Posted by: JoeD2133 | April 9, 2008

4/8: Royals 5, Yankees 2

                The Yankees’ plane touched down on the Heartland sometime between three and four A.M. Tuesday morning, its half-asleep passengers stumbling off its wings and into an idle bus that would take them to their unfamiliar beds.  Once there and tucked away, the sun already putting the hotel’s thick, hard-to-move, window curtains to work, it would only be a few hours before they would have to rise themselves and head to the home ballpark of the Kansas City Royals.

                So excited was reliever Brian Bruney about this choice of scheduling that he had posted a thank you note on the wall of the Yankees’ clubhouse the day before, addressed specifically to ESPN.  The sports network of all sports networks was televising their game Monday night, requiring a primetime slot over the lower expected ratings of daytime TV.  This executive decision, coupled with the Royals scheduled Home Opener at 3:00 P.M. CST yesterday, forced the Yankees to play a day game immediately following the previous night’s clash with Rays.

                Such is the life of a Major League Baseball player, where sleep comes at a premium on the road, and productive games at the ballpark live and die by the schedule.

Just ask Phil Hughes.

                For starters, the young right-hander was matched up against Brian Bannister, another Mets trade-away who has found a new home – not to mention a sub-4.00 ERA – with a team that really wants him.  Off to a good start for the first time in recent memory, the 2008 Royals are much like the vastly improved Rays team that the Yankees just finished playing in the Bronx: young, athletic and hungry to win, with decent starting pitching, a good bullpen, and a nice mixture of young kids and veterans.

In other words, Hughes wasn’t going to get a break from any angle yesterday, no matter how much sleep he had managed the night before.  Nor was he going to get much help from the moody offense, which definitely made it on the plane to Kansas City with the team this time, but may have missed the bus to Kauffman Stadium.

Somebody should’ve checked room 521.  I heard that’s where the lumber slept.

Johnny Damon lead off this groggy, overcast, Home Opener for the Royals with a walk, but never made it past first base.  New manager Joe Girardi, continuing to enforce his non-aggressive, no-steals policy in the early going (the Yankees have zero stolen bases through the first eight games) never sent Damon, and Robinson Cano preceded to strike-out swinging, his eyes quite possibly closed.  Bobby Abreu then tapped into a quiet, inning-ending double-play, and the Yankees shuffled out onto the field.

                On the mound, Hughes’ uniform rippled like a flag caught high in the wind, and his pitches seemed to be fighting the elements all day long.  Lead-off man Joey Gaithright quickly stroked a single to center, then as one of the fastest men is baseball is required to do, he stole second base off of Jorge Posada – on a pitchout no less!  Jorge would later join Captain Derek Jeter on the bench, who came out of Monday’s game due to a strained quadricep muscle, with a non-descript “weakness” in his throwing shoulder.  Any Yankee fan knows how rare it is to see one of these stalwarts miss a game due to injury, so seeing both on the sidelines in the eighth game of the season was a little troubling.  However, the baseball game continued, as it is required to do.

                After a Mark Grudzelenik ground out and an RBI double by Mark Teahan made the score 1-0, Hughes showed some of the veteran grit and poise that has made Brian Cashman such a fan.  With Teahan in scoring position at second, Hughes fell behind slugger Jose Guillen 3-0.  Digging his heels in now, Hughes pumped two fastballs over the outside corner, working all the way back to 3-2, and eventually getting Guillen to pop-up.  The much lauded rookie Billy Butler was next, but Hughes made quick work off him with his nasty curveball, inducing him to strike out swinging.

                Inning over, only one run scored, hope springs eternal.

                The Yankees came right back in the top of the second inning, starting a rally from scratch with two outs.  Following a strike-out-looking by A-Rod and a ground out by Hideki Matsui, Posada singled, Jason Giambi worked a trademark walk, and Wilson Betemit finally made contact with a baseball, delivering a clutch RBI single.  Melky Cabrera and Damon would both get free passes next, Bannister showing signs of his relative youth (to that of Hughes!), and the score changed direction to 2-1 Bombers.  However, Robinson Cano would strike out swinging – again – chasing another elusive curveball in the dirt.

And that, Yankee fans, was goodnight for the offense, at 3:31 PM, CST.

By the middle of the fourth inning, Hughes had worked himself in and out of two, two-out, bases-loaded jams of his own making, rocketing his pitch-count north of ninety and requiring him to leave the game.  He had allowed three earned runs on the day.  Not terrible for a twenty-one-year-old kid in the Big Leaues, but nowhere near as good as his first outing last week against the Blue Jays.

                Such is the life of a young Yankees pitcher, where expectations run as high as pitch-counts, and adjustments need to be made on the fly in order to stay afloat.  It is a long, grinding season chock-full of peaks and valleys, especially for the young players, and yesterday will best be remembered as a learning experience for Hughes.

                Philly the Kid will be fine… once he gets some rest!

                Fellow right-handed rookie Ross Ohlendorf relieved his teammate at this point, and after stranding his two inherited runners in the fourth, two earned runs jumped up to bite him in the bottom of the fifth, and the score found its final resting place for the day, 5-2 Royals.  Over the course of the next four innings the Yankees got a head start catching up on their sleep, evidenced by a combined eleven strike-outs on the afternoon (four by Mr. Rodriguez), and nary another scoring threat to describe.

                Such is the life of a one hundred and sixty-two game marathon, where one day you’re hot, and the next… your tired.

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