Commentary

Road trip from hell could prove heavenly

What looked to be a tragic West Coast swing is on the verge of becoming a triumph

Updated: June 5, 2011, 2:14 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- When they left New York on May 25, this promised to be a brutal road trip for the Yankees, nine games in 10 days on the West Coast against some of the toughest pitchers in the American League.

Now, the calendar has turned to June, eight of those games are in the books and somehow the Yankees have managed to win five of them.

What could have been a damaging, even disastrous trip is now on the verge of turning into a triumph after Saturday night's 3-2 victory over the Angels, a game in which CC Sabathia came within one out of going the distance and Alex Rodriguez came within a few yards of going parking lot.

Robinson Cano
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesAlthough he'd later express dissatisfaction with the at-bat, Robinson Cano's fourth-inning homer gave the Yankees a brief lead.

"This has been a good trip for us," Sabathia (7-3) said, a statement rendered all the more amazing by the fact the trip began with two tough losses in Seattle last weekend.

But the Yanks righted the ship in Oakland, sweeping the Athletics despite having to face Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzales and Saturday night beating Ervin Santana on one of the rare occasions in which they didn't provide Sabathia with a truckload of run support.

On this night, two home runs would be enough -- a solo shot by Robinson Cano in the fourth and A-Rod's bomb in the sixth. Those and a fistful of outstanding defensive plays, and, oh yeah, Sabathia's 8 2/3 innings, were enough to leave the Yankees one victory shy of returning home for a showdown with the Boston Red Sox riding the crest of a 6-3 road trip.

"You know, you really want to finish it off [Sunday] and be able to win two series going home," Joe Girardi said. "Six and three sounds a lot better than five and four."

And looks much better in the standings. Before the game, the Yankees took to the clubhouse couches to watch the Red Sox beat the Athletics in 14 innings. Then, they took the field knowing a loss would drop them into a tie for first place in the AL East.

"This was enormous for us," Rodriguez said. "And [Sunday] is a big game for us, too. We gotta come in with a lot of adrenaline and hunger to finish out this trip. We haven't accomplished anything yet." In almost a mirror image of Friday night's 3-2 loss to the Angels, Sabathia and Santana dueled pretty much evenly for five innings, the Yankees' run coming on Cano's line drive into the right-field seats that Torii Hunter dove after like a cornerback going for the pick. The Angels' run came on a sacrifice fly after a Derek Jeter error allowed Alberto Callaspo, who had doubled, to reach third. Then, Rodriguez, who hadn't hit a ball out of a ballpark since May 21 -- which stretches back 12 games and 48 at-bats -- crushed a Santana fastball into the ersatz rocks beyond the center-field fence with Curtis Granderson aboard to give the Yankees a 3-1 lead.

"Over my career, one thing I've never worried about is home runs," said the man who has now hit 623 of them. And his two RBIs gave him 1,864 for his career, which is 11th all time. It was also his 68th career home run against the Angels, the most by any opposing player. "I've just really focused on being a good hitter, drawing my walks and being very productive for our offense," Rodriguez said. He preferred to talk about Sabathia, who he described as "enormous" -- as a pitcher, that is -- and as "an immovable rock," presumably a reference to his steady presence on the mound every five days.

Alex Rodriguez
Jake Roth/US PresswireAlex Rodriguez's bomb in the sixth nearly reached the parking lot ... or so it seemed.

"CC's amazing," A-Rod said. "He's kinda been our lifesaver for the last two or three years. He's a guy who starts winning streaks for us and stops losing streaks."

Sabathia's best moments came immediately after A-Rod's jack. He needed just six pitches in both the sixth and seventh innings to set the Angels down. And in the eighth, he got out of a first-and-second, two-out jam when Mark Teixeira fielded Howard Kendrick's ball in the hole and literally dove into the bag at first to record the final out as Sabathia, having fallen off the mound to the third base side on his follow-through, failed to get over.

"Off the bat, it looked like trouble," Sabathia said. "But once I saw Tex get up I knew he was going to beat him."

His only inning of real trouble was the ninth, when, having thrown just 99 pitches, Girardi sent him out to finish up without even bothering to warm up Mariano Rivera. Sabathia got two quick outs, one on a sparkling dive by Rodriguez to stop what looked like a sure double off the bat of Jeff Mathis, and allowed singles to Peter Bourjos and Maicer Izturis, the latter driving in the Angels second run and suddenly turning it into a one-run game.

Quickly, Girardi pulled Sabathia and brought in Rivera. Even more quickly, as in one-pitch quick, Mo retired Erick Aybar on a pop out to shortstop to end the game.

"The best feeling in the world," Sabathia said of entrusting his game to Rivera. As is knowing that on Sunday the Yankees send Bartolo Colon, who has been every bit as good as Sabathia so far this year, into the series finale against Joel Pineiro. "Right now, we're fighting for our lives on every pitch," said Rodriguez, whose penchant for overstatement is only exceeded by his flair for the dramatic. This road trip may have looked like death for the Yankees when it began, but there's plenty of life left in this team yet.

•••

Jeter singled in the seventh to move two short of Sam Rice for 28th on the all-time hits list. Jeter now has 2,985 hits. ... Despite hitting his 12th home run, Cano said he was not happy with his at-bat against Santana, in which he fell behind 0-2 then worked back to 3-2 before lining a slider into the right-field seats. "I swung at a couple of sliders in the dirt," he said. "It worked out OK because I hit a home run, but I should have taken a walk before that." ... Rivera's appearance was the 1,003rd of his career, moving him ahead of Goose Gossage for 14th on the all-time list. ... Sunday's game is a 3:35 p.m. start in New York.

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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