Finding level playing field eludes up-and-down Yanks


NEW YORK - Encircled by reporters after the New York Yankees' most inspirational comeback of 2005, outfielder Bernie Williams said he hoped he had witnessed the turning point of this enigmatic season.

The Yankees had watched their supposed ace, Randy Johnson, get battered by the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Tuesday. But the Yankees didn't give up. They rallied from an eight-run deficit. They scored 13 runs in one inning. They hit three straight homers. Surely, this was the beginning of the end of the maddening inconsistency.

"I think we are in a good place," Williams said after the Yankees' 20-11 win. "I think we need to go back to this game and have it as a positive reinforcement on what this team is capable of doing and just continue to look forward from here."

Fifteen hours later, Yankees supposed ace No. 1B, the $40 million Carl Pavano, lost a one-run lead in the seventh by serving up a three-run home run to the last-place Devil Rays' last-place hitter, Nick Green.

The Yankees dropped that game. And the next three. They stumble into Camden Yards tonight losers of five of their past seven games - a skid that followed a six-game winning streak.

It's a telling snapshot of the Yankees' season.

"Long streaks in both directions, it's tough to explain," said Mike Mussina, club ace No. 1A. "I've been on a lot of teams, good teams and bad teams, and you don't see teams be on these streaks for long periods of time. ...

"Usually, you find a balance point, a level at which you are going to play at and you play there for most of the season," Mussina said. "And we haven't found that level. We have played at either one extreme or the other."

Very good, very bad

Consider this: In their first 74 games, the Yankees have put together winning streaks of five, six and 10 games. They've also lost six consecutively once, four in a row three times and three straight twice.

"We're trying to figure it out ourselves. We have had a Jekyll and Hyde run throughout the year," said general manager Brian Cashman. "Are we the team that's run off 16 of 18 or seven of eight? Or are we the team that lost ... "

Cashman paused.

"I can't even remember how bad the numbers were, but it was bad."

When these $200 million Yankees are bad, they are terrible. Through their first 74 games, they had failed to score more than three runs 26 times. They've lost all 26 - a head-spinning convergence of poor pitching and untimely hitting.

"We just seem to be all or nothing, firing on all cylinders or we can't catch it, pitch it or hit it," Cashman said.

Heading into last night, the Yankees' staff ERA was 4.52, 10th in the league. Only the Devil Rays' staff had a higher batting average against than the Yankees' .284 mark. Because of injuries to pitchers Kevin Brown and Jaret Wright, they've had to start two untested rookies. Pavano, their big free-agent signing, is 4-6 with a 4.69 ERA. Johnson and Mussina have winning records but haven't been dominant.

Then there's the offense, which is second in the league in on-base percentage and runs and third in home runs. The numbers are misleading, though. The lineup has been carried by Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield and, lately, Hideki Matsui.

The defense, once a Yankees strong suit, is in the middle of the pack in fielding percentage. Four-time Gold Glove winner Williams is becoming a liability in center field.

So, have these Yankees finally run their course? Are they just too old? When Rodriguez turns 30 in July, rookie second baseman Robinson Cano, 22, will be the team's only 20-something hitter. Of the 12 pitchers on this week's active roster, eight are 34 or older. Of course, the Yankees are always heavy on veterans. They have virtually the same roster they did in 2004, when they won 101 games.

"Age doesn't cause rapid drop-off. It's a gradual thing," said reliever Mike Stanton, 38. "Any time any veteran goes through a slump, it's because he is old. I would say that rarely is going to be the case, unless it is over two or three years, then it might be. But age is just an easy way to define it."

Could this mediocrity be caused by complacency? In the past, the nucleus of this team has awakened at its leisure and immediately waltzed into the postseason. But the Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays are improving. And the Boston Red Sox are the world champions. The Yankees may not be able to take a postseason berth for granted now.

"A lot of times when you have the players that we do, that have a lot of talent, sometimes when guys are blessed like that, things come easy for them," manager Joe Torre said. "Nobody's lazy here. It's just a matter that you have to challenge yourself."

Maybe the drop-off is caused by a lack of team chemistry? Much has been made of the "Idiots" camaraderie in Boston and the Miguel Tejada-led bonding in Baltimore. The Yankees' clubhouse, with a superstar in every row, doesn't exude as many warm fuzzies as its rivals'.

"The bottom line is it is a different kind of clubhouse," Sheffield said. "You have so many stars, you don't see a lot of guys, rookies, sitting around talking, playing cards and things like that."

But winning is often a tonic for individualistic clubhouses. And the Yankees have proved in the past they come together where it is most important: on the field.

Solutions elusive

So, is there just too much pressure to succeed, especially from the top? Yankees owner George Steinbrenner isn't afraid to come down on his team. He has already piped up a few times, and continued scuffling could bring drastic changes.

"You are not talking about a bunch of rookies, you are talking about guys who all have track records," Stanton said. "[Steinbrenner] is not really going to say something that we haven't already said to ourselves."

The bottom line, Cashman said, is Steinbrenner and Yankees fans expect to win. And as GM, Cashman said he would keep working to develop winning consistency. That may mean a tweak or two to the roster before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

But the team's flexibility is handcuffed by so many long-term and hefty contracts. This time, Cashman would prefer to hold onto his prospects, such as Cano.

"We have kind of made our beds with the financial decisions we have made," Cashman said. "And most likely we will have to sleep in most of that bed."

Still, the Yankees aren't panicking. To a man, they still expect to succeed. And they can't be counted out completely. After all, they are the Yankees.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: New York Yankees

Site, time: Camden Yards, 7:05

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Yankees' Carl Pavano (4-6, 4.69) vs. Orioles' Daniel Cabrera (5-7, 5.54)

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