Commentary

Yanks exit Cleveland in good spirits

Derek Jeter, Rafael Soriano barely escaped injury, and Bombers took two of three

Updated: August 26, 2012, 7:39 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CLEVELAND -- The New York Yankees lost four of six games on their just-concluded road trip, yet their plane ride home from Cleveland promised to be a festive occasion.

Because, considering the way things went over the weekend here, it could have turned out a whole lot worse.

Disastrous, even.

Friday night, Derek Jeter nearly got decapitated by a Corey Kluber fastball. On Sunday it was their closer, Rafael Soriano, who narrowly missed wearing a line drive off the bat of Jason Kipnis on his face in the ninth inning.

[+] EnlargeRafael Soriano
AP Photo/Mark DuncanTrainer Steve Donohue went to check on Rafael Soriano after the scary line drive.

Yet, there were both of them in the clubhouse afterward, smiling and healthy -- as was the rest of the team, not only having survived its weekend in Cleveland but leaving with a series win after a 3-2 victory in a late August game that was managed more like one in October.

I mean, there are important games, and then there are important games. And the series finale between the Yankees and Indians was one that called for italics.

You could tell by the way Joe Girardi, usually an incorrigible mix-and-matcher with his bullpen, did very little mixing and no matching.

Once he realized he wasn't getting a second complete game in a row out of his starter, or even five full innings out of Freddy Garcia, he decided to cut out the middlemen.

That meant no Clay Rapada or Cody Eppley on this day, and certainly no Joba Chamberlain. If I'm not mistaken, Joba hasn't been allowed off his seat in the bullpen since allowing a key home run on Monday in Chicago.

No, not with the Yankees clinging to a 3-2 lead and the prospect of a 1-5 road trip staring them in the face.

So Girardi went to Boone Logan for five outs, Dave Robertson for four, and Soriano -- who might be giving Derek Jeter a run for his money as team MVP -- for the final four.

And the three performed flawlessly, in spite of the ninth-inning scare that Soriano warded off with quick reflexes, blind instinct and a little help from his pitching hand.

"I don't see too much, the line drive," Soriano said. "I put my hand and my glove in front of my face. I see it hit the glove, hit my hand, try to find the ball and get the guy out."

While the rest of the crowd was in mid-gasp and Girardi and trainer Steve Donohue were starting their charge onto the field, Soriano cooly picked up the ball and flipped it to first for the second out of the inning.

One batter later, this one was safely tucked away and the Yankees could fly home secure in the knowledge that despite losing four of six games, they had actually lost just one game in the standings to the Tampa Bay Rays, who picked a most inopportune time to hit a minor losing streak and were idle on Sunday.

"Their lineup kind of dictated that," Girardi said of his unorthodox bullpen deployment. "And it is an important game. These are important games, because we're down the stretch here. My guys were rested and I felt I could do it today."

Girardi was afforded that luxury by the work of Hiroki Kuroda, who threw a complete game despite taking the 3-1 on Saturday night.

And the three pitchers he chose to stay with -- Logan, Robertson and Soriano -- have distinguished themselves by their performances this season as the best of a generally reliable crop.

But none has been more reliable than Soriano, who has emerged as the solution to what might have seemed like a catastrophic event, the loss of Mariano Rivera to a knee injury barely a month into the season.

Soriano, who sulked his way through 2011 as a set-up man to the set-up man (he generally pitched the seventh inning, leading into Robertson's eighth), has regained his claws as a closer, a function he served for the Rays in 2010 when he saved a league-high 45 games.

This one was his 33rd of the season in 35 chances. And while the full extent of Rivera's absence probably won't be known until the postseason, there is no question that Soriano has been a stellar regular-season replacement.

"I've never seen him really not be in a pretty relaxed situation when he's on the mound," Girardi said. "I had a chance to see him when he was in Tampa and was so good for them in 2010, I had a chance to see him in the All-Star Game, just how relaxed he was. He's a guy that likes to laugh and have fun. He's been great."

Soriano admitted, however, that Kipnis' liner caused him to flash back to a similar shot off the bat of Vladimir Guerrero in August 2006, when he was a middle reliever for the Seattle Mariners.

That one caught him on the side of the head while he was in his follow-through and knocked him for a loop; he missed the rest of the season with a concussion.

That one was so scary, Soriano said, that Guerrero -- whom he had never met -- began crying on the field and took himself out of the game. And Soriano then pulled down his sock to reveal a lump on his shin he said had been there since 2003, when Vernon Wells lined one off his lower leg.

"Compared to those," he said, "this one's nothing."

Logan, Robertson and Soriano combined to eat up 4 1/3 innings, allowing three hits, no runs and striking out four. They easily canceled out Garcia's brief appearance, in which Girardi yanked him after he allowed a two-run single to Carlos Santana in the fifth inning that wiped out much of the Yankees' early 3-0 lead.

It was the second straight game in which Girardi pulled Garcia before he could complete five innings despite having a lead.

"Nothing surprises me at this point right now, man," Garcia said. "They made the decision so there's nothing I can do about it. Just looking to my next start and trying to pass the fifth inning."

But that was the kind of game it was, a game the manager was going to pull out all the stops to try to win. The Yankees got a little bit of breathing room when Curtis Granderson hit home run No. 33 for the season, and No. 200 for his career, in the sixth inning to complete the scoring.

"We're really fortunate," Girardi said about finishing up 2-4 on the trip after having lost the first three games to the White Sox in Chicago. "We need to turn around, play better when we get home and put together a good series. Just continue to win series; that's the important thing, winning series."

Girardi managed this one as if he was trying to win the World Series. And the truth is, without winning games like this one, the Yankees might never get a chance to get there.

Nor would they if anything serious happened to Jeter or Soriano, both of whom nearly did over the course of what easily could have become a lost weekend.

"I think I'll be all right for tomorrow," Soriano said, displaying a slightly sore and swollen right hand. "Everything is all right with my hand. I'll be ready tomorrow too."

On a day full of good news, that was the best news the Yankees could have hoped for.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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