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September 1, 2005

As Advertised
by Larry Mahnken

I have seen the future, and it is Felix Hernandez.

The Mariners unleashed their 19 year old ace against the Yankees last night, and he was every bit as good as they said he was. Featuring an overpowering fastball and a devastating breaking ball, Hernandez got 22 of 24 outs via the groundball or strikeout. The Yankees generally went down quietly, and when they did start to put together a rally, it would be quickly snuffed out -- Hernandez induced three double plays.

But Randy Johnson was every bit as good as Hernandez, and a little better. He recorded 17 of 21 outs via strikeout or groundout, and didn't allow a single hit until the bottom of the sixth. The difference in the game? Johnson walked two fewer batters than Hernandez, who walked four, gave up one fewer hit, and two fewer home runs.

Indeed, the homers were the entirety of the difference between Johnson and Hernandez, as the AL leader in homers allowed gave up none, and the rookie gave up a shot to right by Robinson Cano and a bomb to left-center by Gary Sheffield. That was all the Yankees needed, with Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera finishing things off in the last two innings.

It's an encouraging sign to see Randy Johnson dominant again -- he did throw a couple of pitches at 97 mph, too -- but let's not get carried away. These last two starts, where Johnson has given up 7 hits, 1 ER, 13Ks, 2 walks and no homers in 15 innings were against the Royals and Mariners, the lowest scoring and third-lowest scoring teams in the league. He didn't blow away the Red Sox, or even the Rangers, these are the lesser offenses in the league he's shut down. His next start is against the Devil Rays, and then comes his real test: a Sunday afternoon start against Bronson Arroyo and the Red Sox.

It was a good month for the Yankees. Only the Red Sox and Indians had better winning percentages, nobody had more wins. Their pitching was good, only Leiter, Sturtze and Mussina posted an ERA over 4.00 for the month. The hitting wasn't so good: Matsui, Posada and Cano all struggled terribly, and nobody other than A-Rod and Giambi had a particularly excellent month -- and the value of Giambi's month was almost entirely in three games (he had a .580 OPS in the other 26 games). If the Yankees had hit just a little better, they would have won 5 more games, and be in the position Boston is now in.

But that's been the story all season. Get great hitting, get lousy pitching. Get good pitching, get lousy hitting. Unbeatable one week, unable to win against the Devil Rays the next. It seemed in April and May like it was just a phase, and the Yanks would start pounding on everyone, good or bad, before you knew it. But as soon as they started doing that, they'd get swept by the Royals, or lose 3 of 4 to the Devil Rays at home. And then they'd have to scramble to regain all they'd lost before they could get back to chasing the Orioles, and now the Red Sox.

It's amazing that the Yankees are still in the AL East race, and leading the Wild Card, and if they should make the playoffs, it's a team you can just as easily see sweeping their way through the playoffs as you can see them getting beaten badly in three straight in the first round. Neither outcome would surprise anyone.

It's probably too much to ask now for some consistent baseball, for the team to play up to its potential and start beating the crap out of everyone. It's now September, and if they haven't done that yet, they're probably not going to do it at all.

This last month will be exciting. The Yankees are in a pennant race that means something, they can't rely on the Wild Card if they can't catch Boston, they have to try for both to win either. The six games against the Red Sox are going to be as intense as the last two ALCS's were, and mean almost as much. It's going to go down to the wire.