David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Joe Maddon went with Hideki Matsui, using the 2009 World Series MVP in the cleanup spot in an attempt to cash in on his past Bronx glory. With the Rays trying to squeeze offense from their depleted roster as if it were toothpaste from a flattened tube, Matsui was as good a choice as any.
"We stay in the Theater District while we're in town," Maddon said before the game, "and I thought it might be good theater for tonight."
Right idea. Wrong player. The Yankees countered with Andy Pettitte, and when it comes time to raise the curtain in the Bronx, few perform better. Pettitte struck out 10 in 71/3 innings, and thanks to Russell Martin's grand slam, the Yankees faced little resistance in a 7-0 rout of the Rays.
"We've got to keep the ball rolling," Martin said. "But right now, we feel pretty good."
With the win, the Yankees closed to within a half-game of the division lead, shared by the Rays and Orioles. It probably won't stay that way for long. If Pettitte continues to pitch like an ace, and the offense awakens -- Martin was batting .194 before that slam off James Shields -- the Yankees will soon shake off the effects of their sluggish start.
"We've went through some inconsistent play during the course of this year and we're basically in control of our own destiny, which is a good thing," Joe Girardi said. "We'll start putting together some better streaks."
Only the Yankees are criticized for not leading the AL East wire to wire, and Girardi understands that. Despite his attempts to preach patience to the outside world, no one ever listens. Last night's game, however, did all the talking for him as the Rays looked like a seriously flawed team.
The Rays have 49 errors, second-most in the American League. Tampa Bay also has six errors in its last three games, and the one they made last night in the first inning led to the Yankees' first two runs. With two outs and the bases loaded, shortstop Elliot Johnson scooped up Raul Ibañez's routine grounder and skipped a throw past Carlos Peña.
"It's viral right now," Maddon said of his team's defensive malaise. "It's a virus we have to get rid of. We need some kind of infield antibiotic. I have no explanation. We're making mistakes that we normally don't make. We have to stop doing that. I really believe it's going to go away at some point, but for right now, it's biting us pretty good."
The Yankees didn't need the help after Martin unloaded on an 0-and-2 pitch from Shields, who allowed a season-high seven runs in five innings to drop his third straight decision. As for Pettitte, he allowed only two hits in 71/3 scoreless innings for his third win in his last four starts. Pettitte, who turns 40 a week from Friday, suggested afterward that he feels as good as ever, which is a scary thought for everyone else in the division.
"I'm pleasantly surprised," Pettitte said.
The Yankees, however, shouldn't be sneaking up on anyone. They have a $200-million payroll for a reason, and it's why covering up for the loss of Mariano Rivera and David Robertson hasn't been much of an issue to this point. While the Rays scramble to make up for the absence of Evan Longoria -- the "linchpin" of the offense as Maddon described him -- the Yankees are just waiting to start playing like, well, the Yankees.
"I really believe that these guys eventually are going to put up the numbers they're used to putting up," Girardi said. "Sometimes you go through some tough spurts and they'll find a way to come out of it."