Yanks Face Implacable Foes

Following a tortuous two weeks of bad karma, the Yankees’ major league best record of 59-34 belies their tenuous perch atop the American League East.

In short order, the Yanks lost out on a trade for ace hurler Cliff Lee; suffered the deaths of legendary public address announcer Bob Sheppard and owner George Steinbrenner; blew the All-Star game; and saw two of their top hurlers, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, incur mental and physical breakdowns, respectively.

It began Thursday July 8, when a news report circulated that the Yanks were “on the verge” of acquiring Cliff Lee from the Mariners. The Yanks pitching staff already sported three eleven game winners (C.C. Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and Andy Pettitte) and led the league in quality starts and length of starters’ appearances. Even Mike Francesa, the Bombers’ leading fan, lamented that for the Yanks to acquire Lee would be “piling on.” In a remarkable (for him) admission, he expressed regret over the Yanks’ pursuit of Lee.

Then after orally agreeing to ship Lee to the Yankees for catching prospect Jesus Montero, the Mariners surprised the Yanks by accepting a last-minute, better offer from the Texas Rangers. The Rangers are in the middle of a bankruptcy proceeding and required a judge’s approval to trade for Lee. The emergence of Texas as the buyer was particularly galling since the Yanks may oppose the Rangers in the Playoffs; and Lee befuddled them as a Philly in last year’s World Series.

On July 10, the 99-year old Sheppard passed away, and the Boss followed suit on July 13th, the afternoon of the All-star game. It was just like Steinbrenner to steal the thunder from the Mid-summer classic; but he couldn’t have foreseen that two of his own would blow the game for the Americanos.

Hughes allowed the Nationals the go-ahead run, and Yankee skipper Joe Girardi miscalculated by running out of position players in the bottom of the ninth inning. As a result, he was unable to pinch-run for David Ortiz, who was forced out on a blooper which fell in front of the right fielder. If you believe that the Yanks will make the World Series, Girardi’s blunder could cost his squad the extra home game in the Fall Classic.

Rivera honors Boss, Sheppard

In their first series after the break, the Yanks faced the second place Tampa Bay Rays at home Friday night. The game was preceded by emotional tributes to Sheppard and Steinbrenner, twin Yankee icons who could not have been more different.

Sheppard, a college speech instructor who served as the in-stadium voice of the Yankees for 57 years, personified grace and dignity. As a kid, I would recite to myself endlessly Sheppard’s signature call… “Batting in number three position, playing center field, number seven, Mickey Man-tle, number seven.” Story has it that when Sheppard ordered food off the menu, he stayed in character. “I’ll have the number three blue plate special, number three.”

Despite the makeover in his later years, Steinbrenner was the face of bluster and intimidation. His charitable acts do not obscure his two banishments from baseball, the first for lying about his contributions to the Nixon campaign, and the second for retaining loser psychopath Howard Spira to gather damaging information about Dave Winfield.

During Steinbrenner’s second purgatory in the early 90′s, it was GM Gene Michael who orchestrated the foundation for the Yanks’ championship run. Under Michael’s guidance, the Yanks farm system developed its Core Four – Jeter, Posada, Pettitte and Rivera. Incredibly, this quartet has maintained its excellence over the course of fifteen years.

One can also make the argument that the Yankees’ success could not have happened without Joe Torre, who deftly managed the team for twelve years. Yet in one of the last acts of Steinbrenner vengeance, Torre was not invited to the final ceremony at the old Yankee Stadium, and has been all but airbrushed out of official Yankee film memorabilia.

During the 15-minute pre-game remembrance Friday, it was hard to tell whether the Yanks were crying for Sheppard or Steinbrenner. The team wore patches for both of them – “The Boss” for Steinbrenner and a microphone for Sheppard.

In their come-from-behind ninth-inning 5-4 win Friday night, the Yanks showcased their major weapons – starting pitching, home run power, and Mariano Rivera. Sabathia battled through seven; Cano, Posada, and Swisher homered; and Rivera pitched a scoreless ninth. “Thank you for coming,” intoned a recording of Sheppard after the game.

Coincidentally, it was Old-Timers Day at the Stadium Saturday; and the remembrances continued. Unfortunately, the Yanks were also reminded of the unstable status of Burnett, who has been a model of inconsistency throughout his two years with the Yankees.

Burnett has the arm and stuff of a consistent 18-20 game winner, and the mental makeup of an inmate at the cuckoo’s nest. He provides enough bright moments to offer hope and enough pitiful outings to lose it. He’s a master of self-implosion, often utilizing the walk, the hit batsman and the wild pitch to make the worst of a situation. Saturday, Burnett found a new way to shoot himself in the foot.

After relinquishing a home run in the top of the second, Burnett slammed his fist against a clubhouse double door and cut his pitching hand. He faced two batters in the third inning before exiting. Burnett is pitching to an 8.0 era over his last seven starts. The good and bad news is that he will not miss his next pitching turn.

To compound the Yanks’ difficulties, and as if to validate Cashman’s pursuit of Lee, Pettitte suffered a strained left groin Sunday, and will miss four to five weeks. But even before Pettitte’s injury and Burnett’s meltdown, the cracks were beginning to appear in the Yanks’ rotation…… and in their bullpen.

Over his last seven outings, Hughes’ era is over 6. Though his record is 11-3, Yankee brass has announced that the 24-year old is on an innings count, and he may not fill all of his rotation slots in August and September. Joba Chamberlain has been inadequate in the 8th inning, relinquishing 45 hits in 39 innings. Javier Vasquez is uncertain as the fifth starter. Today, he surrendered five runs to the Angels after being staked to a 6-0 lead.

General Manager Brian Cashman says that he will not pursue pitching help in the trade market. But come the 7/31 trading deadline, some choicy tidbits may be available, including Roy Oswalt (Astros), Dan Haren (Arizona), and Ted Lilly (Cubs). Joakim Sora of the Royals could provide bullpen help.

The Yanks’ closest pursuers, the Rays and the Red Sox, are not without their own problems. Tampa Bay has holes in its everyday lineup, and Boston’s been ravaged by injuries. Yankee power, not pitching, has enabled the champs to hold onto first place.

But if the proud Bombers are to remain the kingpins of the AL East, they need to repair the looming fissures in their pitching staff.

For them, and for all of the contenders, good starting pitching is the best antidote to bad karma.

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