Cano showing maturity, talent of an MVP

    Monday, August 23, 2010, 1:21 PM [General]

    TORONTO – Robinson Cano was exasperated. He waved his hands toward the scoreboard operator’s booth at Yankee Stadium, futilely trying to get some music pumping during early batting practice. Cano never got the music a few weeks ago, but he did get his swings. Cano always gets his swings.

    For a team that has the best record in Major League baseball, the Yankees have spent a lot of time explaining what has gone awry. A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez have had too many erratic starts. Joba Chamberlain fumbled away his job as the eighth-inning setup man. Mark Teixeira was missing for most of April and May. Derek Jeter’s average is over 50 points lower than last season’s average. Alex Rodriguez’s average and home run totals are down, too.

    But, other than some occasional blips, Cano has been the constant in the Yankees’ lineup. He has been the best player on the best team, a remarkably reliable hitter who teams now approach more cautiously than Rodriguez or Teixeira. Opposing players have told me that Cano is the Yankee they most discuss in scouting meetings.

    Cano continued to flash his maturity and his talent as a hitter as he blasted a grand slam and drove in six runs in a 10-0 thrashing of the Mariners on Sunday. After Luke French struck out Cano with a changeup in the first inning, Cano hit a first-pitch changeup for a grand slam in the fifth. That’s maturity. Cano also reached across the plate to slap Chris Seddon’s outside pitch for a two-run single in the sixth. That’s talent.

    Since Rodriguez is on the disabled list with a calf injury and can’t be activated until September 5, Cano will keep commandeering a more high-profile spot as the cleanup hitter. Remember the questions in Spring Training about whether Cano could protect Rodriguez as the Yankees’ No. 5 hitter? Cano made those questions vanish before April was over.

    Now Cano has eliminated any doubts about whether he can fill in for Rodriguez in the cleanup spot as well. The Yankees are 12-0 in games Rodriguez that hasn’t played, a startling and quirky statistic that is difficult to explain. But Cano is obviously a significant part of the explanation. In a dozen games as the cleanup hitter, Cano is batting .375 with six homers, 19 runs batted, a .455 on base percentage and a .792 slugging percentage. He acknowledged the importance of replacing Rodriguez.

    “Now it’s time for me,” Cano said, “to step up and win games.”

    If the Yankee wanted to trumpet Cano as a Most Valuable Player candidate, they could start by highlighting his numbers as a cleanup hitter. The public relations pitch would be simple: How good has Cano been? So good that he has helped the Yankees not miss A-Rod, a player who was won three MVP awards.

    "He's growing up right in front of our eyes," Rodriguez said. "He's slowly but surely becoming one of the elite players in our league."

    Can Cano win the MVP? Absolutely. He is batting .325 with 25 homers and 86 RBIs, robust power statistics that are rare for a second baseman. The Yankees have 38 games remaining and Cano has already matched his home run and RBI totals from last season. While Cano’s defense doesn’t get enough attention, he has incredibly fast hands in turning double plays and has become more proficient at fielding balls to his left.

    Will Cano win the MVP? That answer is unknown and will be determined across the next six weeks. Josh Hamilton (.357, 28 homers, 88 RBIs) of the first-place Texas Rangers is probably the leading candidate. Miguel Cabrera (.342, 31, 102) is another strong candidate, but his candidacy will be bruised if the underachieving Detroit Tigers don’t muscle their way into post-season contention.

    Cano has referred to Rodriguez as his “big brother,” but throughout Cano’s superb season, the little brother has produced the most valuable hits for the Yankees. If Cano keeps flourishing, especially in Rodriguez’s absence, he could end up being more valuable than anyone in the American League.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Magnificent Mo still getting it done

    Thursday, August 12, 2010, 2:34 PM [General]

    Sometimes, Mariano Rivera’s greatness in the most delicate job in baseball is taken for granted. Rivera is so superb and so precise that he is expected to be unhittable. Not just effective, but excellent. Sometimes, Rivera’s prolonged excellence even baffles the people who have watched him the longest.

    “Can you believe what Rivera is doing?,” asked Gene Michael, who was the Yankees’ general manager when Rivera debuted in 1995. “He just keeps getting better. How do you do that?”

    As a baseball lifer who was a player, a coach, a manager, a general manager and an adviser for the Yankees, Michael has scouted hundreds of players. He has never seen someone as good at what he does as Rivera is as a closer. I haven’t seen as many players as Michael, but I agree with him. I’ve never seen a player who dominates the way Rivera dominates.

    Rivera was his usually sturdy self in a pulsating 7-6 win over the Rangers on Wednesday night. One night after the Rangers conquered Rivera, Rivera pushed back. After Elvis Andrus opened the ninth with a triple, Rivera exhaled and applied a sleeper hold to the Rangers. Andrus, who had celebrated as if he had won the lottery upon reaching third, never budged past there.

    That’s because Rivera retired Michael Young on a pop out to right field. Although Rivera started with a 2-0 count against Josh Hamilton, he knew he had to continue pitching inside so Hamilton couldn’t extend his arms. It worked as Hamilton tapped a ball to Rivera. Then Rivera retired Vladimir Guerrero on a groundout. Three very good hitters, three very important outs, one incredible closer.

    “That’s Mo,” manager Joe Girardi said.

    There will come a time when Rivera will no longer pitch for the Yankees and the journey to get the final outs will become much more perilous for them. Since Rivera succeeded John Wetteland as the closer in 1997, he has given the Yankees an edge in the most critical part of the game. Rivera is the best security blanket in baseball. The Yankees are 61-0 when leading after eight innings this season.

    “When Mo comes in,” Derek Jeter said, “we feel like the game’s over.”

    Even if Michael is ordering breakfast, he speaks like a scout. So, when Michael discussed Rivera, he dug into his memory bank to offer his scouting report on Rivera from 15 years ago. Michael said that Rivera threw a straight fastball that averaged 88 to 91 miles per hour, a nice slider and a solid changeup. Rivera had a smooth motion and Michael said that enabled his pitches “to be right on the hitter.”

    Michael was puzzled when Rivera’s fastball suddenly exploded to 95 MPH while Rivera was fashioning a scoreless streak of 20 2/3 innings at Class AAA Columbus. The GM figured the radar gun readings were erroneous. Once Michael discovered that Rivera’s gun readings were accurate and that Rivera’s fastball was a better weapon, he summoned Rivera to the Major Leagues for the second time in July of 1995.

    “We pitched him in a day game in Chicago,” Michael said. “His ball moved so much that we thought they’d have trouble seeing it.”

    The Yankees were right as Rivera struck out 11 across eight shutout innings to quiet the White Sox, 4-1 on July 4. I covered that game and remember thinking that the Yankees had discovered a stellar starter. But I was incorrect. Eventually, the Yankees would learn that they had discovered a great closer, the greatest of all-time.

    “I know I can pitch up here,” Rivera said that day. “No doubt about it. They have to hit me. They didn’t.”

    Michael marveled at how Rivera inadvertently developed a cut fastball while playing catch with Ramiro Mendoza in the summer of 1997, and how that became his trademark pitch in 1998 and beyond. Rivera still relies on the cutter, which Jim Thome called “the single best pitch ever in game,” most of the time, but he has mixed in more two-seam fastballs this season.
     
    According to fangraphs.com, Rivera’s cutter has averaged 91.1 MPH and he has thrown it 84.5 percent of the time in 2010. His two-seamer is a mile faster and he has uncorked it 15.5 percent. Last year, 92.9 percent of Rivera’s pitchers were cutters. He will be 41 years old in November, but he is still evolving as a pitcher and still mesmerizing hitters and onlookers.   
     
    “Who would have thought Rivera would still be doing this?,” Michael said.

    That doesn’t matter. What matters is that Rivera is still doing it. The Yankees know that they should never take that for granted.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Larry Berkman thrilled, but watching not easy

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010, 9:56 AM [General]

    You would think it would be easy by now. Once your son had made it to the Major Leagues, played 12 seasons, clubbed 326 homers and appeared in a World Series, you would think it would be easy to watch his games.

    Larry Berkman, Lance’s father, said it isn’t easy. It can be torturous.

    After Berkman’s first two games with the Yankees, I called his father to ask Larry about turning his son into a switch-hitter. After Larry explained in vivid detail how he helped transform a six-year old right-handed hitter into a polished switch-hitter, I asked him how excited he was about his son being traded to the Yankees from the Astros. The father was blunt.

    “To be truthful, it scares me to death because I want him to do so well,” Larry said. “It’s tough to sit and watch it. When he doesn’t do something that’s spectacular, it makes your stomach crawl. I want him to do something so badly.”

    The best parents never stop being parents and never stop caring about their children. That is why Larry watches every one of Lance’s at-bats with a nervous stomach. It doesn’t matter how long Lance has been playing. Larry still wants him to succeed, still wants him to get another hit.

    “It’s kind of agonizing,” Larry said. “You start off 1-for-8, like he did, that’s not too good. I think his swing will come around.”

    A few hours after Larry made those comments on Tuesday, Lance singled in his first run as a Yankee. Berkman, who didn’t play Tuesday night, is 2-for-11 in his first three games with the Yankees. Larry said he is hopeful that the trade will “rejuvenate” Lance’s career and will help his son get back the “thrill of playing baseball.” If Lance has a strong finish this season, Larry would love to see him play again in 2011.

    The fact that Lance is playing in the Majors at all can be traced to a decision that Larry made 28 years ago. Since Lance threw left-handed, Larry, a left-handed hitter at the University of Texas, figured Lance would bat left-handed, too. But, when Larry put a plastic bat in Lance’s hands, Lance swung right-handed. Little Lance was a six-year old who gravitated to the right side.

    There aren’t many elite players who bat right-handed and throw left-handed, a disappointed Larry thought. After a week of watching Lance hit right-handed, Larry decided to make his son a switch-hitter. So Lance smacked Larry’s underhanded pitches as a right-handed hitter and then slapped them as a left-handed hitter, too. Lance never resisted the switch. He embraced it.

    For six years, Lance alternated between hitting from the left and the right side in every at-bat during youth games. He would start hitting from the left side and then he would hit from the right side and then he would switch back again. It didn’t matter if the pitcher was a lefty or a righty. Lance stuck to his routine of switching from at-bat to at-bat so he could become proficient from both sides.

    In addition to switch-hitting in games, Lance also took 100 swings off a batting tee in his garage almost every night, taking 50 swings from each side. While Larry set up a net to catch the balls that Lance crushed, Lance still damaged the walls in the garage.

    “At the time, I didn’t have it in my head that he’d be a Major League player,” said Larry. “That’s not something I thought would happen. I wanted him to play in college. It’s astounded me that he made it.”

    Indeed, Berkman has made it. Now Berkman is a Yankee and he is trying to help them win their second straight championship. But, as Larry, an attorney, watches Lance’s at-bats, he still squirms. With the Yankees pushing toward the postseason, Larry acknowledged that he might squirm a little more.
     
    During Lance’s rookie year in 1999, Bud Spiers, whose son, Bill, was also on the Astros, noticed how Larry agonized over Lance’s at-bats. Bill was in his 11th season, but Bud told Larry that his “stomach goes into knots” every time his son played, too.

    “I just want to let you know,” Bud told Larry, “it doesn’t get any easier.”

    Bud was right. It hasn’t gotten easier. But Larry will keep watching Lance, nervous stomach and all.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Say Hey Kid can relate to A-Rod

    Wednesday, July 28, 2010, 4:18 PM [General]

    Willie Mays knows what it is like to wait a little while to climb from 599 homers to 600 in his career, knows what it is like to feel the way Alex Rodriguez is feeling. It took Mays 21 at-bats to collect that elusive homer and reach the milestone almost 40 years ago. Rodriguez, who is stuck on 599, hasn’t homered in 21 at-bats.

    “The pressure was there,” Mays said. “You’re talking about him getting 600 right now? The pressure is there. It’s just that, every day he doesn’t hit it, they want to ask him why you didn’t hit it today. It’s one of those types of things.”

    Once Rodriguez tied Mays for the longest homerless streak between 599 and 600, I decided to call Mays on Wednesday. I have interviewed Mays by telephone a few times. He is blunt and brief, and he can even be gruff. But, when it’s a baseball icon like Mays, a little crankiness on the other end of the phone is O.K. with me.

    When I explained to Mays why I was calling, he warmed to the subject. Mays said Rodriguez has to relax at the plate, but then Mays immediately noted that it is easy to say that and not so easy to do it. According to Mays, it is virtually impossible for Rodriguez to swing and not think about belting his 600th.

    “How can you?” Mays said. “How can you do that when you guys are all consistently asking, ‘How come you’re not doing it?’ How can you not think about it? You have to think about it.”

    Although Mays doesn’t watch every Yankees game, he has seen some of Rodriguez’s recent at-bats and has seen Rodriguez get a few hits. But, like Mays before him, Rodriguez has gone 21 at-bats with 599 in his home run column. Rodriguez’s quest will continue against the Indians on Wednesday night.

    “You’re talking about a milestone of 600, which is a great milestone,” Mays said. “The pressure’s there. It’s just that, once he hits it, he’s going to relax and he’s going to go forward.”

    On Sept. 22, 1969, Mays drilled his 600th homer off Mike Corkins before 4,779 fans in San Diego. Yes, less than 5,000 people saw Mays become the second player to ever reach 600 homers. It was a pinch-hit homer, which I didn’t know and which Mays chided me for not knowing. Mays said he felt more stress trying to hit his 512th homer to surpass Mel Ott, the former Giant, than he did in chasing 600.

    “Pressure was 512, Mel Ott,” Mays said. “I was trying to break Mel Ott’s record and it took me about two weeks to get a homer off Claude Osteen. I didn’t think 600 was a big deal. At the time, people didn’t talk about it like they are talking about it now.”

    I wanted to talk to Mays about other things. Barry Bonds, who is May’s godson and is the all-time home run leader with 762, has been suspected of using steroids. I asked Mays how he felt about players like Rodriguez, who has acknowledged that he used performance enhancing drugs, moving up the all-time home run list. Mays dismissed the question.

    “Wait a minute, we’re not going to do a book here,” Mays said. “You’re talking about two different things. It’s not a book.”

    It wasn’t a book. It was one man with 660 homers talking about another man who was trying to get to 600. Soon enough, Rodriguez will get to 600. Then Rodriguez will target the six home run hitters in front of him, including Mays and Bonds.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    The Boss' presence to hover over Old-Timers' Day

    Saturday, July 17, 2010, 10:26 AM [General]

    George Steinbrenner's presence will hover over Old-Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium today, as it should. There will be hundreds, maybe thousands, of stories told about the principal owner who passed away on Tuesday. I have one of my own to share and, fittingly, it happened on an Old-Timers' Day.

    Ten years ago, I woke up on a Saturday in September to discover that Steinbrenner had groused about three players in an article in The New York Daily News. Steinbrenner expressed skepticism about second baseman Chuck Knoblauch's elbow injury, he said reliever Jeff Nelson should "give us what we want and zip the lip" and he also criticized Mike Stanton, another reliever.

    Because Steinbrenner had squawked, everything changed for the reporters who were working that day. The focus shifted from the Yankees-Twins contest and Old-Timers' Day to securing an interview with Steinbrenner. Since Steinbrenner wasn't at the Stadium, that was challenging. Eventually, he picked up the phone at his horse farm in Ocala, Florida and I wrote about it in The New York Times.

    "Old-Timers' Day is great, but, if we don't get in the playoffs, no one's going to care about Old-Timers' Day," Steinbrenner said. "Anything I'm telling these guys, I'm telling them to try and help the team. It's coming from the owner so they should listen."

    That was vintage Steinbrenner. The Yankees were his team and he didn't care if he angered anyone. He wanted to get his message across, even if he delivered it through the news media. He was disappointed that Knoblauch was sidelined and explained that the Yankees' medical staff uncovered no problems with Knoblauch's elbow. Steinbrenner intimated that Knoblauch was faking the injury because he was burdened by throwing woes. That enraged Knoblauch.

    "I'm tired of being questioned like I got to prove myself," Knoblauch said. "What do I got to hide from? Everybody in the world knows I got a throwing problem. So what am I afraid of? That means I'm not hurt?"

    As countless players can attest, including some of the players who will be at the Stadium today, Steinbrenner was never hesitant to challenge his players. When I told Steinbrenner that Knoblauch was baffled that he was in New York and not rehabilitating somewhere else, Steinbrenner blasted him again.

    "He's baffled why he's in New York?" Steinbrenner asked. "I'm baffled. I like this kid, but I can't understand him. Do I know whether he's hurt? No. I can only go by what our doctors say. They mark him as able. Jeter is black-and-blue. O'Neill has a hip problem. Canseco is hobbling. Every player is hurt and they're fighting like warriors. I hope Knoblauch gets back with them."

    When Steinbrenner was on a roll, offering spicier and spicier comments, I always wondered how far he would go. Just when I would think that Steinbrenner couldn't say something more provocative, he would. It's why reporters needed to call him over and over.

    After Steinbrenner tweaked Knoblauch, he criticized Nelson for pitching inconsistently and for arguing with Manager Joe Torre. Nelson was irked by Steinbrenner's comments, but said that he would not let them impact his performance.

    "I'm not going to go on the mound and start thinking about what George said," Nelson said. "I don't pitch for him. I pitch for the team and myself."

    Stanton had been blitzed for homers in four straight games, which is why Steinbrenner said he had not "done the job." When Stanton was asked about the curious timing of Steinbrenner's remarks, he said, "I think it's more of the timing of when I'm stinking." Stanton's candid response was the type that would endear him to Steinbrenner.  

    Ten years after Steinbrenner jabbed Knoblauch, Nelson and Stanton, the Yankees will hold their first Old-Timers' Day without him. It won't be the same. Reporters won't be rushing to get reaction like we did in 2000. That won't happen anymore. It won't ever be the same.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Remembering the Boss' calls

    Wednesday, July 14, 2010, 10:03 AM [General]

    I have tried to look relaxed while sitting in a chair shaped like a baseball glove inside George Steinbrenner’s office. I have sat beside Steinbrenner at a black tie dinner. I have chased Steinbrenner through parking lots and stadiums. I have had Steinbrenner bestow a nickname on me.

    In 20 years of covering baseball, I did a lot of writing and reporting about Steinbrenner. When you cover the Yankees, you had to cover Steinbrenner. It was almost as critical as covering the team. Before Steinbrenner receded into the background in recent years, a reporter who didn’t have access to the principal owner was useless.

    After Steinbrenner had a massive heart attack on Tuesday and passed away at the age of 80, I contacted Don Mattingly, Buck Showalter and David Cone to get their recollections about the legendary owner. As I helped interview these men and others on the YES Network, I was riveted by some of their stories. Cone spoke eloquently about Steinbrenner and was so emotional about the loss that his voice cracked at the end of the interview.

    Once we finished about six hours of live coverage on Steinbrenner, I tried to remember the last time that I had spoken to him. It happened on Easter Sunday in 2009. Steinbrenner walked by me at a steak house in Tampa. I said hello and so did he. Usually, George would have said more, but he didn’t this time. That memory reinforced how I will miss those conversations with Steinbrenner. Specifically, I will miss his calls.

    The calls were legendary. When Steinbrenner called you, he didn’t say hello. At least he didn’t say hello to me. The recognizable voice would simply say, “It’s George.” Steinbrenner would almost sound disinterested, as if he really didn’t want to talk to you. But, quite often, he did want to talk. He might want to talk about his manager or a struggling player. I always tried to extend the interview as long as I could. The longer Steinbrenner spoke, the more likely he was to say something that would produce a provocative article.

    The three most magical words a Yankee writer could say to an editor were, “I got Steinbrenner.” But, once writers said that, editors typically asked, “Did you get him alone?” This was a tricky question. When I was at The New York Times, Steinbrenner routinely told me that I was the only writer whose call he was returning. But, a day later, I would read my competitor’s articles and see that Steinbrenner had called them back, too, and made similar comments.

    I will be honest. It’s easy to say now that I will miss Steinbrenner’s calls. I didn’t love making those calls when they kept me chained to a hotel room during the season or kept me chained to my desk during the offseason. Since I started covering the Yankees before there were cellular phones, I couldn’t leave my room after calling Steinbrenner. If I needed a bucket of ice, I had to sprint from my room to the ice machine. If Steinbrenner called while I was out, that ice run would be the costliest 45 seconds of my week.

    Because covering Steinbrenner was so essential to covering the Yankees, I remember how beat writers danced around discussing whether Steinbrenner had called us back. If we were on the road and another writer asked me to go to lunch, I would tell him I was busy waiting on something. I didn’t need to say anything else. But, if there was one writer who was persistent about trying to arrange lunch with the other writers, that probably meant he had already interviewed Steinbrenner.  

    While I disliked being held hostage to one of Steinbrenner’s calls, the angst has lessened with time. I’d compare covering Steinbrenner to running a marathon, which I’ve done twice. Throughout the 26.2 mile race, there were many times where I hated it and wanted to quit. But, once the race was over, I felt a sense of accomplishment. That’s what it was like covering Steinbrenner, especially if you secured information that no one else had.

    Oh, yes, the nickname. One of Steinbrenner’s calls also yielded my unexplained nickname. For some reason, George started calling me Jackson, something I’d never been called and something that made me sound more like the newspaper boy than a newspaper reporter. I told a few baseball writers how George had inexplicably dubbed me Jackson and they have never forgotten it.

    Several months ago, a writer tried to imitate Steinbrenner’s voice while calling me Jackson in a phone message. It was a terrible imitation. It wouldn’t have mattered if the imitation had been better. I knew Steinbrenner wasn’t returning calls anymore. On Tuesday, he passed away. So many people have memories. So many reporters, like me, will remember the calls.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    A view from the circle

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010, 2:20 PM [General]

    OAKLAND – If Alex Rodriguez had squinted or adjusted one finger on his bat before hammering a grand slam on Tuesday night, I would have seen it. That is how close I was to the plate during the third inning at the Oakland Coliseum. If there was an on deck circle behind the on deck circle, that would have been my neighborhood.

    In two decades of covering baseball, I have been fortunate enough to have some terrific views from several press boxes. But I’ve never had a more prime location than the one I have enjoyed during the series between the Yankees and the Athletics. I never thought that standing on a pile of television cable wires and wedging between two camera operators would be so memorable.

    While standing about 20 feet from the first base dugout for an inning in each game, I have seen some of the nuances of the game that most fans and most reporters don’t see. Getting that close to the action has also reminded me of just how blindingly fast the game is. When you see CC Sabathia unleash a 95-mile per hour fastball with movement from that vantage point, you wonder how any player hits it.

    When the Yankees began the top of the third against Trevor Cahill, Rodriguez wasn’t even in the dugout. How do I know? With one out and a runner on first, I saw Rodriguez march along a narrow path and right past me to return to the dugout. I’m not sure why Rodriguez had been in the clubhouse. Since his spot in the lineup was a few batters away, it wasn’t the best time to ask a question.

    Here are some of the things I noticed from my awesome location. Cahill was really working on the mound, almost working too hard. Sometimes, pitchers seem as if they are trying to throw a ball 120 miles per hour. That’s an awful idea. After a 6-1 loss, Cahill, an All-Star, admitted that he was “a little too amped” about facing the Yankees. It showed.

    I saw how pesky Colin Curtis can be as a hitter. Cahill fueled the situation by not challenging the No. 9 hitter, but Curtis’ walk put runners on first and second and helped ignite the inning. When Brett Gardner lined a single to center field, it was obvious to me that Curtis Granderson wouldn’t score from second base. I immediately saw Granderson step back toward second so he had to stop at third.

    I saw how relaxed Derek Jeter is. Before Jeter ambled to the on deck circle, he joked with Kevin Long, the hitting coach, and Joba Chamberlain, who had emerged from the clubhouse before Rodriguez. At that moment, Jeter hadn’t driven in a run in a career-worst 19 straight games. I doubt that Jeter knew that. Jeter threw a pine tar stick at Mark Teixeira before heading to the plate, something that he used to do to Johnny Damon.

    I was reminded of how Jeter hustles. When Jeter smacked a hard grounder to second base, it had the chance to be the inning-ending double play that Cahill needed. But I watched Jeter rumble out of the box as if he was Usain Bolt. He’s not, but Jeter bolted across first base ahead of the throw to get that elusive run batted in and extend the inning.

    I saw and heard what it is like to get plunked by a pitch. When Cahill hit Teixeira with an 0-2 fastball, Teixeira yelped and dropped to the dirt. Teixeira said the pitch hit him near the kidney and “knocked the wind out of me.” Cahill’s misplaced pitch also loaded the bases.

    I saw how one check swing can change an at bat and change a game. After Cahill threw a 2-1 curveball to Rodriguez, Rodriguez barely checked his swing. Rodriguez offered at the pitch, but held up. Rodriguez held the bat in place until Jerry Layne, the first base umpire, called it a ball. The call moved the count to 3-1, which is dramatically different than 2-2.

    Once that call went in Rodriguez’s favor, I wasn’t the only one who expected that he would hit the ball hard or far or both. He did. Cahill threw a fastball that might as well have been placed on a tee. Rodriguez crushed it for his 21st grand slam and the 596th homer of his career. The game was essentially over, although Rodriguez added his 597th homer in his next at bat. The check swing in the third made the difference in the game.

    “That was huge,” Rodriguez said. “At 2-1, the check swing was close. Jerry Layne said I didn’t go. It put me in a good hitting situation. I got a fastball right down the middle and I put a good swing on it.”

    Guess what? I was closer to Rodriguez’s check swing than Layne was. That simply amplifies how riveting it can be to stand on some cable wires behind the on deck circle here. It’s a cool neighborhood.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Burnett's struggles related to tipping pitches?

    Saturday, June 26, 2010, 3:50 PM [General]

    Since A.J. Burnett has labored to throw his fastball in precise locations and has struggled to uncork a consistent curveball, the Yankees have dissected every aspect of his performances to try and determine what is wrong. The Yankees might have discovered one of the reasons that Burnett has been so erratic: he might be tipping his pitches to batters.

    General Manager Brian Cashman expressed confidence that Burnett will rebound from a disappointing stretch in which he is 0-4 with a 10.35 earned run average. Yet, the General Manager noted that the Yankees believe the pitcher’s problems might have involved “tipping his pitches a little bit.” Burnett was blitzed for three homers in the first inning in a 10-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday.        

    “I just think, in some starts, it looked like the opposing team knew what was coming,” Cashman said. “We’re working on all the angles. When teams are getting the same kind of hacks against breaking balls as they do against fastballs, it’s something you notice.”

    While Cashman wouldn’t specify how Burnett might have been tipping pitches or which starts he might have been doing so, it seems likely that he was referring to Burnett’s last start. Burnett surrendered six straight two-out hits, including home runs by Justin Upton, Adam LaRoche and Mark Reynolds, in a woeful first inning. Burnett will start against the Dodgers on Saturday.

    It doesn’t take much for pitchers to inadvertently tip off batters to what pitch they are about to throw. Some pitchers reach into their glove and take slightly longer to get a grip when they are about to throw breaking balls, which take more finesse to throw than fastballs. If a hitter notices that a pitcher is reaching into his glove, establishing a grip quickly and then throwing it, he might deduce that he is about to see a fastball. If the pitcher takes a millisecond longer, he might be telegraphing a breaking ball.

    “Whether I’ve been trying too hard or everything was speeding up more than I want it to, it comes down to remembering what it feels like to succeed,” Burnett told reporters.

    Even if Burnett tipped his pitches in his last start, he also hurt himself by missing location on several pitches. On all three homers, Burnett failed to hit catcher Jorge Posada's target. Burnett looked dumbfounded during and after the inning. The Diamondbacks, who are one of the worst teams in the major leagues, looked very comfortable at the plate.

    On a 1-1 pitch to Upton, Posada called for a fastball and set up on the outside corner. Burnett dipped into his glove, pulled the ball out swiftly and fired a 94-mile per hour fastball. Upton clobbered it over the center field fence to give the Diamondbacks a 1-0 lead.

    After Miguel Montero and Chris Young both slapped two-strike hits on breaking balls, Posada wanted to start LaRoche with an outside fastball. Once LaRoche entered the batter’s box, his eyes were locked on Burnett. He looked like he was reading an eye chart, not merely getting ready to hit. Burnett fired a fastball that was down the middle, not outside, and LaRoche bashed the 94-M.P.H. pitch for a three-run homer.  Some batters, like Derek Jeter, love swinging at first-pitch fastball, but LaRoche’s swing was ferocious and looked like something out of a batting practice session.

    After LaRoche’s blast gave the Diamondbacks a 4-0 cushion, Reynolds followed with another comfortable swing. On a 1-1 pitch, Burnett was supposed to toss a curveball that was down and away. But Burnett hung the curve on the inside corner and Reynolds teed off on it. Reynolds, who leads the majors in strikeouts, looked like a slow-pitch softball player as he sized up the pitch and hammered it.

    “I don’t feel like myself,” Burnett said.

    Dave Eiland, the Yankees’ pitching coach, works more closely with Burnett than any of the other starters. But Eiland hasn’t been with the team since June 4 because of an undisclosed personal problem. Eiland’s absence has coincided with Burnett’s troubles. Cashman declined to discuss Eiland’s situation or when the coach might return.
    When Manager Joe Girardi was asked if Burnett would be aided by having the consistency that Eiland’s presence would bring, he said, “That’s our job to investigate why things are going wrong.” That investigation has led the Yankees to theorize that Burnett might have tipped his pitches.

    If Burnett was tipping his pitches, it will be interesting to see if any modifications in his mound behavior will produce better results. But, if Burnett stopped tipping his pitches and still has difficulty, the Yankees will have to continue dissecting him.

    “He’s a streaky pitcher,” Cashman said. “He’s got a complicated delivery. We think he’ll find his way through it.”

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Gonzalez, Rivera will always share a unique moment

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010, 2:41 PM [General]

    Mariano Rivera makes hitters fret, makes them adjust and makes them ponder how close they are to having their bat splintered by his cut fastball. Rivera is so superb and so dominant that he and his trusty cutter can invade a batter's cranium before he ever throws a pitch. Some very strong hitters have ambled to the plate wondering how they can conquer the mighty Rivera.

    In Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, Luis Gonzalez was one of those hitters. With the Yankees and the Diamondbacks tied, 2-2, and the bases loaded in the ninth inning, Gonzalez knew he needed to do something, anything, different against Rivera. So Gonzalez moved his hands up the handle of the bat and choked up for the first time all season.

    "I had 140-something R.B.I. that season and I'd hit 57 homers and I was choking up," Gonzalez said. "To let you know what I was thinking about facing Mariano, it was the first time I had done that all season and it was my last at bat of the season."

    Gonzalez felt helpless when Rivera whiffed him in the eighth inning so he thought choking up might give him a better chance to make contact. The strategy worked. Gonzalez connected. He connected just enough to loop a ball over shortstop Derek Jeter's head for a game-winning single. If Jeter, who was playing in, had been at his regular position, the ball would have been a harmless pop out.

    "It was a screaming bleeder," joked Gonzalez, who leaped and danced on his way to first base after delivering one of the most memorable bloop singles in Major League history.

    Almost nine years later, Rivera is still throwing nasty cutters for the Yankees and still suffocating hitters. Rivera has retired 21 straight batters, which is the longest streak of his career. He is 40 years old and he is in his 16th season, but Rivera has now done something he had never done while growing into the best closer of all-time. Rivera, who is back in Arizona with the Yankees this week, has 16 saves and a 1.11 earned run average and, statistically, is as effective as he has ever been.

    "He's a silent assassin," Gonzalez said. "He comes in there and he's going to chop you up."
    Since Gonzalez's single off Rivera gave the Diamondbacks their first World Series title and gave the state of Arizona its only major championship, he said someone asks him about the at bat every day. That is exactly what I did on in a telephone interview on Monday, becoming the 34,675th person to quiz Gonzalez about the single that deprived the Yankees of a fourth straight title.

    When I spoke to Gonzalez, who is now a special assistant with the Diamondbacks, I told him my theory about his hit off Rivera. A player can't experience a sweeter moment on the field than smacking a game-winning hit in a decisive World Series game. But, as exhilarating as Gonzalez's moment was, I think Rivera's success has helped make it even better for him. Because Rivera is still thriving and still adding to his legacy, the fact that Gonzalez beat him has added more shine to an already glossy hit.

    "It makes it extra special," Gonzalez said. "To do something like that against the best reliever in the history of the game, by far, it definitely stands out. I won the battle that day, but I have the deepest respect for Mariano.  He's so strong mentally. If some pitchers blew a save there, it would have ruined their careers."

    Not Rivera. He is still rumbling forward, still retiring hitters and shattering bats. When Rivera allowed a grand slam to Minnesota's Jason Kubel in May, there were the usual questions about how long the closer could continue succeeding. Rivera has answered the questions by being perfect across the last seven innings he has pitched. In addition, Rivera's velocity on his cutter, which had been down earlier this season, averages 91 miles per hour. Last season, Rivera averaged 91.3 with his cutter.

    Gonzalez has never spoken to Rivera about his single, the single that gave the Diamondbacks a title and gave Gonzalez something to talk about every day since then. Three years ago, Gonzalez spotted Rivera at a mall in Tampa, Fla. Gonzalez called it "an awkward moment." The players acknowledged each other, nothing more.

    "I ran into Mariano and it was a mutual respect thing," Gonzalez said. "We said hello, but we didn't talk about it. I won the battle that day, but he had gotten me a lot of other times."

    And Rivera is still getting hitters out, still trying to win another title. With every achievement that Rivera piles on to his resume, he helps make Gonzalez's memorable hit look even better.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Band of fathers

    Sunday, June 20, 2010, 11:07 AM [General]

    Paul O’Neill wears two gold wedding bands on his left hand. The thicker band is his. The thinner band belonged to his father. It is something O’Neill has worn since Charles, his Dad, passed away almost 11 years ago.

    During the 2000 World Series, I interviewed O’Neill as he walked out of Shea Stadium after Game 4. The Yankees were one win away from clinching their third straight championship, but I didn’t want to ask O’Neill about baseball. I wanted to ask him how much he was thinking about his father, who had died during the 1999 World Series.

    We walked across the concrete corridor of Shea together. When I finally asked O’Neill about his father, he stopped walking so he could show me something. He held out his left hand and used his right fingers to separate the two bands. The thinner band was tucked beneath the thicker band. The thinner band was safe, the way a father makes a child feel.

    “I wanted to have it,” O’Neill told me, at the time. “It was the first thing they took off him.”

    Today is Father’s Day, a day to honor the men who help their kids with homework, who teach them how to ride a bike and who provide the best possible roadmap to navigate through life’s endless challenges. It is also a day to honor the men who did those things and millions of other things for their children, but who are no longer with us. O’Neill’s father is one of those men.

    When I asked O’Neill if he remembered our conversation about his Dad at Shea, he told me he did. He remembered how we sauntered from the clubhouse to the parking lot. But, most of all, O’Neill remembered how he had showed me his father’s wedding band. Two weeks ago at Yankee Stadium, O’Neill eagerly showed me the band again.

    “I’m still wearing it,” O’Neill said. “I’ve still got it in the same place.”

    Back in 2000, I was relieved when O’Neill spoke so openly to me about the loss of his father. O’Neill actually thanked me for asking about his Dad, saying that he would much rather talk about the man who was his hero than anything that happened on the baseball field. Anyone who has endured the loss of a family member knows what O’Neill meant. Those folks wouldn’t need an explanation as to why that second wedding band was so important to O’Neill.

    Charles O’Neill, a former minor league player, died of complications from heart disease at 79. He loved Paul’s intense approach and doted on the youngest of his six children. Charles thought it was neat that Paul called him Old-Timer and thought it was even cooler that he sometimes got to hang out in the Yankees’ clubhouse with his son.

    “You’re born and raised with your father being your hero,” O’Neill said. “That’s what you try to be. Every kid in my family feels that way. Anything you accomplish is because of what your parents did for you.”

    Walking beside O’Neill and asking about how much he missed his father in 2000 was eerie for me because it was also the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. I was sleeping in a Cleveland hotel during the 1995 World Series when the phone rang at 3 A.M. It was Pamela, my wife, calling with the news that no spouse wants to deliver.

    A few hours later, I was heading to the airport so I could fly home and plan the funeral services. I remember that I told the cab driver what had happened. He was the first person to offer condolences. I remember forcing my way through a eulogy and weeping after I was done. 53 weeks earlier, my mother had died so I gave two eulogies in about a year. I told O’Neill about the loss of my parents, losses that I have now dealt with for about 15 years, and he understood.

    “It’s weird, isn’t it?,” O’Neill said. “You never stop thinking about them.”

    Some things have changed for O’Neill and for me since we left Shea together in 2000. He doesn’t play for the Yankees anymore. Instead, O’Neill is an entertaining broadcaster for the YES Network. I don’t write for the New York Times anymore. Instead, I’m an analyst on the pregame and postgame shows for YES.

    One thing that hasn’t changed for each of us is the horrible pain that we feel over the loss of a loved one. You figure out how to deal with the sadness, but you never get over it. It’s not just something that you feel on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day. It’s something that you feel every day. That’s why O’Neill wears his father’s wedding band. It makes him feel a little closer to the parent he has lost. I understand.

    4.6 (4 Ratings)

    Culver receives signing bonus from Yanks

    Friday, June 18, 2010, 1:55 PM [General]

    Cito Culver hasn't officially graduated from high school yet, but he is almost the $1 million man. Culver, the Yankees' first round draft pick, has received a signing bonus of $954,000 to join the organization.

    Culver hit .561 with nine homers and 38 runs batted in across 22 games for Irondequoit High School in Rochester, N.Y. The Yankees dispatched seven or eight different scouts to watch Culver before determining that he would be their top choice. Culver was the 32d overall pick in the first round.

    Culver, who has been in Tampa, Fla. this week, will return to Rochester to graduate on Sunday. But Culver will then return to Tampa on Monday to begin his professional career.

    "We are very excited to get Cito signed so quickly and get him out on the field to begin his development as a Major League prospect," said Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees' vice president of amateur scouting.

    Although Culver's favorite player is Derek Jeter, some of the Yankee scouts said that the 17-year old most reminded them of Robinson Cano. Culver has a smooth style and has an ability to slow the game down, they said, which is the way Cano plays.

    4.1 (2 Ratings)

    Posada a reluctant DH, but a logical move

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010, 2:39 PM [General]

    When Jorge Posada marches into the Yankees’ clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon, he will search for the lineup that is affixed to the door and he hope he is starting at catcher. Posada is a proud and stubborn catcher, a man who wants his last inning in the Major Leagues to be spent with shin guards strapped around his legs.

    Posada returned to his comfortable spot behind the plate for the first time in almost a month on Sunday and belted his second grand slam in two days to help the Yankees stifle the awful Astros. While Posada left the game after eight innings because of soreness in the right foot, he considered it typical soreness from catching and not a serious concern.

    Still, when I asked Posada if he expected to start at catcher against the Phillies on Tuesday, he gave an interesting response.

    “We’ll see,” Posada said.
     
    We’ll see. That was not the proud, stubborn Posada talking. That wasn’t an example of Posada wondering if his sore foot would be OK, either. Posada had stressed that the soreness in his foot wasn’t because of the fracture that had put him on the disabled list and was merely from catching so much for the first time since the middle of May.

    We’ll see. That was the practical, not-so-stubborn (at least publicly) Posada talking. He didn’t want to discuss the next lineup because he didn’t know what manager Joe Girardi had planned. Does Posada want to catch on Tuesday? Absolutely, he does. But Posada understands that some things have changed around the Yankees, including how Girardi is likely to use him for the rest of the season.

    In Posada’s absence as the regular catcher, Francisco Cervelli reiterated that he is an energetic and smart catcher, a backup player who can fill in as a starter and be an asset. Cervelli is more athletic than Posada, has a stronger arm than Posada and has a solid rapport with the pitchers. When Cervelli flashes a sign and punches his mitt to encourage a pitcher, it reminds me of a corner man imploring his boxer to go for the knockout.

    Because Cervelli has emerged as a more productive player, and because Nick Johnson’s wrist injury has left the Yankees without a full-time designated hitter, it is sensible for Girardi to use Posada at DH more than the team had originally planned. I think Posada should catch the bulk of the games, but it would be silly to ignore the potential benefits the Yankees get from using Cervelli at catcher and Posada as the DH.

    Posada will be 39 years old in two months and has already endured some nagging injuries this season. If the Yankees want to keep Posada as healthy as possible, using him as the DH two or three times a week will help that goal. Without a reliable DH, the best lineup Girardi can field has Cervelli catching and Posada at DH Girardi linked Posada’s calf injury to catching him three straight games, an indication that Posada won’t be catching three straight games too often.

    “He’s going to DH, but he’s going to catch, too,” Girardi said. “He’s not going to DH every day. We need him to catch for us.”

    After Posada returned from the disabled list and was used as a DH, he went 4-for-30 with one run batted in. He finally emerged from that drought with a grand slam on Saturday. Although Posada dislikes being a DH and has woeful career statistics as a DH (.222 average), he also attributed his sparse output to a troublesome swing . Even if Posada was catching, it might have not mattered because he needed to get the timing of his swing resolved.

    Since Girardi benched Posada and had Jose Molina catch A.J. Burnett in the postseason a year ago, he has already conquered a much stickier issue with Posada than this one. Girardi won’t be trying to completely bench Posada. He will just be sliding Posada to DH every so often. Proud and stubborn, Posada wants to catch every day. But I think it’s logical for the Yankees to use him as a DH sometimes to help him and help the team. How will it unfold? We’ll see.

    3.7 (1 Ratings)

    Page 18 of 20  •  Prev 1 ... 15 16 17 18 19 20 Next