Saturday, June 13, 2009

Why The Yankees Need Texiera

There is no question that the New York Yankees signed Mark Texiera for his outstanding bat and his superb fielding skills. This is a quality player who has been very consistent over the years and shows no sign of being anything else for a long time. That, however, is not where the real value of Tex lies. In addition to being a gifted athlete, Texiera is the guy who shows us what giving 100% really means.

In last night's game against the New York Mets, the game was won by Mark Texiera. Not by A-Rod's pop-up nor Luis Catillo's ill-fated drop. One of the slowest guys on the team scores from first base on a shallow pop-up to the second baseman. There was a lot of ground to cover and by all means the routine play looked like a sure game ender to put the Yankees away. Like every kid is taught in little league, the play is not over until it's over and Texiera took a good jump off first and kept running, despite the 99.9% chance that A-Rod was making the final out. Not looking up from the baseline, Tex continued to hustle with his head down, running the bases just like every other time. When he approached third and saw Robby Thompson waving him home, he was surprised to say the least and the adrenaline kicked in as he sprinted toward and slid into home.

In contrast, Alex Rodriguez saw where his ball was going, concluded that he was going to be out and his team would lose and doggedly trotted to first after throwing and breaking his bat in frustration. In a game at Fenway a few nights ago, David Ortiz convinced himself that a deep fly ball was going to be caught and barely jogged to first when instead it was dropped, leaving Ortiz so far behind that he had to settle for a single instead of a sure double. I can't count the number of times over the year when guys didn't even bother running to first after a sure out, only to have the ball mis-played but then quickly thrown out because of their lack of running.

Mark Texiera has always been known as one of the good guys. A hard worker who keeps his nose clean and sets a good example for those around him. Teammates, take notice. Aspiring young baseball players, take notice. Anyone with a love of the game, take notice.

Rodriguez's own "I'm too good for this game" strut was a sad display compared to Texiera's "Giving it my all on every play" hustle. Thank you Mark Texiera for showing us what it really means to be a star and how this game is supposed to be played.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Texiera Comes Alive - Thanks to A-Rod or Tino?

Mark Texiera has come on strong lately, scoring runs, driving in runs, hitting home runs and basically acting like the player everyone knew he was. The question is, what happened?

The emotional answer is that Texiera loosened up a bit and got out of his mental funk after a brief discussion with Yankee great Tino Martinez. Tino has been on salary with the Yankees as a special consultant, which basically means that when the Yanks need him, he stops by and gives some advice and pep talks. At the start of the Twins series, Tino did just that and had a little chat with Texiera. Shortly afterward, Tex started hitting.

The more scientific answer is that pitchers approached Texiera differently when A-Rod came back in the lineup right behind him. Walking Texiera was no longer as attractive of an option with Rodriguez backing him up. Instead of throwing a lot of balls hoping to get Tex to chase, pitchers had to put more pitches over the plate to challenge him more and being a good hitter, Tex took advantage of the situation. Texiera himself said that since A-Rod has come back, he’s been seeing a lot better pitches to hit.

So which is it? A little veteran advice to pop him out of a mental funk or the presence of an all-star backing Tex up in the lineup? Personally, I think it’s both. The easy answer is to say yeah, he’s getting better pitches with Rodriguez in the lineup but there is more to it than that. A-Rod has been back for a while and when he first came back there was no noticeable difference in Texiera. Sure, once Alex started hitting better he probably changed the way pitchers thought about Tex, no doubt, but hitting in baseball is all about being in the right frame of mind. A little too much tension, being a little out of synch or being slightly off with your timing can kill a good hitter and cause a downward spiral of performance anxiety of a sort. Never underestimate the value of a good pep talk to put a guy in a different state of mind and drastically change his performance.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Small Ball Paying Off

One thing Joe Girardi is doing that I like is trying to get this team to manufacture runs. Paying small ball, getting guys on base, advancing the runners then driving in runs is something that you don’t often see in the power-hitting American league.

When Joe Torre took over as Yankees manager a years ago, there was a fundamental shift in the team’s playstyle, which they slowly got away from over the years. When Girardi took over, the term “small ball” started popping up again, but at times it still seemed sporadic. Watching the series against the Twins really brought this to my attention again, and it’s a good thing.

Ideally, with no outs, you get someone on base with either a hit or a walk and then they steal second. A sacrifice bunt can advance the runner over to third, now with one out. At this point a decent drive into the outfield will score a run even if it’s caught for an out. Get runners on base, move them into scoring position, drive them home.

It sounds easy enough to do but can be tough.  Bunting takes practice and discipline, and a big ego needs to take a back seat to a smart play. Always swinging for the fences doesn’t jive well with trying to get on base or advance the runner. Having speed on the bases is often overlooked in today’s game and besides Brett Gardner, is rather lacking on the Yankees roster.

If you can do it though, putting up a run is always a good thing. Think of all the games where the Yanks have gone scoreless until the 7th, 8th or 9th inning, or ended up going to extra innings. How much of a difference would one extra run make in those instances. It can definitely boost a team’s confidence early on. A run is a run, but a manufactured run can be more encouraging for a team than a solo home run because it’s a group effort – a bunch of guys chipping in and doing their part, rather than just one guy crushing one out of the park.

Lastly, to me it just feels like baseball. Hitting, running, stealing, bunting, driving the ball deep all make me stand up and say “Now that’s how you play the game!”

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Damon Bails Out Gardner

The Yankees earned their 3rd straight walk off win thanks to a 10th inning homer from Johnny Damon. Despite all the cheers from the fans in attendance, you could still hear the sigh of relief coming from Brett Gardner.

In the bottom of the 9th, sitting on 2nd base, Francisco Cervelli dropped one down to the right causing Twins catcher Joe Mauer to come up and field the ball. Cervelli would have beat out the throw and so Mauer held on. Brett made the turn at third and was tagged out by Mauer at home. If Gardner had help up, the Yankees would have had 1st and 3rd with 1 out. Robbie Cano popped deep into left and would have scored a tagging Gardner for the win. Instead, we went to extra innings.

There’s no room for stupid in the bottom of the 9th. Yankees 3rd base coach Rob Thompson clearly called for Brett to hold up at 3rd. You have to love young guys with enthusiasm, but there’s a fine line between being eager for a win and costing your team a victory. In the end, Johnny Damon made it all a moot point, but Girardi still needs to have a talk with Gardner.

That play aside, hats off to the Yankee bullpen. Tomko, Aceves and Rivera all were sharp. Burnett struggled at times, but gave up very few runs and lasted deep in the game. Albaladejo made things interesting, loading up the bases, but afterward Yankees pitching was lights out. In a tie game, late innings, the bullpen pitched extremely well in a high pressure situation. Given enough balls to swing at, the offense is going to produce a run eventually and the bullpen bought the team enough time to do it.

Aceves, Tomko, and Coke are the go-to guys in the bullpen right now in my book. Albaladejo is streaky and Veras and Ramirez are dangerous (Farnsworth type dangerous). Let’s see what Girardi does in the future once Bruney comes back. Hopefully he’ll stick with what’s currently working. I’d like to see Melancon back in the majors also, giving him some more big league experience.

This was another big win for the Yankees, who now have a nice win streak going, and have given the home town fans some memorable moments in the new stadium. Hopefully they can keep it up and do even better once guys start coming off the DL.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Injuries Mount Up

Derek Jeter was out of the lineup and Matsui had to leave the game. Every injury hurts with this team, which has been behind the injury eight ball for most of the season.

The Baltimore series was a bit of a pick-me-up as “two out of three aint bad”. Halladay just had much better stuff than Burnett, who wasn’t sharp but and the lack of run support didn’t help matters any.

Yankee pitchers still haven’t found their groove. Chamberlain has posted the best ERA so far, but lately he’s been getting shelled in the first inning before he settles down. Sabathia is getting better, Pettitte is solid but Burnett has been an enigma. At times his stuff looks wicked, but in the end, he just doesn’t get results.

This is a team that needs to stay healthy. There are a lot of guys who can hit the ball but it seems virtually impossible for the Yankees to get them all on the field on the same day. RISP performance also kills this team. 1 for 5 tonight and the Yankees are currently one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to driving in runs.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with pitching. Phil Hughes can’t pitch in NY. He had one good game and then he’s back to his old tricks. Last year we blamed it on a stress fracture in a rib but so far I haven’t heard any excuses for this years abysmal outings. It could very well be that guys like Burnett and Sabathia have peaked or just can’t adjust to the pressures of pitching in NY. They wouldn’t be the first superstars who couldn’t make it in the Big Apple.

This team is in shambles right now. Starting pitching, relief pitching and offense is all struggling. Until everyone starts stepping up and doing their job, and getting healthy again, this is a .500 team for the duration of the season.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Things Are Getting Ugly

The injuries keep piling up. Here's my brief list

Closer - Rivera
Set up man - Bruney
Lefty specialist - Marte
Number 2 pitcher - Wang
Catcher - Posada
Backup catcher - Molina
Right fielder - Nady
3rd baseman - Rodriguez
Backup 3rd baseman - Ransom

A-Rod should be back today. Let's also not forget other guys who have not been 100% but haven't missed a lot of time like Mark Texiera.

With this many injuries to so many key positions - the biggest bat on the team, the greatest closer of all time, the decade's leading offensive catcher, it's no wonder the team is below .500 and far out of first place.

Still, all things considered, this is the Yankees and fans (who were spoiled by the success of the late 90s and early 00s) expect more from a team, even one riddled with injury.

There's still hope. When A-Rod comes back the offense should pick up. Texiera will find his stride before long and hopefully the starting rotation will settle in a bit more. Then again Nick Swisher is fading, Damon and Jeter and mandy others are getting old and finally there really aren't any bright spots in the bullpen.

Losing Posada and Molina could be very troublesome. Posada has a devastating bat and Molina has a great arm. Both know the pitchers well and have plenty of big league experience. Anyone brought up to fill in will be a young, unproven talent which is not what a struggling pitching staff needs at the moment.

Injuries aren't the fault of the manager, but it's his responsibility to keep everyone at the top of their game. If a guy isn't performing well, it's about 70% the fault of the player and 30% the fault of the manager. I've called for Girardi to be fired and I stand by that. It won't happen anytime soon though. There aren't any suitable replacements ready to fill in mid-season. Toward the end of the year, if the Yankees are doing poorly, Girardi will be canned and an interim coach named. If the team is still in contention, the firing won't come until after the season. If the team makes the post season and does well in the fall, Girardi could still save his job.

The season is still young and there is a lot of time for the Yankees to find their rythm and hit their stride. Then again, that's what most of us were saying all of last season. I try looking for the silver lining in this cloud, but lately all I'm seeing is an old team of overpriced veterans failing to live up to expectations. Par for the course with a New York franchise.

So what do we have to look forward to? A-Rod coming back is big. Hopefully Posada is just out for the short term and will return. With both Alex and Jorge in the lineup, the offense should start tacking on a lot more runs. You just have to believe that Sabathia and Texiera will start playing better. Even if they don't live up to their star potential, it's almost certain they will elevate their games from the pitiful point they are now. The bullpen is a big questionmark and no one, including Rivera, can be relied upon. If the starting rotation gets on track then hopefully the bullpen will be used less and less and this won't be such a big issue. Upcoming series like the one against the Orioles can go a long way to boosting a team's confidence and may provide the spark the Bombers need.