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May 13, 2004

Yankees 7, Angels 4
by Larry Mahnken

Maybe getting swept by the Red Sox 2½ weeks ago, and losing 6 of 7, was ultimately a good thing for the Yankees. Maybe it woke them up, and made them feel that they couldn't wait until they got in a groove to start winning, that every game was going to count. That they could never give up on a game, and no matter what the deficit, they had to try and win.

Or, you know, maybe they're just a supremely talented team that has just happened to fall behind early several times in the past couple of weeks, and if they had held on for the win on Patriots' Day and scored a run in the extra inning Saturday game, they would be 4½ games up on Boston right now.

Whether or not The Sweep was a wakeup call or merely a low point isn't really that important, what's important is that the Yankees have proven they're better--much better--than they looked that weekend.

There's something to be said for strength of schedule, as the Yankees beat a slumping Oakland team, a poor Seattle team, and a hurting Angels team. But they faced some very good pitchers over that stretch, too, and have hit .296/.374/.498/.872 over the past 15 games. 5 regulars have had a .900 or better OPS over the stretch, and Ruben Sierra has been inexplicably Bondsesque (maybe he read my criticism of him at THT), hitting .472/.500/.833/1.333.

They're not going to play .800 ball the rest of the way, or even .700 ball, but they've proven they're good. Really good.

Yesterday, they didn't have to come from behind, and except for the fourth inning (and maybe the ninth), were completely in control of the game. They jumped out to 2-0 lead right away in the first, and Jon Lieber retired the first 11 batters he faced, throwing first pitch strikes to all but one of them.

But with two outs in the fourth, the Angels broke through with two singles and a Jose Guillen homer to right field, tying the game at 3. Casey Kotchman followed with a single to center, but just as it seemed that Lieber might get knocked out of the game, he said "that's enough of that", and retired the eleven batters.

He got the lead right back, too, as Sierra smacked a homer in the bottom of the fourth, Matsui went deep in the sixth, and Bernie ended Anaheim starter John Lackey's day with a homer in the seventh.

Hideki Matsui's RBI double looked like it would keep Mariano Rivera out of the game in the ninth (in Joe Torre's mind, save situation = MUST HAVE RIVERA IN GAME!!!), but Tom Gordon couldn't finish the Angels off, and Rivera had to come in. Anaheim scored and got the tying run on, and Rivera wasn't quite dominant, but he struck out two batters to end the game, and the Angels left town having lost two out of three.

Without Garret Anderson, Troy Glaus, Tim Salmon and Brendan Donnelly, these aren't the Angels the Yankees would have to face in October, but the Angels will also have Darin Erstad back then, so that should even things out a bit, and the Angels don't have very impressive starting pitching, so a healthy Yankees lineup should be able to slug it out with them.

With Toronto's victory over Boston, the Yankees are in sole possesion of first place for the first time this season, and while the Red Sox left New York with a 4½ game lead and a much easier schedule than the Yankees' ahead of them, the Yankees have gone 12-3, while Boston's gone 8-9. I guess things have evened out.