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October 4, 2004

There Can Be Only One!
by Larry Mahnken

See, now it's time to be nervous. Not scared, just nervous -- uncertain.

Now what's going wrong actually matters. There's no time for the ship to right itself, it needs to happen right now, or the season is going to be over in a few days. This is what we've been waiting for, this is what they've been working for, and all we ask is that they put forward their best effort, so that if they lose, our disappointment won't be exacerbated by the knowledge that they should have done better.

I won't go so far as to say the Yankees should win the World Series this year, because they are a flawed team. But they have as good a chance as anyone, and if things go right, they've got a better chance than most.

This is a team that won 101 games despite disappointing performances by a large chunk of their roster. They got mediocre pitching from Mike Mussina for most of the year, bad pitching from Jose Contreras, and even worse pitching from his replacement, Esteban Loaiza. Kevin Brown was great, then okay, then hurt, then good, then hurt, then horrible, then okay, and who the hell knows what he'll be next time. Javier Vazquez has fallen from being an ace to being a question mark. El Duque has a tired arm. At least Jon Lieber's been consistently solid for a while.

Bernie Williams was generally horrid with the bat for most of the year, A-Rod was disappointing by his standards. Giambi was out most of the year and ineffective when he was in, and while Jeter partied like it was 1999 after May 25th, his overall performance was below his standard.

But then, Gary Sheffield played like an MVP -- and so did Hideki Matsui. Mariano Rivera was himself, though sometimes he looked like John Wetteland without the nasty cap, and Tom Gordon was much like Rivera was to Wetteland in '96. They outperformed their Pythagorean Record because of those two, as well as the hideousness of their middle relief. If everything had gone right with their players, maybe they still wouldn't have done much better than they did, when it seems everything went right with the games themselves.

Everyone's concerned about the Yankees' rotation, and they have a definite right to be. It's not performing at anywhere near the level that was expected or needed, but the pitchers are there, they can give great performances. And they don't need to be great, merely good -- and more importantly, they need to go deep into games. Six or seven inning starts let Gordon and Rivera get into the game without having to worry if Sturtze is really good now, or just hot. And their offense can score runs against any pitcher, they just need to be kept in the game.

I'm not worried about Johan Santana. Yeah, he's been amazing, but he only starts two of the five games. If they lose those two, they can still win the other three, and I think they can win one or both of those two. They'll need Gary Sheffield to start hitting again, though, and they'll need Bernie Williams to keep up what he's been doing the last few weeks. They need to work the count on Santana, they need to get him out before the eighth, so they can get into the Minnesota 'pen, which is great, but they've beaten it before.

Minnesota won't roll over for the Yankees, and the Angels wouldn't have, either. There's no easy games left, the only advantage in the schedule is one home game a series, for whatever that matters. The matchups may balance one way or the other, but that's not going to decide who wins the World Series. Who gets the breaks, whose players are hot and whose are cold, that's what's going to decide this. It's really random, but it's really, really fun. I just hope this ride goes on for another few weeks.