Saturday, June 18, 2005

Hard Hits: Yanks Try To Make Statement

Since returning home bruised and battered on the heels of a 3-9 midwestern swing, the seven-time defending AL East champion Yankees have risen from the dead. On their longest homestand of the season (13 games), so far, they have taken care of business winning the first five. After sweeping the Pirates in impressive fashion with two brilliant pitching performances from Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson and their first come-from-behind victory after eight innings, aided by a missed double play call and a Jason Giambi walk-off upper deck shot; the Yanks have followed that up by taking the first two games against the Cubs.

The Cubs, who are in town visiting the Stadium for the first time since the 1938 World Series when the Yanks, led by The Iron Horse and Joe DiMaggio swept them; had been playing better ball coming in. Despite not having ace Mark Prior, second starter Kerry Wood and shortstop Nomar Garciaparra due to injuries, Dusty Baker's ball club had emerged from a sluggish start to challenge for the NL wild card with a 34-30 record. With first baseman Derrek Lee pacing the senior circuit in all three triple crown categories and third baseman Aramis Ramirez heating up, they seemed like a good test for the Bombers.

Particularly Friday night, when the Cubs rallied from a 4-0 hole against Carl Pavano and took a 6-4 lead in the sixth. What looked like an easy fourth straight win for the Yanks became in jeopardy. But showing some new found resiliency, New York knocked out Carlos Zambrano in a three-run seventh to regain the lead thanks to an Alex Rodriguez single and a two-run home run by a hobbled Hideki Matsui. Matsui had already knocked in a run earlier but wasn't done. An inning later, he put the game out of reach with a clutch two-run double to give closer Mariano Rivera some breathing room for his 15th consecutive save, in the series opening 9-6 victory.

Carrying the momentum of that win into Saturday, rookie hurler Chien-Ming Wang had his most impressive start, going eight strong innings, allowing just a solo homer to fellow rookie Jason Dubois in an 8-1 triumph. Wang, who last week had his worst outing in an error-filled 8-1 defeat at the hands of the Cardinals, bounced back in a big way. The 6-3 right-hander out of Taiwan shutdown the Cubs offense on just 88 pitches (57 strikes) giving up just four other hits, walking one and fanning five including the locked in Lee. He improved to 4-2 with a 3.97 ERA.

The rejuvenated Bomber offense got on the board in the first on a key two-out A-rod single that plated Gary Sheffield. In the fourth, Jorge Posada extended his hit streak to 10 with an RBI double that scored the red hot Matsui, who had doubled earlier off Cub starter Glendon Rusch. Since turning his ankle against the Cards last Sunday, Matsui has hit safely in all five wins including three dingers and nine RBI's. If he struggles again this season, maybe he should turn the other ankle.

After tacking on a third run an inning later courtesy of a Sheffield run-scoring single that plated rookie Robinson Cano, the Cubs finally got on the board when Dubois led off the sixth with a blast to left for his sixth of the year. But after that, Wang retired nine of the last 10 he faced before giving way to reliever Tanyon Sturtze, who tossed a one-two-three ninth for the Yanks' fifth consecutive win.

The big blow came in the bottom of the sixth when the Yanks loaded the bases for team captain Derek Jeter. Jeter, who had never hit a grand slam in 136 previous at-bats, broke his major league worst drought among active big leaguers by connecting on a 2-1 Joe Borowski sinker to death valley to break the game open 7-1. The blast extended his hitting streak to 11 straight. Afterwards, the soldout crowd of 55,284 urged Jeter to take a curtain call, to which he finally obliged much to their delight. The next time he came up in the eighth, with fans chanting his name, Jeter hit his second straight dinger to right when it just cleared the wall bouncing off the the railing. It capped a five RBI day, matching a career high.

They now take this five-game streak into today's game when Mussina goes up against Sergio Mitre. If they can sweep the Cubs, it would send a message.

At 35-32, the Yanks still have their work cut out for them. They still trail first place Baltimore by five games and face an uphill battle with the Twins, Red Sox, Rangers and even the Indians ahead of them for the wild card. It all means that this summer could be like no other in New York. It's up to the Yankees to continue to play resurgent ball and keep pace so they have a chance to make the postseason. Nobody is going to roll over for them this time.

If they beat the Cubs later today for their sixth in a row, it won't mean a thing unless they take care of business against the Orioles at the end of the month and the Red Sox in a big four-game set at Fenway in mid-July. Those are the games they will need the edge in to comeback the rest of the way.

It promises to be exciting and nerve-wracking. Imagine that. A summer where the Yanks are finally challenged.


Hitting Back:

-It was a very sad conclusion to Mike Tyson's career. But after realizing he had nothing left against Irish pushover Kevin McBride, Mike showed a more humble side in the postfight interview with Showtime's Jim Gray. He admitted that he no longer had the passion or stomach for fighting. Tyson was only doing it to pay off his debt. He showed a lot of remorse for how his career ended on the stool quitting after six and wished fans at the MCI Center could get their money back. If this really was his last act, Tyson looked more at ease despite the result. He talked about how his family are more important at this stage of his life and boxing hadn't been fun for him since 1990 when he lost in Tokyo to Buster Douglas. Just the way he handled himself told a lot about his character. This was not the same animal or brawler anymore. It was a more mature man who understood that it was finally time to move on. I wish him best of luck at getting his life together and whatever his future holds.

-Glen Johnson-Antonio Tarver II on HBO was another good competitive fight. Tarver took the rematch by unanimous decision to reclaim the IBF light heavyweight title. Now that the prize fighters have split the first two fights, hopefully, there will be a trilogy.

-Could Larry Merchant take anymore cheap shots at Tyson and rival Showtime? What a hypocrite. If Tyson were fighting for HBO, everyone knows he'd draw just as many fans and Merchant wouldn't utter a word.

-It's nice that at least the NBA Finals between the Spurs and defending champion Pistons are knotted at two going to the pivotal Game Five at The Palace tonight. But could both teams at least show up and make the final two or three games for the ring watchable?

-At least the NBA and the union aren't dumb enough to risk losing a whole season like the NHL and the NHLPA.

-Over a week ago after Pedro tossed a complete game two-hitter against Houston, the Mets were making some noise and looked like they'd be there all year in a crowded NL East. Since that point, they have managed to lose eight of their last 10 and fall into the basement. They better get their act together soon or it could be another predictable year at Shea.

-Does Tiger have one last run in him to comeback from six strokes down against Retief Goosen at The U.S. Open?

-Not many people watch MLS soccer here. But if you didn't see the Metro Stars 3-2 win over the Columbus Crew, you missed a quality game.

-Afleet Alex sure showed a winning kick down the stretch at Belmont last week to take two-thirds of the triple crown.

-Now that Michael Jackson was found not guilty, could people just leave him alone?

-Over/Under on Tom Cruise engagement to Katie Holmes: Four months.

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