Hafner carries Yankees to win over Astros

 

Stacking left-handed hitters is something manager Joe Girardi often tries to avoid, but the combination of injuries and slumping right-handed hitters didn’t leave him much choice Tuesday night.

The decision to place lefties Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, Robinson Cano, Travis Hafner and Brennan Boesch in the first five spots in the lineup proved successful in a 7-4 victory over the Astros.

“They did a good job tonight,” Girardi said. “We knew that Humber had struggled with lefties this year and a lot of my lefties I’m going to leave in against a lefty anyways, so I decided I’m going to stack them.”

The Yankees concluded April with 16 wins in 26 games despite adding three more players to their crowded disabled list since Thursday. One of the key reasons was Hafner, who finished April with a .318 average after three more hits Tuesday.

Hafner batted cleanup for the 15th time this season, but did so hitting behind Robinson Cano for just the second time. The other instance was a week ago in Tampa Bay when the pairing was 0-for-7 in a 3-0 loss.

Hafner had better success hitting behind Cano against Phillip Humber. While Cano did not reach in his first two at-bats, Hafner had RBI singles in his first two appearances.

Hafner had his first three-hit game since Aug. 5 and his 21 hits in April are his most since having 31 in September 2007 while helping Cleveland win the AL Central title.

“I think swing-wise I’ve just gotten a little more consistent as the season has gone on,” Hafner said. “I was kind of doing some new stuff in the spring and I feel it’s gotten a little better as the season has gone on.”

“They were great,” manager Joe Girardi said of Hafner’s at-bats. “He didn’t get the big home run for us but he got three hits with runners in scoring position. You just see that his approach is good and he’s been great in that four-hole for us and with all the people that we have out, he’s really done a good job in our lineup.”

Speed helped Hafner drive in those runs as Ichiro batted behind Gardner for the third time this year. In their first games hitting 1-2, the speedy outfielders were a combined 2-for-14 but last night they combined to get on base six times while going 4-for-9.

Overall, the five left-handed bats were a combined 8-for-21, reached base 13 times and scored the first four runs.

“That’s kind of why you want to put them there,” said first baseman Lyle Overbay, whose eighth-inning home run made Yankee left-handed hitters 9-for-25. “Those guys are going to set the tone. If you get in the late innings you’re going to pinch hit at some point but the most at-bats are going to be against Humber, so I don’t think it’s too big of a deal.

“It’s just something that in the right situation, Gardy’s leadoff and Ichi can spread the ball around and do what he’s capable of. It’s a good lineup.”

In the first inning, Hafner drove in Gardner on a single that left fielder Brandon Barnes was unable to hold on to after the outfielder stole second and took third on an Ichiro base hit.

The pattern repeated itself in the third inning and again in the fifth.

In the third, Ichiro led off by reaching on a wild pitch on strike three. With one out he stole second and four pitches later, he scored on Hafner’s single up the middle.

Two innings later, Ichiro reached on a one-out infield single and took second on a Cano single. After a wild pitch forced the Astros to intentionally walk Hafner, Ichiro scored on Boesch’s groundout and Cano came home on Jayson Nix’s infield hit.

The effectiveness at the top of the order enabled Hiroki Kuroda to win for the fourth straight time. He struggled early, throwing 67 pitches through three innings but allowed four hits, struck out eight and threw just 41 pitches over the final four frames.

Kuroda retired 14 of the 15 hitters he faced while pitching out of the stretch at the suggestion of pitching coach Larry Rothchild. He said it gave him better command of his slider and sinker, which proved vital when David Robertson allowed a two-run home run to Chris Carter in the eighth and Shawn Kelley gave up a two-run double to Jose Altuve in the ninth.

“That is actually something I don’t like to do, but I followed his suggestion today,” Kuroda said through an interpreter. “My control wasn’t there, so I tried to throw, attack the zone, as much as I can.”

“It seemed like he struggled with his control in the first couple of innings but got out of trouble every inning,” Hafner said. “After that, he was outstanding, so just kind of a great job by a veteran pitcher who knows what he’s doing.”

Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.



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