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Yankees' midlife crisis shows no signs of relief

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- A year ago, the Yankees would not have blown a 6-2 lead. A year ago, manager Joe Torre would have summoned Mariano Rivera in the seventh inning, and the game would have been over.

Not now.

Not with John Wetteland gone and Rivera the new closer.

The transformation in the AL East was never more evident than yesterday, when the Yankees had no one to bail out Andy Pettitte in the seventh, and the Orioles' bullpen retired the final 12 hitters in a stunning 8-6 victory.

Where was Rivera?

Waiting to protect a lost world.

A lead that vanished in the six-run Orioles' seventh.

"Last year, whenever there was a sniff of trouble, Mariano came in and pitched the seventh and eighth, boom, boom," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said.

But now Rivera pitches the ninth, and Torre is stuck with Jeff Nelson, Graeme Lloyd and Co. in the middle innings. He doesn't trust them the way he trusted Rivera. And yesterday, it got him into trouble.

How many times have we seen it?

A bad bullpen can make you a bad manager.

For all the talk about the Orioles' improved rotation, the Yankees starters have a lower ERA. Once again, these clubs are best measured by their bullpens. And this season, the Orioles rate the edge.

They won yesterday with Scott Erickson pitching only five innings. They won with Shawn Boskie escaping a jam in the sixth, Jesse Orosco working a perfect seventh and Armando Benitez and Randy Myers striking out five of the final six hitters.

Torre, meanwhile, stayed too long with Pettitte in the seventh, allowing him to face five hitters without getting an out. He summoned Nelson only after Brady Anderson's two-run double tied the score.

A year ago, Rivera probably would have entered the game three hitters earlier, assuming he was rested. Pettitte started the inning by allowing a single to B. J. Surhoff and a walk to Jeffrey Hammonds. Torre would have pulled him right then.

The right-handed Rivera against the right-handed Lenny Webster and Mike Bordick? It would have been no contest. But the Yankees lost a unique advantage when they failed to re-sign Wetteland and moved Rivera into the closer's role.

Owner George Steinbrenner's other major off-season move was signing David Wells over Jimmy Key. If the Orioles win the East -- and their lead over New York is now seven games -- they'll owe The Boss a playoff share.

"Rivera was a big part of their success last year, coming in in the seventh," the Orioles' Rafael Palmeiro said. "It was pretty much a six-inning game. He'd come in and shut the other team down. It's a little bit different now."

Just a little.

Pettitte allowed a ground single by Webster, and walked Bordick after getting ahead 0-2. Then came Anderson, with the $l left-handed Lloyd warming in the bullpen.

Torre said he was merely showing faith in Pettitte, who was 5-0 lifetime against the Orioles, and wound up throwing only 98 pitches. But didn't his refusal to get Lloyd also reflect a lack of faith in his bullpen?

"No," Torre said. "We've been getting seven innings out of our starters. My mind-set is, unless he's just completely off the charts [with his pitch count], he seems to rise to the occasion to get the big out. Today, it just wasn't meant to be."

Pettitte blamed himself.

"I'm supposed to go out there and close the game," he said. "The bullpen shouldn't even have been involved."

Whatever, it sure was different last season, when the Yankees owned the Orioles, winning 14 of 18 games, including four of five in the American League Championship Series.

"We owned them today until I went out and blew it," Pettitte said. "Everyone was sitting on the bench confident they couldn't beat us. Then I go out there, give up a couple of hits and two stinking walks."

And yet, he still might have escaped with a no-decision if Nelson hadn't slipped while trying to field Cal Ripken's tapper back to the mound, allowing the inning to continue.

But that's not how it went.

Lloyd retired Rafael Palmeiro, then walked Chris Hoiles intentionally with first base open, loading the bases for Surhoff. That move didn't work out, either. Surhoff hit a two-run single, his third hit of the day off a left-hander.

Pettitte couldn't finish the seventh.

The bullpen couldn't keep the score tied.

And Torre couldn't do anything about it.

The Orioles used their bench only once yesterday, when Roberto Alomar replaced the ejected Mike Bordick in the eighth, with Jeff Reboulet moving to shortstop. Still, Johnson said his depth might further complicate Torre's thinking.

Alomar and Eric Davis did not start yesterday because of nagging injuries, and Johnson also had Pete Incaviglia and Tony Tarasco available. Torre must consider all that while pondering matchups that already are less favorable without Rivera in a setup role.

"As soon as he makes a move, he knows that I might get Davis or Alomar," Johnson said. "But if you had Mariano Rivera, you'd say, 'Bring in Davis. Bring in Alomar. It doesn't matter. I'm going to blow them away.' "

Happened all the time last season.

Doesn't happen anymore.

What a relief

The Orioles' bullpen held the Yankees in check yesterday en route to the come-from-behind 8-6 win:

Pitcher .. IP .. H .. ER .. BB .. SO

Boskie .... 1 .. 1 ... 0 ... 1 ... 2

Orosco .... 1 .. 0 ... 0 ... 0 ... 0

Benitez ... 1 .. 0 ... 0 ... 0 ... 3

Myers ..... 1 .. 0 ... 0 ... 0 ... 2

Totals .... 4 .. 1 ... 0 ... 1 ... 7

Pub Date: 5/27/97

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