Friday, June 24, 2005

Hard Hits: Week Later, Yanks D-Rayled

It didn't take long for things to go wrong. After a promising six-game winstreak over the Pirates and Cubs to begin a 13-game homestand, the Yankees reverted back to the form that's seen them look rather pedestrian most of the year.

Out of all opponents, it was Lou Piniella's Devil Rays who once again took three of four from them, stalling any momentum. And here's the sad part. If not for a remarkable Yankee comeback in the second game of the series when they scored 13 runs in the eighth to win 20-11, they would have been swept. Hard to believe. But the D-Rays, who have won just five other road games all year, looked like world beaters.

In the past, the Yanks have handled Tampa Bay. But this season has been a different story with the lowly team from St. Petersburg taking seven of the first 10 meetings. When the Bronx Bombers were dominating competition, losses to teams that bad were unacceptable. Now, when they suffer defeats to them or are stunningly swept at Kansas City, it's no longer a shock.

That's how much things have changed for the worst team money could buy.

In the opener of the Subway series at home, the Yanks basically handed the game to the Mets committing two key miscues in the second. After being staked to a one-run lead on a leadoff blast by Derek Jeter off former nemesis Pedro Martinez, the ball club did their best to give it right back. Keyed by a one-out dropped fly ball by Bernie Williams and a poor pickoff throw at second by Mike Mussina, the Mets somehow scored three runs on sac flies in the inning to tie a major league record.

At worst, the Yanks should have been out of the inning tied at one on a legitimate sac fly by Ramon Castro. But instead, the Yankees' poor defense gave the Mets the momentum and a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

Mussina, who never was sharp in six frames, made two costly mistakes when he left pitches up in the zone to Cliff Floyd and Carlos Beltran for solo homers. Meanwhile, Martinez got ahead of batters all night and tossed eight strong innings allowing just two runs for his eighth win of the season. He also got help from his defense when Beltran made a leaping catch crashing into the wall to take away a Hideki Matsui bid for an RBI extra-base hit. It was a terrific play by a player who had come under heavy scrutiny for inconsistent hitting and fielding thanks to a sore quadriceps.

Though the Yanks would get a two-run homer by Tino Martinez and put the tying run at the plate off closer Braden Looper, ultimately, they fell short. With one out, the Mets David Wright made the play of the game robbing Tony Womack of a bunt single with a tremendous barehanded scoop and throw that just got Womack. Considering that Jeter singled a batter later, that was huge because it saved Looper from having to face Gary Sheffield. Instead, he got rookie Robinson Cano to bounce out to end the game and extend the Yanks' latest losing streak to three.

The game was a microcasm of their whole season. Poor defense. Mistakes by starters. And not enough determined at bats to get Pedro out of the game early. That kind of play was put on display by Willie Randolph's ball club. If you wanted small ball, great pitching and clutch defense, the Mets gave it to you.

"I hope we find some consistency, because it's tough to play six months like this," Williams said afterwards.


That's how it's been all season.


Hitting Back:

-It was nice to see the Pistons and Spurs put on a good show in the final three games of the NBA Finals and produce the first winner take all Game Seven since Knicks-Rockets 11 years ago. It helped make up for how brutal the first four games were. But what this series came down to was a classic Game Five decided in OT by a last second Robert Horry three. If not for Horry's big shot and other key plays in that game and even his contributions in Game Seven, the Spurs don't win their second title in three years (third in seven). Big Shot Bob as he's known once again came up huge in winning his sixth NBA title for his third different team (Rockets and Lakers). There might not better role player in the history of the league, which speaks volumes.

-As huge as Finals MVP Tim Duncan came up in the second half, I would have given Horry the award. But you never see a role player get it. To Duncan's credit, after accepting his third such trophy, he referred to his teammates as 'a bunch of MVP's.' That's what makes him so likeable. He gets it!

-Say what you want about Larry Brown but he has endured a lot of problems due to his bladder condition. Even with all those health issues and the pressure to defend an NBA title, he had his team in position to repeat. It takes a special coach to be able to overcome all that. If it was his final game as coach, he still went out a winner. No other coach has ever won both an NCAA title and an NBA championship as he did with the '88 Danny Manning Kansas Jayhawks and last year's Pistons. In total, Brown won 100 NBA postseason games, passing legendary Red Auerbach for third all-time. Not a bad career for the Hall-Of-Famer.

-If this deal goes through between the Knicks and Suns with Kurt Thomas going to Phoenix in exchange for Quentin Richardson and a conditional first round pick, many critics will claim that it is the same silly move by Isiah Thomas. But here's my question to all these people: What NBA championship are the Knicks winning with him?

-It's a good thing Andy Roddick won his second round match at Wimbledon or he would have gotten an earful.

-It would be great if Annika Sorenstram could win the third leg of the grand slam at the women's U.S. Open. But she'll have to come from behind to win from six strokes back of Nicole Perrot over the weekend.

-Given the plight of both New York baseball teams, NFL training camp can't get here soon enough.

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