Yanks will take care of business and Boston

You know you’re in trouble when you find yourself peeking at the wild card standings just to make sure your team will make the playoffs.

This is a time of year for stories about Ichiro chasing George Sisler’s untouchable single-season hits record, or Barry Bonds surging towards 700 homers. A couple of wild card races are to be expected. But certainly, the American League East race shouldn’t be attracting any attention. Not when the Yankees held a 10 1/2 game lead on August 15th.

Now, trailing by only 2 1/2, the Red Sox deserve a lot of credit. Any team in a playoff race that reels off 10 in a row obviously does. Watching score updates for the last week, I’ve become convinced that there’s been a scoreboard malfunction at Fenway. The Sox seem to start every game with at least three runs already posted. I’d blame MIT hackers, but I’m fairly sure the scoreboard on the Green Monster is purely mechanical.

Somehow, a team that had played .500 since the end of April has become a juggernaut. What happened? I’d love to believe that it was the Nomahhh trade. Import great defense at short and first, export clubhouse cancer. Also, add a guy like Dave Roberts who can steal bases and hit-and-run, and the Sox are a much better team. Boston doesn’t give away close games with bad defense anymore, and the offense isn’t bogged down in Moneyball.

I’m hoping it was just a great trade, but there must be something more to the turnaround. And that’s the thing that really kills me: “The Fight.” As soon as the benches cleared on July 24th, I knew it was trouble. Why give a spark to a lackluster team 10 1/2 games out and fading?

The previous night’s game, Curt Schilling was crying in the dugout. Less than 24 hours later, the Red Sox were celebrating an emotional walk-off win against Mariano Rivera. I could see the playoff run coming. Of course, by playoffs, I obviously mean wild card.

No matter how well a team is playing, you can’t make up eight games in three weeks without a little help. And the Yankees have given the Red Sox plenty of it. On August 8, I can distinctly remember commentators on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight explaining how the Yankees were pretty much unbeatable and headed for the World Series.

In hindsight, a collapse seems to have been inevitable. The Yankees were certainly over-performing to some extent. Even with the best record in the AL, New York has spent most of the season without a single .300 hitter in the lineup, or one starter with an ERA below 4.00. The team is seventh in the AL in ERA and tenth in hitting and has a lower batting average than their opponents.

Then, look at the injuries. The Yankees lost their top two pitchers — Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina — for a total of three months. Remember Jason Giambi? Well, he was bitten by the Outbreak monkey.

Consider that the current top pitcher on the team’s $180 million roster is Orlando Hernandez, a guy making $500,000 and completely available to any team before the season started. This is a man who claims to be age 34, who is listed at 38, but is actually older than my father.

The Yankees have basically covered up poor starting pitching with a phenomenal bullpen, which has repeatedly kept games close and set the stage for 53 comeback wins. Now, the trio of Paul Quantrill, Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera is overworked.

So, maybe a letdown shouldn’t have been unexpected. But, “letdown” doesn’t really describe the current situation. As everyone knows, on Tuesday, the Indians trounced the Yankees 22-0, the worst defeat in franchise history.

None of this worries me. Why? Because baseball is about starting pitching, and the New York starters have not been as bad as everyone thinks. Mike Mussina is only 1-3 since coming off the DL, but he has gotten stronger in each of his starts. On Saturday, he looked great, throwing seven innings with nine strikeouts, and only giving up two runs. Jon Lieber has strung together five consecutive strong outings. And, of course, El Duque has been untouchable.

Really, a lot of the team’s recent struggles can be attributed to mediocre offense. Hitting comes and goes, and when it comes back (A-Rod is due to get hot), the pitchers should start racking up wins. With the starters lasting deeper into games, Quantrill, Gordon and Rivera will get some rest. Also, Steve Karsay, who was dominant for New York in 2002, has the potential to shake off two years of rust and further reduce their workload.

Here’s what actually worries me: Kevin Brown’s left wrist. Unless he returns to dominate the playoffs, this injury should go down as the dumbest in baseball history. No Kevin Brown means no true No. 1 starter for the playoffs. It also means that the Yankees will need minor leaguer Brad Halsey or the incomparable Esteban Loaiza for a stretch run that includes six games against the Red Sox. Last season’s Cy Young runner up may be 0-2 with a 7.30 ERA in his five starts with the Bombers, but he did manage to limit Cleveland to only six runs in the 9th inning of the Tuesday night debacle. Yikes.

The Yankees really need Javier Vazquez to step up. Vazquez had an excellent first half, but has faltered since the All-Star Break. He has the best stuff on the entire staff, with a great curve and a filthy variety of change-ups. If he can get his act together, he can easily fill the void left by Brown.

Basically, there’s no need for Yankee fans to panic. A lull may have been inevitable, and the Red Sox were too good not to make a run. The Yankees have all the tools to get it together and turn the season around. They just need to do it soon.

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