05 September 2004

Looks Like I Picked The Wrong Week to Quit Sniffing Glue

It's been a rough week for the New York Yankees and their fans.

Though they took three out of four games from the Blue Jays in Toronto last weekend, they ended the series with a loss. One-time ace Mike Mussina could not get out of the seventh inning without allowing five runs, amking it the ninth time this season Moose had alowed at least five runs in a game. To his credit though, the six and a third innings he pitched marked his longest outing since returning from the DL. Still though, six innings and five earned runs is hardly the kind of performance you'd like to see from a pitcher making sixteen million dollars this year, especially against a last place team that's scored fewer runs than all but three teams in the AL (Seattle, KC and Tampa Bay.) An ace, he is not, at least this year.

As if that were not sufficiently depressing, the Yanks then traveled home to host the Cleveland Indians, in what should have been continued abuse of the American League's soft underbelly, but instead became an embarassment of historic proportions for the Yanks. Rather than showing the mediocre Cleveland Indians who's boss, the Yankees infuriated their own Boss by posting the most severe loss in the franchise's storied, 100+ year history, and equaled the most lopsided shutout in major league history, losing to the Indians 22-0. Jake Westbrook, who's having a decent season for the Tribe, shut them down for seven innings, and Jeremy Guthrie, making only his second major league appearance, pitched two scoreless innings to cap off the humiliation. Thankfully, they won the next two against Cleveland, but the bad press created by this demoralizing loss got a lot of people worried about the Yankees' chances in October, including me.

Without looking it up, I imagine that you'd be hard-pressed to find the last World Series championship team that had been beaten by something like 20 runs in the same season. Mercifully, they did manage to take the remaining two games of that series, but the damage had been done.

The next stop on the trolley through the American League Patsy-ville was Baltimore, who rolled into town Friday for a three game series that should have helped the Yankees pad their lead on division rival Boston, but instead turned out to be a nightmare of almost epic proportions.

Kevin Brown started on Friday night, and pitched reasonably well, allowing three runs in six innings, but ending his night rather abruptly when he punched a clubhouse wall in frustration after the sixth inning and broke two bones in his left (non-pitching) hand. He had been hit in the right forearm by Miguel Tejada's batted ball in the sixth inning, one inning after tweaking his knee covering first base on an infield grounder. Of course, Brown also missed a substantial portion of the season with lower back injuries and an intestinal parasite, so it's not as though they could afford to miss him for another few weeks. Heck, they needed him to pitch the very next inning, as his 81 pitches at the time certainly were not so many to have normally sent him to the showers at that point. Felix Heredia, his emergency replacement, walked the only two batters he faced before retreating to the showers in the clubhouse from the shower of boos coming from the stands. The Yankees still don't have a decent lefty in the bullpen, and by 'decent' I mean "doesn't completely suck."

The AP reported that the Yankees front office people began reviewing Brown's contract to see if anything like a self-inflicted injury would void his otherwise guaranteed money, another $15 mil next season, but that seems a moot point right now. Whether or not Brown is overpaid with the nearly sixteen million he's making this year (he is), he's still one of the best starters the Yankees have when he's healthy. Sadly, he won't be healthy enough to pitch again for about three weeks, perhaps even after the regular season has ended.

On this subject, I can speak a little from personal experience. About eight years ago, while I was in college, I did something like this as well. In my own anger and frustration, over a girl, a much better reason than Kevin Brown's, if you ask me, I punched something I should not have: my closet. The dorm closets at Lehigh were made of solid oak, and as you might have guessed, the bones in my hand were not, so you can imagine which of us lost that fight. (I have a rematch with that closet coming up in October. It's on Pay-Per-View.) My fifth metacarpal was broken just below the joint where it meets with my right pinky, what they call a "boxer's fracture" for obvious reasons. (Unlike Brown, I did not have the foresight to hit the closet door with my left hand.) I was told that they could perform surgery and reset the joint so that it would look nice again, but that the range of motion I would have if they did so might not even be as good as if they just let it heal itself in the semi-bent position, which took about 4-6 weeks in a cast, if I recall. I doubt that metacarpal fracture medical science has advanced all that much in less than a decade that Brown will be back before early October, even with his superior physical conditioning and probably better doctors. A bone is still a bone.

Ant to (literally) add insult to injury, the Yankees lost the only game I got to see in person this year, Saturday, also to the Orioles. And they didn't just lose, they couldn't even buy a hit. Sidney Ponson, at one time on a pace to lose 20+ games, with an ERA still pretty close to 6.00 as he entered the game, shut the Yankees out for the second time in a week, alowing only two hits and a walk in nine innings.

To his credit, Mike Mussina pitched pretty well overall. He struck out eight and allowed only two runs in seven innings, though he did need to work his way out of trouble on a few occasions. It's a shame his best performance in three months had to be squandered by poor offensive run support and a bad showing by the bullpen.

Down only 2-0 coming into the ninth inning, Yankees fans at the game had something for which to cheer, as Metallica's "Enter Sandman" began playing on the Stadium PA system, and The Best Closer in Postseason History sauntered in from the bullpen behind left-centerfield. Mariano Rivera, having been all but unstoppable this season with a miniscule 1.32 ERA and 46 saves entering the game, couldn't stop himself from allowing four runs while getting only one out. This rather intrigued me, as most managers won't bring in their best reliever, the Closer, in a non-save situation. Typically Joe Torre doesn't either, but we've seen often, especially in the postseason, that he's not afraid to buck convention with Rivera when it might help win a game. It didn't on Saturday.

The problems started with a solo home run by Rafael Palmiero into the right field bleachers, a no-doubt-about-it blast that traveled about 420 feet, and then traveled back about 40 feet, when the Bleacher Creature who caught it threw it back onto the field. Of course, Palmiero is a future Hall of Famer who's done that about 540 other times in his career, more than all but ten guys in history, so it was almost forgiveable. On the other hand, he hadn't hit one in over a month, and this was only his second homer since the All-Star Break. Still, with not such an insurmountable lead at 3-0, the Yankees still had a chance if Mo could buckle down and get some outs. But three singles and a fielder's choice grounder later he'd still only gotten one out, was down 4-0 and had men on first and third.

No pitcher wants to read the words "relieved by Bret Prinz" in a game story about himself, so I hope Rivera didn't pick up the Sports section on Sunday morning. Not being a good enough pitcher to keep Bret Prinz and his 5.25 ERA in the bullpen is a lot like not being a good enough lawyer to keep the state from calling in My Cousin Vinny to argue the case. And, as if that weren't depressing enough, Prinz came in and allowed Brian Roberts, whose "slugging" percentage ranks #139 out of 157 qualified major leaguers this season, to deposit his first pitch into the right field stands, scoring both runners and putting the Yanks down 7-0. Prinz did mercifully get the next batter out, but the Yanks' day was clearly over.

Sidney Ponson finished the game out with a perfect ninth inning to complete the Bronx Bombers' shame. It was his first complete game in over a month, his first shutout since mid-May. Just a bad week all-around for the Yankees.

Making things worse, the Red Sox had pulled, over the course of this week, from 6.5 games out to a paltry 2.5 games out of first place, with six games remaining in the season against the Yankees. The Sawx had to play insanely good baseball for a month in order to get this close, which would seem to indicate that the law of averages is bound to catch up with them and get them to lose once or twice in a while, but 2.5 games is hardly a comfortable cushion in a season that once saw the Yanks up by more than ten.

The remainder of New York's schedule is, as I mentioned, pretty easy, in theory: Six more games agains Toronto, five against Tampa Bay, and three each against Baltimore and Kansas City, besides the six against Boston and three against Minnesota. Boston's schedule isn't exactly tough though, and with the pitching rotation's struggles and injuries, the Yanks do have their work cut out for them the rest of this month.

If there's any solace to be had in this situation, it lies in that the AL East team that doesn't win the division will probably win the Wild Card, which we've already saeen offers a perfectly acceptable opportunity to win the Wolrd Series. But I think the Yankess would prefer to keep that streak of division titles going, if at all possible.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go buy some more rubber cement...

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