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July 23, 2004

Turn Out The Lights
by Larry Mahnken

I certainly didn't see it coming, but the Yankees might have found the new starter they needed this season in the old starter they decided they didn't need last season.  Traded in a roundabout way to the Expos last season to keep Bartolo Colon away from the Red Sox, Orlando Hernandez has returned, and the Yankees have won every game he's started.  He's allowed 5 runs in 17 innings, he's struck out 21, he's only walked 7.

El Duque is back.

But as great as Hernandez's start was today, it wasn't enough for the Yankees to win, as Joe Torre stuck his crap lineup out there (out of necessity, of course), with no Jeter, no Giambi, no Posada, and no runs for the first 8 2/3 innings.  But finally, with two outs in the ninth, Ruben Sierra clobbered one over the centerfield fence, and the Yankees won 1-0.

With Boston splitting a doubleheader against the Orioles Thursday, the Yankees added another half-game onto their lead.  Barring a Boston sweep, I'm willing to declare the AL East race more or less over.  If the Yankees aren't dropping games with all the problems they've had lately, they've probably got the division pretty well in hand.

But of course, this is New York, and who the hell needs another division title?  The Yankees need to be concerned about the playoffs, and they're gonna need some decent pitching to do well in October.  Well, hopefully they'll have a healthy Mussina and Brown then, Vazquez will get his recent struggles worked out, and Contreras and El Duque will keep up their recent sucesses.  Jon Lieber may find himself out of the rotation in a couple of weeks, and he's actually been pretty solid in the past few starts.  That's the nature of the Yankees' rotation: they aren't loaded with great pitchers, but they have several pitchers who are sometimes pretty good, and sometimes pretty bad.  In recent weeks, they've had more pretty bad than pretty good, but it seems to be turning around very recently.

Looking forward to tonight, I recall something I didn't think of back at the beginning of the month.  All through last season, I had a feeling of dread about the Red Sox.  I knew they were a really good team, but I also felt that they might very well be a better team than the Yankees.  The Yankees won the season series 10-9, but the Red Sox seemed to completely dominate in their wins, and the Yankees seemed to sneak by in theirs.  The whole day before Game 7, I felt like there was an axe over my head waiting to drop.  The Red Sox were going to win, and it wasn't until Aaron Boone hit it that I really believed that they could win -- that's why it was and still is such an emotional moment for me.  It didn't feel like a tied game, it felt like they were already behind.

Well, in July, for the first time in a couple of years, the Red Sox didn't scare me.  The Yankees won the first game handily, the second game was a tight one that they probably shouldn't have won, but the third game, while close, was really all Yankees.  Now, the pitching matchups this weekend don't inspire confidence, but I don't feel terrible about the Yankees' chances.  I feel like they can take this team, even at far below full strength.  And even a sweep (unless it's three routs), won't shake that confidence.  For now.