Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Devils Drop Home Preseason Opener To Rangers

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ -The Hudson rivalry was renewed once again. If you could call it that with only a handful of familiar faces taking part in the first of a home-and-home. The rematch was set for Wednesday night across the Lincoln Tunnel at Madison Square Garden with different lineups expected.

Five months removed from a sweep of the archrival Rangers, the Devils took to the ice at Continental Airlines Arena under much different circumstances- dropping the home preseason opener 3-1 Tuesday night before 11,241.

With the Rangers opting to dress only a few vets as opposed to mostly rookies and second-year players, it looked every bit like a meaningless exhibition.

Though the Devils played Martin Brodeur for the first half of the action, the two-time Vezina winner wasn't sharp early on, letting in the game's first three goals just 8:17 in. In fact, the Rangers' three came in a 4:16 span. Blair Betts got it started when he took an Adam Hall feed and beat Brodeur with a backhand.

After Hall tallied unassisted at 7:50, rookie Brandon Dubinsky connected with a wrister from about 50 feet out only 27 seconds later to give New York a three-goal lead.

With not much happening for the Devils down three, there was a scrap less than a minute later between the Rangers' Francis Lessard and New Jersey's Nathan Perrot. Perrot is a former 1995 second round pick who is attempting a comeback from injury this preseason in hopes of making the final roster.

His fight seemed to awaken his teammates as only a couple of minutes later, Tuomas Pihlman took rookie defenseman Matt Corrente's pass and beat Al Montoya at 11:31 to cut the deficit to two. Former New Jersey 2001 first rounder Adrian Foster also picked up a helper.

It was the only chance they beat the Rangers' former 2004 first round selection on. The second-year pro was sharp in his half of action stopping 11 of 12 shots before giving way to veteran backup Stephen Valiquette.

Though the Devils weren't able to beat Valiquette (13 saves), after being outshot 11-8 in the first, they carried more of the play the final two periods outshooting their opponents 13-11 including only six Frank Doyle's way after he replaced Brodeur.

Outside of a scrap between Rangers enforcer Ryan Hollweg and Grant Marshall midway thru the game, it didn't resemble a real game. But more a contest of who could be sent to the penalty box more and not take advantage. The two teams combined to go 0-for-14 on the power play- Rangers (0-8) Devils (0-6).

It was more a reinforcement of the hooking, interference and delay of game calls which the league emphasized last season in an attempt to improve scoring.

Zajac Impresses: Though they didn't inch closer on the scoreboard, one new Devil coach Claude Julien had to be pleased with was Travis Zajac. The former 2004 first rounder who signed out of North Dakota this past Spring distinguished himself. Used primarily in a third line center role, Zajac was strong on the puck in 15:05 and registered three shots. The only drawback was his lack of success in the faceoff circle (2-8). Outside of that, he had a solid showing and could be one Devil newcomer to watch as this abbreviated preseason unfolds.

Notes: Along with Brodeur and Marshall, Devils' lineup also featured Scott Gomez, Zach Parise, Jamie Langenbrunner, Sergei Brylin, David Hale, Brad Lukowich, Dan McGillis along with unsigned center Erik Rasmussen due to the team's cap situation. Also taking part were second-year pros Pihlman, Barry Tallackson along with rookies Corrente, John Oduya and Tomas Harrant. Foster and career minor leaguer Justin Papineau rounded out the roster. ... After a three assist effort in a win at Boston in Lowell Sunday, 2006 first round pick Corrente continued to impress with another assist. ... John Madden sat out his second straight with a sore groin. ... Among regulars Rangers dressed Betts, Hall, Hollweg, Marcel Hossa, Jason Ward, Fedor Tyutin, Darius Kasparaitis, Aaron Ward and Karel Rachunek. Rookies who took part included Nigel Dawes, who assisted on Dubinsky's goal and former first rounders Lauri Korpikoski and Hugh Jessiman saw significant action up front while 2005 first rounder Marc Staal teamed with Ward on the blueline and finished +2 in 19:39. Ivan Baranka, Dwight Helminen and Lee Falardeau also took part as did vet Martin Richter and Lessard.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Baby Bombers Champions Again, Repeat As New York Penn League's Best

STATEN ISLAND, NY -Just call them champions again. Even with an extra day off along with a one hour 24-minute rain delay couldn't stop the inevitable when the Staten Island Yankees repeated as NY-Penn League champs by shutting out the Tri-City Valley Cats 2-0 in a winner take-all Game 3 before an enthusiastic 878 at Richmond County Bank Ball Park Friday night. It's the first time in 25 years a team has went on to win back-to-back NY-Penn League titles.

As has been their identity all season en route to the league's best record, the Baby Bombers won a lowscoring game with pitching, defense and timely hitting to claim their fourth title in the past seven years.

"They don't get any better than this," emotional skipper Gaylen Pitts told his club after being doused with champagne during a wild celebration inside the locker room. "I'll ride with you guys anywhere."

Led by starter George Kontos' brilliant six scoreless innings which included a season high 11 strikeouts, the Baby Bombers used the common formula along with two big RBI's from veteran DH Kyle Larsen to take home the hardware and celebrate in style before a raucous crowd.

"It feels great. It's the best feeling in the world," a jubilant Kontos said outside the dugout while fans chanted his name. "We came in here from Day 1 and we said we were going to do this, got it done and we feel great about it."

"It's been a fun ride with all these guys," leadoff hitter Seth Fortenberry added inside an emotionally charged room. "What more can you say? The guy went out and threw his heart out and pitched a great game. Shut it down for us."

Coming off a tough 9-2 Game 2 loss the other night, Staten Island jumped out of the gate much quicker and did something they couldn't Wednesday. Get an early lead and let solid pitching and D take over.

After Kontos worked around a first inning walk, the Bombers got to Tri-City starter Chris Salamida. The southpaw entered as the league's best pitcher during the regular season finishing 10-1 with a miniscule 1.06 ERA. He also picked up a postseason win against Auburn in the first round by tossing six scoreless. None of that mattered last night when Staten Island used a two out rally to give Kontos an early lead.

With the first two retired, third baseman Mitch Hilligoss' opposite field double kept the inning alive for Larsen. Behind in the count 0-2, he delivered a clutch RBI single into right to put the Bombers on top. After Colin Curtis followed with the third consecutive hit to put two on, Salamida limited the damage by getting second baseman Wilmer Pino to pop out to short.

"It's an amazing feeling," a pleased Larsen said after knocking in both runs on the night. "I can't even describe it. It's something I will never forget. Coming to this place especially with the front office and all the people here and the fans, it's been amazing. They deserve it...To get that run in the first was huge."

"The day off might have helped us more than people thought," Hilligoss noted. "That maybe we'd dwell on the loss but I think it was good for us to use it and relax. The guys did a great job."

Given a lead, Kontos got stronger and began a stretch of fanning at least two Valley Cats from the second through the fifth. After whiffing two in the second, he K'd two more in the third to keep his team ahead before they got a key insurance run. Shortstop Chris Kunda ledoff the home third with a double to left. His teammates used some little ball to get him in. A Hilligoss ground out to second got Kunda over to third and then Larsen followed with a sac fly to left which scored Kunda to make it 2-0.

"Winning the College World Series is a similar feeling," Kunda expressed after the shortstop got the team off to a good start in the field with a sparkling defensive gem for the game's first out. "Being able to make a play like that to begin things kind of give momentum on our side right away...The hit- I was trying to get something started when we had the guys coming up behind me. Kyle already had an RBI the first inning. I was just trying to create another opportunity."

Ahead two, Kontos served notice by striking out the side in the fourth in impressive fashion- getting Jordan Parraz and Max Sapp to chase fastballs before painting the outside corner to freeze James Van Ostrand. He would retire the next six Tri-City batters via K and seven of eight at one point.

"I felt good...Everything was working. I wasn't overthrowing. My fastball was good. It was moving. My slider was real tight and my curveball was breaking well. That's all I can ask for," Kontos pointed out. "Today was obviously a big game. [Salamida] has done great for them all year...It was kind of projection that everyone saw coming. My teammates picked me up big time and I just helped them stay ahead."

"Amazing. We knew. There was no one else in my mind that I want the ball in his hands," praised Larsen. "He's a warrior. He's a guy who fought for us all year and to come out and pitch the way he did is awesome. I'm so happy for him."

Though he also fanned the side in the fifth, Kontos worked around two hits by getting Tim Torres on a nasty breaking ball that caught the outside corner to strand both runners.

His final frame proved the most challenging. With one down in the sixth, Parraz singled to center and advanced to second on a wild pitch. When Kontos cameback to freeze Sapp for the second out and his final strike out of the night, it looked like he would get out of it without a problem. But he lost Van Ostrand and then allowed an infield hit to Justin Tellam which suddenly loaded the bases. When he fell behind Chris Johnson 3-0, danger loomed.

After getting a fastball across the plate for 3-1, Kontos almost balked in a run. However, plate umpire Tripp Gibson mistakenly awarded Parraz home. Before Kontos stopped his delivery, Johnson asked for time. When the four umpires convened, they properly reversed the call reloading the bases. Still behind in the count, Kontos dug deep by throwing consecutive strikes and got Johnson to harmlessly pop out to Pino.

"I fell behind 3-0," the championship winning starter noted. "I was opening up and dragging my arm. That's why everything was up. I sat back, took a deep breath and got on top of the ball. So I took a little bit off of it. [Johnson] got a little on top of it and no runs scored."

With Kontos finally done, Pitts turned it over to the bullpen. Reliever Nick Peterson worked a 1-2-3 seventh and got the first two in the eighth to pull the Bombers within four outs of another title. But Tri-City wouldn't go down easily. After Sapp beat out an infield single to second, Van Ostrand walked to put the tying runs on forcing Pitts to call on closer Mark Melanchon to get a four out save. He got Tellam to ground out to Pino to end the threat.

After S.I. went quietly in the eighth, Melanchon got Johnson swinging and Aaron Bulkey to line out to Pino to pull within an out of their ultimate destiny. After a tough battle with Greg Buchanan, he finally got him to chase a high fastball, touching off a wild celebration on the field which invoked memories of last year's championship team.

Keeping with the theme in which they doused 2005 manager Andy Stankiwiecz, repeat winner Larsen helped Gatorade Pitts before everyone celebrated with the trophy on the field.

"There's nothing better than winning a championship. Especially with the Yankees," Peterson excitedly remarked. "I've never been a part of something like this."

"The enjoyment that we're having. Just the whole year what you look forward to. And then at the end of the year, just the kind of fulfillment that you have. It's unbelievable," center fielder Colin Curtis added. "After a little bit, I knew that we had it in us. I knew that we were going to make a good run at it."

Hilligoss summed up the special season perfectly:

"We're a close knit group all year. That's what it's all about. The chemistry of this team."

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Valley Cats Spoil Baby Bomber Party, Force Deciding Game For Championship

STATEN ISLAND, NY -They were ready to throw a party but the Valley Cats crashed it with a 9-2 rout of the Baby Bombers in Game 2 before 1,266 at Richmond County Ball Park Wednesday night to force a winner take all third game for all the marbles.

It's scheduled to take place Thursday night at St. George if it doesn't rain. As has been a recent trend, inclement weather could push the deciding game for the NY-Penn League Championship back to Friday or Saturday. Either way, they'll get it in eventually.

Aiming for a repeat after coming back to take Game 1 4-2 in Tri-City, not much went right for the Staten Island Yankees on this night. Right away, the Valley Cats got to losing starter Angel Reyes (0-1) by pushing across three to knock him out. When the southpaw missed badly on four straight pitches to walk leadoff hitter Greg Buchanan, trouble immediately arose. A couple batters later with two men on, Reyes lost the strike zone and consecutively walked Jordan Parraz and Jhon Florentino to give the Cats the lead.

It only got worse as Reyes' next delivery resulted in a wild pitch which allowed another run to score. When James Van Ostrand followed with an RBI single to right which scored Parraz to make it 3-0, Reyes' night was done. Edgar Soto limited the damage by retiring the final two batters on a strike out and a ground out.

With Soto keeping Tri-City scoreless the next three innings, it gave Staten Island a chance to get back into the game. They sliced the lead in half in the fourth to make things a little interesting.

With one man out, the Bombers strung together three consecutive hits which cut it to 4-1. After Colin Curtis and Francisco Cervelli singled, first baseman Kevin Smith drove in the first run with a single to center. With runners on the corners Tri-City starter Casey Hudspeth uncorked a wild pitch which allowed Cervelli to score and make it 4-2, moving Smith to second.

But a crucial play would be the turning point. Shortstop Chris Kunda lined out to Buchanan at second, who quickly doubled off Smith to turn it into an inning ending 4-6 twin killing.

Still trailing by two, right fielder Wilkins De La Rosa began the fifth with a single to end Hudspeth's night. Unfortunately for the Baby Bombers, it would pretty much end their chances of coming back. Tri-City reliever Douglas Arguello tossed the final five innings allowing just one hit, a walk while fanning four to pickup the win (1-0).

In fact, he retired the first six including K-ing those four before his teammates broke the close game open with a five-run seventh. Aaron Bulkley ledoff with a solo home run to left off Soto which increased Tri-City's lead to three. After Soto put three of the next four batters on including an intentional pass to Parraz, S.I. skipper Gaylen Pitts went to reliever Luke Trubee to get out of the jam. But after he got Florentino swinging, Van Ostrand delivered the big blow with a grand slam to erase any doubt.

Notes: The game lasted two hours and 33 minutes. ... In relief, Soto went six inning allowing five earned on four hits while walking four and striking out two. ... Staten Island's top four hitters Seth Fortenberry, Wilmer Pino, Mitch Hilligoss and Kyle Larsen were held to just one hit in 12 at bats while K-ing seven times. In sharp contrast, the final five batters Colin Curtis, Cervelli, Smith, Kunda and De La Rosa finished with six of the team's seven hits. ... The do-or-die game is set to take place Thursday night at 7 PM. George Kontos could get the start for the Baby Bombers.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Baby Bombers Sweep Rival Cyclones, Go For Repeat

STATEN ISLAND, NY - The brooms were out in full force as the Staten Island Yankees used a six-run third and a brilliant pitching performance from Tim Norton to convincingly take Game Two 9-0- sweeping the rival Brooklyn Cyclones in the first round of the NY-Penn League playoffs before 1,614 energized fans at Richmond County Ball Park Sunday evening.

"We've played a lot of close games. It's nice to have a game like that," skipper Gaylen Pitts pointed out. "I thought it would be a good series. That game last night- the first game in a short series is one you want to win...We were able to do that and I think that set the tone."

"Rivalries are good in baseball. I don't think we have enough of them. And since I've been here, I've seen what this means to the fans, the players. It's a good clean rivalry."

"It is exciting," added reliever Nick Peterson. "We came out and played great ball tonight. Whatever it takes...The guys have been hitting the ball, fielding the ball, pitching well. When you put it all together, you're going to win ballgames. We've been able to do it all successfully and that's why we're winning."

Their reward is a place in the league championship series against either Tri-City or Auburn starting either Tuesday or Wednesday night on the road depending on who advances. Tri-City led the series 1-0 entering Sunday night. By clinching a berth, the Baby Bombers will have a chance to repeat as league champs and go for their fourth NY-Penn League title in seven years.

"It feels great," third baseman Mitch Hilligoss said after finishing with two hits including a clutch two-run single in the third which helped break the game open and key a big inning. "Especially against our rivals like the Cyclones. The crowd was great. A lot of energy on both sides. To jump on them early was nice."

Despite taking both games and outscoring Brooklyn 14-2 to move on, Hilligoss kept things in perspective.

"It wasn't easy. You look at last night's game 5-2 but we were scratching for runs. They helped us out and we probably helped them out a little. Today, we kind of put it together and got a couple of key hits and bunched them together instead of just getting one here there. We kind of played a little bigger ball today."

Retired in order the first two innings, they got to losing Brooklyn starter Todd Privett (0-1) by doing exactly what Hilligoss said to put together a huge third which decided the outcome.

After Francisco Cervelli and Chris Kunda singled to start it, Wilkins De La Rosa sacrificed them into scoring position. Left fielder Seth Fortenberry's sharp single to center plated Cervelli for the game's first run. Privett then plunked Wilmer Pino to load the bases for Hilligoss, who singled to left which scored two more. Brooklyn left fielder Dustin Martin's throwing error also allowed Pino to score clearing the bases. That's when Staten Island DH Kyle Larsen delivered the big blow. Already up four runs, he drove the first pitch he saw over the right field fence for a two-run home run to finally conclude the offensive outburst.

"I'm just starting to finally feel good again," Larsen mentioned after hitting a homer for the second consecutive game to derail the Cyclones. "My swing is relaxed. Definitely feeling good. So hopefully keep it going here for the second series."

"[Larsen] was telling me last night how he likes to play in the playoffs. Well, he's turned it up a notch," Pitts observed.

Making that six-run cushion stand up was Norton (1-0), who had Brooklyn batters off balance all night. The rating NY-Penn League pitcher of the week was so dominant that he took a no-hitter into the seventh. After getting the first two batters, he finally allowed a Dan Murphy single to right which broke it up and then got a deserved loud ovation from the crowd before coming back to strike out Elvis Cruz- ending his day with seven scoreless allowing just the one hit to go with three walks and four K's.

"It went well. I had a couple too many walks- three or four but my defense played well and I made pitches when I needed to," the winning starter remarked.

"I knew my pitches were getting up," he said in reference to the no-hit bid. "So I knew I'd be coming out soon and there's two out, no one on, 2-2 count and I kept coming with a fastball and [Murphy] hit it. So I tip my cap. It was good."

Staten Island tacked on insurance runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth to easily cruise to the 9-0 victory. Reliever Luke Trubee tossed the final two frames and concluded it fittingly by getting Martin looking on a belt high fastball which painted the outside corner to touch off a brief celebration on the field. However, they know the job isn't done.

"It feels real good," Norton added of getting the chance to play for the championship. "Now we get a day off and we're playing well. So we're excited about the next round and whoever we play."

Notes: The Baby Bombers outscored the Cyclones 9-0 and outhit them 12-2. They also were better in the field committing no errors while their opponents booted two. ... Hilligoss, Larsen and Kunda each finished with multihit games combining to go 7-for-12 with a dinger, four RBI's and six runs scored. ... The top five S.I. hitters each knocked in a run finishing with seven RBI's. ... Eight of nine batters finished with a hit. ... The game took only two hours and 20 minutes to complete.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Repeat Division Champion Bombers Look Forward To Playoffs

STATEN ISLAND, NY -It's been another very successful season for the Baby Bombers. A year after winning their third New York-Penn League Championship, the Staten Island Yankees repeated as McNamara Division winners and took a 44-29 record into their final regular season game against Tri-City Thursday night with home field advantage throughout the playoffs on the line.

Regardless whether they won that final game, they're happy with what they've accomplished thus far and looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead in attempting to defend last year's championship.

"It feels good," first baseman Kevin Smith said regarding winning the division. "We've put a lot of effort in all year day in and day out. The team pulled together. Winning the division I think is great."

"Very excited about the playoffs and to see what that's like. And if we play like we have all year, we should have a good opportunity."

Setup man Jonathan Hovis was very excited regardless who they play in the first round starting Saturday.

"It feels great. It will be a lot of fun," he pointed out. "We get to travel that first game. Either Auburn, Aberdeen or Brooklyn. So it's going to be fun but we treat it just like any other game."

Second-year first baseman/DH Kyle Larsen who was an integral part of last year's championship knows what to expect.

"A lot of us have kind of been in postseason action in college and stuff," Larsen explained. "There's nothing really that you can say. You kind of got to experience it. And I think we have a lot of experience. So we should be good."

He'll also have a shot along with outfielder Jon Poterson at repeating. Something he'd love to be a part of.

"It would be sweet and definitely an honor to win this league twice. So hopefully we can do it."

For scheduled Sunday starter Tim Norton, it's a special time.

"I'm excited to give my team a chance to win. So I'm pretty pumped about it come Sunday," he said. "We've been playing pretty good ball and we're in a good spot and we got a good chance to take a run at this thing."

Third baseman Mitch Hilligoss was pleased with the position his team is in but also knew that not playing Friday could definitely help after a recent busy schedule which has seen the Bombers play two doubleheaders in a four-day span.

"We're real excited. We get a day off tomorrow which helps everybody kind of get caught up on rest and stuff," he said. "And then hopefully two games that first series and then a day off and two more games. That would be nice."

Regardless how they accomplish it, Hilligoss has his eye on the ultimate goal.

"Just got to go out and play and see what happens. Whatever it takes to get to the championship."

Three-run Eighth Gives Bombers Home Field: For the second straight year, Staten Island will have homefield throughout the entire postseason.

The Baby Bombers rallied from two runs down with a three-run eighth to get past Tri-City (43-31) and finish with a New York-Penn League best 45-29 record.

After stranding the tying runs on second and third with nobody out the previous inning, the Staten Island Yanks greeted Tri-City reliever Cory Lapinski (2-1) with three consecutive hits to tie the score. With Colin Curtis and Smith in scoring position, catcher Francisco Cervelli delivered a two-run single to left which suddenly made it 2-2.

After Jon Poterson sacrificed Cervelli into scoring position, Chris Kunda lined out to center for the second out setting the stage for leadoff man Seth Fortenberry to get the winning run in. With Cervelli replaced by pinch runner Wilkins De La Rosa, Fortenberry beat out an infield hit to short. Tim Torres' errant throw allowed De La Rosa to come around and score the go-ahead run- making a winner of reliever Nick Peterson (5-3).

Mark Melanchon notched his second save in two nights by retiring the Valley Cats in order, finishing it off fittingly with a strikeout of Nicholas Moresi to give the Bombers homefield.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Baby Bombers Hold On To Edge Tigers

STATEN ISLAND, NY -The Staten Island Yankees took a step closer to wrapping up the McNamara Division by holding on for a 3-2 win over Oneonta (37-34) on Labor Day before 2,044 at Richmond County Ball Park.

With three games remaining, they improved to 43-28 and lead red hot Aberdeen (40-31) by three. They need either one win against Tri-City or one Aberdeen loss to officially clinch the division.

The Baby Bombers used a three-run second to overshadow 10 strikeouts in five innings by losing Tiger starter Brendan Wise (3-6).

Trailing by a run due to a Santo De Leon second inning RBI single, Staten Island immediately responded with three of their own. After the first two batters reached base, second baseman Wilmer Pino tied the game with an RBI single which scored Kyle Larsen and moved Colin Curtis to third.

After Wise fanned Kevin Smith, he opted to intentionally walk Jose Gil to load the bases and get to shortstop Chris Kunda. But the strategy backfired when Kunda delivered a two-run bloop single to right which ended up being the difference in the game.

Angel Reyes tossed six solid frames allowing just a run on four hits while striking out five to pickup his first win of the season.

After setup man Jonathan Hovis went two scoreless while K-ing two, manager Gaylen Pitts allowed lefty Mark Melanchon to close out it out. Giving closer Nick Peterson a night off, Melanchon gave up one run but retired the final three, notching his first save by striking out James Skelton swinging to end it.

Notes: In a game in which the Baby Bombers struck out 13 times, Wise fanned 10. By contrast, Staten Island pitchers combined to K eight Tigers- totaling 21 strikeouts between the two teams. Seven of the nine S.I. batters K'd with the exception of Larsen and Gil. ... Baby Bombers host Tri-City for the final three games of the regular season starting Tuesday night.

Godzilla Invades Staten Island, Participates In BP Session

STATEN ISLAND, NY -Godzilla invaded Staten Island. Well not literally. But rehabbing Yankee left fielder Hideki Matsui took part in a full batting practice session with the Baby Bombers at Richmond County Ball Park on Labor Day.

Due to his early arrival, gates opened at a special time of 3 PM for any fan who purchased a ticket to take in Matsui's hacks along with the rest of the McNamara Division-leading Staten Island Yankees, who later went on to edge Oneonta 3-2 to improve to 43-28.

The two-time All Star has been out since May 11 with a broken left wrist, which was suffered on an attempted diving catch against Boston. Before the injury, the 32 year-old Japanese star hadn't missed a game with the Yankees in three-plus years and had produced three consecutive 100 RBI seasons- becoming a reliable offense source.

Attempting to comeback from a serious injury, Matsui swung the bat well in the cage and took his first big step back.

"I felt fine. I hit pretty well," Matsui said at a conference call before about 20 reporters including a vast majority from back home who follow him all year long.

In particular, he was impressed with the ballpark's surroundings along with the spectators who came out to check out the slugger's BP.

"I'm very happy. It's a nice ballpark. Great view. And fans also came early to watch me. It was nice."

As for where he felt he was after his first session, Matsui definitely felt optimistic about getting close to finally returning in Pinstripes after a three and a half layoff.

"I wouldn't say it's perfect but I think I'm getting there little by little working my way up there."

Matsui is scheduled to take part in another BP session Tuesday in St. George before joining Double A Trenton Wednesday for a playoff game.

If all continues to go well, he should be back in the Bronx soon.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Agassi Takes Final Bow In Emotional Third Round Loss To Becker

It had to end some time. Andre Agassi's brilliant 20-year tennis career came to an end Sunday when a kid by the name of Becker from Germany did what Marcos Baghdatis couldn't four days earlier in a memorable second round match. He became the answer to a trivia question and beat the New York crowd favorite in front of over 20,000 screaming fans in four hard fought sets, 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 in front of an emotional Ashe Stadium Sunday.

While it wasn't the same Becker who won several slams over a similar storied career, the 112th ranked qualifier Benjamin was good and tough enough to finish off the 36 year-old tennis legend who won two U.S. Opens five years apart ('94, 99) and took home eight slams including the 1999 French Open to become only the fifth man to ever complete the Career Grand Slam.

But all that didn't matter when a back which has given him way too much pain and discomfort the past year along with Becker were too much to overcome during what turned out to be his final tennis match.

Despite a noticeable limp after three anti-inflammatory injections, Agassi didn't go out with a wimper. Instead, even when he wasn't close to 100 percent, the former rebel made his 11-year younger opponent earn the win in four competitive sets. Though he fell short, he could take solace knowing that Becker needed every one of his 27 aces and 82 winners to pull it off and advance to a Round of 16 match-up against Andy Roddick Monday.

When Becker had completed the victory, that's when the real emotions came out for Agassi, his adoring legions of supporters and even his conqueror himself.

"The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn't say is what it is I've found," a teary Agassi informed the ultrasupportive crowd during a moving postmatch interview with CBS' Mary Joe Fernandez. "Over the last 21 years, I've found loyalty. You have pulled for me on the court and also in life. I have found inspiration. You have willed me to succeed sometimes even in my lowest moments."

"It was a tough moment, an emotional moment for me, too," Becker told the AP. "I was happy, obviously. At the same time, I was sad."

It concluded 21 consecutive years at The Open of what once was a teenager with long bleached blonde hair and denim shorts who was every bit the rebel he portrayed in those Minolta Image Is Everything promos. But something unique happened to that person. He grew up before our eyes and developed into a clean shaven baldheaded man who personified everything good about the sport- erasing his image of not being the hardest worker by morphing into the ultimate professional who never took a point off or ever gave up. Most importantly, he's donated tons to charity and opened up his own Academy for troubled kids back home. That kind of generosity along with being so media and fan friendly is what's made him mean so much to not just tennis but life.

After making a special run to the final here last year before falling to Roger Federer in four sets, Agassi had nothing more to prove. But despite a back which continued to get worse, forcing him to miss the Australian and French Open and only take part in seven tournaments including Wimbledon where he fell to Rafael Nadal the same round, the Las Vegas native wanted this to be his final tournament before calling it a career and finally settling down with Grand Slam women's champion and wife Steffi Graf along with their kids.

All for the four minute emotional standing tribute from everyone at Ashe in the biggest city. Worth its weight in gold.

"It felt amazing. Nothing I've ever experienced before. I was overwhelmed with how they embraced me at the end," Agassi later expressed of the "Thank You Andre" chants he received and thunderous cheers from so many when he walked off the court for the final time. "They saw me through my career. They've seen me through this, as well."

Does that sound like a man who was in so much pain that he could barely stand? Instead, he leaves the game with no regrets despite the extreme lengths he went just to be out there for three matches when most normal players would've just given up. But not Agassi.

"If I wanted to quit, I would have done that a long time ago," he explained. "I didn't come here to quit...I just credit the doctors that I was able to get out there today. It's been such a day-by-day battle. Sure enough, it was real early where I wasn't feeling so good. That all doesn't matter anymore."

Maybe not. But nobody will soon forget what he brought to tennis. The eight slams. The 60 career titles. 870 wins. The inside out textbook groundstrokes which changed the way the game was played. The best return of serve arguably ever. And of course, the showman-like traditional four bows which became Agassi's trademark. All that along with the unforgettable rivalry against Pete Sampras to the memorable epic quarterfinal against James Blake last year. To his final two wins just to reach the third round.

"I'm going to wake up tomorrow and start with not caring how I feel. That's going to feel great."

Perhaps Roddick put it best.

"Every person in the draw, with the exception of if you're 33 years old, probably idolized Andre at some point," he said. "It's got to be similar to what the NBA rookies were like playing (Michael) Jordan in his last year. I mean, he's just revolutionized the sport...He's irreplaceable."

Roddick Prevails In Five: While Sunday turned out to be his idol's final match, Roddick needed five sets to advance to a fourth round meeting against Becker on Labor Day. The ninth seeded 24 year-old American eliminated fiesty Spaniard Fernando Verdasco (22) 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-2.

Also easily moving into the Round of 16 was top seed and two-time defending champ Roger Federer, who posted a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory over American Vince Spadea at Louis Armstrong Stadium. He'll next face Frenchman Marc Gicquel after he knocked out 21st seed Argentine Gaston Gaudio 6-4, 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 7-6 (3).

Andy Murray and Nikolay Davydenko also setup a fourth round encounter. Murray (17) cameback to beat 10th seeded Chilean Fernando Gonzalez 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 while seventh seeded Davydenko handled Lukasz Kubot 6-4, 6-1, 6-1.

Former 2001 winner Lleyton Hewitt (15) moved into the Round of 16 with a 6-3, 6-1, 6-2 triumph over Novak Djokovic (20). He'll next face Frenchman Richard Gasquet. The 25th seed defeated Marco Chiudinelli 7-6 (2), 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (2).

Second seeded Spaniard Rafael Nadal cruised into the fourth round with a 6-4, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4) win over Wesley Moodie. He'll next face Czech Jiri Novak, who eliminated Xavier Malisse in four sets 6-7 (6), 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.

Also into the Round of 16 were Tommy Robredo (6), Tomas Berdych (12) and Mikhail Youzhny, who upset David Ferrer (11) in four sets 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.

Meanwhile, fifth seeded American James Blake needed four sets to eliminate Spaniard Carlos Moya 6-4, 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3. He'll next face Berdych.

In men's second round action, former 2000 champ Marat Safin upset fourth seeded Argentine David Nalbandian 6-3, 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 7-6 (6). He'll next face Olivier Rochus after the 26th seeded Belgian went five before beating American Ryan Sweeting 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0.

Serena Sets Up Round of 16 Clash With Mauresmo: Highlighting the women's action was unseeded two-time champion Serena Williams ousting 16th seeded Serbian Ana Ivanovic 6-2, 6-4 to setup an intriguing Round of 16 match against top seed Amelie Mauresmo. Mauresmo also advanced but needed three sets to eliminate Italian Mara Santangelo 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.

Also into the fourth round was third seeded Russian Maria Sharapova after a routine 6-3, 6-2 victory over countrywoman Elena Likhovtseva (32). She'll next face China's Li Na after the 24th seed cameback to beat 2005 runner-up Mary Pierce (13) 4-6, 6-0, 6-0.

Former 1998 champ American Lindsay Davenport (10) advanced in three close sets over Katarina Srebotnik (22) 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5). She'll next meet seventh seeded Swiss Patty Schnyder, who eliminated Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli (26) 0-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Meanwhile, Frenchwoman Tatiana Golovin (27) knocked off fifth seeded Russian Nadia Petrova 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-3. She'll play Russian Anna Chakvetadze (23), who defeated Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 6-3.

Also reaching a fourth round meeting were Dinara Safina and Virginie Razzano. Safina (12) ousted Jarmila Gajdosova 6-3, 6-0 while Razzano, who upset Martina Hingis a round earlier continued her run by besting Kaja Kanepi 7-5, 6-2.

Baby Bombers Shutout Oneonta In Second Game, Split Doubleheader

STATEN ISLAND, NY -The timing couldn't have been better. After dropping the first game of a doubleheader 4-2 to lose their fourth in five to give red hot second place Aberdeen life, the Baby Bombers bounced back to take the second game 5-0 over Oneonta (37-33) before 2,879 at Richmond County Ball Park Sunday night.

Tim Norton along with ace relievers Jonathan Hovis and Nick Peterson combined on a seven inning three-hit shutout to get Staten Island (42-28) back on track. The victory kept them 2.5 ahead of Aberdeen, who won their fifth straight over Vermont Lake to improve to 40-31 and make this final week interesting. A week prior, a crucial game between the Bombers and IronBirds was rained out. Now, it could mean something if Staten Island doesn't take care of business, which is why getting the second game meant so much.

"Big time," said skipper Gaylen Pitts. "Aberdeen's playing like they're not going to lose the rest of the year...If we take care of business, we're alright. If we don't, we're going to be struggling but that was a big time performance by Norton after we lose the first one. Step up and set the tone that second game."

"It was good to bounceback in the second game of the doubleheader. We were a little sluggish the first game. Everybody looked kind of tired. It seems like we played better in the second game," first baseman Kevin Smith said after smashing a two-run home run to deep right in the eighth for the final margin and erase any doubts.

With the game scoreless in the fifth, the Bombers mounted a two out rally and pushed across two. After Wilkins De La Rosa walked, he advanced to third on a Seth Fortenberry single to right and came around to score on Brennan Boesch's throwing error. Mitch Hilligoss followed with a sharp single to left to plate the second run.

Sailing along through the first five, Norton (3-3) ran into trouble in the sixth by walking two of the first three batters before departing. Hovis came in and got the next two hitters to ground out to Hilligoss to end the threat.

"The job there is to come in and get a double play ball. Get ground balls and limit the damage in the inning," Hovis said. "I threw a couple of sinkers and got them to roll over it and we got out of there without giving up a run."

Staten Island tacked on three in the sixth. Again benefiting slightly from an error, they made the Tigers pay. After Wilmer Pino singled and stole second with one out, Tim O'Brien's routine grounder was booted by shortstop Scott Sizemore which allowed Pino to score. After new Oneonta reliever Chris Krawczyk fanned Jose Gil, the first pitch he delivered to Smith was tattooed into the water to make it 5-0.

"It's good cause I haven't had that all year," Smith pointed out about his first dinger at St. George. The other came on the road earlier this season. "It's good to finally start hitting some home runs. Everybody's been putting the effort in all year and been doing a good job."

"[Krawcyk] gave me a change up and one of the guys who played with him told me and said he likes to throw the change up a lot. So I went up there and I got a change up. It was just lucky I guess."

"They're all big now," Pitts added. "I told the team from Day One if we're good enough to still be standing at the end, then we'll go onto the next level. If we're not good enough, we'll go home."

"If we take care of business, we're going to be fine."

Notes: In the first game, a Deik Scram RBI single scored Louis Ott to break a 2-2 tie in the fifth and spark the Tigers to a 4-2 win- making a winner of reliever Randor Bierd (4-0). In a losing effort, George Kontos went six allowing three earned runs while striking out five to fall to 7-3 and suffer the hardluck defeat. ... With yesterday's rainout being made up, both games were played over seven instead of the full nine. The first game took two hours and 12 minutes while the second needed just two hours to complete. ... Rehabbing Yankee left fielder Hideki Matsui will be participating in batting practice the next two days with gates opening at a special time of 3 PM on Labor Day. ... Baby Bombers conclude three-game set with Tigers Tuesday night before finishing with three against Tri-City at St. George.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Federer Pulls Off New Trick, Straight Sets Henman

They don't call him The Maestro for nothing. Roger Federer continued to dominate in Friday's day session at the U.S. Open by defeating Tim Henman in straight sets 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 to move into the third round. The 25 year-old Swiss world number one is attempting to become the first man to three-peat in Flushing since Ivan Lendl (1985-87).

Though it was business as usual for the eight-time slam winner, he went to his new bag of tricks to unveil a shot that even had his opponent laughing and the capacity Ashe Stadium crowd stirring. During the middle of a point in the second set, Federer hit a ball between his legs surprising Henman, who volleyed it before the Open favorite ripped a backhand winner up the line to take the point. Both players managed to have a chuckle over it.

But ultimately, it was another win for Federer in the end.

"Rarely do you try this type of shot in a match," he explained to the AP. "In practice, it happens all the time. But to come and pull it off on center court, you have to make sure you're not doing something totally stupid or you don't look like an idiot."

"There's not a lot you can say at that stage, apart from laugh," a defeated Henman said.

And who could disagree at this point?

While Federer was doing his part to make the third round, fifth seeded American James Blake unveiled a surprise of his own by taking the court in an old Andre Agassi outfit from 1990 which included a bright pink shirt along with a white bandana. The atire didn't affect the affable Yonkers native's play one bit as he cruised to a 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory over Teimuraz Gabashvili.

"I just wanted to do it once," Blake said paying homage to his hero who got the best of him in an epic five set quarterfinal here last year. "I know Andre, how he probably doesn't want a ton of fanfare. Andre knows we all do care about him, we all appreciate everything he's done. I think the statement was made. Now it's back to business at hand."

"I wanted to do something just to show kind of how much he's meant to the sport. I'm happy it came on a day after that unbelievable night match last night when everyone has him, for sure, at the front of their minds," Blake pointed out.

"We're looking at his section of the draw, see when he plays next. That's the match we want to stay home for and maybe miss dinner for."

The bigger question at this point is how much the retiring 36 year-old two-time Open champion will have left in the tank when he takes the court for his third round match against German qualifier Benjamin Becker.

A day after another grinding win which had plenty of players and fans talking, Agassi didn't practice today and was given an anti-inflammatory injection for his stiff back in hopes that he could recover in time for what's scheduled to be a night match Saturday. However, with rain washing away tonight's night session which included Lindsay Davenport and a match between David Nalbandian and former Open winner Marat Safin, it's uncertain when Agassi could take the court. It's expected to rain most of Saturday which could cancel the entire Day Six session.

An extra day of rest could be what the doctor ordered for Agassi but also, if he were to advance to the Round of 16 where he could meet Andy Roddick, it would mean possibly having to go back-to-back days.

Also advancing to Round 3 was 2005 semifinalist Robby Ginepri. The 18th seeded American easily defeated Paul Goldstein 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 to setup an intriguing third round match against 14th seeded German Tommy Haas. Haas was a 6-4, 6-2, 6-3 winner over Raemon Sluiter.

Setting up another interesting third round clash was Fernando Gonzalez and Andy Murray. The 10th seeded Gonzalez eliminated Jan Hajek 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 while the 17th seeded Murray easily dispatched of Alessio Di Mauro 6-0, 6-1, 6-1.

Also advancing was seventh seeded Nikolay Davydenko 6-0 over Nicolas Mahut before he retired. Tomas Berdych (12) was a four set winner over Florian Mayer 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.

There were two upsets. American Vince Spadea took out veteran Jonas Bjorkman (29) 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-2 and Frenchman Marc Gicquel ousted Juan Carlos Ferrero (16) 7-5, 6-3, 6-4.

Other men who made it to Round 3 included Gaston Gaudio (21), Dmitry Tursunov (23), Carlos Moya and Lukasz Kubot.

Henin-Hardenne Comes Back To Win In Three: Justine Henin-Hardenne had a bit of a scare but woke up in time unlike Martina Hingis to comeback and beat Ai Sugiyama (28) in three sets 4-6, 6-1, 6-0.

The second seeded Belgian who is one of the favorites jumped out to a doublebreak 4-1 lead in the opening set but then had trouble with her fiesty opponent and the windy conditions and suddenly dropped the final five games to lose the set before digging deep to take 12 of the final 13 games and move into a Round of 16 match-up against Israel's Shahar Peer.

"I didn't have the feeling that I was moving well at the time, and I lost a little bit my intensity," Henin-Hardenne admitted to reporters afterwards. "The conditions were pretty difficult. When I lost the first set, I understood I had no more choice than winning the next two, and so to be very focused on every point. Then I played very, very solid tennis at that time."

Meanwhile, Peer (21) ousted 14th seeded Francesca Schiavone in three tough sets 6-3, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (3).

Also moving into the Round of 16 was 2004 runner-up Elena Dementieva. The 24 year-old fourth seeded Russian posted a 7-5, 6-3 victory over countrywoman Vera Zvonareva (33) to setup a fourth round match against Aravane Rezai. The Frenchwoman upset Russian Maria Kirilenko (20) 6-3, 6-1.

Two other women who advanced to a fourth round showdown were 2004 winner Svetlana Kuznetsova and Jelena Jankovic. The sixth seeded Kuznetsova easily took care of countrywoman Anastassia Rodionova 6-3, 6-0. She'll next face 19th seeded Serbian Jankovic, who cameback from a set down to upset 17 year-old ninth seeded Czech Nicole Vaidisova 5-7, 6-3, 6-2.

Third round women's action continues Saturday weather permitting and features unseeded American Serena Williams taking on Ana Ivanovic (16). Davenport (10) also has to play Katarina Srebotnik (22) and Patty Schnyder (7) and Marion Bartoli (26) will also try to get their postponed match in.