Sunday, June 29, 2014

Napoli Bombs Tanaka, Yankees

Napoli follows through on his go-ahead home run (NYDailyNews)
With one flick of his wrists last night, Mike Napoli lined a missile into Yankee Stadium's right field bleachers that gave the Boston Red Sox a 2-1 lead in the top of the ninth, a lead that stood up when Koji Uehara closed the door on the Yankees 15 minutes later.

Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka was still in the game when Napoli stepped up to the plate with two outs in the top of the ninth, having just retired David Ortiz on a double play groundout into the shift. Tanaka had been terrific up to that point, his lone mistake coming in the third inning when David Ross took him deep to put Boston out in front 1-0. But the Yankees had quickly rallied with a run of their own in the bottom of the frame, setting off a classic game of tug-of-war between Tanaka and Boston's Jon Lester.

The score remained knotted at one into the ninth. New York's undisputed ace, who had already fanned Napoli twice in the game already, had the Red Sox slugger right where he wanted him. With a 1-2 count on a notoriously poor two-strike hitter, Tanaka was in the driver's seat, one strike away from calling it a night and getting out of the inning unscathed.

Looking to match power against power, the Japanese phenom reared back and fired his fastball in an attempt to blow Boston's bearded first baseman away. But at the last second Tanaka's 112th pitch of the night, a heater tagged at 96 miles per hour, darted back over the plate. Belt-high and on the outer half, it was the kind of mistake that Napoli crushes for a living, and he didn't miss it. He extended his arms and went with the pitch, driving it on a line towards Alfonso Soriano in right field. Soriano sprinted back, turned as if to expecting to play the carom off the wall, then watched the ball sail into the first row of seats behind the yellow W.B. Mason sign. Napoli's 10th home run of the season just did get over.

An exultant Napoli clapped his hands together as he rounded first. Tanaka's legs buckled on the mound. He looked on in abject horror, like he'd just witnessed one Bleacher Creature eating another. Napoli completed his trip around the bases, high-fived Stephen Drew at the plate and chugged back to the Boston bench, all smiles as he apparently shouted "What an idiot!" to his beaming teammates.

Somewhat surprisingly, Joe Girardi left the rattled hurler in to finish what he started. This time Tanaka finished the job, recovering to fan Drew on four pitches for his eighth K of the night. But it was one batter too late, and Tanaka trudged off the mound, knowing full well that he had likely cost the Yankees the game. For all their struggles this year, the Red Sox--armed with arguably the best closer in baseball--have not lost a game they've led after the eighth inning.

Sure enough, Uehara mowed down Carlos Beltran, fellow countryman Ichiro Suzuki (pinch-hitting for Soriano) and Brian McCann for his 17th save of the season. Lester earned the win for his remarkable performance: eight innings, five hits, a single unearned run and six strikeouts. Tanaka was the tough-luck loser, suffering his second straight loss and falling to 11-3 on the season despite the complete game effort.

The Red Sox will go for the series win as they wrap up their 10-game road trip tonight. With just one road series win in their last eight, their last coming in a two-game sweep of the Braves at Turner Field in late May, the Sox desperately need a turnaround performance from John Lackey, who was shelled by the Mariners his last time out and failed to make it through the fourth inning. Boston's bats will look to wake up against Chase Whitley, a rookie making his ninth career start. The odds appear to be in Boston's favor, which isn't something you've been able to say about them a lot this year.

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