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Playing dead

Yankees looked like a lost cause -- until their pitching came alive

NEW YORK -- Crazy you, if you believed for even a Bronx minute that Boss Steinbrenner's lost boys of early spring would render themselves irrelevant by Memorial Day.

Say 10 mea culpas if you imagined the Yankees tumbling into the division basement before June's first light.

Sure, the pinstriped princes of 161st Street seemed poised to make a mockery of their legacy when they opened the season in an 11-19 nosedive. By May 6, the priciest team in baseball history -- Steinbrenner splurged $200 million to bedeck his club with 18 current or former All-Stars -- languished nine games behind the division-leading Orioles and 6 1/2 behind the Red Sox.

Slouching to their worst 30-game start since 1966, the Yankees, who renew their rivalry with the Red Sox in a three-game series that opens tonight in the Bronx, seemed to morph Mystique and Aura into Meek and Auld.

''Everybody was very nervous and tense because we hadn't played well," Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, a special adviser to the Yankees, recalled of touring the clubhouse at the slump's nadir. ''It was a difficult time."

And difficult to fathom.

''We all were a little surprised because the expectation was that they were going to mow everybody down," said Bobby Murcer, who played for the '66 Yankees and monitored the '05 humiliation as a television analyst.

The Yankees themselves ranked among the most baffled.

''I mean, who would have thought it?" infielder Rey Sanchez said of the calamity, which precipitated a shake-up that effectively ended the everyday career of a fading star, Bernie Williams. ''Not a team like this."

But all it took to turn a burgeoning baseball disaster into a sweet tale of redemption in Gotham was about a fortnight in May. The same afternoon Steinbrenner's prized colt, Bellamy Road, lumbered to a seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby May 7, Mike Mussina fired 131 pitches -- his heaviest workload in 75 starts since 2002 -- in a shutout of the A's at Yankee Stadium, triggering the team's resurgence.

''Our season turned around that day," catcher John Flaherty said. ''It seemed like everything fell into place after that."

The victory launched a 10-game winning streak and a 15-2 run after the Yankees defeated the Tigers, 4-3, in last night's series finale. With their pitchers posting a 2.86 ERA during the surge -- down from 5.10 in their first 30 games -- the Yankees climbed to within 4 1/2 games of the Orioles and pulled a half-game ahead of the Sox, returning a familiar swagger to the streets of New York.

Even the generally reserved New York Times got giddy. Never mind that June dawns Wednesday. The paper this week asked its online readers: ''Will the Yankees be in first place before the end of May?"

So much for high anxiety. No disrespect, Orioles, but as Randy Johnson prepared to square off tonight against Tim Wakefield, many of the Big Unit's teammates considered the Sox their most formidable foe as they chase their eighth straight division title.

''They're not going to last," Sanchez said of the Orioles. ''Something is going to go wrong. Everybody who has been around long enough knows it's going to be the Yankees and the Red Sox."

Tanyon Sturtze, the Worcester, Mass., righthander who last year etched his place in Sox-Yankees lore in the July 24 fracas at Fenway Park, echoed the sentiment.

''You don't really hear too much about the Orioles, even though they're at the top of our division," Sturtze said. ''It's still, when are the Yankees or the Red Sox going to start coming after them?"

While the Sox lead the majors in on-base percentage (.358), no team had scored more runs than the Yankees (266). Neither the Sox nor Yankees had yet to pitch as well as expected, though the pinstripers appeared headed in a better direction. The Yankees have a 3.95 ERA in May, down from 4.61 in April, while the Sox had backslid to a 5.28 mark in May from 4.36 in April.

''Starting pitching," Yankees manager Joe Torre said immediately when asked to explain his team's turnaround. ''It helped our personality because all of a sudden the relievers were capable of doing what they needed to do instead of having to be the main part of the game."

Torre and general manager Brian Cashman also helped by reshaping the lineup. In the throes of the early slump, they summoned minor league star Robinson Cano to play second base, replaced Hideki Matsui in left field with second baseman Tony Womack, and moved Matsui to center field, with the aging Williams, 36, losing his full-time job.

The move improved the porous Yankee defense, which leads the majors in unearned runs allowed (38). And it put a youthful bounce back in the team's step. After all, the Yankees fielded an Opening Day lineup that averaged 33 1/2 years old, with a 37-year-old setup man, Tom Gordon, and a 35-year-old closer, Mariano Rivera.

''We heard a lot about us being an old team," said Flaherty, 37, who made his major league debut with the Sox in 1992. ''And we looked old the way we were playing."

The '66 Yankees also looked old, with Whitey Ford (37), Elston Howard (37), Mickey Mantle (34), Roger Maris (31), and Bobby Richardson (30) in the twilight of their careers.

''I think about that a little bit," Jackson said, when asked if the current Yankees may be facing a similar transition. ''But these players are good. They're talented. Their careers aren't over."

While Williams, Gordon, and Jason Giambi have struggled, no one has fared better than Alex Rodriguez, who leads the majors in home runs (17), RBIs (49), and runs (43), and has felt so comfortable off the field that he publicly acknowledged this week he regularly has visited a mental health therapist for more than a decade. He said he hoped the disclosure would help remove the stigma of seeking psychological help, especially for troubled teens.

On the field, Rodriguez has received help from 37-year-old first baseman Tino Martinez, whose 12 homers and 30 RBIs have offset Giambi's diminished production. Matsui is homerless in 171 at-bats, the longest streak of his career, but Womack has added a dimension to the Yankees' offense by stealing 13 bases in the last 12 games he has played. And, despite minor injuries, Derek Jeter and Gary Sheffield generally have remained productive.

''They're going to score enough runs," Murcer said. ''It's just a matter of how good the pitching is going to be."

Lately, it has sparkled. New York's three scheduled starters this weekend -- Johnson, Carl Pavano, and Mussina -- have gone a combined 8-1 with a 3.39 ERA in May, while Boston's trio of Wakefield, Matt Clement, and David Wells has gone 5-3 with a 5.35 ERA. And while Sox closer Keith Foulke has struggled, his Yankee counterpart, Rivera, has thrived. Rivera, who saved his 11th game last night, had held opponents to a .175 average, with righthanded batters mustering only two singles against him in 25 at-bats entering last night's game.

As the Yankees flailed through their first 30 games, they spent little time focusing on the teams they trailed in the standings, particularly the Orioles and Sox, according to Flaherty.

''But now we've turned the corner," Flaherty said. ''We're looking forward to playing the Bostons and Baltimores again to see how we match up."

No matter how old they are.

''If we're playing well, we're going to be more than you can handle," Jackson said.

''It's going to be like going to the store and asking for a scoop of ice cream and the guy brings you the whole gallon."

The question may be: Will the Sox be hot enough to melt it?

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