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June 24, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

Juan Rivera got the goat horns tonight as he grounded into this rally-killing double play in the ninth... Hmm?  No, you're fucking with me, he didn't do that!  Yeah, right! ... Well, whaddya know?  All right, Juan!  Way to not suck!An individual game can be both great and awful; full of excitement and joy, but at the same time frustration and forboding. For the poor teams, the former is what matters, but for a team like the Yankees, that is trying to win a pennant, it is the latter. Tonight, the Yankees won, and they won in exciting fashion, but the win was due more to the quality of their opponent, not their play. They did all they could to lose, and had it not been for the ineptness of Tampa Bay's pitching staff, they likely would have.

It started out well enough. After Jeff Weaver gave up a leadoff Home Run to Rocco Baldelli, the Yankees scored four runs in the second off of Brazelton and Sosa, who came in when Piniella showed a decidedly short hook to Brazleton, who had barely escaped a first inning bases-loaded jam. But Weaver was unable to hold the Devil Rays down, and they crept back into the game, forcing Torre to life Weaver in the sixth.

Jeff Weaver is a strange case. Not only is he tremendously talented, he pitched quite well for the first part of the season, although it didn't show up in the results. He's been victimized by poor run support and even poorer defense, but most of all, he's been unlucky. Balls have fallen in against him at an even higher rate than would be expected by the Yankees' horrific defense, while his DIPS peripherals have remained strong. This is not a Juan Acevedo situation, where he might bounce back, or there might be something wrong with him, this is completely different. There is nothing wrong with Jeff Weaver, he has pitched fine. Or, rather, there was nothing wrong with Weaver.

See, Jeff Weaver knows he's been unlucky, and he knows that the defense behind him is crap, and it's getting in his head. You can see it in his demeanor on the mound and his attitude towards the press. He knows that not only is he better than he's pitched, he's pitched better than he's looked.

Not that the press understands that. I'm not even sure if Joe and Mel quite understand that. The press has accused him of trying to blame his teammates for his failings, when the fault lies with him. But the fault did not lie with him, it was nobody's fault, really. Jeff Weaver was, more than anything else, a victim of bad luck.

But rather than accept that eventually the breaks will even out, he's letting the frustration get to him. He's no longer pitching as well as he did in the beginning of the season. Whether he's trying to do too much, or giving up when the frustration becomes too great, I can't tell, but far too often lately he has left a pitch too high in the zone, and has been crushed. As Mel Stottlemyre has been saying, it's not mechanical, it's not physical, it's mental. Unfortunately, knowing what ails him does not make it any easier to cure. What Jeff Weaver needs is something to restore his confidence in himself as a pitcher; a shutout, or maybe just seven great innings. He needs to leave to a standing ovation at The Stadium. Unfortunately, there's nothing Joe or Mel or George can do about that. Only Jeff can do that.

He might not get the chance. As his struggles have continued, the Yankees have been willing to deal Weaver. A recent rumor has Weaver going to Pittsburgh for Brian Giles, a deal that I think is extremely unlikely to ever happen, and was probably never even discussed. But it is likely that the Yankees are shopping Weaver while he still has value.

Weaver did leave with the lead, though. It was a still a precarious lead, though, and one that the bullpen and defense promptly squandered. Going into the ninth, the Yankees trailed 9-6, and were headed for a humiliating, and well deserved loss.

But something funny happened on the way to the loss column. Lance Carter remembered that he's a Devil Ray, and promptly gave up a double to Raul Mondesi and an infield single to John Flaherty--who apparently only has value against Tampa Bay. Representing the tying run was Juan Rivera, who has seemed so far this season as though someone needs to remind him that he's a very talented ballplayer, and perhaps give him a cookie for encouragement. Fans watching the game had already scribbled "DP 4-6-3" on their scorecards, in Tampa Bay the scoreboard read 2 Outs, Karl Ravetch had already reported the score as 9-7 with the bases empty, and I had already set my couch on fire. But Rivera made fools of all of us except Ravetch. For the first time that I can remember, Juan-Two-Gone came through, hitting a three-run home run to dead center field. It seemed almost surreal, like Bucky Dent's home run, only more improbable. The game was tied.

The rest seemed almost a formality. Jeter was hit by a pitch and scored on Todd Zeile's double, and Rivera came in and closed it out. The Yankees won.

And a win is a win. But this was not a good win. Sometimes, you win games you shouldn't win, and you feel good, as well you should. Sunday's game was probably one of those games. Today was a game they won, but simply didn't deserve to. They were supposed to win, but they didn't deserve it. They failed to capitalize on opportunities early, allowing the D-Rays to stay close, and played sloppy baseball in the late innings, allowing them to take the lead. This was not a game to feel good about.

Something that is worth feeling good about is the Yankees' decision to start Brandon Claussen in the nightcap of Saturday's home-and-home doubleheader. Claussen is being called up so that the Yankees can avoid starting Hitchcock or a starter on short rest, and another motivation might be to showcase him to possible trade partners. Hopefully, if Claussen is impressive, they'll keep him in their future plans, let Pettitte leave in the offseason, and not sign someone else. Even if they use him in a trade anyway, a good start might raise his value enough that they can accquire someone useful for him, rather than Urbina.