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September 13, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

What a difference a week makes. A week ago today, the Yankees were coming off of a second straight humiliating defeat at the hands of the surging Red Sox, their lead was down to a measly 1½ games, and it seemed that everything was going wrong. David Wells wasn't merely struggling, he was pitching miserably, Jason Giambi wasn't just slumping, he was an out machine. Bernie Williams had struggled to find his power since returning from knee surgery in May, the bullpen was pouring gas on whatever fire they came near. Aaron Boone was failing to merely suck, he was exploring whole new levels of suckiness, perhaps trying to test the theory that baseball value is circular, and that if you suck enough, you will eventually pass the lowest levels of suck and enter the elite levels of greatness. It's an interesting theory, but one best tested on a team that can afford the risks inherent in the "Suck a Lot" strategy.

It was, a week ago, possible to see the end coming. One could imagine the Red Sox pounding the Yankees once again, and Toronto coming in and beating the Bombers in a makeup game while the Sox beat Baltimore to take over first place. Maybe the Yankees were too old, too flawed, maybe even too complacent. Sometimes great teams fall suddenly and precipitously, and sometimes they fall down the stretch while in a pennant race. A week ago, you could imagine that happening to the Yankees, and even though you knew it probably wouldn't happen, you still thought about it.

But only a week later, that kind of thinking seems silly. It seemed almost silly after the Yankees stopped the Red Sox dead in their tracks Sunday afternoon, and as the Yankees built up an eight game winning streak against inferior competition, they virtually assured themselves of a playoff spot, are perhaps a week away from clinching the division, and have an excellent chance at Home Field Advantage--thanks to Hank Blalock--throughout the postseason. The questions now asked about the Yankees are the same ones that every fan is asking about their team: are they good enough to win the World Series?

While this eight-game streak does not inspire awe for the quality of play it has produced, there are positive signs. Jason Giambi started having better plate appearances at the beginning of the week, and launched Home Runs in the last two days. Bernie Williams hit the decisive homer on Sunday, struck again versus Detroit, and celebrated his birthday in style, clubbing two more in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader, giving him an impressive 4 home runs for the week. Even Aaron Boone was good (perhaps the strategy worked), as he posted a 1.042 OPS with 2 HRs. They got strong performances out of Roger Clemens and David Wells, and the bullpen started to come together, particularly once Joe Torre realized that he could trust Gabe White just as much, if not more than Jeff Nelson.

An aside for a moment about Gabe White: There are many guys in baseball with a "Porn Star" mustache, and a few of them on the Yankees (as their facial hair policy pretty much limits you to that look or, as sjohnny said, the Hitler). But Gabe White takes it so much further--he's got the whole package working. The tan, the build, the bald half expect to see him in a postgame interview with his shirt off, all oiled up. I dunno, maybe he's moonlighting (and nice work if you can get it!), but I can't look at him without thinking Porn Star. Maybe I'm just a pervert.

But back on topic, the Yankees haven't been playing great, and the way they played against Detroit probably would have resulted in a series loss or a sweep to any decent team. But there have been several individual performances worth noting, not merely for their value, but for what they mean to the team going forward.

Bernie's two home runs today, for instance, were mighty pokes, not a result of the short porch at The Stadium. It means that Bernie can still drive the ball, and that he might continue doing it this season, and in October. They weren't fluke home runs, they were the real deal. And if Bernie--who despite his lack of power hitting was still getting on base at a good rate--can start driving the ball for doubles and homers, the Yankees have vastly improved their chances in the postseason.

Similarly, Giambi's recent at bats remind even the most reactionary of fans that this is a player who is capable of Bondsian performances when he is swinging the bat well, and if he plays like that in October, the Yanks will be halfway to the title already.

I'm still skeptical about Boone; his great performance lately haven't yet brought his overall numbers up to replacement level. His defense is quite good, his baserunning is above average. But I don't have faith that he'll be of any use in the postseason.

I'm also skeptical of Wells, but for one reason only: his back. He's obviously been feeling better, perhaps completely comfortable in his last two starts, but a bad back doesn't just go away for good, and when it's bad, he's awful. I still think the Yankees should start Contreras in October, despite his struggles in Fenway and against Detroit on Tuesday. I still think he's the safer bet.

I said earlier this week that no team needed a three game series against Detroit more than the Yankees did. They played poorly, and they got away with a sweep. Playing three games against such an awful team helped build some confidence for struggling players, who were finally able to get back to muscle memory and focusing on pitch-to-pitch strategy, instead of thinking about their mechanics, and trying to do something to get things working right. Slumps are usually statistical anamolies, a series of unsuccesful at bats in a row that is bound to happen from time to time. But the people who play the game are prone to wonder whether it's something that they're doing wrong that's causing the slump (sometimes it is, but usually it isn't), and they start to tinker, and lose sight of the bigger picture, decrease their ability to succeed, and end up making things worse.

The Yankees are winning again, so in that sense, the slump is over. They haven't played as well as their record would indicate, but they've played better than they had, so I think the slump is, at least, ending. The slumps of Giambi and Williams--and maybe even Boone--are almost certainly over. As the season draws to a close and the Yankees become more assured of their postseason position, that is probably the most important thing of all.