 ERA. He also picked up Small, winning Game 4 of the ALDS vs. the Angels. The Yanks went on to lose the ALDS, yet many baseball analysts felt Chacon was going to continue to pitch well in 2006, and become a key member of the Yankee rotation.

Not so much.

He started ’06 off slowly, though he began to pick up the pace in late April. Chacon started the infamous “Crazy Tuesday vs. Texas” game, giving up seven runs to the Rangers – a game Jorge Posada eventually won in dramatic fashion for New York. He eventually landed himself on the disabled list, and after a brutal game vs. the Cleveland Indians on July 4, was sent to the bullpen.

By the 2006 trade deadline Chacon was swapped for Pirates’ left-handed bat Craig Wilson, thus ending his Yankee tenure. He was last seen pitching for the Houston Astros in 2008 and to my knowledge is not currently signed by any MLB team.

My best memory of Chacon actually came in virtual reality. I was throwing a perfect game with him in MLB 2006 for PlayStation 2. It didn’t end well. You can read more about that sad story here, if you’d like.

Shelley Duncan

The 2007 baseball season was mostly known for one thing: the unrealistic, clutch season that belonged to third baseman Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod put the Yankee team on his back and carried them to win after win, hitting unfathomably long home runs that would have probably left Mickey Mantle in disbelief.

But midway through the year a career minor leaguer came up by the name of Shelley Duncan. At the time his father Dave was the pitching coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. His brother Chris was an outfielder, also with the Cards.

A second generation player, Duncan was called to the show on July 20, 2007 and ignited the Yankees. In his first game, he recorded his first hit and his first RBI against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The next day he crushed his first home run, and then followed with a multi-home run performance the day after.

Duncan became such a fan-favorite for his enthusiasm. He would give hard high-fives to his teammates and even injured clubhouse reporter Kim Jones, smacking her hand as hard as he could in celebration of a Yankee win during a postgame interview.

A website even surfaced: Shelley Duncan Facts, a play off the famous “Chuck Norris Facts” site.

At the end of ’07, Duncan had 19 hits in 34 at-bats, including seven home runs on his ledger. He registered 17 RBIs while securing a .257 batting average and an on-base percentage of .329.

Did “Duncan-Mania” survive? No, it didn’t.

In 2008 Duncan had just one homer in 57 at-bats for the Yanks and batted a measly .175 through 23 games. He was reassigned to the minors and never really became what the Yankees might have hoped for; never made the same amount of noise he made throughout the second half of 2007.

Before 2010 Duncan signed with the Cleveland Indians, where he is today.

Joba Chamberlain

Unlike the other players on the list, Joba Chamberlain still has a chance to shed his status as a flash in the pan. The 26-year-old right-handed hurler has life left in him, but only time will tell if he can go back to what he was when he was first called up.

Go back to August of 2007 for a second. Chamberlain made his MLB debut in a game the Yanks played vs. the Toronto Blue Jays, fanning the first batter he faced. He went on to throw two scoreless frames in a Yankee win.

But the brass didn’t want to ruin his arm at such a young age. Being only 22 years old at the time, the Yankees put him on the “Joba Rules” – a system which didn’t allow Chamberlain to pitch on consecutive days, and if he pitched in multiple innings, he would have that many days off.

For example, if he tossed two innings, he wouldn’t be available pitch again for another two days.

Chamberlain finished the ’07 regular season with a tiny ERA of 0.38 out of the ‘pen, getting all of the Yankee fans behind him. Whenever he raced in from the bullpen, the crowd would go absolutely bananas.

And he was just as fired up.

After every strikeout, Chamberlain would aggressively pump his fists, charged up by the emotion of the moment. Unfortunately he was the victim of a vicious attack by midges in Cleveland during the ’07 ALDS vs. the Indians, a series the Yanks went on to lose.

From there, it’s extremely difficult to describe what happened to Chamberlain. Under new manager Joe Girardi in 2008, he began the season in a relief role then was made into a starter. He only made one noteworthy start in ’08, a brilliant nine-strikeout performance in Boston, outdueling Josh Beckett in a 1-0 Yankee win.

Not long after that game, Chamberlain injured his shoulder, and was placed on the 15-day DL. When he came back he was a reliever again. His role was just never defined – and it got even more confusing in 2009.

Beginning the season as one of the starting five, the “Joba Rules” were rewritten to accommodate the rotation. Girardi would only pitch Chamberlain for a few innings, and then when applicable, would use him on six days rest. It seemed to disrupt his mental balance, to say the least.

The Yanks thought about demoting him to the minors and leaving him off the postseason roster, but ultimately decided to keep him. During the playoffs he took on the role of reliever yet again, and captured a Game 4 victory over the Phillies in the ‘09 Fall Classic.

A good end to a rather turbulent season.

Since then Chamberlain has not made a start. In 2010 he went 3-4 out of the bullpen with a 4.40 ERA, and opponents hit .429 off him. On a light note, his strikeout total went up, as he K’d 77 batters in 71 2/3 innings pitched.

Despite a 2-0 record with a 2.83 ERA this past year, 2011 marked another setback period for Chamberlain. He was sidelined with a torn ligament in his throwing arm in June, ending his season and forcing him to undergo Tommy John Surgery.

This off-season the Yankees and Chamberlain agreed on a one-year contract worth $1.675 million. With that in mind, this could be his last chance to keep wearing the pinstripes. If he continues to scuffle and his arm problems draw on, I don’t see the Yankees holding onto him beyond 2012.

However, if he can rekindle that spark – the spark he lit in 2007 – he will be fine.

To Chamberlain, I can only say good luck and I hope it works out for him. To the rest of the players on this list, I guess I can only say one thing:

It was fun while it lasted.