NEW YORK — You wouldn’t think that when a team gets pummelled, 19-5, as the New York Yankees did by the Cleveland Indians on Thursday night, that any of the pitchers for the losing team would leave the mound to an ovation.
Especially not in Yankee Stadium, where winning brings not pleasure, but relief and championships are treated as a birthright. They don’t often raise the nice-try flag in the Bronx.
But when the “pitcher’’ is a 27-year-old rookie first baseman/designated hitter who is on the roster only because his team has been decimated by injuries, and on the mound only because the real pitchers have been decimated by the Cleveland hitters, even a Yankee Stadium crowd can be moved to recognize an effort above and beyond the call of duty.
So it was that when Mike Ford walked toward the dugout at the end of the eighth inning, having pitched no worse three of the four professional hurlers who had preceded him – and significantly better than Chad Green, who started the game as an opener – what was left of a crowd that was once 44,000 people stood and cheered Ford as if his first name were not Mike, but Whitey.
“I’m just out there trying to have a good time at that point,’’ Ford said. ”Obviously, I was trying to get outs as quick as I can for everyone. But at that point, it’s more about having fun.’’
Green, who the Yankees had hoped might start a postseason game for them as an opener if their starting pitching woes persist, had allowed just as many runs while getting only one out in the first inning.
Jonathan Loaisiga, reinstated to the roster earlier this week after three months on the IL with a rotator cuff strain, wasn’t much better, allowing four runs, including home runs to Roberto Perez and Jose Ramirez, in 2 2/3 innings. Chance Adams followed him and allowed five more runs in 3 2/3 innings. Only Nestor Cortes Jr., who got the final out of the seventh inning, escaped unscathed. By the time it was done, the Indians had hit seven home runs and every batter in their lineup had at least two hits, the first time Cleveland did that in 113 years.
So by comparison, Ford’s eighth inning didn’t look all that bad.
And in the context of a miserable night for Yankees pitching, his ninth-inning was a masterwork.
After finding out the hard way in the eighth that his 85-mph fastball looked awfully tasty to big-league hitters, Ford did what a lot of pitchers never learn how to do; he made the necessary adjustment, dialing down his “heat’’ to deliver parabolas that loitered in well below the state speed limit.
One of them, a 53-mph blooper, had Perez practically corkscrewing himself into the dirt trying to hit it.
“That was my best pitch of the night,’’ Ford said. “I’m kinda surprised he swung at it.’’
Two pitches later, Ford sneaked another one, clocked at 67 mph, past Perez with home plate umpire Tom Hallion performing his trademark twist-and-shout punch-out. Even Perez had no choice but to laugh.
“I know that pitch wasn’t a strike,’’ Ford said. “But I’m keeping the baseball.’’
Ford’s brief return to the mound – he had been quite a good pitcher at Princeton in 2013 – provided the only reason for anyone but an Indians fan to remain in Yankee Stadium to the bitter end of a game that was over before the home team ever came to bat.
Indians leadoff hitter Francisco Lindor nearly decapitated a fan seated down the right-field line on Green’s first pitch of the game, and singled sharply on his second – and it got worse from there. Ramirez, who had fallen behind 1-2, worked the count back to full before crushing a grand slam to right-center. Jason Kipnis followed with a solo home run on another 3-2 pitch. Loaisiga replaced Green and three batters later surrendered a two-run shot to Perez. Just like that, it was 7-0.
“Letting it get away early like that kinda changes the complexion of the game,’’ Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.
The Yankees got a run in the first on a Gio Urshela single, and solo homers from Didi Gregorius, Gary Sanchez, and Gleyber Torres. But they never got closer than a touchdown away from the Indians, who are 23-11 since the All-Star break and 44-18 since June 4, the best record in the majors, to pull within a half-game of the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central.
It was a sobering defeat for the Yankees, who had won five straight and had just swept the woeful Baltimore Orioles in a four-game series that could be described only as non-competitive.
The comic relief of Ford, who began the game as the Yankees DH, on the mound served to divert attention from the nagging problems that plague the Yankees despite their American League-best 81-42 record and 9 ½-game lead in the AL East.
The prospect of using Green, whose ERA rose from 4.69 to 5.59, as an opener in October looked a lot less appealing, and as did the hope that Loaisiga could shore up their shaky starting staff. Luis Severino threw a bullpen session before the game and is headed for a rehab stint in Tampa this weekend, but there is no timetable for his return.
And perhaps most ominously, Aaron Judge, who is hitting .150 over his past 21 games and has just three home runs since the break, went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts and looked lost at the plate.
“I’m missing my pitch and it’s an issue,’’ he said. “It sucks right now but I got to keep grinding.’’
For the moment, however, those worries were overshadowed by the sight of Ford walking through the clubhouse with his shoulder and elbow packed in ice, just like a real pitcher. At Princeton, Ford went 6-0 with a 0.98 ERA and became the first player in Ivy League history to be named both Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year in the same season.
“The hitters are better here,’’ he said. “I learned I throw pretty good BP for major-league hitters.’’
He threw well enough to get cheered by a crowd that spent most of the night booing. And on a night in which Yankees pitching allowed 19 runs and 24 hits, that is quite an accomplishment.
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