Keefe To The City: A Tale Of Two Innings

By Neil Keefe

Well, that sucked. The Yankees didn’t take advantage of their home-field advantage against the Red Sox, and because of it, the Red Sox are still alive in the postseason picture. That’s right, the postseason picture aka the wild card picture. Because even though Dan Shaughnessy and other Bostonians think that splitting a four-game series and remaining seven games back in the loss column means that the Red Sox are still alive in the division, they’re not. The Red Sox are seven back in the loss column and like Bob Ryan (the one Bostonian who gets it) says, the loss column is all that matters.

The thing is, Boston was done in the division if they left New York with anything less than three wins. And when Terry Francona finally put Josh Beckett out of his misery by pulling the $68-million extension man in the fifth inning on Sunday night after laying an atomic egg (4.2 IP, 11 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 6 K, 1 HR), the Yankees had done what they needed to do: make sure the Red Sox remain in at least the same position in the standings as they were when they came to New York.

On Friday, when I talked to Mike Hurley of NESN, I said I thought the Yankees could sweep the Red Sox (and they had the chance to do so in the two games they lost), but I also said that all they needed was to come away with a split, and by splitting the standings would remain the same, but four precious games would be off the schedule. Hurley hates when I do the following, but I love doing it because it puts into perspective just how much it means to have a seven-game lead in the loss column:

If the Yankees play .500 baseball for their final 51 games (26-25), they will finish the season 95-67. The Red Sox will need to go 31-18 over their final 49 games to match that record. And let’s be honest, the Yankees aren’t going to play. 500.

I am not scared of the Red Sox making a run at the division, but I’m also not stupid and I know what this team is capable of if they can get the wild card and just make the postseason. They have proved that starting pitching is still the name of the game, as they have been able to tread water despite going through position players like The Situation and Pauly D go through grenades. They have managed to keep themselves within striking distance of a postseason berth even without their best two hitters (Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis) and without a real starting catcher for an extended period.

So, yes the Red Sox are finished as far as the division is concerned, but because the Rays went retro for the week and became the Devil Rays, the Red Sox are still in contention for the wild card. You can’t be mad at the Rays, however, for letting the Red Sox continue to breathe off life support. You can only be mad at the Yankees who couldn’t put away a team that started Bill Hall, Jed Lowrie, Darnell McDonald and Kevin Cash at Yankee Stadium over the weekend.

When I made my rounds to the Boston sports sites last night and this morning looking for the white flag to be waved, I instead saw phrases like “still alive,” “hopeful,” and “hanging on.” You never, ever want to let any team in baseball hang on, especially the Red Sox, but the Yankees managed to keep them alive for at least one more day or one more series or one more week.

There are Mets fan who probably want to bottle me for sitting here and whining about the team with the best record in baseball and two-game lead in the loss column in the best division in baseball, but I’m not sorry for picking apart a team that failed to put away their direct competition this weekend.

On Friday, I was hoping for the Yankees to win the series against Boston, but along the way, a series of mental, physical and managerial mistakes cost them a chance to pull the plug on the 2010 Boston Red Sox. Two disappointing losses defined by two innings. Here’s what went wrong in the two innings that cost the Yankees two games:

Javy and the Pop-Up

Javy and the Pop-Up … it sounds like a children’s book. Instead it was a horror story. It’s been a while since I dedicated a section of a story to hating Javier Vazquez, but he certainly earned it this time.

Vazquez had a chance on Friday night to put some reassurance into a fan base that is worried about a starting pitching staff that is missing Andy Pettitte and one that includes A.J. Burnett and journeyman Dustin Moseley. He had a chance to start an important series with a win against the team he will forever be connected to unless he can help win a championship during his second go-around with the Yankees. Seeing the old Vazquez make an appearance on Friday night in the Bronx and knowing that A.J. Burnett will kick off a two-game series in Texas tonight, does anyone still think acquiring Cliff Lee would have been unfair, too much or absurd. Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Vazquez was as every bit as bad as I feared he might be in the opening game of a series that I went out on a limb and predicted the Yankees could sweep. I broke the cardinal rule when it comes to making predictions regarding the Yankees: Never rely on Javier Vazquez. Vazquez’s final line wasn’t too bad since he was charged with only three earned runs in 5 1/3 innings, but he did allow six runs and left Francisco Cervelli out to dry.

Cervelli booted a pop-up in the second inning of the first game of the series with a runner on second and one out, and the Yankees holding a 2-1 lead at the time. Following the error charged to Cervelli that really should have been charged to Vazquez for shadowing Cervelli on the play and getting in his way when any other pitcher on the planet would have just stood his ground on the mound and let his fielders take care of it, the game got out of hand. Here is what unfolded after the error:

Strikeout
Walk
Walk
Double
Intentional Walk
Flyout

Vazquez could have ended the inning after that first strikeout by retiring just one more hitter, but rather than bail out his catcher, he turned a 2-1 lead into a 4-2 deficit, which the Yankees would never overcome because later on he would let the game slip away for good.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, the Yankees got back on the board to cut the lead to 4-3, but in top of the sixth, Vazquez gave up a one-out single to Mike Lowell and then served up Ryan Kalish’s first home run in the bigs to make it 6-3, virtually ending the game.

It was a vintage Javier Vazquez performance against the team that has left a giant skid mark on what is otherwise a very respectable career, and it put the Yankees in an 0-1 hole to start the weekend.

The Seventh Inning: Bad Breaks and Bad Situational Hitting

Maybe the Yankees just weren’t meant to win the series finale on Sunday. After the events that occurred in the seventh inning of that game, it’s the only reason I can think of.

In his first two at-bats of the game against Jon Lester, Jorge Posada looked like he was swinging a pool noodle, but in his third at-bat, he pulled a ground ball through the hole on the left side of the infield to bring the tying run to the plate in Marcus Thames. Thames rocked a pitch to right-center field (somewhere I thought he didn’t even know existed on the field), and the ball looked like it was headed for the Yankees bullpen and a tie game. The ball ended up hitting the few inches of blue padding that sits on top of the plexiglass so the pitchers can see the game, but instead of continuing its flight by hitting the wall and bouncing over it for a two-run home run, the ball hit a seam in the padding and caromed back into the field, and the Yankees had second and third with no outs.

It was a bad break for the Yankees, but it forced a second-and-third situation that I would have gladly signed up for at the beginning of the inning given the way Lester had pitched to that point. But knowing that Austin Kearns and Curtis Granderson were due up, I said to my roommate Redz, “They won’t score here.”

Kearns ended up getting hit by a pitch, but not before he lofted a flyball to left field that would have resulted in a sacrifice fly, except Kalish just missed catching the ball as it bounced into the seats. Another bad break for the Yankees.

Granderson came up with as much of a chance of getting a hit off Lester as whoever was sitting in Section 412, Row 10, Seat 8 if the Yankees decided to pick someone at random out of the crowd to hit for Granderson in that spot. With Brett Gardner on the bench, Joe Girardi decided to stay with Granderson, despite the fact that Gardner is better against lefties, sees more pitches per at-bat than Granderson, is a better contact hitter and is harder to double up in the event of a hard grounder. Is there any reason why you don’t have Gardner hit for Granderson here?

I was a big fan of the trade for Granderson; even though it meant losing Austin Jackson — a player that I had spent the last few seasons following and getting excited for. But I figured Brian Cashman knew that Jackson might never be the player that Granderson has become and with the departure of Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, it was important to have a veteran bat in the lineup since Brett Gardner would be getting one of the three starting outfield spots. I get why the trade was done, and I was happy for it, but now it looks like Granderson’s stay in New York might only last a season with the way he is going and with Carl Crawford on the open market this winter, he is doing very little to prove that he should stay.

A wise man once said, “You can’t predict baseball,” but I don’t think there is anyone that didn’t predict what would happen in Granderson’s at-bat against Lester. Granderson struck out on four pitches, leaving it up to Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher. Terry Francona called for right-hander Daniel Bard, who blew the final game of a four-game series last August, except this time Bard wasn’t going to be the goat of the game. With six pitches, Bard struck out Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher, looking like the real life Steve Nebraska.

If there was ever a textbook example of the opposite of situational hitting, it was the Yankees’ seventh inning. Bases loaded, no one out for the best offense in baseball, and they come away empty-handed? Unacceptable.

Follow Neil on Twitter at twitter.com/NeilKeefe

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