The pitcher batting eighth was only the beginning. When this one was over, every healthy position player had been in the game; Vernon Wells had played third base for the first time in his life; a reliever with six days of big league experience had been called into a tied game; and a 6-4, 235-pound outfielder had won it on a stumbling infield single that capped a ninth-inning rally in which the Yankees never hit the ball out of the infield.
This one had the unmistakable feel of making it up on the fly, but the improvised win was one of the Yankees’ most impressive of the season.
“This team is scrapping,” Brennan Boesch said. “I think it’s pretty cool to just have guys do whatever they can. It’s all hands on deck obviously. We’ve been kind of doing that all year, so nothing’s really changed.”
With no infielders on the bench, Joe Girardi decided to pinch hit for Chris Nelson in the ninth inning, knowing it meant moving Wells to the infield for the first time since he played shortstop in high school, which Wells joked was “just a couple of years ago.” When Travis Hafner struck out in that at-bat, it was the pitcher’s spot in the order — the No. 8 spot — that came up with the bases loaded, two outs, and the game tied. Boesch won it when it seemed Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado underestimated Boesch’s speed.
“It’s not like I’m just (throwing ideas) against the wall,” Girardi said. “I mean, it’s thought out, you know? … We pitched extremely well. That’s why we won this game tonight. And we know we have to do that. But stealing one is when you’re down and someone makes an error or you get a call that goes your way. That’s stealing. But our guys played a good game.”
Or, as Wells put it: “To a man in this clubhouse, when you’re asked to do something and it’s going to help this team in any way, there’s not a man in here that will say no. Once the pitch is thrown, nobody really cares of it’s the first time you’ve done anything. You have to go out and compete, and we did that.”
• Wells likes to take ground balls at third base because he thinks it helps keep his hands nimble. Girardi saw him doing it earlier this season and was impressed. It was just today that Girardi told Wells that he was being considered as the backup infielder while Eduardo Nunez is hurt. “As soon as I saw Travis coming up, I knew I was going to end up playing third,” Wells said. “Once Boeschy was called safe, I was like a little kid jumping around. Then I quickly stopped and realized I had to play third base and get my head together. … I’m looking over at (infield coach Mick Kelleher) in the dugout and he’s like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to play in.’ I’m like, ‘What? I’ve got to play in? This is already in!’”
• Stuck in a slump, Wells broke out with a 3-for-4 night that included a two-run homer and the game-winning run. But he said the highlight was playing third. “Taking ground balls while Mo is warming up, then I look up and I’m throwing the ball to Mariano Rivera, it’s a cool feeling,” Wells said. “… Hopefully instincts take over. Go catch it and hopefully you hit Lyle’s glove on the other side of the field. You have fun with this game; that was one of the cooler moments of my career.”
• The hilarious story of the last time Wells played the infield: “I got hit in the mouth when I was 12 at second base and I moved to the outfield. In high school, report cards came out and our entire infield failed, so I had to go play short. That’s a true story.”
• Boesch on beating out the infield single, when he got down the line faster than it seemed anyone was expecting: “I probably surprised some third baseman sometimes in my career with hitting some balls over there as a left-handed hitter. That doesn’t happen too often, and you can kind of get out of the box quicker as a lefty. I’m kind of a taller, bigger guy but sometimes you can sneak up on some infielders. Just trying to hustle and make something happen.”
• Great start by David Phelps, who looked sharp in his second start in place of Ivan Nova. “That’s probably the best I’ve felt in a little while,” Phelps said. “Just keep the ball down, try to pitch to contact, get some good results. I think (Austin Romine) did a really good job tonight walking me through the game. I think I shook once. We were on the same page most of the night, and it made it really easy for me.”
• Phelps said he didn’t have a good curveball tonight, so he relied on his changeup. The biggest difference, he said, was simply staying down in the zone. “I felt like we were, today, mostly, we were more down than on the corners,” he said. “That’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to not have to live on the edge and have to depend on an umpire’s call. Get some groundballs and early contact like I was doing tonight. I feel like I had a little bit better feel of where my ball was going.”
• Phelps grew up in St. Louis watching Tony La Russa’s teams, so he didn’t find the lineup particularly unusual. But he said he did give Romine a hard time about it.
• For whatever it’s worth, Girardi said he was also considering moving Romine to third base in the ninth but decide to use Wells instead.
• Another perfect inning for Preston Claiborne, who’s been awfully good in his first two outings. “It’s great to have (confidence),” he said. “I’ve got it right now, and I just hope to keep doing what I’m doing and maintain the confidence that I’m at.”
• By the way, Claiborne got his first big league strikeout and has the ball. He said his mother is coming to Kansas City and he’s going to give her the ball as a Mother’s Day gift. That’s rock solid.
• Dave Robertson slipped on his first pitch but came through the outing healthy. He was pretty erratic, though, and said it wasn’t because of the weather. “Felt a little rusty,” he said. “Didn’t make a lot of quality pitches. … Physically I’m good.”
• Final word goes to Phelps, who said he was watching the ninth inning in the Yankees clubhouse. “Put the ball in play, crazy things can happen. We’ve found a way to win ballgames this year, and we’re winning them a lot of different ways. We’ve got a lot of guys that are scrapping for us. It’s a lot of fun.”
Associated Press photos