NEW YORK — Chien-Ming Wang gave the Yankees what they have so sorely needed in recent days — a quality start from a quality pitcher.
Remaining undefeated this year, Wang became the American League’s first six-game winner on Friday, scattering one run on three hits in six innings. Melky Cabrera drove in two runs as the Yankees posted a 5-1 victory over the Mariners at Yankee Stadium, snapping their three-game losing streak.
“I think you feel really good when he takes the mound,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s won 38 games the last two years. Obviously, when Chien-Ming Wang takes the mound, you feel good about your chances.”
The Major League leader in victories (44) since the beginning of the 2006 season, Wang washed away the bad vibes of a club handicapped by injuries and — later Friday — the criticism of co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner, who called the Yankees’ performance through the first month-plus “disappointing.”
With his club coming off a three-game sweep to the Tigers at Yankee Stadium, Wang was just the guy the home team wanted to see. New York has won the past 11 games Wang has started immediately following a Yankees loss, and he improved to 7-0 in his career against the Mariners, a team that originally courted him as a free agent.
“I just keep the game close and give my team a chance to win,” Wang said.
In the midst of his best stretch as a big league pitcher, Wang tossed five scoreless innings before Ichiro Suzuki manufactured Seattle’s lone run in the sixth. Suzuki singled and then stole a pair of bases before coming home on Raul Ibanez’s infield groundout.
Walking two and striking out five, Wang again credited his developing slider for helping to get away from the sinker-only mode that spoiled the latter stages of his 2007 season, particularly his October. Just for comparison, Wang didn’t win his sixth game last year until June 12 vs. the Diamondbacks.
“I didn’t feel this good back in Spring Training,” Wang said. “My control wasn’t this good back in Spring Training. It just keeps getting better.”
“The first few innings, his sinker wasn’t that great, but his slider and changeup were really good today,” catcher Jose Molina said. “From the second inning on, he picked up the sinker and had good ones going on. He got ground-ball double plays when we needed it.”
Girardi said that Wang’s slider, which the right-hander has worked on extensively with pitching coach Dave Eiland, is turning into a valuable weapon.
“It’s been really good the last two starts,” Girardi said. “What I like is the depth of it. When you get something going the other way, it just really keeps hitters off balance. He’s able to throw it to left-handers as well. It’s been a big pitch for him.”
Since Wang made his last start, on Sunday at Cleveland, no Yankees pitcher had been able to go at least six innings while allowing three runs or fewer. But the game did not progress without a scare: Wang drew attention with one out in the fifth inning for a potential problem on his pitching hand, calling Molina out to the mound.
“I was able to grip the ball, but it wasn’t that comfortable for me to release the ball,” Wang said.
The Yankees determined that Wang had suffered a cramp in the meat of his pitching hand, which he eased by receiving some light hand treatment. He believed that it was due to the cold weather, and with New York leading, 3-1, Wang was lifted after completing the sixth inning at 90 pitches.
“Once he had that cramp in the hand, we just figured it’s best to get him out,” Girardi said. “It’s a close ballgame, and if it cramps up and he makes a mistake with a pitch, it can cost you. He did his job, and we were allowed to use our bullpen.”
Kyle Farnsworth, Joba Chamberlain and Mariano Rivera each threw one scoreless inning to close out the victory. Farnsworth in particular received a warm ovation as he walked off the field after a perfect seventh, striking out two.
“I love it,” Rivera said. “I have no doubt that he can do that. He has the ability.”
The Yankees took advantage of a sloppy Mariners defense, which committed four errors through the first three innings. Facing left-hander Erik Bedard, Derek Jeter reached on an error by shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, moved up on a Bobby Abreu single and then scored on Hideki Matsui’s RBI single to left.
New York tacked on two more in the second. Morgan Ensberg reached on an error by third baseman Adrian Beltre and moved to second when he was caught stealing but second baseman Jose Lopez dropped the ball. Cabrera brought Ensberg and Alberto Gonzalez home on a two-run double to left, staking the Yankees to a 3-0 lead.
“That’s what you have to do, especially against a guy like Erik Bedard, who has been very tough,” Girardi said. “You’re not going to get a ton of opportunities against that guy when he’s on his game. He’s got really good stuff, and we took advantage.”
The Yankees padded their lead in the eighth, when Ensberg touched Sean Green for an RBI single and Molina hit a sacrifice fly. Bedard took a tough-luck loss, allowing four hits and three runs (one earned) in seven innings, walking one and striking out six.
But the star of the evening was Wang, who continues to make Chamberlain — for one — look good after the boisterous 22-year-old threw out a few laudatory preseason predictions.
“I told everyone from the get-go, he’s going to have a better year than he’s had the previous two, just from the work he does,” Chamberlain said. “As soon as we put some runs up, you know as a guy in the bullpen that you’d better be ready, because it’s going to be a short night for those guys.”