On baseball

Same old roll in NY

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 23, 2004
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NEW YORK -- Great. Now "El Duque" is pitching gems. The words we were hearing to describe the Yankees -- "vulnerable" and "catchable" -- now seem incorrect. And while they may not be invincible, they are undeniably winners.

New York comes into this weekend's series a comfortable 8 1/2 games ahead of the Red Sox in the American League East, after a 1-0 victory yesterday over Toronto on Ruben Sierra's walkoff home run and Orlando Hernandez's seven innings and 10 strikeouts.

There's no pressure this weekend on the Yankees. The only thing they'd like to avoid is a three-game sweep, as that would create the impression the Sox still have an outside shot at the division title.

"I really don't think of it as that big of a lead," said rejuvenated first baseman Tony Clark, whom the Red Sox probably would love to have back, two years after his most disastrous major league season. "I know the players over there. I know what they're capable of. I would never say they're out of it in July. You're never out of it this early."

Asked about the significance of this weekend, Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "It'll be the same [as always]. If we were fighting for fifth place it would the same."

Alex Rodriguez certainly pumped the July theme and downplayed the big lead, saying, "There are no conclusions in July."

A-Rod has not been very good against the Red Sox (.225), but no reason to fret. His teammates have been just fine, especially in that weekend sweep at the end of June when Derek Jeter was crashing into the stands and Nomar Garciaparra couldn't get off the bench. That series more than made up for the Yankees losing six of seven to Boston in April.

"I feel much more comfortable as a Yankee than I did back then," Rodriguez said. "The chemistry is a lot better. I just stunk in those games. Things are starting to improve. I'm starting to get closer to where I want to be at the plate. I just want to be consistent overall no matter who I'm playing against."

What frustrates Sox fans is that the Yankees have jumped out despite plenty of problems.

To start, Jason Giambi and Kevin Brown have both suffered from intestinal parasites, and Giambi has been seeing specialists the last two days, including getting a test for cancer yesterday. Jeter picked it up after a poor start, but a non-displaced fracture of his right hand sidelined him yesterday. Jeter may try to play this weekend.

There are other concerns: the gradual aging of Bernie Williams; Rodriguez's less-then-stellar offensive season, highlighted by a woeful .216 with runners in scoring position; a beat-up Jorge Posada; a less-than-stellar Mike Mussina (eligible to come off the disabled list today, but could be sidelined until August).

So why is New York in this enviable position? Clark has played a stellar first base. Gary Sheffield, with one healthy shoulder, is turning the baseball to dust every time he makes contact. The rotation, which in this series will include Worcester's Tanyon Sturtze, always seems to do enough to hand it over to the bullpen. Guys at the bottom of the pay scale, such as Miguel Cairo, Enrique Wilson, Sierra, and John Flaherty (who said yesterday he's probably going to retire after 12 years in the majors), have come up with big hits.

There's a lights-out bullpen, almost picture-perfect with Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon, and the greatest closer in modern history, Mariano Rivera, who has shown no inclination he's lost anything.

But the major factor, it seems, is the ship is steered by Torre, whose four rings give him much cachet with his players. Torre can be their friend, but he's their manager first, and everyone knows it. There are no shenanigans in the dugout. Nobody's asking to go home. You don't see A-Rod or Jeter sitting out key games, and both have had legitimate reasons to do so at times this season.

There are rules. There is still no facial hair allowed below the lip. Players and coaches must dress in suitcoats and ties on the road. Torre does not allow music in the clubhouse before or after games.

"There's a certain tone that Joe sets," said Flaherty. "I think the players get his full attention. He has the respect of everyone. He handles everyone as if they're professionals, and the guys in here just work so hard. It's a true team."

In the two years Flaherty has been a Yankee, he remembers two times when Torre had called team meetings to reverse bad trends.

"We were no-hit against Houston a couple of years ago and we had a meeting, and then once this year we had a meeting," Flaherty said. "He's not a screamer, but his tone of voice changes and you know he means business."

While Yankee critics say the team is not built for the postseason because of the absence of strong starting pitching (who knows if they'll eventually land Randy Johnson?), what's to say Mussina, Brown, and Javier Vazquez don't become dominant right before the start of the playoffs?

"We're good," said Torre prior to yesterday's game. "We have the advantage of being able to score a lot of runs on a regular basis. That makes up for some of our shortcomings."

Mussina and Brown are out of the rotation, but suddenly Jose Contreras has come into his own. Yesterday, Hernandez pitched brilliantly in a wonderful daylight duel against Toronto's Ted Lilly, sometimes looking as deceptive as El Tiante in his prime. If Mussina and Brown return to form, the Yankees' starting pitching could get up to speed quickly.

"It was a real giant step forward for him," said Torre of Hernandez.

"I work every day to come back to where I was," said Hernandez. "It's my dream."

The weekend series will be big for Contreras (scheduled to go Sunday), who has never pitched well against Boston, though, as Torre pointed out, "That was before he went back to the minors to work out some things. He's answered some questions for himself." Mainly, that he needs to be aggressive to be successful.

There will be concern about Jeter's hand. The shortstop was flexing it yesterday in the dugout. Torre, who was still evaluating him (watching him take BP), has been told it's basically up to Jeter how much pain he can endure while playing. Torre said it's not unlike Sheffield's shoulder ailment, where only the player can make the determination.

Gordon seems to sum up how the players view Jeter: "From what I've seen of him, he's a great player and a great athlete in that he just has this amazing feel for when he needs to make a great play. It's a gift from God."

Jeter being the obvious one, the Yankees have players who get it. Maybe they aren't invincible or remarkable, but the only thing that matters is the record. And right now, they're better than anyone else.

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