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August 23, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

Alas, I have returned!

And not a moment too soon, it would appear. The Yanks were doing okay when I first took off, but they just came off the week of hell, losing six of seven -- their only win by way of a dramatic comeback.

It was a total team effort, to be sure. The starting pitching was horrid, the lineup was impotent, and the bullpen was unreliable. These weren't the Yankees who had run out to a 10½ game lead, this was some horrible watered down version of the Yankees.

But on the other hand, perhaps that gives good cause to not be so alarmed, since we know that this isn't the real Yankees team that's been getting it's butt kicked. From Sunday to Sunday, the Yankees' lineup put up these numbers:
Player             OPS

Flaherty, John 1.667
Sheffield, Gary 1.340
Rodriguez, Alex .945
Matsui, Hideki .803
Williams, Bernie .632
Posada, Jorge .636
Olerud, John .583
Lofton, Kenny .431
Jeter, Derek .401
Sierra, Ruben .400
Wilson, Enrique .286
Cairo, Miguel .190
The top four hitters had a 1.103 OPS -- though Flaherty batted only 6 times, and Rodriguez only 17 thanks to his suspension. The rest of the team, batting more than twice as often as those four, posted a .465 OPS.

Now Bernie Williams may be washed up, but he's not dead. Derek Jeter's had a bad year, but he's still facing the right way at the plate. The only players at the bottom of that list who aren't that unlikely to stay there are Olerud, who may indeed be done, and Enrique Wilson, who the Yankees can't expect to be that hot the rest of the way.

Well, it's not anything to be happy about, of course, but I think we can put last week behind us, and not mistake it for revealing some unknown weakness in this team.

But before we could put last week away, the Yankees had to break their losing streak, and they'd have to do it against a team that was sliding even worse, the Indians.

When a team's in the middle of a long losing streak, you hear some announcers and columnists say that their opponents should be worried about having to play them, because they're due to break out of it. Well, I don't buy that, because you have to believe that when a team is overdue for a win, they're more likely to win. They're not -- they're equally likely to win as they would be had they been playing fine the whole time.

It's possible that a team could be less likely to win when they're in a long losing streak, because a team that's not hitting as well as normal, not pitching as well, and not fielding as well clearly isn't as likely to win as much as normal. But to say they're more likely to win, that means that you're more likely to win if you play poorly... huh?

Regardless, the Yankees and Indians played a fun game last night. The Yanks jumped out to a quick lead in the first off a Bernie double and a Jeter single, then scored another couple in the second when Tony Clark homered. It looked for a moment like the Yankees had awoken, but Cliff Lee settled down to pitch a solid game, and Mike Mussina, gave back the lead in the fourth. Mussina actually pitched reasonably well on balance, though he gave up three runs in five innings, having to give way to Paul Quantrill because he struggled to put batters away in the first two innings.

Quantrill came out to start the sixth, and seeing that there was nobody on base already, didn't suck. He pitched to strong innings, giving way to Tom Gordon in the eighth.

Gordon came in with the lead after Ruben Sierra ripped a single to right field to score the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth, but after getting the first two outs in the bottom of the inning, Travis Hafner ripped a double to right-center, and Casey Blake hit a game-tying single on the next pitch.

In the top of the ninth, Kenny Lofton and Bernie Williams made out, and Derek Jeter was hit on the elbow with a pitch. While the injury turned out to be a mere bone bruise, Jeter had to leave the game, and with Cairo having been lifted for Lofton already, the Yankees were going to have to shuffle their defense again. With Gary Sheffield dealing with a painful shoulder injury, a tough situation had the potential to get much worse. If the game went into several extra innings, Sheffield might get seriously hurt playing a hard ground ball, and the Yankees would be in serious trouble.

"C'mon, hit a home run Sheff..." I mumbled to myself as he batted -- never really expecting it to happen. But once again, Sheff came through, drilling the ball just over the high left field wall. 6-4 Yanks, Enter Sandman.

And Rivera, of course, shut the Tribe down, and the Yankees were victorious once more. Boston lost, so they're back up to 6½. WHICH IS A BIG LEAD, PEOPLE!!!

Sheffield is making a powerful case for MVP. This isn't one of those stupid, Ichiro!, Shannon Stewart or anyone-in-the-NL-whose-name-isn't-Barry-Bonds arguments, Sheffield's numbers are MVP vintage, as good or better as anyone else's when adjusted for park, and the timing of many of his hits only adds to his value -- whether you believe clutch hitting or a skill or not, when something happens does change it's value.

More amazing is that Sheffield is putting up these numbers after putting up poor numbers for the first two months. On June 1st, Sheff had a .789 OPS, since then he's put up a .316/.429/.680/1.109 line. With a bum shoulder.

There's no reason why Sheffield shouldn't be a favorite for the award, aside from the fact that there's still a month left in the season. But I don't see anybody who's been clearly better (though I guess you could make a good case for Melvin Mora), so over the last few weeks, this will be a legitimate argument. And even if he doesn't get the hardware (something he said he doesn't really care about anyway), he's played like an MVP, which is what really matters.