Hughes cool, collected, successful

    Monday, May 17, 2010, 10:30 AM [General]

    Phil Hughes looks different on the mound this season, different in a positive way. He acts more assertive and more fearless. He has the demeanor of a pitcher who is anxious to throw the ball because he doesn’t expect batters to do any damage. He looks that cool for the Yankees.

    Watch how Hughes performs when he faces the Red Sox Monday night. He rarely strays from the rubber because he doesn’t want to waste time between pitches. He shows little emotion because he is focused on the next pitch. While Hughes’ friends have told him that they have noticed a difference in his presence, he believes the most crucial difference is what has transpired above his neck.

    When Hughes thinks about what has allowed him to rumble to a 5-0 record with a 1.38 earned run average, he centers on “confidence and aggressiveness.” Yes, Hughes has used his cut fastball more often and will toss it in any count. Yes, his curveball is better and he has added a changeup. But Hughes feels the mental adjustments have been more important to his ascension than any physical changes.

    “I think if you look at my raw stuff to when I was starting games this season to last season, there’s probably not that much difference,” Hughes said. “I’m maybe a little bigger and stronger. But I feel what has really changed is my confidence out there and my ability to attack the strike zone. Those have been the two biggest things.”

    The Yankees always felt Hughes, who was a first-round draft pick in 2004, could be a No. 1 or a No. 2 starter in their rotation. Technically, Hughes is the No. 5 starter, but he has been the Yankees’ best starter in 2010. Better than CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte and a lot better than Javier Vazquez. It is silly to discuss the postseason in May, but let’s be silly for a sentence. If the postseason started today, Hughes would be a superb choice to start Game 2.

    The biggest change that Hughes has made in his repertoire has been the increased employment of his cut fastball. After throwing the cutter 16.4 percent of the time in 2009, Hughes has uncorked it 28 percent in his first six starts this season. Even though Hughes said his 88-mile per hour cutter is easier to hit than his fastball, which is about five or six miles faster, it isn’t easier to hit if hitters are expecting the fastball.

    Every pitcher, no matter how effective, is going to experience some bad counts in games. When those 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1 counts arise, Hughes’s cutter helps him neutralize aggressive hitters. The hitters that are waiting to pulverize a fastball are stifled when they get a cutter that dives at the last second.

    “I throw my cutter often and I’m not afraid to throw it behind in counts or ahead in counts,” Hughes said. “Even when I’m behind in the count, I throw every ball with conviction. I’m not afraid to miss spots. I think that’s taken me a long way.”

    As valuable as Hughes’s cutter has been, he must be wary of not always throwing it when he is behind in the count. Hitters aren’t idiots. If Hughes throws his cutter every time he is behind, hitters will make adjustments and simply wait for it. So Hughes said he must be conscious of mixing in his fastball in those bad counts, too. As much as Hughes relies on the cutter, he must maintain the surprise element of the pitch.

    “It’s definitely more difficult to hit,” Hughes said, “when they’re not looking for it.”

    The Yankees haven’t publicized how many innings Hughes will be allowed to pitch during the season, but it will probably be about 170. Hughes pitched 111 2/3 innings (including the postseason) with the Yankees and at Triple-A as a starter and a reliever in 2009. But Hughes also threw 146 Minor League innings in 2006 so the Yankees might extend him a bit more than they did with Joba Chamberlain last season. Hughes hasn’t been given an innings limit and said he isn’t dwelling on it.  

    Since the Yankees finish the first half in Seattle on July 11, Hughes plans to travel home to Santa Ana, Calif., for the All-Star break. Less than 10 miles from Hughes’s home, the All-Star Game will be played at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 13. About two months before the marquee game, it is premature to speculate about whether Hughes will make the team. Still, because the game will be played in Hughes’ backyard, I asked if he had thought about pitching in it. He laughed the laugh of someone who hadn’t considered it.

    “I was just going to go home,” Hughes said. “That’s my plan. I’ll be in Anaheim. But I wasn’t really making plans for that.”

    If Hughes continues pitching like this, he might need to make new plans.

    Follow Jack all season long on Twitter @JackCurryYES.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    One-man bend

    Friday, May 14, 2010, 11:42 PM [General]

    When Brett Gardner takes a lead off first base, he bends his right arm at an angle and keeps it tucked close to his chest. Gardner’s arm is bent in such a pronounced fashion that he looks as if he is prepared to fire an elbow at anyone who traipses into his patch of dirt.

    As different as Gardner’s elbow looks from the way most players look when they lead off first, there is a reason for it. By keeping his elbow bent, Gardner said that he generates more force when he turns his body to the right and powers to second base.  

    “When you run, the first thing that moves is your arms,” Gardner said. “You want to have your arms in a good position. Sometimes, if I open my arm up too much, that causes my body to stand up and I don’t get a good jump. I want to drive down and stay short and stay low.”

    Dana Cavalea, the Yankees’ strength and conditioning coach, recommended this technique to Gardner.  Cavalea said Gardner -- as the runner who bends his elbow -- is like a corkscrew that is creating “movement efficiency.” That helps Gardner run in a straight line toward second. Of course, the fastest way to get from first to second is in a straight line.

    Once Gardner reaches first, he eases into the position that Cavalea has prescribed. His head and chest are up, his lower half is loaded so he can explode off the inside edge of his left foot and his elbow is bent. The rumble to second starts after Gardner unleashes what Cavalea called “a short, compact arm drive.” That arm drive takes a motionless Gardner into first gear. 

    “It helps him create power into the ground,” Cavalea said. “It gives him the ability to get a stronger push off the backside and also utilize the musculature and the movement patterns that we create in the weight room.”

    Since Cavalea has a degree in exercise science and has a background in speed and movement, he patterns workouts around what can help baseball players. Manager Joe Girardi first asked Cavalea to work on Gardner’s footwork because Gardner was slipping too much when he tried to steal bases. From those sessions, Gardner’s bent elbow was born.  

    Gardner’s interesting approach has helped him get excellent jumps and also helped him steal 16 bases in 17 attempts this season. In Gardner’s career, he has been safe in 55 of 62 attempts, which is a success rate of 88.7 percent. Gardner’s goal is to always remain above 85 percent.

    Although Gardner wouldn’t speculate on how many bases he could steal this season, he said he would rather steal 50 in 55 attempts than 70 in 88 tries. I told Gardner that a Yankees fan e-mailed the YES Network and wondered if Gardner could steal 90 to 100 bases. Gardner laughed and said he would get “pretty beat up” trying to run that often. Still, Gardner is on pace to steal 74.

    “You could see when he first came up the type of speed he has,” said Joe Mauer, Twins catcher. “It can change ballgames.”

    Gardner didn’t steal any bases on Friday, but he helped impact the game. He had a homer and also motored home from first on Mark Teixeira’s double as the Yankees slapped the Minnesota Twins, 8-4. The game-changing moment came when Alex Rodriguez smashed a grand slam off Matt Guerrier, a pitcher he had previously dominated, to erase a 4-3 deficit in the seventh inning. Rodriguez is now 5 for 7 with four homers off Guerrier.

    Confidence is not a problem for Gardner because he has always been a successful base stealer. He had 58 stolen bases in one minor league season. But, sometimes, aggressiveness is a problem for Gardner. Gardner conceded that he is still “cautious out there.” He hopes to become more aggressive on the bases, with his bent elbow guiding him to every first step.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Red Sox must 'grind' to stay in AL East race

    Friday, May 7, 2010, 10:29 AM [General]

    BOSTON – Unintelligent, undisciplined and uninspired baseball. That was the way Theo Epstein described the Boston Red Sox’s style of play last Sunday. It was a candid critique from a general manager who had grown fatigued by seeing the Red Sox slog through the first month of the season.

    When Epstein spoke to John Tomase of The Boston Herald, he added that the situation had “to change.” Epstein surmised that the sluggish play “would change itself or we do something to change it.” It sounded like a threat. It sounded like a call to WEEI, which is the sports talk radio station that can also serve as a panic hotline here. Epstein added he was not referring to personnel moves when he mentioned the possibility of changes.

    If Epstein was that honest with a reporter, what was he saying about the state of the Red Sox during meetings with ownership and with manager Terry Francona? Surely, the assessment was even more withering. The Red Sox watched the Tampa Bay Rays and the Yankees rumble ahead of them in the American League East, which was painful to an organization that expects to reach the postseason.

    Unintelligent, undisciplined and uninspired baseball was unacceptable.

    “I don’t think there’s a single player in that clubhouse that would disagree with me,” said Epstein, while sitting in the first base dugout at Fenway Park on Thursday. “I didn’t call anyone out. I didn’t call our players out. We’re all in this together. The fact of the matter is we were not playing good baseball. We all know that. And we weren’t playing the kind of baseball we were capable of.”

    Maybe Epstein, who seemed disappointed that his comments were being analyzed, should publicly critique the Red Sox more often. After Epstein’s assessment and Francona’s team meeting on Monday, the Red Sox have not lost. The recuperating Red Sox rallied from a 4-0 deficit to squash the Angels, 11-6, and sweep a four-game series on Thursday.  

    So, as the Yankees invade Fenway for the second time in 30 days on Friday, the Red Sox, a team that has looked disjointed, is 15-14. It is the first time the Red Sox have been above the .500 mark since they stopped the Yankees in the season opener. Dustin Pedroia said the Red Sox have to keep “grinding” so they don’t tumble any lower in the standings.

    The Red Sox have a designated hitter whose bat speed has disappeared in David Ortiz, another DH who is unhappy that he isn’t playing every day in Mike Lowell, a catcher who would be better off as a DH in Victor Martinez, an ace pitcher who has a 6.31 earned run average in Josh Beckett and a bullpen that has blown five of 14 save opportunities and has a 4.45 ERA.

    For the Red Sox to continue climbing out of their funk, their current players must experience a revival. Despite the speculation about releasing Ortiz, one Red Sox official said the team is not close to making any moves. But that doesn’t mean Ortiz is guaranteed to get at-bats consistently and it doesn’t mean he will be with the team all season. Epstein dismissed the idea of making personnel moves right now and called them purely “symbolic” in early May.

    “I don’t really believe in change for change sake,” Epstein said.

    As the Red Sox search for reasons why they can rebound this season, they have dug deep into statistics. After 27 games, which is one-sixth of the season, the Red Sox were 13-14. Since 2003, Epstein said the Red Sox have had only one season (2005) in which they did not go 13-14 or worse during a 27-game stretch. Epstein emphasized that he was referring to records through 27 games, from games 28 to 54, from games 55 to 81, from games 82 to 108 and so on. The 27-game chunks weren’t cherry picked in each season, Epstein said.

    Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, said it would be illogical to dismiss the Red Sox and that he expects them to challenge for a postseason berth. The Red Sox trail the first-place Rays by 6 1/2 games, which is a modest gap with five months left in the regular season. Cashman recalled how the Yankees opened with a 15-17 record in 2009 and regrouped to win a World Series title.

    While I think Boston’s reliable rotation will enable the Red Sox to hang around in the AL East race, the Rays and the Yankees are superior clubs. Francona insisted that he still believes his team will succeed. When I asked Francona if the Red Sox could match what the Yankees did last year, something that could require a lot of intelligent, inspired and disciplined baseball, he paused for several seconds.  

    “We’ll see,” he said.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Smiling Cervelli wears passion on his sleeve

    Wednesday, May 5, 2010, 10:12 AM [General]

    We should all do our jobs the way Francisco Cervelli does his: with the same passion, the same energy and the same joy. Even if we could only do it for one day, we should all be as happy at work as Cervelli is when he is playing for the Yankees.

    “My mom always said, ‘Have fun because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,’” Cervelli said.

    Cervelli has fun, endless and unbridled fun. His giddy disposition is not an act. Cervelli really is an affable guy who is thrilled to have a locker in the same clubhouse as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia. If Cervelli plays for another decade, let’s hope he remains this innocent and this excitable. It is a significant part of why he is such a charming story.

    As A.J. Burnett pitched powerfully into the eighth inning of a 4-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night, Cervelli made several plays, some big, some small and some daring, that helped make him as pivotal as any player at Yankee Stadium. Cervelli has a happy, reckless approach that Burnett called infectious.

    Cervelli’s starry night began with a triple to right center field in the third inning. When Cervelli reached third base, he clapped his hands three times. He scored the Yankees’ first run. One inning later, Cervelli scooted toward the first base dugout, reached over the railing and then tumbled over it to make a superb catch. Cervelli added two more singles, including one on a beautiful bunt.

    “He did all the little things you expect him to do,” said manager Joe Girardi, “and did them as well as you can do them.”

    Here is all you need to know about how savvy Cervelli is. When Cervelli was asked what pleased him the most about his stellar game, he referenced Burnett’s three straight strikeouts to finish the third and strand two runners. Cervelli, who is now hitting .387, said he is confident as a hitter, but added, “My job is behind the plate.”

    Since Jorge Posada has a strained right calf, Cervelli will start again on Wednesday. Cervelli’s inspired play could cause Girardi to start Cervelli more than he originally planned. If Girardi planned to start Cervelli in about 45 games, the manager might think about adjusting that amount. The Yankees could start Cervelli, a defensive stalwart, a bit more and shift Posada to designated hitter. Nick Johnson (.134) has slumped in the DH spot, but without a third catcher on the roster, Girardi might be hesitant to start one of his two catchers as a DH.

    The Yankees have always been enamored with Cervelli’s defense, but his offensive exploits and his energetic approach have made him an interesting weapon for Girardi. The manager has long been a fan of Brett Gardner because Gardner’s speed can help change games. Cervelli’s energy and his rapport with pitchers can impact games, too.

    Whatever Girardi decides to do regarding Cervelli’s playing time, Cervelli will probably keep smiling. Cervelli doesn’t see himself as backup catcher. Whenever Cervelli plays, he said he considers himself the No. 1 catcher. As usual, he said it with a smile. Even Posada, who is the No. 1 catcher, would have smiled if he had heard Cervelli say he feels “special” every time he gets the chance to play.

    Before Tuesday night’s game, Cervelli and Ramiro Pena visited a local hospital and hung out with some ailing kids. During the visit, Cervelli said one girl asked him if he could hit a homer for her. Cervelli, who wore a yellow bracelet that the girl had given him, said he would try. Instead, he socked a triple, two singles and made an excellent tumbling catch. To me, that combination was more impressive than one homer.

    After Cervelli reflected on his draining day and night, he said speaking to the sick children had given him “more pleasure than anything else.” That was another part of Cervelli’s job with the Yankees. Yes, we should all do our jobs the way he does.

    4.1 (3 Ratings)

    Alomar: Cano can be the next Jeter

    Monday, May 3, 2010, 10:24 AM [General]

    Roberto Alomar was a talented and stylish second baseman, a player who was enjoyable to watch because of the way he played the game. When Alomar watches Robinson Cano, another talented and stylish second baseman, he sees a player that he enjoys watching. Alomar also sees a player that he believes can and will improve.

    “He’s one of the best second basemen of his generation,” said Alomar in a telephone interview last week. “He can still get better.”

    So far, Cano is having a superb season for the Yankees with a .387 average, nine homers and 21 runs batted in. He has embraced the challenge of batting fifth in the lineup, he is hitting with runners in scoring position and he has been the most dynamic player on a team filled with superstars. He has more homers the combined totals of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Nick Johnson and Curtis Granderson.

    Cano’s ascension has coincided with him being asked to do more as Rodriguez’s protector in the lineup, a challenge that I think has motivated him. While Teixeira and Johnson barely produced in April and Rodriguez and Granderson (now on the disabled list) also had sluggish starts, Cano has been terrific on offense and defense. Cano should be the American League’s Player of the Month.

    “I feel so highly about him,” Alomar said. “If he stays healthy and he stays focused, he can be the next Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees.”

    Since Jeter helped the Yankees win four titles in his first five seasons and is the Yankees’ all-time hits leader, being mentioned as the next Jeter is hefty praise. After Alomar linked Cano to Jeter, he added that Jeter worked extremely hard to get to such a lofty level and that Cano had to work at least as hard.

    “It’s up to him now,” Alomar said. “It’s not up to anyone else.”

    Alomar won 10 Gold Glove Awards, the most ever by a second baseman, and said that Cano can be a smarter defensive player by refining his instincts. When Alomar played second, he prepared by expecting that the ball would be hit to him. Little Leaguers are told to prepare the same way. What made Alomar’s approach more advanced was how he studied what type of pitch was about to be thrown and where the catcher wanted it to be thrown. In addition, Alomar also studied hitters and factored their tendencies into determining where he would position himself at second.

    “You can’t play in the same position all of the time,” Alomar said. “It’s a matter of having the knowledge and knowing what to do with it.”

    Cano is more adept at scampering to his right than his left to field grounders. Because of that, Alomar said that Cano should inch to his left whenever he can to help him handle the plays that are the toughest for him. Alomar said it is tougher for a second baseman to go to his right because his back is to everything first base, but Cano moves smoothly in that direction.
     
    Even though Cano only sees 3.31 pitches per at-bat, which is last among the Yankee regulars, Alomar said that Cano is a shrewd hitter who has shown the ability to make the proper adjustments. If Cano sees a juicy pitch early in the count, he should pounce on it. In four at-bats against the Baltimore Orioles last Thursday, Cano had two homers and a double while seeing seven pitches.

    But once Cano’s at-bat is finished, Alomar said he should treat his time in the dugout as if he is in a classroom. Alomar, a lifetime .300 hitter, called baseball “a mind game” and said Cano can learn a lot about a pitcher by concentrating on what happens in front of him. As Cano watches the other team, Alomar, like everyone else, will be watching Cano.
     
    “I see myself when I watch him play,” Alomar said. “He can be one of the best.”

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

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