- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- For a team that leads the major leagues in home runs, the long ball was hardly the story of the Yankees' 12-3 win over the Chicago White Sox on Thursday night.
And for an offense that seemed as dependent on the home run for its scoring as Bernie Madoff was on greed and gullibility for his wealth, only three of those 12 runs were the result of a ball leaving the park.
But for one Yankee in particular, the home run was not just important, it was vital, if only for his mental health.
"I think it really started eating at me," Nick Swisher said, "when Gardy started to go deep. I said, 'Damn, I better hurry up.'"
He was smiling when he said it, but the smile had the look of a rictus, the frozen, joyless grin of a dead man. After all, how would you feel if, like Swisher, a man who had averaged 26 homers a year for the past six years, you had to endure Brett Gardner, of all people, asking you, "So, how many home runs you got so far this year?"
The answer, of course, was zero, and it only made it worse that Gardner, with just eight home runs in his entire career coming into this season, had hit his third in the fifth inning of Thursday night's game, the hit that sparked a six-run, 22-minute inning.
"I've been worrying about it," Swisher admitted. "I've been trying to hit it for a week now."
And he certainly was trying to hit it in the third inning when he came to bat with the bases loaded after White Sox starter Edwin Jackson, working on the sloppiest no-hitter imaginable, had walked the three hitters ahead of him. The count went to 3-0 on Swisher and then 3-1. There would be no better time than now to, as he put it, "rip the monkey off my back" by not only going yard, but grand salami yard. So as the 3-1 came in, there was Swisher, corkscrewing his body and trying to hit the ball not only out of the park but over the Bronx County Courthouse.
Problem was, the pitch was down around his shoetops, and predictably enough, he missed it. Badly. "Oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely, I can't lie to you guys," Swisher said when asked about it after the game. "I definitely tried to do it on a ball that bounced before it hit the plate."
But after taking his shot, Swisher rediscovered his self-discipline and his eye, letting the 3-2 go by to draw a walk that forced in the first run of the game. There would be other 3-1 pitches to hack at. In fact, there would be another four innings later, when the argument had already been settled, and this time, Swisher used what he calls his line-drive swing, and what do you know?
This time, he hit a towering fly ball that hugged the right-field line and landed in the second deck of the stands just inside the foul pole. After 20 games, 6 2/3 innings and 75 at-bats, Nick Swisher's long national nightmare was over.
"I'm happy for him," said Gardner, who dresses two lockers away from Swisher, or well within heckling distance. "I wasn't really busting on him, just, you know, trying to motivate him. It's not just me and him. We all do that to each other here to make each other better."
Earlier, Swisher had snapped an 0-for-19 hitless streak with a single in that six-run fifth, but even though his average had dipped to .206 after a first-inning ground out, it was the power outage that was really gnawing away at him.
He had been out on the field with hitting coach Kevin Long taking early BP before Wednesday's game, trying, as Long put it, to "quiet" some of the extraneous movement that had crept into his left-handed swing, a direct result, both believed, of his effort to try to pack extra power into a swing that had never needed it before.
With a heavy pregame thunderstorm canceling batting practice Thursday, Long and Swisher took their drills into the indoor cage. And even though Swisher had joked before Wednesday's game, "I know I'm not going to not hit any homers this year," he said it with that same pained grin that told you he half-believed maybe he wouldn't.
But there was nothing forced or phony about Swisher's grin after the game Thursday night. "I feel great. I've been busting my tail with K-Long and really trying to get back where I know it should be," he said. "Tonight, my approach was really just trying to hit line drives back up the box, and I felt like I'm really starting to see the ball a little better."
He spoke about "total team efforts" and "situational hitting" and the beauty of being able to score without getting a base hit, as the Yankees did for the first two runs of the game. But it was clear that there also was a real sense of relief at having shed the longest homerless streak of his career, and maybe even some satisfaction at doing it in front of Ozzie Guillen and the White Sox, which happened to be Nick Swisher's most recent manager and employer previous to his joining the Yankees two seasons ago.
The tenure wasn't happy and the parting less than amicable, and although Swisher generally declines to discuss it in any detail, the look on his face after the game said it all.
"Nothing special," he said. "Just trying to do my job."
He was grinning so hard it seemed as if his face might crack. He had put on quite a show, for his team, for his ex-manager and for himself.
Now all he needs to do is catch up to Brett Gardner.
NOTES: CC Sabathia (2-1) worked out of a first-inning jam -- two runners on, none out and the heart of the White Sox order coming up -- with the help of a huge defensive play by Alex Rodriguez, who snagged Carlos Quentin's grounder to third and in one uninterrupted motion smoothly threw home to nail Brent Lillibridge with Russell Martin blocking the plate. Lillibridge, of course, is the Chicago reserve outfielder whose two outstanding plays in right field, one on A-Rod's drive to the wall, the other on Robinson Cano's sinking liner, preserved Chicago's 3-2 victory Tuesday night. Sabathia worked seven innings, allowed seven hits and three runs, all unearned due to Eduardo Nunez's seventh-inning error, his second of the game. ... Gardner, who has been mired in an even worse slump than Swisher, had a double in addition to his home run. ... Curtis Granderson had his second triple of the year in the fifth inning. ... When the Yankees had nine straight hitters reach base in the fifth inning, it was the first time they had done it since July 13, 2002 at Cleveland. ... Sabathia's career record against the White Sox is now 17-4, a winning percentage of .810. ... Freddy Garcia (1-0, 0.69) takes the mound against LHP Ricky Romero (1-3, 3.00) in the opener of a three-game home series against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday. First pitch, 7:05 p.m. ET.
Nick Swisher's home run Thursday was vital, if only for his mental health.