Commentary

Yankees finish first half on a good note

The Bombers almost blew a game on Sunday, but are ahead of last year's pace after 81

Updated: July 5, 2010, 12:54 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees blew two leads and one save, and had three runners thrown out at home plate -- two on back-to-back plays in the fifth inning -- in Sunday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

In commemoration of July 4, the Yankees' starting pitcher staged his own personal fireworks show on the mound, surrendering three home runs -- one a titanic blast that thunked off the foul pole about three quarters of the way up.

[+] EnlargeNew York Yankees
AP Photo/Seth WenigThe Yankees had reason to celebrate on July 4, after Marcus Thames' walk-off single.

They were forced by Major League Baseball to wear commemorative white caps that made the game resemble a housepainter's picnic. They lost Jorge Posada to a sprained finger in the seventh inning. And to top it all off, their manager left his best starting pitcher off the All-Star roster.

But all is well in Yankees World.

For only the second time this season, a Yankee got to eat whipped cream on the field when Marcus Thames, who hadn't swung a bat in a major league game in three weeks, busted his bat but still drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning.

Mariano Rivera, who hadn't blown a save to the Blue Jays in 25 straight opportunities dating back to 2004 (nor to anyone else since May 16), just had one of those days. Perhaps he fell victim to the little-known New York Times Magazine cover jinx, since his picture graced the front of that publication this week.

Third-base coach Rob Thomson is in no danger of losing his job, since for his 80th birthday George Steinbrenner seems to have sworn off firing people.

Despite surrendering three home runs on Sunday -- now seven in his past four appearances -- Phil Hughes actually had a pretty good day, being named to his first All-Star team in his first season as a full-time starting pitcher.

And even Andy Pettitte, left off the All-Star roster by his manager, Joe Girardi -- despite sharing the team lead in wins and owning the lowest ERA on the Yankees' starting staff -- is still a good bet to end up in Anaheim on July 13, and might even wind up starting the game.

And oh, yeah, at the mathematical halfway point of the season, the Yankees have a 50-31 record -- two games better than they were at the same point last season, a season in which, as you may recall, they took home all the marbles in November.

As Derek Jeter, another of the six (so far) Yankees All-Stars, said, "It could be a whole lot worse."

Certainly it would have felt a lot worse had they lost this one -- a game in which the Yankees took a 3-1 lead after four innings, gave it back on a three-run homer by DeWayne Wise (who hadn't homered in nearly a year) in the fifth, and blew two great scoring opportunities in the bottom of the fifth when first Nick Swisher and then Mark Teixeira ran into the immovable object that is Jose Molina at home plate.

But the Yankees got two runs back, with a big assist from Mr. Sunshine, in the sixth when Brett Gardner -- who hit a legitimate grand slam on Saturday -- was credited with a rather sketchy inside-the-park homer when Wise lost Gardner's routine fly ball in the afternoon glare. That tied the game at 5.

"There's times out there during the day when it's really tough to see the ball," Gardner said. "I felt bad for their center fielder."

When Teixeira doubled in the Yankees' sixth run of the game in the seventh inning, and Joba Chamberlain pitched a scoreless eighth, it seemed as if this one was in the books with Rivera -- touted on the Times Magazine cover as "King of the Closers" -- coming on to nail things down.

But on this day, it was Mo who got nailed by two singles, a grounder that was just a tad too slow to be a double-play ball, and a looping single by Wise -- there's that name again -- that drove in Lyle Overbay with the go-ahead run.

"Every so often, Mo reminds us that he's human," Girardi said. "And this was one of those days."

The Yankees survived a shaky David Robertson 10th inning, helped enormously when Edwin Encarnacion bunted into a bizarre double play. With runners on first and second and no one out, he popped his bunt toward third, where it fell in front of Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod alertly fired to second to get the first out, and Ramiro Pena -- who was playing short -- threw to first to nip Encarnacion, who had hesitated out of the box thinking the ball would be caught in the air.

That set the stage for Thames, out since June 13 with a hamstring strain -- Thames was only added to the roster an hour before the game after playing nine innings on Saturday night with Triple-A Scranton. After a leadoff walk to Robinson Cano and a sacrifice by Francisco Cervelli, Thames looked bad while flailing at two strikes before getting just enough wood on David Purcey's 3-2 cutter to fist it into short left.

"He jammed me a little bit and cracked my bat good," said Thames, who became the happy recipient of A.J. Burnett's towel full of cream.

"Somebody told me A.J. wasn't doing that anymore this year," Thames said. In reality, Burnett hasn't had nearly as many opportunities to even try.

But even without the rash of walk-off wins that characterized the Yankees' 2009 season, and with a rash of nagging injuries to their aging roster -- Posada, who has already had one stint on the DL this season with a broken foot, is just the latest on an infirmary list that has included Nick Johnson, Curtis Granderson, Chan Ho Park, Alfredo Aceves, Sergio Mitre, Rodriguez, Gardner and Thames -- the Yankees are still ahead of last year's pace at the same point in the season.

A year ago, the Yankees sat at 48-33, a game behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. Right now the Yankees are 1½ games in front of the Red Sox. Of course, the 2009 Yankees did most of their best work in the second half of the season, finishing up 55-26 and running off with the AL East by eight games.

"We had a good first half," Jeter said. "But that's all it is, a half a season. We still got a lot of work to do."

Girardi, the eternal optimist, preferred to tick off the positives of the first 81 games. "We're in first place," he said. "We're on pace to win 100 games. I feel that we can play better. We still haven't hit on all cylinders yet, and we're still 50-31. I'd say that's a pretty good first half."

Game Notes: Posada said the injury to his left ring finger, suffered when he took a foul tip by Fred Lewis off his catcher's mitt, was a recurring problem he has been dealing with since 2007. X-rays came back negative and he is officially classified as day-to-day, but Girardi said he would not catch on Monday night in Oakland, and Posada was not even sure he would be able to pinch hit. … Hughes was upset with his fifth inning, in which he got outs on his first two pitches but then surrendered a single, a walk and Wise's majestic home run in rapid succession. But Hughes was thrilled to be named to the All-Star team, which he thought might serve as a make-good for Girardi skipping his start in Los Angeles two weeks ago. A native of Southern California, Hughes' parents had planned to make the trip to Dodger Stadium only to be disappointed when Girardi chose to skip Hughes in an effort to limit his innings. Hughes said his parents would make the trip to the All-Star Game. "Now I just have to make sure he gets me into the game," he joked. … Quietly, Teixeira has begun to heat up, with three hits, two doubles and two RBIs on Sunday. … The Yankees left for a six-game West Coast road trip after the game. On Monday night, RHP Javier Vazquez (6-7, 5.11) faces RHP Ben Sheets (3-7, 4.98) at 10:05 p.m. ET.

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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