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June 16, 2005

A Win That Matters
by Larry Mahnken

There's time yet this season for the Yankees to make something good happen, there's plenty of time to make the playoffs, to win the division, even, maybe, to bring home the best record in the league. It's mid-June, larger deficits have been erased in fewer games, and the Yankees have, at least, the talent to pull it off. There's time yet, but the Yankees have to make something happen now.

It's hard to make something happen against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Not because it's tough to win, they're not a very good team, but rather, precisely because victory is expected. Tuesday's 9-0 win was nice, it was fun, but it doesn't have any carryover, because it was the Pittsburgh Pirates. Not to crap on them, because while they're not a good team they're not really a bad team, either, but when you beat the Pirates 9-0, it doesn't feel special, it doesn't make you think everything is going to be okay. Beating the Red Sox 9-0, that's something. The Pirates? It just makes you think you had a good night, which is pretty much what the Yankees had Tuesday.

Even coming back against the Pirates down 5-2 in the eighth inning last night, as the Yankees did, is a relatively hollow victory on its own. Comebacks happen, and coming back to win a game that you not only shouldn't have had come back to win, but more than that deperately needed to win, is in and of itself not so much a lift as it is a relief. For last night's win to matter, and it does matter, required something more.

For one, it required the defeat to be setup not just as a letdown, but an agonizingly frustrating loss. The Yankees only trailed 5-2 in the eighth because they had, once again, left runners on base, and even more frustratingly, given up leadoff homers in the 7th and 8th. Even in scoring 2 in the eighth to get back within a run, they left the tying run on second base with only one out. They didn't deserve to win this game.

It's only from that kind of low that what would otherwise be just another "nice" win could inspire a renewed sense of confidence in the team. In the ninth, after a Jeter groundout, Bernie walked and Gary Sheffield hit into a double play to end the game. Only it didn't end the game, because the umpire, as umpires sometimes do, missed the call, and called Sheffield safe.

A-Rod came up with no chance to tie the game without winning it, because the outfield was so deep, but he kept hope alive with a base hit to center that allowed Sheffield to go to third precisely because the outfield was playing so deep. That brought up Jorge Posada, who entered the game 3-24 with RISP and 2 outs, with 3 singles. Andy Phillips was on deck, and as much as we love Andy and want him to get a chance, Jorge was the guy who needed to come through.

And he did, ripping a double off the rightfield wall, scoring the tying run, moving the winning run to third. But the winning run was quickly eliminated when A-Rod tried to score as the ball rolled away from second, getting tossed out by a mile.

Somehow that seemed slightly deflating. The Yankees were still in great position to win in extra innings, but the win seemed like it would mean less now, not have the same carryover effect. There was probably only one way for that carryover to be completely salvaged...
The pitch is swung on and... hit in the air to deep right! It is high! It is far! It is... GONE!!! A walk-off, two-run, bottom of the tenth home run by Jason Giambi! The Giam-bino! Ballgame over, Yankees win! Thuhuhuh Yankees win!!!
- Really Annoying Announcer

There is no player in baseball who needed a home run at this point more than Jason Giambi. There is no player in baseball who needed a long home run at this point more than Jason Giambi, nobody who needed a clutch, game-winning home run more, nobody who needed to be the hero of the city more. No other player could have hit that home run and given the team and the fans the lift that they got from that home run.

Jason Giambi has been awful this season. Not Shitmack awful, but almost completely useless. Coming into Tuesday's game he had but 3 extra-base hits since April 19th. His high OBP was entirely the result of his walks and HBP's, which may have been symptomatic of his problems -- he was trying to either walk or homer, even more than the rest of his teammates, and as a result was either walking, striking out, or hitting the ball poorly.

Is this because of steroids? Of course it's because of steroids, but not directly. Jason Giambi has struggled in part because of the bat speed and reaction time he lost when he stopped juicing, but it's also because of the confidence he lost when he stopped juicing, the expectations of failure because he stopped juicing and the pressure to prove the critics wrong, to prove that he could still play this game. And it's because of -- and this is something that a lot of people who display an unhealthy hatred towards anyone who ever used steroids either forget or ignore when they talk about Jason Giambi's struggles -- HE'S RECOVERING FROM CANCER!!!

Yeah, he probably got cancer from the steroids, but the aftereffects of the tumor are an indirect result of the steroids, and not something that tells us how much steroids help a player. The tumor would indicate that this probably isn't Jason Giambi's natural talent level, that he actually was a good player without the drugs, but wasn't great until he started using. Jason Giambi isn't Exhibit A of how steroids make a bad player into a superstar, he's just another example of the effects of cancer on an athlete. That doesn't absolve him of the blame in getting cancer, but he should be an example of why you shouldn't use steroids, not how steroids can help your career.

I do believe that Jason Giambi can be a productive player, I do believe that he can hit 20-30 homers a year and get on base over 40% of the time. I believe he can help this team, but that belief has not shown itself on the field this year, except for a very brief period in early April. Giambi's belief in himself may have been wavering going into last night, though he said after the game that despite his struggles he's not going to quit trying.

That home run may do a lot to help him. It did a lot to help the Yankees last night. Maybe it can do a lot to help them the rest of the year.