Jim Baumbach is an investigative / enterprise sports reporter for Newsday. A Long Island native, he started working
If Yankees fans spent the last two nights dreaming of young Zoilo Almonte having a Joba Chamberlain-circa-2007 effect on this Yankees season, we don't blame you.
After watching a new face (and name) jump-start his pinstriped career with four hits and four RBIs in his first two games in the starting lineup, it's so tempting to play the "what if?'' game. There's always that chance, and the Yankees will keep playing him to see how long this lasts.
But as the wait for Curtis Granderson's return continues, the greater likelihood is that the Yankees will be back in the position in which they started this season: relying on Vernon Wells to come through in important situations.
That's why, for all the fun that comes with watching an unknown leapfrog on to the scene, the most significant moment from Saturday's game -- the one that could have the longest-lasting effect on the Yankees' season -- came courtesy of Wells.
Wells' pinch-hit three-run double in the seventh inning that gave the Yankees a 7-5 win provided the first proof in a month that he's got something positive left in his once-potent bat.
It wasn't all that long ago that Wells looked like a steal for the Yankees. He was hitting .288 with an .855 OPS on May 21. But it has been such a struggle for Wells since then.
That Joe Girardi started Almonte over Wells in the past two games looked like a not-so-subtle message that the Yankees were ready to turn the page in leftfield, leaving Wells without what had been his everyday job.
That still may be the case, but Wells has the skill of tunnel vision down. Worried about his job? Not him. He says he's more concerned about getting his extra work done in the batting cage, and he said not being in the lineup allowed him to do that. And the payoff was immediate.
Girardi approached Wells early in the seventh inning to tell him to get ready because he'd likely be hitting for Chris Stewart against hard-throwing Rays lefthander Jake McGee. Wells appreciated the heads-up, but he already was anticipating the situation, having spent the previous inning in the cage.
"All right. I'm ready to go,'' Wells told Girardi.
When Wells stepped to the plate, he was riding as rough a slump as he's ever had in the majors: nine hits in his previous 90 at-bats. But putting an end to his offensive struggles wasn't on his mind. Timing McGee's impressive fastball was.
Wells took McGee's first pitch on purpose. After watching the ball zoom by him, he looked up at the scoreboard, saw 96 mph and smiled to himself. Sometimes, he said, you don't see the ball at all at that speed, and that's not good. But he saw it -- and he thought he could hit it.
Wells barely made contact on McGee's next pitch, a 97-mph fastball. "Kind of took the cobwebs out,'' he said. But when the next fastball came in at 98, Wells had the timing down, fouling it straight back. "It felt like I was on it,'' he said.
Then he proved his point, lining a 96-mph fastball to deep right-centerfield. It one-hopped the wall, stopped only by a fan's glove, and the ruling of "spectator's interference'' allowed David Adams to score from first base as the Yankees turned a 5-4 deficit into a 7-5 lead.
It was Wells' first extra-base hit of the month. And it was a sign that the Yankees still might get more returns from the 34-year-old veteran, even if Almonte proves to be the real deal.
"In this game, you never know what's going to happen,'' Wells said. "You've got to keep taking your chances.''