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New Faces, Familiar Recipe

Russell Martin is enjoying the AL East's bandboxes. (AP)

Scrubbing my initial plans to attend Saturday's wet affair, I spent Sunday night in the Yankee Stadium press box, and watched the Bronx Bombers do two things they've done countless times in the past: wait out an inexperienced starter, and deliver the knockout blow while Arthur Rhodes was pitching. My writeup of the night is over at Baseball Prospectus.

The Yankees faced Alexi Ogando, who was making just his third major league start after a particularly circuitous path to the majors, one which included a conversion from the outfield and a five-year ban from the United States due to his ensnarement in a human trafficking ring.

Like Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando spent the spring getting stretched out while being considered for a rotation spot, but in late March, the Rangers decided that they were more content with their rotation alternatives than their late-game bullpen ones. On the same day they announced that Feliz would return to closing, with Ogando as the top righty set-up man, Tommy Hunter left his exhibition start with a groin strain. Rather than tab the far more heralded Feliz, whose minor-league performance as a starter turned him into one of the game's elite prospects, the team turned to Ogando, a 27-year-old whose career has unfolded in far different fashion, to say the least. Through two starts, he had been everything the Rangers could have dreamt, throwing 13 scoreless innings in his two starts prior to Sunday night's game against the Yankees, helping his club to the league's second-best ERA among starters at 2.63.

...In moving Ogando to the rotation, the Rangers initially hinted that his stay would only be temporary, with Hunter, Scott Feldman, and Brandon Webb in various states of rehab to provide other options as the season progressed. Indeed, Ogando's reliance on his fastball-slider combo — 61 percent of the former, 35 percent of the latter, with just four percent changeups coming into the night — suggested it was only a matter of time before hitters better than the Mariners and Tigers (the two teams he'd faced thus far) cracked the code.

During Sunday night's BP chat, colleague Jason Parks — quite familiar with Ogando because he does some scouting for the Rangers, and writes the Texas Farm Review — offered a strategy for surmounting him:

Ogando gets excellent angle on that FB. Shorter action, but steep plane to the plate. Very hard to hit a 96 mph FB on a steep plane... You have to make Ogando work. Make him locate the slider(s); make him get the changeup over; make him go deep into counts. I wouldn't look FB. Make him establish command and then adjust. If you don't make him work, that FB is going chew people up as the game continues.

As it turns out, Ogando cruised in the early going before his struggles with his offspeed stuff were exposed:

On Sunday night, the Yankees exposed Ogando's limitations. Offering only 95-97 mph fastballs and sliders — 44 in all — through his first four innings, the righty was economical, consistently getting ahead of hitters and avoiding deep counts. He faced just one batter above the minimum in that span, with Robinson Cano poking a solo homer in the second off of a hanging slider. But by the fifth inning, he had lost a couple clicks of velocity and had failed to establish his slider as a strike pitch; of the seven he'd throw in that span, five were balls, and one had hit Russell Martin. He yielded a two-out, two-run homer to Martin on a 94 mph fastball, and in the sixth, surrendered another two-run homer to Curtis Granderson on a 93.6 mph fastball. Not until Mark Teixeira followed Granderson in the sixth did Ogando unveil his first changeup of the night. Though he had allowed five runs, Rangers manager Ron Washington pushed him to 92 pitches, his highest total for the year. Ogando departed with a decidedly untidy line: 6 1/3 innings, six hits, five runs, one walk, and one strikeout, with the three home runs more than doubling his major-league career total.

The Rangers' offense kept Ogando in the game, staking him to 2-0, 3-1 and 4-3 leads thanks largely to Michael Young and Adrian Beltre, hitting third and fourth in the lineup in the absence of injured Josh Hamilton. The duo collected five of the eight hits that CC Sabathia allowed, with Beltre homering, doubling and driving in four runs. Following Granderson's go-ahead home run and Sabathia's departure, Young knotted the game at 5-5, with his second double and third hit on the night coming at the expense of Joba Chamberlain, who walked Ian Kinsler on the first four pitches he threw in the seventh.

The Yankees clawed back against the 41-year-old Rhodes, who has struggled mightily against the Yankees (7.45 ERA in 83 1/3 career innings, via a .295/.382/.506 line — not to mention eight runs allowed in six postseason innings) throughout an otherwise successful 20-season career. With two on and two out, Eric Chavez — playing in place of Alex Rodriguez, who sat out due to a stiff back — stroked his second single of the night, plating Mark Teixeira. He's now 7-for-15 on the year, with six of those hits coming in his three starts. Chavez did the honors to seal up the victory as well, charging Elvis Andrus' grounder near the mound and finding the handle in time to nab him at first and cap the save for Mariano Rivera.

Between Chavez and Martin, it was a night for West Coast players come east. The homer was Martin's fourth of the season, one shy of the five he hit in 97 games last year. The catcher told me after the game that he attributes his power resurgence not only to his having recovered from his pelvic and knee injuries but to the change in playing environments. "It's a little bit of everything," he said. "My workout in the offseason. The smaller ballpark I'm playing in. Most of these ballparks in this division feel like they're smaller than the ones on the West Coast. There are some pretty big pitcher’s parks over there."

The Yankees have been busting out in the bandboxes. Given that they've played 11 of their 14 games at home and the other three at Fenway Park, it's not tough to understand why they have 27 homers, five more than any club in either league. Martin is one of six Yankees with at least four homers, tied with Robinson Cano, Granderson, and Rodriguez, and one behind Teixeira and Jorge Posada.

With the Orioles getting swept by the Indians and the Red Sox taking two out of three against the Blue Jays, the win not only opened up a 2.5 game lead for the 10-5 Yankees, it left them as the division's only team above .500. That surely won't last, but it's a moment worth marking this early in the season; for all of the fretting about their rotation, which still has the league's second-worst ERA (5.40) and lowest innings per start average (5.2), they're on top.