Thursday, June 22, 2006

Box Scores Speak Louder Than Words

(Author's Note: was sick with wicked summer cold yesterday, so the following post is not as timely as it could be. Or it wasn't until Joe Torre helped me out).

You know the moment. Every baseball follower does. There's a point in ONE GAME of the long, long season where you look at a ballclub, not a hopeless case like the Pirates, but a would-be contender that began spring training with postseason expectations. and think "Sorry fellas, not this year."

This premonition of doom may or may not be correct, but it sticks in the brain until said team proves one wrong, or as happens about 100 times as often, right.

The "not this year" moment rarely strikes a ballclub before the summer solstice. It's even more rare when it hits both teams in a game. So take a bow, Yankees and Phillies. You made June 20, 2006 an "On This Date in Baseball."

Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard hit two homers, a triple, and had 7 RBI. The Phils lost anyway. Such statistical anomalies often accompany true slugfests. What made Howard's effort a true "wait till next year" performance is that the Phillies lost the game 9-7. On his career night, Howard's mates did exactly nothing to back him up. Go get 'em Ryan! We're right behind ya!

New York's leading negative indicator came right after the Yanks had rallied to grab that two-run lead in the top of the 8th. In an interleague game in June, when astronomically speaking it was still spring in the northern hemisphere of planet Earth, Yankee manager Joe Torre deemed it prudent to bring Mariano Rivera in for a two-inning save attempt.

OK, the Yanls were on a three-game losing streak. We'll further stipulate that as in every season since 2002, the non-Rivera New York relief corps ranges from undependable on its good days to straight up putrid on its bad ones. Torre's been well aware of this since March. A man doesn't become a Hall of Fame skipper by not recognizing what Scott Proctor brings to the table.

In past seasons, however, it's taken Torre much longer to ACKNOWLEDGE the rottenness of his bullpen. Aware that Rivera is his best pitcher-indeed, that Mo's the one irreplacable man on the Yankee roster, Torre has chosen to absorb the occasional eighth-inning meltdown so that Rivera, no spring chicken, could remain in fighting trim. Two-inning saves were for September series against the Red Sox, not for June in Philly.

When Rivera walked out of the bullpen before the bottom of the 8th last Tuesday night, Torre's thoughts couldn't have been clearer if he'd screamed them over the PA system. Without Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield, the Yanks cannot count on slugging their way out of enough bullpen-induced problems to remain contenders in the AL East. Joe's got to play his ace on almost every hand he's dealt.

If Sophocles had been a Yankee fan, Rivera's appearance would've been accompanied y a chorus chanting tragic premonitions in classic Greek. This two-inning save foreshadows an inevitable conclusion. Sometime in August, probably no later than the Jets and Giants' annual exhibition game, Rivera will become either ineffective or injured. Either fate will terminate the Yanks' playoff chances in short order.

But wait, there's more. Only 24 hours after his two-inning save, Rivera took the mound again, pitching the final inning of New York's 5-0 win over the Phils. That's right. With a five-run lead and a shutout working, Torre still saw no sane alternative to Mo recording the final three outs. The smart money says move up the date on Rivera's injury to when the Jets and Giants report to training camp in late July.

There IS of Greek tragedy to the Yankees' plight. As the poet wrote, those ballclubs the gods wish to destroy, they first make sign Kyle Farnsworth.


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