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June 17, 2005

Fee Fie Foe Fum
by Larry Mahnken

Did Giambi's homer wake a sleeping giant? Well, we'll have to wait and see on that, but the Yanks came out looking like the team they're supposed to be last night.

There was no fooling around this time, Randy Johnson struck out the side in the top of the first, and in the bottom of the inning, the Yanks crushed two of Oliver Perez's first three pitches, Jeter doubling to center, Matsui homering to right.

That was all the Yankees would need last night, as Randy Johnson finally showed up in Yankee Stadium as RANDY FREAKING JOHNSON, pitching a complete game, five-hitter with no walks, 11 strikeouts, and only one run on a Yankee Stadium homer, just barely hit into the short porch in right. In two starts with John Flaherty catching, Johnson is 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA in 16 innings, 18 Ks, 0 BBs and only 9 hits allowed.

Flaherty says he's worked in the bullpen with Johnson on his mechanics, trying to keep him on top of the ball, and works with him in the game to keep him focused on the mechanics. The effort is showing up in the results, and is giving Flaherty a new value to the Yankees.

Keeping Flaherty as Johnson's personal catcher makes sense in a couple of ways. The first is that he's obviously having a positive effect on The Unit, who has only had one other start this season that was as close to as dominant as his last two starts, against Texas on April 24th, and in that start his control wasn't nearly as good as it is now. Not to knock Posada, but Flaherty is doing things for Johnson that Jorge hasn't done so far -- possibly because as a backup Flash can devote more time to Randy than Jorge can. The other way it makes sense is that it gets Flaherty a start every five games, giving Posada plenty of time off (and hopefully preventing yet another late-season slide), and gives Flaherty starts when they can afford the loss in offensive prowess the most -- when they have their best pitcher on the mound.

A move to make Flaherty Johnson's personal catcher may be one of the most subtle big moves of the year. If Johnson is dominant the rest of the year, the Yankees may even have to consider giving Flaherty starts with him in the playoffs (assuming, of course, they make it).

The dominance of Johnson wasn't the only positive thing yesterday. Right off the bat there was Matsui's homer, his second of the series, and making him 8 for his last 18 ABs, with 2 doubles and 2 homers. After hurting his ankle Sunday, Matsui is now 5-11 with two homers and a double. In the second, Giambi continued to hit the ball hard, driving a double to right-center to score a run, and he finished the game 1-2, the out being a long fly-out. At almost the exact same time, two of the Yankees' weakest links are turning back into sluggers. There could not be a bigger possible boost to the team than these two returning to form, or anything close to it.

Much more quietly, but also importantly, Robinson Cano was 2-3 against lefty Oliver Perez, making him 4-5 against lefties in the series. Why was this important? Because Cano entered the series with a .100 batting average against lefties, compared to his .306 average against righties. If he can maintain that average against righties and learn to hit lefties... we may have a future All-Star.

Still, it was the Pirates, and while it was a sweep, it was immediately following a 3-11 stretch that included some awful losses to teams they should have easily beaten.

But while we shouldn't get carried away, the Yankees are now very much alive. They didn't gain a single game on Boston or Baltimore this week, but they didn't lose any ground and started to show signs of life. Hosting the Cubs this weekend they face another important test. The Cubs aren't a great team, but they're definitely a tough opponent, and will present the Yanks more of a challenge than Pittsburgh did. Sweeping the Pirates doesn't give the Yankees any breathing room, because they pretty much needed to sweep. Now they need to win at least two of three before Tampa Bay comes in, and then they really need to kick it into gear.