Commentary

Yankees get down and dirty in Game 1

Bronx Bombers give blue-collar performance in ALCS opener

Updated: October 16, 2010, 10:35 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Once again, we are reminded that the New York Yankees are bluebloods on payday and blue-collar on game day.

On a night in which they easily could have fallen on their $210 million cover-boy faces, they instead belly-flopped their way to a most unlikely victory in Game 1 of the ALCS, dealing the Texas Rangers the kind of blow few teams could recover from.

Although their MVP candidate, Robinson Cano, had a home run, and their $32 million man, Alex Rodriguez, had a key two-run single, and their ace, CC Sabathia, made what turned out to be the play of the game, this victory wasn't the work of the glamour boys on the Yankees' roster.

This one was for the grinders, the retreads, the minimum-wage workers who so often play such an important part in their postseason success.

It was for Brett Gardner, diving head-first into first base to turn a routine ground out into a rally-sparking hit.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
Elsa/Getty ImagesCC Sabathia's diving play in the first inning set the tone ... and saved a run.

It was for Dustin Moseley, surgically repaired and summarily rejected by his previous team, coming in to put a headlock on the Rangers just when it seemed they were about to pin the Yankees to the mat.

It was for Marcus Thames, willing role-player who is now playing the role of his career. And for Kerry Wood, high-priced talent but damaged goods who has come in and exceeded everyone's highest expectations.

And even on a night when Sabathia couldn't seem to get anyone out with his pitches, he still found a way to get a crucial out with his body, taking a flying leap across home plate to complete with Jorge Posada a play at the plate to rival Derek Jeter's famed flip play in the 2001 ALDS.

Not too many $23 million executives are willing to dive into the dirt the way Sabathia did in the first inning of Friday night's game. Royalty generally does not roll around in the gutter.

But that is what sets the Yankees apart from so many other teams in so many other sports, the fact that, despite their bloated paychecks, they still play a baseball game as though it were a street fight.

"I'm never surprised at what our guys can do,'' manager Joe Girardi said after the Yankees, having fallen behind 5-0 after four innings, roared back with a five-run eighth inning to steal Game 1 from the Rangers, 6-5.

By now, it should come as no surprise that, with 48 come-from-behind victories in the regular season and three already in the postseason, these Yankees are like a monster out of a 1940s horror film. You have to chop their heads off, drive a stake through their hearts, stuff the carcass with garlic and burn it to ashes to be sure it's dead.

And still, it may come alive again in the sequel.

They resurrected again in Game 1 and left the Rangers with the kind of nightmare they may not wake up from for the rest of the series.

"We'll go to sleep and come back tomorrow and fight just as hard as we did today,'' said Rangers manager Ron Washington, who played no small role himself in his team's collapse. "Hopefully, we'll get different results.''

But the Rangers really couldn't ask for any more than the Yankees gave them in the first half of this one. Sabathia, coming off eight days of idleness following his lackluster performance in the Yankees' ALDS Game 1 victory over the Minnesota Twins, was even worse in this one. He had no curveball, little life on his fastball, his slider was tantalizingly up in the zone, and he couldn't throw strikes.

He served up a meatball to Josh Hamilton in the first inning and Texas had a 3-0 lead before Sabathia had gotten a single out. Suddenly, the gloomy prospect of needing an A.J. Burnett victory in Game 4 to makes things right again loomed large and menacing.

But then came what Girardi called "maybe the difference in the game,'' a pitch that sailed to the backstop with a runner on third, took an incredibly fortunate bounce off a brick in the foundation, and bounced right back to Posada, who turned to find the 300-plus pounds Sabathia barreling toward home plate.

"When you see him dive like that and he comes up with dirt all over him, you worry,'' Girardi said. "But if there is a collision at home plate, CC is going to win most of them.''

That ended a potentially disastrous first inning at a manageable three runs. But after the Rangers added two more on Michael Young's two-run single in the fourth, things began to look desperate.

That is when the Yankees' bullpen took over. A scoreless inning by Joba Chamberlain, the former golden boy of the bullpen who had not appeared in a game since Oct. 3, was followed by the best pitching of the night, two perfect innings by Moseley, including four strikeouts.

"Just trying to keep it where it's at,'' said Moseley, who got the win. "From the first day I came over here in spring training, that's all they talk about, never giving up. I've seen it all year long and I knew it was a possibility.''

Wood followed Moseley and pitched a scoreless eighth, helped immensely by an Ian Kinsler blunder as he was picked off first base after drawing a leadoff walk.

At that point, with just six outs to play with and four runs to make up, the dirty jersey guys went to work. Gardner's last-second decision to dive into first was probably the difference between a routine ground out and a rally-starting single.

Then Jeter, the original dirty jersey Yankee, delivered the best swing he has shown in a while, turning on a fastball for a double down the left-field line that scored Gardner and chased C.J. Wilson, the Rangers' left-hander who had handcuffed the Yankees through the first seven innings on just four hits.

At that point, Washington began trotting out every arm in his bullpen, each worse than the one that preceded it. Three relievers came in and none could get a single out. Darren Oliver came on and walked his only two batters. Darren O'Day's first pitch was ripped by A-Rod toward third right at Young, who let it by for a two-run single. Clay Rapada faced one batter, Cano, and gave up one hit -- an RBI single that tied the game at 5.

Then Washington brought in another lefty to face Thames, whose only job is to hit lefties. He did his job, singling to left to bring home the go-ahead run.

One Mariano Rivera inning later, the Yankees had a rousing victory on a night that appeared headed for disaster.

In a sense, what happened was what was supposed to happen; the same way the Rangers expect to win both games started by their ace, Cliff Lee, the Yankees went in taking as a given that they would win both of the games started by Sabathia.

On this night, that belief proved to be well-founded, although not for the reasons they figured on nor by the players they expected to deliver it.

For a team dominated by superstars and defined mostly by the size of its payroll, the Yankees still win plenty of games the old-fashioned way.

By getting down and dirty.

GAME NOTES: It was the Yankees' 10th consecutive postseason victory over the Rangers, and the 5-0 deficit was the largest they have ever overcome in an ALCS game. ... The winner of Game 1 has gone on to win 24 of the 40 previous ALCS matchups. ... Jeter also had a double over the head of centerfielder Hamilton in the ninth. His two doubles gave him 29 postseason two-baggers and tied him with Bernie Williams for most in Yankees history. ... Jeter also scored his 100th postseason run, the first player in baseball history to score that many. ... Rivera matched the number on his back with his 42nd career postseason save, again the most in MLB history. ... Saturday's Game 2 matchup: PHP Phil Hughes vs. RHP Colby Lewis. First pitch, 4:07 p.m ET.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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