Posted by: JoeD2133 | April 6, 2008

4/5: Tampa Bay 6, Yankees 3

               The sun glistened off the water to our left as we descended down the narrow, oft precarious, Harlem River Drive.  What a day for baseball, I thought, my favorite series of potholes bumping me back to reality.  After a few excited, high-speed lane changes brought us around the bend, Yankee Stadium came into view, rising like a sentinel on the opposite bank, tall, proud, and stoic.  Something was different though, wasn’t it?  On this particular day, the sentinel had company.  A just as tall, just as proud, awe-inspiring structure stood to its immediate left, looking more like the great Roman Coliseum than any venue for Major League Baseball should.

                “Look at that,” I half whispered.  “There it is.”

                Indeed, it was a sight to behold, the new structure’s smooth, young concrete basking in the rays of a crisp, April afternoon.  Above the outer shell you could actually see the underside of the new upper deck, row after row climbing like stairs into the sky, as if following their dreams of glory to come.  I smiled, shook my head in wonder, then deferred back to the Stadium that had raised me with a nod.   This is the building that houses my memories, I reasoned.  This is the building I love.

                And believe it or not, the Stadium nodded back, as if to say, “Thanks, kid.”

                Inside its hallowed walls, however, the Yankees still couldn’t find their offense – anywhere – probably beginning to wonder if some rookie had forgot to load it on their plane out of Tampa last week.  Yesterday’s Cy Young candidate for the Tampa Bay Rays, Edwin Jackson, who has been a riddle for the last couple of years (mid-to-high nineties heat, good movement, but less control than Nuke Lalush down there in Durham, North Carolina), put all the pieces together against the sleepy Bomber bats, and the predictably good but shaky Andy Pettitte.  Of course he did.  If you’re going to find the strength to finally put all of your tools together and dominate, why not do it against the New York Yankees, at the venerable Yankee Stadium.

                It’s amazing how many visiting players raise the level of their game when playing in the Bronx.  We should be proud, shouldn’t we?  Was that too much sarcasm, or just the right amount?

                The game started for the Yankees in a much different fashion, however.  Pettitte, the only professional athlete with the backbone and morality to straight-up admit to his use of performance-enhancing drugs in years past, received a warm, appreciative, standing ovation from the near capacity crowd.   He then proceeded to pitch a scoreless top of the first, his only hiccup a well-deserved plunking of the Rays best left-handed hitter, first baseman Carlos Pena.

In the bottom of the frame, Johnny Damon worked a lead-off walk to get things rolling, but the air was quickly sucked out the Stadium’s lungs when the Captain struck out swinging, on a weak breaking ball off the plate no less, and Bobby Abreu flied out to left-center.  This brought Alex Rodriguez marching to the plate with two outs and a runner at first.  The clean-up man drew in a long, deep breath, dug into the box, and delivered.

The sound of the ball connecting with his bat – “TH-WACK!” – could be felt from your stomach to your toes, bringing out a collective “ooohhhh!” from the Yankee faithful on hand.  As if shot out of a cannon, the ball careened on a straight line deep into the left field corner, short-hopped the wall, then bounced around just enough to allow Damon to race all the way home from first.  Everyone was on their feet, clapping, stomping, some chanting “M-V-P”.  Alex stood tall and bright at second base, hands on his hips, soaking in the crowd and the sunlight with veteran aplomb.

One-zip Yankees.  Today was going to be a good day.

But the hometown offense started and stopped with A-Rod’s ringing double in the first, Jorge Posada’s bases-loaded, two-run single in the eighth serving only to make the score more respectable, as opposed to changing the momentum of the game.  This game changed direction back in the second and third innings, never to recover.

Tampa Bay’s Johnny Gomes lead of the top of the second with a shot to right that appeared to clear the wall for a home run, but somehow bounced back into the outstretched, bare hand of Bobby Abreu.  The right-fielder fired the ball back to Jeter on a rope, who then preceded to tag Gomes out between first and second base.  Gomes, thinking his big fly was long gone, had his head down and was engaged in a full homerun trot when Jeter applied the tag.  He looked up, realized what happened, and the Stadium laughed.

However, the laughter stopped right there.  After the Yankees failed to take advantage of a bases-loaded, one out situation in the bottom of the frame – in part created when Gomes failed to catch a routine fly ball off the bat of Hideki Matsui in the very same right-field corner as his phantom home run! – it was Gomes who delivered the go ahead sacrifice fly to center in a sloppy, error-prone, top of the third.  The ball wasn’t actually hit that deep, but Damon was playing center-field in the place of Melky Cabrera, and his throw to the plate, while valiant in its effort, landed well short of the mark.

Funny how this game of baseball works, isn’t it?  Melky was out of the game because he was serving the second day of his two-game suspension for his part in the Spring Training brawl with the Rays, which escalated into a fight only when Gomes came barreling into Shelly Duncan from right field, albeit provoked by Shelly’s unprecedented, spikes-high slide into second.  It was Shelly’s throwing error in the third inning yesterday that setup the Rays’ lead-changing two runs, and it was Gomes three-run homer in the fifth that knocked both Pettitte and the Yankees out of the game for good.

Not so funny now, is it, says Johnny Gomes.

You know what’s really not funny?  Long the doormats of the American League East, the Tampa Bay Rays appear to finally have a strong mix of veteran and youthful talent, a decent bullpen, and at least four starting pitchers that can control a baseball game: Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Andy Sonnanstein, and now, Edwin Jackson.  Add this team to the Yankees, the formidable Toronto Blue Jays, and the defending champions, the Boston Red Sox, and the American League East seems more like a free-for-all than the traditional two-horse race.

Now, did our offense make the plane out of Tampa last week, or not?

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