Cabrera's clutch knock propels Yanks
In fifth straight start, center fielder snaps tie with RBI single
NEW YORK -- This latest underdog story comes courtesy of Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who made a decision one day in Spring Training that Brett Gardner, and not Melky Cabrera, was to be his starting center fielder.
Rather than sulk, Cabrera worked. He was having a fine spring as well, and as March melted into April, those successes began to spill over into the regular season. Gardner's did not. And so it was Cabrera, and not Gardner, who was manning center field for Thursday's game against the Angels, and who later found himself batting in the eighth inning of a tie game.
Like he did one week earlier, when he hit a walk-off homer in the 14th inning of a game against the A's, Cabrera delivered. This time it was an RBI single, propelling the Yankees to their third straight victory, a 7-4 decision over the Angels.
"He's playing with a confidence," left fielder Johnny Damon said. "He's playing with a purpose. He knows he's a good player, and he's been great for us so far."
A .327 batting average through 49 at-bats is not nearly as telling as the way in which Cabrera has compiled it. First it was his walk-off home run on April 22. Then it was his at-bat in the eighth inning of Thursday's game, with the bases loaded and the Yankees (12-10) and Angels (9-12) stuck in stalemate.
After Robinson Cano singled and Jorge Posada hit a ground-rule double with one out, the Angels elected to intentionally walk Nick Swisher to get to Cabrera.
They were thinking double play. Cabrera was not.
Lining the first pitch he saw into right field, Cabrera provided his second game-winning hit in a week. And he also made possible what happened next.
With the bases still full, third baseman Ramiro Pena cracked a two-run double into the right-field corner, collecting the first two RBIs of his career. On the roster for defensive purposes, Pena has muscled his way into more playing time in regular third baseman Alex Rodriguez's absence.
"But I want to get hits, too," Pena said.
This hit was a welcome start, and with it, the comeback was complete. Though the Yankees were never completely out of Thursday's game, they found quick trouble when starter A.J. Burnett allowed a leadoff triple in the first inning to Chone Figgins, who eventually scored, and a leadoff home run to Mike Napoli in the second. Burnett allowed three runs in total over the first two innings, then recovered to pitch five additional innings of one-run ball.
Five days after one of the worst starts of his career, Thursday was a much-needed recovery.
"He gave us everything he had," Girardi said. "I thought he did a nice job of battling through this game."
And after two outings in a row in which he had allowed runs, Mariano Rivera pitched a scoreless ninth for his fifth save in six chances. Cabrera's heroics had been preserved.
More than anything, it seems a testament to Cabrera's character that he was publicly unfazed by Girardi's initial decision to make Gardner his starter in center field. Cabrera was the one -- despite his age -- with significantly more experience, and was matching Gardner's Spring Training production hit for hit.
But the Yankees, unhappy with the offense they received out of center field the previous season, wanted to try something new. They chose Gardner. And they told Cabrera that he would step in should anything happen.
Something happened. Gardner hit just .220 over the first three weeks of the season, and a few highlight-reel catches were not enough to continue justify playing him over Cabrera, one of the team's more consistent April hitters. Playing time began falling into Cabrera's lap. And the more he played, the more he hit.
"I think you have to give our coaching staff a great pat on the back," Damon said. "There were decisions to be made, but they also went and told Melky that he's going to be very important to this team. He didn't start the season as an everyday player, but he knew his role, and the coaches reiterated to him that he's going to be a very important part of this team, not only this year but in the future."
How quickly Cabrera has gone from being a fourth outfielder to a starting center fielder, with no end to his hot streak in sight. Girardi made it quite clear that Cabrera will start his sixth straight game when the Yankees and Angels meet again here Friday night, and that he will continue to play as long as he hits.
"You try to keep their spirits up," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "But basically you just tell them to continue to work."
Some players wouldn't have taken that to heart. Cabrera certainly did.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.