Friday, August 12, 2005

Hard Hits Special Part I: End of Road for Yankees???

As the season has gone on for the New York Yankees, one thing has become abundantly clear. How unprepared the organization was in case their winter plan backfired.

Johnson No Sure Thing

All season long, Randy Johnson has looked every bit his 41-year-old body (soon to be 42). Acquired to anchor the staff, he has been anything but automatic. With consistency lacking, ranging from effective outings where he goes deep into games to subpar ones where he serves up batting practice, allowing 24 home runs and posting over a 4.00 ERA, he has not been worth it for the Yankees. While Johnson has 11 wins and averages almost a strikeout-per-inning (152 K's in 159.1 IP), he has allowed four more hits than innings pitched.

Not only has the team been underwhelmed by his performance but they also must contend with whether his back is healthy enough for each turn in the rotation. Thursday, Johnson was unable to make a start due to his achy back. If things had gone as planned at this juncture of the season, this might not have been cause for concern. However, the Yankees entered Thursday trailing Boston by five in the loss column and found themselves four behind both the Athletics and Angels for the wild card.

With no spot starters left, Joe Torre called on reliever Scott Proctor in a big spot. To his credit, despite permitting a leadoff homer to ex-Yank Dave Dellucci, Proctor limited Texas to three runs over five plus innings of work. When your ace is no sure bet with under 50 games remaining in a pennant race, you're in trouble.

Injuries Decimate Staff

Aside from Johnson's struggles, the Yankee staff has been decimated by injuries. A Tampa contingent thought it was a good idea to give oft-injured Jaret Wright a three-year deal worth $21 million. Wright was coming off a career year with the Braves under the tutelage of pitching coach Leo Mazzone, where he won 15 games with a respectable 3.28 ERA in 32 outings. In his previous five seasons, Wright won a combined nine games in just 22 starts; never coming close to reaching 100 innings due to a history of arm trouble. Maybe that's why the Braves balked at re-signing him. You would think this would have sent red flags up but not with The Boss' crack committee. Not only should that have been a warning sign but with the 29-year-old righthander initially failing his physical, it should have guaranteed that he not wind up in Pinstripes.

As luck would have it, Wright got tattooed in four outings, allowing 36 hits in 19 plus, serving up six gopher balls with a Coors-like 9.15 ERA before going on the 60-day DL with a right shoulder inflammation.

Out since April 24th, Wright is finally ready to return and will start next Monday vs. Tampa Bay, taking the place of Columbus call-up Aaron Small. Small has only been brilliant in his four starts, going 3-0 with a 2.67 ERA. If not for White Sox hurler Freddy Garcia, who matched him pitch for pitch in a classic duel in which each allowed just a run Wednesday afternoon, Small could easily be perfect.

A 33-year-old journeyman who hadn't started in over nine years when he pitched for Oakland, Small knows how to pitch and most importantly, throws strikes. He doesn't look like he wants to go back down. And how do the Yankees reward his effort? By demoting him to the bullpen. When manager Joe Torre was asked why, all he could say was that Small was the most flexible and felt Wright will do the job because he's worked hard to get back. Say what? But it has nothing to do with the fact Wright makes a ton more money? The manager would never indicate if he's under that kind of obligation.

Over the past two weeks, Small has been the team's most effective starter in the heat of a playoff race. At this point, it shouldn't matter where he came from. You have to go with your best. Small deserves to stay in the rotation.

Meanwhile, the team's biggest free agent signing was former Marlin Carl Pavano. To be fair, the New Britain Connecticut native was one of the most sought after starters last winter. After winning a career best 18 games posting a 3.00 ERA last year, the Marlins, Red Sox, Tigers, Orioles and Yankees all were vying for his services. When the dust settled, the 29-year-old righty chose the Bronx for an astronomical price of $40 million over four years. With it came a lot more pressure. Pavano knew that going in but wanted to pitch here.

After a decent start in April going 2-2 with a 3.10 ERA in five outings, the wheels came off the next two months, where he gave up a ridiculous 95 hits in 71 innings, including 14 long balls; going 2-4 over 12 more starts. Making matters worse, Pavano couldn't pitch at Yankee Stadium, giving up 73 hits including 10 homers in just 47 frames, posting a 1-3 record with almost a 7.00 ERA in nine outings. By contrast, he went 3-3 in eight starts on the road with a solid 2.89 ERA, including his only shutout of the season at Seattle on May 17.

When he gave up four runs over six in a no decision against Baltimore on June 27th, Pavano reached 100 innings for the season. However, the next day he complained about shoulder tightness and was held out of the rotation. By July 7th, the ball club placed him on the DL with a sore right shoulder. It wasn't known how long he'd be out but it didn't sound that bad. However, a little over a month later this past Wednesday after he visited specialist Dr. James Andrews, it was discovered that he had rotator cuff tendinitis, meaning that Pavano would be sidelined another six weeks, which basically translates to the rest of the season.

Even worse is the continued unreliability of injury prone Kevin Brown. The embattled 40-year-old has struggled through an awful season. In 13 starts this season between DL stints, he was 4-7 with a larger than life 6.50 ERA. The definition of BP, Brown has allowed an astounding 107 hits in just over 73 innings, which translates to a .341 batting average against. And that's with only permitting five homers. That's right. Just five left the ballpark!

Injured again, the washed up sinkerballer has been out since July 24th with a right lumbar strain. At last check, Brown was back home in Georgia working with a physical therapist on strengthening his back, hoping to return next month. Don't count on it.

The string of bad luck even spread to impressive rookie pitcher Chien-Ming Wang. Wang, 25, had been a breath of fresh air for the Yanks, going 6-3 with a 3.89 ERA in 13 appearances. Before the All-Star break, he was their most consistent starter, pitching into the seventh inning in nine of 12 starts. He won his last two games against Detroit and Cleveland five days apart. Despite not having his best stuff, Wang gave up just three earned runs in 13.2 innings.

A couple of days later, he complained of soreness and the team shut him down. Wang soon landed on the DL retroactive to July 9 with a right shoulder strain. After some time off, he finally threw on flat surface 120 feet this past Tuesday. Wang could work off a mound soon and might be able to return before the season ends. Hopefully for the pitching desperate Yanks, it happens.

The one starter who hasn't been sidetracked is Mike Mussina. Moose has made 24 starts going 11-7 with a 4.01 ERA. Like Johnson, the crafty 36-year-old righthander has been inconsistent. He has thrown two shutouts but served up 19 homers. His batting average allowed has gone up for the third straight year as a Yank: 2003- .238 BAA, 2004- .276, 2005- .283 thus far. At least he can be counted on to take the ball every fifth day.

Yanks Look At Other Options

With so many injuries to their staff, the Yankees even took a flier on 39-year-old vet Al Leiter, who the Marlins waived in July. After a great debut at Fenway on July 17 where he held the vaunted Sox offense to a run in six plus, fanning a season best eight, the erratic southpaw has reverted to form. All over the plate, he can load the bases in an instant and pay dearly or dance out of trouble. He entered his sixth start as a Yankee Friday night with a 2-3 record, 4.68 ERA with more walks (19) than strikeouts (16) and more hits (28) than innings (25).

Recently, the team acquired former Rockie Shawn Chacon in exchange for prospects Ramon Ramirez and Eduardo Sierra. In three outings, the 27-year-old righty has been brilliant posting a 1.42 ERA in 19 frames. Despite that output, he has been the victim of hard luck, losing once and getting two no decisions. The way he's pitched, Chacon should stick in the rotation. Unless of course, some over the hill vet comes along. Hideo Nomo anyone?

Bullpen Issues

With starter inconsistencies from one game to the next, it's taken a toll on the bullpen. The once reliable setup duo of Tanyon Sturtze and Tom Gordon have been less than stellar lately.

After a solid first half, Sturtze has struggled mightily with a 6.23 ERA in 14 appearances before Friday. So much so that when he entered Thursday night's game against Texas with a three-run lead, the first pitch to Michael Young was hit out to tie the game. Fortunately for Sturtze, Derek Jeter hit a solo homer in the bottom half making him a winner.

In the same game, Gordon entered the eighth to protect a one-run lead. Anything but automatic, he loaded the bases with two outs, forcing Torre to call on Cy Young candidate Mariano Rivera to record a four out save.

Though Gordon's second half hasn't been bad, he already has allowed as many HRs (3) in 17 plus as he did in 42 innings before the All Star break. The most alarming difference is Flash's control. Usually with good command, Gordon has walked one more batter than he's fanned (9 BB, 8 K's in 17.1 IP). In the first half, his ratio was 19 walks to 42 K's, allowing 14 less hits with a miniscule .185 batting average against. By contrast, he has given up almost a hit per inning and seen opponents' average increase to .246.

With Sturtze and Gordon having problems, it's been tougher for Torre to find the right combo that can get the ball to Rivera.

Two Gutwrenching Losses

This past week, the team lost two of three to the major league best White Sox. But it was the way they lost the final couple that might sum up their season. After taking the opener 2-1, they dropped the series in excruciating fashion.

It started Tuesday night when former Yankee free agent bust Jose Contreras outdueled Chacon in a 2-1 game. With the game hanging in the balance and his team down a run starting the ninth, Torre elected to stay with Alan Embree. A waiver pickup from Boston, the lefty had been awful most of the season and had an ERA over 7.00. But with little confidence in Sturtze and trying to rest Gordon and Rivera, Torre let Embree face dangerous slugger Paul Konerko. Big mistake. The only legit power threat in the White Sox order hammered an Embree pitch 460 feet off the left field bleachers giving his team a two-run cushion.

When MVP candidate Alex Rodriguez led off the bottom of the ninth with a homer, his 19th at the Stadium; it tied a Yankee record by right handed hitters shared by Joe DiMaggio and Gary Sheffield. Unfortunately, the team's two out rally fell short when Bernie Williams lined out to Konerko leaving runners at the corners.

With questions surrounding why Torre left in Embree and heavy criticism by an enraged Boss, the manager cited that Konerko's numbers were much worse against lefties for the season. However, at a time when his team needs every game, would it have killed him to have Rivera start the inning and keep the deficit at one?

Wednesday was no better. This time, the score was tied at one when Torre was forced to pitch Rivera in the ninth and 10th. Desperate for a win, he went with his best. Unfortunately, the closer wound up on the losing end when Juan Uribe hit a ball into the right center gap that the aging Williams couldn't track down. With the center fielder not recovering the ball quickly, Uribe stretched a double into a three-bagger. On the flip side, White Sox center fielder Aaron Rowand had been a thorn in the side of Yankee hitters, robbing several of sure hits and covering more ground than Williams.

In a tight series where each game was decided by a run, it was a huge difference. This isn't a knock on Williams. It's not his fault GM Brian Cashman never could find a reliable defensive replacement. Torre had little choice, opting to keep Williams in over Bubba Crosby because the game was even.

Needing a strikeout with an out, Rivera induced Scott Podsednik to hit a sharp grounder to Robinson Cano, who fired home. But Jorge Posada's tag was too late as Uribe snuck a foot in. Just like that, the Yanks had fallen short again.

Games like those could be the difference between making the postseason for the 11th straight season and packing up for an early winter.

See Part Two


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