- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
NEW YORK -- Right now, the Most Valuable Yankee is about 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, is paid the minimum major league salary and looks as if he shouldn't be allowed in the ballpark unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
And yet, if Ramiro Pena goes down, the defending world champions lose their main backup for, oh, six or seven positions.
Unless, of course, they ask him to play first base, too.
And judging by the late movement on his throw from right field to the plate in the eighth inning of Wednesday night's 10-6 loss to the Runnin' Rays of Tampa Bay, he might even be able to pitch an inning or two if things get sticky enough.
"I don't know about pitching," Pena said. "I had surgery on my shoulder. Anything else they ask me to do, I'll give it a try."
It's an absurd situation, but as Joe Girardi likes to say, it is what it is.
The Yankees, with their $200 million payroll, are spending nearly that much these days on tape and iodine, with four important members of their roster on the disabled list and two more officially classified as "day to day," which in Yankee-speak often translates to "any day now."
As in: They too will be on the DL any day now.
On Wednesday night, it was Jorge Posada's turn. He joined center fielder Curtis Granderson, who strained a groin muscle running the bases May 1 against the White Sox; DH Nick Johnson, who underwent surgery to repair damage to a tendon in his right wrist, and reliever Alfredo Aceves; who has missed the past eight games with what is being called a strained lower back.
Add to that right fielder/DH Nick Swisher, who left a game May 14 after feeling pain in his left biceps while striking out against the Twins, and has been back only once since, and the latest, outfielder Marcus Thames, who found a novel way to get injured Wednesday night -- stepping on his own bat while running to first on a sixth-inning single.
According to Girardi, Thames rolled his left ankle and his status is day to day. But so, too, was Posada's and Swisher's, and now one of them will likely be out a month and the other keeps promising to return "tomorrow," a day that we all know never comes.
So it has fallen to Pena -- an infielder by trade who has served mainly as a backup-slash-late inning replacement for Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez -- to serve as an all-purpose plug-in for a team suddenly riddled with holes.
When Posada missed a few games with a sore calf, Girardi named Pena as his "emergency catcher," behind Francisco Cervelli, based on a few sessions of warming up pitchers in the bullpen. On Sunday, when Girardi was frantically shifting personnel in the late innings of what would turn out to be a shocking 6-3 loss after Mariano Rivera surrendered a grand slam, he shifted Pena from shortstop to right field in the ninth inning.
And when Thames had to leave Wednesday's game, Girardi, lacking a single healthy position player, had no choice but to put the kid his teammates call "El Nino" out there for a full three innings.
For a team believed to possess the wherewithal to buy anything it needs at any time -- is there a chance Brian Cashman can swing a deal for Carl Crawford before the start of Thursday night's game? -- it reveals a shocking lack of depth on the major league roster.
"It's been unfortunate, but injuries happen," Jeter said. "You hope you don't get a lot of them at the same time, but you can't really feel sorry for yourself, because the teams you're playing aren't going to feel sorry for you."
Instead, you do the best you can to fight with the army you have, not the army you want. "As a manager, all you can do is come to the park prepared to win every day," Girardi said. "You prepare your guys, you look at what you've got on the roster that day, put a lineup out and see what happens."
Barring a full recovery by either Thames or Swisher overnight, Thursday's starting Yankees outfield could be the same one that finished Wednesday night's game: Brett Gardner in center, Randy Winn in left and Pena in right.
Girardi, who plays everything close to the vest, refused to reveal what his plans are, but said, "There could be a couple of moves [on Thursday]."
That could mean the recall of Greg Golson, sent down Tuesday to make room for reliever Mark Melancon, who got shelled Wednesday night, or Kevin Russo, an infielder who has recently been playing the outfield in Triple-A.
Or they could stick with El Nino, the kid who is apparently willing to do anything to stay in the major leagues. "I don't know what's happening, what's going on here with all the injuries," said Pena, who is actually 24 and officially listed as 5-11 and 165, although he appears several inches shorter and claims to be 10 pounds heavier.
Coincidentally, he had been shagging fly balls during batting practice Wednesday afternoon, inadvertently auditioning for a performance that would come later that night. He handled one chance flawlessly, belly-flopped trying to make an impossible catch on a line drive that went for a double, and threw that tailing fastball that pulled Cervelli up the line on a runner they were never going to get anyway.
"I just want to play, have fun, enjoy the game," he said. "So now I have to learn to play the outfield? It's all right with me. Whatever they need me to do, I'll try my best."
NOTES: The loss was the Yankees' second in a row, third of their past four and third in six games of this seven-game homestand, which concludes Thursday night against the Rays. The Yankees dropped four games back of the Rays, who stole six bases off starter A.J. Burnett and Cervelli, although the second one, a steal of third by B.J. Upton as part of a fourth-inning double steal, could have been an out had Rodriguez gotten the tag down in time. A-Rod hit a monster home run in the sixth, off the facing just below the black-tinted windows of the restaurant above Monument Valley, his sixth homer of the season. Robinson Cano went 4-for-5 to raise his average 15 points, to .340. Andy Pettitte (5-0, 1.79 ERA) goes against James Shields (4-1, 3.00) on Thursday night.
8hAdam Rubin and Kieran Darcy
8hAdam Rubin and Kieran Darcy
9hTony Lee, Special to ESPN.com
16hJacob Nitzberg, ESPN Stats & Information