NEW YORK -- These are unusually happy times in the Bronx, where the New York Yankees own the best record in baseball and have gotten such a jump on the defending American League East champion Orioles that this week's three-game series between the two preseason division favorites could be more of a showcase than a showdown.
No Yankees team has looked so pretty in pinstripes at this stage of the season since 1958, and that isn't the only thing that harkens back to the days of the great Yankees dynasties.
Not since then, for instance, had anyone thrown a perfect game at Yankee Stadium, but former Orioles left-hander David Wells turned the trick against the Minnesota Twins on Sunday, joining 1956 World Series hero Don Larsen as the only Yankee to keep the bases completely clean for nine innings.
Can it get any better than this?
"I'd be crazy to say we can get better," said manager Joe Torre. "How many more games can you win than we're winning now?"
The 1998 Yankees have outstanding offensive depth, good pitching and -- perhaps most important -- great team chemistry, which means that the Orioles will have their work cut out for them when the series opens tonight at Yankee Stadium.
"It's the most professional team I've ever been on," said pitcher David Cone. "Everybody understands their roles and everybody understands that this is a unique and rare opportunity. We've got a chance to do something really special.
"We've got a legitimate shot to get to the World Series and win it. I can't say that I've ever felt as strongly about that as I have on this team."
That just goes to show how quickly and decisively things can change. Four weeks ago, the Orioles were off to a 10-2 start and the Yankees were struggling to get out of the gate.
Cone admitted that the club had "real problems" after the Yankees scored an ugly 17-13 victory over the Oakland A's in their home opener on April 10, but they haven't had a problem since. They have won 27 of 32 games after getting off to a 1-4 start and have shown no sign of letting up.
"It's like surfing," said center fielder Bernie Williams. "We're just riding a wave. A lot of things are going our way and we're just going with it."
Manager Joe Torre still finds it hard to believe that the Yankees have built such a big lead over the team that ran away with the American League East title last year. Ten days into the season, the Orioles were on fire and the Yankees were fishing for compliments, but four weeks later, the roles have been dramatically reversed.
"We're 0-3 and they're on their way to 10-2," Torre said. "What you're saying at that point is, let's play .500 and wait for some kind of burst. But they've been hurt. They lost their top starting pitcher. When that happens, it's easy to go out there and lose. We're playing well, but in our division, you can tumble just as quickly."
The first series of the year against the Orioles will play big in Baltimore, but it isn't nearly as significant in New York, where the Yankees have settled into a comfortable groove and will not easily be pried loose from the top of the standings.
"I think it's important to keep them from asserting themselves," Torre said. "As long as you hold your own, that's what's important. You don't want to be dominated and you don't expect to dominate because these are both very good teams. It's going to come down to pitching. If you don't pitch well against them, they're going to beat your brains out."
The Yankees' starting rotation, which looked very fragile at the end of spring training, has gotten healthy in a hurry. Left-hander Andy Pettitte has five victories. Cone and Wells are 5-1. Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu, whose travails in 1997 became a major organization distraction, has come back to be one of the most effective pitchers in the league, with a 1.11 ERA and a .159 opponents' batting average.
The rest of the roster was never in question. The bullpen was deep enough to survive -- and thrive -- during the 18-day absence of injured closer Mariano Rivera. The position depth was so good that a season-threatening injury to veteran designated hitter Chili Davis actually made it easier for Torre to sort out a crowded outfield situation and give Darryl Strawberry a chance to re-establish himself as an everyday player.
"There's incredible depth on this team," said Cone. "There's no missing link. I've been on a lot of teams in the past where people would say, 'If we only had this one thing, this one key ingredient ' You can't really say that about this team."
In a baseball world out of balance, the Yankees appear to have found the perfect mix of offense, defense, pitching and personality.
"What's so wonderful about this team is that we can beat you in so many ways," said catcher Joe Girardi, who helped dispatch the hapless Kansas City Royals with a squeeze bunt the other night. "If we need to pitch, we pitch. If we need to slug, we slug. If the pitchers or the hitters are struggling, we do the little things. It's a lot of fun."
No longer Bronx Zoo
It's always a lot of fun when you're winning every night, and the Yankees have been winning at a pace unforeseen in the Bronx since the days of Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford.
Not that the club is that much different from last year's model. The Yankees clearly improved with the acquisition of All-Star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch and Davis, but Knoblauch hasn't really asserted himself yet and Davis suffered an early-season injury that will prevent him from making a contribution until well into the second half.
So, what has changed?
"We had a lot of things in the first half of last year that didn't feel good," Torre said. "So much was made of the [Wade Boggs-Charlie Hayes] third base thing and Cecil [Fielder] made his trade demand in spring training. He was trying to put that behind him and he was trying to hit a home run every time up. This year, in spring training, I was only uncomfortable because I was comfortable."
Perhaps that's the only way to describe it. This isn't the Bronx Zoo anymore. The clubhouse isn't a caldron of competing agendas the way it has been in years past. Owner George Steinbrenner still pulls the strings, but even he seems like a kinder, gentler, more professional version of his former self.
"This is the best team I've been around," Cone said. "It's not just because of [our record]. There is a group of players here that really want to play for the Yankees. We really didn't have that last year. There have been so many front-line players who have spurned the Yankees because they didn't want to play in the Bronx."
Now, everybody wants to play, every day.
"It's amazing how these guys are battling," said Wells. "If the pitching is a little down, the offense picks up, and vice versa. It's exciting. You just pray that it never ends."
Maybe it won't. The Yankees are winning at a rate that would be impossible to maintain over an entire season, but the club still has a surprising amount of untapped potential. Williams -- who might be the best all-around player in the division -- hit his first home run only last week. Knoblauch is batting 66 points below his career average.
"Bernie's going to be better and Knoblauch is going to be better," Torre said. "I don't know if Tino [Martinez] will knock in runs at the rate he did in April. The important thing is that no one guy has been that important."
The Orioles begin a three-game series in New York a stunning 11 games behind the Yankees. The teams were expected to contend for the AL East title, but the numbers show the gap between them:
.................... Orioles ..... Yankees
W-L ................ 20-23 ....... 28-9
Home ............... 10-13 ....... 13-3
Road ............... 10-10 ....... 15-6
1-run gms. ......... 4-8 ......... 7-2
2-run gms. ......... 3-2 ......... 6-1
Extra inn. ......... 0-1 ......... 4-1
vs. East ........... 2-5 ......... 4-1
vs. Central ........ 15-10 ....... 12-3
vs. West ........... 3-8 ......... 12-5
(AL rank in parentheses; stats through Sunday)
Avg. ............... .261 (T9) ... .294 (1)
OBA ................ .334 (11) ... .377 (1)
Slugging ........... .423 (8) .... .462 (T2)
Runs/G ............. 4.9 (8) ...... 6.1 (2)
HR ................. 50 (3) ....... 41 (9)
SB ................. 21 (12) ...... 48 (2)
SB pct. ............ 53.8 (13) .... 72.7 (2)
ERA ................ 4.83 (10) .... 4.18 (3)
Saves .............. 9 (T9) ....... 14 (2)
HR allow. .......... 50 (11) ...... 30 (1)
Pub Date: 5/19/98