Because there’s so much to do before the next game gets started, I’m going to combine both postgame notes from the first game with the pregame notes for the second game. Obviously, the big story from today is the fact that the Yankees clinched their 16th postseason berth in 17 years with a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. The mood in the clubhouse was very relaxed, with no celebrations or champagne being sprayed. The Captain set the tone for that.
“We still feel as though we didn’t accomplish anything,” Derek Jeter said. “We’re happy to be in the playoffs, but we’re not running around here jumping up and down because we clinched a postseason berth. Our goal is to win the division. We have not done that yet, so we need to continue to play well and get that done.”
To clinch the division tonight, the Yankees need a win and a Boston loss. To clinch the division period, they simply need to win two more games, so it’s a pretty safe bet that they’ll get it done. When Jeter was asked if they’ve celebrated making the postseason before they’ve won the division in the past, he said only in years in which the division was out of reach.
Other long-time Yankees such as Mariano Rivera talked about how making the playoffs never gets old.
“I can’t take it for granted,” he said. “I enjoy it as much as the first one.”
Newcomers such as Eduardo Nunez, who went 2 for 3 and hit the game-tying homer in the eighth, seemed to be a bit more excited about the accomplishment.
“For me, it’s a good experience in my young career to play on this team,” he said. “It’s a special moment.”
• After the first game, everyone was just raving about the job that Nunez has done this year. He hit the ball hard everytime up, and has been an irreplaceable piece this season filling in for Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. He came up with possibly the biggest home run of his career today to lead off the eighth, tying the game at 2-2. While Nunez’s defense has been shaky at times, he has the kind of bat that makes him a viable option in the future to eventually take over at shortstop for Jeter. “He’s been big for us, because he’s had to fill some really big shoes for us this year,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He plays with no fear, and he’s been a big addition to our club. I think our bench has played a key role.”
• The other big blow for the Yankees came from Robinson Cano. After Brett Gardner singled and Jeter walked with one out and the game tied in the eighth, Rays manager Joe Maddon brought in LHP JP Howell to face Cano. Bad move. Cano was hitting .294 against Howell in his career, and as he has all year with runners in scoring position, he came up big. Cano stroked a two-run double into left-center field, giving the Yankees a 4-2 lead with Rivera coming into the game. After the game, Girardi was asked by WFAN’s Sweeny Murti who he thought was ahead in the MVP race. “You’re trying to get me in trouble with that one, aren’t you Sweeny?” Girardi cracked. “You know, they’ve both had fabulous years, and I think they’re both deserving. It may come down to the last week, it’s very possible, because they’re all around players. They drive in runs, they score runs, they play great defense, both of them. So, I’m not going to answer that question, because it’s a loaded question. Maybe we can have co-MVPs.”
• Speaking of that MVP race, the debate between Granderson and Cano is actually closer than many people may think. Granderson’s name is mentioned much more often, but when you break it down, it’s difficult to tell who’s having a better year. Granderson has more HRs (41 vs. 26 for Cano), but Cano’s double in the eighth made him the major league leader in extra base hits with 79. Cano’s batting average is 34 points higher than Granderson’s, but Granderson’s on-base percentage is 23 points higher. Their RBI numbers are nearly identical, but Granderson leads the league in runs scored with 133. He also has 16 more stolen bases than Cano and his OPS is 60 points higher. That all might skewed the vote in Granderson’s favor, but a noteworthy stat is batting average with runners in scoring position. Granderson is hitting only .252, but Cano is raking at .311. All of this might be enough to split the vote in favor of Toronto’s Jose Bautista. Who gets your vote?
• We have to comment on the work that the bullpen did today. Spot-starter Hector Noesi wasn’t at his best today (2.2 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 HR), but the rest of the bullpen didn’t allow a run. Girardi used a total of eight pitchers, which seemed to be a bit of overkill, but it worked. Raul Valdes, George Kontos, Aaron Laffey, Cory Wade, Boone Logan, Luis Ayala and Rivera each pitched out of the pen, and all of them got the job done. None pitched more than 1.1 innings, so we had quite a few mid-inning pitching changes. “Pitching was wonderful,” Girardi said. “Hec doing what he did in a spot start when he hasn’t been stretched out. We were asking a lot from him, and then the bullpen did a tremendous job getting outs. They had some base-runners, but our guys got outs when they needed to.”
• When asked if any of the relatively unknown relievers really stood out today, Girardi mentioned Valdes, who had three strikeouts. The search for a second lefty out of the pen since Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte went down with injuries has been ongoing, but Valdes seems to have worked his way into the conversation. He’s still a stretch for the postseason roster, but he’s making an impression. “I thought the last two times that we’ve used him he’s done a really good job,” Girardi said. “He’s got a little funk to him. There’s something about his windup that looks like the ball kind of jumps at you. We’ll use him more.”
• Girardi also sang Austin Romine’s praises for his work behind the plate. It’s clear that he feels much more comfortable using him as Russell Martin’s backup, rather than Jesus Montero or Jorge Posada. “He’s caught a lot of these guys, that’s the thing. He’s caught Noesi, he’s caught Valdes, he’s caught Kontos, who was next?” Girardi said with a laugh. “He’s look comfortable back there to us… I felt bad for him. He hit a bullet (in the fifth), and that could have been the tying run.”
• Of course, with a playoff spot being clinched, it was only natural that Girardi would be asked about his playoff rotation. “Let us win the division first, and then maybe we can talk about something else,” he said with a laugh. “Then I’ll stall even longer.”
• Interesting tidbit on Phil Hughes. After downplaying his back spasms and telling the media that might throw a bullpen session between games, Girardi informed us that Hughes went to go see a doctor during the first game. “He didn’t throw,” Girardi said. “He actually went to see the doctor, and I don’t have the results yet. I think he had an MRI.”
• Girardi said that he doesn’t plan on using any of the eight pitchers he used in the first game tonight. He wouldn’t commit to Dave Robertson as the closer, but that’s the assumption.
Associated Press photos