Yanks right ship after April flop

The Red Sox dominated the Yankees back in April. The Yanks have since stormed to the top of the AL East.

Originally Published: June 29, 2004
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- It's been two months since the Yankees and Red Sox last collided, but considering their different trajectories since then, April now seems like an enormous wave crashing onto the beach: Full of initial sound and fury, it retreats in silence, quickly forgotten.

The Yankees have certainly healed from their early trauma, amassing a .722 winning percentage since being swept in a three-game series by the Sox April 23-25. During the same stretch, Boston is barely over .500 (27-26), which explained the 5½-game gap between the two entering Tuesday night's game, and the startling realization the Red Sox are closer to third place than first.

No one in the Bronx dares to talk about being comfortable, especially with the Red Sox in town for three games this week. The Bombers still have enough in-house issues, especially with their starting rotation, to keep them eternally wary of Boston's offense.

Alex Rodriguez
Getty ImagesAlex Rodriguez is looking to share the joy that goes along with wearing pinstripes while at the All-Star Game.

Still, Joe Torre says the Sox will be contending with a much healthier Yankee entity than the one that lost six of seven to the Red Sox in April. The Yankees' manager went as far as taking responsibility for the Yankees' fragile state before and after getting swept in Boston.

"I may have overdone it, talking to the players about going into Fenway," Torre said. "A-Rod was so wired, he couldn't see. Sheff (Gary Sheffield) was trying to do the job all by himself. We didn't do very well, handling the pressure of that series."

Actually, being devoured by the Red Sox -- who were playing without Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon -- served as an epiphany to the Yankees, who'd spent the spring admiring their on-paper talent.

Reality set in quickly, however. Flying to Japan for two games against the Devil Rays -- 13,000 miles in one week -- left the Yankees in a haze that lasted for most of April. They lost 11 of their first 19 games, and several of their key players looked particularly lost.

Mike Mussina, convinced that jet-lag had ruined his fastball, was 1-4 with a 6.67 ERA. Rodriguez didn't climb over .200 until April 20. Sheffield hit one home run in his first 87 at-bats, and Derek Jeter was batting .186 as late as May 9.

Since then, however, the Yankees' offense has fueled their sprint to first place. The Bombers lead the majors in home runs, although they're still fourth in the American League in runs and slugging percentage and are 10th in batting average.

Actually, the underlying reason for the Yankees' success is their bullpen, where Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill have combined for a 1.50 ERA, limiting opponents to 105 hits in 129 innings. Without them, the Yankees' team ERA is close enough to 5.00 for GM Brian Cashman to have spent Monday on the phone, looking for an upgrade over Brad Halsey.

The rookie left-hander has replaced Kevin Brown in the rotation, and will start Thursday against Pedro Martinez. Yankee people say owner George Steinbrenner is pressuring Cashman to make a deal in the next 24-48 hours, ideally for Randy Johnson. But so far, Cashman is sticking to his belief that the Yankees can survive, if not flourish, without any major trades.

"All this stuff about our pitching staff is overstated," the GM said on Monday. "If our pitching needs help, you could say the same thing about every other team. But there's this public perception that something's drastically wrong with the Yankee pitching staff, and I would have to dispute that."

Cashman points to the relative success Javier Vazquez has enjoyed since Opening Day, Mussina's eight-game winning streak dating back to April 22, and Jose Contreras' reunion with his wife and children that resulted in a 10-strikout masterpiece over the Mets last Sunday.

Trot Nixon
Trot Nixon, left, has missed most of this season, but was an offensive force for the Red Sox in last year's ALCS.

That said, Cashman admits he'd be interested in any "upgrades" that become available on the market. That's as close as the Yankees have come lately in addressing their vulnerabilities.

Brown, on the disabled list with lower back problems, had a disappointing bullpen session last Friday and had his return-date delayed by at least five days. And no one knows what's wrong with Jon Lieber, other than AL hitters seem to have solved his slider.

That why it's safe to assume that if the Yankees were going to make a deal, they would've done so by now, especially in time for Boston. But the market is lean and if they're going to flatten the Sox this week, it'll have to be done with Lieber, who's allowed nine or more hits in five straight starts, and Halsey, who was brilliant against the Dodgers in his major league debut but wobbly against the Mets -- as tough to read as any rookie would be.

No wonder the stratosphere is thick with rumors. With Freddy Garcia gone, Johnson-to-the Bronx tops the list. But that would require Arizona owner Jerry Colangelo to nuke his publicly-stated promise to keep the Big Unit with the Diamondbacks until the day he retires.

And even if he were to change his mind, Colangelo would then be facing another moral obstacle -- helping Steinbrenner win the pennant.

The Braves' Russ Ortiz is a possibility. So is Pittsburgh's Kris Benson. More intriguing is David Wells returning for a third stint in pinstripes, but Yankee officials have been told not to hold their breath. The Padres are too close to first place to unload Boomer.

The same goes for the Mets, who have two veteran lefties in Al Leiter and Tom Glavine, both of whom have been scrutinized by the Yankees recently. But Mets' GM Jim Duquette says, "We're going for it" and won't be trading off his assets this month.

All this means the Yankees and Red Sox will resume their turf war without any new accessories. But even if the rosters look mostly the same, April has never felt this far away.

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.