Tagged: Robinson Cano

Hey, we’re not so bad! Yankees survive, raise eyebrows in April

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A weak lineup full of holes. A shoddy pitching rotation. One or two strong arms in the bullpen. No Derek Jeter, no Alex Rodriguez, no Mark Teixeira, and no Curtis Granderson.

No faith; no belief.

The mentality of most Yankee fans on Opening Day was, to put it mildly, not good. The Bombers bombed on April 1, losing in convincing fashion, 8-2, to their most hated rivals, the Boston Red Sox; a bad loss on their home diamond to begin the season. But after a couple of games they started to get it right, and here we are a month later, the Yanks looking at a 17-10 record – in second place, and just two games out of first.

Get some faith. Start to believe.

As usual, a few storylines have enveloped the first month. First, and probably most important…

Mariano Rivera is back & better than ever

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On May 3, 2012 Mariano Rivera’s future looked bleak. After suffering a torn ACL on the warning track shagging fly balls in Kansas City, the “hammer of god” watched the majority of last year from the sidelines. With the veteran, 43-year-old closer’s future in question, he opted to return in 2013.

And boy, has he made his comeback mean something thus far.

Rivera slammed the door 10 times in the month of April and upon sealing last night’s 5-4 victory over the Astros has 11 saves for the year. The best part of it all: he is 11-for-11 in save opps.

Mo has been his usual, perfect self.

I attended Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Blue Jays, and sat in the right field bleachers above the Yankee bullpen. When Rivera got up to start warming, readying himself to enter the game and eventually close the game, he received a huge ovation – even before he customarily ran out of the ‘pen.

Expect this to be a recurring theme all season, given the announcement of his retirement at the end of 2013. Not to mention other teams have (and will) go out of their way to send Rivera off in a respectful manner. And it’s all well-deserved.

What can you say? He is bigger than the game.

Low-scoring affairs and one-run wonders

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For a team beat up, battered and bruised, the Yankees have obviously been able to keep their collective heads above the proverbial water. However, it hasn’t exactly been easy to do. Of their 17 wins this year, there haven’t been too many blowouts; not a lot of huge wins.

Aside from a 14-1 thrashing of the Cleveland Indians back on April 9, the Yankees have played in some incredibly tight ballgames. Three of their last four wins have been one-run victories, and their two previous wins before those last four victories were decided by just two runs: a 5-3 win on April 25 and a 6-4 win on April 26 – both over the Blue Jays.

It would be nice to have a few more of those 14-1 type games, and see the Yankees put some runs on the board. Yet it’s not as if the formula isn’t working, because the Yanks are 10-1 in games decided by two runs or less this season – which is good for the best in the bigs in games of that kind.

If nothing else, they’re becoming battle-tested in close games, which down the stretch will help them.

Robinson Cano still swinging a hot bat

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A power outage was anticipated when the Yankees lost Nick Swisher (24 home runs in 2012) and Russell Martin (21 home runs in 2012) – that of course went with temporarily taking away all the power numbers Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter provided.

But the one constant power player in the lineup is Robinson Cano.

Last night Cano clubbed his eighth home run of the year, which put him at 185 taters for his MLB career, tying him with another Yankee warrior – Paul O’Neill – for 17th place on the all-time Yankee home runs list.

O’Neill, by the way, who is NOT portraying Ted Danson’s character Sam Malone in a Cheers remake.

In any event, Cano is carrying the offense; lighting up the scoreboard on the Yankees’ side in most of these games in the early going. His sweet swing keeps getting sweeter and his defense continues to be top-notch. There’s no doubt his RBI count is going to climb higher and higher, and his average will be significantly over .300 throughout the course of the year.

Having Cano on your side is almost the same as playing a game of doubles in tennis, and having a brick wall as your partner. And the Yankees have that brick wall.

CC Sabathia sharp (but twice not sharp)

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I’ll be the first to admit I was a little bit worried (and dejected) when CC Sabathia got absolutely shelled in Game 4 of the ALCS last year, the big ace losing the final game of the Yankees’ season to the Detroit Tigers. My worries were well-founded and even multiplied when I found out he wasn’t pitching at 100% and needed surgery in the offseason on his pitching arm.

Then Opening Day happened: four earned runs on eight hits, four walks and five Ks in only five frames to a loss to the Red Sox.

Not very encouraging to see, but as usual he turned it around. He won his next three starts, beating the Baltimore Orioles, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the very team that slaughtered him in the playoffs last year, the Tigers.

Then came Sabathia’s last two starts.

The big man was once again shellacked, this time by the Tampa Bay Rays. In seven abysmal innings he let up five earned runs – three of which were served up on home runs. He hit a batter, walked two, and in his only good stat of the night, struck out eight.

His fastball was flat, he was hanging his breaking ball, and needless to say it wasn’t pretty.

Things seemed to be going in the same direction in his last start vs. the Blue Jays: a dead fastball and bad breaking stuff. He turned it around though, and battled back to actually pick up a win in one of the most valiant efforts of this young season.

Sabathia went 4-2 in April, and believe it or not, this marks the first time in his career he’s picked up four victories in the first month of the season. I think it only proves that Sabathia is so good that even when he isn’t doing well, he’s doing well.

We’ll see how everything carries over on Friday when he toes the rubber vs. Oakland in his first start in the month of May.

Injury bug still chomping away

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There’s an old saying about foul weather: when it rains, it pours.  And coming into the season without Jeter, Teixeira, Granderson, and Rodriguez, the Yankees were short-handed enough.

So it rained, right? Well. Then it poured.

Francisco Cervelli and Kevin Youkilis became two more bruised Bombers, Cervelli fracturing his hand behind home plate on Saturday and Youkilis out with a bulging disc in his back. What hurts even worse is the fact that both players were doing a fine job offensively in a lineup that clearly needs not only effective hitters but more specifically, right-handed bats – Cerv and Youk both being right-handed hitters.

The front office’s hand was forced because of these particular injuries: catcher Austin Romine was called up from Triple-A Scranton to supplant Cervelli, and as announced after last night’s game, the Yankees traded for infielder Chris Nelson, acquiring him from the Colorado Rockies for a player to be named later. Nelson was obviously moved to aid in Youkilis’s absence.

Youkilis was placed on the 15-day disabled list, but Cervelli was put on the 60-day DL. Anymore of these injuries happen, the Yankees might need to start pulling fans out of the bleachers to play.

“You know where the outfield is? Great! Here’s a glove, go stand out there.”

Making a splash

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The day after Opening Day is always an off day. I’m not sure I quite understand why, but as long as I can remember, it always has been. On the off day this year, I was covering a girls’ lacrosse game when my dad called me. It turns out he met Vernon Wells while doing some work at his job.

A very impromptu meeting – nothing major; according to my dad, he just said hi to him, didn’t bother him too much.

The day after his meeting with my dad, Wells hit a home run and he’s been raking ever since. So far the veteran outfielder has smacked six home runs and he’s batting .298, which isn’t bad by any means. In fact, it’s quite a pleasant surprise, and Wells is a reason the Yankees are in such a good position right now.

I’ll go ahead and just say it: Wells is doing…well.

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Then there’s Travis Hafner, who also has six long balls and 17 RBIs. The lefty-hitting slugger known as “Pronk” or “Project Donkey” is helping make up for whatever power was lost to free agency during the offseason.

Brennan Boesch isn’t jumping off the page as much as Wells or Hafner, but for what it’s worth, he’s making contributions to the team when needed. The same can probably be said about Ben Francisco, but in fairness he had a home run last night that narrowly crept over the wall in left field, his first dinger of the year.

If one of them can be as heroic as Raul Ibanez was last year, I think I can safely say we’ll all be happy. However, the four of them are sure as heck a step up from anything Andruw Jones did last year.

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April wasn’t a bad month for the Yankees.

What do ya got, May?

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Interest Sparked: The WBC

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It was another Saturday night, I didn’t have nobody. I had some money, because I had just gotten paid. How I wished I had something to do – and then I went on Twitter and saw that David Wright of the New York Mets had crushed a grand slam homer for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, putting them ahead 6-2 in front of Team Italy.

I flipped on the game.

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OK. So the guy from the other New York team hit a bomb. To me, the World Baseball Classic was still meaningless; a pointless, glorified exhibition which simply takes players away from Spring Training, the players competing for seemingly nothing. Japan won the two previous WBCs (2006, ’09), and my philosophy remained,

“The World Baseball Classic is a joke. Spoiler alert: Japan will win it again, its players will come to the USA/MLB…and suck for their entire careers.”

Daisuke Matsuzaka is my case in point.

But as I continued to watch Teams USA’s game vs. Team Italy, my feelings slowly changed. By the end of the night, I was actually interested in the WBC, a position I never imagined I’d be in when the tournament commenced. A couple of storylines have put me over the top.

First off, Robinson Cano has been an absolute beast in the WBC, playing for his homeland, the Dominican Republic. The studly second baseman was named MVP of Pool C, cracking four extra base hits (including an opposite-field home run), five RBIs, while batting .600 over the first three games.

The DR went on to advance in the WBC; Cano ready to lead his squad against Wright and Team USA tonight, in fact.

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Given the concerns and recent, unexpected injuries the Yankees have suffered (Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson) it’s overly encouraging to see Cano slaughtering the ball the way he’s been in the WBC. Come April 1, if Cano keeps it up, there won’t be much to worry about when he steps into the batter’s box.

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There was also a second piece of WBC business that piqued my interest. Italy had a familiar reliever on its roster: my paison, Brian Sweeney. I only say “had” because last night Team Italia was ousted by Puerto Rico, a come-from-behind effort by way of sloppy Italian defense leading to the Azzuri’s downfall.   

I was pleasantly surprised – and in a big way, proud – to see my fellow Mercy College alumnus on the hill in front of a worldwide audience and a packed house at the new Miami Marlins ballpark. As most readers of the blog know, I interviewed Sweeney in July, 2010, weeks after he faced the Yankees in the Bronx.

He went on to make several appearances vs. the Bombers over that summer, and got the likes of Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, and Brett Gardner out. Using his signature changeup which he learned pitching for Mercy, some of the most powerful Yankees didn’t stand a chance against Sweeney.

And during the WBC, Sweeney added some more names to his list of big outs.

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In Wright’s first at-bat following his trip to granny’s, Sweeney got the Mets’ third baseman to pop out. He followed suit by walking the Marlins’ own Giancarlo Stanton, Sweeney’s changeup painting the black; barely missing the outside corner for a walk culminating a 13-pitch at-bat. He went on to get catcher Joe Mauer (Minnesota Twins) to fly out to left field and first baseman Eric Hosmer (KC Royals) to foul out behind third.

Not a bad night at the office for a Mercy College grad.

Team Italy had two more losing efforts vs. Cano’s Dominicans and Team Puerto Rico – both narrow losses; one-run games. Over the course of those two games, Sweeney struck out Alejandro De Aza (Chicago White Sox) swinging, and got both got Jose Reyes (Toronto Blue Jays) and Hanley Ramirez (LA Dodgers) to fly out.

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Unfortunately Sweeney was on the hook for the loss in last night’s elimination game to Puerto Rico, although the decision was more reflective of shoddy defense: particularly on the left side of the infield’s behalf. Italy’s shortstop Anthony Granato was eaten alive on a number of ground balls, and third baseman Alex Liddi didn’t curb the problems, missing an easy out by coming off the bag at third on a force play.

Yet Sweeney’s participation in the WBC wasn’t what made me entirely proud. After the loss, the 38-year-old journeyman right-hander stood on the top step of the dugout and tipped his cap to the fans and to Team Puerto Rico – a class act, all the way through. Despite the ousting, he showed great sportsmanship and a graceful attitude.

That’s a Mercy College guy for you.

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My hope now is that he catches on with a team this spring. Hopefully for him, it’s the Seattle Mariners, seeing as how he told me in the interview he always wanted to pay dividends for them. They gave him a chance in the show; I suppose he feels he owes them.

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As for the rest of the WBC, my interest has been sparked. Next time there’s a night within the next couple of weeks before Opening Day and I don’t have nobody – regardless of whether or not I just got paid, I’ll have something to do: watch the WBC.

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Moving Right Along

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While there’s plenty of offseason left and the Yankees haven’t seen a lot of back page action, there’ve been a few recent stories from the so-called “Bronx Bomber Front,” if you will.

First and foremost, the Yankees signed back 2007’s two breakout pitchers, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, inking both to one-year deals to avoid arbitration. Hughes was signed back for $7.15 million while Chamberlain was given just $1.88 million – startling, considering these two were pegged as the future of the Yankee pitching staff, and they’re coming back on a dime with no long-term commitment.

The 27-year-old promising rookies of ’07 haven’t exactly shown much promise.

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In this writer’s opinion, 2013 will be their final chance to prove whether or not they are truly the new breed of Yankee arms. Last year Hughes went 16-13 with an ERA of 4.23, which is somewhat respectable for a middle-of-the-rotation starter, but he was second in the majors in the home runs allowed category with 35. Not to mention he gave up two more long balls in the playoffs while posting a record of 0-1 in October.

If Hughes doesn’t get it straightened out this coming season, I’m afraid his time in pinstripes may be up. His main problem, as noted every year in Spring Training, seems to be his faith, or lack of faith, in his breaking ball. Hughes is characteristically a high-fastball pitcher, and when he hangs his breaking ball, hitters absolutely feast off it.

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Bottom line: Hughes needs to right many wrongs this year, if he wants to stay a Yankee.

Chamberlain’s biggest problem in recent seasons has undoubtedly been his inability to stay healthy. In 2012 Chamberlain logged just 20.2 innings in 22 games, a bizarre ankle injury claiming most of his season.

It got worse for him in the playoffs when, in Game 4 of the ALDS, Matt Wieters of the Baltimore Orioles shattered his bat facing him; the broken shard of wood coming back and striking Chamberlain in the elbow, forcing him out of the game.

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Aside from an electric debut in 2007 and a 2009 World Series ring, I would say it’s not unfair to compare Chamberlain to another injury-prone pitcher: Carl Pavano – who, I just read today, ruptured his spleen shoveling snow.

Why am I not surprised? Only Pavano. I mean…who else would that happen to?

But back to Chamberlain.

2013 will be a test for him. And if he fails, like Hughes, Chamberlain might have to bow out of the Bronx – and as we saw with Nick Swisher, it could potentially be a not-so-gracious departure.

Along with Hughes and Chamberlain, the Bombers announced the re-signing of another 27-year-old pitcher, David Robertson. The setup man from Alabama received $3.1 million for one year, also avoiding arbitration.

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Typical move that made sense. Obviously the Yankees weren’t letting go of him. I suppose they got him for so cheap because of his 2-7 record last year – as he also proved he may not be suited to fill Mariano Rivera’s cleats. In his first save opp following Rivera’s season-ending injury, Robertson blew it vs. Tampa Bay and lost the closer role out to Rafael Soriano, who as we recently learned walked to the Washington Nationals.

Thankfully for the Yankees, Rivera is returning. And I expect Mo to be Mo, barring any lingering effects from his torn ACL. If his body responds nicely, it’s good news for the Bombers. However, as we saw with Chien-Ming Wang a few years back, leg injuries can damage a pitcher’s footing, causing a world of problems.

Then again, Wang’s injury was different from Rivera’s. Wang injured his pivot foot running home during an interleague game in Houston. Nonetheless, we’ll find out just how Mo will do after he runs out of the Yankee bullpen in April, “Enter Sandman” blaring through the Yankee Stadium speakers.

In addition to the retention of some pitchers, the Yankees announced that on March 30, in their last exhibition before Opening Day, they will travel to West Point and face the ARMY baseball team at the United States Military Academy.

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Ever since they announced this special game, I’ve been wondering which key players the Yankees will bring to West Point. Being two days before Opening Day, I’m not exactly sure if many of the regulars, like Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis, Ichiro, Mark Teixeira, and Robinson Cano, will be playing.

I could see them bringing a few bigs, but certainly not all of them. I’d also like to explore the possibility of covering this game, if humanly possible. I might have to ask my publisher and editors to contact West Point for a credential to get in. I’d be honored to cover such a game, even though it’s simply an exhibition.

One player who won’t be at West Point on March 30 (at least not there to play, anyway) is Alex Rodriguez. The third baseman had surgery on Jan. 16 to repair a torn labrum, a procedure that was said to have gone off without a hitch.

Today Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman was interviewed on WFAN radio in New York and said Rodriguez may miss the entire 2013 season, although it is believed he could be back after the All-Star break.

A-Rod is signed on for a long time – through 2017, to be exact. I’m probably not in the minority here; a lot of folks probably feel the same way, but I for one would be interested to see how the Yanks would fare for a whole year without the 37-year-old slugger-in-decline. The postseason, should the Yankees make it, would be most interesting sans A-Rod, for sure.

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Think about it: if the Yankees go all the way with no Rodriguez, it’ll be the classic “we never needed A-Rod to win” mind frame. By chance the Yankees get ousted early – or don’t make the postseason at all, for that matter – it’ll be the heavy “we need A-Rod to win” spiel.

Again, interesting for sure.

In the meantime, pitchers and catchers will be reporting to Tampa on Feb. 12 and their first full workout will take place the very next day. Position players report to camp on Feb. 17; their first full team workout scheduled, again, for the following day.

The Yanks’ first exhibition game will happen on Feb. 23 at the Braves – the tune-up games beginning nine days earlier because of the World Baseball Classic this spring. Teixeira will play for the USA team, which will be managed by former Yankee skipper Joe Torre.

Cano will play for the Dominican Republic squad, so even though real, meaningful baseball will not completely return until April 1, we’ll be treated to some Yankees playing in games featuring quality competition.

Until then, basketball and next Sunday’s Super Bowl are dominating the sports pages. Just for the heck of it, I’ll entertain you guys with a story from a high school girls’ basketball game I covered a couple weeks back.

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Basically this winter my editor put me on the girls hoops beat. My responsibility is to attend games and write about the girls’ basketball teams in our coverage area – and our newspaper has two of the top-ranked teams in New York state, which makes the job a lot of fun. The girls have been enjoying a tremendous amount of success these past two months.

On Thursday Jan. 10 I was covering a game; the final score being 38-32. Pretty close and low-scoring game, all the way through.

After interviewing the coaches from the winning team and the losing team, collecting their thoughts and impressions, I went to interview the girl with the most points on the winning side. The young lady, a junior forward, finished with 19 points (including two, 3-point field goals) leading all scorers.

Before I could conduct my interview, her friend ran up to her and embraced her, giving her a big hug. Standing next to her with my recorder in hand, ready to conduct the interview, her friend (in an attempt to be discreet, although I heard every word) asked her,

“Is that your boyfriend?”

She looked at me chuckled and replied, “No, he’s…the interviewer.”

Confused, yet aware of what her friend had asked her, I looked at her and said,

“Wait, did she just…”

Smiling, and clearly a little embarrassed, she mustered the response,

“Yeah, she did.”

With a beat red face I tried my best to shake it off, and then carried on, conducting my interview with her.

First of all, at 25 years old I’m so glad I look young enough to still be in high school. Makes me feel so grown up. And secondly, when things like this happen, it gives me more and more motivation and incentive to want to take the next step in my career; cover pro sports and not just high school games – risking incidents similar to this one because I apparently look as if I belong on “Barney & Friends.”

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Not that I haven’t had a taste of pro sports coverage – I did, covering the Hudson Valley Renegades and Eli Manning’s appearance at the Guiding Eyes Golf Classic this past summer – but I’d like to expand upon that; do a lot more of it, more consistently.

MLB.com. YES Network. #GetAtMeBro

Russell Martin’s Greatest Hits

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The Yankees got some good news this week and some bad news.

The good? Crafty veteran Andy Pettitte and the greatest closer of all-time Mariano Rivera will indeed be pitching in the Bronx next season, the Yanks inking one-year deals with both hurlers. Pettitte was signed for $12 million for 2013 while Rivera was locked up for $10 million.

For one more year, the Bronx Bombers will be treated with each pitcher’s services. Yes, good.

The bad news? The Yankees lost their starting catcher, Russell Martin, to free agency last night. Martin agreed to terms with the Pittsburgh Pirates; a deal worth two years, $17 million.

Just like that, the Bronx Bombers are without a viable starting catcher.

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It was quite surprising the Yankees didn’t at least pursue Martin in free agency, coming off a year in which he set a career-high in home runs with 21. His batting average (.211) may have been the lowest of his career, but the subpar BA shouldn’t have completely ruined his chances of returning.

Last year Pettitte came back on a dime, only signing for $2.5 million. The 40-year-old lefty was injured most of last season with a fractured ankle, as was the 43-year-old Rivera – who as we all know tore his ACL shagging fly balls on the warning track in Kansas City in May.

Martin, only 29 (although will be 30 on Feb. 15), (in this writer’s opinion) should have, at the very least, been offered something. Perhaps the Yanks could have given Pettitte and Rivera a little less – being that they’ll only be around for one more year, anyway – and reached out to the catcher for a deal.

Now, along with the likelihood of right fielder Nick Swisher not making a comeback and the Yankees needing to fill the void in the corner outfield spot, they will now need to seek an everyday backstop – which they’ll most likely be hard-pressed to do.

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Right now their options include signing A.J. Pierzynski, a 35-year-old (36 on Dec. 30) with a history of not being the “nicest kid in class,” so-to-speak; striking a deal with Mike Napoli, the 31-year-old free agent who put up numbers somewhat similar to Martin’s in 2012 (.224 BA, 24 HR, 56 RBI); or just using Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli, and/or Austin Romine in 2013.

Stewart served as Martin’s backup last season, mostly working as CC Sabathia’s personal catcher, while Cervelli spent almost the entire season in the minors – not to mention Cervelli has suffered a number of concussions over the course of his young career. Romine also has an injury history and has not played a full Triple-A season his entire career.

Now the course of action is up to the Yankees’ front office; a catcher possibly on the Yankees’ wish list. In the meantime, I’d like to look back on a few of Martin’s best moments in pinstripes. Although he was only a Bomber for two years, he provided the team with jolts and boosts to make them a better ballclub in 2011 and 2012.

A part of history

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The Yankees were off to a poor start vs. Oakland on the afternoon of Aug. 25, 2011. They had given the A’s a 7-1 lead by the third inning, the day looking like a lost cause; a stinker.

But Martin came up with a plan.

In the fourth inning he cut the lead down to 7-2 with a solo home run. Robinson Cano followed in the fifth with a grand slam to chop the lead to 7-6. Then in the sixth, Martin came up with the bases chucked and did Cano one better, crushing a grand slam of his own for his second homer in the game, giving the Yankees a 10-7 lead.

You would think the grand ol’ day was over, but there was more to come.

After Martin added another run on an RBI single as part of a six run seventh, Curtis Granderson smacked the Yankees’ third grand slam of the game in the eighth, the Yankees going absolutely wild on the way to a 22-9 win over the A’s. It was the first time a team had homered with the bases loaded in a single game three times in MLB history.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Martin told the media when it was over. “This game has been played for a long time. Pretty much everything has already happened. I’m waiting to see who’s going to hit four – I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen, but we’ll see. Three is pretty cool.”

Helping spoil the centennial

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On April 20 the Yankees visited Fenway Park, joining the Red Sox in celebrating 100 years at 4 Yawkey Way in Boston. After a rather bizarre toast by former Red Sox Kevin Millar and Pedro Martinez, the Yanks got to work, putting some runs on the board and halting the BoSox behind the stellar pitching of Ivan Nova.

The Yanks basically had the game in the bag during the top of the sixth, up 5-2, but Martin added a run for good measure. The catcher clobbered a pitch off Clay Buchholz over the Green Monster – and over the Sports Authority billboard – a solo home run to give the Yanks a 6-2 lead to finish off the Red Sox.

Martin had already earned his pinstripes as a Yankee in 2011 when, towards the end of the season after a Yankee win over Boston, he said,

“We enjoy giving the Red Sox a hard time!”

 

Winning with the bat – and the arm

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Martin had a rough go of it the first half of the 2012 season, only batting .179 before the All-Star break. Manager Joe Girardi even pulled him aside and spoke to him about his struggles, hoping his pep talk might turn his fortunes around.

And in the first game back from the All-Star break, he proved the tables had in fact been turned.

Against the Angels at home on July 13, Martin knocked in the go-ahead run with an eighth-inning RBI single. But his biggest contribution was yet to come.

With the Yanks leading 6-5 in the ninth, Howard Kendrick attempted to advance to second base on a ball in the dirt that almost got by Martin. But the catcher recovered nicely; picked up the ball and threw out Kendrick to end the game, propelling the Bombers to a win.

Sometimes it only takes one good game to give a player confidence going forward –and the solid effort certainly did give Martin confidence going into the second half of the season.

“I’m starting to feel a little bit better about myself,” he told the media afterward. “And that’s never a bad thing.”

A Twitter shout-out

This is more of a personal moment, but I’ll throw it in, nonetheless.

In April of 2011, Martin conducted a Twitter Q & A. Hoping to get some recognition, I sent him a tweet question. Little did I know he would respond to me! (Note: he answered me back when my handle was @OriginalAJ615)

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(Follow me on Twitter @AJ_Martelli)

Walking off a hero

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Twice this year, Martin made the most of clutch situations.

On June 10 after Rafael Soriano had blown a save vs. the Mets at home, Martin brought his big stick to the plate. Tied 4-4 in the ninth, he hammered a pitch off Jon Rauch deep to left field for a home run to not only lift the Yanks to a 5-4 victory over the Metropolitans, but a Subway Series sweep of their cross-town rivals.

Three months and 11 days later, it was the same story. This time however, vs. the Oakland A’s.

Tied 1-1 in the ninth on Sept. 21, Martin pounded another pitch to left; another solo, walk-off home run to beat the A’s 2-1 with one swing.

It’s safe to say Martin knew how to play the role of hero in 2012.

Leading the way in Game 1

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The Yankees hadn’t beaten a team not named the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS since 2001, when they beat the A’s in five games. This year they were up against a familiar foe, the division rival Baltimore Orioles, in the first round of the playoffs, looking to finally quell a team other than the Twins in round one.

And it was Martin that set the table, playing a huge role in getting the Yanks out of the funk.

Knotted 2-2 in the ninth, the catcher broke the tie with a most impressive home run off Baltimore closer Jim Johnson, who had saved 51 games during the regular season – which led the majors. Martin’s round-tripper started a five-run rally for New York, as the Yanks went on to take Game 1 from the O’s, 7-2.

Yet it wasn’t just his offense that proved to be the difference.

Martin also made two remarkable plays on defense behind the plate in the fifth, preventing a pair of runs from coming in. It seemed he was just grateful to help the team win, no matter how.

“Whether I help the team win offensively or defensively,” he said, “I am happy.”

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On behalf of Yankee fans everywhere, THANK YOU RUSSELL for the two years of service.

Best of luck in Pittsburgh. Tell A.J. Burnett and Jeff Karstens we say hi.

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Early off-season yapping

Here we are roughly a month and four days removed from the Yankees’ ugly elimination in the American League Championship Series at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, a nasty sweep to end the season.

But Karma, I suppose, always comes back to collect because the Tigers went on to get broomed themselves by the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. The Giants have now captured two world titles in the last three years. What makes it funny to me is the fact that the football Giants and the baseball Giants were both champions in 2012.

The “Romo” factor also made me believe the sports gods work in mysterious ways.

Allow me to explain.

On Oct. 28 the San Francisco Giants closed out the Fall Classic – the same day the New York Giants faced off with the Dallas Cowboys, beating them 29-24. The football Giants defeated a Romo (Tony) while the baseball Giants ended the World Series with another Romo (Sergio) on the mound.

Fascinating. But maybe I’m over-thinking things.

At any rate, the Giants will enter the 2013 season wearing the title of defending champs. As for the Yankees: they remain the last American League team to win the World Series, three years ago in 2009.

Now, all the attention is focused on off-season news, and building the team for next year. There hasn’t been a “big bang,” so-to-speak, at least not yet. The Yanks’ front office hasn’t made a blockbuster move, but then again, the off-season is remarkably young.

The Baseball/General Managers Winter Meetings will take place next month in Nashville, so perhaps by the time they conclude, there will be a lot more to consider.

Until then, quite a few minor things around baseball and the Yankee community have transpired.

  • Robinson Cano finished fourth in the AL MVP voting while Derek Jeter finished seventh. As much as I wanted to believe either Yankee could win the MVP, no one was beating Miguel Cabrera. The Triple Crown sealed the deal for him. At least Cano and Jeter both captured Silver Sluggers for their respective efforts.

 

  • Just last night, the Yanks and Hiroki Kuroda agreed to a one-year deal. I had read Kuroda, 37, was deciding whether or not to pitch here in the states next season or return to Japan. After such a solid year in pinstripes in 2012, I for one am glad he opted to stay in America – and not just in America, but in the Bronx.
  • Mark Teixeira didn’t have the best year offensively, but he still proved what a fantastic defender he is at first base, claiming a Gold Glove Award. Cano also took one home – and home to the good old U.S.A., I guess, because he recently became a U.S. citizen.
  • Rafael Soriano opted out of his contract, after declining the Yankees’ qualifying offer. Good luck, buddy.
  • Nick Swisher is as good as gone, also declining a qualifying offer. His absence will obviously create a void in right field the Yankees will need to fill.

  • The Yankees’ 2012 first round draft pick Ty Hensley favorited a tweet of mine. It was “Skyfall” related. If you haven’t been to the movies lately, treat yourself to “Skyfall.” It will blow your mind.
  • Raul Ibanez wants to come back. Being the player who did the heavy lifting and carried the team toward the end of 2012, he may have earned a chance to play in New York again.
  • Two classics, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, have expressed interest in pitching next year. I don’t really have any predictions or ideas on what to expect. If anything, Pettitte will come cheap if he returns and Rivera will probably be looking for a sizeable amount of money. I think I’ll just kick back and see what happens with these two.

 

  • There will apparently be a Broadway play about the Yankees. I’m not much of a theatre guy, although I have seen “The Lion King,” “Beauty & the Beast,” and “Mary Poppins” on Broadway in New York. I might have to get some tickets, however, to see this Yankees production. If and when I do, you can be sure I will write a full review of it.

 

  • Ichiro sent some favors to the woman in Seattle who manned the “Ichi-meter.” What a guy.
  • According to MLB trade rumors, the Yankees (among other teams) are interested in shortstop Stephen Drew and catcher Mike Napoli. Again, I’ll kick back and see what happens. Both players would be key additions to any team.
  • The Toronto Blue Jays decided they want to try and be contenders. I almost wish the season started tomorrow – that’s how anxious I am to see if all these additions pay dividends for them.

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There will undoubtedly be a lot more to report on as the off-season continues and the MLB hot stove cooks, or boils, or broils, or bakes, or does whatever the heck it does.

In the meantime, everyone have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!

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.

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.