Commentary

Rookie Curtis shows veteran mettle

Cancer survivor keeps pressure in perspective, gets hailed as hero in the Bronx

Updated: July 22, 2010, 3:05 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- It would have been a daunting situation even for a veteran, being sent up to pinch-hit for a teammate who had just been ejected from a close game and, worst of all, with an 0-2 count.

But maybe it was a little less so for Colin Curtis, with all of 26 major league at-bats on his résumé and exactly one month of service under his belt, when Joe Girardi told him to grab a bat and finish up for Brett Gardner.

Curtis, you see, knows a little bit about hitting from behind in the count, having stared down the most frightening situation a human being can face 10 years ago.

Compared to confronting, and beating, testicular cancer as a 15-year-old, how scary can it be to face Scot Shields in a key late-inning situation, even after spotting him the first two strikes?

[+] EnlargeColin Curtis
William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireColin Curtis' teammates ultimately convinced the rookie to doff his cap to the fans after his three-run pinch-hit homer in the seventh.

"There's definitely things in life that still scare you," he said, "But when it comes to things like dealing with all the failure in baseball, it helps you get over it and just be thankful you're playing."

Four pitches later, it was the Yankees' turn to be thankful Curtis was playing when, after working that 0-2 hole back to a full count, he unleashed that quick bat he has shown since being called up from Triple-A on June 21 and sent a low, rising line drive screaming into the right-field seats.

The three-run homer, the first of Curtis' major-league life, took a narrow 7-5 Yankee lead and pumped some air into it, paving the way for a 10-6 victory over the Los Angeles Angels that wasn't nearly as easy as the score might indicate.

For one thing, the Yankees provided Javier Vazquez with an early 6-0 lead, only to watch him give just about all of it back in the space of two innings. For another, the Angels, for all their flaws, are still a dangerous team at the plate and a dynamic team on the bases.

Said Derek Jeter: "They get a lot of guys who get on base and they can score runs in a hurry. With them a two-run lead feels like a tie game."

Curtis' home run -- coming three batters after Juan Miranda, another midseason call-up, had launched a solo home run into the Yankees' bullpen -- saved the Yankees from that unsettling feeling, especially with an ever-shaky Joba Chamberlain coming on to pitch the eighth.

On a day in which the fat part of the Yankees' batting order finally performed according to its billing -- over the first four innings, Jeter, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira had a combined eight hits and scored five runs -- it was an area considered along with the bullpen among the team's weakest, its bench, that provided the final margin of victory.

"These kids can hit," Girardi said. "Their playing time may not be as consistent as it would be in Triple-A but we believe they can impact the baseball."

Curtis certainly has, especially as a pinch-hitter, a role that is as new to him as drawing big league meal money. Yet, in eight pinch-hitting appearances, he now has four hits and six RBIs.

"I haven't pinch-hit that much and I'm still trying to learn it," he said. "Usually, I'll go down to the cage during a game and take some swings off a tee to get loose in case there's an opportunity like this."

On Wednesday, no such luck. With two on and one out in the seventh, Gardner, among the more mild-mannered Yankees, apparently protested a strike call on an 0-1 pitch to home plate ump Paul Emmel. Somehow, the argument escalated to the point that Emmel gave Gardner the heave-ho, the second straight day he had ejected a Yankee -- Emmel also ejected Girardi on Tuesday night for arguing a call at first base -- and the third time this year the same crew had tossed a Yankee, also Girardi.

"Scratching my head," the manager said. "That's all I'm going to say."

Following the lead of his manager, Gardner -- who said he had never been ejected at any level of baseball -- refused to discuss the incident or even the location of the pitch he and the umpire disagreed on.

All we know for sure is that at a moment's notice, Curtis went from sipping Gatorade on the bench to trying to figure out how to make something of an at-bat that was already two-thirds of the way down the drain.

"It was difficult based on the fact I had only seen the guy from the bench and hadn't read a scouting report on him," Curtis said. "At 0-2, I didn't know if the first pitch was going to be a backdoor slider or a fastball away or what."

As he admitted, though, Shields made it a little easier for him by throwing three balls in rapid succession, "Fortunately, they weren't that close," Curtis said.

Then, he got a fastball where he could handle it, and in the time it takes a 25-year-old to circle the bases, everyone in the ballpark knew what had to come next.

But the kid who eagerly answered the first order to leave the Yankees' dugout, the one that came from the manager, was a lot more reluctant to obey the one that came from his teammates. One by one, they nudged him along the length of the dugout until he reached the break in the railing, where Alex Rodriguez provided the final push back onto the field.

"I had no idea what to do," Curtis said. "But they were telling me, 'You gotta go out there.' So I went and it was the thrill of a lifetime. It's something I'll remember the rest of my life."

Along with the other, harsher memories, of being a teenager not knowing if he would even live to be an adult. "I think being a cancer survivor will always be part of my identity," he said. "I've been cancer-free for 10 years and it doesn't really affect my day-to-day life, but you're never really free of it and I think it's important to remember that, as a survivor, there's always another day, always another game, always another chance."

And, quite possibly, always another curtain call.

GAME NOTES: Curtis got the ball back from the fan who caught his homer, but only after he agreed to trade it for a ball signed by Jeter and A-Rod. ... Staked to a rare early lead, Vazquez (8-7) turned in his worst outing since May 27, when he allowed the same five runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Twins. ... Robinson Cano hit his 18th home run of the season in the third, a two-run shot that pulled him into a tie with Teixeira for the team lead. ... Mariano Rivera pitched a spotless ninth in a non-save situation. ... Thursday's pitching matchup: CC Sabathia (12-3, 3.13) vs. LHP Bruce Chen (5-3, 4.06) as the Yankees open a four-game series with the Kansas City Royals at 7:05 p.m.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. 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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