Commentary

Behold, the Yankees jugger ... NOT

Scoring is long shot on nights when Bombers aren't repeatedly hitting the long ball

Updated: May 21, 2011, 10:12 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Through the first 43 games of the 2011 season, the New York Yankees lead the American League in home runs, runs scored, slugging percentage, walks, total bases and, until Friday night, on-base percentage.

In other words, just about every category that is necessary to make a baseball team into an offensive juggernaut.

And yet, in 18 of those 43 games, the Yankees have been unable to score more than four runs. They already have been shut out four times, and in those 18 games in which they scored four runs or fewer, their record is 5-13.

Perhaps they should change that Sinatra record that plays after each game from "New York, New York" to something more appropriate: "All or Nothing at All."

Because something about this team, and more precisely, this offense, just doesn't add up.

[+] EnlargeRussell Martin
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesRussell Martin and the Yankees had trouble with R.A. Dickey's knuckleball -- but that doesn't explain their other meager offerings this year.

The same team that has five times this season put up double-digit scores, and exploded for 13 runs Thursday night in Baltimore, was able to manage just one run off the New York Mets on Friday night at home in the Bronx.

As they often do, the Yankees found a built-in excuse for this one -- Mets starter R.A. Dickey is a knuckleballer, and no one hits the knuckleball very well, especially when it's moving the way Dickey's was, yada, yada, yada.

And seemingly to prove their point, the Yankees' only run came on a Mark Teixeira home run hit when Dickey was forced by circumstance to come in with one of the few fastballs he dared try all night.

One after another, all around the losing clubhouse, the story was the same.

"It's tough to hit whenever you go up against a knuckleballer," Russell Martin said. "You don't often get to see that, you don't really work on it, there's no way to practice for it. It never really does the same thing. Usually the only time you hit it is because it's one that doesn't move all that much."

"It's tough to hit a knuckleball when it's going well," Teixeira said. "And his was going everywhere."

"No one knows where it's going so it's kind of hard to have an approach against him," Derek Jeter said. "That's why you always see catchers struggling with it, and they know what's coming."

Said Curtis Granderson, "There's just no rhyme or reason to it."

But he, and his teammates, could just as well have been talking about the Yankees' offense.

And the things they were saying about Dickey's knuckleball, that it's difficult to hit when it's working well, are the same things they could say about any decent major league pitcher having a good night.

Only, this season, Dickey, who was 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA in 2010, has hardly been decent. In fact, he hadn't won since his first start of the season, on April 3, and had lost five straight decisions since, his ERA having soared to 5.08 against weaker-hitting National League opposition.

No, the problem was not with Dickey; nor with Zach Britton and a quintet of Orioles relievers before the Yankees finally scored three runs in the 15th inning Wednesday night; nor with Max Scherzer, Phil Humber and Josh Beckett (twice), the pitchers who have shut them out already this season.

The problem is with their offense, which has plenty of punch but apparently very little balance or rhythm, and an alarming tendency not to get the timely hit. Unless, of course, it's a home run.

Because buried in the avalanche of positive statistics concerning this offense are a couple that might be more important than any of the rest of them: The Yankees rank eighth in the AL in total hits. Only one AL team, the Minnesota Twins, has fewer doubles than the Yankees. They lead the league in hitting into double plays. In fact, if it's not a home run, the Yankees are unlikely to hit it. And that seems to be becoming a problem.

"Well, you think eventually it's going to turn on a consistent basis if we keep doing those [other] things," Joe Girardi said. "Eventually it's going to turn. With runners in scoring position, sometimes you don't get it done, sometimes you run into bad luck, sometimes the at-bats aren't good. There's a number of things that are happening, but you keep getting those opportunities, eventually it's going to turn."

This one turned on one pitch, a splitter that didn't split from Freddy Garcia -- who otherwise pitched a tremendous ballgame -- and was hit into the right-field seats by Daniel Murphy leading off the sixth to provide the difference in the 2-1 Mets victory in an oddly subdued Yankee Stadium.

Girardi pointed to two key moments that might have changed the outcome: an outstanding defensive play by Jose Reyes to rob Alex Rodriguez of a hit with two runners on and the game tied at 1 in the fifth, which followed a Teixeira line drive that landed a foot foul on the previous at-bat. Teixeira struck out, and the Yankees stranded both runners.

"That's the difference in the game," he said. "Maybe it's just bad luck."

But that ignored the most damning statistic of the night, one that seems to crop up on a regular basis. Once again, the Yankees whiffed on a huge number of scoring chances. Friday night, they went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

"In my opinion, it's just baseball," Jeter said. "On some days you're going to swing the bats well and things are going to come easy. At other times you're going to scuffle. I think most teams go through it, whether beginning, middle or end of the season. I wish I could explain it. If you could, then it wouldn't happen."

There really is no explanation other than the obvious one, that this season, the Yankees are either the Bronx Bombers or the Bronx Bombs. So far, there is no middle ground.

Girardi was asked whether a lineup shakeup was in order. Instead of giving the question any real consideration, he used it as the opportunity to make a sour little joke.

"The last time I did something," he said wryly, "everyone was in an uproar."

Not exactly everyone, of course, just Jorge Posada. But the DH with the .178 batting average is not alone in his futility. Nick Swisher, who had four RBIs on Thursday, struck out three times Friday, twice against Dickey and once against Francisco Rodriguez, no knuckleballer, for the final out of the game. Posada, Swisher and Robinson Cano were a combined 0-for-11 with 6 K's.

And once again, the only run came on a home run.

Asked last week in Detroit whether his offense had come to rely too much on the long ball, hitting coach Kevin Long didn't bother to hide his contempt for the question.

"No, come on. This needs to stop," he said. "We need to do a better job, yes, with a man on third and less than two outs. But we've got guys who can hit the ball out of the ballpark, and what's wrong with that? You score runs any way you can score runs."

Problem is, the Yankees can't seem to figure out any other way.

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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