As summer heats up, Yankees' bats aren't cooling down

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- Buddy Bell, the 55-year-old Kansas City Royals manager, was standing behind the batting cage before the game Sunday, discussing why he is stepping down after the season to spend more time with his family.

Bell, who had a health scare last year when it was discovered he had a cancerous tonsil, talked about his daughter, who has Down syndrome, and his 80-year-old mother as primary reasons for wanting to go home to Cincinnati and get out of the all-consuming managerial rat race.

"I'll still be close to it," he said, alluding to adviser/scouting duties for general manager Dayton Moore. Then, glancing over at the New York Yankees dugout, he added, unsolicited: "But I've got to tell you, I don't think, in all my years in baseball, I've seen a team that hits like theirs. That's some lineup!"

I didn't dare suggest to him that a steady diet of Triple-A-caliber pitching might have a little something to do with the Yankees' hitting explosion since the All-Star break - especially because his own $55 million ace, Gil Meche, had been the victim of one of those Yankees pummelings a couple of weeks ago and was the starter Sunday.

But I certainly could understand if watching his last-place team of mostly baseball neophytes get outscored 25-7 in those first three games in Kansas City and then 31-14 in being swept at Yankee Stadium over the weekend might be a further motivating factor for wanting to leave the dugout.

Indeed, anyone watching this Yankees team of late - the hitting part, at least - could not help but be impressed, even awed. Since the break, the Yankees are hitting .330 as a team, with 47 homers and 196 runs over 26 games.

All of a sudden, it's not just Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter doing all the heavy lifting.

The entire lineup has been thumping, as evidenced by Robinson Cano and Andy Phillips hoisting their averages over .300, Melky Cabrera edging his closer and closer and, above all, Hideki Matsui regaining his status as a force in the middle of the lineup.

"He just sucks up those RBIs," Joe Torre said of Matsui. "He's so important to us. After missing all that time last season, he's really making up for it."

Matsui hit his 100th homer as a Yankee on Sunday to lead off the third after New York had batted around for four runs off Meche in the second. The team added another in the fourth and two more in the sixth, the first of which was Cabrera's seventh homer.

Only another pratfall by the soft underbelly middle-relief corps allowed the Royals to make it reasonably close, and we can only assume that changes, in the persons of Joba Chamberlain and Edwar Ramirez, are on the way for the bullpen.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if the change in the schedule - with four of the teams ahead of them in the postseason race, the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox all on tap for the rest of August - will result in the Yankees' bats cooling off. They have clubbed themselves back into the wild-card race, but Torre knows he can't count on making the playoffs by out-slugging everybody.

"We're going to have to get quality pitching," the manager said. "But what [this second-half hitting splurge] has done is taken a lot of pressure off our starters and given them more leeway. For most of the first half, they had to be worried about giving up one run."

Besides the resurgence of Matsui, Cano, Cabrera and Bobby Abreu, Torre cited the additions of Shelley Duncan and Wilson Betemit as big factors. "I think we have a lot more depth now than we did a couple of weeks ago," he said. "Our offense right now is about where you want it to be."

Nevertheless, it is about to get complicated. Jason Giambi slowly is rehabilitating his way back to the Bronx and is expected to rejoin the team in Toronto today.

For all the Yankees are paying Giambi, however, does Torre dare mess with this lineup that is clicking so well? Giambi's return would give Torre about the deepest, most productive bench he's ever had, with Duncan (assuming he's not sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre), Betemit and either Cabrera or Johnny Damon sitting, but who's he going to pinch hit for?

It would seem Torre is facing a bit of a dilemma, one similar to that of a year ago when the return of Gary Sheffield and Matsui in September didn't necessarily turn out to be a good thing. Just the same, it's a dilemma Buddy Bell probably wishes he'd had while managing teams in Colorado, Detroit and Kansas City in a career he is now happy to be walking away from.

Bill Madden writes for the New York Daily News.

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