Imagine the chagrin at the administrative offices of the New York Yankees located at E 161st Street at River Avenue after April 30 when the Yankees record in the American League East was 12-10 and they were sitting in third place, two games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. The Yankees were swept in Baltimore to start the season and later swept in Boston by their chief antagonists.
On top of that C.C. Sabathia, who signed for the biggest contract ever given to a pitcher, was 1-2 with a 4.73 ERA. On Opening Day in Baltimore the Orioles stung the big lefty for 6 runs on 8 hits. A.J. Burnett, the other high profiled, big contract, free agent signee, although sporting a 2-0 record, had 3 no-decision games and owned an alarming 5.40 ERA. In fact on April 25 against the Red Sox Burnett was burned for 8 earned runs in 5 innings of work, which jumped his season ERA from a respectable 3.20 to a bloated 5.47 overnight.
That brings us to first baseman Mark Teixeira whom the Yankees outbid both the Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels for his services. Teixeira owns a .289 lifetime batting average, has hit an average of 33.83 home runs and has knocked in an average of 120 runs per season prior to 2009. Although Teixeira is known as a very slow starter, when the season began it was expected that with a new contract and a new team Teixeira would bound out of the gates blazing. If spring training was any indication the Yankees had every right to believe Teixeira would be an offensive monster. He was batting .433 with an OBP of .485 and a SLG% of .800 (OPS of 1.285) coming out of camp.
Alas, that was not the case. Teixeira like Cinderella’s coach turned back into a pumpkin during the month of April and the first part of May. If not for the heroics of free agent OF/1B Nick Swisher, who took over the everyday duties in right field for an injured Xavier Nady, there wouldn’t have been much for the Yankees to write home about. Swisher responded to a lackluster offense by hitting .312 in April with 7 home runs and 19 RBI. Teixeira’s numbers fell like a meteor to earth. He was hitting a very pedestrian .200 and had only 3 home runs and 10 RBI to show for it.
May wasn’t looking much better for the Yankees either. After play ended on May 7 the Yankees had dropped to 4th place and owned a 13-15 record. Teixeira continued his freefall; dropping to a .197 average and was only up to 5 home runs and 15 RBI in 24 games. Sabathia’s ERA jumped up to 4.85 and he saw his record fall to 1-3 with 2 no-decisions. Burnett was the biggest puzzle of all. After two brilliant outings Burnett couldn’t find his rhythm. He continued to go at least 6 innings in his starts, but had nothing to show for it. It took nearly to the end of May before Burnett would see his next victory.
After last year’s 89-73 third place finish manager Joe Girardi’s tenure with the team was definitely in jeopardy. He beat out Yankee legend Don Mattingly for the managerial job in ’08 after Joe Torre left the team for Los Angeles. Girardi knew he had some big shoes to fill. Torre made the playoffs every year he was at the helm taking the team to 2 wild card appearances, 9 division championships, 6 AL championships and 4 World Series championships. Not even making the playoffs was not the way Girardi wanted to start his managerial career in New York.
To be fair not everything has bounced the right way for Girardi. He had a lot of injuries to deal with, most notably Jorge Posada who took two trips to the DL; the second one on July 20, 2008. Posada didn’t return for the remainder of the season. Chien-Ming Wang was another. Wang injured his right foot on June 15 in an interleague game against the Houston Astros and immediately went to the DL for the remainder of the season.
Two solid performers, Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano, had down years. Pitching, especially the bullpen, continued to be inconsistent in 2008. During spring training one of the biggest bombshells in the history of baseball took place when Alex Rodriguez was accused of taking performance enhancing drugs, which he later admitted to doing. Also, Torre, along with Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci, published a book called “The Yankee Years,” in which Torre chronicles a lot of behind-the-scenes dirt about what went on inside the four walls of Yankee Stadium.
Getting back to this season if you’ve been following the Yankees you know about other situations that have plagued the squad. In addition to Rodriguez’s admission of using banned substances he went on the disabled list when a cyst and a torn labrum was discovered in his right hip. He had corrective surgery to address the problem to hopefully get him into the lineup as soon as possible.
Wang had horrific 3 starts at the beginning of the season after coming back from his foot injury. He lasted just 6 total innings in those starts and his ERA was a stratospheric 34.50. He went back on the DL with a side injury, but recently returned and has seen action in the bullpen. Additionally, relievers Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte have landed on the DL. Posada returned to the DL on May 5 with a hamstring injury, and reserve catcher Jose Molina went down with a quad injury on May 8.
Those injuries necessitated the Yankees bringing in a whole bunch of minor leaguers to hold the fort down until the regulars could return. Third baseman/shortstop Ramiro Pena, RHP Phil Hughes, RHRP David Robinson, C Anthony Cervilli, C Kevin Cash among others have done a masterful job in keeping the season from getting away from the Yankees.
All those headaches were enough to send anyone, let alone a manager, screaming into the night. However, the entire negative vibe turned positive on Friday, May 8.
That was the day A-Rod returned to the lineup.
Whether or not A-Rod is the real reason the Yankees suddenly turned around is an argument to be discussed around the water coolers, but the fact remains the day their superstar third baseman returned was the day the Yankees turned their season around.
Since May 8 the Yankees have gone from 13-15 and in 4th place to 31-21 and 1st place in the AL East Division. That means they have gone 18-6 in that span. They currently own the best record in the American League and they lead the Red Sox by a game.
The biggest beneficiary of A-Rod’s homecoming has been Teixeira. Since May 8 Teixeira has raised his average from a season low .191 (May 12) to .279. He is hitting .374 with 11 home runs and 19 RBI during that stretch. He is tied for 2nd in home runs and 4th in RBI totals in the AL.
Sabathia and Burnett have improved as well.
Sabathia is now 5-3 and has lowered his ERA to 3.46. Sabathia is 4-0 over his past 5 outings and has averaged a 3.00 ERA. Burnett, too, has responded. He is 4-2 and his ERA has dropped to 4.69. He has won his past two games posting a 2.08 ERA.
The team as a whole is playing the game with more enthusiasm and more focus. In the AL the Yankees are 2nd in home runs (82), 1st in RBI (285) and 2rd in team hitting (.282). Pitching continues to be a concern, especially in the bullpen, but with the Yankees offense clicking on all cylinders the pitching has been good enough. No one is hurting them to the point where the Yankees have to go out and look for an arm.
A month ago the media and fans alike were bemoaning this club and now there is a glimmer of hope. The Yankees have brought back some of the swagger that everyone has seen from teams past. But, before anyone goes and shines up the World Series trophy, keep in mind the Yankees have a long road in front of them and they still haven’t beaten the Red Sox this season.
Until “B” happens and if they don’t continue to play at the level they’re playing at now today’s hope in this team won’t become tomorrow’s reality.