For Huff, relaxed attitude brings results

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010, 8:25 PM [General]

    John Flaherty doesn’t recall the exact time and the exact place of his conversation with Aubrey Huff, but he speculated that it happened in May of 2001. That was Huff’s first full season with Tampa Bay. Huff told Flaherty, a teammate who was in his tenth season in the major leagues, the new strategy for his career.

    At the time, Huff wasn’t hitting much and wasn’t talking much, either. Both of those facts belied the scouting report on a player who had a big swing and a big personality. Huff knew he could instantly change one of those things by simply opening his mouth. He wasn’t so sure about the other, about immediately becoming a better hitter. But Huff had to begin making alterations somewhere.

    “He told me that he was going to start being himself, and he was the type of guy who was the life of the party,” Flaherty recalled. “He didn’t know if he was going to make it in the big leagues, but, whatever happened, he was going to do it his way.”

    Soon after Huff’s declaration, Flaherty said, the reserved player was replaced by an animated player. Once Huff started behaving like himself instead of how he thought a Major Leaguer should act, he became more relaxed, more confident and more productive. Huff was always prepared as a player, Flaherty said, but he was savvy enough to lighten up because that made him comfortable. 

    As Flaherty watched Huff celebrate a World Series title with the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday night, he thought about what Huff had said to him almost a decade ago. Huff, who was a fallback free-agent signing after the Giants didn’t sign Adam LaRoche or Nick Johnson, hit a pivotal two-run homer to help them win Game 4. The man who played in 1,479 regular-season games before playing in his first postseason games hit .294 and drove in four runs in the World Series.

    I was near Huff’s locker at San Francisco’s AT&T Park following the Giants’ 9-0 victory in Game 2 as he talked about how everyone had doubted them. At the time, Huff was wearing a red thong and holding two cans of light beer. The thong was nothing new. Huff first donned it in September and called it a “rally thong.” He wore the undergarment all the way to a championship. If he returns to San Francisco, my guess is that Huff’s thong will be back, too.

    When I mentioned that scene by Huff’s locker to Flaherty, my colleague at the YES Network, he initially said, “Thanks for the visual.” He laughed and added that the picture of Huff as a thong-wearing, beer-drinking quipster was appropriate. “That’s who he is. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

    Back on May 13, 2001, Huff was batting .153 with two homers and three runs batted in for Tampa Bay. Flaherty theorized that was around the time that Huff stopped being the silent guy and became more of the silly guy. Huff hit .264 with six homers over his last 99 games, proving his .287 average in 39 games in 2000 wasn’t a mirage.

    In 2002, the last season that Huff and Flaherty were teammates with Tampa Bay, Huff batted .313 with 23 homers. A year later, Huff had the best season of his career, hitting .311 with 34 homers and 107 RBIs. As talented as Huff was, Flaherty said the smartest move of Huff’s career might have been his decision to fail or succeed as himself, not as a semblance of himself. Huff succeeded. 

    “He wanted to do it his way,” Flaherty said. “I’m glad he did. Ten years later, he’s still in the big leagues, and now he’s got a World Series ring.”

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    After missing title with Yanks, Righetti returns to Series

    Thursday, October 28, 2010, 9:17 PM [General]

    SAN FRANCISCO –- He was 22 years old and was starting his first-ever World Series game for New York. He was anxious. Of course, he was nervous. Who wouldn’t be? It was the Yankees against the Dodgers in 1981, the third time in five seasons that those monoliths had met for the title.

    Twenty-nine years later, he can recall the pitches he threw and the pitches he shouldn’t have thrown. He can describe how he felt before, during and after a 5-4 loss. He still speaks wistfully about how he hoped to start again in the series, a start that never came because the Yankees lost in six games. Dave Righetti never pitched again in the World Series in his stellar career.

    “If you ask me if I remember it, I remember everything,” Righetti said. “You don’t forget those things.”

    A few hours before Righetti’s San Francisco Giants stomped the Texas Rangers, 9-0, in Game 2 of the World Series, the pitching coach stood beside third base and slipped into a time capsule. All it took was a few questions for Righetti to transport himself from 2010 to 1981 and to switch from a pitching coach to a pitcher.

    Righetti recalled how he began the game with two strikes to Davey Lopes, but the count drifted to 3-2 and Lopes doubled. Bill Russell pushed a bunt past Righetti for a single. The Dodgers pounced on Righetti, trying to rattle him. After Righetti collected two outs, he couldn’t stifle Ron Cey. Cey fouled off a 2-2 pitch and then another and then another. Finally, Cey smashed a three-run homer.

    “I remember I wasn’t very good,” Righetti said. “They caught me right away.”

    When Righetti allowed the first two Dodgers to reach base in the third, the Yankees didn’t trust him to preserve a 4-3 lead, and he was replaced by George Frazier. Righetti was blistered for three runs and five hits in two-plus innings and a 13.50 earned run average in the World Series. He never got a chance to lower that inflated ERA.

    There was a valuable lesson that Righetti learned from that game, a lesson that he can impart to young pitchers like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner. Since Righetti was born in San Jose, Calif., he said he was too excitable when he defeated the Oakland Athletics in the American League Championship Series. After that experience, Righetti told himself to relax in the World Series. Relax, not detach.

    “I tried to calm down in that game,” Righetti said. “I almost went too far. Instead of letting my adrenaline carry me, I think I calmed down so much that I lost some aggressiveness.”

    Under Righetti’s tutelage, the Giants posted a 3.36 ERA this season, the best mark in the Major Leagues. Cain pitched powerfully into the eighth inning on Thursday to help embellish San Francisco’s already stout post-season statistics. Righetti’s pitchers have been even better in the postseason, compiling a 9-3 record, a 2.64 ERA and a strikeout per inning in 12 playoff games. The Giants, who need two wins for their first championship in 56 years, look much more relaxed than Righetti did in 1981.

    Since Righetti has Yankee roots, I wondered if he might be interested in their vacant pitching coach position.  Righetti, who has been the Giants’ pitching coach since 2000, said he is “happy here” and noted that he still has one year left on his contract. But Righetti didn’t deadbolt the door to the notion of ever returning to New York.

    “Anytime they have any kind of opening, someone asks me a question or calls me,” Righetti said. “It’s flattering. In this game, you never know, just as a coach or a player, you never cut off avenues of any kind. But I’m definitely a Giant right now. I’m very happy. I understand the question is obviously valid.”

    I reached out to General Manager Brian Cashman to ask about Righetti, but he declined to comment. That didn’t surprise me. Cashman is too smart to speak publicly about a coach who is under contract to another team. While it might seem prudent to make some phone calls about Righetti, the Yankees aren’t expected to do that because he’s signed through 2011 and he’s happy here.

    For 11 seasons, Righetti was a Yankee. He was the superb starter who threw a no-hitter against the Boston Red Sox on July 4, 1983 and became a closer a year later. He had 224 saves and 74 wins for New York. But Righetti never helped the Yankees return to the postseason, which still gnaws at him.    

    “There were a lot of expectations,” Righetti said. “There were a tremendous amount of players that went through there. We were always in flux. It was a tumultuous time, I guess.

    “During that era, a lot of the guys, you felt compelled to have to do this and do that,” Righetti continued. “We had to win, we had to win. The next thing you know, the 10 or 11 years were over with and I said, ‘My arm’s not the same and we didn’t get it done.’ I left there with an empty feeling.”

    Now Righetti is trying to fill that emptiness with the Giants, the coach trying to win the World Series that he didn’t win as a player.

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    Giants do to Lee what Yanks couldn't

    Thursday, October 28, 2010, 9:28 AM [General]

    SAN FRANCISCO -- The Yankees wanted to be the team that solved Cliff Lee in a postseason game, wanted to be the team that made the robot of a pitcher look mortal. They had an approach for the American League Championship Series: profit from Lee's mistakes. Lee barely made any so the plan fizzled.

    But Lee was not as precise against the San Francisco Giants in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night. He was human. He made mistakes. The Giants had a plan, too, a plan that involved being aggressive at the right time. It worked as the Giants rumbled to an 11-7 victory over Lee and the Texas Rangers. Somewhere, the Yankees had to be wondering why they were unable to do that to Lee.

    Before the Yankees opposed Lee, Kevin Long, their batting coach, theorized that a pitcher like Lee would make about 10 to 12 mistakes a game. It was imperative for the Yankees to drill them. If Lee made that many mistakes against the Yankees, and it didn't like he made very many, the Yankees missed them. Lee mesmerized the Yankees over eight innings in a 2-0 win in Game 3 of the ALCS.

    Remember how Josh Hamilton reached out and smacked a two-run homer off Andy Pettitte in the first inning of that game? Once Lee got a 2-0 lead, he was impenetrable. The two-run lead felt a lot larger because Lee was so dominant. The Yankees didn't get a hit until the fifth inning and didn't have a runner make it to second base until the sixth.

    Guess what? The Rangers gave Lee a 2-0 lead by the second on Wednesday. With the way Lee had pitched in the postseason, the Rangers had to be hoping that two runs would be enough for them to secure another win. But it wasn't. The Giants scored two runs in the third to tie the score and blitzed Lee in a six-run fifth inning. The man who wanted to pitch the ninth against the Yankees didn't last five against the Rangers.

    "I made several mistakes that they capitalized on," Lee said. "They swung the bats well."

    Lee, who had been a pristine 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA in the postseason, allowed six earned runs and eight hits in 4 2/3 innings. Of the eight hits the Giants had off Lee, five came when they had no strikes or one strike. Since Lee is like a pitching machine with his consistent strikes, CC Sabathia, his friend and former teammate, said, "You have to be ready to hit." The Giants were ready.

    As Lee stood in the corner of a crowded clubhouse and tried to explain why he finally lost in the postseason, he blamed himself for throwing too many pitches over the heart of the plate. Lee lauded the Giants for fashioning several "really good" at bats, but he seemed more perturbed at what he didn't do than anything the Giants did.

    "If I were throwing pitches on the corners and they kept hitting me all day, I wouldn't know what to do," Lee said. "But that really wasn't the case."

    There has been speculation that Lee will demand a massive six-year, $150 million contract when he becomes a free agent. The Yankees, who tried to acquire Lee from the Seattle Mariners in July, and the Rangers -- who did snag him from the Mariners -- will both pursue Lee. With all that Lee has achieved as a pitcher, he could easily have more than one team that is willing to meet his exorbitant price tag.

    As the Yankees watched Lee get pelted, they could have wondered how a team that was 17th in the Major Leagues in runs did so much damage against Lee. The Yankees led the majors in runs. But one thing the Yankees didn't have to wonder about on Wednesday is whether Lee's price tag climbed higher. After Game 1, it didn't. Stay tuned for Lee's next start.

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    Lee 'like a machine right now'

    Wednesday, October 27, 2010, 11:49 AM [General]

    SAN FRANCISCO –- The Yankees wanted to face Cliff Lee one last time in 2010. Seeing Lee would have meant there would be a Game 7 against the Texas Rangers in the American League Championship Series. Seeing Lee would have meant the Yankees were one conquest away from the World Series.

    Of course, the Yankees never faced Lee again. The Yankees sputtered in Game 6 and saw their season disappear. Looking more fatigued than ferocious against the Rangers, the Yankees kept getting smacked and jabbed by the feistier team. Lee’s services weren’t needed a second time in the series.   

    Now the Yankees will have a chance to see Lee’s next postseason start from a distance, if they watch it at all. The Yankees can study Lee in Game 1 of the World Series against Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco Giants, and they can marvel at how someone can be so impeccable at spotting pitches on the fringes of the strike zone. Lee throws in and out or up and down, spotting baseballs as if his left arm is a laser pointer.
     
    “He’s like a machine right now,” said Carl Willis, who was Lee’s pitching coach for six seasons with the Cleveland Indians.

    Then Willis laughed. Willis knows this routine, knows how Lee can morph into a trance on the mound and dominate hitters. For the legion of Yankees fans who dream of seeing Lee in New York, and who want to know who he is and what he is about, Willis is a reservoir of information.

    When Willis talks about how tough Lee is, he has a story.

    “If you told me there were two guys looking for me outside the clubhouse and I could take one guy with me to fight them, I’d take Cliff Lee,” Willis said. “He would wear them down or he would just beat them from the beginning. He wouldn’t lose the fight. They’d have to kill him.”

    When Willis talks about why Lee is so precise, he has an explanation.

    “If you put a camera in the sky over him for a bullpen session in Spring Training or a postseason game in October, you wouldn’t be able to determine which was which,” Willis said.  “When he’s on the mound, he’s so good about repeating his delivery. He’ll throw 110 pitches in a game and he’ll repeat his delivery 110 times. I think that’s how he makes the baseball do what it does.”

    When Willis talks about why Lee is almost unbeatable in the postseason with a 7-0 record and a 1.26 ERA, he has a theory.

    “He’s simplified things,” Willis said. “He knows the things he needs to do to be successful and he’s prepared himself. In the postseason, he knows he’s one more game or one more series away from a championship. In the back of his mind, I’m sure he’s thinking that he’s almost there.”

    In 2007, Lee started the season with an abdominal injury, limped to a 5-8 record and was sent to Class AAA in late July. Willis, who was the pitching coach for the Seattle Mariners last season, said Lee’s demotion proved to be beneficial because it rejuvenated him and allowed him to become more focused on what he had to do to thrive with the Indians.

    The Major Leagues can be a chilly place, especially for injured or underachieving players. Once Lee spent over a month in the Minors, Willis said Lee “really appreciated” where he had been. As hard as players work to reach the Majors, Willis said they must work even harder to stay.

    One year later, Lee had rebounded to become one of the premier pitchers in the AL. Willis said Lee always had excellent command of his pitches when he was throwing inside to right-handed batters or outside to left-handed batters. But Lee didn’t have the same accuracy to the opposite side of the plate: inside to lefties and outside to righties. Lee found that command two years ago and went 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA.

    While the Yankees will never know how they would have done against Lee in a potential Game 7, he had dominated them in Game 3. Would the Yankees have managed to make adjustments against Lee? Both Willis and Kevin Long, the Yankees’ batting coach, said hitters must pounce on Lee’s handful of mistakes or he will exasperate them.

    The next time the Yankees will see Lee is on TV. After that, who knows? There is a good chance the Yankees will see Lee in their dugout next season. The Yankees have had internal discussions about how much they would be willing to offer Lee, the jewel of the free agent class and a pitcher who might demand a six-year $150 million contract.

    Several days ago, the Yankees missed out on getting to see Lee again in the ALCS. They don’t want to miss out on getting Lee, too.

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    Cano's mission: Keep playing

    Friday, October 22, 2010, 2:27 PM [General]

    The afternoon turned grayer and chillier at Yankee Stadium, but the kid kept swinging, kept extending batting practice by one more session. Swing after gorgeous swing, the batter kept socking baseballs over the right field fence and kept smiling and begging for more pitches. He wanted to keep another day of baseball alive.

    The player was Robinson Cano. The scene unfolded during Sunday’s workout at the Stadium. After almost all of the Yankees returned to the clubhouse, Cano wanted to keep playing, so Kevin Long, the batting coach, parked himself behind a screen for the famous Home Run Drill and flipped dozens of underhanded pitches to Cano.

    Cano got to keep playing. That is what the Yankees are trying to do in the American League Championship Series right now: keep playing. They are trying to defeat the Texas Rangers in Game 6 on Friday night so they can push the series to a fateful Game 7. The idea of opposing the masterful Cliff Lee in a do-or-die game is incredibly appealing to the Yankees because that would mean they gave themselves a chance to grab the series. Maybe they can keep playing into the World Series.

    To win the next two games in Arlington, Texas, the Yankees could use Cano to keep destroying pitches and pitchers. Cano is hitting .421 and has blasted four homers in five ALCS games, including two off left-hander C.J. Wilson. Before this series began, Wilson hadn’t allowed a homer to a left-handed batter since Shin Soo Choo on June 3, 2008. After Wilson’s tremendous 275-at bat streak, Cano twice took him deep in the span of four at bats.

    “I don’t think he can hit the ball any harder,” said general manager Brian Cashman.

    Cano has looked much more comfortable than any Yankee in October. It took Mark Teixeira’s strained hamstring injury for manager Joe Girardi to insert Cano in the third spot in the batting order, but Cano has been the Yankees’ best hitter since April. With Teixeira out, with Alex Rodriguez failing to replicate his 2009 postseason and with the Yankees floundering with runners in scoring position, Cano is the Yankee who is most likely to produce another pivotal hit. That is, unless the Rangers avoid him.

    At the Stadium on Sunday, Cano was a machine. Long stands about 30 feet from the plate and whips baseballs in with his left hand, imitating a softball pitcher. While a Major Leaguer should be able to clobber underhanded pitches, Cano must provide all of the power to rocket the shots into the seats. And he did that, again and again.

    During one stretch, Cano took 12 swings. He hit nine homers, he hit one ball off the right field fence, he hit another off the warning track and he hit one that missed the track by a few feet. I hadn’t witnessed such a prodigious display in BP since I stood in the left field upper deck as Mark McGwire bashed homers at Busch Stadium.

    Ramiro Pena and Francisco Cervelli joined Cano in the drill, but they were the equivalent of two of Michael Jackson’s brothers showing up to practice a dance routine. Tito and Marlon could move their feet, but everyone would study Michael. Pena and Cervelli swung, but everyone studied Cano. On this day, everyone consisted of a few reporters and some grounds crew members. Long knew Cano’s swing so well that he didn’t even have to turn around to know if a ball left the Stadium.

    “This keeps him tight, compact and explosive,” Long said. “There’s no drifting. It’s the best route to the ball. This is something he’s been doing this all year.”

    There are lots of things that Cano has been doing all year, which have helped a very good player become one of the best players in baseball. Now the Yankees need Cano to do a few more crucial things. The Yankees must win to keep playing. Cano, as much as any Yankee, can help them keep baseball alive for another day or two or many more.

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