Russell Martin embraces the big moments

    Monday, October 8, 2012, 3:04 PM [General]

    Sometimes, you actually get to save your season at the end of the season. Sometimes, the travails of April through August are pushed aside because of what you do in September and October.

    Russell Martin is experiencing that rare opportunity now. He is saving a season that had been woeful.

    As CC Sabathia used a fastball, slider and changeup combination to fluster the Orioles for 8 2/3 innings and help hoist the Yankees to a 7-2 victory in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Sunday, he was the most important player at Camden Yards. The Yankees need Sabathia to be their ace and their guarantee. When Sabathia starts, the Yankees want to believe they are as close to notching a win as they can get.

    The second-most important Yankee on the field was Martin, the catcher who called Sabathia’s pitches, who guided Sabathia through some dicey innings and who blocked a few pitches in a way that would have impressed Martin Brodeur. When Martin shed his gear, he managed to smack Jim Johnson’s 2-0 fastball for a tie-breaking homer in the ninth inning. Before Martin’s homer, he had gone deep once in 86 postseason at-bats.

    Still, there is a relaxation about Martin in those crucial situations. After Johnson fell behind with two fastballs, Martin had to know that Johnson was going to throw a meatier fastball. There’s no way Johnson wanted to walk the leadoff hitter in the ninth inning of a tie game. Martin pounced. It was his third walk-off homer in 2012.

    “It’s just, you know, you either want to be in that situation or you don’t want to be in it,” Martin said. “I love being in that situation.”

    It’s rather bold of a .211 hitter to say he wants to be up in those stressful spots, but Martin said it with conviction. Truthfully, he isn’t a .211 hitter anymore. From August 29 until the end of the season, Martin hit .269 with seven homers and 18 runs batted in. He finished with 21 homers, a career high.

    Before Martin victimized Johnson, the seemingly invincible closer, he had a memorable fifth. In that inning, Martin’s contributions weren’t about offense. They had everything to do with defense. After Chris Davis’ leadoff single, Lew Ford hit a ball that dribbled toward the mound. Martin instantly sensed that he was the only player that could make the play. He rushed forward, grabbed the wet ball and flung it to first as he tumbled forward on the grass. Mark Teixeira made a terrific scoop on the one-hop throw to collect the out. It was an athletic play and a hustle play.

    Once Davis advanced to third, Martin twice blocked sliders that Sabathia had bounced near the plate. If Martin didn’t get his body in front of either pitch, Davis would have cruised in with the go-ahead run. Not only did Martin block the pitches, he gave Sabathia the confidence to keep throwing that nasty slider with runners on base. Martin explained his defensive role as “taking care of my pitcher,” which he did over and over.

    It was a trying season for Martin, long stretches of lousy at-bats and an average that was under .200. But Martin is playing in October now, which is a chance for him to continue to save his season and help the Yankees push toward a World Series title. He was the second-best player on the field in Game 1. Suddenly, the .211 hitter looks imposing in the most important month of all.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Yankees need their ace

    Sunday, October 7, 2012, 2:12 PM [General]

    In the middle of September, in the middle of a Yankees’ post-season dash that was much tenser than they ever expected, there were some doubts about CC Sabathia. The Yankees need Sabathia to be a certainty, but he had lost four straight starts, he had lost velocity on his fastball and there had to be a loss of confidence in Yankeeland.

    Sabathia is a proud pitcher, a pitcher who is confident enough to say when he should and could dominate hitters. Across Sabathia’s last three regular season starts, that dominant pitcher returned. He went 2-0 with a gaudy 1.50 earned run average, minimizing the doubts with a rejuvenated fastball, with better location and with an effectiveness that the Yankees were desperate to see again.

    “It was vintage CC,” Manager Joe Girardi said.

    As the Yankees prepared to play the Orioles in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Sunday, they were relieved that Sabathia had resurrected himself in his last 24 innings. There are a multitude of things that must unfold for the Yankees to win 11 more games and capture a World Series title. Getting powerful starts from Sabathia is one of the primary items on that post-season list. A solid Sabathia will make everything else unfold more smoothly for the Yankees.

    When General Manager Brian Cashman has discussed Sabathia, he has stressed how vital it is to have a number 1 starter who can dominate. Cashman wants to be able to analyze the first game of a post-season series and believe that his ace will prevail. While no pitcher is automatic, Cashman noted that there are certain elite pitchers that offer their teams that feeling of ultimate confidence.

    Did Sabathia achieve enough to give the Yankees that comfortable feeling about him again? He whiffed 28 batters in his last three starts, another sign of dominance. But Sabathia also has an unsightly 5.84 E.R.A. in his last two post-seasons, which is the opposite of dominance. The Yankees need Sabathia to be their security blanket, their sure thing, their certainty. If he is, their path to a possible title will be smoother.

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    Cano's swing a beauty to behold

    Tuesday, October 2, 2012, 12:57 PM [General]

    Robinson’s Cano sweet swing has never really changed. He has always had that smooth lefty stroke, which starts with him remaining planted on his back leg, lifting his front leg, rotating his hips toward the pitcher and using his quick hands to pump the bat through the strike zone.

    “That’s the way he has always swung,” said Jose Cano, Robinson’s father and the man who has thrown the most pitches to Cano. “He’s always been like that.”

    Cano looks like a natural hitter and, according to his father’s recollection, he is a natural hitter. Obviously, Cano has made some modifications to his swing as he developed from a boy who chased his father from batter’s box to batter’s box in the Dominican Republic into a professional hitter. But Cano’s basic swing, that he-looks-so-comfortable-up-there swing, has been with him forever.

    “I didn’t teach him that,” said Jose Cano. “That’s something he had.”

    As Cano has terrorized pitchers with 18 hits in his last 29 at-bats, including a titanic 446-foot homer in a 10-2 win over the Red Sox on Monday night, that always gorgeous swing has looked even prettier to the Yankees. While Ichiro Suzuki had a superb September and Derek Jeter has been typically reliable, teams often need a power hitter to help carry them. Mark Teixeira has been injured and Alex Rodriguez has been absent, so that left Cano as the most likely player to carry the Yankees. And that is precisely what he has done.

    Across Cano’s last seven games, he has been the feared, ferocious hitter that he is expected to be and has notched at least two hits in each game. How talented is Cano? I’m more surprised when Cano goes 0-for-12 than when he goes 8-for-12. He is that skilled, a player with few weaknesses at the plate. Hitting coach Kevin Long frequently counsels Cano about pitch selection and about not helping pitchers by chasing balls outside of the zone.

    “If he doesn’t do that,” Long said, “it’s so much tougher for them to get him out.”

    Cano was in attack mode against Boston’s Clay Buchholz on Monday. In Cano’s first at-bat in the second inning, he belted a first-pitch fastball for a homer off the Mohegan Sun Casino bar in center field. Later in the nine-run inning, Cano smashed another first-pitch fastball for a two-run double. Two at-bats, two pitches and two doubles, which is two more extra base hits than Rodriguez has in his last 60 at-bats.

    There have been stretches in which Cano, the Yankees’ best player, has been an unproductive player. Before this splurge, he had been 9-for-53 with one homer. He has also struggled with runners in scoring position. But, for the last week, Cano and his sweet swing have helped carry the Yankees, carry them achingly close to a division title.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Same old Andy is showing his stuff

    Tuesday, September 25, 2012, 12:35 PM [General]

    When Andy Pettitte was six years old, he cried after a flag football game because he couldn’t understand why his teammates were so casual. Pettitte wanted to win. They wanted to play. The boy that wept in the backseat of his father’s white Plymouth developed into the determined pitcher who always wants to win, too.

    As Pettitte tossed six scoreless innings in a much-needed 6-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Monday night, the image of him as a feisty six-year old flashed into my head. Pettitte has always been a tenacious competitor, a pitcher who scolds himself on the mound after poor results and a pitcher who has fashioned a superb career out of dodging dangerous situations.

    The familiar sight of Pettitte allowing baserunners and stranding those baserunners played out on Monday. The Twins loaded the bases in the first inning, but Pettitte retired Justin Morneau and Ryan Doumit. The Twins had two runners on in the third, but Pettitte got Josh Willingham to hit into a double play. The Twins had men on base in five of Pettitte’s six innings, but none scored.

    “It’s the same old Andy,” said manager Joe Girardi. “We’ve seen it for years. When he needs a double play, he finds a way to get it.”

    The same old Andy. The Yankees needed the same old Andy against the Twins, they need him in his next start against the Blue Jays and they will need him even more if they clinch a postseason spot. In Pettitte, the Yankees trust. Pettitte is a security blanket for Girardi because he has been there and done that in October.

    After Pettitte missed almost three months with a fractured left ankle, he has returned to fire 11 scoreless innings in two starts. Pettittie has pitched effectively because he has pitched smart. He mixes his pitches, he steers away from the middle of the plate and he makes adjustments. Pettitte employs a two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball, a cut fastball, a slider, a curveball and a changeup.

    As Pettitte discussed how he escaped the bases-loaded, one-out jam in the first, he said, “You know the situation, but you keep it simplified.”

    How did Pettitte keep it simple? He wanted to get Morneau to hit into a double play, but once the count stretched to 2-2, he realized he could secure a strikeout. Pettitte said he “set him up” for the called third strike, a fastball that nailed the outside corner. With Doumit, Pettitte uncorked a slider, the new element in his arsenal this season, to nab a double play.

    While Pettitte held the Twins to one hit in six at-bats with runners in scoring position, one of his most impressive displays came in an at-bat came with no runners on base. When Trevor Plouffe opened the second, Pettitte threw a curveball for a strike. Pettitte followed with a cutter that rushed inside and that Plouffe fouled off. Then Pettitte threw an outside fastball for a ball. Then Plouffe fouled off a slider, another pitch that hummed inside. Finally, Pettitte unleashed a 2-2 changeup, a pitch Plouffe hadn’t yet seen, to strikeout Plouffe. So Pettitte threw five pitches, each a different pitch and each at a different velocity and each in a different location. It was savvy pitching that resulted in a confused hitter.

    The perfectionist in Pettitte called himself “a work in progress,” and said that he still needs to refine his pitches to make them as sharp as they were before the injury. Pettitte is scheduled to make one more start before the postseason begins, so he will have had three starts to get ready for the most important games of the season.

    “That’s what we got,” Pettitte said, “so it’s going to be enough.”

    The Yankees trust in Pettitte and hope he is right. Actually, after 11 innings in September, the Yankees might trust Pettitte more than any of their starters, especially if he continues being the same old Andy.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Mays impressed by Jeter's talent, leadership

    Friday, September 14, 2012, 5:56 PM [General]

    Willie Mays had watched Derek Jeter play for years, but he didn’t have a lengthy conversation with Jeter until they were together at the 2007 All-Star Game in San Francisco. After Jeter spoke with Mays, he had a simple request: He asked for one of Mays’ Giant jerseys. Within hours, Mays obliged and gave Jeter the No. 24 uniform.

    One day after Jeter tied Mays with 3,283 hits, Mays recalled how impressed he was with Jeter when they spoke five years ago and how impressed he still is with Jeter. As early as Friday night, Jeter will collect one more hit and move past Mays into sole possession of 10th place on the all-time hit list. The amazing Mays said he is content with watching the amazing Jeter rumble ahead of him.

    “When you have a record or whatever it may be, there’s always someone that’s going to pass you,” Mays said. “You can’t just stand still all the time. I don’t care what business you’re in or what sport you’re in. Someone is going to pass you. And you can’t find a better kid like that to pass you and enjoy what he’s doing.”

    In a telephone interview on Friday, Mays, who is 81 years old, praised Jeter as a player whose value stretches beyond the statistics. But Mays’ most incredible compliment about Jeter came when Mays said Jeter plays the game the way he played it throughout a Hall of Fame career.

    “I like Jeter because of this: He plays for the Yankees, he plays for the joy of the game, he plays for the team,” Mays said. “I think that’s what I liked to play for. Enjoy the nine guys you had on the field and make them better around you. I think that’s what he does.”

    After Jeter’s run-scoring single off Junichi Tazawa on Thursday nudged him into a tie with Mays, which is a cool place to hang out for at least 27 hours, the shortstop called it “pretty special” to be associated with Mays. When I told Mays how humble Jeter seemed about tying him, Mays turned playful.

    “First of all, Jeter wasn’t even alive when I was playing,” Mays said. “I think he’s 38, isn’t he? I retired in 1973. He didn’t see me play. It’s not about us. It’s about baseball and the fans and what they see in a player.”

    In this instance, it’s about what Mays sees in the player, the player who is about to exceed his hit total. While Mays said that he doesn’t see Jeter that often, he gave a stellar scouting report. Mays explained how Jeter’s ability to hit the ball to right-center field helps make him an excellent No. 2 hitter. But, when Jeter is leading off, Mays said he noticed that Jeter tries to pull changeups and doesn’t shoot for right as often.

    “It’s just that he understands the game more,” Mays said. “He’s 38, and he’s had time to look at the game more. I say it’s more power to him to move on and try to do what he can and get this behind him.”

    Mays stressed that Jeter’s climb up the all-time hit list wasn’t connected to him, even though they now share 10th place. Even when I argued that Jeter’s pursuit was about Mays at least until Jeter records his 3,284th hit, Mays disagreed. Then I understood what Mays was saying. Jeter has other great hitters to chase. He has already caught Mays.

    “There are some guys ahead of us,” Mays said. “Hopefully, he can go farther, rather than just saying he tied me. It’s not about me. It’s about him getting to 3,000 and going forward.”

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Evacuating the airport on 9/11/2001

    Tuesday, September 11, 2012, 1:23 PM [General]

    I was sitting at Newark Airport, waiting to board a flight to Houston on Sept. 11, 2001. My plan was to interview Barry Bonds, who was having a record-setting season for the San Francisco Giants, and to try and describe who he was. I didn't have an interview officially scheduled with Bonds, so this promised to be a challenging assignment.

    As I read a newspaper near Gate 81 in Terminal C that morning, I noticed people standing up and pointing to the television. Their faces were covered in confusion. There was a report that a plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. We were all concerned, all worried. Soon, everyone was standing and staring at that T.V., desperate for details.

    My cell phone service was spotty, but I eventually spoke to my brother, Rob, and my sister-in-law, Tracey. They mostly had the same information I had. My wife, Pamela, was on a business trip in Las Vegas so I didn’t want to alarm her so early in the morning. After a few calls and a few dropped calls, my mind tried to deduce how chaotic it must have been in lower Manhattan. Did anyone survive? I had no clue.

    When the second plane hit the south tower, we all knew this wasn’t an accident. This was intentional and horrific. I forget how quickly they followed up with an announcement in Newark, but it felt like less than a minute. A calm voice told everyone that the airport was closing and that no flights would be departing. We were advised to exit in orderly fashion.

    Surprisingly, I remember that people left in fairly orderly fashion. I don’t remember anyone running, although I’m sure some people did. I walked briskly, dreading over who I knew that would have been working at the towers that day. I walked a little faster and also wondered how I could get home and get to a landline phone to call Pamela. I called a car service company from a pay phone and asked if there were any drivers available at the airport. The company had one available driver. That driver and I shared a depressing 45-minute ride, both of us confused, both of us angry and both of us searching for answers.

    We all have personal stories from 9/11, too many painful stories of more than 3,000 lives lost and an untold number of lives that would never be the same. For those who lost husbands and wives, sons and daughters and mothers and fathers, I can only repeat what I’ve said for the last 11 years: my thoughts and prayers are with you as you have to deal with such an unspeakable tragedy.

    Several days after 9/11, I interviewed Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, about the resumption of the season. The first post-9/11 sporting event to be played in New York was a Mets-Braves game at Shea Stadium on Sept. 21. Selig asked if I thought New Yorkers were ready to watch baseball again. I told him that I thought they were. Although our world would never be the same again, the return to some semblance of normalcy would be welcomed. So would the diversion that baseball provided, a diversion that stretched until the Yankees lost in Game 7 of the World Series.

    There is an 11-year old boarding pass that sits atop my desk, a weathered ticket that I look at every day. That’s the pass that I never used for the flight to Houston on 9/11. It’s a reminder of what happened on that unforgettable day. But I obviously don’t need the reminder. I remember the gory details of that day, just like we all do. The pass will always stay there as a tribute to those innocent people who never made it home.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Yankees must shake hitting slump

    Wednesday, September 5, 2012, 6:41 PM [General]

    The Yankees have tip-toed around the obvious for a few weeks, tip-toed around the notion that they were struggling and allowing the Orioles and the Rays to rumble back into the race in the American League East. As long as the Yankees had a lead, even if it was a dwindling, they could still talk about how they were alone in first place and they were fine. But that changed on Tuesday night.

    Once it changed and once the Yankees fell into a first-place tie with the Orioles, Kevin Long, the batting coach, offered a candid assessment of how this free fall has impacted the batters. While hitters are taught to focus on the next pitch or the next at bat, it is natural for them to also wonder about how a once-sturdy lead has disintegrated.

    “There’s some pressure, obviously,” Long said. “You get a 10-game lead and it’s down to zero. There’s some added pressure and guys are probably trying to do too much.”

    The Yankees are trying to emerge from a drought in which they have gone five straight games without mustering more than six hits in any contest, their worst such stretch since 1990. When players like Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano have excelled, Long has been praised for helping guide them. Now that so many Yankees have faltered, Long must figure out how to spark these slumping hitters.

    So what is Long’s solution to erasing the slump? It’s nothing dramatic. Long said the Yankees need to “relax” and “trust their ability.” But, interestingly, Long also stressed that the Yankees, who lead the Major Leagues with 203 home runs, must be more cognizant of playing small ball. They have to push pitchers to deep counts, advance runners and maybe even bunt a little bit, Long said.

    “Obviously, we’ve lived on some home runs and that’s been well talked about,” Long said. “But, at times like this, it might be moving a runner. That’s just as important as hitting home runs.” He added, “Sometimes, it’s not about getting a pitch and hitting it over the fence. It’s about grinding out an at bat, maybe walking, trusting your teammates. All that stuff comes into play and, right now, we need it more than ever.”

    As the Yankees try to muster any offense, Long said they “might have some guys bunt that you don’t normally see bunt.” That would be surprising strategy since the Yankees have had only 20 sacrifice bunts all season. Giving away outs isn’t the smartest decision for a team that is already having problems scoring runs. In addition, Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki are the only regulars who seem comfortable with bunting. But Long was serious about possibly using the bunt as an offensive tool.

    In Tuesday’s game, Alex Cobb whiffed Nick Swisher on a changeup with runners on first and second and no outs. Cano followed by hitting into a double play. Maybe, Long said, the Yankees would ask Swisher to bunt in that situation if it occurred again. But Manager Joe Girardi dismissed that idea.

    “That’s not really our approach,” Girardi said. “We’re not the Bronx bunters.”

    For 84 straight days, the Yankees were in sole possession of first. But they have lost 25 of their last 44 games and have helped turn the A.L. East into a race where three teams are separated by one and a half games. Long was candid about how much the Yankees have lost and equally candid about how quickly they need to make an about face.

    “Again, I think the biggest concern here is we’ve lost our cushion,” Long said. “So we’ve got to turn it around and we’ve got to turn it around in a hurry.”

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Cano must put on a better show

    Tuesday, September 4, 2012, 2:43 PM [General]

    As Robinson Cano stood on the eighth-floor patio of a hotel in Taiwan last November, he raved about what it meant to see and hear how many fans he had “halfway across the world.” Those devoted fans inspired Cano, who said he would work even harder because he realized how people from distant places were watching him.

    Lots of fans were watching Cano and the Yankees on Monday. There were fans from New York, from the Dominican Republic and even some bleary-eyed souls in Taiwan who were wondering if Cano could help push the Yankees past the Tampa Bay Rays. Instead, during a disappointing sequence in the eighth inning, Cano helped sabotage the Yankees.

    Cano is an excellent player, the best player on the Yankees. He has the sweetest swing on the team, a swing that he perfects in early afternoon sessions with hitting coach Kevin Long. He has the most dependable glove on the team, too, a second baseman who plays with panache and who has a powerful arm that makes other infielders envious.

    But Cano, for all of his talents, was the central figure in two plays that hurt the Yankees in Monday’s 4-3 loss to the Rays. After Cano lashed a low liner to third in the eighth, he took one step out of the batter’s box and stopped running. While that can happen to any batter, it shouldn’t happen. It also happens too often with Cano, whether it’s a low liner to third or a slow roller to second.

    Once Cano stopped, he was doomed. Elliott Johnson, who isn’t Brooks Robinson, didn’t catch the liner. He dropped it, retrieved it and then made an errant throw to first. But Johnson still managed to get the out when first baseman Carlos Pena moved up the line to collect the ball and tag Cano. Failing to run to first is always a mistake, but Cano’s actions were magnified because he would have been safe if he didn’t hesitate.

    “That happens,” said manager Joe Girardi. “Guys think a line drive is caught and they kind of freeze.”

    A few minutes later, Cano was in the forefront of another play that exasperated the Yankees. With a runner on second and two outs, Chris Gimenez tapped a grounder to the second base hole. Cano moved toward his left to field the ball, but it somehow trickled under his golden glove. Cano didn’t dive. He stretched for the ball and missed it by a few inches. Cano later said that he felt something in his hip “grab” and that impacted his pursuit of the ball.

    “I couldn’t bend over,” Cano told reporters. “It was grabbing.”

    While it is difficult to criticize a player who may have injured himself on a play, Cano had to figure out a way to smother that ball, keep it in the infield and prevent the go-ahead run from scoring. Attend any Little League game in any city and, inevitably, you will hear a coach yelling, “Knock it down infielders.” The Yankees wanted Cano to knock the ball down and keep the score tied, 3-3, but he didn’t succeed.

    “I thought he was going to get there,” Girardi said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t and that’s why we lost.”

    After the game, Cano had an ice pack wrapped around his hip and said he was hopeful that the injury is “nothing bad or anything.” The injury-ravaged Yankees, who saw their lead over the Baltimore Orioles shrink to one game, need Cano back in the lineup as soon as possible. That’s on Tuesday night.

    Cano was involved in two dubious plays on Monday, a game he would rather forget. But, as the Yankees chase an American League East title, Cano is a player who is capable of making two dozen plays in September and October that guide them closer to that goal. He knows everyone will be watching, as they were on Monday. It is up to Cano to put on a better show.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Talent-packed Yankees must play better

    Friday, August 31, 2012, 8:04 AM [General]

    When the Yankees gazed at their schedule last week and noticed that they had six games with the Cleveland Indians and the Toronto Blue Jays, they realized they had a superb opportunity to silence two wobbly teams and strengthen their lead in the American League East. It is politically correct for the superior team to say that the inferior team could win on any given day. But, in sports, politically correct isn’t always correct.

    So what happened in those six winnable games? The Yankees played some uninspired baseball and went 3-3 against two struggling teams. After winning two of three against the Indians, the Yankees allowed the Jays to swipe two of three games from them at Yankee Stadium. Included in that series was an 8-5 loss on Wednesday in which CC Sabathia lost two leads and the Yankees made three errors and went 3 for 17 with men in scoring position.

    “You got to put it behind you and move on,” said Manager Joe Girardi. “This day is over.”

    As Girardi made those remarks, he was perturbed. His voice was stern, his tone was sharp. It was obvious that he realized how precious a chance the Yankees had lost by faltering against the Jays. Instead of maintaining a more comfortable lead in the division, the Yankees have to contend with this once-improbable thought: If the Baltimore Orioles sweep three games this weekend, they will be tied with New York for first place.

    When the Yankees woke up on Friday morning, it was the 80th straight day that they had been in sole possession of first. But, because the Yankees didn’t stomp on the Indians and the Jays by going 5-1 or 6-0, they have put themselves in a precarious spot. Besides the Orioles, the pitching-rich Tampa Bay Rays are also chasing the Yankees and sit 4 1/2 games out of first. Across the next 10 days, the Yankees will play the Orioles six times and the Rays four times.

    “We need to play better,” said Sabathia. “We haven’t played well. It starts with me.”

    Sabathia was candid in taking the blame for Wednesday’s loss, but he has some teammates who could say the same thing. The Yankees didn’t have to feel this uneasy, but a mediocre week has created those feelings. Now the Yankees have to revive themselves, but it’s not against the Indians and the Jays anymore. It’s against the two teams that could nudge the Yankees out of first.

    While I focused on the Yankees going 3-3 in the last week, they have actually been a .500 team for more than a month. In their last 32 games, the Yankees are 16-16. Yes, they have endured a spate of injuries, but they have too much talent to play .500 for that long. For the next 10 games and beyond, the Yankees have to prove that.

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    Derek Jeter in pursuit of serious history

    Tuesday, August 21, 2012, 3:13 PM [General]

    Derek Jeter sat about three feet away from me and we were the only two people on the private plane, which was the perfect setting for an interview. For as long as it took us to travel from Tampa to New York, Jeter couldn’t escape my questions. Actually, that was our plan since we were collaborating on a book more than a decade ago.

    I learned a lot about Jeter on that day, about his family and his friends and what motivates him. But, whenever I tried to get Jeter to speak in specifics about the future, he didn’t bite. He just wanted to keep on playing baseball for the Yankees. Discussing specific career goals, the type of chatter that thrills fans and interests sportswriters, didn’t interest Jeter. He was worried about the next game. That’s it.

    As Jeter has compiled a renaissance season as a hitter in 2012, I’ve thought about that interview on the plane. Part of Jeter’s success as a player is his ability to simplify things. On the field, Jeter has the innate ability to slow the game down. Off the field, Jeter has the impressive ability to ignore distractions and focus on the next pitch, the next play and the next game.

    Before Tuesday night’s game against the White Sox, Jeter led the Major Leagues with 167 hits and was on pace for 222 hits this season, which would be a career high. Jeter has 3,255 hits, which is tied with Eddie Murray for 11th place on the all-time hit list. Willie Mays, who had 3,283 hits, is Jeter’s next target. Jeter is chasing and passing baseball royalty.

    At the age of 38 and now playing his 17th full season, Jeter is playing as well as at any point in his career. Across Jeter’s last 45 games, he is batting .368. He has played in 18 straight games, ignoring the valid notion that a soon-to-be 40-year old could use a rest in August. When I mentioned to Jeter that he hasn’t had a day off in a while, he said, “Wouldn’t be the first time.” And then Jeter ran on to the field to field some grounders.

    Because Jeter is performing like the Energizer Bunny of shortstops, there has been speculation about whether he could reach 4,000 hits or if he could even challenge Pete Rose’s record of 4,256. Both of those elusive goals are a long way off. If Jeter finished this season with 3,300 hits, he would need to average 175 hits for the next four seasons to reach 4,000. Jeter is signed through 2013 and has a player option for 2014, which he will surely exercise.

    But, rather than focus on the sexy topic of 4,000 hits or the even sexier subject of 4,257 hits, I think there should be some attention on another number: four. There is a very realistic possibility that Jeter will, at the very least, end up with the fourth most hits in history. Let’s stick with 3,300 as Jeter’s hit total after this season. He would need to notch 331 hits in 2013 and 2014 to reach 3,631 and surpass Stan Musial for fourth place, behind Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron. If Jeter avoids injuries and plays full seasons in 2013 and 2014, he is bound to average at least 165.5 hits a year.

    So, while it is fascinating to wonder if Jeter can hunt down Rose, it is a lot more realistic to theorize that he can overtake Musial and put himself in a very special place. Obviously, it would be beyond incredible if Jeter made a run at 4,000 hits or the Hit King. But it would also be incredible and much more probable for Jeter to vault himself behind three of the greatest hitters ever. That pursuit continues with Jeter’s next at-bat, which is as far into the future as he will stare.      

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Calm and cool, Kuroda delivers

    Wednesday, August 15, 2012, 11:37 AM [General]

    Hiroki Kuroda is a vision of tranquility on the mound. He never seems unnerved and never seems overwhelmed. Pitch after pitch, and inning after inning, Kuroda keeps pushing forward, doing whatever he needs to do to help the Yankees win.

    That calm, determined approach was exhibited as Kuroda fashioned a two-hitter and tamed the Texas Rangers, 3-0, on Tuesday night. The Rangers have scored the most runs in the Major Leagues, but, through nine nearly flawless innings, Kuroda baffled them with his sinking fastball and a nasty slider.

    “Probably our best pitching performance of the year,” said manager Joe Girardi.

    While Kuroda’s dazzling outing helped give the Yankees an important victory in August, it surely caused them to wonder what it might mean in October, too. If Kuroda can dominate the Rangers, then he should conceivably be able to handle any other lineup because no team has been as powerful. So, on a warm August night, the Yankees could be excused for pondering what Kuroda’s potential impact could be on some cool October nights.

    As long as CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte return from the disabled list and don’t have additional injury issues, they would join Kuroda as New York’s first three postseason pitchers. The Yankees would start Sabathia, their ace, in the opener and would probably follow with Kuroda and Pettitte. Aligning the pitchers like that would enable Girardi to split up Sabathia and Pettitte, his two left-handed starters.

    After watching Kuroda operate efficiently against the Rangers, I think he should be a significant force in the postseason. Kuroda has four quality pitches with a sinker, a slider, a curveball and a split-finger fastball, and he usually spots all of them with precision. When Kuroda’s four pitches are working, catcher Russell Martin said he has “perfect game stuff.”

    That was nearly the case at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, even though Kuroda mostly relied on his sinker and slider. Across six innings, Kuroda held the Rangers without a hit. Elvis Andrus had an infield single to start the seventh and end Kuroda’s no-hit bid, but Kuroda stranded Andrus at third. That was the only Ranger that made it beyond first. Of Kuroda’s 27 outs, 17 were generated on the ground. He has a 1.44 ERA in his last six starts.

    But, beyond those glossy statistics, here is why I think Kuroda could be so important in the postseason. He frustrated some excellent hitters. The Rangers barely had any decent swings off Kuroda, who is smart enough to read hitters and adept enough to pinpoint his pitches. When Kuroda whiffed Nelson Cruz with a slider in the second, Cruz swung as if he expected a fastball. When Kuroda struck out Josh Hamilton with a splitter in the fourth, Hamilton unleashed an awful hack. When Kuroda got Adrian Beltre to wave at a slider in the seventh, the pitch had cutting action away from the right-handed batter.

    Unlike so many pitchers, Kuroda hasn’t had difficulty transitioning from the softer-hitting National League to the American League. He is 11-8 with a 3.06 ERA and 6.85 walks and 2.15 walks per nine innings, strikingly similar statistics to what he did with the Los Angeles Dodgers a year ago (13-16, 3.07 ERA, 7.17 strikeouts, 2.18 walks). Kuroda has thrown at least seven scoreless innings in six starts, something no other Major Leaguer has done.

    How will Kuroda perform in October? There’s no reason to believe that this smart and precise pitcher will suddenly falter. Like other Japanese players, Kuroda is obsessed with focusing on the team over the individual. Still, for the team to succeed, individuals like Kuroda must flourish. Kuroda knows that. He will keep pushing forward, staying calm all the way to October.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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    Yankees take a low-risk chance on McGehee

    Thursday, August 9, 2012, 2:24 PM [General]

    As the baseball clock crept closer to Tuesday's 4 P.M. non-waiver trade deadline, the Yankees were taking calls and making calls and trying to improve themselves. Before the deadline, the Yankees acquired infielder Casey McGehee and $250,000 from the Pirates for reliever Chad Qualls. Since Qualls was likely to be jettisoned once Joba Chamberlain was activated, the Yankees added a potentially useful player for a player who wasn't going to be with them much longer.

    While the Yankees also spoke to the Cubs about pitcher Ryan Dempster, one club official said that those discussions weren't very serious. The Yankees might have been interested in adding Dempster if they could have obtained him for a modest price. In the end, the Cubs dealt Dempster to the Rangers for two minor leaguers. With Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz both out for the rest of the season, the Rangers were desperate to add another starting pitcher.

    The Yankees weren't necessarily desperate for another hitter, but they were definitely intrigued by McGehee. McGehee was hitting .230 with eight homers and 35 runs batted in for the Pirates this season. But McGehee is also a player who hit 23 homers as recently as 2010. Although McGee was hitting .207 with runners in scoring position this season, he is batting .285 in that department in his career. Willie Randolph, the former Yankee who coached McGehee with the Brewers, called him a solid situational hitter.

    "He's a line drive hitter and he hits the ball to all fields," Randolph said. "He's not a swing and miss guy. You can hit and run with him. He's a good guy to have at the plate."

    Randolph described McGehee as a "tough grinder" and a player who "has an edge to him." Defensively, Randolph said McGehee will make the routine plays at first and third, but that he had limited range. McGehee mostly played first for the Pirates.

    "He will be ready to play," Randolph said. "He's a tough kid. He will fit in well with the Yankees."

    Eight days before the deadline, the Yankees made a splashier move when they acquired Ichiro Suzuki from the Mariners for minor league pitchers D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar. Entering Tuesday night's game, Suzuki had hits in his first seven games with the Yankees and was batting .259. Manager Joe Girardi said he believes Suzuki will be a stellar player for the Yankees, filling the void left by Brett Gardner's absence.

    As the Yankees surveyed the trade market, they factored in the injured players who they expect to return this season. Chamberlain was activated on Tuesday and gives Girardi more flexibility in the bullpen because he can retire right-handed and left-handed batters. In addition, the Yankees expect Andy Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez to return in September. Until then, the Yankees will plow ahead with a roster that was slightly revised when they added McGehee.

    Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES

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