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July 18, 2005

Thin Gray Line
by Larry Mahnken

Four times this season the Yankees appeared to be dead. And 11-19 start was salvaged by a 16-2 run, but a 3-11 stretch against the Red Sox, Royals, Twins, Brewers and Cardinals left them on the brink again. They won 6 straight, but went 1-5 against the Devil Rays and Mets to fall to 37-37.

It was at this point where Dan "Curly Haired Boyfriend" Shaughnessy decided to chime in:
The 2005 Red Sox are going to win the American League East. By a landslide. Come late September, this is going to look like Secretariat at the Belmont in 1973.
Well, apparently the Yankees didn't get the memo, because a 12-4 stretch since that pronouncement has brought them all the way back from the brink to only ½ a game behind the runaway AL East winners.

But all is not well inthe Bronx, because coming out of the All Star break, they recieved just about the worst news possible: Chien-Ming Wang, perhaps the Yankees' most dependable starter this season, was placed on the DL with what appears to be a season-ending rotator cuff tear. With Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright already on the DL, the Yankees were left with precisely two starting pitchers -- Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson. They had nobody to start Friday, they had nobody to start Sunday. They had nobody to start Monday, either.

The Yankees have perhaps the best offense in basebal. The Red Sox lead the majors in scoring, but they play in a much more offense-friendly park than the Yankees, and the Bombers have four awesome hitters (A-Rod, Sheffield, Matsui and Giambi) to Boston's two (Ortiz and Ramirez), and the depth of the Red Sox lineup doesn't make up that difference.

But no offense is good enough to compensate for three vacancies in the rotation. This is not a case of the Yankees filling the back of their rotation with sub-par pitchers, or even replacement-level pitchers. The Yankees have no pitchers, and would be glad even to find a replacement-level starter to give them five innings without completely knocking them out of the game. Even then, the team would have trouble getting by, but it would still be better than what they had.

One vacancy was filled, for now, by Kevin Brown, who returns from the DL tonight in Texas. He's not techically ready, he needed a rehab start first, but the Yankees' desperation has lead them to making his rehab start against one of the top lineups in baseball. But even assuming he can give them enough to get by, that still leaves two holes.

Tim Redding tried to fill one of them Friday night, pitching for the team he grew up rooting for in Rochester. He barely got out of the first and couldn't record and out in the second, and Darrell May was hardly better in relief. Falling 17-1, the Yankees were face-to-face with their doom.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, but sometimes in that desperation teams will panic and give up too much for too little. There exists the temptation to trade Robinson Cano for an older, struggling pitcher like Tom Glavine, in the hopes that Glavine can help the rotation enough to make up for the hit the lineup would take in replacing Cano with Womack. That temptation must be resisted, because the chance of success is too small and the price is too high.

But what then to do? The answer, of course, is to explore the freely available talent, as the team did when they called up Melky Cabrera to replace Bernie Williams in center. That expiriment failed, but it didn't cost the Yankees any money or players, and leaves the Yankees to search for the next option in no worse position than they were when they started the search.

For pitchers, they first turned to Darrell May and Tim Redding, with disastrous results. But they still didn't panic, and on Saturday they picked up Al Leiter, who had been discarded by the Florida Marlins, and put him on the mound for Sunday.

Few expected the move to succeed, Leiter had been cut for a reason -- he was absolutely awful in Florida. But there was no better option available, and he was free. And unlike Redding and May, he has a long track record of success, a track record that his age and recent failure gave legitimate reason to ignore, but a track record nonetheless. And that track record gives the Yankees the hope that he can once again do something he's already done, rather than the faint hope that Redding and May can do something they've never done.

But no rational observer would expect success last night. The best I hoped for was five innings, four or five runs allowed -- a deficit the Yankees could reasonably come back from if their bullpen could hold the Red Sox there. Leiter's wildness in Florida made that hope look like a longshot.

The pitcher the Yankees got last night was not the same one the Marlins let go. Maybe that other pitcher will come back, but last night Al Leiter gave the Yankees as good a performance as they've recieved all season, and the most improbable one.

Leiter gave up just three hits, two of them singles, the double coming on a fly ball down the left field line. He walked just three, the third coming on his last batter of the game when he was clearly running on fumes. And he struck out a season-high 8 batters. When he left the game in the seventh the score was 4-1 and the Yankees were poised to win a series that on Thursday they may have hoped to split, at best, and perhaps looked to be swept in after the first inning of the first game.

Why did Leiter pitch so well? The biggest reason was control, Leiter was hitting spots with good pitches, and the Red Sox often could do no better than foul them off. Perhaps unfamiliarity played a crucial role, as the batter most familiar with Leiter worked two walks in his first two plate appearances, while the rest of the lineup was being shut down. The latter factor, if it was indeed a factor, will be adjusted for by the Red Sox when he next faces them, but the former is the far more important one.

And perhaps that control can be repeated. Leiter admitted before the game that mechanics had been a problem in Florida -- you get yourself into a slump through the normal course of playing, your confidence is damaged as it goes on and you start to press, and then well-meaning attempts to get you out of the slump create real mechanical problems that extend it. For whatever reason, Leiter's mechanics may have improved, and his quality with it.

Of course, last night was just one start, and even lousy pitchers have great starts every now and then (it's how they hold down jobs). But if Leiter can simply be good the rest of the season, the Yankees have made a stunning addition to the team -- and it's cost them almost nothing at all. And in a lucky twist, the team has added a pitcher who they were interested in signing this past offseason anyway, and they've done it for far less -- $400,000 -- than they would have if they'd signed him in January rather than July.

Despite that great starting performance, the Yanks barely escaped with the victory. A win that would have been an stunning surprise before the game had, by the ninth inning, seemed fait accompli. But a long homer by Manny Ramirez and a walk by Kevin Millar put the tying run on deck, and Mariano Rivera had to come in. Robinson Cano threw a rally-killing double play ball into left field, and a Jason Varitek single put the tying run on first. Bill Mueller singled to but the tying run on second with nobody out, and a tied game seemed inevitable, a devastating loss exceedingly probable.

But Alex Cora hit a hard ground ball to A-Rod, who threw home to get Nixon, and Posada threw to first to get Cora (well, that's what the ump said). A Damon groundout to second ended the game, and in the span of a couple of minutes, the Yankees wend from a huge win, to a crippling defeat, and back to a huge win.

The Yankees have been declared dead before, but this is the first time that declaration was due to more than their recent play (and, in fact, in direct opposition to their recent play), but to a serious problem with no obvious solution. Al Leiter is only a part of the solution, if he can fill the role the Yankees need him to. Kevin Brown is an equally vital part of that solution, as is Carl Pavano, and even Jaret Wright. The Yankees still have to turn to an unknown on Wednesday. Facing their toughest stretch of the season with as weak a starting rotation as they've had since the early 90's, there is every reason to expect the Yankees to fall out of contention in the next month.

But if they don't, if they can somehow manage to stay together until Pavano comes back, they have a shot to survive this stretch. If they can somehow be near first place when this stretch is over, they have a good shot at winning it. And if they are, by some miracle, in first place in late August, there will be no excuse for them not winning the AL East. If they can somehow do that, this might be one of, if not the most memorable seasons in Yankees history. If they can somehow do that.

But that's not today's problem. Tonight, somehow, they've got to find a way to beat Texas.