Patient Yanks eke out win at Fenway
Johnson draws bases-loaded walk in eighth to tip balance
BOSTON -- The Yankees were drawn to put Nick Johnson back in their uniform due in large part to his robust on-base percentage and patient approach at home plate, both of which turned out to be exactly what they needed on Tuesday.
The designated hitter worked a key bases-loaded walk facing left-hander Hideki Okajima in the eighth inning, forcing home Jorge Posada with the eventual winning run as the Yankees won for the first time this season, posting a 6-4 victory over the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
"I'm just looking for a good pitch to swing at and put a good swing on it," Johnson said. "I try to keep it as simple as possible -- stay up the middle, don't try to get too big and don't try to do too much."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi ribbed Johnson about his inability to find grassy patches with his hard line drives through the club's first 18 innings, as he remains hitless in five at-bats. But with four walks and a hit-by-pitch, Johnson has made it on base half of the times he's walked to home plate.
"He sees a lot of pitches, and I think he's doing what we anticipated him to do," Girardi said.
Getting on base was the only assignment for Johnson after the Yankees and Red Sox completed seven innings tied at four runs apiece. New York moved the go-ahead run across slowly, as Posada greeted Okajima by rocketing a ground-rule double into the right-field seats.
Posada was forced to hold at second base when Brett Gardner sent a one-out squib just past shortstop Marco Scutaro. With two on and two out, Derek Jeter hit a grounder to short that Scutaro threw away, setting up Johnson to work his five-pitch free pass from Okajima.
Robinson Cano tacked on a ninth-inning home run, his first, and Mariano Rivera recorded career save No. 527 as the Yankees enjoyed four innings of scoreless relief from their bullpen following A.J. Burnett's passable season debut.
That was the story coming into the night, with Burnett linked to Posada -- their first battery meeting in a game that counted since last Sept. 1, and one that showed flashes of an improving relationship.
"He really went out of his way to make me feel good, and I appreciate that," Posada said of Burnett. "I went out there and told him get on top of the curveball a little bit more. He did it right away, and his curveball then was biting the way it should. It kind of helped him with everything else."
While both parties insisted there was no fracture to repair in their relationship, the outside perception suggested otherwise. There were no emotional outbursts for Burnett to control like last Aug. 22, when he flung his arms toward the outfield and chastised himself, yelling, "Why? Why would you throw that pitch?"
But there were offerings Burnett would have liked back, and they both connected with Victor Martinez's bat. Martinez belted a two-run homer in the third inning that found safe harbor in the Red Sox's bullpen and hurt the hard-throwing right-hander again in the fifth with a run-scoring double.
"You know how critical I am," Burnett said. "I felt pretty good out there. I made two mistakes to the same hitter, and that's pretty much the summary. I felt relaxed out there and tried to stay on my game no matter what happened."
Burnett was gone after five innings of four-run ball, and thanks to a quickly escalating pitch count, so was Jon Lester after his intimidating cutter fizzled. Nick Swisher broke through against Lester with a run-scoring double in the second inning before the Yankees took a lead with three more runs in the fifth.
"A guy like that who's got four plus pitches, against him, I just try to get the barrel on the ball -- whatever he's throwing," Swisher said. "I got a fastball down and away. I felt like I was really late on it, but I'll take it."
In that fifth inning, Curtis Granderson and Jeter opened with hits against Lester before Johnson was hit in the back to load the bases. Mark Teixeira beat out a fielder's-choice grounder, Alex Rodriguez stroked a game-tying double and Cano came through with a sacrifice fly to give the Yankees an advantage.
With Burnett icing his arm, eventual winning pitcher Alfredo Aceves picked up where he left off by vulturing his first victory of the season, coming off a 2009 campaign in which he led the Major Leagues with 10 wins as a reliever.
The Yankees continued to toy with their eighth-inning setup mix, using Dave Robertson for one batter -- a Kevin Youkilis single -- before Damaso Marte recorded a flyout.
That brought on Joba Chamberlain, who struck out Adrian Beltre and J.D. Drew before punctuating his first hold of the year with a pair of emphatic right fist pumps. Chamberlain revealed that he had come straight from a pregame pep talk with John Smoltz, an idol growing up and someone who knows about being both a starter and reliever.
"That's probably one of the top five coolest things I've had the opportunity to do," Chamberlain said. "To talk to him and ask him some questions, he's a guy that understands. He's been through it. I tried not to be star-struck."
The hurler who came out from that clubhouse meeting looked a lot like 2007 Joba, Posada suggested, which was definitely an encouraging sign.
But the Yankees' biggest wins of the evening were credited to patience -- Johnson's keen eye at the plate, and more importantly, the calming influence that a spring's worth of work fostered between Burnett and Posada.
"It was good to get out there and play ball," Burnett said. "The last thing you want to worry about is that [issue] in the back of my mind. I don't think he did, and I know I didn't."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.