First Pitch: Weird night at the Big A

ANAHEIM -- The Yankees didn't lose last night's game because their relief pitchers lost the strike zone, or because Joe Girardi lost his cool, or because Laz Diaz did his best Dikembe Mutombo imitation, although all of those things happened, and to some extent, played a role in the 4-1 Angels victory.

The real reason the Yankees lost this game was the same reason they lost a lot of games last season: Because of innings like the top of the eighth, not the bottom of the eighth.

This game was lost the moment Derek Jeter smacked the first pitch he saw from Jered Weaver with one out and the bases loaded right at second baseman Howie Kendrick, who started an inning-ending -- and virtually game-ending -- double play.

This is not to imply the loss was Jeter's fault -- quite the contrary. For the first time in a week, the Captain's bat showed some life as he went 2-for-4, including a double, and as he pointed out, the DP grounder was the hardest ball he hit all night.

But call it bad luck or simply poor situational hitting, once again the Yankees could not come up with a timely had when they needed one.

As Jeter said, "We had our opportunities. Not many, but we had our opportunites.''

And when Weaver is pitching the way he did last night -- eight innings of six-hit, one-run ball with seven strikeouts and just one walk -- an opportunity as golden as the one the Yankees blew in the eighth is about as good as it's going to get.

That may be why Joe Girardi reacted as violently as he did to Diaz calling a 1-0 pitch to Brett Gardner a strike in the at-bat immediately preceding Jeter's. He has seen his team hit, or not hit, before, and may have sensed that a single pitch could be the difference between scoring and not scoring, and by extension, between winning and losing, even if it is only strike one.

"It's the most important pitch of the game to that point,'' Girardi said. "“It’s a lot different, 2-0. It changes the whole at-bat. Now the pressure is clearly on the pitcher.”

Instead, the pressure shifted to Gardner, who took another strike and then swung through a fastball for his for his team-high 29th strikeout. That set the stage for Jeter's back-breaking double play ball, followed by the walkfest staged by three Yankee relievers (Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton and Preston Claiborne) who issued six walks in the inning, including a mind-boggling five in a row, to allow the Angels to score three times without a single base hit.

"It happens,'' Jeter said. "Our guys have been pitching pretty good. Sometimes they’re going to scuffle. I haven’t met anyone that's perfect, so you got to have a short memory in this game and you got to come back and pitch tomorrow. It’s one of those things. But we got to find a way to score some runs.''

That last is the most important thing of all, especially with the starting rotation injury-depleted and struggling. The bullpen had been good for the first five weeks of the season -- the six walks Kelley, Thornton and Claiborne issued last night were just two more than the three of them combined had allowed all season -- and in his 5-1/3 innings, David Phelps showed he is capable of delivering a solid starting performance in place of Michael Pineda, who will be out at least another three weeks.

But no matter how good or bad the pitching is, the Yankees aren't going to win many games scoring just one run a night, or wasting bases-loaded, no out situations. You look at their revamped lineup and you figure this team has got to hit better than last year's. And then you look at a game like last night's, or Sunday's 5-1 loss in which they stranded runners at third base four times in the game, or Friday's 10-5, 14-inning loss in which they had the winning run at third three times and couldn't bring it home, and it looks like 2013 all over again.

They lost those games not because of the pitching or the umpiring, but because of the hitting, or lack thereof.

And that's the last thing the 2014 Yankees were expected to have to worry about.

It's not what you come to see: The Yankees players were, understandably, mum about Diaz and the strike zone after last night's game -- after all, they have to play with Diaz' crew out there again tonight -- but Girardi made no secret of his distaste for Diaz and his imperious behavior on the field.

“I mentioned to Laz in a respectful way that I thought a pitch was up to Kelly Johnson earlier in the game and he gave me the Mutombo,'' Girardi said, miming the famous finger-wag. "I don’t appreciate that. I’m not a little kid. I don’t need to be scolded. Obviously we’re trying to work together and I just thought there were a lot of inconsistencies tonight.”

Girardi was also incensed by Diaz' demeanor when he ejected Kelley after the two had words as Kelley was leaving the mound in the eighth inning. “He gave him this,'' Girardi said, demonstrating an elaborately dismissive wave of the hand.

"No one is coming to see Laz, I can tell you that,” Girardi said, disgustedly.

Class gesture: There seemed to be an awful lot of Yankees fans, or at least Jeter fans, among the 39,000 fans at the Big A last night. They cheered Jeter raucously at every at-bat and began chanting his name as he came to the plate in the first inning. Even Jeter, normally about as emotional as a statue, admitted to being affected by the reception.

"You know what, that was probably one of the coolest things that’s happened in my career, to be quite honest with you,'' he said. "It was unexpected. I’ve always enjoyed coming here, but the way they responded, that was unexpected and it was much appreciated.''

Need a Hiro: The Yankees need a strong performance out of Hiroki Kuroda tonight in Game 2 of this three-game series. So far, Kuroda (2-3, 5.14) has pretty much picked up where he left off at the end of 2013, which was largely ineffective, although in his last outing, a 4-2 Yankees loss to the Mariners Thursday in the Bronx, was not too bad -- four runs (three earned) in six innings, with seven strikeouts. But the last time Kuroda faced the Angels, on April 25 at Yankee Stadium, was a disaster. He allowed a career-high eight runs (six earned) in 4-2/3 innings in a 13-1 Yankees defeat. Kuroda will face LHP C.J. Wilson (4-2, 3.18) tonight, first pitch at 10:05 p.m.