September 2, 2012
NEW YORK —
Curtis Granderson and his team-leading 34 home runs left in the second inning for New York Presbyterian Hospital. Tight hamstring was the word.
Plate discipline, late-inning relief, an opponent bending under the weight of a crowd rising to the intensity of a pennant race — some of the hallmarks of the Yankees' championship years under Joe Torre — ensured that the rest of the team did not leave Yankee Stadium with a tight throat.
File this Saturday afternoon under "breathing easier." There's no other way to say it after what amounted to the Yankees' biggest victory of the season and the good news about a precautionary MRI on Granderson.
"Everything's good, just a little tinge," manager Joe Girardi said after the Yankees beat the Orioles 4-3 after a bases-loaded error by the statistically best shortstop in the American League. "[Granderson] had a hard time getting loose. We just thought if he had to make a burst, it could have turned into something not good."
"If he has got a strain, you're looking at a minimum of two weeks and this time of year it's hard to overcome that."
With Alex Rodriguez potentially playing Monday at Tampa Bay for the first time since he suffered a broken bone in his hand in late July, and with Mark Teixeira out at least until Thursday with a calf strain, the loss of Granderson for extended time would have been a source of considerable grief. When the Grandy Man left after trying to check his swing on a third strike against Wei-Yin Chen, wow, that Yankees lineup sure looked old and without pop.
Girardi said he'll check with Granderson before he fills out his lineup, but he might be able to play Sunday. If not, surely within a few days.
"That's really big," Girardi said. "And it's really nice to win. This is the team we have to beat obviously if we want to get where we want to be."
Two words, two air-blocking, cliche-inviting words, have invaded the Bronx in recent days. Surely that bright blue early September sky would have fallen if the Yankees had not erased a three-run deficit to avoid losing for the eighth time in 11 games and seen their AL East lead evaporated to one game.
"No panic," general manager Brian Cashman said before the Yankees played small ball in a three-run seventh inning that led to a big win.
"No panic," Girardi has repeated.
Yes, those two words. There seems to be an insatiable need by reporters, buttressed by angry fans inflamed by radio talk show hosts, to get fading major league clubs to admit they are in full-scale terror. As if they are Janet Leigh in the "Psycho" shower scene.
Over a 162-game marathon — we'll let Paul Ryan give you a precise time on that marathon — the truth is more erosive and corrosive. It is a slow death, not fast fright. The Red Sox' 83-52 first-place lead at the end of August 2011, for instance, dissolved with a torturous 7-20 September. The franchise hasn't been the same since.
This brings us to the Yankees.
Behind rookie Miguel Gonzalez's pitching and Mark Reynolds' hitting Friday night, the Orioles not only silenced the Yankees, 6-1, they had the crowd booing the home team. The Yankees had to be worried. On July 18, they were 23 games above .500 and leading the AL East by 10 games. They were down 3-1 and seven outs away from the Orioles — those surprising Birds of Baltimore — pulling within a heartbeat of the AL East lead.
"Worried's not the right word at all," Cashman said. "We are up against some great competition. We intend to win the division, but you have to play it out."
Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine was on ESPN New York radio the other day. When asked how the Orioles, who are minus-40 in run-differential, could have built such a good season, Valentine, ever prodding, sometimes snarky, couldn't resist.
"Lucky," Valentine said. "You're not good when you have that kind of differential. You have a season with a lot of good breaks."
Two things. 1. Valentine did compliment the Orioles bullpen. 2. The one who is lucky is Bobby V for still having a job after a 20-2 loss Friday night in Oakland left the Red Sox nine games under .500 for the first time since 1997.
That's also the year the Orioles last had a winning record. Yep, Ripken, Palmeiro, Mussina, those guys … it has been a long time.
"There are no Cinderellas in baseball," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said on the radio after Valentine's remark. "You play too many games. All your strengths and weakness show up. I'm sure there's some truth to what Bobby is saying. I certainly wouldn't go out in that clubhouse and say it."
The Orioles entered Saturday 24-6 in one-run games, including 13 straight, and 57-0 when leading after seven innings. That's why they hold a wild card spot right now. That's why the Yankees, despite their cool exterior, feel their hot breath.
Yet here's why the Orioles lost only their seventh one-run game. Although they technically blew this one with two outs in the seventh, this is why they fell.
J.J. Hardy, who had committed only five errors and had a league-best .992 fielding average, allowed the winning run when he fumbled away Nick Swisher's hard, bases-loaded, two-out bouncer.
"I think he's the best shortstop in the league," Showalter said.
Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson, arguably the best closer in baseball right now with 41 saves, have given the Orioles nothing but confidence. Well, they also lost on this day because Strop replaced Chen and walked Ichiro and Derek Jeter to force in the tying run. It was David Robertson and Rafael Soriano who would pitch perfect eight and ninth innings.
Yes, it would be the Orioles who gagged on this day. Steve Pearce replaced Granderson in the order and singled off Chen for his first hit with the Yankees. Eduardo Nunez, recalled from the minors for his first Yankees game since May 10, followed a walk to Jayson Nix with an RBI single.
"[Chen] gave me a couple of good pitches to hit my first two times up, but I was too excited," Nunez said. "In my third at-bat, I told myself don't try to do too much. I was so upset when I was sent down and then I got hurt. It was amazing standing there on first base [after the hit]. I almost cried."
The Yankees have eight more games against the Orioles and Rays coming up. Maybe the slide continues. Or maybe this day, one that had Derek Jeter grinding from a 0-2 count to get a game-tying walk, stems the tide. The Yankees — who lead the majors with 201 homers — won a big game with the small ball.
"An outstanding job grinding out at-bats by our guys in that inning," Girardi said. "And you know Jeets isn't going to panic."
There's that word again.