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July 9, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

Having been swept by the Mets and losing the last two to the Tigers, the Yankees needed a good start by Jose Contreras -- and they got it. The Big Enigma had one of his wacky fun innings in the fourth, giving up a hit and two walks, throwing a Wild Pitch, allowing two stolen bases, and throwing 30 pitches in

But he only gave up one run in that inning, and on the whole, was pretty darn good. The Yankees' offense didn't wake up until the seventh, but they put up two runs in each of their last two at-bats, and won going away, 7-1.

Will that stop the mini-slide? As it is, the Yankees' slump since sweeping Boston hasn't been terribly damaging -- you can't spin a 2½ game drop in the standings positively, but it's hardly a death spiral, and they still have a fairly sizable lead on the Sox. But they have to stop the slump now, and win at least two of the next three going into the All-Star break.

And they need to get good pitching from the guys they're supposed to get good pitching from. A good start from Contreras or Lieber is a plus, but they need Mike Mussina to at least give them Quality Starts -- something he's only done five times this season, and not once since getting pulled against San Diego. Vazquez has been pretty reliable, and Kevin Brown is expected back after the break, so that should help a little.

Something that exacerbates the problem is the lack of effective long relief. Quantrill, Gordon and Rivera are spectacular at slamming the door shut, but what the Yanks are missing in the pen is a reliever or two who can keep the game close enough to make a comeback possible when their starter struggles. Colter Bean deserves a shot in the pen, but he's almost certainly not the guy for that specific role. Tanyon Sturtze sure as hell isn't, either. I don't know who it's going to be, though Steve Karsay might fit that long relief role very well.

When Brown comes back, the Yankees' rotation will probably settle down a little bit. They'll have two starters they should expect regular good starts out of, and three starters who are capable of giving them very good starts, though they've been quite shaky overall so far. Brad Halsey gives them a starter they can call up from the minors if needed, and while he's alternated very good starts with terrible starts in the majors, he's proven he's capable of pitching very well against very good teams.

But, of course, the Yankees are going to look outside the organization for help. Everybody needs to shut the hell up about Randy Johnson: he's probably not leaving Arizona, and he's sure as hell not coming to New York. Kris Benson looks more likely to me, though of course the Yankees are going to give up too much for him, and he probably won't be what they're hoping he will be. But I suppose he could be solid in the back half of the rotation.

The Yankees will play better than this past week, and they'll start doing it soon -- perhaps last night was the start of that. But this past week did serve as a slap in the face to the ignoramuses who declared the AL East race over a week ago. Last week wasn't Pickett's Charge, it was Sharpsburg -- it was an important victory for the Yankees, but it didn't decide the war. We haven't heard the last from the Red Sox this year, or even necessarily this month.