By Barry Millman
Brendan Ryan, the poster boy for underprivileged no bat-all-glove infielders everywhere, became the hero of the first game of the Yankees-Orioles three-game series by lining a go-ahead RBI double in the bottom of the sixth to give the Yankees a 3-2 win and a 4.5-game cushion in the American League East.
Ryan's unlikely moment in the spotlight was made possible by a two-out single by shortstop Didi Gregorius. Didi's already put up a WAR more than three times better than the Captain's last year and is working hard to improve his splits against lefties so he can be even more of an asset at the plate. Against Wei-Yin Chen, he had some rough-looking swings in this contest. But with at bats running low and the outcome in doubt, he put it together when it counted and did his job by setting the table. Then, when Ryan lined his double down the left field line, Didi scored all the way from first on a close play at the plate with a textbook hook slide.
The Yankees' other two runs were scored by Alex Rodriguez, who drove in Jacoby Ellsbury on a sacrifice fly in the first; and Chase Headley, who doubled in Brian McCann in the second. But it was the bottom of the order that came through in the clutch in this game to pull it out, and a good thing they did too. Before Ryan doubled home Didi, the team had gone a combined 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and wound up leaving 10 on base. Losing one after leaving that many would've been heartbreaking.
Lazy bats weren't the only glaring enigma endangering this one. Manager Joe Girardi's all-powerful bullpen binder got into the act and darn near sabotaged the game all by its lonesome.
Despite coming into this game with a 2.93 ERA over his last five starts, Nathan Eovaldi got screwed out of his 10th win after a strong 5 2/3 inning-performance when Joe followed the voices emanating from his beloved book of bullpen bingo telling him it was time to play bullpen bingo and yanked Nate off the mound in the top of the sixth with two outs, a 2-1 lead, a runner on second base and J.J. Hardy coming to the plate -- the worst hitter in the O's lineup by far, with a .157 BA in July over 51 at bats and who had struck out and not had a hit in three previous at bats against Nate. Joe called upon Justin Wilson to do the honors, and Wilson promptly served up Hardy's first hit of the night, driving in the runner, charging a second run to Nate and stealing the win from him. In the bottom of the inning, Ryan would put the Yankees back on top to stay and Wilson, in a final cruel twist, got the win instead.
Why was he pulled? He'd held the eighth-best offensive lineup in MLB to just four singles, two of which never left the infield. But as much as Eovaldi has been the beneficiary of run support, he's also been a victim of defensive lapses that have extended innings and helped make his already labored pitch counts soar. In his final inning, an infield single that could have ben a crucial out and sloppy block by his catcher that allowed a pitch to slip between his legs and escape to the screen behind him, putting a runner in scoring position and changing the at bat and dynamic of the inning hurt him. Still, he was at 99 pitches when his patsy Hardy was walking to the plate with two outs; he's thrown 100 or more seven times this season; and he'd just thrown a 98 mph four-seamer to the previous batter, so he wasn't gassed. If you want the kid to learn to pitch deeper into games, teaching moment don't come any more made-to-order than that one.
But what he got instead of a lesson or a chance to win it like Ryan did was another pre-programmed message from Joe's binder that said "can't go six" and a ticket for front-row seat to watch the sub-Mendoza Hardy steal his lead from Wilson, along with yet another guaranteed round of media chortling about his 9-2 won-loss record (highest win percentage in MLB) being a bogus product of run support.
But here's the funny thing about that record -- and about Nate.
The whole run-support red herring surrounding him is largely based on a number inflated by two 14-run games he pitched in. Two games in which he gave up a total of three runs between them. Throw out 24 of those 28 runs and he's still got those two wins on his resume and the run support argument for his winning record loses all its credibility. And suddenly, he looks not at all like an anomaly and a lot more like the intriguing young fireballer he actually is. It's those two games that are the anomaly.
With only two losses charged to him all year, and one of those -- like tonight's -- the result of a bullpen not doing their jobs, what can't be disputed is that he's very, very good at not losing. And not losing is half the battle.
The numbers support that -- even if his manager with the binder fetish sometimes doesn't.
The Yankees go after the O's in the second game Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. Nova (1-3, 3.42) vs. Gausman (1-1, 5.00)
You can email Barry Millman at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @nyyankefanfore.