Yankees

Keefe To The City: Surviving The Dog Days Of August

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Marcus Thames

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

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The Yankees haven’t won a series since the trade deadline, which happens to be when Lance Berkman, Austin Kearns and Kerry Wood became Yankees. Coincidence? To be fair the Yankees have played the Rays, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rangers since then so it hasn’t exactly been an easy road. But with the Yankees stumbling since the start of August and failing to put away their direct competition in the AL East, it has made the postseason picture something I wish it wasn’t: interesting.

After coming back against the Cliff Lee and the Rangers on Wednesday and holding off the Royals on Thursday, it appears that the best team in baseball is back on track for the time being. So what happened over the first two weeks of August that led to a near collapse in the division? Sweeny Murti joined me to talk Yankees baseball and to try to sort things out.

Keefe: You probably figured I would talk to you about how the Yankees lost on Tuesday night against the Rangers – with Mariano Rivera on the mound. Nothing made me happier than to see Joe Girardi use Mariano in a tie game on the road. But let’s flashback to Toronto in June when Joe opted to keep Mariano in the bullpen in a game the Yankees lost.

Yes, the Rangers are better than the Blue Jays, but if Joe is going to use the logic he did in not using Mariano against the Blue Jays earlier in the season, how does he justify using him last night when he didn’t in June? By not playing the same scenario the same way, it tells me that Joe is saying one regular season game is more important than another.

Murti: Yes, I could feel your unrest, knowing how badly you wished Boone Logan or Chan Ho Park had come into the game instead!

Girardi specifically stated at the time in Toronto that he wasn’t prepared to use Rivera for two innings that day, and there are a number of factors that go into something like that: how often he’s been used, how he feels physically, what the rest of your ‘pen looks like.

A couple of weeks later, Girardi felt Rivera was OK to go two innings, doing it once in Arizona and again in Los Angeles. Then we learned of some nagging problems that forced Rivera from the All-Star Game. He hasn’t gone two innings since.

Now, if the pitch count for one inning was reasonable Girardi said he would go back to Rivera for a second inning last night.

I am generally against the closer on the road, because if you get the lead you have to turn to a lesser pitcher to get the last three outs. If your choice is to pitch them before, I guess you’re rolling the dice either way.

But the game in Toronto made no difference anyway because that game was lost in the 14th inning. If Rivera were going to pitch, he would have still been long gone before it got to the 14th and Girardi would still have turned to Chad Gaudin or somebody else by that point.

The main point here I guess is that as great as Rivera is, there are circumstances that change on a day-to-day basis that keep you from running him out there for as many outs as you want as many times as you want. And that’s why situations two months apart aren’t always comparable.

Keefe: When the Yankees were trailing Cliff Lee and the Rangers 6-1 in the sixth inning on Wednesday night, I didn’t give them much of a chance to win. But the Yankees did something they haven’t done much of this year by chipping away and actually completing a comeback.

It seems like the Yankees have just been very good at nearly coming back but never fully coming back this season. Once Lance the Dance (yes, that is my nickname for Berkman so jump on board before it takes off) walked to lead off the ninth, I knew they would find a way to tie the game. I would have to say that it was the biggest win of the season to date because of who they came back against and because of how they have recently been playing and what the standings have turned into over the last week or so.

Murti: I agree it was their biggest win of the year, mainly because back-to-back losses to Texas would have caused major panic among Yankees fans. The prospects of facing Texas in a short series is still daunting, but getting to Cliff Lee once gives you some hope. It was also important for Mariano to close out that game after the leadoff triple. Back-to-back walk-off wins against Rivera would not have done much for the Yankee faithful either.

I’ve heard the same comment about come-from-behind or gritty wins many times this year. No, there haven’t been as many A.J. Burnett facials, but the Yankees still lead the majors in come-from-behind wins with 36 through Wednesday. There are a few reasons why that magic feeling you got last year isn’t here now.

First of all, to ask the Yankees to get 15 more walk-off wins is a bit extreme. 2009 was a great year. Don’t expect it all the time. Second, the Yankees have a better starting rotation than they did a year ago. They aren’t digging as many early holes that need late-inning rescues. Third, the Yankees bullpen isn’t as good as a year ago. All those comebacks last year used lockdown middle relief to keep the game from getting out of hand, so that the offense could do their thing.

This team will have its moments, just like Wednesday night in Texas. But last year was the comeback equivalent of the 1998 Yankees. It just doesn’t happen all the time.

And yes, I am ignoring Lance the Dance. Ugh.

CC Sabathia

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Keefe: I never expected the Yankees to match the walk-off magic of 2009, but it seemed like ever since Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui left, two key cogs in the Yankees’ comeback wins were missing and maybe that had something to do with them coming up short.

Speaking of Damon, on Wednesday, Mike Francesa and Peter Gammons talked about the possibility of Damon being moved now that the Tigers are pretty much out of it in the AL Central and nowhere to be found in the wild card picture. The thought of Damon coming back to New York makes me ecstatic, but I’d have to think that another team would try to block this move, right? And where would Damon fit in on the roster? As it is now, I don’t know who would be the odd man out, but I guess a reliever would have to go if this is at all possible?

Murti: You’re right about the waivers. I wonder if Tampa Bay would claim him, not just to block, but because he would make a good addition for them too.

Where would he fit? Well if Berkman doesn’t pick things up, who knows? But that’s a long way off.

There is one thing Yankees fans have to remember about Damon, which is something that’s been bugging me all year, and that is when people say the Yankees blew it with Damon and that they should have signed him for one-year, $8 million (that’s what he eventually signed for, but that’s not what he had asked the Yankees for). Damon ended up settling for that amount in late February when there was nothing else available. In December, Damon was looking for a two-year deal worth more than $20 million and the Yankees weren’t willing to guarantee that much on a two-year deal.

Instead of getting into a staring contest that would have taken them into spring training, the Yankees went another direction. Signing Nick Johnson obviously didn’t work, but they felt they couldn’t get into that long drawn-out process with Damon.

Keefe: You have yet to remind me about Boone Logan’s recent run of success since the All-Star break and I figure you have yet to make a big deal for one of two reasons: 1. You know how bad he is and you know he will come crashing back down to Earth or 2. You feel bad saying, “I told you so.”

Logan has been good, and maybe I owe him some sort of written apology, but I think he has a little ways to go until then. Seeing what I have seen from him earlier in the year and knowing what I know about him, I don’t think I will ever feel truly comfortable with him coming into a game. I compare his recent run of success to that of Scott Proctor or Tanyon Sturtze when they would get on those runs and get you believing in them only to eventually let you down in a big way.

Murti: You mean I haven’t told you yet today that Logan has retired 22 of his last 25 batters? I must have other things on my mind.

The bullpen is not an exact science. These guys get used and abused more than any other position, which is why they go through good streaks and bad streaks. Remember Damaso Marte last October? Remember Chan Ho Park last October? If I remember correctly David Weathers and Graeme Lloyd weren’t particularly good for the Yanks when they first came over in 1996, but they became postseason heroes.

Those bullpen roles are usually about success in short spurts, unless you’re talking about a closer or eighth-inning guy. They have shaken up things a bit with Joba getting bounced from his role and the addition of Kerry Wood.

I didn’t pretend to tell you the bullpen was just fine the way it was before. But I did know what is true every year – the bullpen is never the same on October 1 as it is on April 1.

So let’s see how the next seven weeks go for this group. Alfredo Aceves should be back soon and that might help too.

Keefe: The boo birds were out for Lance Berkman last weekend (though I can honestly say I didn’t take part) against Boston until those two doubles against Josh Beckett. Sometimes I am against booing Yankees, but in Lance’s case I think it is OK at this point.

Don’t get me wrong, I was and still am a big fan of the trade for Berkman, but he is going to need to do more than get almost all of his hits as a Yankee in the same game.

A lot of people said Berkman playing for a losing team took a toll on his production, and that a stint with the Yankees in a pennant race would get him back on track, but so far that hasn’t happened. I am beginning to wonder if there actually is anything left in Berkman’s tank, or if we are just going to get the guy who came to the Yankees with the worst numbers of his career.

Murti: Unfortunately that last part might be hitting the nail on the head. Even Berkman admitted to me last week that it’s a fair thought to have and that it’s crossed his mind too. Brian Cashman told me that he had a scout following him for a while before the trade and that he got opinions from some pretty good baseball people (I know the names of the guys he talked to, but don’t want to reveal them – just trust me when I tell you they are respected evaluators) and those guys all thought Berkman was swinging better and looked healthier than he did earlier in the season.

One thought about Berkman though: However the rest of his season goes, it doesn’t mean he won’t get a big hit for the Yankees in a big spot that will make up for a lot of nothing. I remember a guy the Yankees traded for at the deadline a few years ago and he ended up hitting .254 with six home runs in 54 games (hardly an impact). He then went 5-for-31 to start the postseason. In his 32nd at-bat of that postseason, Aaron Boone hit a home run that you might remember.

Keefe: When I said David Robertson deserved a shot to be the eighth-inning man, I was still kind of scared that he would get the role and give it right back. It seems unfair that it took Joba Chamberlain so long to lose the role and he was given nearly an infinite amount of chances, and it seemed like if Robertson messed up initially, he would lose the role instantly.

Luckily, Robertson has been excellent as the setup man, making it a lot easier to watch the Yankees piece together wins out of their bullpen. But what does the future in the bullpen hold for Joba? The majority of his work now comes in games the Yankees are trailing or in situations where even if he fails, the Yankees will still have a healthy lead. As much as I miss Joba Mania from 2007, I don’t miss watching Joba ruin games late.

Murti: As long as the game is reasonably close (within two or three runs) any outs Joba gets there will be important, especially at home.

I don’t know if we’ll ever see Joba 2007 again. The Yankees believed in him, and with good reason, and they have given him a number of chances in big roles. He did have a decent four months as a starter in 2009, fading quickly after August 1.

There was a time when Joba was untouchable in trade talks (again, with good reason). I don’t know if they will shop him this winter, but I think they would listen, which is something they weren’t willing to do before. I don’t think they would just give him away, but I think he could be a chip if they have a need.

Keefe: Curtis Granderson’s first season as a Yankee hasn’t exactly gone according to plan, and now with Austin Kearns on the bench to help against lefties, Granderson’s playing time keeps fading.

I am a fan of Granderson and remain a fan of the trade, despite it meaning never getting the chance to Austin Jackson as a Yankee. But now there is talk of Granderson maybe on his way out of the Bronx after this season with Carl Crawford on the open market? How likely is this of happening and what is the talk around the Yankees about Granderson’s struggles?

Murti: I thought Granderson deserved a shot to settle in, but the last few weeks have been painful to watch and it looks like he thought so too. Granderson went to hitting coach Kevin Long this week and asked for help because, in his words, “How much worse can it get?” They are working to retool some things in his swing and quiet it down; much like Long did with Nick Swisher, though that was over a winter. This is basically a crash course over two days then back onto the field. They have seven weeks to see if Granderson turn it around.

He’s a very talented player and does seem like he enjoys this environment, so I am surprised his season hasn’t been better. Make a play for Carl Crawford? Yes, it very well could happen. Some of that depends on the budget after re-signing Derek Jeter and Rivera and going after Lee, but I’m sure there’s a plan there where Crawford fits.

Follow Neil on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NeilKeefe

Follow Sweeny on Twitter at http://twitter.com/YankeesWFAN

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