After detour, the Yankees have found the right path

The Baltimore Sun

If you've watched baseball long enough, you knew this would happen. You knew a two-month funk wouldn't stretch until September.

You knew the national funeral procession for the New York Yankees was a wee bit premature.

OK, so they're not as good as they have been in the past decade. They have an old and banged-up roster and some big-money guys who don't play anymore.

They probably aren't a playoff team. Not with the Boston Red Sox dominating the American League East and the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers looking like a division winner/wild-card combo.

But the Yankees aren't finishing below the Orioles or Tampa Bay Devil Rays this year, as much fun as that would be.

When they visit Camden Yards on Tuesday for the first time this season, they'll be a different club from the one the Orioles came Alex Rodriguez's game-winning grand slam from sweeping in the first week of the season.

They'll be plenty different from the version that went 9-14 in April and finished May at 22-29.

Something happened at the end of May, something that happens to veteran teams with a ton of talent and a seasoned manager who gets it. The Yankees had a 50-minute meeting in Toronto on May 28 - Joe Torre and third base coach Larry Bowa spoke. But then they left, and the players remained.

They lost their next two games, but won 14 of their following 17 and crept to a season-best three games over .500 before being swept last week by the Rockies in Colorado. No question that meeting in late May helped.

"Sometimes it takes a couple of days to channel that in the right direction," Rodriguez said. "We talked about it in Toronto. We felt we were so uptight, so trying to please, that it kind of worked against us for a couple of days."

Said Yankees reliever Ron Villone: "All the teams I've been through, anywhere, I've never had a meeting like that before. On 10 teams, I've been in dozens of meetings. This meeting was more of a food for thought, for yourself, more than anything else. Like, look in the mirror and go out and feel good about yourself."

Of course, there's also the fact that the club isn't counting on Darrell Rasner and Tyler Clippard and Carl Pavano in the starting rotation anymore. Now that everyone is healthy, it finally looks Yankee-like again.

This week, the Orioles will have to face two pitchers who have owned them in the past: left-hander Andy Pettitte and ageless right-hander Roger Clemens, who will be going for his 350th win.

Pettitte didn't start against the Orioles in April and Clemens couldn't - he was back home on the ranch. Now they are back together in pinstripes.

Pettitte, at this point in his career, is a middle-of-the-rotation starter. So is former Oriole Mike Mussina.

Clemens, 44, is likely much more.

One scout who recently saw him said this: "Right now he is still at the end of his spring training. Endurance is still a question since he hasn't pitched much. His progress will determine whether he is going to be a top guy again or be in the middle of the rotation. But he'll definitely be an above-average, very solid pitcher for them."

The biggest addition for the Yankees, though, came at the end of April, when their real ace returned from a hamstring injury. That would be 27-year-old Chien-Ming Wang, who won 19 games last year and seven this year heading into yesterday.

Scouts and statistics crunchers will tell you that Wang is a product of a good team, and that his low strikeout numbers are disconcerting. But one American League East slugger, who didn't want to offend his own pitchers, said Wang is the toughest to face in the league behind Minnesota's Johan Santana.

Because of a heavy sinker that continually gets driven into the ground, the player called Wang "the AL's Brandon Webb," referencing the National League's reigning Cy Young Award winner.

In seven starts from May 16 to June 17, Wang didn't allow more than three runs once; he won six of those games. Not coincidentally, the Yankees started to win again. And, if healthy, a rotation of Wang, Clemens, Pettitte, Mussina and it doesn't matter who (Kei Igawa for now) should keep teams honest.

But this is baseball. Teams go through streaks in a long season. Last week the Yankees hit another bump - this time because of their offense. They scored just five runs against the Rockies at Coors Field - a mind-boggling total.

Then again, Jason Giambi is out indefinitely, Johnny Damon isn't at full strength and Bobby Abreu has not been the player the Yankees expected when they traded for him last year.

But the Yankees still have one of the scariest offenses in baseball.

They can still work the count and score runs. They can pitch again. And Mariano Rivera can still shut doors, though perhaps not as tightly as in the past.

So they're the old Yankees and not the Yankees of old. They are no longer assured games in October. But when they come here Tuesday, they won't roll over.

Or play dead.

Not yet, anyway.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad