Two out runs win ballgames. And good pitching, of course.
In the top of the fifth inning at The Trop last night, with the New York Yankees sporting a 3-2 lead over the hometown Tampa Bay Rays, Johnny Damon worked a two-out walk against the powerful but notoriously wild, Edwin Jackson. In this situation, with your speedy lead-off man at first and your most clutch singles hitter, Derek Jeter, at the plate, it makes a lot of sense to send the runner early in the count. If Damon makes it to second base, then you are set up for a two-out RBI. On the other hand, if he gets gunned out at second, then you have The Captain leading-off the top of the next inning.
Again, two outcomes that you can live with as a manager, worry-free.
So when Damon took off like a rabbit toward second early in Jeter’s at-bat, I smiled the smile of a fan who has watched enough baseball to think along with his favorite team, and thought right. Johnny slid in under the tag and popped up to his feet in one, fluid motion. Then, as if written on a script that Joe Girardi had folded neatly in his back pocket, Jeter ripped a single into center that prompted the young and supremely talented B.J. Upton to challenge Damon’s hard-charging dash to the plate. The throw was late, Johnny was safe, and Jeter took second like any in-tune, heads-up ballplayer should remember to do.
Perfect, textbook execution.
With one two-out run in the books and Jeter standing on second, looking for more, Bobby Abreu delivered. He ripped his own RBI single, this particular baseball careening over the second baseman’s head and into the right-centerfield gap. When Jeter slid across the dish in a hazy cloud of dirt and chalk, the scoreboard changed its white, wooden numbers to read, Yankees 5, Rays 2. Another clutch, two-out run scored, helping solidify a victory for the gritty, high-80’s-only performance of Andy Pettitte, who battled in vintage fashion from the first pitch of the game, batter after batter.
And that’s what Andy Pettitte does best – he battles. The Family Guy from Texas doesn’t have the mid-90’s fastball, the Mariano cutter, or the Joba slider, but he has been extremely successful over the course of his career for one very important reason – he knows how to pitch. Last night was a prime example of this trademark quality, as he worked out of a first-and-third, one-out jam in the first, and then a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the second. After getting touched up for two runs on two hits in the third, Pettitte dug in and threw two consecutive 1-2-3 innings in the fourth and fifth frames. Similarly, after the Rays final run scored from third base on a routine ground ball in the sixth, Andy finished his outing by recording a perfect seventh.
Vintage Andy. Bend but don’t break, and give your team a chance to win. That is why he has been a successful pitcher for so many years. To me, that’s what makes him a Yankee.
Now, what makes Kyle Farnsworth a Yankee is a completely different story. So when the vaunted Bombers lineup failed to buy any insurance during a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the top of the seventh inning, and then again during a bases-loaded, two-out situation in the top of the eighth, I started to get a little worried. Joba Chamberlain, our lock-down, lights-out setup man was not available for both personal and admirable reasons, which left the unpredictable and deeply frustrating Kyle Farnsworth as the next logical choice to pitch the bottom of the eighth. When the cameras finally panned to the bullpen and showed me that my single greatest fear was indeed true, I nearly switched off the TV.
I can’t do it. I can’t watch him blow this game, I said to myself.
But I did watch.
And do you know what happened next? The Farns, as if sent down to the mound from way on high, pitched a 1-2-3 scoreless inning against Johnny Gomes, Mike DeFelice, and Eric Hinske. Suddenly, after Kyle’s final fastball struck out Hinske swinging, a chorus of angels appeared over centerfield, singing the softest, gentlest, and most sublime version of “Hal-le-lu-ya” I have ever heard. It was amazing, it was magical, and truly the most surreal experience I’ve ever had watching a baseball game on television.
Okay, so there were no angels hovering, and no sweet, soft music being sung, but Kyle getting the ball into Mo’s right hand without blowing the game to smithereens truly was a vision unto itself. It was something I fully appreciated, given his history with the team, and something I will never forget.
Fine. I will stop now.
Mariano Rivera then did what Mariano Rivera does best – close – and the Yankees had themselves a two-game sweep of their divisional foes, the Tampa Bay Rays, heading into tonight and tomorrow night’s throw-down with the Red Sox. All the boys have to do now is beat Boston soundly at the Stadium, not once but twice, and the chorus of angels will reappear, hovering quietly over the Bronx, ready and waiting to sing.