The New York Yankees have not been in first place by themselves since the last day of the 2006 season. Given the perennial talent and expense of their roster, this is shocking to say the least. But that all changed with the Yankee's 3-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians on Friday night. Sharing the position with Boston leading into the evening, the combination of the Red Sox loss to Toronto — snapping the Jay's nine-game losing streak — and the Yankee's triumph over the Indians allowed New York to seize the top spot in the hyper-competitive AL East for the first time in manger Joe Girardi's tenure.
The Yanks, who have gone 3-3 since the nine-game win streak that propelled them up the standings, got to last year's Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee early in the game. Posting two runs in the second inning on a Derek Jeter single and another in the third on a Nick Swisher sacrifice fly that scored — who else — Robinson Cano, the Yankees spoiled what was otherwise a solid start by the struggling Cleveland ace.
Those three runs were all New York starter Andy Pettitte needed to shut down the distressed Cleveland lineup. Allowing one run on six hits over five innings, Pettitte once again baffled the opposing hitters with his command, movement, and pitch selection. He struck out only one, but proved very effective with his revamped, cerebral, Glavine-like approach on the mound.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, Pettitte was forced out of the game in the sixth with a stiff back after allowing a run and not recording an out in the inning. While this feels ominous — especially given the Yankees' season long injury epidemic — the issue does not seem serious upon observation and initial report. While his time on the mound was shorter than the Yankees would have liked, Pettitte's five scoreless innings represent another much need strong outing by a Yankees' starter, and another indication that the much lauded rotation is finally starting to take shape as a tangible and effective unit.
Mariano Rivera entered the two run game in the ninth inning after three outstanding, scoreless one-hit innings by Alfredo Aceves — and looked very strong. He did allow a leadoff single, but Rivera went on to retire the following three batters, two by strikeout. His velocity was up once again and the movement on his cutter was glaringly present, lacking the "flatness" that described some of his early efforts in his return from offseason surgery. Most notably, his strikeout of Indians' star Grady Sizemore demonstrated that Rivera is moving closer to his usual standard of performance after a fairly rough start.
The connection of Pettitte and Rivera was the 58th time that both pitchers' names have been listed together in a Yankee boxscore in victory. This most recent effort sets the all time record for such a connection, surpassing Bob Welch and Dennis Eckersley from the 1980s Oakland Athletic teams. Given the frequent movement of players in general — but especially pitchers — between teams and the short shelf-life of closers, it is highly unlikely that this record will ever be broken. Considering modern times, even the Pettitte-Rivera connection could have been statistically stronger had Andy not taken his three-year hiatus in Houston.
The game was also significant in that Jorge Posada made his return behind the plate for the first time since his stint on the DL that began on May 4, strengthening a major weakness in the Yankees' lineup. While Kevin Cash played some solid defense, Jorge's bat is irreplaceable, as the team found out even last season during their Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez experiment. Posada wasted no time getting back into the "swing" of things, going 2-for-3, with a single and a long double. Posada caught the entire game and showed no signs of discomfort or restriction from the hamstring injury that landed him on the DL.
Considering the reclamation of first place, the return of integral component Jorge Posada, and the history created by Pettite and Rivera, Friday night's victory over the admittedly feeble Cleveland Indians exudes far more importance than a usual win over a last place team would normally posssess. But for Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera, it is a night they aren't likely to forget.
Yankee Notes: Outfielder Xavier Nady is swinging a bat in Tampa at the Yankees' spring training complex, and looks to be a couple of weeks away from a return that will add yet more power to an already prolific Yankees lineup. … Furthering the Yankees' mash unit report, Melky Carbera and his bruised shoulder should reportedly be back in the lineup by Monday according to Girardi. Brent Gardner has done well in his absence so it's likely the centerfield competition will heat up once again, although Cabrera was stellar before the injury. … Jose Molina is also playing in simulated games in Tampa and is close to a return. … The news is far worse for valuable reliever Brian Bruney. Reports are that Bruney could miss the entire season with his elbow injury making the strong outing of Aceves that much more important.