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September 4, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

The Yanks just can't seem to finish the Red Sox. To be fair, the Yankees have played mediocre ball, not bad baseball since holding a 7½ game lead, and a 5-7 stretch isn't that unusual, or anything to panic about on it's own--particularly considering that the Yankees have played three good teams and the Orioles, who are getting better. What got the Red Sox back into the AL East race so quickly was the Red Sox themselves, who have gone 10-3 since the Yankees' high water mark, 9-1 against the Mariners, Jays, Phillie and White Sox, teams that one would expect to give them a difficult time.

Because of the Red Sox great play, they're only 3 games out (4 in the loss column) as the Yankees try to avoid the sweep in Toronto, and will have a shot to take over first with a sweep if the Yankees can't get it done--no sure thing with Jose Contreras on the mound tonight.

But the Yankees lost two games in the last two weeks they should have had a chance to win, the game against Baltimore where Sierra pinch hit for Nick Johnson, and last night's game.

Last night, while the bullpen was not blameless in its role in bringing defeat down on the Bombers, it was bad defense and bad baserunning that did the Yankees in. Nick Johnson was thrown out in the first trying to stretch a single to left into a double, and Ruben Sierra made the same mistake again in the ninth, when the Yankees deperately needed a baserunner. Alfonso Soriano's failure to tag second base in the 6th led directly to the Jays scoring the tying run, and Bernie Williams couldn't reach a deep fly to center in the 7th, which bounced over the wall for an automatic double. A healthy Bernie probably could have reached that ball, and it appeared from earlier in the season that Hideki Matsui has at least as much range as a healthy Bernie. The time to swap Williams and Godzilla in the outfield came long ago, but Joe hasn't realized it yet.

The Blue Jays deserve credit for battling Moose and forcing him out of the game after six, and Kelvim Escobar did well to get into the seventh giving up only three runs, but the Yankees really should have won that game last night.

Since Oakland and Seattle have such difficult schedules down the stretch, including six against each other, and the Yankees and Red Sox have soft schedules this month, it's unlikely that the Yankees will miss the playoffs, and probable that the Red Sox will get in. Of course, the Yankees still might collapse down the stretch, they finished 2-13 in 2000, and might have lost the division if Boston hadn't gone 7-8 at the same time. I don't think that's going to happen, and if the Yankees win tonight, this weekend is probably Boston's last chance to catch the Yankees. While they no longer have to sweep, having gained 2½ games this week, a Yankees win tonight means that Boston has to win 2 of 3. By starting Contreras tonight instead of Pettitte, the Yankees probably have their best chance to do that. Contreras vs. Lidle is a matchup of unpredicatble pitchers, but Pettitte/Pedro, Clemens/Wakefield and Wells/Suppan matches up a lot better than if they threw Clemens and Contreras in the first two.

A lot rides on the outcome of the next four games, and the Yankees need to play them like they're playoff games. They can't make outs on the bases, they can't give outs to the other team. They need good starting pitching, the middle of the lineup needs to hit again, and Joe Torre needs to manage more with his intellect and less with his gut, or his heart. He says it's not fun for him anymore, that he's getting too much criticism from Steinbrenner. Maybe someone should point out to him that this is the first time since he took over as manager that the Yankees have been in serious danger of missing the playoffs at the start of September. Maybe someone should point out to him that with a $180 million payroll, missing the playoffs is not even close to being acceptable, and until the Yankees have a comfortable lead, it doesn't matter if you're having fun.