The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Monday, May 21, 2007

 

Sympathy for the Pinstriped Devil

Outside of a pennant race or a playoff, the phrase "must-win" rarely has a place in baseball. The length of the schedule and the vagaries of hot-and-cold running hitters and pitchers require an ability to modulate such extremes, especially before Memorial Day has even rolled around.

But last night's 6-2 Yankee victory over the Mets was about as close to a must-win as the Yanks have had for awhile. Coming in at 18-23, having already lost the first two games of the Subway Series, and with a double-digit deficit in the AL East -- the first time since September 22, 1995 they've been so far back -- the Pinstripes had arguably reached the new nadir of the Joe Torre era.

Worse, they had Tyler Clippard, the sixth rookie and 11th pitcher overall to start a game for the Yanks, set to make his major league debut the day after fellow rook Darrell Rasner's season may have ended with a broken finger. The offense had produced just 31 runs over the previous seven-losses-in-nine games while hitting .247/.301/.391, with Bobby Abreu (.147 during that span), Alex Rodriguez (.176), Robinson Cano (.182), and a bone spur-addled Jason Giambi (.062) tying bricks around the feet of any potential rally. They were facing the NL's best team, the division-leading Mets.

Amid all of this, the team was making headlines for ugly reasons. First there were Kyle Farnsworth's comments about Roger Clemens' ability to come and go (better to send Farnsworth away for three days at a time; that's not much different from his inability to take the ball for consecutive games). Then came Jason Giambi's offhand comments about steroids, which may have unwittingly given the Yankees an opening to void the remaining $26 million of his contract, and Bud Selig an opening to grandstand by flexing his best-interests-of-baseball powers years after they may have been relevant to the matter at hand. And as ever, the Joe-will-go rumors are in the air like a noxious cloud.

For all of it, the Yanks looked like a fading diva caught in the harsh glare of the spotlight without adequate makeup. Dear Lord, turn off the Ugly!

Somehow, the Yankees pulled it together for one night. Clippard sparkled in his debut, limiting the NL's most potent offense to one run and three hits over six innings while striking out six. Jose Reyes went down swinging to open the game, while three of those K's -- David Wright, and Carlos Delgado times two -- were of the backwards variety. The rookie hurler even laced a double, joining the fun as the Yankee offense finally caught a break or two. Key was Johnny Damon's two-out bloop double in the fourth, which plated two runs and immediately preceded a two-run homer by Derek Jeter off a suddenly rattled John Maine. Jeter's been flat-out raking: .365/.443/.491, with hits in 38 out of 40 games (he holds a share of the season record of 135) and going back to last year, 73 out of his last 76. He's a .370 hitter against the Mets (85 for 230) during the history of interleague play. You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him.

Jorge Posada, who's only killing the ball at a .382/.441/.618 clip himself, extended his hitting streak to 15 by adding a solo shot in the fifth, while Rodriguez made the most of his late arrival to the outburst by chalking up his second homer in as many days. The bullpen preserved Clippard's big W, though Damion Easley homered off Mariano Rivera. You had to squint to see it, but for one night, the Yanks gave off the air of a championship-caliber ballclub.

Alas, that's hardly a consolation given that this was a salvage job for an otherwise disappointing series. And the road -- metaphorically speaking, since the Yanks are actually at home for the next week -- doesn't get any easier. The Red Sox, who at 30-13 have the majors' best record, are in town for a trifecta of agita-inducing games, and the Yanks can ill afford to lose any more ground to their archrivals. They've got a pair of nemeses in Tim Wakefield and Curt Schilling surrounding would-be porn star Julian Tavarez -- yes, you may want to take a carrot peeler to your brain after that mental image comes through, but it ought to be good for some colorful commentary at the Stadium -- but at least they avoid the blisteringly hot (and just blistering) Josh Beckett. That series is followed by three more with the AL West-leading Angels, who've kicked the Torre-era Yanks' collective ass so hard they've worn through a pair of cleats.

As for the Giambi situation, this probably marks another turning point in the lengthy steroid saga. You can deplore what he did, but you'd still have to admit that since BALCO broke, Giambi's been the closest thing to a mensch about the matter among those implicated -- no excuses, no denials, no persecution complex, just putting his head down and trying to put the past behind him one pitch at a time. Fans and pundits rode his veiled apology hard a couple years back, and now they along with the feeble Selig, the odious Mitchell investigation, and even the cynical Yankee front office, which agreed to strike steroid language from his seven-year, $120 million deal, have decided to reward his candor with a "Gotcha!" Mark this, neither you nor the powers will hear another active player speak candidly about having used performance enhancers, because the media and the men in charge will instantly turn it against him.

That's unlikely to evoke sympathy for Giambi, or the Yanks, and with the big money invested in both it probably shouldn't. Right now, the wheezing $200 million dollar leviathan looks capable of being drowned in a half-inch of water, and there's no shortage of people who've been waiting for that show for all too long.

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