Opening Day proceeded as if working off a blueprint. The Yankees’ lineup flexed its muscles with a pair of homeruns, both early and late, and then the bullpen slammed the door with three perfect innings of relief. Ballgame over. Yankees win.
Although there are very few questions about the Yankees’ offense, it was still encouraging to see Mark Teixeira get off to a good start and Curtis Granderson pick up where he left off last season, and against a left handed pitcher no less. Alex Rodriguez also carried his hot spring into the opener, giving further credibility to the high expectations once again being placed upon him. If all of the pieces fall into place on offense, the Yankees could be poised for a historic season at the plate.
One member of the lineup who raised some eyebrows, however, was Brett Gardner, who was credited with two sacrifice bunts. The initial reaction from the Yankee fan intelligentsia was dismay, especially coming on the heels of a spring training in which the Yankees actively worked with Gardner on honing his bunting skills. It remains to be seen whether Gardner’s two bunts represent a new strategy in his game, or just a coincidence of circumstance. After all, his first attempt was a drag bunt, not a sacrifice. What’s more, targeting a weak fielding first baseman like Miguel Cabrera on wet grass in a game that could be cut short by rain is a strategy that has merit. Although the second bunt appeared to be more of a sacrifice, it was also later in the game against a lefty with the Yankees already holding a lead. It’s easy to see why some would come away from Opening Day with some concern about Gardner bunting too much, but there’s no reason to jump to conclusions just yet. The sacrifice has never been a dominant part of Girardi’s strategy (the Yankees 95 sacrifices since 2008 is the fifth lowest total in all of baseball), so there’s no reason to believe it will now.
Yankees’ Sacrifice Bunt Leaders, 2008-2010
Another uneasy moment for many Yankees fans occurred in the top of the second inning, when Derek Jeter was unable to glove Victor Martinez’ hot smash up the middle. Instead of turning the grounder into a double play, the ball eluded Jeter and set the Tigers up for the first run of the game. Jeter’s range has been called into question even during his prime years, but with so many whispers about when the short stop will move off the position, every single misplay will likely be scrutinized (as I am doing now). The extent to which this becomes a problem, however, will depend on whether or not Jeter can rebound with the bat. His Opening Day was quiet, but if Jeter can return to being an offensive force, his defensive limitations will become more of an afterthought.
One player who stood out on defense was Granderson. Defensive metrics have ranked Granderson everywhere from an outstanding to a poor centerfielder during his career, but with the Yankees he has looked just fine. Yesterday, he never looked better. Despite lingering concerns about his strained oblique, Granderson laid out to snag Magglio Ordonez’ first inning liner, and then in the ninth, used his speed to run down Brandon Inge’s long drive to the warning track. One of the Yankees’ strengths last season was outfield defense, and it looks like that will be the case this season as well.
Lost in the day was the workman like effort of CC Sabathia, who allowed two earned runs while striking out seven men over six innings. Although Sabathia failed to get an Opening Day win his third try as a Yankee, he pitched around a couple of defensive lapses and kept the team in the game long enough for the offense and bullpen to finish things off. Sabathia will likely dominate in his fair share of outings during the year, but if the rest of the rotation can follow his lead and simply keep the games close, the Yankees should win a lot more often than not.
Health is always a factor, but if the Yankees can avoid major injuries in the bullpen, it could get late early for the competition, as the great Yogi Berra might say. The late inning combination of Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera is easily the best in the game, which removes a lot of the mystery of the late innings and allows Girardi to employ most of his strategy in the seventh inning. Handling the bullpen is probably one of the most difficult challenges for a manager, but with some many viable options, Girardi won’t have to hold his nose much when bringing in a reliever.
Despite all the anticipation for Opening Day, the reality of the 162 game season kicks in shortly after the last out. If AJ Burnett struggles on Saturday, the narrative changes completely. In the meantime, the Yankees can enjoy a victory that offered several positive omens.
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