Halfway Home: A Look At The First Half Of The Yankee 2012 Season
On the 4th of July, at 6:57 PM EDT, Rafael Soriano induced Carlos Pena to pop up to first base and seal a 4-3 comeback victory over the Rays. That popup marked not only the end of the game, but also the first half of the 2012 Yankee season.
Each regular season seems to have its own flavor or theme, something that makes it unique from recent seasons. The conclusion of the first half of the 2012 season finds the Yankees in first place in the AL East, exactly where they were at end of 81 games in the 2011 season. So what’s been different about the 2012 Yankees season? Plenty! Today we’ll take a look back at the events that shaped the first half of the 2012 season as well as the emotions those events inspired.
Spring Training- A Comeback And Setbacks
The Yankees took to Legends Field for spring training following a busy offseason by GM Brian Cashman. On January 13th, Cashman traded catcher/DH Jesus Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi to the Seattle Mariners for pitcher Michael Pineda and minor league pitching prospect Jose Campos. On that same day, Cashman signed free agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda to one year, ten million dollar contract. Those moves by Cashman would serve as catalysts for signing DH Raul Ibanez and trading pitcher A.J. Burnett to the Pirates.
These transactions were viewed very favorably by many fans and media members and as a result, the bar had been raised even higher on the expectations of the 2012 Yankee season.
There was a buzz surrounding the beginning of spring training that rivaled that of 2009, the year that Cashman had added the free agent trio of C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and the aforementioned A.J. Burnett. Those additions had played a huge role in the eventual World Series victory of that year and fans and management were hopeful that the additions of Pineda and Kuroda would help lead to the same outcome.
On March 16th, one of the most beloved Yankees of all time announced his return to baseball and sent Yankee fans into a fever pitch. Andy Pettitte, who had retired at the end of the 2010 season, announced that he still had a desire to play the game of baseball and signed a one year deal with the Yankees for the 2012 season. Pettitte, who was 39 at the time, looked to be giving the Yankees an eventual problem of “too much pitching” upon his projected arrival to the team in May. Pettitte also gave fans another link to the beloved Yankee dynasty teams as a member of the core four. With Jorge Posada‘s retirement following the 2011 season, only Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera remained as active Yankees from those teams who won 4 titles in 5 years. The idea of Pettitte rejoining his old teammates brought a smile to many fans’ faces.
Most baseball fans realize that the outcome of spring training games is meaningless. A good won-lost record in spring training and a dollar will you get you a cup of coffee. When the Yankees went on a spring training losing streak, the headlines calling for concern were as comical as they were misguided. Apparently Derek Jeter couldn’t hit anymore and Ivan Nova couldn’t pitch anymore.
While most fans were rational enough not to get taken in by those headlines, there were some serious concerns about pitcher Michael Pineda that were troubling. Pineda had taken being traded to the most franchise in professional sports so seriously that he had come to camp at anywhere from 290-305 pounds, depending on what source you trusted. You didn’t need a scale to see that he was out shape and Pineda himself said he needed to lose weight. Pineda was ineffective in his spring training starts, the biggest concern being a diminished velocity on his fastball.
On March 30th, Pineda felt some discomfort in the back of his right shoulder in a spring training start. Pineda was given an MRI and diagnosed with tendon inflammation in his right shoulder. Pineda was shut down until further notice, causing panic in those who had seen him as the number two starter the Yankees had needed.
Five days before Pineda was shut down, Joba Chamberlain‘s comeback from 2011 Tommy John surgery was derailed not by an on the field injury, but by a bad break of his ankle while playing with his son on a trampoline. Needless to say, the Yankees did not march into battle for the start of the 2012 regular season as they had hoped or planned.
April -The Binder, The Ageless Captain, Freddy Becomes A Four Letter Word, The Big Bust, Hurry Andy!!!
On Friday afternoon of April 6th, everyone settled into their seats at home or at work to watch or listen to the opening game of the 2012 Yankees regular season. Yankee ace C.C. Sabathia was on the mound at the Trop to face Tampa Bay ace James Shields.
One of the recurring themes of Joe Girardi’s career as the Yankee skipper has been severe criticism directed at him for his seemingly obsessive use of statistical data contained in his ever-present binders. This habit infuriates many who would prefer to see more liberal use of his eyes and judgement. While almost every Yankee fan alive WANTS to love Girardi, he has made that very challenging at times.
Just this past offseason, in what may have been inspired by wishful thinking, I surmised in a discussion with a friend that perhaps Girardi had matured and settled into his role as the Yankee manager enough to become more confident in his own judgement and less reliant on the binder. It was the only the bottom of the first inning on opening day when I called that friend and said “so much for that”.
Girardi called for Sabathia to issue a free pass to the Rays’ Sean Rodriguez to load the bases in the bottom of the first inning in order to face slugger Carlos Pena. Pena promptly deposited a 3-2 pitch from Sabathia into the right field stands for a grand slam and the first “binder” debates and Twitter one-liners of the year were on.
The Yankees would rally to take the lead back in that game before closer Mariano Rivera would allow a leadoff single to Desmond Jennings in the 9th inning that would be followed by an RBI triple to Ben Zobrist to tie the game. Girardi went to the binder again, calling for intentional walks to both Evan Longoria and Luke Scott to load the bases. After striking out Sean Rodriguez, Carlos Pena once again thwarted Girardi’s strategy by singling in the winning run.
The rest of the season opening series in Tampa would go the same way, with the Yankees getting swept by the Rays. Panic and chaos were everywhere! Would Girardi ever learn? Was Mariano done? Could this Yankee team “rebound” to make the playoff? It took a sweep of the Orioles in the following series to calm the masses and restore sanity to those following or covering the Yankees.
The Yankees won their season home opener 5-0 over the Angels on April 13th behind a stellar outing by Kuroda. The Yankees would go 4-3 on that opening home stand against the Angels and Twins. The biggest loss of that home stand wasn’t on the scoreboard but that of Brett Gardner, who was injured against the Twins on April 17th.
Next up was a series that was scheduled for three games against the Red Sox in Fenway Park. While rain was to shorten the series to only two games, the second of the two games would become an instant classic, adding to the deep and rich history of Yankees-Red Sox lore.
On a Saturday afternoon in Fenway one day after Ivan Nova had outgunned Clay Bucholz in a 6-2 Yankee victory, Freddy Garcia was about to officially become a four letter word amongst Yankee fans and in the process of doing so, he would set the table for one of the greatest Yankee comebacks ever.
Garcia had already made two horrific starts in the 2012 season so it was no real surprise when he was chased from the game after allowing 5 earned runs on 7 hits in only 1 2/3 innings. Clay Rapada and David Phelps were the first to relieve Garcia and they allowed 4 more runs. At the end of 5 innings in Fenway, the score was 9-0 in favor of the Red Sox. At that point, the only reason that more fans didn’t hit the button on their remote controls was the fact that FOX was doing live look-in’s of the developing perfect game that White Sox pitcher Phil Humber would eventually complete. On Twitter, the Red Sox fans told Yankee jokes while the Yankee fans took part in group therapy designed to remedy the Garcia induced trauma. In the top of the 6th inning, Mark Teixeira hit what looked to be a meaningless solo shot to make the score 9-1. It was in the top of the 7th inning when things started to get very interesting. Nick Swisher launched a grand slam that would soon be followed by another home run from Teixeira, this one of the three run variety. The Yankees had closed the game up to a score of 9-8 and Rafael Soriano held the Red Sox scoreless in the bottom of the 7th. In the top of the 8th inning Nick Swisher would add two more RBI’s to his total while putting the Yankees on top for good with a two run double off the Green Monster. Teixeira would join Swisher with 6 RBI’s in the game as the Yankees scored 7 runs in consecutive innings on the way to 15 unanswered runs in a 15-9 victory.
The only bad news that reached Yankee fans that day was a report that Michael Pineda had felt weakness in his shoulder after throwing 15 pitches in an extended spring training game in Tampa and would once again be evaluated by the Yankee medical staff.
The controversial Pineda-Montero trade turned into a bona fide bust, at the very least for the 2012 season, when further MRI’s revealed a torn labrum in Pineda’s right shoulder which would require season ending surgery. This news was called “tragic” by Yankee GM Brian Cashman and viewed just as dimly by many fans. Shortly after the Pineda diagnosis was made official, Freddy Garcia made one final start in the rotation against the Tigers on April 28th which was just as ugly as his first three starts had been and confirmed beyond any doubt that he no longer could remain in the Yankee rotation. Suddenly, the abundance of Yankee starting pitching had vanished. With no Pineda in 2012 and Garcia being pulled from the rotation, Andy Pettitte’s minor league rehab starts were as closely monitored and reported on as the Republican Presidential Primaries. The cries of “Hurry Andy!” were heard from Yankee fans everywhere.
Derek Jeter defied age by leading the Yankees in April with a dazzling month at the plate. Jeter hit .389 with a OBP of .433, a slugging percentage of .579, and an OPS of 1.012.
The Yankees had hit very well for average and power in April, well enough to gloss over their low RISP average to some extent.
After all of that drama, the Yankees would end April with a 13-9 record. With Andy Petitte scheduled to return soon, the Pineda drama over with for the year, and the team hitting well, certainly May would be less stressful right?
May- The Darkest Hour, Not Robertson Too!, .500 After 42 Games, Andy’s Return, RISP= RIP, The Turnaround
There are certain events in life that define a generation of baseball fans. These are moments where later on, everyone can recall exactly where they were and who they were with when the event happened or news of the event reached them. For someone my age, the saddest of these events had been the news that my childhood hero Thurman Munson had died on an August day of 1979 when I was ten years old. What happened on May 3rd, 2012 wasn’t as sad as a death, but it sure felt like the closest thing to one to Yankee fans everywhere.
For me, the first week in May means a trip to Louisville, Kentucky to see friends and the running of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. This year was no different. I had traveled down on Tuesday, and by Thursday night was already a bit knocked out from the nonstop fun I’d had since I got to town. I decided to pass on that evening’s party and headed back to my friend’s house to study the races for Kentucky Oaks Day. After a shower and some studying, I decided to check my Twitter timeline before putting the Yankees-Royals game on television. What I saw both horrified and froze me. The first thing I saw on my Twitter timeline were tweets about Mariano Rivera being out for the year. At first I went into denial, hoping that some large-scale hoax was taking place on Twitter. After all, the game hadn’t even started yet and how likely was it that he had been injured that badly before a game? It was after seeing a tweet from CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman that I knew it had really happened, that Mariano Rivera’s season and possibly his career were over as the result of an accident while shagging fly balls in the outfield before a game. I’ll never forget the moment I realized that Mariano might not ever pitch a game in the Bronx again. I sat silently, saying nothing, and let my mind wander back to all of the Mariano moments and tried to imagine the Yankees without him. I doubt that my reaction was much different from anyone else.
If you were a Yankee fan, the one thing you could count on since 1997 was Mariano Rivera jogging in to the mound from the bullpen before the last inning of a tight game. With his famed work ethic and incredible talent, Rivera was one of the few athletes in history that could honestly be described as “still in his prime” at age 42. Rumors that Rivera’s 2012 season would be his last had already put many Yankee fans in a high state of anxiety, but this was devastating. Just like that, the legend was done for the year and possibly forever.
Thankfully for Yankee fans and his teammates, Mariano Rivera has vowed to return to the Yankees in 2013 following surgery to repair his damaged knee. Even better news is that this accident, while devastating at the time, may have saved Rivera’s life. While preparing for the surgery to his knee, a blood clot was discovered in Rivera’s right calf that may not have been discovered had he not been injured. The clot was effectively dissolved with blood thinners and the surgery performed on Rivera’s knee deemed a success.
On the night of the Rivera injury, the Yankees were about to start a series with the Royals following two straight losses to the Orioles. The Yankees lost on this evening as well, but the loss to the Royals was barely an afterthought as the loss of Mariano was absorbed by everyone.
The immediate question on everyone’s mind was who would fill Rivera’s shoes as the closer? Manager Joe Girardi indicated that both David Robertson and Rafael Soriano would share the duties, but Robertson appeared to have the leg up on being made the permanent closer. Robertson had been nothing short of sensational in his setup duties in 2011 and up to this point in 2012.
It wasn’t until May 8th against the Rays, 5 days after the Rivera injury, that a save situation arose for the Yankee bullpen. Robertson was given the call by Girardi and went out for the first save opportunity in the post-Mo era of 2012. In his typical ” Houdini” fashioN. Robertson gave up two walks and a hit but managed to get out of his own jam while allowing no runs to get the save. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Robertson’s numbers had been stellar for quite some time. Maybe he was ready to take over the job of closer in a seamless transition. In a year in which almost nothing had gone to plan for the Yankees, it only took 24 hours to see that Robertson might not be the answer yet.
The night aftE. Robertson had magically gotten out of yet another self-imposed jam, Girardi once again called on him to shut the door on a Tampa team that was trailing 1-0 into the top of the 9th inning. This timE. Robertson’s bag of tricks would be empty. The Rays first tied the game on a sacrifice fly by B.J. Upton that scored Sean Rodriguez and then broke the game open when Matt Joyce sent a 1-2 pitch from Robertson into the stands for a three-run home run in front a shocked crowd. Chaos and general panic gripped Yankee fans as they pondered life without Mo following what may have been the most overhyped blown save in the history of baseball.
Soon thereafter, panic would screech to new and uncharted levels as Robertson’s strained oblique would land him on the DL. Yankee fans and beat writers spoke of this event in tones usually reserved for commenting on disasters such as tsunamis or hurricanes.
More bad news came when it was reported Brett Gardner continued to make little progress and his estimated return date was pushed back for the first of what would be many times. The Yankees average with RISP had turned into a nightmare with many fans referring to RISP as RIP or cleverly joking that the most effective way to stop the Yankees from hitting was to intentionally walk the bases full.
The only good thing that happened up to that point in May had been the emotional return of Andy Pettitte to the mound in the Bronx. Pettitte returned on May 13th, a beautiful Sunday afternoon, in front of a packed house that cheered him like the returning hero that he was. Pettitte didn’t pitch badly, but the Yankees lack of offense put him on the short end of a 6-2 decision to the Mariners. Pettitte would pitch 8 innings of 4-hit, shutout ball against the Reds on May 18th in his next start to get his first win since 2010.
The Yankees hit rock bottom on May 21st in a 6-0 loss against the Kansas City Royals in which they went 0-13 with RISP. At the time, the Yankees were only 7-37 with the bases loaded in 2012 including 9 strikeouts and had scored 2 runs or fewer in 10 of their last 20 games. When the Yankees woke up the morning of May 22nd, they were 21-21, playing .500 baseball 42 games into the season. The manager was tired of answering the same questions, the players were annoyed, and the fans were bickering among themselves on Twitter. No one expected the turnaround that was about to take place, and like most turnarounds, it was to start in the unlikeliest of places.
When Phil Hughes took the mound on Tuesday night May 22nd, he was coming off a decently pitched loss in Toronto. A victim of the “Joba Rules”, Hughes had pitched better than some of his numbers suggested in 2012 but had yet to put it together. The NY media seemed to turn on Hughes in 2011, while allowing certain overpaid underachievers to skate by without proper criticism or scrutiny. Who knows why, but many fans had seemed to turn on Hughes along with the media and Hughes was running out of time to right the ship. Garcia’s removal from the rotation took Hughes out of harm’s way in the matter of losing his rotation spot, yet the debate still raged about whether or not Hughes belonged in the bullpen or the rotation. Hughes pitched 6 solid innings that night and Robinson Cano homered to give the Yankees a 3-2 win over the Royals. That win would start a 5 game winning streak and the Yankees took six of their last eight games in the month of May.
Hiroki Kuroda continued to frustrate everyone with his feast or famine outings. Kuroda struggled with his K to BB ratio in May, with his ratio at less than 1 1/2 to 1 while also allowing 6 home runs in 5 starts. There were no shortage of Kuroda jokes in May, with the most popular being that in Japanese, Hiroki Kuroda translates to A.J. Burnett, without the fastball. Kuroda ended May with a 4-6 W-L record and a 3.96 ERA. I have to be honest when I say that at the end of May, even after 10 starts as a Yankee, I still had no idea what to make of the guy.
The Yankees would go 14-14 in May with a 27-23 record overall and a general feeling that with the RISP issues as well as the overwhelming injuries, that things could have been much worse. They hadn’t been able to get the cheese in May but they had gotten out of the trap.
In hindsight, the most positive thing in the month of May for the Yankees was one of the most unheralded. Without much fanfare or praise, a Yankee reliever who had been knocked around by the press and many fans since his arrival in the Bronx was starting to roll.
June- July 4th- Untuck The Shirt!, Hughes, Cano, Swisher, A Bad Day
Soriano had been pushed out of the setup role by the strong performance of David Robertson in 2011 and appeared to have little chance of rising on the depth chart of the deep Yankee bullpen. After David Robertson’s blown save against Tampa Bay and subsequent injury, Soriano was put into the role of the closer for the New York Yankees. The wisecracks came from fans and media alike about the state of the once feared Yankee pen. Laughter echoed from fans of other teams about how far the Yankees had fallen. Rafael Soriano and those who believed in him were about to have some laughs of their own.
Since Rafael Soriano was put into the role of closer, which was effectively on the night of May 10th, very few people could have imagined what he would do over the next 8 weeks. Soriano has been spectacular and the Yankees would be very hard pressed to imagine that they would have had the sensational June and early July that they’ve had without him.
Soriano has converted 13 of 14 saves since June 1st and 19 of 20 saves since assuming the closer’s role. Soriano’s ERA is now a stingy 1.72. Soriano spent the month of June and first few days of July not only saving 13 of 14 games for the Yankees, but turning around his own image. The boos have turned to cheers and Soriano’s ritual of praising God and then untucking his shirt following a successful save has started a Twitter craze in which fans call for the untucking of the shirt when he enters a game. It’s been very nice to see redemption for a player who has truly come through under extreme pressure when the Yankees desperately needed him to. If anyone has earned his money for the Yankees in 2012, it is Rafael Soriano.
The Yankees came flying out of the gate in June and never looked back. The Yankees compiled a 20-7 record in June, in which winning streaks of 10 games and 5 games took place. Phil Hughes had a huge stretch in June and so far in July, winning five games and losing only one. In his five wins, Hughes pitched 37 1/3 innings allowing only 6 earned runs. Hughes also has more than a 4-1 K to BB ratio in his last six starts.
The leader of the Yankees during this white-hot stretch has been Robinson Cano, who is not only the hottest player on the Yankees but the hottest player in baseball. Cano joined Soriano and Hughes in silencing his critics after what was deemed a slow start by many who expected such grandiose things for Cano in 2012.
Cano is 42-117(.359) since June 1st with 12 home runs. Cano has raised his season average to .316 with a OBP of .375, a slugging percentage of .585, and OPS of .960.
The Yankees had a very bad day on June 27th when C.C. Sabathia was put on the 15-day DL for a strained groin and Andy Pettitte was hit by a comebacker that fractured his ankle. Sabathia will miss a total of two starts and is expected to start the first game after the All-Star break for the Yankees against the Angels. Pettitte is expected to miss a total of about two months, leaving the Yankees with the option of young David Phelps or Freddy Garcia to take his rotation slot while he recovers and then rehabs.
The Yankees also have been forced to think about what to do in regards to their catching situation as Russell Martin has now added some recent sub par defense to his .178 season average. Since June 1st, Martin is only 13-79(.165) with 6 walks. Martin’s offense has been so terrible lately that it has inspired women who loved his offseason underwear ad pictures to delete them from their Iphones.
Mark Teixeira continues to struggle at the plate. Teixeira is 24-104(.231) since June 1st. Teixeira is batting .247 on the year to go along with a OBP of only .332 and an OPS of .795.
Alex Rodriguez is frustrating fans and his team with warning track power this year that is a cause for great concern. Rodriguez is 25-106(.236) since June 1st and is on pace for only 26 home runs this season.
The last series of the first half of the season vs the Rays in the Trop did bring frustration in a couple of missed opportunities in the first two games. Wednesday’s game really had the feeling of a game that the Yankees stole and to grab a win with a rookie starter going against David Price was a nice one to get away with.
The State Of The Yankees At The Midway Point:Where They Are, What’s Ahead?
As incredible as it may seem to those who remember the May night when the Yankees fell to 21-21, the Yankees are firmly in charge of the AL East with a 5 game lead halfway though the season. Since falling to .500 on the night of May 21st, the Yankees have gone an incredible 28-11. They’ve managed to survive a host of incredible injuries and a dismal team average with RISP. The middle of the staff (Nova, Hughes, Kuroda) has been a huge part of the recent success, with solid outing after solid outing. Whether or not Brett Gardner comes back in July may go a long way towards what kind of record the Yankees put up in their second 81 games this season. Gardner’s speed and defense in left field have been sorely missed.
The schedule should not be a hindrance to the Yankees in the second half of the season as it is well-balanced. The Yankees have 40 road games remaining and 41 home games remaining. With the extreme parity in the AL East and the large number of games that AL East opponents still have to play against each other, it’s going to be very hard for any team to make up a lot of ground on the others. The Yankees are in a very good place right now. While it will be very difficult for any AL team to finish with a better record than the Texas Rangers in 2012, the Yankees are in a good position to win the AL East and grab a 2 seed which should lead to a postseason series with the winner of the AL Central.
If someone were to have told you that after half the season was completed that four Yankee starters(A-Rod, Tex, Ibanez and Martin) would be hitting a combined 234-990(.236)how likely would you have been to have predicted the Yankees would lead the AL East by 5 games?
While it’s probably unrealistic to expect much more out of Ibanez and Martin in the second half of the season, improvement at the plate from either Teixeira or Rodriguez would make the Yankees even more dangerous in the second half of the season.
It’s hard to imagine a second half of the season for the Yankees that could possibly bring more drama and story lines than the first half of the season did but we all learned a long time ago that nothing is impossible in the Bronx.