Friday, August 29, 2008

Pride of the Yankees

Even the most optimistic of Yankees fans (read: me) understood what Wednesday's 11-3 drubbing by the Red Sox meant, the second loss in as many games to the arch-rival Wild Card leaders. Simply put, it was all over.

No following the other races to see who the Yanks would match up with in the division series, no features on whether this was the year A-Rod would come up big when it counted, no pull-out sections in the Post and Daily News to pour over come Oct. 1. Yankee Stadium, for the first time since 1993, will be dark when the postseason begins. Turns out me and my Dad were at the final playoff game ever at The House That Ruth Built, a 6-4 loss to Paul Byrd and the Indians in Game 4 of the '07 ALDS. Lucky us.

The players accepted the season's lost nature as well on Wednesday night, even if Joe Girardi's hollow rheteroic said otherwise (how annoying is this guy sometimes?). "We have to be professionals now," is how Johnny Damon put it. The Yankees entered Thursday losers of 18 of their last 30 games, turning a three-game deficit to the Rays to 11 and one-game distance from the Sox to seven. You couldn't have been surprised if Boston had finished off the funeral of the Bombers with a sweep in Thursday's matinee finale.

But here's the thing about these Yankees, particularly the veterans. They may not be the same players they used to be, but they still have their pride. And you have to respect the fight they put up in Thursday's 3-2 win in what is in all likelihood the final game these two great rivals will ever play against each other in this park.

Jason Giambi was the hero, launching the game-tying two-run homer with two outs in the seventh. Pinch-hitting for Jose Molina, the 'Stache lined an 0-1 pitch from Hideki Okajima off the facing of the black in left-center to finally get the Yankees on the board. When he came to the plate again with the bases loaded and no one out in the ninth, he stroked the walk-off single to center off douche closer Jonathan Papelbon. Who says people don't get work done on half-days?

Giambi is about to begin his final month in what has been a long, strange and ultimately unfulfilling journey as a Yankee. Always a fan favorite despite the steroid scandal that will forever blight his career, Giambi has always had a knack for the big hit in his seven-year pinstripe run. His skills have eroded greatly as an offensive player, but he's given this team everything he's had left this season, playing more first base then anyone could've imagined while being a good run producer and on-base man in spurts. He will be useful somewhere as a DH next season and he will be cheered loudly when he steps into the box as a visitor at the new Stadium.

These next 29 games will have a lot of that feel. Saying goodbye will be the big theme. Saying goodbye to some mainstays on the roster and saying goodbye in the place the club has called home since 1923. Let's hope Thursday was a sign that this team will send the cathedral out with the respect -- if not the results -- it deserves.

Around The Horn: New York finished 484-285-4 in the regular season at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox. New York has beaten Boston in six of 10 postseason games in the Bronx. ... Alex Rodriguez went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts on Thursday, finishing the biggest series of the season at 2-for-13 with five strikeouts and one RBI. The crowd let him have it again, hopefully Madonna can hold him in her veiny arms as he sobs uncontrollably. ... The Red Sox lead the season series against the Yanks, 8-7, with three games to play Sept. 26-28 at Fenway. ... New York is six games back of Boston in the AL wild-card race with 29 to play. ... Mike Mussina is now 0-for-2 in tries at win No. 17 despite a solid seven-inning outing against the Sox. The Moose will have six more starts to get four more wins. I sincerely hope Stanford's son does it. ... Pete Abe reported today that Joba threw 45 pitches in the bullpen on Thursday. His next step will be throwing batting practice on Saturday before the game against the Jays. ESPN reported Thursday night that the Yanks are hoping to have Hoss in the bullpen sometime next week. Of course, they really need him as a starter, but I suppose beggers cannot be choosers. Another helping of Sidney Ponson? It's beefy!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Understanding the mystery of A-Rod

If you managed to make it through all nine innings of Tuesday's excruciating blood-letting in the Bronx, you couldn't miss the singular emotion oozing from the Stadium. Anger.

Anger that Andy Pettitte came up small against the big rival again. Anger that the offense refused to accept multiple Boston invitations to get back into the game. Anger that a promising season had gone so wrong. But must of all, anger toward A-Rod.

We need to be fair here, because there's a good chance talk radio and the papers won't be. The Yankees didn't lose this crucial series opener solely because of A-Rod's brutal 0-for-5, two DP, one error showing. In reality, Johnny Damon may be the only Yankee without blood on his hands. But Tuesday was a perfect microcosm of everything that makes A-Rod what he is. More to the point, Tuesday perfectly displayed everything A-Rod isn't.

He has the most physical gifts. He puts up the biggest numbers. He has the highest salary. But he'll never be your savior. The Yankees can win a World Series with Rodriguez on the roster, but they won't ever win title No. 27 because A-Rod is on the roster. It's a head-scratching reality that even the most ardent A-Rod apologists are now starting to understand. He's not the Alpha Dog the Yankees thought they were getting when they traded for him prior to the 2004 season. He proves this time and time again, but for some reason Yankees fans refuse to accept it. Each failure just adds more fuel to the fire. Tuesday became an inferno that stands among the darker days in a Hall of Fame career.

The cautionary tales of the '04 ALCS and subsequent ALDS losses didn't stop the Yankees from bestowing upon their superstar a lavish 10-year deal prior to this season. The contract did more than ensure A-Rod would hit homer No. 763 in a Yankee uniform. It also announced Rodriguez as the new face of the Yankees. Perhaps if the team had taken a closer look at A-Rod's makeup and track record, they would have called his bluff and let him walk when he opted out of his deal in October. Maybe he would have hit his 50th homer of the season on Tuesday for another team with deep pockets and a spotlight that didn't shine so bright. But ultimately, the club made the same mistake that I and countless other fans were guilty of. Blinded by what seemed so obvious, the Yankees assumed there was no way that talent wouldn't translate to titles.

But what the Yankees may ultimately have is a damaged soul, a player who probably never was cut out to be in New York in the first place. The error he made in the seventh inning was a direct result of the boos raining down on him. He was rattled by the rejection of his home crowd and he acted accordingly. The special professional athletes have the ability to block out distractions. Roger Clemens famously said he heard nothing when he stood on the mound. Silence. Imagine that? A-Rod can't. A-Rod can't tune out the criticism. It consumes him. And that thin skin is what ultimately makes a great talent very human.

Human was the very definition of A-Rod's performance on Tuesday. Problem is, human is not what the Yankees paid for, and it isn't what their fans will ever accept.

Monday, August 25, 2008

First things first against Sox

It's hard to imagine the Yankees actually catching a break this season, but Josh Beckett's absence from this week's series against the Red Sox certainly qualifies as that.

Tim Wakefield will be Beckett's replacement. Fresh off the disabled list, Aaron Boone's best friend hasn't pitched for Boston since Aug. 6 and his recent history against the Yankees portends to a big day for the Bombers bats. The 42-year-old knuckleballer is 9-17 with a 5.18 ERA in his career against New York. The Yanks knocked Wakefield around in their last matchup, touching him up for six runs over 5 1/3 innings in July.

The Yankees will counter with Andy Pettitte, one of two dependable pitchers on the staff. The road to the postseason will be nearly impossible unless a pitcher in the rotation not named Pettitte or Mussina steps up in a big way, but for now the two vets must be at the top of their games. If either pitcher is injured or falls into a slump, this season is done.

All that said, the series-opening Pettitte-Wakefield matchup is an essential game for the Yankees. The last time Pettitte opened a series against the Red Sox, he crapped the bed. If you know anything about No. 46, he hasn't forgotten that 7-0 loss on July 3. Pettitte and the Yanks need to take advantage of this matchup. Urgency my friends. URGENCY!

Sidney Ponson will face Paul Byrd in the middle game, a contest with potential to become a battle of the bullpens. It will be interesting to see how Ponson bounces back from his atrocious start in Toronto. Unfortunately, his history against the Red Sox as a Yankee isn't very promising. Ponson's introduction to the rivalry was a pounding in the series finale at Fenway Park on July 27. The hope here is that Ponson can gut through five or six innings without giving this thing away.

Mike Mussina will then take the ball in the finale, a matinée game at the Stadium. Jon Lester will make the start for the Sox. Like Ponson, Lester was beat up by the Blue Jays in his last start. The left-hander allowed seven runs on eight hits in just 2 1/3 innings, the shortest outing of his career as a starter. As evidenced by his track record, Lester is a tough dude, so I look for a competitive performance from him. Moose, just four wins from 20, will have to keep pace.

One X-factor to keep in mind as we approach Tuesday's opener. For the first time since 1999, this rivalry will be without the ultimate Yankee Killer, Manny Ramirez. This has been lost in the shuffle with all of the last-trip-into-the-Stadium-for-Sox stuff, but it cannot be understated. Jason Bay has been a very capable replacement in left field, but I stand by the fact that Boston made a big mistake in letting Manny's latest spat blow up into a trade. This is a weaker Red Sox team than the Yanks saw the last time these two teams met. Even the most ardent Sox fan blowhard would have a hard time disagreeing with that.

And yet, they probably would. This, my friends, is why Boston sucks.

Walking The Wire in Baltimore

To get back into this playoff race in earnest, the Yanks are in need of an extended winning run. Today's 8-7 marathon win over the Orioles completed a three-game sweep at Camden Yards. That's three straight. And that's a start.

But Sunday's game also illustrated how difficult it will be to put together the necessary run with the starting rotation being what it is. This will put the spotlight back on an offense that will get one last chance to re-write the story of its season as anything other than a bust. They will need to produce when those Ponson-Pavano-Rasner turns come up. If the Yanks swing the bats -- as they did all weekend in Baltimore -- it's certainly possible to win eight of 10 or 15 of 20. But we must remember that we're talking about a team on pace to score the fewest number of runs in a season since the Bush Sr. administration. It's unclear if they are capable of being consistently productive anymore.

Darrell Rasner is terrible. Just God awful. He's had more chances than Robert Downey Jr., and while I'd love to make a cute pun here saying that the Razz is more Tin Man than Iron Man, I won't, because the fact is Darrell Rasner is all heart. Unfortunately, that's all he is. If Wang didn't get hurt and Kennedy didn't implode and Joba didn't point to his shoulder, Rasner would have been at best, in long relief and, at worst, sitting on his couch drinking Budweiser. Instead, he's still here, still pitching poorly and there's not really a thing the Yanks can do about it other than hand him the ball in six days against the Blue Jays. That's just the way things are in '08. Stupendous.

What we saw this weekend is what we expected from this team all season. The Yanks took it to a last-place team with an offensive attack that was too much to handle for middle-of-the-road starters and weak middle relief. So strong was the lineup that the team overcame Carl Pavano and Rasner only collecting 25 outs in their starts.

The offense couldn't have done it alone. The bullpen seems back on it feet after The Road Trip That Shall Not Be Named. Mariano Rivera is back in form, collecting saves in all three O's games to give him 31 for the season. It was also nice to see Damaso Marte excel Sunday with three strikeouts over 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Joe Girardi lied -- yes, flatly lied -- to the media prior to the game, saying the reason the left-hander hadn't pitched much in the past 10 days came down to the right situation not presenting itself. Marte let the cat out of the bag later, saying his elbow had been bothering him, likely the product of a 42-pitch outing on Aug. 4 against the Rangers. Me thinks Girardi still has some things to learn about dealing with the New York press. If you lie, you will be exposed, and when you get exposed, you look like a dick. Understand this and adapt.

The Yanks have been excellent in close games this season. Sunday was the 38th come-from-behind win of the year, tied with the Tigers for the most in baseball. Eleven of the Yanks' last 13 wins have been come-from-behind victories. These are numbers that are either telling me the bullpen is way better than I give it credit for or this season has been very close to being embarrassingly bad. I suppose it's both.

And just like that, the Red Sox re-enter the picture. Three games at the Stadium starting on Tuesday, with New York trailing Boston by five games in the Wild Card chase. In the words of Mike Francesa, this is huuuuuuuuuuge. The Yanks need this series in the worst way, and while it may be asking too much to ask for a sweep, the Bombers need to be thinking that way. The Yanks caught a break on Saturday when the Sox announced that Josh Beckett will miss his next turn with arm issues. In his place will be Tim Wakefield, fresh off the disabled list and hopefully ready for another shit show in the Bronx. To keep this momentum going, the Yanks need to win this series. This may be their last chance to make noise.

Around The Horn: The Yankees swept the Orioles at Camden Yards for the first time since 2004. New York leads the season series, 8-7, with three more games to be played in the Bronx Sept. 19-21. That series finale could be the final game ever at the Stadium. Good luck getting tickets to that. ... I like Pudge Rodriguez. I like the way he plays. He's a gamer. But he's not showing much game for the Yankees. He has one RBI since joining the team. This is not the walk-year that agents dream about. ... The Yankees' punishment of Daniel Cabrera on Sunday was an anomoly of sorts. The big-righthander had been 3-0 with a 3.15 ERA in three previous starts against the Yanks in '08. Cabrera's velocity has seriously dipped (his fastball was maxing at 89-90), which makes you think he has to be hurt. Why do the O's keeping running him out? ... I watched the Orioles telecast of the game on Sunday. That Jim Palmer sure is a whiny bitch. He was all over the umpires, highlighted by his near conniption when Rivera fanned Nick Markakis to end the game. Like many announcers across baseball, Palmer seems to put waaaay too much faith in those silly pitch-tracker boxes. "They're embarrassing themselves," Palmer said of the umps, seemingly unaware of the irony that he was a tighty-whities model in the late-80s. ... I'm going to say it. This team will be so better off without Jason Giambi next season. Sure, he's a fun guy, but you take out that hot stretch in June and he's been a shadow of the shadow of his former great self. ... Phil Hughes got bombed in his Triple-A start on Saturday, his second consecutive poor start down there. Suddenly, a Sept. 1 call-up isn't a sure thing. Phil Franchise? Certainly not this year. Meanwhile, I haven't heard if Ian Kennedy getting married again this ALDS? Prospects are suspects.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Well, that's a start ...

I've gotten past the point this season where one win will set my mind in motion on a Yankees return to greatness. Like the girl who was stood up on prom night, I've been hurt before and now I'm just kind of on guard about everything.

But being the eternal optimist I am, yesterday's 9-4 win over the Orioles at Camden Yards was certainly nice to see. They haven't quit yet, something I thought was a real possibility after Thursday's debacle in Toronto. It would have been nice for Moose to get win No. 17 (he probably has six more starts to get to 20), but at this point we can't exactly be picky about how the Yankees win games. Such is life when your favorite team has to play five weeks of .700 ball to make the playoffs.

Six games out of the Wild Card with 34 to go, the odds are against this team. That said, it's still premature to write this team off mathematically, which was the rage on the 'net after Thursday's drubbing. I'll concede the American League East, of course. But are the Yanks really finished in the Wild Card chase?

Oh geez. Here I go again.

What if, per chance, the Yankees were to win eight of the next 10 games while the Red Sox and Twins/White Sox went 5-5 in that same stretch? Is that a completely impossible thought? I don't think so. That would put the Yanks three games back on Sept. 2. Everyone would be going apeshit saying the Yanks were back, including those who went tumbling off the bandwagon in the past month.

Doubters have plenty of ammunition to shoot down that possibility. The Yanks still have no pitching depth, the offense still kind of sucks and with the schedule being as it is (lots of road games, lots of quality opponents), a betting man would probably mark this as an 83-win team and move on.

That's certainly fair. But let's see how the rest of this month plays out before we put the finishing touches on that headstone. You get to play a last-place team the next two days before coming home for six games -- three of which are against those Red Sox whose tail lights are in the distance. Now's the time for that 8-2 run. Tonight I'm counting on Carl Pavano to get the momentum going, and shockingly, I don't even feel that apprehensive about it.

Okay. I'm fucking nuts.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lost in the Great White North

There's a helpless feeling being a Yankees fan right now, a ping in your gut that didn't usually show up until the late innings of their last three ALDS ousters.

For the first time, you can truly sense that the end is near. This is officially unchartered territory for teams in the Jeter Era. Sputtering without direction, well back in the standings, and no light at the end of the tunnel.

I wrote in this space prior to Thursday's game that the series finale against the Blue Jays would serve as a serious gut check for the Yankees. The matchup (Halladay vs. Ponson) certainly wasn't promising, but the Yanks had looked good on Wednesday and I had a feeling they were ready to put up a good fight.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Ponson threw an absolute stinker and the offense looked intimidated and then apathetic in Halladay's presence. It was 13-0 after four innings. Are you freaking kidding me?

In the first half of the season, I was frustrated by the feeling that I was watching a great team that was underachieving. I don't believe that anymore. This is not a great team. This isn't even a good team. Injuries destroyed the pitching staff. Age consumed the lineup. It makes you wonder if this team has even 85 wins in it. Would you be shocked if they finished under .500?

One more observation on a truly revealing night in Toronto. After Billy Traber -- who's terrible by the way -- surrendered a three-run double to Matt Stairs to extend Toronto's lead to 10 runs in the third, the Yankees came to bat in the top of the fourth and showed absolutely no desire to be on the field. Xavier Nady, Hideki Matsui and Robinson Cano saw a combined five pitches in the frame. Halladay was cruising to another complete game without breaking a sweat. Did that ever happen under Torre?

They quit. And they didn't even try to hide it. The Yankees had a chance to make a statement on Thursday and instead they embarrassed themselves. Six games out of the Wild Card with just 35 games to play. Math says their alive, commonsense may not agree.

Another "must-win" for Yankees

The Yankees got back on their feet yesterday at Rogers Centre, bouncing back from Tuesday's brutal Johnny Damon-led loss with a workmanlike 5-1 win over the Blue Jays.

Fitting that it was the old guard that came through in a big game, as Andy Pettitte tossed seven excellent innings for his 13th win while the resurgent Derek Jeter had three hits including a game-breaking two-run homer. The Captain has 16 hits in his last 28 at-bats, raising his average to .298. He's also having sex with the hot brunette from Friday Night Lights. There may or may not be a correlation there.

With the series knotted at a game a piece, the Yankees face a huge uphill challenge tonight with Yankee Destroyah Roy Halladay squaring up against the man who loves crabs, Mr. Sidney Ponson. Though hardly a promising matchup for the Yanks, Ponson has been a good pickup by Brian Cashman, giving the Yankees a chance to win in almost every start he's made for the team. New York has won six of Ponson's nine starts since the big drinker was signed off the street in June.

You've probably heard the term "must-win" thrown around a lot of late. This was widely considered to be the case in the third game of the Texas series, the finale of the Angels series, all three games of the Royals series as well as yesterday against Toronto. "Must-win" is a flawed term, of course, seeing as its mathematically incorrect. But I will say this ... it is a very important game for a team desperately in need of momentum.

The Yankees have been very consistent this season in losing games they're supposed to lose. It seems whenever they have an unfavorable pitching matchup, the game is basically decided prior to first pitch. This team needs to buck that trend in the worst way tonight. Take it to Halladay. Put up some crooked numbers early. You are still the Yankees, right? It's not impossible to think you can get the better of a star pitcher ... is it?

Actually, I don't even need you to knock around Halladay. This offense has shown me this year that I can no longer ask for things I got as recently as a year ago. Give me four runs in seven innings. Take some freaking pitches. Get the dude out of the game. If Ponson can hold down an inept Toronto offense (not a sure thing at all, but it could happen) then they have a shot. Give me a tie game in eighth inning. Then get the job done. Figure out a way. This isn't a must-win, but it's sure as hell important for a team running out of days in August.

The Yankees must understand that fact and play accordingly. Not sure what kind of heart this team possesses yet? We could have a much better idea by 10:15 tonight.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

No country for old men

These are exactly the type of games that explain why the Yankees in all likelihood will not qualify for the postseason in 2008.

The offense, simply put, is not good enough to compete on a day-to-day basis. Toronto starter A.J. Burnett struck out 13 over eight innings on Tuesday, exposing the once-great Yankees lineup as an old and slow group. Take Johnny Damon, the affable outfielder who singlehandedly beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS. Damon was a 31-year-old All-Star back then. Four years later, Damon can still hit, but his defensive struggles make him little more than an unorthodox designated hitter. And yet, on a roster of beat-up veterans, the Yankees are asking Damon to be the starting center fielder for the rest of the season. Damon showed why this is an error in judgment on Tuesday, dropping two fly balls -- the second costing his team an incredibly important game. As always, Damon was accountable for his actions after the game, but that doesn't make the gaffes disappear.

Jason Giambi was a monster when the Yankees signed him to a seven-year, $120 million deal prior to the 2002 season. He was 30 and arguably baseball's best hitter not named Bonds at the time. Now? You still pay him that monster salary ($23 million in '08 alone), but his production doesn't come close to matching the dollars. Four strikeouts in four at-bats against the Blue Jays, looking geriatric and helpless in the process.

And while some are helpless, others are just hopeless. Take Alex Rodriguez. No seriously, take him. As he always does when facing real competition, A-Rod was completely overmatched by Burnett, striking out in each of his first three at-bats. When he led off the ninth with a blooper over the first-base bag, he hesitated out of the box, allowing just enough time for Lyle Overbay to make the throw to nail him easily at second base. Did Overbay make a fine play? Of course. But too often A-Rod plays the clown for the Yankees. He's the face of failure.

The woeful offense wasted an uncharacteristically strong performance by Darrell Rasner, who allowed one run on three hits over 6 2/3 innings. The team fell to 16-27 in series openers, a statistic that illustrates the lack of urgency that has helped shipwreck this season.

My confidence in this team has reach a season-low. I believe the Yankees need to go 4-2 on this road trip to stay alive by the time the Red Sox come to the Bronx. Well, they're 0-1 so far with Yankee-destroyer Roy Halladay looming in the series finale.

Dark days, my friends. If you have some extra faith send it my way ... because I'm starting to lose hope.

Pavano or Hughes?

The Yankees have a very interesting decision to make on Saturday, when they'll need a starter to face the Orioles at Camden Yards.

Your first option -- and certainly the more popular choice among Yankees fans -- is to bring Phil Hughes back. The prospect has completed his lengthy rehab from a fractured rib, and despite a rough last rehab start, has looked sharp overall. Still, you have to think there are those in the organization that feel they rushed both Hughes and Ian Kennedy, and they may want to make sure they don't make that mistake again. Hughes was pummeled in Spring Training this year, and yet the Yankees gave him the ball in the third game of the year. The results were astoundingly bad, as the right-hander went 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in six starts before limping to the disabled list.

Meanwhile, Pavano's situation is unlike any New York sports has ever seen. Signed to a four-year, $39.95 million contract prior to the 2005 season, Pavano has been sidelined by a litany of injuries, some very real and some potentially imagined. Pavano has made just 19 starts for New York, winning a total of five games over the span of the agreement. That's a cool $8 million a win! Some speculate Pavano doesn't want to pitch at all, a feeling that has made the right-hander a very unpopular man both within the organization and in the Yankees clubhouse.

That said, Pavano has pitched better than Hughes as he's rehabbed from Tommy John elbow surgery. The 32-year-old is 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA in three Eastern League starts with Double-A Trenton, allowing six runs on 14 hits while walking three and striking out 13 in 14 innings. On paper, he should be the man for the job.

What would you do if you were the Yankees? If I was the one who got robbed by the American Idle, I'd probably want to run him out there. Who knows, maybe you catch lightning in a bottle and he wins four or five games down the stretch to help the Yanks make the playoffs. That wouldn't erase four years of nonsense, but it would still help.

For that reason, I see Pavano on the mound Saturday in Baltimore. If Hughes were lights out at Scranton, I'd see it differently. But his inconsistencies combined with Pavano's fat pay check may make this decision for New York. After four long years, the Yankees may try to get one last return on their worst investment ever.

**UPDATE** Pavano skipped his bullpen session on Tuesday due to a "stiff neck." What a freaking thief. Meanwhile, Hughes complained of a dead arm after his last start. Sometimes it's hard to escape the feeling that it's just not the Yankees' season.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Hey, I remember those guys!

The Yankees dropped a little deja vu on their exhausted fanbase Sunday at the Stadium, pouring 15 runs on the Royals to capture their first winning series in six tries. Two straight wins coupled with the two straight Red Sox losses pulled the Yanks within five games of the American League Wild Card lead.

The Yanks scored 10 in the first two innings alone, led by A-Rod (three-run shot) and The Stache (grand slam). All the support enabled Mike Mussina to grab win No. 16 in what's become an increasingly special season for the 39-year-old right-hander. If he stays healthy, he will have 7-8 starts to get to 20 wins for the first time in what suddenly appears to be a Hall of Fame career.

The Yanks are off today, a welcome respite for a team of beleaguered old men. It will be interesting to see how the offense builds off Sunday's outburst. A similar breakout occurred on July 2, when a slumping lineup exploded for 18 runs against the Rangers. They were shut out at home against Boston the next night.

The Yanks have scored 10 or more runs 12 times this season. They are 5-6 in the games that have followed these outbursts, including five losses in the last six such situations. The lineup needs to really takeoff to secure a postseason berth, and now is the time to do it.

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when you're heading to Rogers Centre for a three-game series. The Blue Jays aren't much of a hitting team, but they can really pitch. And unfortunately for New York, the Toronto arms seem to get especially amped when facing their AL East rivals.

The Yanks are 4-5 against the Jays this season, losers of two of three in Toronto in their last meeting in July. Yankee Killers Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett held New York to one run over 17 1/3 innings in the bookend games of the first half's final series. The Yanks will get both those pitcher again this week, 15-gamer winner Burnett opening the set against Darrell Rasner and 14-game winner Halladay closing it out against Sidney Ponson. The rotation couldn't be stacked any worse for the Yanks, but put simply, they need to find a way to take one of those games in tandem with beating up on left-hander David Purcey (2-3, 5.93 ERA) in the middle game.

There's really no more room for messing around. Just look at the numbers. The Yanks have 12 series from now until the end of the season. Being five games back in the Wild Card race, they'll need to win nearly all of them to make up the ground. Looking at recent history, the Yanks needed 89 wins to grab the Wild Card in '07 (they got 93), the Tigers needed 91 in '06 (they got 95) and the Red Sox needed 94 in '05 (they got 95). So, if I were a betting man, I'd say the Yanks need to get around 93 wins to snag the Wild Card in '08. At 66-58, they'll need to go 27-11 to pull that off. Even if the Wild Card is a race to as low as 90 wins, the Yankees are going to have to play well over .600 ball from now until Sept. 30.

An uphill climb to be sure, but hardly impossible. Hey Joba, how ya feelin'?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Needed win a great relief

The Yanks have sputtered recklessly close to the point of no return in 2008, and heading into the bottom of the seventh on Saturday, you could have sworn you were watching a funeral at baseball's grand cathedral.

The Yankees had, after all, done everything in their power to fall in the opener against the lowly Royals on Friday, an inexcusable loss that featured a ninth inning that perfectly symbolized the infuriating nature of their season. That Joe Girardi didn't walk to the opposite end of the dugout to rip out Justin Christian's heart was a welcome surprise for me.

But now it was the seventh inning on Saturday, Zack Greinke cruising against the Yankees for the first time in his star-crossed career. If they were unable to come back from a 2-0 deficit, a back-breaking seventh loss in eight games was staring the Bombers right in the eyes. Somebody had to do something.

The Royals -- as bad teams are wont to do -- lent a hand. Alex Gordon booted a groundball off the bat of Alex Rodriguez, and A-Rod came around to score on a two-out triple by Robinson Cano. (remember him?) Greinke then uncorked a wild pitch to tie the game.

The bullpen then put the team on its back, finishing with 6 2/3 innings of shutout ball to pick up the slack for a brutal Yankees offense that provided another agonizing performance (3-for-16 RISP, 13 Ks, three GIDPs). Brett Gardner won the game in the 13th inning with a slap single, but the real stars of the game -- Bruney, Veras, Ramirez, Rivera and Robertson -- cannot be overlooked.

So what did we learn on Saturday? The Yankees still cannot hit, a fact that I don't see changing from now until the end of the season. Much has been made of the Yanks' inability to drive runners in from scoring position with less than two outs, and this is definitely not a question of perception differing from reality. The Yankees are on a pace to score nearly 200 runs (!!!!!) less than last season. The will likely score the fewest runs in a full season since 1992. Me thinks big changes are on the horizon.

Joba threw again on Saturday, this time 28 tosses from 65 feet with no ill-effects. My gut feeling is hoss has thrown his last pitch of '08. Unless, of course, the Yankees can close out this month with a bang that gives the organization some hope the season isn't lost. A smart move is a wait-and-see approach leading to Sept. 1. If the Yanks are playing well and are within shouting distance of the Wild Card, Joba should return if he is up for it. That said, expecting this clueless (incapable?) unit to realize the enormity of the moment is taking a huge leap of faith.

The Yankees need Sunday's finale in the worst way. They haven't won a series in their last five tries. There is literally no more slack on the rope here. They picked up a game on both the Rays and Red Sox on Saturday, which is a good start. The Rays are too far gone at this point, up 9.5 games with39 left to play. But the Sox margin is 6.5 games, with six games still remaining between the two rivals. If the Yanks could carve the deficit to three games by September, there is hope.

This is a deep hole, but it's not an insurmountable one. It's time to start clawing.

Around The Horn: Gardner's game-winner in the 13th was his third hit of the day, the first three-hit game of his young career. He is now batting .176 on the season. ... Saturday's game took four hours and 53 minutes to complete. A low-scoring finale could be on its way. ... Damaso Marte was the only member of the 'pen left out of the glory parade, walking the only batter he faced in the seventh inning. Though mostly overlooked, his struggles in pinstripes have really hurt the Yankees during this dry spell. ... A more visible goat has been A-Rod, who took the collar with an 0-for-5 showing Saturday. You can begin carrying your fading team anytime now Mr. MVP. ... The coverage of Mariano Rivera's "struggles" in tie games has been a bit odd. First off, his ERA is still below 3.00 in those situations, which is excellent. Secondly, nobody seems to say boo on days like Saturday when he fires two scoreless innings in a 2-2 game. I suppose it's all because he's created such monumental expectations, and that can't be a bad thing. ... Mike Mussina goes for his 16th win on Sunday. The Yankees are 5-1 in Mussina's past six starts. The Stanford man is 4-1 with a 2.48 ERA over that span. A win would give Mussina 16 wins for the first time since 2003. He finished that year 17-8 for the American League champions. Ah, the good ol' days.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Melky to farm; Sexson to pasture

The Yanks made two roster moves this afternoon, optioning center fielder Melky Cabrera to Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre and releasing first baseman Richie Sexson.

While best buddy Robbie Cano has looked like a man adrift at sea this season, Melky has looked like a player exposed at the big league level. After a solid April, Cabrera fell apart, batting .234/.206/.272 in May, June and July. He was 3-for-26 (.115) in August and had recently lost his starting job. He had four RBIs after June 25, which is a pretty freaking hard feat to pull off when you're playing just about every day. He'll certainly return when the roster expands on Sept. 1, but whether he's with the Yanks in 2009 is up for debate. I'd take him as a fourth outfielder, but I wouldn't lose sleep if the Melk Man's pinstripe days were numbered.

As for Sexson, there's not much to say. A veteran with the tank on empty, he batted .250 with 10 strikeouts in 28 at-bats over 22 games. He had a grand slam in a loss to the Rangers last week, but otherwise was completely lost at the plate. The Yanks took a flier on Sexson last month after the Mariners cut him, obviously it didn't work out. With little money involved, it was worth the gamble. Scary how a player's skill-set can just disappear sometimes. It's certainly possible this is the end of the line for Sexson.

Outfielder Brett Gardner and infielder Cody Ransom have been added to the roster. I don't know much about Ransom, but I do know that Girardi will now have two blazing speed options on the bench in Gardner and Justin Christian. This is always an underrated aspect to a reserve core.

So long to Mike & The Mad Dog

New York sports reached an abrupt end of an era last night, when WFAN announced that Chris Russo was leaving the station to pursue other projects.

With Russo's departure came the end of the Mike & The Mad Dog radio show, which reshaped the landscape of sports talk radio over 19 years, not just in New York, but in markets across the country.

I was a loyal listener for 15 years, listening to the two very different personalities duke it out over a variety of topics, usually about sports but sometimes about family, movies, politics music or TV. Their unique way of conversation was always fascinating to me; the term "Let's be fair" -- Russo's way of getting a caller or Francesa to see his side of a debate -- made it into my personal lexicon. One especially entertaining non-sports discussion always stuck out, the time a couple years ago when Mike and Chris got in a dead-serious conversation about how long they were going to live, weighing factors like they were discussing the chances of the Yankees making the playoffs. That was the kind of stuff that made the show so great. Sports meant so much to the both of them that even their conversations about real life felt like discussion of last night's action.

It was no secret the two men didn't get along all the time, and when Newsday ran a report in April that the end was near for the program, I hoped it was just another squabble in what had always been an uneasy relationship between the two. But Russo, 48, was ready to go his own way. Francesa, 54, signed a five-year extension at the FAN. Russo is rumored to be getting his own show on Sirius satellite radio.

So you could bet your life I was setting my alarm in California this morning to catch the beginning of Francesa's first show on his own. I turned on the YES Network to check it out, and after Francesa's opening 15 minutes discussing the split, the Mad Dog called in and shared his thoughts, at one point breaking down over the finality of the moment.

And just like that, it got misty in my house as well. If that sounds ridiculous in the grand scheme of things? Sure. But the truth of the matter is that these guys became two of the closest sports fans I had. If that sounds weird, I understand, but I also know I'm not alone.

So long Mike & The Mad Dog ... gone but not soon to be forgotten.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Free fallin' out into nothin'

For months, I've found this Yankees team to be a perplexing bunch. Sure, there have been flashes of excellence, but for the most part this year's squad has been consistent only in its inconsistency.

Take their latest series for example. Coming off a roller coaster 9-6 win on Tuesday night, the Yanks showed little interest in losing a 4-2 snoozefest to the Twins that capped a brutal 3-7 road trip. The Yanks combined for eight singles, one double and two runs over 18 innings in the bookend games of an important series at the Metrodome. They are now nine games back in the American League East and six off the pace in the Wild Card chase. In the words of Don Vito Corleone, "How did things ever get so far?"

Well, here's a thought. Is it perhaps time to come to grips with the idea that this team isn't very good?

Sure, injuries have played a substantial part in the Yankees' decline. The loss of Posada and Matsui certainly hurt, and it's impossible to understate the absence of Chien-Ming Wang, who affects both the top and bottom of the rotation. Joba Chamberlain was shaping up as a savior until his shoulder acted up. Man-boy Hank Steinbrenner laid the Yankees' struggles completely at the feet of the disabled list, but feel free to place that under the growing file of a pampered rich boy's misinformed and undercooked rants to the press.

The truth of the matter is that the Bombers offense has been simply offensive ... and it may cost them their season.

The Yankees have been baseball's most prolific scoring team the past 10 seasons, a fact that allowed them to win 90+ games each year. The formula to earn a postseason spot was easy: Play .500 ball against the good teams and absolutely bludgeon the also-rans. And while that's the formula most quality teams play by, the Yankees seemed especially ruthless in how they went about it. The combination of length and patience in the lineup made matchups against the havenots almost unfair; the Yanks would pitch-count the starter out of the game and then feast upon the porous middle relief of weak squads. A parade of 12-5 and 10-4 wins were born.

But things have changed this season. Several of the lesser teams of the 2000s have improved greatly. The Rays are obviously the most notable example of this, but teams like the Orioles, Rangers and Royals also suddenly could stand toe-to-toe with the mighty Yankees.

All of which was made possible by an undeniable truth: the Yanks offense can't swing its way out of trouble anymore. Mustache or not, you can't hide the fact that Jason Giambi isn't near the player he once was. At 34 and with tons of mileage on the odometer, Derek Jeter's season-long mediocrity can (gasp) be reasoned as the first sign of a decline. A-Rod has continued his infuriating habit of having monster seasons every other year, the good news being you can expect 50 homers in 2009, the bad news being you get a .230 average with RISP in 2008.

A real savior here could have been Robinson Cano, who at 25 seemed so destined to reach superstar status in 2008 that the Yankees rewarded him with a rich contract prior to the season. Cano has responded with a dreadful campaign. He is hitting 52 points below his career average. He is on pace for 48 extra-base hits (he had 67 a year ago), while his on-base percentage has dropped to a pathetic .302 (he was at .353 in '07). Add to the fact that Cano has been careless on the basepaths at times and has regressed defensively (his decision not to dive in Sunday's heartbreaking walk-off in Anaheim was inexcusable) and it leads one to think we are dealing with a broken player. What the hell happened here? Did Larry Bowa make that big a difference?

And with the supposed stars in a funk, the Yankees' poor supporting cast has only been exposed further. In Wilson Betemit and Richie Sexson, you likely get seven strikeouts every 10 plate appearances. I never bought that Melky Cabrera was an everyday player, and he's proved it this year. Thankfully, Joe Girardi has finally seemed to pull the plug on his starting reign of terror. Jose Molina is all glove and no bat, while Brett Gardner had his chance to supplant Cabrera and fell right on his face.

Xavier Nady and Pudge Rodriguez were both sound acquisitions by Brian Cashman, but they haven't been able to pick up the slack hanging all over this lineup. Of the entire starting nine, only Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu have delivered representative seasons.

This lineup is like a beautiful sports car with a shot engine. Sure, it looks good. But the way it looks and how it performs are two completely different things. Does that mean it's time to write the Yankees off in 2008? I wouldn't, not when you're talking about a team that's made the playoffs 13 straight years. But you also have to remember this may not be the same Yankees team anymore. The star players haven't changed, but what they can give you has. Think of that shiny sports car.

It's a difference that may have the Yanks sitting at home in October ... and lead to a very different team showing up in March.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Not dead yet

When Mariano Rivera served up an 0-2 meatball to fantasy-bust Delmon Young in the eighth inning last night, the stench of death was in the air.

Mike Mussina had rolled through seven innings and was in position for his 16th win, but Mo gave it all away with one pitch, allowing a three-run homer that left the closer visibly furious in the dugout. It was Rivera's first blown save of the season, a gaffe that couldn't have come at a worse time in his team's season.

At that point, the night took on the feeling of a funeral. Everything seemed so ... inevitable after Young's homer hooked around the fair screen in right. A walk-off win by the Twins would surely be the final nail in the Yankees' coffin. The Red Sox had already won a wild shootout over the Rangers at Fenway, and a fifth-consecutive loss would have dropped the Bombers six back in the Wild Card chase.

But then something weird happened. The Yankees finally became aware of the moment, a revelation for a team that has stumbled through the season in a perpetually aloof state. Rivera and Jose Veras held Minnesota at bay for the next three frames, opening the door for some A-Rod vindication in the top of the 12th.

There was no way around it heading into the at-bat, A-Rod had been a main culprit in the Yankees' nose dive in the past week. He stepped into the box against Matt Guerrier at 6-for-31 with six GIDPs and eight strikeouts during the team's road trip. Furthermore, A-Rod's outs were coming at key times on the trip, as a parade of groundouts to third came with runners in scoring position.

But A-Rod is a curious player. His history of choking is accented by the occasional clutch performance, and Tuesday featured the latter. Rodriguez crushed Guerrier's 1-0 fastball well over the center-field fence. The All-Star knew he got it on contact, flipping the bat to the turf and shooting a glance into the Yankees dugout. Revitalized, the offense responded as Pudge Rodriguez doubled before Xavier Nady (playing tremendously) roped a two-run shot over the baggy in right.

Edwar Ramirez put the demons of his Saturday nightmare to rest after that, pitching a 1-2-3 ninth to close out a monumental 9-6 win for the Yankees.

Well ... monumental if the Yanks can take care of business in today's finale at the Metrodome. New York must count on Darrell Rasner -- who is working on his 12th life in the rotation -- to secure the Yanks' first series win of August. Win today, and you stop the bleeding on a 4-6 road trip, get a day off and then try to take care of business in a three-game set against the Royals at the Stadium.

One colossal win down, one more to go. The Yankees' season is still very much in the balance. Today will be another huge moment.

Around The Horn: Derek Jeter was out of the lineup on Wednesday, a day after bruising his instep with a foul ball. He is expected back at shortstop on Friday against the Royals. ... A-Rod's 12th inning blast was his 200th career homer as a Yankee. He now has 27 dingers on the year. ... Johnny Damon, a day after his ridiculous Girardi-ordered off-day, picked up two more hits including a homer. He now has six consecutive multi-hit games. His .325 average leads the American League. ... Phil Hughes took another step closer in a rehab start with Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre on Tuesday, allowing two runs on three hits over five-plus innings. He threw 84 pitches. He is expected to get at least one more rehab outing before potentially rejoining the Yanks rotation. He has thrown 16 2/3 innings in the Minors since recovering from a fractured rib, allowing nine hits and three runs while walking five and striking out 12. Carl Pavano also pitched, but this does not matter. ... As excellent as Nady has been some joining the Yankees, Damaso Marte has been equally as poor. In 7 1/3 innings over nine appearances, Marte has allowed nine hits, nine earned runs and five walks. Like Eric Gagne with the Red Sox last season, trading for anything less than a premier reliever is always a roll of the dice. These dudes are just too temperamental to ever bank on.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Manager's urgency matches team

The Yankees' season is on the line this week, but you wouldn't be able to tell last night. The players barely made their presence felt with four singles in a shutout loss. As for their manager, you get the feeling he has no idea the gravity of New York's current situation.

Girardi gave the hot-hitting Johnny Damon the night off on Monday against the Twins, a curious and distressing decision made by a manager who has until this point been off the hook for the Yankees' uneven season. This is perhaps rightly so; the Yanks have been devastated by injuries and there's not much a manager can do about a veteran team that can't hit with runners in scoring position.

But this Yankees team has shown an ugly side to it in what is fast becoming a season-busting 10-game road trip. Girardi is no exception. Using Betemit as the pinch-hitter and Pudge Rodriguez as the pinch-runner in a crucial spot in Texas, waiting until two men were on in the ninth inning before summoning Mariano Rivera on Sunday in Anaheim and now sitting the American League's leading hitter -- a player with five straight multi-hit games -- in Minnesota when your season is effectively on the line.

There have been cracks in Girardi's altar boy veneer during this hellish road journey as well. The first-year manager snapped at an Angels beat reporter when asked his thoughts on the bullpen's Saturday meltdown. And when the YES network's Kim Jones broached the topic everyone wanted to hear about on Monday, he cut her off, hardly in the mood to discuss his obvious gaffe.

"Justin Christian has had a lot of success off of left-handers for us and has played very well," he snapped. "That is why Justin Christian played."

Christian went 0-for-4.

New York is a tough town. Yesterday I was talking with a friend about Chad Pennington's release from the Jets in the aftermath of the Brett Favre acquisition. We agreed that Pennington -- a standup guy who has the respect of a lot of people in and around the game -- needed a fresh start, that the New York stage had seemed to wear on the quarterback after six seasons under the spotlight.

Girardi is only now learning how bad it can get when things are going south in the Big Apple. Every move you make is magnified and deconstructed, and when you don't own up to your actions or you defend yourself in a way that is deemed as antagonistic, the media will band together to eat you alive.

Want an example? Read PeteAbe's running blog last night and Journal News copy today. He was clearly annoyed by Girardi's poor strategic decision coupled with his attitude postgame. This is not uncommon here. There's a reason Joe Torre was so good at his job for 13 years. He was by no means a genius tactician, but he was smart with the media and he rarely got defensive.

This is a season of growing pains for the Yankees. That's true for their manager as well, who is finding out the hard way that this job is harder than it looks.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A question of two turning points

The turning point in the Yankees season occurred this weekend in Anaheim. Actually, there were two potential directions. Now we just have to wait to see which path the Yanks follow the rest of the season.

Turning point 'A' is the road Yankees fans don't want to walk down. It happened over two innings on Saturday. Dan Giese had just delivered a clutch performance, holding the Angels to one run over six innings. The gagging Yanks offense had failed in several opportunities to break the game open, but the team still took a 3-1 lead into the seventh frame. Enter Jose Veras, a bullpen savior in '08, but not on this day. He serves up a pair of solo homers to knot the game.

In the bottom of the eighth, Edwar Ramirez enters and proceeded to once again display his vast limitations. Five batters face, five batters reached. After a similarly overmatched Dave Robertson was tattooed for four more hits, the Angels had scored eight runs, turning a nail-biter into a laugher.

It was a brutal loss, one that drove the usually calm Joe Girardi to snap at a local reporter following the game. It's the type of game that some teams don't bounce back from. And it remains to be seen if it does in this Yankees unit.

Turning point 'B' takes place a day after Saturday's painful bullpen meltdown. Andy Pettitte turns in an uneven but ultimately effective performance, allowing three runs on 10 hits over seven-plus innings. The offense continues its enfuriating decline, putting a runner on third base with less than two outs seven times and only scoring three runs. The Yanks were 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position Sunday and are 12-for-59 (.203) on the road trip. Johnny Damon choked in a huge one-out spot in the seventh, striking out with new center fielder (?) Justin Christian leading off third base. A-Rod provided further frustration an inning later, doubling to lead off the eighth before getting thrown out trying to steal third with the red-hot Xavier Nady at the plate. Aggressive, sure. But smart? Absolutely not.

At that point, it became one of those games where you know you're going to lose, it's just a matter of when the ax is going to fall. Naturally, it happened in the most excruciating way possible, kind of how I picture the Jets would lose an important game if they played baseball. Chone Figgins hit what Girardi would later describe as a "10 hopper" through the Yankees infield in the ninth to plate the game-winning run. Wilson Betemit's all-around terrible-ness messed the play up when he incorrectly made the decision to turn and cover first, but how is Robbie Cano not laying out there to keep the ball from reaching the outfield? I'm not going to say it was a lack of effort, but it was certainly a lack of awareness by the team's biggest dog.

In this scenario, the Yanks hit rock bottom. It's the moment in the season where the reality of the situation finally clicked and the team turns it around. A similar situation happened in A-Rod's first game back from the DL on May 20, when the Yanks were bombed out at home by the Orioles. Perceived at the time as the low point for the team, they went 8-2 to close the month.

We now know where rock bottom truly is. And Girardi can use that as a rallying call to his team. It's now or never, because as Yogi once said, it's getting late early.

Lose two-of-three or get swept by the Twins this week and you limp home to New York with your season on life support. With just 44 games left and 63 wins to their credit, the Yanks will need to go 30-14 or very close to that to finish the season in the money. With the majority of their games on the road, this is going to be a big challenge, the biggest this team has faced in the regular season since their equally difficult run to the Wild Card in 1995.

The division is most likely gone, an 8 1/2 game divide separating the Yanks from the stunning Rays. But the Sox are vulnerable, and only four games separate the two rivals in the AL Wild Card standings. Take two from the Twins and then hammer the Royals at the Stadium this weekend and everyone -- this blogger included -- will be breathing a whole lot easier.

Thirty wins to October. But let's start with two in Minnesota ... for the love of God, please.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Optioning Kennedy was wrong move

I'm still burning up in Texas right now, but I managed to hijack some cowboy's wi-fi connection to get back to my labor of love. Coincidentally, the Yankees addressed their own labor of love today, optioning Ian Kennedy back to Triple-A.

I can't say I agree with this decision. Yes, Kennedy wasn't competitive in his start against the Angels on Friday. He was actually pathetic. But in his defense, he was facing the best team in the Majors, pitching in his hometown with a gathering of family and friends present. Not exactly the ideal recipe for success in a 23-year-old's first start in three months.

But it's difficult to believe that his unconcerned reaction to giving up nine hits in two-plus innings wasn't the chief motivator in his demotion. And that'd be wrong. In case you've forgotten (I know you haven't) ...

"I felt like I made some good pitches," Kennedy said following Friday's start. "I'm not too upset about it. ... What was it, a bunch of singles and three doubles? I'm just not real upset about it. I'm just going to move on and I've already done that."

This is an immature kid. I think these comments paint that picture clearly. But I believe the right move here was to run him back out in the finale against the Twins and see if can work out the kinks and butterflies from the first start.

Veterans spoke to Kennedy about his quotes and Kennedy himself addressed the issue yesterday, saying he was sorry how it came out and he was going to be more careful in how he chose his words in the future. My question is why couldn't the Yankees take his word for it hope for better days?

Now we'll have Darrell Rasner or some other buffoon starting against the Twins while Kennedy rides Minor League buses, worried about not just his stuff, but if the organization that drafted him in the first round still believes in him.

Kennedy hasn't done the Yanks any favors this season. But the Yanks are essentially disciplining him with this move ... and that can't be the right message here.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Mike “Maximus” Mussina?

Note: Howie, Dan’s pessimistic friend and former roommate, will be guest blogging today as Dan meets his girlfriend’s parents. Yup. That sentence was correct.

We’ve said it a million times, but where would this team be without Mike Mussina? Never did anyone expect to see anything like this. I have never been a Mike Mussina fan, as I felt he had two terrible habits – coming up rather small in big games and complaining. However, we have seen a new man. As Moose has lost some of his natural ability, he has truly learned how to pitch. This is all the more interesting because he was always an intelligent pitcher. It took him a full season, it seems, to get used to the loss of some of his natural abilities. Now, he stands as the difference between a team that still hopes to sneak into the postseason and an unmitigated disaster.

Every time I see Moose take the mound, I tell myself that we have been lucky to get this much out of him. And, he continues to produce. Now, with the Joba injury, we must get these types of outings from our geriatric ace. We now depend on Moose producing W’s. Last night, the second consecutive biggest game of the season, was perfect. Moose was in full command (with the help of some key double plays, particularly in the 6th inning) completely shutting down a very formidable offense. (By the way, has anyone else noticed that the Rangers hitters always look the same? The names change, but the lineup continues to be filled with muscular, poor fielding players that all produce offensively only to see their team fail due to a consistent lack of pitching) Then, some solid relief from Bruney/Marte and Mo, and we’re off to Anaheim with a salvaged split. These last 2 games were so desperately needed considering our struggles with the Angels.

As great as yesterday was, this team will not be around in a few weeks if it scores only 2 runs off of the Scott Feldmans of the world (those of you that know me are fully aware that I root for every Feldman in the majors). We simply cannot expect the pitching on this team to continue to overachieve. If we see a falloff from the pitchers, which should naturally occur given Joba’s injury, the offense will have to step it up just for this team to remain on the level it has been on, which is that of a team that would just miss the playoffs. Plain and simple, this offense will need to erupt if we are to see this team playing meaningful games the last 2 weeks of September.

A few more notes….

Will this season be the last for my favorite Yankee, Melky Cabrera? While no Yankee plays harder (A-Rod and Jeter seem to play just as hard), Melky is regressing offensively. Sadly, I don’t believe this team can afford to carry such little production from their center fielder next season, especially from the production fall-off we are seeing at catcher. The short-term drawback will be more days with Johnny Damon in center.

Great to see the captain deliver in the first inning last night (a la the 2000 Subway Series). I agree with this blog’s author that Derek Jeter may be the biggest culprit on this underachieving offense. So, it was great to see #2 give us an early lead last night. We will need big hits from the shortstop if we are going to make a run. One more note about Jeter: How many times has he been thrown out on the bases this season? Often considered the “best baserunner in the major leagues,” our captain has cost us many outs this season. Seems very out of character (along with his .280 average).

Will A-Rod set the major league record for consecutive games hitting into a double play? I am not sure what this record is, but I am sure it is held by Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada or Hideki Matsui.

Will the Yankees ever get Marlon Byrd out?

Lastly, if you tell me that Joba comes back healthy for opening day next season but doesn’t pitch again this year, I’m signing the papers.

Dan will be back shortly. I only hope I was able to fill one of his size 6 shoes.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Wild night deep in the heart of ...

This is turning into a very stressful week for me.

First, Joba goes down, followed by the interminable wait to find out the extent of the injury. Then, the Yanks lay down in their first two games against the Rangers, leading to the horrific prospect of asking Sidney Ponson to keep their season from going down the toilet. Then, I fly to Texas to meet my girlfriend's family for the first time, which is horrifying in its own right. THEN, while drunk at a bar on 4th Street in downtown Austin, I get 11 consecutive text messages telling me that the Jets have traded for Brett Favre.

Being a New York sports fan is going to kill me, if Texas barbeque and Shiner Boch beer doesn't get me first.

It's stupid to call yesterday's game against the Rangers a must-win, because as much as the sky is falling, there are still about 50 games left in the season. But Wednesday's 5-3 win over Texas was certainly important. I called out the Yankees offense in this space yesterday, saying they needed to show up in a big way on Wednesday night. It made sense, Ponson has ugly history with the Rangers and is not very good and you figured he'd be out of the game by the third inning or so.

But something weird happened on the way to the slugfest. Ponson actually got the job done. Mr. Greenstreet allowed three runs over 6 1/3 quality innings, and the bullpen did the rest as the Yanks kept pace with the Rays and Sox. The offense did just enough, no thanks to the great A-Rod, who went 0-for-4.

The news on Joba Chamberlain was neither exceedingly good or alarmingly bad. As expected, hoss was placed on the disabled list, with the diagnosis being tendinitis in his rotator cuff. As PeteAbe pointed out, tendinitis is a nice way of saying Joba has a small tear in his rotator cuff, and that's scary stuff. After a week of rest, he's supposed to pick up the ball again. My gut feeling is that he's thrown his final pitch for the Yanks this year. But who knows, I'm not doctor, I only played one on Halloween once.

It's better to look at the positives on a day like today. Your latest No. 1 pitcher, Mike Mussina, gets the start tonight looking for his 15th win. The Yankees need this split, and I expect the Moose to get the job done.

I also expect Brett Favre to get the job done, but that's a story for another blog altogether ...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Anybody else feeling a bit ... uneasy?

This season has slipped into the danger zone rather quickly, hasn't it?

It was only a week ago Saturday that I was throwing back beer and wings in a Santa Monica sports bar, ripping on my old college buddy for the ineptitude of his Boston Red Sox. The Yanks had wiped the Saux out in a nationally-televised game and were riding an eight-game winning streak like a toasty Pacific wave. I wrote in this space that day that Yankees fans could take heed in the reality that they were rooting for a true World Series contender.

So what's happened since then? Hmmm ... let's see. Sidney Ponson got bombed in the Sunday night finale at Fenway and then the Yanks came home and lost two of three to the Orioles before barely splitting a series against the Angels. They flew to Texas to begin a difficult 10-game road trip where, in a stroke of fortuity, the temperature was 107 degrees. Five innings into the opener that would become a brutal walk-off loss, the young face of your franchise, Joba Chamberlain, suffered a mysterious shoulder injury.

In summation, this is what the Yankees lost in the last 10 days:

  • Seven out of 10 games
  • 3.5 games in the AL East standings
  • 2.5 games in the AL Wild Card standings
  • Their 22-year-old phenom right-hander
So yeah, things have been rough ... and they didn't get any better on Tuesday. The Yankees were in sleepwalk mode through the first six innings against legendary left-hander Matt Harrison, ye of the 7.40 ERA entering action, and by the time they woke up and put up a fight, it was too late. An 8-6 loss was born, and the Bombers fell to 0-2 on its 10-game road trip through the belly of hell.

Goat horns are firmly affixed on two men who have taken on the headgear far too often this season. First off is Andy Pettitte, who let his team down in a game they really needed. Pettitte won Pitcher of the Month honors for his performance last August, but his first August '08 start was plain awful. Five runs on six hits in five-plus innings, he put the Yanks in a hole they couldn't dig out of. "Extremely disappointed" he said after his performance, and that made two of us. Pettitte was exactly the guy I wanted on the mound coming off Monday's heartbreaker and with Joba-insanity enveloping the team. And yet, the left-hander didn't show up. I just can't figure him out this year.

The other four-legged fiend was Alex Rodriguez, who continues to gloriously underwhelm despite the fact that he's the greatest player to ever put on a uniform (at least according to Steiner Sports Collectibles). Two more double plays for A-Rod on Tuesday, including an infuriating 5-4-3 turn to end the game. I know it's unfair to ask any player to hit a home run on the spot, but hey A-Rod, can you please for once put the team on your back and hit a freaking two-run homer off Eddie "I was serviceable in 2002" Guardado there? Am I asking too much from "Alexander The Great" to come through there in what could have been a turning point in the season? I'm completely disgusted by the sight of him lately. I don't think I've ever felt that way about a player before.

As for Joba, we continue to play the waiting game. The results of his New York examination were not released to the public and he was sent to meet with the all-knowing Dr. James Andrews for another opinion. It's very easy to assume -- and yes, a lot has been assumed -- that a trip to Andrews means we're dealing with a substantial injury. But isn't it also possible that the Yanks are just doing their due diligence here? That's what I'm hoping right now, that they want two experts giving the same opinion about a minor injury. Dear God, please let that be it.

But no matter what the injury is, the Yankees season may likely live or die based on the final eight games of this road trip, and Joba won't be able to help regardless of the medical findings. That said, it's a terrifying to think that Sidney Ponson is the scheduled starter in the most important game of the season, but that's exactly the case tonight. Facing a team that he got himself kicked off of for reportedly being a Grade A douchebag, you know the Rangers want to destroy him. It's hard to imagine the hefty righty will be up to the task.

With that in mind, wouldn't this be a good night for that high-profile Yankees offense to do some heavy lifting? The Rangers are starting some dude named Tommy Hunter, who will be making his second Major League start. I mean, this is a grown man who I like to picture actually went to the Rangers media relations people to tell them he'd like to go by the name of Tommy. We should kill this ham-and-egger. Call me crazy, but this is what I want tonight: Ten runs. Fifteen if need be. Fuck it, score 20. Whatever it takes. Damon, Jeter, Abreu, A-Rod, Giambi, Nady, Cano ... you're all on call here.

This is serious gut check time. Do your job. You're in the danger zone with Kenny Loggins right now. Make like Maverick and fly yourself out.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Season rides on Joba's shoulder

Watching Joba Chamberlian mow down the Rangers through three innings last night, I actually began thinking to myself how the big right-hander had saved the Yankees' season.

His record didn't necessarily back up my point -- he was credited with just four wins entering Monday -- but the way Joba carried himself had transformed the Yanks rotation. That Friday night in Fenway was the perfect example. After overpowering Boston for six innings, he fired a 98-mph fastball over Kevin Youkilis' head in the seventh. It was a statement ... there was a new sheriff in town. When Youkilis flailed helplessly at a nasty slider to strikeout two pitches later, you could see the smoke coming out of his ears. The Evil Empire had a new face.

Now, just as it has seemed to be all season for the Yankees, things are completely up in the air. Joe Girardi and trainer Gene Monahan came out to the mound in the fifth inning in Texas, and Joba -- the most coveted property in Yankee land -- pointed to his upper arm. He flew back to New York today to have tests on what was labeled as a "stiff shoulder."

Nevermind the fact that a shorthanded Yanks bullpen couldn't nail down an important game in a 9-5 loss to the Rangers. The story afterwards was all Joba. How could it not be?

You won't find a more optimistic sports fan than me. Hell, I actually think my New York Jets will win the Super Bowl every year. I'm that messed up. But losing Joba from the rotation for an extended amount of time would be a death blow to this Yankees team. They don't have the horses to run in the AL East without him and with the trade deadline passed, your replacement options are non-existent. The Yankees survived this far without Wang because of Joba. Without either, it's time to start looking toward next year.

Chamberlain tried to downplay the injury after the game, saying the discomfort was actually just below the shoulder and the fact that he didn't lose velocity tells him it's not a serious issue. But the 22-year-old still has work to do on his poker face. You could see the worry behind his eyes as he admitted that the pain was something he had never felt before.

Joba is the Yankees' No. 1 commodity. Gifted right-handers like Chamberlain come out of farm systems once a generation, so you know the Bombers will take every precaution to ensure they don't aggravate the ailment. This includes the near certainty that he lands on the disabled list. That he has thrown his final competitive pitch of 2008 is a possibility as well.

When Wang was first hurt, Yankees fans like me hoped against hope that all the grim early reports of the injury's seriousness were premature. But we all knew deep down the Wanger was done. The only peace of mind to take out of this uncertain time is that we have no evidence that leads us to believe that Joba is finished. There remains a very real possibility that he could be back on the mound for the Yanks later this month. We need that possibility to be a reality.

The Yankees continue to fight for their playoff lives tonight in Texas. But the true fate of their season rests in a hospital examination room in New York. Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Nice recovery by Yanks

Maybe it was seeing Graeme Lloyd back in pinstripes, or the carry-over excitement of the regenerative abilities of Wade Boggs' hairline. Perhaps it was getting a fresh dose of the batshit crazy Rickey Henderson or realizing what a GILF Billy Martin's wife is. Whatever the reason, things turned in the Yankees' favor this weekend against the Angels.

For entertainment purposes alone, can we have Old-Timer's Day every homestand?

It's not often that I'm happy with a split at home, but after the Angels' wipeout of the Red Sox at Fenway and subsequent victories in their first two games in the Bronx, the Los Angeles of California of Orange County in Anaheim Angels had a strut going that could of spelled doom. With Moose coming off a shaky start and the awful Darrell Rasner coming up, the fear of a four-game sweep was very real.

But the recipe that guided the Angels to their 11-2 start to the second half turned sour in a hurry. Mussina got the job done on Saturday in picking up his 14th win, and then the Angels did the Yankees a favor by beating themselves in Sunday's finale. After beating up on Rasner and taking a 5-0 lead into the fifth inning, a few bad pitches and atrocious defense opened the door for the Yanks. Mark Teixiera's grand slam off Edwar Ramirez (looking brutally tentative) nearly saved the day in the eighth, but the Angels made an amazing four errors and should have been charged for a fifth in the seventh and eighth innings, gift-wrapping a 14-9 New York win. The Yanks finished their homestand with a 3-4 mark.

Xavier Nady is making Brian Cashman look like a genius so far, his homer and six RBIs pacing the offense. A more subtle hero was Dan Geise, who relieved Rasner in the fifth and shut down the Angels for three innings as the Yanks clawed back. A few Bombers ducked the goat horns, as A-Rod's easy double-play ball in the eighth was botched by Chone Figgins, while Ramirez lost control of the zone before throwing one of his scintillating 78-mph fastballs to Teixeira. By the way, how is Ramirez in the game at that point? Marte or Mo are by far better options once the bags are juiced there. In the words of Thomas Earl Petty, you got lucky, Joe.

The back end of the rotation has reached emergency status for the Yanks, and Cashman is going to have to address at least one of the spots before the next turn through the rotation. Comeback wins like Sunday don't happen very often, and the bottom line is that Sidney Greenstreet and the Razz are burying the Yankees almost every start. Ponson's six innings on Friday were misleading, he was charged with one run but could have easily given up eight if some rockets were aimed better by the Angels. Rasner was non-competitive and now has just two wins since May 26. I know the offense has been inconsistent, but two wins in 12 starts when you're playing for the Yankees is pretty hard to do.

Ian Kennedy had another strong start today for Scranton Wilkes-Barre, allowing two runs over seven innings. If the Bombers are smart, they give the kid another shot. Rasner has been a benefactor-of-circumstance this year, sticking around far longer than he should have as injuries kept New York from sending him to his rightful place in long relief. If Cashman can figure out a way to get the Washburn deal done down the line, you can plug him in for Ponson when the time comes. But Rasner has to go now.

Around The Horn: Rasner's ERA has jumped from 2.67 to 5.23 since June 1. He should buy one of those goofy neck pillows for his long rides on Minor League buses. ... This may fly in the face of all those feel-good 'Stache stories, but Jason Giambi actually batted a chilly .234 in July and is hitless in nine August at-bats. Maybe it's time to grow an obnoxious 1996-style goatee or wear dress shirts without collars? Put some Chumbawamba on the Discman, perhaps? ... Wins on Saturday and Sunday only served to keep pace with the Rays and Red Sox, who won both their weekend games as well. The Bombers are 2.5 out in the AL Wild Card chase and 5.5 back in the AL East. ... Kyle Farnsworth is wasting no time making good on his unspoken promise to kill Jim Leyland, giving up a pair of homers to cough up a lead to the Rays. He's still screwing the Yankees and he's not even on the team anymore. Thanks for playing, Kyle! ... The Yankees begin a tough 10-game road swing on Monday in Texas, playing four vs. the heavy-hitting Rangers, three against the AL West-leading Angels before closing with three against the AL Central-leading Twins. Me thinks we'll know a lot more about the guts of this team by Aug. 14. I'm signing off on a 6-4 trip with my fingers crossed so hard I can feel the bones cracking. ... Bobby Murcer was missed on Saturday, no doubt about it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

No Wang in September

The Yankees' run for the playoffs took a blow today as Joe Girardi announced that ace right-hander Chien-Ming Wang will not return to action on Sept. 1 as originally hoped.

"The chances of getting him back on September 1st is zero," Girardi told the AP. "October 1st is possible."

Wang would have provided a huge lift to the team, and if the Yanks did make the postseason, it's hard to imagine Girardi simply plugging him in for Game 4 against the Angels or White Sox in the ALDS.

Bottom line here is the next time the Wanger is on the mound for the Yanks, it could be for Grapefruit League action.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Bad times in the Bronx

Mariano Rivera has officially hit his first slump at a time when the Yankees can least afford it. The offense, meanwhile, provided just the latest example of its stunning fall from grace in 2008.

Rivera faltered for the second time in as many appearances on Friday night, opening the ninth inning against the Angels with walk, single, single to break a scoreless tie. The limp Yankees offense provided no cover for their closer in the bottom half of the inning, going down like lambs in a 1-0 loss.

The Yankees have now lost five of six games since winning eight straight out of the All-Star break. They are five games out in the American League East and two games back in the Wild Card race.

While Rivera's struggles have been few and far between in what has been an otherwise brilliant season, the Yankees offense continues to be baseball's biggest bust this side of Andruw Jones. How pathetic are these guys? I mean, Ervin Santana's good, but he's not that good. Did you have any faith they were beating Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth? And is it weird to anybody else that every knowledgeable Yankees fan knew A-Rod had no chance against K-Rod leading off the inning? How could anyone ever call Rodriguez the best player ever when too often he comes off as the bully who beats up on the weaklings and gets dominated by people his own size?

New York was extremely fortunate to be in the position it was entering the ninth inning. Sidney Ponson miraculously managed seven shutout innings despite roughly half the balls put in play being absolute rockets. He walked four and struck out one, throwing 96 pitches. It was possibly the worst great start I've ever seen.

And yet, it was all there for the Yankees, and they blew it. It's August now -- time is starting to be of the essence. I'd say this offense needs to start playing up to its capabilities, but I can't escape the fear that we're watching an over-the-hill gang being exposed on a near nightly basis. Regardless of how this season turns out, an overhaul is necessary. Brian Cashman had a similar task on his hands following the 2001 season, and with age up and down the roster, the time to reboot the lineup has come again.

With the majority of their remaining games on the road, the Yankees are quietly putting their season in serious jeopardy by botching one of their final homestands. Mike Mussina -- fresh off a clunker of his own in his last start -- will be asked to stop the bleeding on Saturday.

How quickly things turn in Yankee Land this season. A week ago, after their second straight win at Fenway, they looked like a vibrant and multi-dimensional World Series contender. Six days later, they look old, bloated and tired. It's like watching Fat Elvis.

Nobody liked Fat Elvis. A loss like this makes it hard to like the chances of these Yankees.

Good news and bad news

So what do you want first, the good news or the bad?

Don't you hate when people say that? The good news is never as good as the bad news sucks, and that's usually because the hangover of the bad news (if you choose first) or the impending doom of the bad news (if you choose second) just fucks the whole thing up.

I always ask for the bad news first, and since this is my blog and all, we'll start there. Andy Pettitte freaking stunk tonight against the Angels. I don't know what his deal is this season, but when's he's off he's really off. It seems like when he's not right on his game, the Yanks literally have no chance. Tonight, facing the best team in baseball -- and yes, the Angels are the best team in baseball -- he didn't show up.

Before you could even let the Pudge Rodriguez Era soak in, the Yanks were down six runs. After Chris Britton showed why he's been sent down four million times this season by serving up a three-run jack to Vlad, Pettitte's nightmare line read nine earned runs on 11 hits in 5 1/3 innings. His ERA jumped from 3.76 to 4.18. Ouch.

Pettitte's failure is especially magnified by the fact that Sidney Greenstreet and Darrell Rasner are both getting starts in this series, a sobering realization when you're facing an Angels team that went 19-6 in July and have completely wiped out the AL East superpowers the last four nights.

Meanwhile, remember that Yankees home resurgence? You can forget about it, as the Bombers have followed a 10-game winning streak at the Stadium with four out of five losses on this homestand. That ugly loss to the Orioles on Tuesday is still stinging hard. So yeah, you might want to put the children to bed early for fear of seeing the grotesque results of a Ponson-Angels showdown tomorrow.

Now ... before you start that car and close the garage door behind you, I better get to the good news. The Red Sox messed up ... bad.

How could you trade Manny Ramirez? Seriously, how could you? I know he's a freaking moron, but this was in all likelihood just another Manny phase. You're telling me they couldn't put up with his mood swings for another three months? You really had to trade him for 50 cents on the dollar?

So Jason Bay, a very good outfielder who played in the high-pressure environment of Pittsburgh, now digs in to protect Big Papi. This was a good trade for a team trying to defend a World Series championship?

In 200 games against the Yankees -- the most he's played against any team -- he has a .321 batting average, with 55 homers and 163 RBIs. He was always a ferocious presence in the lineup. I always feared him.

Do the Red Sox remember what he did in the 2007 postseason? Instead, it's just another case of Red Sox management trying to smear and kick a great player out the door before their value dries up. Is it a sound business practice ultimately? Sure. But the egos are big on Yawkey Way, and you can see the egg on Boston's face from River Avenue.