Chamberlain's return a tremendous victory

    Monday, August 6, 2012, 4:11 PM [General]

    Forget about Joba Chamberlain surrendering a homer on the second pitch he threw this season. Ignore that he was clipped for four hits while collecting five outs. Don’t stress about the lack of velocity on his fastball. Instead, focus on how Chamberlain made it back to the mound for the Yankees.

    When General Manager Brian Cashman first spoke about Chamberlain’s openly dislocated right ankle last March, he was sullen and called it a “massive” injury. The Yankees knew Chamberlain had seriously injured himself, but they couldn’t predict when he would return. It was a disconcerting day, another day when Chamberlain’s roller coaster of a career had been derailed.

    “Keep him in our prayers, because obviously he’s facing a lot right now,” said Cashman, at the time.

    Since Chamberlain was already rehabilitating from Tommy John elbow surgery, he knew what it was like to be lonely pitcher that aches to get back to the Major Leagues. While Chamberlain noted that he was a quick healer and vowed that he would return in 2012, the Yankees couldn’t count on his words. Until Chamberlain proved that he was healthy and effective, he would be just another rehabbing player.

    That unwanted distinction ended for Chamberlain last Wednesday. He was correct. He is a quick healer. He would pitch again this season. After Chamberlain made his first appearance in 14 months in a 12-3 win over the Orioles, he admitted that he felt like a nervous rookie back in 2007. That is the season when Chamberlain was a superhuman setup man to Mariano Rivera. But in the last five seasons, there has been some hope, more hype, different roles and more heartache for Chamberlain.

    Now the Yankees need Chamberlain to be a weapon out of the bullpen again. Rafael Soriano is the closer and David Robertson is the setup man in the eighth inning. If Chamberlain can handle the seventh, he would combine with Robertson and Soriano to give manager Joe Girardi an intimidating threesome across the last three innings of games. If Robertson or Soriano need a day off, Chamberlain could also be summoned in the eighth or the ninth, too.

    Although the Yankees have had one of the best bullpens in the American League this season, Girardi explained how Chamberlain’s presence could have help him avoid resorting to so many righty-righty and lefty-lefty matchups. Before Chamberlain was activated, the Yankees had two right-handed specialists in Cody Eppley and Chad Qualls, and two lefty specialists in Clay Rapada and Boone Logan.

    Unlike those four pitchers, Chamberlain is a pitcher that Girardi trusts to retire righty and lefty batters. For Chamberlain’s career, his numbers against righties and lefties are remarkably similar. In 808 plate appearances, righties have a .250 average, 20 homers and 190 strikeouts against him. In 833 plate appearances, lefties have the same .250 average, 17 homers and 196 strikeouts versus Chamberlain. David Phelps is versatile enough to face righties and lefties, but he is a long man and can’t be used as often as Chamberlain. So Chamberlain should give Girardi more flexibility.

    In a season that was almost a lost one for Chamberlain, he is now a pitcher that can have an impact on the Yankees again. The Yankees would love to see some semblance of the Chamberlain of old, the reliever who burst in from the bullpen with a 98-mile-per-hour fastball. But, as the Yankees wait for that type of production, they are also just satisfied to see Chamberlain back on the mound at all.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Yankees acquire Ichiro from Mariners

    Monday, July 23, 2012, 9:01 PM [General]

    There was a time when Ichiro Suzuki was one of the best five players in baseball, someone who was a delight to watch at the plate, on the bases and in the outfield. There aren't many singles hitters who force you to watch every move they make, but Ichiro was that kind of must-see player.

    While Ichiro isn't a top-five type player anymore, he can still be a very effective player for the Yankees as they refine their roster and push toward the post-season. By acquiring Ichiro from the Mariners for right-handers D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar, the Yankees didn't surrender any premier prospects and improved their outfield. In addition, the Yankees will only pay Ichiro $2.25 million for the rest of the season. They believe Ichiro is still worth watching and, of course, still worth having.

    When General Manager Brian Cashman surveyed the trade for possible outfield help, he didn't like the hefty pricetags for players like Shane Victorino and Denard Span. Although Justin Upton is a very attractive 24-year old, the Yankees weren't thrilled with the type of package it would take to acquire him, either. Ichiro was available at a modest price so the Yankees were smart to pounce. The acquisition of Ichiro makes them a better team.

    By obtaining Ichiro, the Yankees have added a reasonable facsimile of Brett Gardner. Ichiro still plays superb defense and still has excellent speed, traits that the Yankees have lacked in Gardner's absence. Once the Yankees realized Gardner was probably done for 2012 because of his impending elbow surgery, they pushed to add another outfielder. The Yankees are hopeful that Ichiro, who only has a .302 on base percentage since the beginning of the 2011 season, will be reujvenated by playing for a contending team.

    Ichiro will mostly play left field, which will allow Manager Joe Girardi to use Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones as a designated hitter platoon. As elated as the Yankees have been about what Ibanez and Jones have done, the Yankees have been concerned about overtaxing the two aging players. Ichiro is 38 years old, but he is used to playing every day. Since Ichiro has been a 10-time Gold Glove outfielder, the shift to left field won't be an issue for him.

    As Ichiro discussed becoming a Yankee, he said that he was having a difficult time containing his excitement. Ichiro, who had asked the Mariners for a trade, isn't being asked to be a savior. All the Yankees need Ichiro to do is play strong defense, create some mayhem on the bases and provide some offense and excitement from the bottom of the order. If Ichiro does that, he can prove that he is still worth watching.

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    Faith in Ibanez is being rewarded

    Tuesday, July 17, 2012, 10:12 AM [General]

    Raul Ibanez was a searcher in his first few weeks with the Yankees. He searched for his swing, searched for his timing and searched for a groove, that blissful place where hitters always want to live. Ibanez also searched for some hits. In his first 37 at-bats in Spring Training he managed two hits.

    So, on a warm night in Fort Myers, Fla., last March, I asked Kevin Long, the Yankees’ hitting coach, if he was concerned about Ibanez’s awful start. At the time, Ibanez was batting .059. I realized those were only spring statistics, which can be meaningless. But .059 was an ugly number for a hitter.

    “I know Raul is going to hit for us,” Long said.

    Long explained how he wasn’t bothered by Ibanez’s unsightly average because he saw some other encouraging signs. The coach watched Ibanez’s routine in the batting cage and saw a hitter who was prepared. He watched how Ibanez worked at-bats and saw a hitter who was intelligent. He watched the way the ball jumped off Ibanez’s bat, even as Ibanez struggled for hits, and saw a hitter who still had power.

    Almost four months after Long expressed supreme confidence in a .059 hitter, I watched Ibanez hammer a grand slam off Jason Frasor to catapult the Yankees past the Blue Jays, 6-3, on Monday night. After Ibanez’s smart and patient at bat, I recalled my conversation with Long. Even as Ibanez sputtered in the spring, Long had seen signs that Ibanez could and would be productive. Long was right.

    Ibanez is 40 years old and in his 17th season in the Major Leagues. As I have studied Ibanez’s at-bats this season, I am convinced that he is savvier than most of the pitchers he faces. With the score tied, 2-2, the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning, Ibanez knew that Frasor would surely have to throw him fastballs. Frasor throws fastballs 76 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs.com, and he didn’t want to walk in the go-ahead run.

    Not only did Ibanez look for a fastball, he looked for the right fastball. Ibanez didn’t swing at three of the first four pitches, patiently waiting for Frasor to put a pitch in an attractive spot. Once the count moved to 3-1, Ibanez was in a superb position. Frasor had to throw a strike and almost definitely had to throw a fastball. When Frasor threw an inside fastball, Ibanez crushed it. It was a familiar sight to the Yankees. In at-bats after the count reaches 3-1, Ibanez is batting .421 this season.

    Of Ibanez’s 12 homers, eight have come in the sixth inning or later and five have given the Yankees a lead. Ibanez has 56 hits, but he has also driven in 40 runs. Although Ibanez’s .242 batting average is modest, he has a .463 slugging percentage.

    On the same day the Yankees revealed that left fielder Brett Gardner felt more soreness in his injured right elbow, Ibanez started his 41st game in left and was the main reason the Yankees defeated the Jays. When the Yankees signed Ibanez for $1.1 million last February, the plan was for him to mostly be a designated hitter and to occasionally play the outfield. But Gardner’s injury has forced Ibanez and Andruw Jones to start more games in the outfield.

    Since Gardner had another setback, there is no certainty that he will return this season. As the Yankees wait for doctors to evaluate Gardner again, they are relieved that they have Ibanez. He can’t play defense or run like Gardner, but Ibanez can hit and can help. Long could see that, could see it back when Ibanez was an .059 hitter.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Cano, Yankees valuable to one another

    Monday, July 9, 2012, 1:40 PM [General]

    Robinson Cano cannot become a free agent until after the 2013 season, but, as he continues to evolve as an elite player who is actually getting better, the Yankees have had internal discussions about his future with them. Cano is the best player on the Yankees, a player who they want and need to stay precisely where he is.

    When I asked General Manager Brian Cashman if he had entertained the notion of signing Cano to a long-term contract before Cano can test free agency, he said, "Oh, yeah. But we haven't done it yet."

    Cano is earning $14 million this season and the Yankees will exercise his $15 million option for next season. For the 2014 season, Cashman has stressed how vital it is for the Yankees to have a payroll under $189 million. If the Yankees succeed in keeping their payroll below $189 million, and team executives insist that goal is paramount, it would result in tremendous financial gains. 

    As the Yankees work on reducing their payroll, they will have to figure out what to do about Cano and Curtis Granderson, who can also be a free agent after 2013. Cashman noted that the Yankees signed Cano to a four-year, $30 million deal with two club option years after the 2007 season, which was a departure from their policy of not signing young players to multi-year deals. Still, Cashman didn't say how vigorous he might be in trying to sign the second baseman before free agency arrives, saying, "We have to see how it plays out."

    But, a few seconds later, Cashman added, "Of course, we'd like to keep him."

    From interviewing Cano over the years and observing him while he played in places like the Dominican Republic and Taiwan, I'm sure Cano's preference is to stay with the Yankees. Cano embraces the idea of being a superstar and understands that being a superstar on the Yankees is different than being a star on almost every other team. Then again, Cano also fired Bobby Barad and switched to Scott Boras as his agent. Boras is known for advising his marquee clients to test free agency because that enables him to negotiate with 30 teams, not just one.

    Although Cano will be 32 years old when he is due to be as a free agent, he has also been a very durable player. From the start of the 2007 season until now, Cano has missed 11 out of 895 regular season games. Cano is batting .313 with 20 homers, 51 runs batted in, a .374 on base percentage and a .579 slugging percentage at the All-Star break.

    With Cano preparing to compete in the Home Run Derby in Kansas City on Monday night, I flashed back to another derby he participated in. And, actually, I'm not referring to the Home Run Derby he won during last year's All-Star Game. On a Major League Baseball tour of Taiwan after the 2011 season, I watched Cano unleash his sweet swung during a one-man derby.

    Jose Cano, Robinson's father, pitched to his son in Taiwan, just as he did at last year's All-Star Game and just as he will on Monday night. It was a windy day and Cano wound up hitting about four or five homers on 10 swings. After the display, Robinson was disappointed. It was clear he wanted to give the fans a more dazzling show

    Cano has put on some dazzling shows for the Yankees and will continue to do so. On a team that is crowded with All-Stars and some future Hall of Famers, Cano is now the best player. The Yankees realize how valuable Cano is, which is why Cashman emphasized that they want to keep him. They want to witness those dazzling shows for several more years

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Yankees must remain resilient

    Thursday, June 28, 2012, 11:55 AM [General]

    The images of Andy Pettitte Tuesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium were blissful. He stood near the batter’s box and smacked grounders to his sons. When Pettitte came out of retirement, this was one of the fringe benefits he knew he would have again. He looked content.

    The images of Pettitte on Wednesday afternoon at the Stadium were disturbing. There was a liner that caromed off his left leg. Then Pettitte fell to the ground. He crawled for the ball and stopped. He tried to remain in the game, but he lasted one more pitch. He looked morose.

    It was a sobering day for the Yankees. Before the 5-4 win over the Indians, manager Joe Girardi revealed that CC Sabathia had a strained groin and would go on the disabled list. The Sabathia news was the equivalent of a punch to the stomach since the Yankees are hopeful that he will only miss two starts. But the news of Pettitte’s fractured fibula was a lot worse, the equivalent of Mike Tyson using your face as a punching bag. Pettitte will miss a minimum of six weeks, although general manager Brian Cashman admitted it will probably be closer two months.

    “Bad day for left-handers,” said Girardi, after losing his two best pitchers.

    It was a very bad for two left-handers and for the Yankees. But the Yankees need to treat these injuries as footnotes. That’s the way teams must react any time they lose players. There’s a game almost every day. Fretting about the players who are unavailable is detrimental. When Sabathia and Pettitte are healthy and are ready to pitch again, the Yankees will be relieved. Until then, the Yankees, like any other team with missing pieces, must plow ahead.

    In a season where the Yankees have already lost Mariano Rivera, the best closer of all-time, following knee surgery, they have been resilient. I never expected the Yankees to absorb the loss of Rivera as effectively as they have, but, with David Robertson and Rafael Soriano, they were better equipped than any team in baseball to cover Rivera’s massive void. The Yankees’ bullpen has a 2.82 earned run average, the second best in the American League.

    Now the Yankees must cover for Sabathia and Pettitte. If the Yankees had only lost Sabathia, it wouldn’t have been such a dreary day. Yes, it’s difficult to lose an ace. But, if Sabathia only misses two starts, the Yankees would have simply used Freddy Garcia to fill in for him. Garcia, who has a 1.56 ERA in his last 10 games, has resurrected himself by increasing his velocity. In April, Garcia’s fastball averaged 87.5 miles per hour. In June, Garcia has pumped it up to 90 MPH.

    Still, instead of merely covering for Sabathia’s absence, the Yankees will also need to cover for Pettitte’s missed starts. A lot of them. If Pettitte misses two months, as Cashman theorized, the Yankees won’t have for him about 11 starts. For now, Garcia and Adam Warren, who will make his Major League debut on Friday, will replace Sabathia and Pettitte. If Warren stumbles, the Yankees will summon David Phelps, who is stretching out his arm in the Minor Leagues after relieving for most of this season.

    Before the Yankees lost Sabathia and Pettitte, Cashman praised their pitching depth and even mentioned Warren and Phelps. Now the Yankees will be tested, just as they were after Rivera was lost for the season. While the Yankees don’t have the same type of reinforcements for the rotation spots as they had for the back end of the bullpen, they need to plow ahead. That’s what great teams do.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Cashman: Trust our track record

    Friday, June 15, 2012, 7:39 AM [General]

    As the Yankees played sluggishly in April and most of May, Brian Cashman waited. Baseball is a long season. Since Cashman is in his 15th season as the general manager, he could easily recite seasons in which very good Yankee teams sputtered or performed unevenly. That happens.

    Even as the starting rotation fizzled and even as the Yankees failed to produce with runners in scoring position, Cashman was patient. He was confident in these Yankees, a message he emphasized during a team meeting on May 22. Cashman told the players he didn’t meet with them because he was panicking, but to remind them that the solutions to the team’s problems were already in the clubhouse.

    While Cashman has declined to discuss the meeting, the Yankees have been much better since Cashman and Manager Joe Girardi addressed them. But the Yankees aren’t 16-4 since then because of inspirational words from the g.m. or the manager. The Yankees have been superb for the last 20 games because their pitchers (2.84 earned run average) have excelled and because they have displayed a lot of power (35 homers).

    Cashman didn’t fret when the Yankees were mired in fourth-place so he isn’t celebrating now that they are in first place, especially in the middle of June. Again, it’s a long season. Cashman knows that, which is how he remained resolute as the Yankees wobbled through the first six and a half weeks.

    “I’ve been through it enough,” said Cashman, on Wednesday. “You believe in the evaluations you’ve made in the players. You believe in the system that you have put in place. We had to trust our track record.”

    That trust has been rewarded. There was speculation that Phil Hughes, who starts on Friday against the Washington Nationals, or Ivan Nova could lose their spots in the rotation because of their ineffectiveness. But Cashman and Girardi stayed with them. Now Hughes is 5-1 with a 3.50 E.R.A. in his last seven starts while Nova is 2-0 with a 0.60 E.R.A. in his last two starts.

    The Yankees’ rotation has been critical to the turnaround as the starters have gone 9-1 with a 2.13 E.R.A. in June. Oddly enough, CC Sabathia, the ace, is the one pitcher who has struggled lately with a 2-1 record and a 4.29 E.R.A. across his last three starts. Even without Michael Pineda, Cashman said he always believed the Yankees “had one of the better pitching staffs in baseball.” 

    If Hughes and Nova continue to pitch adeptly, they can make Cashman’s job easier because, presumably, he won’t need to add a starter before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline. When I mentioned that theory to Cashman, he didn’t sound like a g.m. who was pondering a trade.  

     “I have made no phone calls to any general managers about making an acquisition,” Cashman said. “I’d prefer to ride what we’ve got.”

    Then Cashman added, “You can’t make moves until you know what you don’t have. I think we have a lot here. I want to find out what we have here first.”

    When Cashman explained that he hadn’t contacted any g.m.’s about a trade, that included a possible deal for an outfielder. On Thursday, the Yankees revealed that Brett Gardner’s strained elbow muscle will require about three or four more weeks of rest. Although I spoke with Cashman before the Yankees updated Gardner’s status, Cashman had seemed optimistic about the left fielder’s future.

    “I want Gardner to come back,” Cashman said. “I expect Gardner to come back.”

    For now, the Yankees, who have their rode pitching and their power, will keep pushing forward without Gardner. It is a long season, something the Yankees have already helped prove.

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    Martin's power, magic sparking Yankees

    Monday, June 11, 2012, 2:12 PM [General]

    The boys and girls from St. Lucy’s Catholic School in the Bronx crowded around Russell Martin. They wanted a high-five, an autograph or the chance to have their picture snapped with the Yankees’ catcher. The kids were giddy about meeting a real Yankee, playfully pushing toward Martin to try and steal his attention.

    This scene occurred about three weeks ago in the auditorium of an elementary school that is still mourning and still trying to heal. Martin and three teammates visited St. Lucy’s to let the students know how much they cared about them following the loss of Niely Rosario, a first-grader at the school. Niely was one of seven members of the same family killed in the devastating accident along the Bronx River Parkway in April.

    As Martin stood between the stage and a first row of chairs, a sea of kids surrounding him, he wondered how the students could handle the kind of loss that no one should ever have to handle. But Martin was relieved because the kids were excited. They were acting like kids, shouting and screaming and doing what kids are supposed to do when a few Yankees suddenly appear at their school.

    “I’ve been kind of down because I haven’t been swinging the bat well,” Martin said. “But then you come here and you look around, and you see what these people have been through. It reminds you of how difficult it’s been for them. Your problems are nothing compared to this.”

    When Martin smacked Jon Rauch’s 3-2 slider into the left field seats to power the Yankees to a 5-4 win over the Mets on Sunday, I thought about his experience at the school. As Martin leaped on to the plate to greet his waiting teammates, which wasn’t a smart move, he looked as giddy as any of the kids he had met at St. Lucy’s.

    While Martin joked that his vertical leap was two inches, he did have reasons to be thrilled. In addition to the walk-off homer against Rauch, Martin had also lined a two-run homer off Jon Niese in the seventh inning that helped slice a 3-0 deficit to 3-2. Martin’s homer was a Yankee Stadium special, a ball that eluded leaping right fielder Scott Hairston, hit the top of the fence and landed in a fan’s hands. With those two homers, Martin has four in his last six games. He had four in his first 44 games.

    “I can’t really picture a better script for me,” Martin told reporters at the Stadium. “I’m starting to feel dangerous at the plate.”

    On the day Martin visited St. Lucy’s with Raul Ibanez, Rafael Soriano and Boone Logan, he was batting .181. Of course, he’s not a .181 hitter. He is a better hitter than that and was bound to improve. Still, since Martin’s visit to the school, he is 13-for-44 with four homers and eight runs batted in over 13 games. Now Martin is a .216 hitter. He’s a better hitter than that, too. Despite the low average, he does have a .348 on-base percentage and a .432 slugging percentage.

    Sometimes, all a player has to do is make a subtle change to get better results. Martin told Meredith Marakovits of YES that he backed off the plate a few inches, a change that he made on his own, and that alteration has been instrumental in his offensive splurge. After Martin saw how Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers stood away from the plate and looked relaxed, and looked as if he could see the ball travel all the way to the plate, Martin told Marakovits he decided to mimic Cabrera and make the change.

    Because of Martin’s power, the Yankees climaxed a successful weekend by sweeping the three game series from the Mets. With a stabilized starting rotation, the Yankees now have 13 wins in their last 17 games. Guess what? That 13-4 streak began on the day that Martin and the Yankees visited St. Lucy’s.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Andy Pettitte enjoying a renaissance

    Thursday, June 7, 2012, 11:45 AM [General]

    The news of Andy Pettitte’s return to the Yankees came in a blur in March, which was followed by an assortment of questions. Why was he coming back? Who would he replace in the already packed rotation? When would he be ready to pitch? How good could he be?

    After the hype around the Yankees subsided, it was replaced by hope. The Yankees hoped that Pettitte would prove that he could be an effective starter again. There were dozens of questions about Pettitte’s return after not pitching in 2011, but only one really mattered: Could Pettitte pitch as well as he did in 2010?

    So far, Pettitte has answered that vital question in a resounding fashion. He has actually been better than he was in his last full Major League season. Pettitte looked and performed like a confident pitcher who was in complete control as he dominated the Tampa Bay Rays in a 7-0 victory on Tuesday night. He allowed two hits and struck out 10 in seven-and-one-third scoreless innings.

    “I’ve been real happy with my command and the feel of all my pitches since I came back,” Pettitte said. “I didn’t think that it would come back so quick.”

    It has. For that, the Yankees are grateful. Pettitte’s renaissance of a return is interesting for multiple reasons. The Yankees, who had an erratic rotation for a chunk of the season, have needed his solid outings to help vault them to within a half-game of first place. Pettitte’s presence, soothing when he is counseling teammates and animated when he is on the mound, has also been important. Catcher Russell Martin mentioned how Pettitte, the soon-to-be 40-year old, gives the Yankees a different type of energy.

    But what is most interesting to me about the Petttitte of 2012 is that we are seeing a slightly different pitcher. Yes, Pettitte still holds his glove in front of his face as if his main goal is to make sure hitters can only see his eyes. Yes, Pettitte still talks to himself, a batter-by-batter scolding of sorts. Yes, Pettitte is still intense, a pitcher who gets fiery after an inning-ending double play ball.

    Yet Pettitte is different, too. Through Pettitte first five starts, he is 3-2 with a 2.78 earned run average and is averaging 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings. In fact, Pettitte’s 32 strikeouts across his first five starts are the most strikeouts he’s ever had in the first five starts of a season. In addition, according to Fangraphs.com, Pettitte has a groundball percentage of 57.9, the best of his career. When a pitcher collects more strikeouts and more groundballs, positive results should follow.

    Now Pettitte has always been a pitcher who succeeded because of a nasty cut fastball that bore in on the hands of right-handed batters. Pettitte still has that cutter and has used it consistently in three of his five starts. After receiving some bullpen advice from Larry Rothschild, the pitching coach, Pettitte also made a mechanical adjustment with his two-seam fastball and used it more often against the Rays. But Pettitte has also added a wrinkle to his repertory this season by throwing a nifty slider, a pitch that is a cousin to the cutter.

    “A cutter is just a harder slider,” said David Cone.

    While Pettitte has continually referred to his “cutter” this season, the pitch that he is throwing in the 80 mile per hour range definitely behaves more like a slider. The slider, which Pettitte used for five of his 10 strikeouts on Tuesday, has a bigger break than the cutter and has flummoxed hitters. In Pettitte’s start against the Royals, seven of his eight strikeouts came on sliders.

    However Pettitte is describing his pitches, they are working superbly. The Yankees, who hoped that Pettitte would be a linchpin in the rotation, are now convinced that he is. Pettitte’s excellent starts have prompted a new question: “Can he be a number two starter in October?” If the Yankees get to the postseason and Pettitte stays healthy, the answer is “yes.”

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Bleachers 'Roll Call' a unique and memorable experience

    Monday, May 21, 2012, 9:35 AM [General]

    The plan sounded cool enough. My wife, Pamela, and I decided to take Kyle, our nephew, to a Yankee game for his 16th birthday. We told Kyle he could bring a few friends, too. Kyle picked Sunday’s game against the Reds long before we knew CC Sabathia would oppose Johnny Cueto, a nifty pitcher’s duel that made the afternoon even more enticing.

    Before we reached Yankee Stadium, I tweeted that I would be attending the game instead of analyzing the action with Bob Lorenz at the YES Network studios. Soon after that tweet, I received an invitation from Vinny Milano. Better known as Bald Vinny, he is the maestro of the Bleacher Creatures.

    “My wife and kids are coming, too,” Vinny tweeted me. “You guys should join us in Section 203 for Roll Call.”

    I had been in the bleachers to witness roll call as a newspaper reporter, once when David Cone joined the creatures in 2002 and again when David Wells returned as a member of the Red Sox in 2005. Both visits at the old Yankee Stadium were intriguing, but for different reasons. It was fascinating how seamlessly Cone blended in with the creatures. It was also notable how the creatures reminded Wells that no Red Sox player would ever receive praise from the bleachers.

    “If you want to see a Yankee game,” Cone said, at the time, “you come out here.”

    Now Kyle and his posse of John, Brandon and Mike had the chance to do what Cone had done: hang in the bleachers. When I asked the quartet of teenagers if they wanted to join Bald Vinny for the roll call, they reacted as if I asked if they wanted to replace Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson in the starting lineup.

    “The roll call?” John said. “Are you serious?”

    Yes, I was serious. Since it was Kyle’s birthday, I left the decision up to him. He quickly said that we should accept Bald Vinny’s invitation. Kyle is a serious Yankee fan and a smart kid. He knew the deal. We all knew the deal. If Bald Vinny invites you to a roll call, you sprint to the bleachers because it will be a priceless experience.

    Well, we didn’t run to Section 203. But we walked briskly. We met Bald Vinny behind a section of seats that was about to become awfully loud. Vinny is a friendly guy and a perfect host. When Bald Vinny walked down the rows of bleachers, he might as well have been descending the stairs of his own house. Everyone knew him. Everyone waited for his instructions.

    After the Yankees trotted to their positions, Bald Vinny’s eyes darted from player to player so he could reaffirm who was in the lineup. He noted that DeWayne Wise was in left field and mentioned that Eric Chavez was playing first base before repeating himself. It was Chavez’s first start at first this season.

    “I hate it when our regular guys aren’t playing,” Vinny said.

    A few seconds later, the maestro started. He stood and stretched his left leg out to the bleacher row in front of him, holding a blue scarf that said “Bleacher Creatures.” Bald Vinny wanted the creatures to be noisy, but there was no need to remind them. That was a given. Of course, they would be loud. Of course, they would follow Vinny’s guidance.

    Granderson was the first Yankee to hear his name chanted. "Cur-tis, Cur-tis," the creatures screamed. Granderson turned toward them and shook his upper body. Wise was the next Yankee to get serenaded, the fourth time that’s happened for him. Then the creatures shouted to Swisher, who is their favorite player. Swisher, of course, turned and saluted them. The Swisher Salute is one of the types of T-Shirts that Bald Vinny sells outside the Stadium on game days.

    Smoothly and efficiently, Bald Vinny led the creatures through the roll call for the infielders, too. In a few minutes, the roll call was done. As a journalist, my desire was to observe what the creatures do and show them the respect they deserve. I’m wired to report, not to clap. Vinny thanked his cohorts for being boisterous and sat down. A few seconds later, Vinny’s young daughter, Layla, delivered a message.

    “Daddy,” she said, “too loud.”

    Kyle and his three buddies disagreed. They thought Bald Vinny and the creatures were just loud enough, just loud enough and passionate enough to solidify a memorable experience in the bleachers.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Robertson the right man for the job

    Thursday, May 10, 2012, 12:24 PM [General]

    Fifteen years later, the vision of a spooked Mariano Rivera is still embedded in my cranium. One week into the 1997 season, Rivera surrendered a 464-foot homer to Mark McGwire and blew his second save in four chances. Rivera was the new closer for the Yankees, but he was failing in the ninth inning.

    As Rivera fielded questions about letting a 1-0 lead disappear at Yankee Stadium, his voice cracked. He searched for the proper words, but he was really searching for the right answers, too. The more Rivera spoke, the more obvious it became that he was a bewildered soul. He was the closer who wasn’t closing.

    “I think I need something to get me going,” Rivera said at the time. “I think mentally to get me going I have to try to think like last year. Just think it’s the sixth or the seventh inning instead of thinking, ‘Oh, it’s the eighth or the ninth.’ Just think like last year. I got to do that.”

    When David Robertson let a 1-0 lead disappear at the new Yankee Stadium on Wednesday in a 4-1 loss to the Rays, he looked spooked, too. As Robertson answered questions about his first blown save as Rivera’s replacement, I recalled what had happened with Rivera when he first took over the most difficult job in baseball. Rivera needed to use mind games to help him conquer the ninth. That approach might sound simplistic, but it worked.

    “I was putting too much pressure on myself,” Rivera explained in June of 1997. “Now I’m relaxed, and I feel confident and loose. I think that’s why I’ve gotten saves. I don’t think it’s the ninth out there.”

    Obviously, Rivera scaled any mental hurdles that he needed to scale to excel in the ninth. He jumped over those hurdles and buried them forever in becoming the greatest closer of all time. Rivera has a record 608 career saves and also has 42 saves and a 0.70 ERA in the postseason.

    Does Robertson, who dominated the eighth for the Yankees last season, need to mimic Rivera and act as if the ninth isn’t the ninth? Not necessarily. If Robertson thinks that will help him, then, yes, he should follow Rivera’s path and play mental tricks, too. He can act as if this season is 2011, just like Rivera acted like 1997 was 1996.

    What Robertson definitely needs to do is have a short memory after he notches a save or blows a save, something Rivera has taught him. What Robertson also needs to do is retain the confidence that he showed last season when he was one of the best relievers in the American League. One disappointing setback to the Rays, which was fueled by a misplaced fastball on Matt Joyce’s three-run homer, doesn’t change who Robertson is and how critical Robertson is to the Yankees.

    A few hours after the loss, it seemed as if Robertson had already heeded Rivera’s message about having a short memory. On Robertson’s Twitter account, he wrote about how the loss stunk, but added, “If there is one thing Mo has shown me is how important it is to turn the page.” Then Robertson turned it, via another Tweet. “And, look, it’s already after midnight, which means it’s a new day. Let’s take the series tomorrow.”

    Without Rivera, the ninth will be different for the Yankees. It will be more adventurous and more nerve-wracking. Robertson can fill Rivera’s role, but he probably won’t be as smooth as Rivera. Whereas Rivera’s cut fastball caused batters to swing early in the count and could result in a 10-pitch inning and three broken bats, Robertson’s innings are usually more draining. Robertson averages 12 strikeouts per nine innings, so there will be deeper counts. He also walks more batters than Rivera, so that will add to the drama.

    Still, Robertson doesn’t have to be an exact replica of Rivera to thrive as a closer. In fact, he can’t be an exact replica of Rivera. No one can. It would be silly to think Robertson could do that. But Robertson has an explosive fastball, a great curveball and steely confidence, which means he has the tools to be a premier closer. He is the right pitcher for the job, a job that even the mighty Rivera had to grow into 15 years ago.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    0 (0 Ratings)

    Pettitte elated to rejoin Yankees

    Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 9:18 PM [General]

    Andy Pettitte has 240 wins in the Major Leagues, has won another 19 post-season games and also owns five World Series rings. At this point in Pettitte’s glorious career, it would seem that nothing could cause him to react too emotionally. He’s been there and he’s done that. Right? Guess again.

    After General Manager Brian Cashman announced that Pettitte would rejoin the Yankees and start on Sunday against the Mariners, Pettitte was elated. When I texted Pettitte and asked him about returning to the mound, Pettitte, who didn’t pitch in 2010, explained that he was thrilled.   

    “Words can’t even describe how excited I am to get back,” Pettitte said. “Ready to get back to the grind of the big league season and going through that with this team.”

    The Yankees hope that Pettitte will be the same pitcher that he was two years ago, a smart and steady southpaw. While Manager Joe Girardi said that he expected Pettitte to be similar to the pitcher who was 11-3 with a 3.28 earned run average in 2010, Cashman admitted that he expected there would be a “gap” between who Pettitte was then and who Pettitte might be now. The general manager added that it would be unfair to Pettitte to simply anticipate that he will pick up from where he left off in 2010, but Cashman said Pettitte should improve the rotation.

    If the Yankees get an anticipated boost from Pettitte, it would be extremely helpful. Before Tuesday’s game against the Rays, the Yankees’ rotation had a 5.54 E.R.A. When Pettitte signed a minor league contract, he was viewed as a luxury. Now that Michael Pineda is out for the season after shoulder surgery and now that the rotation has been unreliable, Pettitte is being viewed as a savior of sorts. He is not a savior, but he is a solid addition. Pettitte’s return gives the Yankees reason to be excited, which he already is.    

    “I wouldn’t be doing this,” Pettitte has said, “if I didn’t think I could come back and win.”

    Related: Brian Cashman on Andy Pettitte's return

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Hope that Rivera finishes in control

    Friday, May 4, 2012, 9:27 AM [General]

    Spotting Mariano Rivera during batting practice was never a chore. A Yankee hitter would blast a shot into the outfield gaps and a blur would bolt across the grass to grab it. That blur was Rivera, who shagged fly balls as part of his pregame routine. It was easy to watch Rivera glide around the outfield.

    On a sobering Thursday in Kansas City, it wasn’t easy to watch Rivera in the outfield. It was awful. Awful to watch Rivera land awkwardly after leaping for a ball near the left field warning track, awful to see his face plastered with pain and awful to see him grabbing his damaged right knee. Rivera, the mightiest of closers, looked helpless.

    A few hours later, a somber Rivera revealed that he had torn the ACL and meniscus in his knee, a devastating injury. As difficult as it was to watch the replays of Rivera injuring himself, watching his postgame news conference was also wrenching. Rivera’s eyes were moist when he began answering the kind of questions he never wanted to address, a sudden batch of questions about his baseball mortality.

    When Rivera was asked if he thought he would ever pitch again, he rubbed his lips with his left hand, blinked away the tears, lifted his eyebrows and grasped for words.

    “At this point, I don’t know,” Rivera said. “We have to face this first.”

    Journalists are taught to be unbiased. You can’t cover a story ethically and accurately if you let personal feelings influence you. But, with Rivera, that is difficult for me to do in this instance. Rivera is the most gentlemanly player I have covered in more than 20 years around the Yankees. He is classy, polite and genuine, the kind of person who asks you about your life and your family, and really absorbs the responses. Rivera, who is the best at what he does on the mound, might actually be better at what he does off the mound.

    So when Rivera’s injury was disclosed, I felt queasy for him and also hoped that he wouldn’t be forced to end his amazing career in such an aching fashion. As a closer, Rivera has almost always been in control while pursuing the final three outs. He is the man who has controlled so much of what happened with the Yankees as they have won five titles since 1996. Now Rivera isn’t in control in 2012 because he can’t pitch. The future Hall of Famer is expected to miss the rest of the season.

    Knowing how competitive Rivera is and how excited he was about what was probably going to be his final season, I hope this isn’t the end. If the 42-year old Rivera decides to take on the extensive rehab process and returns to the Yankees, he would decide how his career ends. He would be back in control. That’s the way I would like to see him finish his incredible journey.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

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