Archive for July 18th, 2010

When AJ Burnett decided to slam his hand against a clubhouse door, he not only lacerated his right hand, but may have also punctured the first hole in what has been an airtight clubhouse.

AJ Burnett is visited by trainer Gene Monahan before exiting Saturday’s game with lacerations on his right hand (Photo: Getty Images).

At first, Burnett stated that his injuries came as a result of a fall down the clubhouse steps, but once the real reason for his early exit from Saturday’s loss to Tampa was revealed, the next question became how would the rest of the team react. According to media reports, Girardi and Cashman both had a stern conversation with Burnett, but one wonders how the rest of the players feel. Of course, we’ll probably never know the answer to that question. Following the lead of their captain, those players queried on the incident offered only tepid relies bordering on “no comment”. Regardless of their public reaction, you can bet there was plenty said behind closed doors.

Even though AJ Burnett has been very inconsistent on the mound, by most accounts, he has been a stable presence in the clubhouse that has helped transform the team’s chemistry. Everyone is aware of the pie throwing routine, but Burnett has also been credited with helping to foster more of a fun-loving attitude in the traditionally corporate Yankees’ locker room. Will such behavior be as welcomed after Burnett’s selfish act and subsequent decision to lie about it? Or, will Burnett’s presence in the clubhouse be muted? The answer probably depends on Burnett’s ability to make his next start and how well he pitches going forward.

It’s over with. Anything else with the media in terms of that is over with,” Jeter said. “You don’t have to do everything through the media. He’s already addressed it and he doesn’t have to address it again.” – Derek Jeter, courtesy of the LoHud Yankees Blog

Coming on the heels of George Steinbrenner’s passing, one can only wonder how the Boss would have reacted to Burnett’s transgression. Luckily, there are two similar incidents in the Yankees past that might provide a clue.

Perhaps the most notorious wall punching incident occurred on May 6, 1982, when Yankees starter Doyle Alexander punched a dugout wall in Seattle after surrendering five runs in the bottom of the third. Alexander, whom the Yankees had just signed to a four-year deal worth $2.2 million, wound up breaking the pinky on his pitching hand, which forced him to miss two months. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Steinbrenner had little if any reaction, but that was probably due in part to Alexander’s offer to forfeit his salary while he resided on the disabled list. The Yankees gladly took Alexander up on his magnanimous offer, which probably kept him out of the Boss’ crosshairs.

It’s very simple. What I did was wrong. I can’t hold those guys responsible for what I did. They signed me to help them, and  I can’t with my hand in a cast”. – Doyle Alexander, quoted by AP

Unfortunately, the atmosphere of good will was extinguished when Alexander refused to remain on a rehab stint in the minor leagues beyond the required 20 days. So, when Alexander surrendered five runs in 1 1/3 inning his first game back on July 8, the Yankees’ brass was less than pleased. Steinbrenner still remained above the fray, but Bill Bergesch, team vice president of operations, stated, “What Doyle Alexander did to his teammates in Oakland tonight was disgraceful but typical of the selfishness of some of the modern-day ballplayers”.

After being demoted to the bullpen for a short stint in which he surrendered only one run in over nine innings, Alexander returned to the rotation, but once again struggled. Now, Steinbrenner’s patience was starting to wear off. Finally, after an August 10 loss to the Tigers, Steinbrenner ordered that Alexander return to New York for a complete physical to determine if he was fit enough to pitch.  “I am afraid some of my players might get hurt playing defense behind him,” Steinbrenner reasoned.

Despite being unpopular in the clubhouse, the Boss’ heavy handed approach rallied many of Alexander’s teammates to support his cause, but the usually wry Graig Nettles had a different take. “Maybe if I’d have been sitting in the left field seats” Nettles answered when asked if he feared playing being Alexander.

Alexander wasn’t the only Yankees pitcher to lose a confrontation with a wall during the Steinbrenner tenure. In an eerie repeat of the past, Kevin Brown also fractured his pinky by punching the clubhouse wall  during a loss to the Orioles on September 3, 2004. Once again, the Boss first resisted the urge to unload on Brown and instead only offered a mild rebuke. “He should know better,” Steinbrenner stated to the Daily News. “He’s an athlete. He’s supposed to be a professional. He should think more of his teammates.”

Kevin Brown addresses media after breaking his left hand.

Behind the scenes, however, the Yankees were reportedly exploring the possibility of terminating Brown’s contract. Like Alexander, Brown accepted full responsibility for his actions, but never wound up paying a real price. Instead, Brown and the Yankees agreed to settle the matter by having the pitcher donate $100,000 of his $16 million salary to charity.

Because the severity of his injury was relatively minor, Burnett’s transgression shouldn’t have the same impact as the Alexander and Brown incidents, but the stigma of selfishness, stupidity and dishonesty are nothing to be ignored. The strength of the Yankees clubhouse should be strong enough to absorb Burnett’s mistake, but if he doesn’t start pitching well, the bigger question may be about whether they can continue to abide his erratic pitching.

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If the Yankees were going to win the rubber game of their weekend series against the Rays, it seemed a given that Andy Pettitte would have to go toe-to-toe with fellow All Star lefty David Price. So, when Pettitte surrendered a three run homerun to Carlos Pena in the first before departing with a groin injury in the third, it felt as if the game and series were all but lost.

Jorge Posada calls for the trainer after Andy Pettitte strained his left groin throwing a pitch in the third inning (Photo: AP).

Coming on the heels of AJ Burnett’s foolish confrontation with a clubhouse door, you probably couldn’t have blamed Joe Girardi if he was caught off guard by Pettitte’s sudden injury. Instead, Girardi correctly identified that the game was on the line and summoned David Robertson, his best relief option outside of Mariano Rivera. With runners on first and second and a 3-1 count on Kelly Shoppach,  Robertson threw the fourth ball to load the bases, but then responded by popping up Sean Rodriguez and retiring BJ Upton on a fly out to right.

After escaping the top of the third inning, the Yankees tied the score at three on Mark Teixeira’s RBI single, but still faced the specter of needing six more innings from the bullpen in order to beat the American League’s ERA leader.  Robertson chipped in with another shutout inning before turning the ball over to Chan Ho Park, who actually recorded four outs in the fifth when Jorge Posada’s throwing error allowed Shoppach to reach first on a strikeout.

The combined efforts of Robertson and Park bought the Yankees offense some time to mount another attack against Price, and that’s exactly what they did in the bottom of the fifth. As he has done so well for most of the season, Brett Gardner sparked the rally by leading off with a walk before stealing second and eventually scoring on Derek Jeter’s single up the middle. Then, with two outs, the Yankees added three more runs with big hits by Arod and Jorge Posada.

After watching their young stud surrender seven runs in five innings, the Rays looked a little shell shocked and never fully recovered. The Yankees tacked on a couple of extra runs, including one in the eighth on Arod’s 598th career home run, but the story of the game was the bullpen’s strong 5 2/3 innings of relief that was capped off by one out from Mariano Rivera.

After the game, the focus quickly shifted from the team’s impressive victory over Price to the status of Pettitte, who was diagnosed with a grade-one strain of his left groin. Even though the diagnosis was a “best case scenario”, Pettitte still could be headed for the disabled list.

Yankees starters only pitched 11 1/3 innings over the weekend, so coming away with two victories has to be seen as a major coup for the Yankees and a lost opportunity for the Rays. Unfortunately, the injuries to Burnett and Pettitte have the potential to hamper the Yankees going forward, which makes Brian Cashman’s pursuit of Cliff Lee seem rather prescient. For much of the season, the starting rotation has compensated for the inconsistencies of the bullpen and lineup.  So, if the Yankees are forced to fill in the gaps of a depleted rotation, those two segments of the team will need to keep performing as they did today.

  • Carlos Pena’s first inning homerun was his sixth career long ball against Andy Pettitte, the most by any player against the Yankee lefty.
  • The seven earned runs surrendered by David Price were the most in his young career. Price also saw his ERA jump from a league leading 2.42 to 2.84.
  • Robinson Cano’s first inning triple was the Yankees’ 22nd three-base hit of the season, good for tops in the American League.
  • Alex Rodriguez’ two RBIs increased his July leading total to 19. Teammate Mark Teixeira ranks second with 14.

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