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Listless Yankees Looking For A Spark

May 13, 2011 - John Whittaker
On May 13, 2009, the New York Yankees were 16-17 and 5.5 games back in the American League East.

Two days later, Melky Cabrera drilled a two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Twins and their closer, Joe Nathan, and give the Yankees a win that put them over the .500 mark at 18-17. A.J. Burnett drilled Cabrera in the face with a whipped cream pie and one of the unlikliest heroes of a season was born.

Cabrera went on to have four game-winners that season as the Yankees showed an ability all season to come from behind against other teams' best relief pitchers, finding the most improbable ways to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Those wins have a way of keeping a club alive and focused, especially in the late innings of a game that has gone wrong ever since the first pitch. Those occasional fluke wins keep you grinding when you're down 6-0 after the second inning. Those fluke wins keep you believing that a guy hitting seventh or eighth in your lineup can come through with a hit with runners in scoring position. Those wins, 6 or 7 of them in a year, are the difference between 88 wins and missing the playoffs and winning your division and having a shot at the World Series.

I don't bring up Cabrera to say the Yankees shouldn't have traded him. In fact, it's purely coincidental that Cabrera made his return to Yankee Stadium this week with the Royals as I started noticing some things about the Yankees that I didn't like.

After losing two of three to Kansas City and falling out of first place for the first time this season, it's obvious that this Yankees team needs a spark. Burnett is still at the ready with his whipped cream pies, but nobody's doing anything to deserve them.

For starters, you can't get drilled in the face with a whipped cream pie if you aren't getting game-winning hits — and this team is woefully poor thus far with runners in scoring position (.236 compared to a .250 league average) and with two outs and runners in scoring position (.207 compared to a .225 league average). Yeah, the Yankees are hitting home runs in bunches this year, but when you can't get hits with runners on base, you're not going to win many games.

I give you Wednesday's game with Kansas City as an example. A.J. Burnett did his best Wild Thing Vaughn impression (7 innings, 1 hit, 1 run, 5 walks, 6 strikeouts) and left the game after 7 innings with a lead. I won't mention the bullpen that blew the lead quite yet, but let's look at the offense a little closer. Against Vin Mazzaro, who, in his three-year career has put up a 4.71 career ERA and was making his first start of the season, the Yankees put runners on first and second base with one out or less five times. Out of those five times, the Yankees scored exactly one run. Not exactly the way to put away an overachieving team that's looking for a reason to hang around, right?

Not only are the Yankees not hitting with runners in scoring position, but they're making stupid errors that are coming back to haunt them.

In Thursday's 11-5 loss to the Royals, Ivan Nova wasn't helped by a Robinson Cano error and a passed ball by Russell Martin that directly set the table for two Royals runs. Then, a throwing error on Martin scored another run. Nova should have been out of the inning having only allowed a leadoff home run to Eric Hosmer. Instead, he's facing a 6-0 deficit by the time he gets out of the inning.

Against Detroit on May 5, the Yankees dropped a 6-3 contest in which the first run scored as the result of a throwing error on a pickoff throw by A.J. Burnett and two runs scored on a throwing error by Eduardo Nunez, who was playing in place of Derek Jeter.

Issues in the bullpen haven't helped either. In Burnett's gem against Kansas City, the offense's inability to make contact came back to bite the Yanks when David Robertson blew the save with two walks in two-thirds of an inning. Then, with the game in extra innings, the Yankees put the game in the hands of Buddy Carlyle, who promptly walked three and gave up two runs.

Early in that 2009 season, the Yankees were making a lot of errors before embarking on an 18-game stretch in which they didn't make an error. Ironically, that stretch coincided with the Yankees making a push into first place. Not making errors and not walking people mean you're making people beat you, not handing your opponent games on a silver platter. In 2009, a light-hitting, kind of pudgy centerfielder sparked the Yankees with a series of game-winning hits and clutch defensive plays.

I don't know what will spark the 2011 Yankees — and it sounds like Joe Girardi doesn't either. Maybe, just maybe, inspiration will come from outside his own locker room.

"Maybe we need the Red Sox to come in," Girardi said, according to YESNetwork.com. "Everything seems to get turned up, the coverage, the intensity. The games seem to take on a new flavor. Each at-bat seems to take on a new game of its own. Maybe it is the right time. I don't know. But I know we're capable of playing much better. And we need to start doing that."

Last Week's Record: 3-3. Division Standing Through 35 games: 20-15, second place in the American League East, 1 game behind Tampa Bay.

What I Liked This Week

A.J. Burnett (4-2, 3.38 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 38 strikeouts and 18 walks in 2011) continues to be effectively wild. I can just imagine Russell Martin telling hitters not to dig in too well at the plate because he's not sure where the ball's going when Burnett's pitching. It wouldn't surprise me to see Burnett drill Mr. Met just to send a message. As long as he keeps breathing through his eyelids like lava lizards from the Galapagos Islands, wearing women's underwear underneath his uniform and using his prital eye like Fernando (I really hope anyone reading this has seen Bull Durham right now) I don't really care. With Phil Hughes out and Ivan Nova being a typical 24-year-old pitcher, it's nice to be able to count on Burnett — walks and all.

Curtis Granderson is killing the ball right now. Last week, he hit .304 with 4 home runs and 7 RBI while scoring 7 runs and making at least three highlight reel catches in centerfield. I'm starting to wonder if he shouldn't be hitting higher in the lineup.

Brett Gardner, meanwhile, has righted the ship with another solid week — .400 batting average and 5 runs scored. His season average is up to .260 and his on-base percentage is up to .357, which means maybe Gardner is a viable option to move back to the top of the lineup. I'd still like to see Gardner be able to better use his speed without completely taking the bat out of Derek Jeter's hands, but at least Gardner is on the right track.

What Concerns Me David Robertson: I'm still concerned about Robertson's control problems. In 3.1 innings this week, he walked four more hitters, bringing his season total to 10 in 14 innings. Robertson is still capable of working out of jams, but it's hard to have him pitching in the late innings of a game if you're not sure he's going to throw strikes. With Rafael Soriano hurt/struggling/a giant waste of money thus far and Joba Chamberlain looking more and more like Boss Hogg every day, I'm a little concerned over the Yankees bullpen, and I haven't even mentioned Luis Ayala and Buddy Carlyle.

Guys Coming Back To Earth: Did any of us expect Russell Martin to hit .360 for the season? How about expecting Bartolo Colon to throw shutouts all season? For some players, it's time to readjust your expectations as they come back down to earth, or at least come back to their career norms. Martin fell back to earth with a thud, hitting .083 last week to bring his average down to .255. If he keeps his average there the rest of the year and keeps hitting with a little pop, he's still a useful player. As for Colon, he threw up (or, better yet, made me want to throw up) five runs and 9 hits in 4.1 innings in his last start against Kansas City. His season numbers still look fine, and it could very well be a blip, but don't forget that El Burrito Grande is: A) a big fan of burritos; B) a 37-year-old pitcher who has had major arm surgeries in the last couple of years who really likes burritos; and C) a 37-year-old burrito junkie pitching in the toughest division in baseball. If he gives you 6 innings of 3 run baseball when he pitches, take it and run away from the walking methane cloud that is Bartolo.

Jorge Posada. I'm tired of writing about his offensive struggles. Feel free to click on any of my past blogs about the Yankees in the past three weeks, copy and paste it here and then look at last week's numbers — .214, 1 RBI, 1 run. Do I really have to say more?

What's Coming Up: Three games at home against Boston, two games on the road with Tampa Bay, two games on the road with Baltimore.

 
 

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