Yankees

Welcome to MLB Season that Starts in the Heart of the Pennant Race

By Scott Mandel

Typically, when a major league baseball season gets to game 102, leaving only 60 games remaining to the season, we have gotten through the All-Star break in the second week of July and we are bearing down on the dog days of August. For those teams still in the pennant race, the high-pressure games of down-the-stretch baseball are about to begin.

Here, in 2020, with the condensed schedule of only 60 games instead of 162, all 30 major league teams are officially in a pennant race, with every game remaining having the impact of almost three games. If a team goes on a short losing streak while division opponents are winning games, the distance they fall behind, with fewer games remaining, puts increased pressure on every game and every pitch.

Welcome to the pennant race, from beginning to end of this unique season.

Opening day started yesterday with a Yankee win as their $324 million free agent ace, Gerrit Cole, earned part of his $36 million annual salary (pro-rated to reflect the shortened season), throwing five innings and allowing one hit and one run against the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals, in D.C. as the Bronx Bombers defeated Max Scherzer and the Nats, 4-1. In front of an empty stadium, but a huge television audience, the distinguished Dr. Anthony Fauci was unable to distinguish himself as the opening day pitcher of the First Pitch. The 79-year old Fauci, who was a high school basketball star in New York City, just missed throwing a strike by about 30 feet, with his pitch landing somewhere near the first base foul line.

Today, in front of a small crowd of smiling cardboard season ticket holders at Citi Field in New York, Jacob deGrom, the Mets ace and two-time Cy Young Award winner, threw another gem against the Atlanta Braves, allowing one hit in five innings while striking out eight Braves batters. He left the game but watched Cespedes hit a solo home run in the seventh inning as the Mets shut out the Braves, 1-0.

It sure didn’t take much time for Yoenis Cespedes to swing right into a DH role in his long-awaited return.

Cespedes came back with a bang, immediately capitalizing on the new designated hitter rule in the National League by launching a home run that sent deGrom and the Mets past the Braves in their season opener Friday.

After five dominant innings from deGrom, who was popping the catcher’s mitt with 99 mph fastballs at the start, Cespedes connected in the seventh off reliever Chris Martin (0-1) for his first long ball since his previous major league game on July 20, 2018.

“I’m very excited. It was very exciting just to be able to play again,” Cespedes said though a translator. “I don’t have words for a situation like that.”

“It proved to me that I can still be the same player that I used to be,” he added.

The 34-year-old slugger missed most of the past two seasons with a string of leg injuries, requiring surgery on both heels and then a broken ankle after a bad fall at his Florida ranch in a reported run-in with a wild boar.

“I don’t care if he took a five-year hiatus, when he gets in the batter’s box, you’re worried,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s such a presence.”

Rules changes for this shortened season delayed by the coronavirus provided a DH in NL games for the first time — giving the Mets a perfect slot for Cespedes even if left field presents a problem.

“The funny thing was I joked with him before the game, I said, `Why are you hitting for me?” deGrom said. “Really happy for him.”

With no fans at Citi Field due to the pandemic, it was easy to hear teammates exclaiming in the dugout when Cespedes sent his drive soaring into the empty left-field seats.

“They erupted. They went crazy,” rookie manager Luis Rojas said. “Obviously, it’s a big moment for Ces. He’s been waiting.”

Seth Lugo (1-0) tossed two innings, pitching out of trouble in the seventh, and Justin Wilson whiffed Ronald Acuna Jr. with a runner in scoring position to end the eighth.

Edwin Diaz, who lost his job as closer during a miserable 2019 season, struck out two in a hitless ninth for the save. He worked around a one-out walk, giving the 38-year-old Rojas a victory in his debut.

Afterward, he got a game ball from his players and a celebratory shower that Rojas said was beginning to make his uniform stink.

“I don’t know what they threw on me, but they threw a lot of stuff,” Rojas said.

Coming off consecutive Cy Young Awards, deGrom fanned eight and permitted only a broken-bat single and a walk. He was pulled after 72 pitches following a back-tightness scare early last week. The right-hander extended his scoreless streak to a career-best 28 innings dating to last season, the longest active streak in the majors.

Notes:

The cardboard cutout photos occupying some seats included one of former Braves star and Mets nemesis Chipper Jones.

FAVORITE DAY OF THE YEAR

The Mets improved to 39-20 in openers (despite losing their first eight), the best opening day winning percentage in the majors. They’ve won 12 of their last 15 — and 23 of the past 26 at home.

SENDING A MESSAGE

Both teams wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts for batting practice and joined in holding a long, black ribbon on the field during a pregame message on the video board from many Black major leaguers about eradicating racial injustice.

PREGAME CEREMONIES

The national anthem was performed virtually on the video board by essential workers, each singing their part, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said “Let’s play ball!” It appeared all players on the field stood for the anthem.

MONEY MAN

Because he didn’t begin the season on the IL with a foot injury, Cespedes’ salary rose from $2,222,222 prorated ($6 million before the schedule was shortened) to $4,074,074 ($11 million before the change).

Mandel’s Musings: Jeter, the Distant Yankee, Should Be Unanimously Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame

By Scott Mandel

I’ve never been a big fan of Derek Jeter, the former New York Yankees shortstop, on a personal level. But, today, Derek Jeter is going to be elected, deservedly so, to the the Baseball Hall of Fame, an acknowledgement of his status as one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.

But, Jeter was not always an easy guy to get along with or get to know, from a media point of view. And, he knew there was no prerequisite for trying to endear himself to the media or even, to the fans. He did his job as the Yankee shortstop, and did it better than anyone in the franchise’s history.

Jeter opted, over the course of his 21-year career, to play it close to the vest with the media and with Yankeee fans, His responses during interviews were filled with sports cliches, but never really offered his deepest feelings about any subject. Jeter was a bright guy and had many opinions to offer, particularly as the Yankee captain, but he chose not to share most of those feelings with his adoring public.

He was self-aware, always, and always tuned-in to saying as little as possible, as non-controversial as possible. Yet, his ego was so enormous, he had no problem with handing out “swag bags” of Jeter memorabilia to his one-night stands as they walked out his apartment door, in the previous night’s dress and makeup.

He left the Yankees, his beloved Yankees, acrimoniously after Brian Cashman refused to make him the highest paid shortstop in the game when he was 37 years old and had lost many of his skills.

Jeter has not been back to the stadium since retiring five years ago, other than one time to honor Mariano Rivera. He also showed up in Cooperstown to watch Rivera get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Other than that, the great Yankee has been as detached from Yankee tradition and the Yankee organization as any non-Yankee player would be. There are many who feel he has intentionally slighted the Yankees from capitalizing on their relationship with him, ie, profiting from the marketing possibilities of Jeter, the Yankee.

Jeter was indeed a role model for the way he treated kids and umpires in ballparks all across the country. But, as an owner in Miami, Jeter has looked a lot more fallible without the pinstripes on. He deserves a fair shot with the Marlins and enough time to build the organization the way he wants it built. It has never been a good idea to bet against Jeter. He can still turn this second baseball career into a big success.

But the fact that he fired a number of popular Marlins employees — including Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Tony Perez, and a longtime scout who was in the hospital trying to recover from cancer surgery — and handled various duties (including the Giancarlo Stanton trade) with what appeared to be a less-than-gentle approach, did not shock some who have known Jeter. That includes R.D. Long, the longtime running mate ejected from the shortstop’s inner circle years ago for a reason never explained to him.

“I can’t comment about Derek Jeter today, because I don’t know that person today,” Long, who spent six years in the Yankees system and who coached at Rochester Institute of Technology, said last week by phone. “But as a player, people who doubted him just don’t get it. If some think he’s overrated, that’s ludicrous. I think he might be the most underrated player of all time.

He’s a stranger in his own stadium, the “House that Jeter Built,” where he starred.

That said, Derek Jeter was the greatest shortstop in Yankee history and today, we will find out at 6 o’clock whether his inevitable election to the Baseball Hall of Fame will be unanimous, or not. If there is a voter who does not elect Derek Jeter to the Baseball Hall of Fame on this, Jeter’s first opportunity to get into the hallowed hall, that voter should be stripped of his vote. Jeter was a great player, possibly the greatest shortstop over the past 50 years. Despite his media foibles and his soiled relationship with his Yankee heritage, he deserves to be the second player in baseball history to be voted into the Hall of Fame, unanimously. The first, of course, was Mariano Rivera, last year.

Yankees May Look to Lengthen Pitching Staff with Shorter Pitchers, Marcus Stroman and Minor League Phenom, Garcia

by Scott Mandel

The New York Yankees, in need of starting pitchers, will try to trade for 5’7″ righthander, Marcus Stroman, a local boy from Long Island who has been languishing in Toronto with the Blue Jays, before the July 31 trading deadline. They have another short (okay, height-challenged, for you politically correct types) pitching phenomenon in the minors, named Delvi Garcia, a 20-year old 5’8″, 160 pounder, who is averaging 16 strikeouts per nine innings and appears to be a “can’t miss” prospect with four above average pitches in his arsenal, including a 95-97 mph fastball.

Wouldn’t it be fun to see little guys out there on the mound, mixed in with Yankee pitchers like 6’7″ C.C. Sabathia, 6’5″ James Paxon, 6’5″ JA Happ, and 6’5″ Aroldis Chapman, mowing down major league hitters during the stretch run of a pennant race?

Whitey Ford, only the greatest pitcher in Yankee history, was about 5’8″, and he’s in the Hall of Fame with 236 wins to his credit.

Clearly it’s not the size of one’s height, it’s the size of one’s heart (just made that up). And, it’s also the spin rate on the curve and slider, mixed in with control and command of a 95mph heater. But more on that, later.

Delvi Garcia is mowing down Double A hitters and could be in the Bronx sooner than expected

The Yankees have been bitten by the injury bug throughout their roster this season with the pitching staff getting hit particularly hard. Injuries to Luis Severino, their ace, along with Domingo German and Jordan Montgomery (recovering from Tommy John surgery last June) have left them with an over-dependence on pitchers like the 39-year old Sabathia and 36-year old Happ while getting inconsistent performances from James Paxson and German (before his injury).

Garcia, at Double A Trenton, is dominating Eastern League batters as he dominated in Single A ball. He is expected to be moved up, once again, to Triple A, the highest level of minor league baseball, within a few weeks. If his dominance continues there, he could be in line to get called up in September, when major league rosters expand.

“For a lack of a better word, he’s been dominant,” Trenton Thunder manager Pat Osborn said. “He has a really good four-pitch mix and all four right now are probably above the Major League average. He’s a heck of a competitor and has the composure of a guy that’s been pitching for a number of years. He’s the full package in terms of what you want in a young starting pitcher.”

Montgomery has had a recent setback in his rehabilitation, trying to come back from rotator cuff surgery in his elbow last June. This time, he is experiencing pain in his throwing shoulder. An MRI this week showed inflammation in the joint, always a scary proposition for pitchers. He won’t be back anytime soon.

German is a question mark, particularly since he didn’t pitch that well prior to his injury. He tends to lose command of his pitches, probably due to faulty mechanics with his delivery. He was able to maintain fastball velocity in the 95 mph range, but wasn’t throwing it for strikes, consistently. He was hit hard over his last several outings.

Severino, who won 19 games last season, seems to be progressing well in his rehab. If everything continues on a good path, it looks like he’ll be headed down to the minors in about two weeks to stretch out his arm so he can give the Yankees solid seven-inning outings when he returns to the big club. That should require at least four starts down on the farm, with the last two outings to occur with the Triple A Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees. Depending on how his arm, as well as his other physical ailments respond will determine when the Yankees bring him up to the big club in the Bronx. But, it will certainly be after the All-Star break.

The lesson to be learned is as old as the game, itself. Teams can never have too much pitching.

Mandel’s Musings: Mets’ Wheeler and Yankees’ Sanchez Are THE KEYS to 2019 Success

There are certain players on certain teams that are considered bellweather perfomers. On the Yankees, players like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Luis Severino are needed and expected to play up to the backs of their baseball cards for the Bombers to have any chance of winning a championship. On the Mets, the expectations of excellence falls on the shoulders of Michael Conforto, Robinson Cano, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard. Without those four achieving at high levels. the Mets have no chance to compete for a division title, let alone a World Series championship.

Which brings us to the other key players on the major league roster. The ones who are unpredictable, yet, so talented that if all of their bio-rhythms were in place, their mental and physical health were steady, and they played up to their talent, it would put both of these teams squarely in the race for the big trophy at the end of the season.

Sanchez banged out three homers for Yanks, yesterday

For the Mets, one of the keys, perhaps, THE key to their success in 2019 is Zack Wheeler, currently the number three guy in their pitching rotation.

For the Yankees, it is Gary Sanchez, the sometimes moody catcher with Hall of Fame skills but not always Hall of Fame focus and concentration.

Yesterday’s games showed us just how crucial these two players are to the fortunes of these teams.

The Mets know what they will be getting from deGrom and Syndergaard when they start games every fifth day. The question mark remains Wheeler, who was the second best pitcher in baseball from the All-Star break through October in 2018.

Wheeler, who was a number one draft choice, sixth overall pick, by the San Francisco Giants in 2009, has always been viewed as a potential ace, with a 98 mph fastball with movement, sharp breaking ball, and a flexible, live arm that could take the mound every scheduled outing and dominate opposing teams.

Sanchez, who broke into the majors and made himself an immediate Hall of Fame candidate after his first half season in 2015, has had more ups and downs in his still-young career than any future Hall of Famer should go through. Most of those downs have been of his own making, through not being able to understand or accept the tough love former manager, Joe Girardi, the old catcher, tried to impart to Sanchez the finer points of the game, especially, defensively.

Girardi was fired, some say, because of his relationship with Sanchez, in an era of players having more power than a manager.

But yesterday, we saw what Sanchez, still only 26, can do with a bat in his hand. In an era when any offense from a catcher is welcome but not necessarily expected by major league teams, the “San-chize” hit not one, not two, but three home runs in Baltimore. He drove in six runs. And, the Yankees had another cakewalk against the sad Orioles, 15-3.

He now has six homers in the season’s first 10 games, and looks to be a happy player.

Oddly, after the game, no one expressed shock at yesterday’s output from the young slugger. His teammates have seen him do this before, in bunches, as a rookie and in his second year. Last year, he hit .188. Nobody seems to know why yet, most baseball observers still consider his hitting talent to be the best in the Yankees lineup.

The dilemma with Sanchez is, we know he’s one of the scariest hitters in the game, when he has access to his full compliment of physical and mental capabilities. The question is, how do the Yankees keep him happy and thriving?

With Sanchez bashing, the Yankee lineup, is one in which nobody can be pitched around. It becomes a nightmare for opposing pitching staffs and it will lead to a season of fastballs for everybody, 1 thru 9.

Yesterday, Wheeler pitched against the Washington Nationals in a style reminiscent of the first eight years of his career. He lost his command on his fastball and curve, he lost his control, walking a career-high seven batters in five innings. He generally looked lost out there, a huge disappointment to a Mets organization that has been re-structured from top to bottom by new general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen. But still, at the major league level, this team is programmed to be dependent on its pitching arms.

Without Wheeler pitching with some semblance of his talent level, the Mets will turn into a version of the old Milwaukee Braves slogan, “Burdette and Sain, and pray for rain” from the 1950s:

“deGrom and No (Syndergaard) and pray for snow.”

Right now, the Mets are praying for the light to go on again for Wheeler. If it doesn’t, you are looking at Stephen Matz and Jason Vargas needing to pick up the pace to about 15 wins apiece. A tall order which almost guarantees a disappointing season for the Mets.

Mandel’s Musings: Yankees, Missing Table Setter, Still Haven’t Fixed Lineup Issues

It’s early, of course, in the 2019 season but the New York Yankees, one of baseball’s favorites to win the World Series this year are looking very much like last year’s team, which fell short in the playoffs for one major reason. Their lineup of home run hitting sluggers was unable to put bat to ball when they faced top of the line pitching rotations like the Astros or the Red Sox.

This season, so far, has that same feel, know what I mean?

The Yanks’ lineup remains the most fearful in the game. From one through nine, a healthy Yankees’ batting order will do damage to most American League pitchers over the course of a season. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Luke Voit, Aaron Hicks, and Gleyber Torres will all hit more than 20 homers this year. Hell, they’ll all probably hit more than 30.

The question is, how many of these bashers will also hit .280 or better and strike out less than 100 times?

The Yankees dilemma this year is the same as it was last year. Hitting homers in batches, as the Bombers did in 2018 (266 – a major league record) puts fans in the seats, even bringing back the early-arrival fans who enjoy watching these very large men take their pre-game batting practice hacks but, it doesn’t win championships.

But, who are the table-setters?

Nothing wrong with power, in this age of weight-training, protein drinks, and any other enhancements used in professional sports. But, even in 2019, championship teams must possess lineups that include a smattering of hit-to-contact types so the bashers can get big, sweet fastballs to swing at with runners on base. Opposing pitchers prefer to pitch off the plate to big swingers, who tend to feast on fastball strikes but without ideal bat control, can be fooled by pitches that expand the strike zone to include breaking balls in the dirt. Base runners force pitchers to throw strikes, a good scenario for big swingers like Judge and Stanton and Sanchez.

But, who are the table-setters?

The Houston Astros’ second baseman, Jose Altuve, has, at 5’6″, 160 pounds made himself into a superstar by getting on base, not striking out, and making opposing pitchers jittery when he’s taking leads off first.

The Red Sox have Mookie Betts, who also knows how to make contact and does so to all fields with power, despite his diminutive body-type.

Guess which teams won the past two World Series? If you answered the Astros and the Red Sox, you’d be right.

I’m not saying the Yankees should have held onto a popular player of theirs from the past two seasons, Ronald Torreyes, but let’s just say, by getting rid of a “Torreyes-type,” they no longer have a diminutive contact hitter in their lineup who rarely strikes out. Brett Gardner is going to be 36 during this season, and never was a hit-to-contact type with a high on-base percentage. Tyler Wade has a lifetime batting average of .164. D.J. LeMahieu, a solid acquisition during the off-season, doesn’t fit the profile of an Altuve or a Betts, either.

Yesterday, the Yankees beat the lowly Orioles, 8-4. Their offense, third in the American League in strikeouts and at the bottom of the league in stolen bases, has been slumping for several games now.

Once again, the Yanks were in their collective offensive funk against Alex Cobb, the Orioles starting pitcher who will NOT be in the running for the Cy Young award, until the sixth inning. Cobb was treating this Yankee lineup as if he was pitching for the Astros or the Red Sox, in post-season games.

Baltimore, on paper the worst team in the sport, had a 4-1 edge going into the sixth inning, the Yankees lone run coming on, you guessed it, a home run by Gleyber Torres. Other than that, against Alex Cobb, zilch.

It wasn’t until the sixth inning when the pinstripes exploded against the putrid Orioles bullpen for four runs, on, yes, a solo home run by Sanchez and a three-run homer by Torres, his second of the game, coming after two singles by Bird and LeMahieu.

Image result for jose altuve
Altuve is the perfect table-setter for the Astros

Here’s the thing about home runs. They come in bunches and practitioners of the art of home run hitting tend to be streaky. They will hit 10-15 in a month, then, nothing but ground outs and strikeouts for a few weeks. Nobody seems to know why that is. It’s one of baseball’s mysteries that keeps this game interesting. But, it doesn’t help a team when most of its lineup is comprised of precisely those kind of bashers who have their hot and cold streaks during the season, but are especially cold during the playoffs, when the strikeouts and ground outs are almost a guarantee.

Note to Yankees’ General Manager, Brian Cashman: The Yankees will not win a World Series without scrappy, speedy guys with high on-base percentages to set the table for their sluggers.

Where have you gone, Ronald Torreyes?

Cano, deGrom Pay Early Dividends Leading Mets to Opening Day Win

by Scott Mandel

Now is when the true bosses of major league baseball teams, the general managers, get to see if their off-season brilliance of player signings and acquisitions turn out, on the field, as well as they seemed to be in the planning stages, on paper.

Welcome to the 2019 baseball season. For the Mets, after one game, so far, so good.

If Brodie Van Wagenen is keeping score after today’s opening day game for his New York Mets, he’s accepting high-fives from the Wilpon family tonight after the Mets defeated the Washington Nationals in Washington, 2-0, behind his key acquisition.

Robinson Cano, acquired by Van Wagenen from the Seattle Mariners to be the number three hitter in the Mets lineup, supplied the offensive firepower, such as it was, to bring the Mets home to a 2-0 win this afternoon over the second best pitcher in baseball, Max Scherzer of the Nationals. Cano led the way with a first inning home run and a clutch single to the opposite field in the sixth inning, driving in both Mets runs to pave the way for the first win of the season for the best pitcher in baseball, Mets ace, Jacob deGrom.

Watch Cano’s home run today:
https://www.mlb.com/video/robinson-cano-homers-1-on-a-fly-ball-to-center-field

Cano’s production led to the first win of the season for deGrom, he of the two-day old, ink not quite dried $137.5 million, five-year contract extension. After his Cy Young season in 2018, in which the Mets averaged 1.7 runs per game for him, the two runs Cano drove in must have felt like a deluge.

But, deGrom made those runs stand up, shutting down a solid Nationals lineup in front of a full house in D.C.

DeGrom finished his day, throwing six innings, allowing five hits, zero runs, zero walks, and 10 strikeouts. A dominating performance even if his command early in the game wasn’t at its peak.

“I made some good pitches when I needed to,” deGrom said. “I threw some sliders and changeups, especially later in the game. I didn’t have great command of my breaking pitches early on but I was able to battle.”

Last season, deGrom, finished only one game over .500, with a 10-9 record, as astounding a set of numbers for a Cy Young winner as has ever existed. He almost needed to shut out opposing teams to have a chance at getting a win. Even though his support today wasn’t much better, the presence of Cano, the former Yankee who is on a Hall of Fame track as one of the best hitting second basemen the game has seen. adds star power to a Mets lineup that can only look better because of his presence.

“Scherzer is one of the best out there,” said Cano after the game in discussing his home run in the first. “I was looking for a pitch over the plate. I was able to make contact with one right over the middle.”

DeGrom was thankful for his two runs but just as happy to get good defensive support from his mates.

“We had good plays in the field, behind me,” deGrom added. “I was nervous today. Once I get out there, I’m okay. But, I felt the pressure today with it being Opening Day.”

This was the first time Cano had played behind deGrom.

Jacob deGrom
DeGrom gets his first win of 2019 against the Nationals

“DeGrom is so special,” Cano said. “It’s unbelievable how he can pitch out of tough situations. He’s fun to play behind.”

To top off the Brodie ratings of player acquisitions, the Mets new closer, the 6’3″, 165 lb. beanpole, Edwin Diaz, pitched a tidy and high-powered (hitting 99mph on the radar gun) last inning to close the matter out.

Brodie Van Wagenen was smiling at the end of the game.

Notes: Today’s outing by deGrom was his 30th straight start allowing 3 runs or less, a major league baseball record. Cano was the 10th player in Mets history to hit a home run in his first at bat with the team. Mets rookie first baseman, Pete (“don’t call me, Peter”) Alonzo got his first major league hit, a single in the eighth inning.