Saturday, August 13, 2005

Hard Hits Special Part II: End of Road For Yankees???

Tell Tale Signs

This team was flawed from the very beginning and management shut its eyes. They never had a backup plan if starters went down or if the pen got thin. Nobody anticipated Cano becoming the everyday second baseman when they signed Tony Womack. When Womack is now their best option in center, that doesn't say much. With Ruben Sierra out with a strained left hamstring, there aren't many options on the bench. John Flaherty backs up the declining Posada. Crosby is used mostly as a pinch runner or late inning defensive replacement. Tino Martinez has provided some power and D at first but that was mostly in May, though he has hit better lately. Andy Phillips is a decent fastball hitter but hasn't proven he can hit anything else.

The signs have been there all year. From losing three out of four at Tampa to being swept by the worst team in baseball, the Triple A Royals, the Yanks have failed to take advantage of teams they used to beat up on. Those losses could comeback to haunt them.

For a decade, the Bronx Bombers have dominated like no other team in baseball, winning four world championships and reaching six World Series. Only the Braves have made the postseason for a longer stretch.

They have never had a season like this where so many starters went down. The key to those championship seasons during that run of four in five years was pitching. They always had guys who came up big and most importantly, stayed healthy. Whether it was Jimmy Key, David Cone, Andy Pettite, Dwight Gooden, David Wells, Roger Clemens, El Duque, they always had enough proven pitchers who got the job done and tossed it over to the pen for the final three frames. That meant Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, Graeme Lloyd, Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland in '96. After '96, Rivera took the baton and saving games in the postseason to a whole new level with much of the same relief core which included Brian Boehringer, Ramiro Mendoza and Jason Grimsley along the way.

When you look at the names in that pen, it was more than two or three guys. They were like a perfect unit who each had a role and more often than not, shutdown opponents. Teams knew that if the Yankees had the lead after six, it was basically over. That kind of depth and intimidation is long gone.

Dominant Mo

Now, the Yanks have to outslug teams to win and hope they can protect leads long enough so Rivera can get the ball. He's the one sure thing on that staff. In a season that began with two consecutive blown saves to the same team that rallied off him in Game Four of last year's ALCS, doubts began that the once unshakable closer was done.

So how did the 35-year-old Panama native respond? By doing what he does best. Since the third game of the season when he was touched up for five runs (four unearned) by Boston, Rivera has saved 31 consecutive games. In dominating fashion, he is having arguably his best regular season, posting a 5-3 record with a remarkable 1.03 ERA. Rivera's best ERA for a season was 1.66 two years ago. In 52.1 IP, he has allowed only six earned runs of 12, giving up just 27 hits (1 HR- Jason Varitek on April 5) with 11 walks and 59 strikeouts.

To put in perspective how lights out Rivera's been this year, his WHIP is an incredible 0.73 and opponents are hitting .148. Compared to last season when he recorded a career high 53 saves, he has been far more stingy. He had a 1.94 ERA in 2004 with 65 hits in 78 plus with 20 walks and 66 K's with a 1.08 WHIP and .225 average allowed.

A-rod Answers Critics

Just as big this year has been A-rod. After much criticism last October for failing in the clutch during the Yanks' collapse against Boston, the 30-year-old third baseman has comeback with a vengeance. Coming into Friday's game, Rodriguez was leading the AL in homers (33) and among the league leaders in RBI's (90), batting average (.314) and runs scored (83). As noted earlier, he tied a Yankee record for most long balls hit by a righty in the Bronx. With seven weeks left in the season, there should be a new Bomber atop the record book.

Not only has he been terrific overall, but the New York native has excelled in key situations. With runners on, A-rod has produced 15 homers and 72 RBI's. With runners on and two outs, he's taken pitchers deep eight times and driven in 34. With men in scoring position, he's slugged six homers and driven in 53. With RISP with two outs, he's hit four long balls and had 25 base knocks. Most notably, Rodriguez has hit .444 with a homer and 14 RBI's with the bases loaded.

After starting the season batting second behind Jeter, Rodriguez was shifted to fifth by Torre. There, he was able to relax and start hitting like arguably the best player in the game. When he was behind Hideki Matsui, he hit .347 with 16 dingers and 44 RBI's. But after spending 41 games there, Torre finally moved Rodriguez up to the cleanup spot. Since then, he's hit .301 with 16 homers and 40 RBI's in 61 contests.

All season, Rodriguez has been locked in and resembled more of the 2003 AL MVP who starred for Texas that Yankee brass thought they were getting for Alfonso Soriano last year. A-rod's big year has included a jawdropping three home run, 10 RBI game vs. the Angels on April 26. For the season, he has four multi-HR games. It has to be one of the most satisfying seasons he's had.

Giambi Is Back

While Rivera and Rodriguez have been great, Gary Sheffield and Matsui are both on pace for 100 RBI's, making the middle of the order lethal. Toss in the reemergence of Jason Giambi and the offense has been explosive.

Giambi, who was under heavy scrutiny for a San Francisco Chronicle leak of his admission that he used steroids, took a while to round into form. Once he started playing regularly, he gradually rediscovered his stroke. The transformation began in June when he hit over .300. By July, Giambi was all the way back to being the dangerous first base slugger teams feared. He won player of the month hitting a torrid .355 with 14 homers and 24 RBI's with four two-HR games. He recently added his fifth multi-homer game at Cleveland August 4th.

With him returning to form and Rafael Palmeiro recently testing positive for a banned substance, questions have arisen as to what turned around Giambi. The 34-year-old California native has maintained that it was hard work with hitting instructor Don Mattingly that signaled his renaissance.

Unfortunately for Giambi, there will always be lingering doubts due to the vast knowledge that he used performance enhancements during his run to the top of the sport. Hopefully for the former Oakland Athletic 2000 AL MVP, he's not as clueless as Palmeiro.

Putting It In Perspective

Jeter and Cano have been solid at the top of the order with the captain getting on base at a .388 clip and the Rookie of the Year candidate hitting close to .290. Even with as good a top six as there is in baseball, it still might not be enough.

It's possible that the Yankees could sweep the MVP, Cy Young and ROY Awards and not make the postseason. If they miss, whose fault will it be? There's a saying in sports that you win as a team and you lose as one.

Maybe George Steinbrenner should remember that just in case.


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