Commentary

Rare occurrences highlight Yanks win

From a June win for A.J. to Mo getting a save, the Bombers are coming together

Updated: June 2, 2011, 1:17 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

OAKLAND -- Three things that haven't happened in a long time occurred over the course of the same 2½-hour baseball game at Oakland Coliseum on Wednesday afternoon.

A.J. Burnett won a game in June. He hadn't done that in nearly two years.

Mariano Rivera got a save. He hadn't done that in more than three weeks.

And Nick Swisher was asked to lay down a bunt. Or so he thought. But more about that later.

Because there was one more rare occurrence in the New York Yankees' 4-2 Yankees victory over the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday, something that had not happened all season long, and we are now talking about a season officially one-third over.

The Yankees won their fourth game in a row.

"That's the first time we did that all year?,'' an incredulous Alex Rodriguez asked after the game. "That's hard to believe. Well, it all started with CC (Sabathia, who threw eight innings at the Mariners) on Sunday.''

And continued with Bartolo Colon (complete-game shutout) on Monday, Freddy Garcia (seven innings, three runs) on Tuesday and finished up with Burnett on Wendesday, whose seven inning, three-hit, two-run performance completed the sweep of the Athletics, a particular patsy the Yankees have now beaten in 10 straight games and 24 of their last 28.

"That just doesn't happen very often,' Joe Girardi said. "They have talent over there and a very good pitching staff. But we just kind of had our way and we've been fortunate.''

Niceties aside, the A's just aren't very good on offense and their starting pitcher, Gio Gonzalez, did not pitch anywhere near up to his previous form, especially in May, when he was 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA.

Derek Jeter greeted his third pitch of the game by scalding it over the left-fielder's head for a double, hit No. 2,984 in his rapidly-ending quest to join the 3,000 hit club. Two batters later, A-Rod doubled him home with a shot that sailed over the rightfielder's head.

Burnett promptly gave up the lead on Josh Willingham's two-run homer in the bottom of the inning but settled down thereafter, and it became a game waiting for a turning point.

Enter Swisher in the top of the fourth, with two runners on and none out, staring down at third-base coach Rob Thomson and not believing what he thought he saw: the bunt sign.

So he showed bunt on the first pitch. Ball one. He showed it on the second pitch. Ball two. He kept waiting for Thomson to wipe it off, to give the sign that he could swing away, but it never came.

And there was good reason: the bunt was never on in the first place.

[+] EnlargeNick Swisher
AP Photo/Ben MargotNick Swisher's home run is the latest sign that the outfielder is slowly breaking out of this slump.

"That was just a little miscommunication with Swish,'' Girardi said, chuckling. "We wanted him to swing the bat.''

Luckily for the Yankees, Oakland's pitching coach Ron Romanick went out to visit Gonzalez, allowing Swisher to visit Thomson personally. Whether he truly asked if the bunt was still on or politely asked that it be taken off, Swisher returned to the batter's box pleased with the outcome of the conversation.

"He told me to let it loose,'' Swisher said.

Gonzalez' next pitch was a fastball and Swisher hit it into the lower part of Davis Mountain, the hideous peak of green seats erected beyond the wall when the Oakland Raiders returned from their brief exile to L.A.

With Burnett back on track, the three-run homer turned out to be the knockout blow for an Oakland A's team that really didn't need tat much convincing. They managed just one more hit off Burnett, a ground-ball triple by Coco Crisp in the sixth, and two more singles off Joba Chamberlain in the eighth, and that was it.

"That thing with Swish worked out really well for us,'' Girardi said. "It allowed him to get into a good count.''

And allowed Girardi to laugh about what could have been a serious mistake. After all, if Romanick doesn't go to the mound, Swisher goes back to the plate thinking bunt, something he hasn't done all year and something he was only asked to do three times last season.

Happily, Swisher was allowed to swing the bat, something he has been doing better lately.

On this road trip so far, he is 6-for-25, with 2 home runs and 4 RBI. It's not great, but for a player whose average was as low as .204 a week ago -- it's .215 now -- and needed 21 games and 72 at-bats to hit his first homer, it's certainly a step in the right direction.

Throughout his early struggles, Girardi has commended Swisher for not sulking and for continuing to do his work with hitting coach Kevin Long to find a solution to his problems at the plate, and it finally seems to be paying off.

"I feel like all that hard work I put in is really starting to take over now,'' Swisher said. "I feel confident in the box, the bat feels light in my hands, and I feel pretty good about my chances. I know I've dug myself a little hole, but I'm doing everything I can to fight out of it. I'm feeling like myself again.''

As are the Yankees. For a team that started out this road trip with two tough losses -- in the first one, Seattle centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez went over the fence to rob Swisher of a home run -- things suddenly don't seem so bad.

One-third of the way through the season, the Yankees are on pace to win 93 games, and hold a two-game lead over the Boston Red sox in the AL East. They are getting the kind of starting pitching they never expected out of Colon and Garcia, and the kind they desperately need out of Burnett, who went 0-for-5 last June and had not won a start in this month since June 27 of 2009.

"It wasn't easy for A.J. today,'' Girardi said. "A.J. had to battle.''

He struggled with his command early but got stronger as the game went on. His record now stands at 6-3 with a 3.86 ERA. Chamberlain was on the verge of getting himself and the Yankees into trouble after allowing two one-out singles in the eighth, but escaped when, in a near mirror-image of a play Garcia made Tuesday night, he snagged a liner back to the mound and tossed to first to complete an inning-ending double play.

Rivera came on to record his first save in 22 days, a period that spanned seven appearances, one blown save and a loss. Informed of how long it had been between saves for him, Rivera -- who had saved all of the Yankees first five wins and had nine saves in April -- said, "That's a long time. But it's not about me. As long as we're winning, that's all that I care about.''

The Yankees are winning again, at a greater rate than they have all season long. Three times this season, they had won three games in a row but until Wednesday, had not been able to tack on a fourth.

As Burnett said, "Right now, it's fun for everybody in here.''

That hasn't happened in a long time, either.

•••

The day after four of their players -- Rodriguez, Chamberlain, Jeter and Swisher -- were named among the six most overrated players in baseball in an anonymous poll of 185 major-leaguers conducted by Sports Illustrated, baseball announced that five Yankees -- Rodriguez, Jeter, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira and Russell Martin were leading the voting at their respective positions for starting berths in the 2011 All-Star Game and that a sixth, Curtis Granderson, was among the top three outfield vote-getters and thus also in line for a starting job. ... Rodriguez was given a DH day. He was replaced at third base by Eduardo Nunez. ... Teixeira's fifth-inning single increased his season-high hitting streak to nine games. ... Martin, still hobbled by a sore big toe on his left foot, went 0-for-3 and is now 0-for-his-last-16, but felt well enough to steal second base in the fourth. ... Apropos of nothing trivia note: in 2008, Swisher was traded from Oakland to the Chicago White Sox for a package that included Gio Gonzalez, an ill-fated trade for Swisher, who hated his time in Chicago playing for Ozzie Guillen. Wednesday, he professed not to have known he had been traded for Gonzalez before reading about it in the paper Wednesday morning. "No one likes being traded, bro,'' he said. "You don't really pay attention to who's on the other side of it.'' ... Yankees have an off-day on Thursday. Ivan Nova (4-3, 4.67) opens the three-game weekend series against the Angels in Anaheim, facing RHP Jered Weaver (6-4, 2.10). Game time 10:05 p.m.

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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