After dropping the first two games of the season to the division rival Rays, the Yankees entered today’s game looking to avoid a sweep. To stave off humiliation, the Yankees turned to the new and hopefully improved Phil Hughes, who took on Tampa’s youngster Jeremy Hellickson. It was the first start of what will be a very important season for Hughes, and this was his first opportunity to flash his improved changeup. Much of the pre-game discussion centered around the Rays’ extensive use of infield shifts to stymie Yankee batters, spawning many stupid puns on twitter and plenty of praise for Joe Maddon’s hipster-esque disregard of conventional baseball strategy.
The Yankee lineup featured several changes from the first two games, including the deployment of slow-footed Raul Ibanez in right field (perhaps Nick Swisher‘s groin was bothering him) and Chris Stewart behind the plate. Several of Joe Girardi’s decisions from the last two games have been called into question and at times ridiculed, and playing Ibanez (he of the -21.8 UZR last year) in the outfield invited further scrutiny.
Things got off to a rocky start for Girardi and the Yankees in the bottom of the 1st. After retiring the 1st 2 batters, Hughes gave up a double to Evan Longoria, who has come out of the gates on fire. Hughes looked to be out of trouble when Matt Joyce hit a broken-bat blooper to right, but Ibanez got a late break and was unable to make a sliding catch. Instead, the ball went by him, and if not for backup by Granderson, Joyce could have ended up with an inside-the-park home run.
There is not much doubt in my mind that a healthy Nick Swisher makes the catch on that play, and Ibanez’s miscue confirmed doubts about Ibanez’s ability to play the outfield. Fortunately for the Yankees, Phil Hughes was able to retire Ben Zobrist to limit the damage, but the Yankees were once again trailing in the beginning of the game.
Hughes and Hellickson both held the opposition scoreless in the 2nd, until the Rays got to Hughes once again in the 3rd. This time it was Carlos Pena, who was a thorn in the Yankees’ side the entire series. Hughes got ahead in the count 0-2, but was unable to put Pena away (sound familiar?), and Pena made him pay by stroking a solo shot to right field.
The Yankees looked like they were in position to strike back when Alex Rodriguez drew a walk with 1 out in the 4th. Mark Teixeira followed, crushing a double to right that just missed being a home run (and quite possibly would have been in the Bronx), advancing Rodriguez to 3rd. Nick Swisher got ahead in the count but was unable to make Hellickson pay, popping up a very hittable 89 MPH fastball to 3rd. Ibanez, hoping to redeem himself for his 1st-inning misplay, hit a deep fly to center that the speedy Desmond Jennings ran down, and once again the Yankees came up empty with runners in scoring position.
Hughes worked himself into a bit of a jam in the 5th, and once again Carlos Pena was responsible. With 2 outs and on an 0-2 count, Pena crushed a hanging changeup deep to right that initially looked like a home run, but was ruled a ground-rule double because a fan reached over the fence. Hughes walked the dangerous Longoria, bringing up Matt Joyce with a chance to break the game open. Hughes’ high pitch count for the game (nearing 100) and Joyce’s sharp platoon splits prompted Girardi to call for reinforcements, summoning Twitter fan favorite Boone Logan to extricate the Yankees from this sticky situation. Logan delivered, fanning Joyce on 4 straight sliders, and keeping it a 2-run game.
The Yankees mounted another rally in the 6th, as A-Rod hit a 2-out double and Teixeira walked. However, Swisher once again came up short in a key situation, striking out on 4 Hellickson fastballs. Boone Logan went back to work in the 6th, retiring the 1st two batters before surrendering a solo shot to Jeff Keppinger. While Logan historically has been much more hittable against righties, he looked to be cruising, and I understand Girardi’s decision to leave him in to face Keppinger (not normally considered a power threat). Keppinger’s homer increased Tampa’s lead to 3, which loomed large given the Yankees’ failure to come through with runners in scoring position.
Hellickson continued to cruise, and the Yankees could not mount much in the way of a rally in the 7th and the 8th. Cory Wade retired the Rays in the 7th, before getting into trouble in the 8th, and was relieved by Clay Rapada and later David Phelps. Phelps, making his major league debut, recorded his first career strikeout and induced a groundout to keep the deficit at 3.
The 9th offered the Yanks their final opportunity to get on the scoreboard. Hellickson retired Rodriguez on a flyout and Teixeira on a groundout before walking Swisher. Rather than giving Hellickson another opportunity to complete the game, Joe Maddon turned to his closer, Fernando Rodney, to earn a 1-out save. Rodney succeeded in his attempt, as Ibanez grounded out, giving the Rays a 3-game series sweep.
In what was a lackluster performance by the Yankees, there were not many bright spots. Phil Hughes put together an encouraging outing, albeit one ended prematurely due to pitch counts and inefficiency. Overall, Hughes pitched 4 2/3 innings, giving up 2 runs on 5 hits and 2 walks, while fanning 5.
Hughes was consistently in the low-90′s with his fastball, getting as high as 94. However, he didn’t have great command of the pitch, often missing the target by significant margins. Despite the shaky command, he was able to blow high fastballs by a number of Tampa hitters. Hughes’ changeup was featured prominently in the early going, and the pitch showed some nice fade. Hughes was confident enough to use the pitch in fastball counts several times, which was an encouraging sign. He also worked in his curveball later in the game, breaking off a few good ones but also a few flat, loopy ones.
Overall, it was a game where the Yankees had their chances to score, but weren’t able to get the big hit. They were able to make good contact, but the ball ended up going directly to the well-positioned Tampa infield. Ibanez’s fielding miscues and the 2 solo shots certainly didn’t help. To give credit where credit is due, Hellickson pitched a great game, mixing his pitches well and locating his fastball on the corners to stymie the Yankee hitters. Hopefully Ibanez’s right-field misadventures will remind Joe Girardi that Ibanez is a terrible outfielder, and shouldn’t be getting regular playing time at the position (I’m hoping he was only playing there because of Swisher’s groin). If this means calling up another outfielder like Chris Dickerson (since Justin Maxwell was lost on waivers to the Astros) or starting Andruw Jones against a righty, so be it, but I really don’t want to see Ibanez out there on a regular basis.
After a rough 3 games in Tampa, the upcoming series against the Baltimore Orioles should be just what the doctor ordered. I will be in attendance for the first game tomorrow night (if anyone has food recommendations, feel free to leave them in the comments), and hopefully the Yankees will look better than they have the past few days. Ivan Nova will take the hill, looking to quiet concerns about his rough spring training and stop the Yankees’ slide. There are going to be people (and pot-stirring bloggers/journalists) already concerned about the state of the Yankees and questioning Joe Girardi’s managing, but the bottom line is there are still 159 games to go.
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