Monday, August 22, 2005

Theirs For The Taking

When you really think about it, the Yanks had one bad inning over the weekend. True, that inning precluded us from sweeping the AL-best White Sox, but I think even Meatloaf would be impressed with the outing as a whole.

Yesterday’s loss becomes a bit bitter when it is realized that a win would have catapulted us into the Wild Card lead. Not that it matters at this point; the second season hasn’t begun yet. It also helps keep things in perspective. The Yanks aren’t going to hit another 10-game win streak in all likelihood. But as long as they hang in there and take series after series, they’re in quite good shape to make the playoffs.

If they had just done that all year, they wouldn’t be in this stinkin’ mess, now would they? It just seems this whole season is a bunch of “what ifs.” What if the pitching staff stayed healthy? What if we hadn’t dropped all those games to Kansas City and Tampa Bay? What if we actually put the ball in the outfield with runners in scoring position?

I do have to say – and I think everyone will agree with me – that the Yanks impressed me with this weekend series. After those two losses to the D-Rays should have crushed their spirits, the Yanks manned up, rode their pitching, and did their job on offense. This is the model for what a baseball team SHOULD do.

But I’m kinda tired about talking about the Yanks. It’s been the Great American Scream Machine all year, and with the second season rapidly approaching (just over a week away), I’m sure we’re going to add a few loops and corkscrews to that rollercoaster. Here’s what makes things worse.

It’s seeming more and more every day that he winner of the AL is going to win the World Series, to the point that it’s beginning to look like the NFC-dominated NFL in the late 80s through early 90s. Seriously, what NL team is going to overtake the Sox, Yanks, A’s, Angels, or Sox?

The Cardinals look like the frontrunners in the NL, but I just can’t take them seriously after last year. True, Chris Carpenter is having a career year, and Matt Morris is rebounding well from his worst year, but I don’t see that as being enough to bring them over the top. Maybe in the NL, where they should continue their reign as kings.

True, the Braves will attempt to stake their claim to the crown. And with their team experience in the postseason, they should have a legitimate shot. With their pitching staff as solid as any (Smoltz, Hudson, Ramirez, the returning John Thompson, Sosa/Davies) and a guy like Andruw Jones toe’n the line, the Braves could find themselves back in familiar territory – the World Series.

I do realize that I just said, in two consecutive paragraphs, that both the Cardinals and Braves have legitimate shots at an NL Pennant. But if you think about it, are there any other choices? Well, let’s look at the other choices. First, the Wild Card winner, which could be the Phils, ‘Stros, Nats, Marlins or Mets. It seems that none of these five teams can string together enough wins to gain some separation, and this race could go all the way to the last day of the season. Though, it should be needless to say that the Mets will kill themselves before the final stretch.

Oh, yeah, the Padres have a shot, too. I had a hard time typing that with a straight face. It’s not just that they’re leading their division at a game under .500. It’s that under this type of scheduling, you play teams in your division more than the rest of the teams in your league. So not only are the Pads not faring well against the rest of the NL, they’re not even getting the job done with the other horseshit teams in their division.

This notion is particularly scary because Boston looks like the frontrunner in the AL. They’re hitting the snot out of the ball, and their pitching is performing adequately. Boston’s frontrunner status is being highlighted by Chicago’s sudden signs of mortality, having been swept by division foes Minnesota and losing two of three – and having but one quality inning all weekend – to the Yankees.

Not that I’m counting out the A’s or the Angels. I just see too many flaws with them. The Angels look a bit scarier at this point because of their 7th-8th-9th combination of Donnelly, Shields and Rodriguez, but we all know what happens when you have three overworked guys in the ‘pen. See Yankees, 2004. And the A’s, well, I’m going to cop out right now and cough up my lack of faith in them to their inexperience. But hey, a strong run in Season Deux may change my mind about them.

Which brings us right back to the Yanks and why I am having trouble writing about them. This season is theirs for the taking. They have the talent. They just need the motivation and desire. Unfortunately, that’s not something you can instantly instill in a team. To rattle off a sports cliché, they have to WANT it, they have to feel it. They have to be hungry.

The pitching staff is slowly becoming solid. Chacon is leading the pack right now, leaving opponents in shock and awe with his rebirth in the Bronx. Moose is Moose is Moose, and he and Chacon at the top of the rotation could carry the team down the stretch.

That leave the three spot to Randy, a role which a 17-year vet making $16 mil should be able to fill. Jaret Wright should be at least capable of holding down the four spot in the rotation, though tonight will help us gauge him a bit more accurately. Finally, the five spot, a spot that is crucial in September but is obsolete come October. Of course, Yankees fans are crying for the spot to be handed to the surprise of the year, Aaron Small. And, in all likelihood, barring an Al Leiter resurgence, he’ll be in that role by September. Seriously, how much longer can the Yanks let him sit in the bullpen?

Small wins games. Period. Plain and simple. He has proven that he can come out and give us a quality start – at the very least – almost every time he takes the mound. This is exactly what the team needs in September, not a guy tossing 100 pitches in five innings and taking all the life out of the guys behind him. So Leiter, take heed: throw strikes or get out. I know that’s just one (unqualified) writer’s opinion, but it’s shared by almost all. I swear, if Leiter ruins this for us…

But he won’t. Because these are the New York effin’ Yankees. And when other teams let them hang around long enough, they’re going to pounce. It’s the way things work. You can’t explain it, nor can I. They could have been knocked out back in June, but they hung around. And now it’s going to come back and bite everyone in the ass. No, I’m not predicting World Series glory, especially after I hinted that the postseason may be out of reach as late as Friday.

But the Yanks showed some heart this weekend. They showed that the team might just have that passion, that drive for greatness. Of course, there are still 40 games left. But all it takes is some solid play mixed in with a hot streak or two. The AL is thiers for the taking. Why let that opportunity pass?