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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    The secret to solving Cliff Lee

    Monday, October 18, 2010, 1:50 PM [General]

    Marcus Thames has faced Cliff Lee 36 times in his career. By Sunday afternoon, Thames had analyzed the videotape of every one of those at-bats, searching for some clues about how to hit the supposedly unhittable postseason pitcher.

    Thames studied the pitches he missed, the pitches he fouled off and the pitches he didn’t swing at, rewinding and fast-forwarding through his dates with Lee. Eventually, Thames discovered a pattern, a sliver of information that he hopes will help him in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Monday night.

    “In every at-bat I had, I usually had one pitch to hit,” Thames said. “Even in the at-bats where I struck out against him, I had a pitch and missed it. You can’t miss that pitch.”

    Thames has seven hits, including three homers, and 15 strikeouts in his 36 at-bats off Lee, an uninspiring .194 average. But, despite the disappointing average and despite Lee’s remarkable ability, Thames was eager to face the pitcher who has hovered over this series without even firing a pitch.

    When Thames was with the Detroit Tigers and they opposed an intimidating pitcher, manager Jim Leyland would motivate his players by reminding them that those were the games where they had to challenge themselves. They were Major Leaguers because they were the best players in the world, so they needed to beat the best pitchers, too, Leyland would say. As Thames recalled Leyland’s words, he smiled. It was almost as if Leyland was sitting on his shoulder in the Yankees’ clubhouse.  

    “You can’t go out there with your hands all sweaty because of the name,” Thames said. “You have to compete.”

    Every pitcher makes mistakes, even the Hall of Famers and even the pitchers who are 6-0 with a 1.44 earned run average in the postseason. Those are Lee’s ridiculously gaudy statistics. Kevin Long, the Yankees’ batting coach, said starting pitchers usually make about 10 or 12 mistakes a game. By mistakes, Long meant pitches that are elevated in the strike zone or pitches that catch too much of the plate.

    As much of strike-throwing machine Lee was while walking 18 batters in 212 1/3 innings this season, and none in 16 innings in the postseason, he is human. He will miss his spots, just like any other great pitcher. If and when Lee misses his location, the Yankees must pounce.

    “You’re going to get, hopefully, one pitch to hit every at bat,” Long said. “You can’t foul it off. You can’t miss it.”

    Other than Derek Jeter, who has a .432 average against Lee, the Yankees’ starters are usually patient. But one American League scout said that the Yankees should shelve their patient approach against Lee because he is amazingly consistent with throwing strikes. If a batter tries to wait Lee out, there is a good chance he will be behind in the count. Jeter’s success off Lee could stem from the fact that he routinely attacks on the first pitch.

    While Jeter praised Lee as a pitcher who “is as good as anyone in baseball right now,” he was also mindful of embracing the challenge of trying to conquer Lee.

    “We’ve faced a lot of pitchers throughout the years that have had great reputations,” Jeter said. “Reputation doesn’t win games. You still have to go out there and pitch.”  

    Three months ago, general manager Brian Cashman thought he had acquired Lee from the Seattle Mariners. Instead, the Mariners did an end around in their negotiations and sent Lee to the Rangers. Cashman wasn’t interested in revisiting those discussions, but said, “I took a shot. It didn’t work out.”

    Now the Yankees must try and defeat the left-hander that Cashman said is “allergic to walks.” Because Lee tosses so many strikes with his fastball, slider, cutter, curveball and changeup, Cashman said he “takes away” your plate discipline, one of the Yankees’ strengths. Still, Cashman stressed that the Yankees’ philosophy on patience is to swing at strikes, not wait for walks. Walks are a by-product of being patient.

    The Yankees aren’t likely to be patient against Lee on Monday night. I would expect the Yankees to emulate Jeter, a hitter who is always ready, willing and able to swing at the first pitch. Lee’s first pitch might be the only one in the at-bat that was hittable. As Thames found out in his video search, there will be some pitches to hit. Just don’t miss them.  

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    Yankees must face the man they covet most

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010, 7:15 PM [General]

    One day after Cliff Lee was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Texas Rangers, not the expectant Yankees, Brian Cashman took his son, Teddy, to the circus. A trip to see the clowns, the lions and the trapeze artists had been planned, but it came at an opportune time. After believing the Yankees had snagged Lee and then learning he was going elsewhere, Cashman needed a diversion.

    Cashman wanted Lee so desperately that he was willing to trade Jesus Montero, the Yankees’ premier prospect and a player that he thinks will eventually blast 40 homers in the Major Leagues. But the general manager thought Lee would be a season-changing addition, the type of pitcher who could help catapult the Yankees to a second straight championship. Instead, Lee went to the Rangers.

    “When he goes out there,” Cashman said in July, “you expect him to win every time.”

    The Yankees wanted Lee in their starting rotation three months ago and they will undoubtedly want to sign him when he becomes a free agent next month. But that was the past and that might be the future. During the present, which is the American League Championship Series, the Yankees view Lee as an enemy who is one of the obstacles to them advancing to the World Series.

    As the Yankees watched Lee dominate the Tampa Bay Rays, 5-1, on Wednesday night, they saw a confident pitcher who brushed the corners of the strikezone, who threw his curveball more often than usual and who, of course, didn’t walk a batter. Lee is a pitching assassin in the post-season, improving to 6-0 with a 1.44 earned run average in seven starts. That’s insane. That’s why Cashman wanted him.

    Because the Rangers had to use Lee in Game 5 of the A.L. Division Series, the Yankees will not have to face him until Game 3 of the A.L.C.S. That is a definite advantage for the Yankees. The longer it takes Lee to pitch, the more time the Yankees will have to grab control of the series. If the Yankees win the first two games, Lee’s impact in Game 3 will be reduced. The start will still be important, but it won’t be as significant if, say, the Rangers were ahead 2-0 in the series or it was tied 1-1.

    While Manager Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada and Nick Swisher didn’t want to discuss the Game 3 starter when Game 1 isn’t until Friday, the Yankees have the ability to prevent Lee’s role from growing. Since Lee would presumably be scheduled to pitch Games 3 and 7, the Yankees can sidestep the second potential meeting by not letting the series go seven games. If Lee starts once in six games, the Yankees should be able to win four of those games.

    Lee has multiple connections to the Yankees. As a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, he was 2-0 with a 2.81 earned run average against the Yankees in the 2009 World Series. He is close friends with CC Sabathia, who will start Game 1 for the Yankees on Friday. How close? Sabathia advised Lee about a house in Alpine, N.J. where Lee could live if the Yankees obtained him last July. And Lee might soon be a Yankee. None of that mattered to Girardi. 

    “As far as intrigue, no,” Girardi said. “I know we’re going to face him in this series and he’s as good as it gets.”

    Sabathia was rooting for Lee against the Rays and planned to text him to congratulate him. Lee and Sabathia were teammates on the Cleveland Indians and became fast friends, Sabathia said, because both were laid-back and both had the same mindset as pitchers. Once Lee added a two-seam fastball to an already superb repertory of four-seam fastball, cut fastball, changeup and curveball, Sabathia said he became an even nastier pitcher and a pitcher who produced endless groundouts.

    One American League talent evaluator said the Yankees, who are normally patient hitters, need to abandon that style against Lee because he throws so many strikes. He said the Yankees should try and be aggressive against Lee and hit pitches that stray out over the plate. Sabathia agreed, saying his advice to the Yankees is to pounce early, too.

    “Be ready to hit,” Sabathia said. “He’s going to throw the ball over the plate.”

    After this postseason, a postseason in which the Yankees are trying to vanquish Lee and the Rangers, Lee might end up throwing those strikes for them. 

    “I hope so,” Sabathia said. “We’ll see.”

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    From humble beginnings, Hughes ascends to biggest stage

    Saturday, October 9, 2010, 12:44 PM [General]

    Phil Hughes wasn’t supposed to be a pitcher at Foothill High School in Santa Ana, California. He was a third baseman, a superb athlete who felt awkward while growing into his changing body as a freshman. Hughes had excruciating pain in his right elbow, the residue of expanding bones, ligaments and joints on a collision course.

    Then, in a random summer game before Hughes started his sophomore year, his high school team needed some pitchers. A coach asked Hughes if he could help. Hughes quickly agreed to devour a few innings. A pitching career was born.
     
    “All of a sudden, he started pitching,” said Gary Fishel, one of Hughes’s high school coaches. “All of a sudden, we realized that we had to watch this guy.”

    Now the baseball world is watching Hughes. When Hughes opposes the Twins in Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Saturday, he won’t be thinking about the day he unofficially became a pitcher. He will be thinking about trying to tame Joe Mauer, Delmon Young and Jim Thome and trying to guide the Yankees to a sweep over the spooked Twins.

    But before Hughes could become the polished 18-game winner that he was this season, he had to start as a 5-foot-6-inch kid who hoped that his elbow wouldn’t hurt him with each pitch. Once Hughes began tossing fastballs, kept repeating his smooth, compact delivery and kept getting stronger and more comfortable with his body, it became more and more obvious that he could be a special pitcher.

    “He was always very poised,” Fishel said. “He had to learn how to pitch. To do that, he listened. He wasn’t a pain. He just went about his business.”

    Basically, the teenager that Fishel described sounded exactly like the 24-year-old Hughes, who is graceful and affable in the Yankees’ clubhouse. After Hughes grew several inches after his sophomore year, he dominated for the rest of his high-school career. Armed with a fastball that touched 94 miles per hour, Hughes went 12-0 with a 0.64 earned run average as a junior. Hughes, who grew to 6-foot-5-inches, was 9-1 with a 0.69 as a senior. The Yankees drafted Hughes in the first round and signed him to a $1.4 million bonus.

    When scouts asked Fishel about Hughes, he told them they wouldn’t be drafting someone who had the maturity level of a high-school senior. Not even close. Fishel promised that Hughes would be as mature as a college junior. Dave Eiland, the Yankees’ pitching coach, was Hughes’ pitching coach at Class AA Trenton, and marveled at how steady the pitcher has always been.

    “He’s mature beyond his years,” Eiland said. “That doesn’t mean he won’t get rattled. Maybe he loses his concentration. But he’s mature beyond his years. With the experience he’s gotten the last two years, we’re seeing that.”

    Baseball always came easily for Hughes, which is why his freshman year was so bothersome. He felt uncoordinated. His elbow was killing him. He wondered if he would ever be able to contribute to the varsity squad. He wasn’t expecting pitching to save him, but it did.

    As Hughes sat by his locker at Yankee Stadium on Friday, I asked if he remembered volunteering to throw in the summer game that helped christen a pitching career. Hughes remembered it. Like Fishel, Hughes didn’t recall many specifics. Just that the team needed some pitchers and that he obliged.

    “I was willing to do anything,” Hughes said. “I really just wanted to be out there so I said I could pitch.”

    What would have happened to Hughes if he hadn’t pitched in that game? Would he have still become an elite pitcher and still been discovered? Hughes was probably too talented to be overlooked, especially once he grew into the baseball version of a bouncer. Still, they are valid questions. Of course, they are questions that don’t concern Hughes. He has always looked forward, not backward, though Hughes did call his ascension to the Yankees an “amazing” journey.

    At Foothill H.S., Hughes’s compelling story is repeated frequently. Fishel tells his players about the small third baseman who blossomed into one of the best high school pitchers in the country and who won a World Series ring with the Yankees. Now Hughes, whose career changed when he agreed to pitch in a random summer game, is trying to help the Yankees climb closer to another ring.

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    Yankees turn to big man on campus

    Tuesday, October 5, 2010, 2:18 PM [General]

    When Brian Cashman sat in CC Sabathia’s home 22 months ago, the Yankees’ general manager offered him a massive free agent contract and a tremendous opportunity. If Sabathia signed with the Yankees, Cashman told him, he could be the man to help guide them to multiple championships.

    “I wasn’t leaving that house without a deal,” Cashman recalled. “It was like recruiting a player for college. You don’t leave without knowing you’ve got the player.”

    Cashman got the player, got one of the best pitchers in baseball for $161 million. In Sabathia’s first year with the Yankees, they also snagged a championship. Now, as the Yankees prepare for Game 1 of the Division Series against the Twins Wednesday night, Sabathia is the big man on campus for the Yankees once again.

    For the Yankees to repeat as champions, they will surely need a superb effort from Sabathia. If Sabathia struggles, especially in more than one game, it is difficult to imagine the Yankees being able to overcome that stumble. After Sabathia, the Yankees have an uncertain rotation. Andy Pettitte has been rusty since being activated, Phil Hughes has never started a postseason game and A.J. Burnett is so lost that he won’t start in the first round.

    While Pettitte, who unleashed a slick cutter and whiffed eight in his last start, and Hughes, who pitched six strong innings in his last start, could easily thrive, it wouldn’t be a shock if they had problems. It would be surprising if Sabathia faltered. It might also be devastating for the Yankees, who are trusting Sabathia, to pitch the opener and come back on short rest to start a possible Game 4.

    “There are a handful of pitchers who you expect to win every time they start,” Cashman said. “CC is one of those pitchers.”

    Because Sabathia is 6-foot-7-inches, weighs over 300 pounds and has one of the best fastballs in the Major Leagues, there is a tendency to categorize him as a power pitcher. Sabathia is a power pitcher, of course, but he is a lot more than that. He is smart and he is diverse. Sabathia isn’t the type of pitcher who relies on his fastball as he shrewdly analyzes situations, and sprinkles in sliders and changeups and even the occasional sinker or curveball.

    Before Sabathia faced the Orioles in September, manager Buck Showalter told his players to be aware of how often Sabathia used his changeup as an out pitch. The Orioles pounded Sabathia for five earned runs and nine hits in a 6-2 win. Showalter said the idea that Sabathia, who was 21-7 with a 3.18 earned run average, was a pitcher that repeatedly pumped fastballs was erroneous.

    “He’s not a thrower,” Showalter said. “He’s a guy who is out there pitching.”  

    The guy who is starting Game 1 for the Twins is Francisco Liriano. Liriano is trying to prove that he can match Sabathia as an ace and help push the Twins past a team that has foiled them in the postseason three times. Liriano, Carl Pavano and Brian Duensing, who will start the first three games for the Twins, have never defeated the Yankees in their careers.

    How unsure were the Twins about what to expect from Liriano this season? The Twins thought Liriano’s fastball-slider combination could help him succeed as a closer, so they asked him if he wanted to replace Joe Nathan, who had season-ending elbow surgery. Liriano said that he wanted to remain in the rotation, a decision that proved fortuitous as he went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA.

    Liriano’s fastball averaged 93.7 miles per hour, which was slightly harder than Sabathia’s fastball (93.5) and two miles harder than Liriano’s fastball during an ineffective 2009. But Liriano’s favorite pitch is his slider. How much does Liriano depend on it? Only Ervin Santana threw a higher percentage of sliders than Liriano, who threw the pitch 33.8 percent of the time. Liriano averaged 9.44 strikeouts per nine innings and also collected twice as many groundball outs as fly ball outs.

    To conquer Liriano, one American League scout said the Yankees must force him to throw his slider and changeup for strikes early in the count. The scout said Liriano is successful when he induces hitters to swing at pitches that aren’t in the strike zone. When Liriano is ahead in the count, he loves to throw sliders that break out of the strike zone.

    Sabathia was 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA as the Yankees marched to the World Series last season. Meanwhile, Liriano pitched two innings in the Division Series, the only postseason innings in his career. The AL scout said Liriano is a stellar pitcher, but the Twins must wonder how he will respond in the glare of the postseason.

    “With CC, the Yankees know what they’re going to get,” the scout said. “You expect him to go out there and get the job done.”

    That is exactly what the Yankees are hoping, hoping that Sabathia can guide them all the way to another title.

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    Showalter: Yankees ‘know where the finish line is’

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010, 1:58 PM [General]

    The question about the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays was simple enough. Since those teams are separated by one-half game in the American League East, and have been within two-and-a-half games of each other for the last nine weeks, I asked Buck Showalter to assess how evenly matched they are.

    Showalter has been managing the improved Orioles for two months and he has been studying the Yankees and the Rays for a lot longer than that. When we spoke on Tuesday, his Orioles were a few hours away from opposing the Rays at the Tropicana Dome. But Showalter’s answer started with praise for the Yankees.

    “I wouldn’t underestimate the Yankees,” Showalter said. “I know they’ve been leaking all over lately, but I wouldn’t focus on that. They know where the finish line is.”

    The Yankees reached the first finish line of sorts on Tuesday by silencing the Blue Jays, 6-1, to qualify for the postseason. Manager Joe Girardi exhaled, for a few minutes anyway. The first-place Rays reached that line, too, by taming the Orioles, 5-0, and pushing into the postseason. The two teams that have been shadows all season are still tussling for first-place in the division and with each other, and the Twins for the best record in the AL.

    As Showalter analyzed the Yankees, he mentioned how deep and devastating their lineup can be, how valuable it is to have a dominating pitcher like CC Sabathia at the top of the rotation and how much postseason experience they possess. Showalter wondered if Phil Hughes or Andy Pettitte would start after Sabathia in Game 2 and also wondered if the disappointing A.J. Burnett would have any role in the Division Series.

    The questions about the Yankees’ postseason rotation will be answered in the next few days. When I asked general manager Brian Cashman if the Yankees might use a three-man rotation, which would require Sabathia to pitch on short rest in Game 4, Cashman said, “Those are things we have to talk about.”

    Those discussions will determine whether the Yankees trust Burnett, who is 6-15 with a 6.30 earned run average in his last 26 starts, to start a postseason game. Cashman didn’t want to dissect Burnett’s problematic season, but he said the pitcher “is better than this” and “he has lost his way.” Allowing any pitcher to try and find his way in the postseason isn’t prudent.

    The Yankees have limped through September because their starting pitchers have imploded. Before Sabathia pitched powerfully into the ninth inning against the Jays, the starters had been 2-10 with a 5.91 ERA in the previous 23 games. Cashman admitted that the starters “haven’t been good,” but he stressed how quickly that could change.

    “We have some real talent on this team,” Cashman said. “We know what we can do.”

    Next week, the Yankees, the Rays, the Twins and the Rangers will get to show what they can do in the postseason. If Josh Hamilton, who has two fractured ribs, can be a significant contributor for the Rangers, Showalter said they have “as good a chance as anybody to” make it to the World Series.

    Showalter watched from the opposing dugout as the Rays celebrated their second postseason berth in franchise history on Tuesday. He considers the Rays dangerous, especially when they unnerve pitchers and catchers with their running game. The Rays have stolen 22 bases in 23 attempts against the Yankees, which is something they will try to exploit if both advance to the ALCS. In a season where the teams have been so evenly matched, that meeting might be destined.  

    “Maybe this year is different,” Showalter said, “but I wouldn’t underestimate the Yankees.”

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    0 (0 Ratings)

    Pedroia: Cano’s the MVP

    Monday, September 27, 2010, 3:05 PM [General]

    NEW YORK – The former Most Valuable Player looked like the injured kid on the playground who had been left out of another game. With his left foot in a cast and crutches by his side, Dustin Pedroia sat in the third base dugout at Yankee Stadium and watched. He hates watching. He would rather play.

    While Pedroia can’t play baseball, he can talk baseball. Since Pedroia won the MVP two years ago for the Red Sox and has done a lot of watching lately, I wanted to know who he thinks has been the most valuable player in the American League. He responded in 1.2 seconds.

    “It has to be Robbie, you would think,” Pedroia said. “Doesn’t it have to go to him?”

    Robinson Cano, Pedroia’s counterpart as the Yankees’ second baseman, is having a memorable season that might end up as an MVP season. Derek Jeter is hitting 50 points below his career average, Alex Rodriguez missed games with leg injuries and misplaced his home run swing for long stretches and Mark Teixeira took almost two months before producing consistently. But Cano has been the anchor in the lineup.

    As the other marquee Yankees have sputtered, Cano hasn’t experienced many droughts. He is hitting .318 with 28 homers and 105 runs batted in, robust numbers for a second baseman. Cano, who has also excelled defensively, had better numbers before the All-Star break (.336, 16, 58) than after the break (.295, 12, 47). But Pedroia lauded Cano for being a slick fielder and the most consistent hitter on a team that leads the Major Leagues in runs.

    “He would get my vote for MVP,” Pedroia said. “I’d like to see another second baseman get it.”

    If Josh Hamilton of the Rangers didn’t fracture two ribs, there probably wouldn’t be a debate about who should win the award. Hamilton is batting .361 with 31 homers and 97 runs batted in and is one of the primary reasons the Rangers won their first division title since 1999. But Hamilton has only played two games in September and isn’t expected to play again until the last few games of the season.

    Can someone who barely played in the final month of the season be the MVP? Hamilton was the best player in the AL before getting injured and helped put the Rangers in a commanding position to reach the postseason. Hamilton hit .421 against Boston this season and Pedroia talked as if every hit left a bruise.

    “That wasn’t MVP stuff,” Pedroia said. “That was Hall of Fame stuff.”

    According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no position player who played fewer than 10 games in September (excluding strike seasons) has ever won the MVP. Pedroia noted how Carlos Quentin of the White Sox was the favorite to win the award in 2008, but Quentin broke his wrist and missed the last 26 games. Pedroia (.326, 17 homers, 83 RBIs) swooped in and won the MVP over Quentin, who hit .288 with 36 homers and 100 RBIs.

    “It stinks for Josh that he hasn’t played the last month,” Pedroia said. “It’s really tough.”

    Besides Cano and Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera (.328, 38, 126) of the Tigers and Jose Bautista (.264, 52, 118) of the Blue Jays are also candidates for the MVP. When I mentioned those players to Pedroia, he said it would be difficult for them to win because their teams haven’t been contenders. Joe Mauer, who was the 2009 MVP for the Twins, has had a good, but not great season. He is batting .331 with nine homers and 74 RBIs.

    Cano added to his MVP candidacy by slapping a game-tying, run-scoring single off Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning on Sunday. The Yankees won, 4-3, in 10 innings, which was their biggest victory of the season because it lowered their magic number to one and allowed them to exhale. All the Yankees need is one more win to secure a postseason berth.

    A few hours before Cano’s hit, I told him that Pedroia thought he was the MVP.

    “That’s cool to hear that a guy you play against thinks you’re the MVP,” Cano said. “That’s really nice. That’s a great thing.”

    Although the debate about Hamilton’s vacant September and how it will impact MVP voting will be intense, Cano said that injuries show that players “are human.” Cano cited how Mauer missed a month last year and still won the MVP Of course, Mauer missed the first month of the season. Voters scrutinize April much differently than September. Still, the MVP chatter doesn’t consume Cano.

    “It’s out of my hands,” Cano said. “It’s not something I can worry about.”

    Cano stressed that he was much more concerned about the Yankees winning than about the possibility of winning an MVP. Two writers from each AL city will vote for the award. Pedroia’s vote for Cano was symbolic, but it was meaningful to Cano.

    “If you see him,” Cano said, “tell him I said thank you.”

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    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Jeter has no intention of hanging on

    Tuesday, September 21, 2010, 2:17 PM [General]

    It took me 20 minutes to find the notebook that included an unused Derek Jeter interview. I knew the notebook was in my home office, but I didn’t know it was buried beneath several more old notebooks, a book about how to win at blackjack and a compact disc player. Yes, a CD player.

    I searched for the notebook because Jeter’s disappointing performance this season reminded me of a conversation we had six months ago. On a random morning in Tampa, Fla., I asked Jeter about the future. Jeter didn’t want to discuss being in the final year of his contract with the Yankees so I asked him about the years beyond 2010. Just how long does Jeter want to play?

    “As long as I’m having fun, I’m going to keep playing,” Jeter said. “Why would you put limitations on yourself?”

    That was a typical response from Jeter, who oozes with confidence on his worst day. Jeter’s ability to keep things simple is a trait that other players wish they had. Baseball is a grind, a draining game that can became tougher when the mind is cluttered. Jeter eliminates the clutter. In 2010, the clutter has multiplied because Jeter has deteriorated into a .264 hitter.

    But, back in March, Jeter was a linchpin player who was five months removed from a season where he batted .334 and helped the Yankees win another World Series title. As Jeter pulled his knee guards and sliding pants out of his locker, he stressed why he intended to keep going and going.

    “I don’t feel,” he said, “like I’m hanging on.”

    At the time, Jeter’s words were innocuous. He was right. He wasn’t hanging on. But, as Jeter struggled this season, I thought about those words. Jeter has been late on too many fastballs and has been fooled by too many breaking pitches, the signs of a hitter who is guessing. For the first time in his glorious career, Jeter has heard a consistent buzz about whether he is hanging on. That’s why I needed to find my notebook and revive my interview. Suddenly, Jeter’s words weren’t innocuous anymore.

    On the night where the Yankees honored George Steinbrenner with a massive monument at Yankee Stadium, Jeter slapped two hits in an 8-6 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Jeter punched a single past Matt Garza in the sixth inning to deliver the go-ahead run on Monday. It wasn’t a thing of beauty and it barely sneaked past the infielders, but it worked. Curtis Granderson followed with a three-run homer.

    When manager Joe Girardi has been asked about shifting Jeter from the first or second spot in the lineup, he has dismissed the question. Girardi has been publicly supportive of Jeter, hoping that he will prove the manager right, a la Mark Teixeira. The Yankees are still waiting, still hoping.

    Since Jeter was benched for a game against the Texas Rangers on September 11 and had a 300-swing tutorial with Kevin Long, the batting coach, he is 11-for-33 with five walks, five runs batted in and seven runs scored in eight games. Long worked with Jeter on adjusting the movement of his left leg, the front leg that Jeter uses as a timing mechanism, so that the leg moves forward and gives him a clearer path to the ball. That adjustment should also help Jeter have a better chance against inside pitches.

    While the adjustments have helped Jeter be more productive, it is a testament to how much he has struggled that an encouraging eight-game stretch is even being evaluated. Jeter has always been a player the Yankees could depend on, especially in October. The Yankees must hope that Jeter’s 2010 postseason will resemble his other postseasons, not his 2010 regular season. Jeter has a .313 average, a .383 on base percentage, 175 hits and 20 homers in 138 postseason games.

    If Jeter has another superb postseason, the questions about the regular season won’t seem as loud or as pertinent. Six months ago, Jeter didn’t dispute the notion that he would like to play three or four more years. He did mention that he won’t “watch baseball” after he retires.

    No baseball? Not even an occasional game? I asked Jeter how he was going to avoid watching baseball if he had plans to eventually own a team.

    “If I own a team,” he said, “I’ll be watching those games.”

    But, in Jeter’s world, those days are in the future, the distant future. Jeter still believes he has a lot of playing, not some hanging on, to do.

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    0 (0 Ratings)

    Yanks, Rangers flawed, but on course to meet in October

    Friday, September 10, 2010, 3:55 PM [General]

    Your favorite team always has the most question marks and the most flaws. Why? Because you analyze your team more than you scrutinize the opponents. You know more about your team than you know about any other team. It is natural to fret.

    When Yankee fans lament the status of their team, I often tell them exactly what I wrote in the first paragraph. Study the full landscape. Every team has problems, but fans typically believe that their team has more problems than anyone else. That’s not always true, especially with the Yankees. Still, I don’t blame fans for worrying. That’s one of the prerequisites for being a fan.

    As the Yankees prepare to begin a three-game series against the Rangers in Arlington, Texas, on Friday night, I wondered what it must be like to be a Rangers’ fan these days. The Rangers are having a stellar season and, despite a recent drought, they should win the American League West. If the Rangers win the division, they will make their first postseason appearance since 1999.

    While a division title would definitely be a reason to celebrate, I’m certain there are Rangers fans that are nervous about what might happen after that. Cliff Lee, who was supposed to be a savior, has a stiff back and hasn’t pitched since August 31. Lee is scheduled to start on Sunday, but the Rangers won’t know if he is healed until he actually works deep into games.

    “He threw a bullpen today and had no issues,” said Jon Daniels, the Rangers’ general manager on Thursday night. “He’s set to go on Sunday.”

    Imagine how chaotic it would be in Yankeeland if CC Sabathia had a stiff back? There wouldn’t be enough sports talk radio stations to handle the panicky calls. Lee, who is 2-5 with a 4.69 earned run average since the Rangers acquired him from the Seattle Mariners, is the pitcher who is expected to at least match Sabathia if Texas and New York meet in the Division Series. But will Lee be healthy enough to do that?

    Lee exacerbated the situation by not immediately telling the team that his back was bothering him. The Rangers have had a comfortable lead so it would have been sensible for Lee to be honest about his pain and to have more time to be ready for the post-season. Nolan Ryan, the Rangers’ president and owner, told The Dallas Morning News that he was “disappointed” with Lee’s behavior.

    When Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, failed in his attempt to acquire Lee from the Mariners, he explained why he would have been willing to trade Jesus Montero, the organization’s top prospect.

    “There are a few elite pitchers who you expect to win every time they go out there,” Cashman said. “Cliff Lee is one of them. CC is one of them, too.”

    As of today, Sabathia is still one of those pitchers. But Lee, who was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA for the Phillies in the 2009 postseason and beat the Yankees twice in the World Series, isn’t one of them right now. Lee has to prove he can be that premier pitcher again or the postseason will get muddier for the Rangers. C.J. Wilson, a converted reliever who is 14-6 with a 3.10, would be an accidental ace.

    Of course, the Yankees have injury issues and pitching issues, too. Andy Pettitte hasn’t pitched since July 18 because of a strained groin. Pettitte will probably make one more Minor League rehab start before returning to the Yankees. Cashman said the Yankees don’t know who will follow Sabathia in their rotation if they make the playoffs, but it would probably be Pettitte, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett.

    Still, as effective as Pettitte has been this season, there is a difference between him being hurt and Lee being hurt. Even if Pettitte was healthy, he wouldn’t start Game 1. That is Sabathia’s domain. If Lee is healthy, he would start the opener and would make two starts in a five-game series. Ryan said he expects Lee to “be back to his old self” against the Yankees. That is of paramount importance for the Rangers.

    Pettitte’s successful return is crucial for the Yankees, too. Besides Pettitte’s return, the Yankees must hope that Hughes will become more adept at finishing off hitters and that Burnett, who is 1-6 with a 6.91 since August 1, can rebound and be trusted. Ivan Nova is a wild card to start in the postseason, but Cashman said he is hesitant “to put those expectations on him.”

    There are other questions for the Yankees to ponder. Will Derek Jeter emerge from an endless funk? Will Jorge Posada’s concussion scare remain just a scare? Can the bullpen, which has been superb for almost two months, continue to thrive? All of the questions are relevant, but, like the Rangers with Lee, the most serious question swirling around the Yankees is about their uncertain rotation.  

    One subject that could hover over the Rangers, but not the Yankees, is the past. If the Rangers oppose the Yankees, they will repeatedly be reminded that they lost to New York in the first round in 1996, 1998 and 1999. Darren Oliver is the only current Ranger who played in the 1996 series, but that doesn’t matter. The 2010 Rangers will be judged by how they performed this season, but they also must overcome what those other Texas clubs couldn’t.

    Cashman and Daniels declined to offer much insight about the postseason because their teams haven’t clinched spots yet. That’s not surprising. Worrying is a prerequisite for their jobs, too, because they need to be ready if something goes awry. The general managers know their teams have flaws. They just hope those flaws aren’t exposed and aren’t as glaring as the other team’s flaws.  

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    For Posada, danger a regular part of the job

    Thursday, September 9, 2010, 5:26 PM [General]

    Jorge Posada’s job can be demanding and dangerous. It is also a job he loves. Posada is a proud catcher, a man who has crouched behind the plate for more than 1,500 Major League games. Every time Posada lowers his fingers to call for a pitch, he knows there is a possibility he could get injured.

    “You can’t think about the negative and stuff that could happen,” Posada told me in 2007. “You just got to keep on hoping that everything is going to be fine and you can keep playing the game.”

    Posada’s three-year old comment seemed prescient after the Yankees disclosed that he didn’t play Wednesday because of concussion symptoms. That revelation was chilling because of what it could potentially mean to Posada’s future as a player and a person, and what it could mean to a team that needs his production. Posada took a foul tip off his mask Tuesday, which jarred him and which caused him to undergo neurological tests.

    A couple of hours after the Yankees revealed Posada’s health issue, they announced that his tests had come up negative and that he had been “cleared to play.” Still, there was more than enough time for the Yankees to worry about Posada’s health and whether they might have had to cope without one of their core players. The encouraging test results allowed the Yankees to exhale.

    But there will be more baseballs tipping off Posada’s mask and there could be more collisions at the plate. Back in 2007, Posada explained how he undergoes a CT scan after each season to determine if he has incurred any brain damage. The scans detect certain brain injuries, but not concussions. Still, it is notable that Posada has made the scans part of his off-season routine.

    After Boston’s Eric Hinske lowered his shoulder into Posada in a play at the plate in September of 2007, Posada had a normal headache and told the Yankees’ trainers he wanted to get a scan. At that time, Posada estimated that he had experienced three or four concussions in his career.

    “Sometimes, you get it and you don’t even know you had it,” Posada said. “You play through the game.”

    While the idea of playing through the pain has surely contributed to some players exacerbating their injuries, the Yankees are confident that Posada is O.K. If the Yankees ever had to compete without Posada in the lineup, they probably wouldn’t be O.K. Posada has played in 111 post-season games and is still a legitimate power threat. Francisco Cervelli, his backup, hasn’t hit a homer in over 14 months.

    “You’re talking about a guy that’s playoff-tested, World Series-tested, September-down-the-stretch-tested, a switch-hitter in the middle of our lineup,” said manager Joe Girardi about Posada. “It’s an impact” if he is unable to play.

    Tony Pena, the Yankees’ bench coach, caught for 18 years in the Majors and said he blacked out several times after being hammered with foul tips. Like Posada, Pena stressed that catchers can’t think “about getting hurt.” Pena added that catchers realize they must play with pain. Posada knows that and understands it, but doesn’t make his job any less demanding or dangerous.

    0 (0 Ratings)

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