David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON — Thirty years to the day after Roger Clemens struck out 20 Mariners at Fenway Park, there was significantly less buzz at Yawkey Way for this April visit by the Yankees, who arrived Friday night with an 8-12 record as the basement tenant in the American League East.
At first pitch, the temperature was a breezy 47 degrees, and Fenway was nearly half-empty, nothing like the amped-up crowds that usually provide the electricity for this rivalry. While both teams still feature All-Stars, the matchup just felt a little dimmer, even with this being the start of David Ortiz’s long goodbye.
But Big Papi isn’t gone yet. It was his two-run homer off Dellin Betances in the eighth inning that doomed the Yankees in Friday night’s 4-2 loss.
The Yankees were hoping that maybe this ballpark, and those uniforms, and all the years of bad blood, somehow might stir the emotions, perhaps help them recover what has been missing so far. It’s worked before.
We’ve already run out of technical, baseball-related explanations for the Yankees’ April malaise, other than suggesting everyone just got real old real fast. And yes, it’s still far too early for that.
“It’s 20 games,” Joe Girardi said yesterday afternoon. “Twenty games do not make a season.”
The manager’s right. We’re dealing in small sample sizes, but that’s all we have at the moment. Chase Headley’s dizzying decline. A lineup that can’t hit with runners in scoring position. It’s the same discussion every day, followed by similar outcomes, and that probably has to do with Girardi having no choice but to write in the same slumping names over and over.
The Yankees did see a few encouraging signs Friday night, however. The fact that Alex Rod riguez was one of them shouldn’t be a surprise, considering it was Fenway, after all. In the second inning, Rodriguez shook off the introductory boos to hammer a solo home run off the light tower above the Green Monster in left-centerfield.
The blast was estimated at 425 feet, and it was A-Rod’s second homer in as many games, perhaps an indication that he’s coming around after last Sunday’s oblique scare. On a night the Yankees were desperate for a spark, Rodriguez provided it, even if it flickered out almost as quickly.
When Starlin Castro followed two batters later with a low line drive that Jackie Bradley Jr. badly misplayed, it seemed the Yankees finally were getting one of those lucky breaks Girardi is always talking about. The ball skipped past Bradley’s glove side and kept rolling into the centerfield triangle as Castro sprinted around the bases.
It looked like an inside-the-park homer, but third-base coach Joe Espada threw up his arms in a stop sign, halting Castro 90 feet short. For a team struggling to score, it was choosing to err on the side of caution with only one out. But that decision backfired badly when Espada decided to send Castro on Headley’s medium-depth fly ball to left.
This throw was much shorter than the one the Red Sox had on Castro’s triple, and Brock Holt cut down Castro with relative ease. That was a bad omen, and as the innings sailed past, against another lefty starter in Henry Owens, this game held to the same irritating storyline for the Yankees.
What actually made it worse was the wasting of a great effort by Masahiro Tanaka, who entered Friday night with a 6.46 ERA at Fenway, his highest ERA at any park where he’s had multiple starts. Tanaka didn’t allow a run until Bradley’s tying two-run double with two outs in the seventh inning, and the night came apart quickly after that.
With Ortiz’s shot in the eighth, Big Papi added to his reputation as the Yankees’ greatest nemesis of this generation, and he made the disappointing start to this season even more so for another night.