Guidry nearly blows Yanks’ lead

All is right in Yankeeland because Mariano Rivera got Jim Thome to ground out to second for the final out of the game, preserving the 7-6 for the Yankees in a game that started with previously-struggling Randy Johnson no-hitting the powerful White Sox lineup through six innings, earning the team a split of the first two games of this three-game set.  But that doesn’t eliminate the unnecessary drama caused by poor decision making in the Yankee dugout in the seventh inning, which can all be pinned on one man.

It took about ten minutes for Randy Johnson to go from dominating the White Sox’ lineup to struggling and unable to work out of a jam.  And it’s all Ron Guidry’s fault.

Why is it Ron Guidry’s fault?  Well for starters, it can’t be Randy Johnson’s fault.  He pitched a tremendous game, carrying a no-hitter through six innings, and had to sit through a long rest while the Yankees scored two in their half of the inning.  So if it’s not Johnson’s fault, the blame lies with the team management, with the people who make the in-game substitutions.

But I can’t blame it on Joe Torre because I’m familiar with his work.  I knew long before last night’s game that Joe Torre can’t handle a pitching staff, especially in this type of situation.  I know that Joe Torre must think that a pitcher can’t experience a mental let-down after surrendering a no-hitter late, that the mental part of the game is a myth.  I know that Joe Torre’s thought process as Johnson struggled in the seventh must have gone something like this: he’s in the seventh; he just had a long rest and is probably a little tight; he just gave up the no-hitter and probably just wants to be done with his night; he’s really struggling and we’re potentially one big swing away from being in a fight for what is now a must-win; Ron Villone is warm and ready to go in the bullpen; in addition to our regular offensive injuries, we’re also without Johnny Damon and Jason Gaimbi; ah, what the heck, let’s leave him in there.

So if I can’t blame Joe Torre, I have to blame Ron Guidry.  I have to blame Ron Guidry for not knowing what I know about Joe Torre.  I have to blame Ron Guidry for not grabbing Torre, giving him a smack in the side of the head, and saying to him, "It’s my pitching staff, and I’m taking him out."

As it turned out, Jermaine Dye — the first batter to come to the plate after the point where it was completely apparant that Johnson was done — almost delivered that big shot, but his blast hit the right field wall to score one run instead of going over to score three, which would have cut the Yankee lead to 7-4 in the bottom of the seventh.  If that had happened, the White Sox’ four-run outburst in the bottom of the eighth would have given them an 8-7 win instead of leaving them a run short of tying the game.

It wasn’t until after Dye’s double that the Yankees finally called on Villone, who was wild early but eventually retired the side without allowing another run to preserve the Yankees’ 7-2 lead.

Even though Joe Crede’s three-run homerun in the eighth inning made it a 7-6 game, which meant that that "throw-away" seventh inning could have resulted in a completely different outcome, it turned out all right for the Yankees, but they shouldn’t have had to rely on Ron Villone working out of a two-on, no out jam — which then became a bases loaded, no out jam — and Mariano Rivera getting four outs to do it.

Looking back, this is why many Yankee fans wanted the living legend Leo Mazzone to serve as the pitching coach for this team instead of the rookie Ron Guidry.  It had nothing to do with a lack of knowledge or a lack of teaching ability.  It had to do with experience and the confidence that goes along with it.  Where Guidry might feel a need to acquiesce to Torre, Mazzone has the confidence to do what he feels best.  In any close race for the Yankee pitching coach, it’s never a bad idea to go with the guy who will keep Joe Torre as far away as possible.

Maybe Ron Guidry last night, by failing to take the reigns from Joe Torre, hurt his starting pitcher’s psyche by allowing him to get banged around and pulling him on a bad note, and maybe he indirectly put extra strain on Mariano Rivera, who had to come in to get four outs to save what was once a 7-0 seventh inning lead.  But let’s ignore that and, since the Yankees held onto the lead and won the game, call it no harm, no foul.  But consider this your warning, Guidry.  Now you’ve seen how Joe (mis)handles a pitching staff, so there’s no excuse.  I expect this error to be corrected immediately.


Comeback Cano

It was a desperate attempt last year when the Yankees called up two relatively unheralded rookies to try to turn around what had been a dismal season to that point.  No one knows whether or not that move actually righted the Yankees’ seemingly sinking ship, but it was just around that time that the Bronx Bombers rebounded.

Just a little over a year later, pitcher Chien-Ming Wang has emerged as arguably the ace of the staff, and Robinson Cano is the starting second baseman.  Tonight in Chicago, Cano will make his return from the Disabled List, where he spent the past few weeks recovering from an injured hamstring.

Last year, no one even knew how to pronounce his name, but now he’s a .325 hitter.  He opened up the eyes of Yankee fans last year, and this year he picked up right where he left off — at least until he tweaked the hammy in late June.  And now he’s (supposedly) healthy and ready to reclaim his spot from Miguel Cairo.  Cairo is a perfect fit for the Yankee bench, and he’s capable of filling in for a while, as he did during Cano’s recent absence, but he’s not an everyday player.  Miguel Cairo is a newer version of Luis Sojo; he’s a nice part-time player and he seems like a great clubhouse guy, but he just doesn’t contribute what Cano does on a daily basis.

Still, most Yankee fans would be hard pressed to articulate exactly what makes Cano — aside from his batting average, which the sabermatricians will tell you doesn’t mean that much anyway — so good.  He doesn’t hit for a ton of power, hitting just four homeruns in 271 at-bats so far this season after clubbing 14 in his rookie year last year.  He doesn’t walk much at all, which really could be called his big weak spot, but he has improved in that area this year.  He doesn’t have a lot of speed, stealing just four bags in his career while being caught five times.  He doesn’t play even play spectacular defense and, although he makes some nice plays every once in a while, probably won’t be considered for a Gold Glove anytime soon.

But still, there’s just something about Robinson Cano that makes him a solid big league ballplayer, capable of starting for a top-tier team like the Yankees, and one of the better second basemen in the league.

Maybe it’s because he’s everything that Alfonso Soriano wasn’t.  Maybe it’s because, despite the lack of power and speed, he’s an intelligent, consistent player who comes through when it counts and does the little things that help the team win.  Maybe it’s because, even though he’ll never come close to a 40/40 season, he might just come up with a big hit in the playoffs instead of setting a record for the most strikeouts in a single postseason.  Maybe it’s because, even though he won’t hit a ton of homeruns, he probably won’t end up with a single after watching a deep fly ball bounce off the outfield fence.  Maybe it’s because he probably won’t get picked off of first base when he represents the tying run in the eighth inning.

Maybe it’s because Cano is a battler.  Maybe it’s because Cano is a little different from the guys who have failed to win a World Championship in each of the past five seasons.  Maybe it’s because, even though Cano doesn’t have the ability of A-Rod, he has the heart, and the knack for a clutch hit, of a Scott Brosius, the makeup of those guys who did bring back title after title after title.

Maybe it’s not even what he is now, but rather the promise of what he will become that makes Robinson Cano such a fan favorite in the borrough of the Bronx.  He won’t ever be A-Rod, but there’s no reason that he can’t be an infield version of Paul O’Neill, another guy who wasn’t great at anything but good at everything, a "warrior" in the words of George Steinbrenner.  Cano is holding his own in the American League East — where he faces pitchers like Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, and Scott Kazmir — and he won’t turn 24 years old until December.  And the Yankee lineup is one of the few in baseball that can allow a player like Cano to hide.  While he would be hitting in a power spot in the Devil Rays’ order, Cano is just one of nine in the Yankee lineup.  It’s not often that being in New York reduces pressure, but the criticism of losses will fall on other, more highly-paid players — one in particular — which allows Robinson to fly under the radar, making it easier to reach the full potential that seems so great.

The eventual returns of Hideki Matsui and maybe even Gary Sheffield will probably be marked with more fireworks than Cano’s will be tonight.  In Cano, the Yankees aren’t getting an M.V.P. candidate, a defensive whiz, or a speedster.  What they are getting is someone who does everything well, a gamer who is great for a contending team now and could very well emerge as a leader of this team in the not-so-distant future.

The lure of the most modern Yankee dynasty was the lack of a superstar and the core of home-grown ballplayers.  While this team certainly won’t be devoid of superstars, Cano certainly fits the bill for the second criteria.  Once upon a time, it was Jeter and Bernie and Andy and Mo and even Jorge.  In a few years, when those guys are on their way out, it could very easily be Wang and Cano and maybe even Melky.  Perhaps it will even be Hughes and Cox and Tabata and Gardner.

But right now, it’s Cano and Rodriguez and Jeter and Giambi and Abreu and Damon and Wang and Johnson and Rivera.

And they’re gunning for World Championship number 27.

What Sheff brings to the table is a key ingridient for the Boss

The Yankees hold a $13 million option on (former) right fielder Gary Sheffield for the 2007 season, and although the acquisition of Bobby Abreu from the Philadelphia Phillies seemed to signal the end of Sheffield’s tenure in the Bronx, the team may exercise that option, according to the New York Post, with the intent to trade the veteran.

Such a move would offer several benefits over letting Sheff become a free agent.  Not only would the player or players received in a trade likely be better than whatever draft pick compensation the team would receive, but General Manager Brian Cashman would be able to control, at least partially, where Sheffield winds up.  A Gary Sheffield on the free agent market might quickly become a Gary Sheffield playing his home games in Fenway Park, whereas a trade can keep him away from Boston, at least initially.

The biggest advantage of picking up the option, however, is the potential for the Yankees to then keep Sheffield.  New outfielder Bobby Abreu is a nice player, no doubt, and an on-base machine.  But he’s no Gary Sheffield.

At 38 years of age — 39 in mid-November — Sheffield has a lot of injury concerns, but that’s where the trepidation ends.  Taking out the injury-shortened 2006 season, Sheffield is still one of the most ferocious hitters in the game today.

Yes, his numbers dropped steadily since 2003, when he was with the Atlanta Braves — all the way down to 34 homeruns, a .379 On-Base Percentage, and a .512 Slugging Percentage, all of which were good enough to land Sheffield in the top five among American League outfielders in those categories.

Yes, Sheffield would have two years and a significant injury added onto those 2005 numbers, but he would also be in the Designated Hitter role for the first time in his career, a move that should keep him healthier and fresher than he’s been in years.

A 2007 Yankee lineup that includes Sheffield would have no holes whatsoever, not one easy out.  As long as he has been the principal owner of the Yankees, General George M. Steinbrenner, III has envisioned a lineup of nine All-Stars.  With the lineup that is being discussed, that stops being a dream and becomes a reality.

Steinbrenner has already had lineups that consisted of nine previous All-Stars, but those were the days when Raul Mondesi was in right field.  In 2007, however, not only will every player in the starting lineup have at least one All-Star selection under his belt, counting Robinson Cano’s selection this season, but each hitter will also have a legitimate chance of being an All-Star in that particular season.

Think about it.  Yankee fans are talking about a starting lineup in which Robinson Cano — who has posted a .353 On-Base Percentage in 271 at-bats so far this season — could very well be the easiest out.

Projecting this year’s team to next year, that 2007 team would have a bench — Sal Fasano, Craig Wilson, Miguel Cairo, Bernie Williams, and Melky Cabrera — that could start for some other teams around Major League Baseball.

Could Melky Cabrera step into the Yankee lineup and continue, or perhaps even improve on, his performance this season?  Sure, but that’s not the Boss’ Dream Team.  Previously thought of as a fourth or fifth outfielder on a bad team, Cabrera proved this season that he can start for most teams in baseball and that he can hold his own on the Yankee roster.  Oh, but the criteria for the Boss’ Dream Team is much higher than that.  Sorry, Melky.  Better luck next year.  But who are we kidding?  Cabrera at his best this season, even with the extra points for being home-grown, as much as we love him, is no Gary Sheffield, and he probably never will be.

Would the team be better overall if the defense was improved by having Craig Wilson or even Andy Phillips at first base with Jason Giambi as the DH?  Sure, but the Boss’ Dream Team doesn’t account for defense.  The bats are what counts, and neither Wilson nor Phillips can hold a candle to Giambi in the batter’s box.  One of those guys, Wilson in particular, can have a spot on the bench and can spell Giambi, who can DH, pushing Sheffield to the outfield on those days, but Steinbrenner’s Dream Team has no room for a Craig Wilson or an Andy Phillips in the starting lineup.

And does defense really matter anyway?  That lineup can more than compensate for whatever it lacks in the field.  If Jason Giambi makes an error in the field that leads to a run, he can easily make up for it by hitting a homerun when he steps up.  And if he can’t, his fellow lefty sluggers Hideki Matsui and Bobby Abreu can.  Or maybe it will be the right handed sluggers Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield.  Perhaps it would be the switch-hitter Jorge Posada to make up the difference.  Even the "no power" guys — Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Johnny Damon — have been known to hit a clutch homer at times.

A brand new stadium won’t be enough for Steinbrenner’s legacy.  He has to leave the Yankee fans with at least one more World Championship.  And even that can’t be done in any way.  It has to be done with the greatest offense ever built, and that requires keeping Gary Sheffield.

The pitching staff, however, is another story.