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Bittersweet Victory

VICTORIOUS DEFEAT, DEFEATED VICTORY

Talk about your mixed outcomes. Josh Beckett hit the pitcher’s mound throwing bolts of lightning at the outset of Friday night’s game, and one felt certain that it was going to be a difficult night for the Yankees at Fenway Park. But the thunderstorm proved to be short-lived, Beckett giving up a three-run smash to Nick Swisher (or maybe a three-run swish to Nick Smasher), and then completely losing the plot in the sixth inning.

Simultaneously, Phil Hughes provided more evidence of his arrival as a man among men. Hughes has now thrown 224.2 Major-League innings, enough that we can pretend that he’s just completed his rookie year, even though it took him parts of three seasons and 77 games to compile the totals, which show 192 hits, 96 earned runs, 20 homers, 85 walks, 208 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.85. Hughes is not yet 24 years old (he gets there on June 24). If he was only as good as what his career stats show as of this moment, you’d do cartwheels, be you a Yankees fan, coach, or general manager. The wonderful thing is, so far this season he’s been better than that. By showing patience, by giving Hughes the chance to work his way to maturity, the Yankees have earned themselves another star pitcher. Let us hope that he is the first of many -- the same Josh Beckett the Yankees toasted tonight was almost set to be a free agent after the season, and who had the stomach for that flirtation, even if flirtation was all that would have been?

The loss dropped the Red Sox to .500, six games behind the Yankees and, if this evening’s late Rays game continues the way it is going as I type these words, 7.5 games out of first place. The pyrrhic part of this vanquishing of the foe is that the Yankees suffered two injuries of significance. The first, a feeling of weakness in Nick Johnson’s wrist, that will apparently send him to the disabled list, was probably inevitable, Johnson being Johnson. Though designated hitter is the easiest position to fill and Johnson hadn’t done much actual hitting this year, losing Johnson is a blow, as Nick the Green-Stick had been getting on base at close to a .400 clip and helped wear down starting pitchers with his patient approach. Whatever Marcus Thames might give the Yankees if he takes the majority of starts at DH, it won’t be patience. He’s drawn about as many walks in his career as Johnson might take in a full season if ever he managed to play one. In addition, entering this season, his career on-base percentage against right-handers was just .291, so if the Yankees give him too much work against same-side pitchers, they’re going to get into diminishing returns.

The other injury, and the one that will likely dictate the nature of the call-up for Johnson, was the ball pitched by Beckett during the fatal sixth that hit Robinson Cano in the back of the knee. Though Cano had already commenced his typical May swoon -- he has just four hits this month -- he was one of the most valuable players in the game in April and his offense and defense would not easily be replaced. He’s only day-to-day at the moment, and with luck he will stay that way. In the short term, the Yankees will likely bring up an infielder, perhaps Kevin Russo (.302/.383/.425) or Eduardo Nunez (.350/.407/.447) to provide depth in case Robbie can’t go. Russo and Nunez have both shown the ability to slap a single or the odd double, but power isn’t among their skills. The Yankees might stay above replacement using these players during a prolonged absence by Cano -- the same cannot be said of Ramiro Pena -- but the position would no longer be the asset it was prior to May Day.

For those wondering why this isn’t the time to call up Jesus Montero and let him DH until Johnson comes back, the short answer is that he hasn’t hit yet (.244/.306/.378). The longer answer is that, as of tonight, he might be hurt. Even longer answer: he’s not on the 40-man roster, though one wonders why Christian Garcia, out for the season after yet another surgery (sadly, he may one day surpass Heidi Montag) should be an obstacle to promoting another player.

Given that it’s not certain when Jorge Posada will be back, plus the probable absence of Cano and the definite absence of Johnson and Curtis Granderson, Saturday’s Yankees lineup could look awfully short. Now would be a very good time for Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez to find their strokes. On the other hand, as long as the starting pitchers have an aggregate ERA of 3.15, you can get away with a weakened offense. Oh, wait: Javier Vazquez and Sergio Mitre are coming up. Never mind.

YESTERDAY, ROMULO SANCHEZ WAS SO FAR AWAY

When I ran down the possibilities for pitcher promotions from Scranton in yesterday’s entry, I left out Romulo "Steamboat" Sanchez because he had not pitched well, piling up a 6.48 ERA in five starts covering 25 innings. I was mainly concerned with starting pitching possibilities, not trash-time long relievers, and in that role, Sanchez may do as well as anyone. The big man, who failed to stick as a reliever with the Pirates in 2007 and 2008 has one strong pitch, his fastball, and only so-so command. The Yankees picked him up for busted prospect Eric Hacker last year and got some decent results after pulling him out of the pen to which the Pirates had condemned him. However, the command still wasn’t very good, the strikeout rate no more than intriguing. This season, Sanchez hasn’t even been that -- he’s back to being a guy who got traded for Eric Hacker. He’ll be pitching in Sergio Mitre’s former role of reliever of last resort, which means we won’t see him often enough for him to matter very much.

AS LONG AS WE’RE ON MINOR LEAGUE PITCHERS

Andrew Brackman was creamed again yesterday, giving up six earned runs (plus one of the unearned variety) in 3.2 innings. His line for the season is 15.2 innings, 29 hits, 20 runs, one walk (hooray!) and 10 strikeouts. That’s an ERA of 11.49. He’s also already been on the disabled list once this year. Going on three years later, I still don’t understand why any team would risk its first-round pick on an injured basketball player. In the third round, sure. In the 10th round, definitely. In the first round, you want certainty.