The Yankees have found themselves with their backs to the wall several times in the last decade. Each time they have managed to pull their act together, salvage the division and their playoff hopes. However even the most optimistic Yankees fan of this generation can’t remember things looking this bad before June rolls around.
With roughly a third of the season in the books the Yankees find themselves with a losing record, 12.5 games behind the Red Sox and sitting in fourth place in the AL East just a game ahead of last place Tampa. Dropping two out of three has become commonplace when faced with a quality opponent and you don’t need to look too hard at the team to figure out why.
You certainly can’t blame the team offense for the problem. The Yankees’ batters have done their job scoring 254 runs so far (5.3 per game) although Cano and Abreu are slumping. The defense hasn’t been bad, committing just 28 errors. The culprit has been the starting pitching (4.62 team ERA) where only Andy Pettitte and Chein-Ming Wang have proven themselves to be reliable (they are tied for the team lead in wins with 3 apiece). Age seems to have caught up with longtime Yankee ace Mike Mussina whose ERA hovers on the wrong side of six, while the fourth and fifth spot has belonged to the lesser known names thus far with not unpredictable results. Mariano Rivera has been struggling and the relievers in the bullpen are on pace to throw 90+ innings.
Certainly this looks like a disaster for General Manager Brian Cashman. After many years of George Steinbrenner’s meddling with the team including his dictatorial proclamations about who they would sign and for how long, Cashman finally assumed the General Manager’s role in more than name, which was a condition of his last contract. And that puts his head squarely on the chopping block if the Yankees fail - and Steinbrenner publicly began sharpening his axe last week.
Yet Cashman didn’t do anything radical to bring this team down. On a marginal level he may have hurt the offense by trading away Gary Sheffield (who he never wanted to sign in the first place), but his moves to bolster the pitching staff before the season (signing Andy Pettitte as a free agent, bringing in Japanese pitcher Kei Igawa) only seemed to be positive moves that would allow the Yankees to stay at the top of their division.
A rough first few weeks of the season however revealed Yankee pitching deficiencies - so much so that the team rushed out to offer Roger Clemens roughly half a million dollars per projected start for the last 4 months of the season. If he’s as good as he’s been the last few years AND the team can get back into the playoff race, the Yankees will consider that money well spent.
But can they get back into the race? Certainly the Yankees aren’t as bad as they have played so far, and Boston might not be quite as good as they appear either. Certainly the whole Red Sox rotation is iffy – Schilling is 41 years old and has been prone to injuries, Josh Beckett is always battling injuries, Matsuzaka hasn’t exactly dominated so far, and Tim Wakefield is Tim Wakefield. After that it’s not exactly Cy Young and Walter Johnson.
But that means the Yankees can’t just be average and coast to a title as they have done so often in the past decade. They have an uphill battle not unlike the one they had in 1978 when they had to overcome a 14.5 game difference between them and the Sox at the All Star Break. This year they have more time, the question is do they have the heart and skill required to make it happen.
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