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Yankees' core still unshakable

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Sept. 1

Jason Giambi can barely close one hand. He also limps knowing he has to have knee surgery in the offseason, but plays every day. "That's what I expect," he said.

Derek Jeter
Maybe Jeter's early struggles was more than a slump.

Derek Jeter, whose shoulder won't be completely healthy this season, now has a strained rib cage that may keep him out of the Red Sox series.

Bernie Williams clearly cannot move or swing the bat normally after knee surgery. "I'll be fine," he said. "I'm just a little off. I have to work through it, not complain about anything."

"People win championships," said Joe Torre, and so it is that through all the Yankees have faced -- serious injuries (Jeter, Williams, Nick Johnson and Mariano Rivera), bullpen roulette, public spats with Raul Mondesi, David Wells and Jeff Weaver, the unraveling of Jose Contreras -- they came out of the Labor Day Weekend series in Boston with not only a safe six-game lead in the loss column, but the final family reunion of Roger Clemens, who effectively buried the Red Sox's chances of catching the Yankees as he exchanged a figurative hug with New Englanders that reminded one and all how much they meant to one another.

Look, this is a flawed Yankee team, but then every one of the 17 teams that went into September dreaming of October is seriously flawed. The spinning bullpen, without Steve Karsay, has forced Rivera into 57 games since April 29. Seven times he's pitched in three straight games, struggling to regain his dominance. Contreras and Weaver have left a hole in the rotation. The defense is below average, to say the least.

But when they came into Fenway having lost their last four significant series -- to Boston, Oakland, Seattle, Chicago -- and saw Contreras and Weaver waxed 10-5 on Friday night, their core rose. On Saturday, Andy Pettitte got down 3-0, but stuck it out and outlasted Pedro Martinez. Johnson and Jeter had six hits between them at the top of the order. Jorge Posada, who like Jason Varitek should get several top 10 MVP votes, had three RBI. When the Red Sox kept battling back to get to 8-7 with the bases loaded in the eighth, Rivera survived, then Posada hit a two-run homer off Byung-Hyun Kim to give Rivera survival room. Enrique Wilson, ever valuable, had three hits.

"That," said Torre, "may have been the biggest game of the season. The Red Sox never stop grinding, fighting, pushing. They are very good, very tough, and they're not intimidated by anyone or anything."

Yet as the controversy in Boston surfaced over Manny Ramirez not even being at the park on Saturday or Sunday -- only to be seen with Enrique Wilson socializing Saturday night -- there is no controversy around the core of the Yankees. "We know what we have to do," Giambi said. "I think the fact that we have to grind so often will help us down the line. There's always something going on around us, but that's OK. It toughens us up. It comes with being a Yankee. You learn to fight through it all."

Including Pedro Martinez. On Saturday, Martinez was still weak from his bout with a flu bug and threw one pitch above 89 mph, but the Yankees forced him into an early exhaustion with their patience. Which isn't new. Since Pedro beat Clemens 2-0 on May 28, 2000, he has started 17 games against the Yankees, winning three, losing six and having eight no-decisions. In at least a dozen games, Martinez pitched well enough to win, but not only have the Yankee pitchers risen to the occasion, but their hitters have had the patience to help the pitchers outlast the best pitcher in the league.

Wells says his war of words with Mel Stottlemyre and Torre "isn't over, and isn't going away because they've questioned my integrity." But when he had a side throwing session Saturday, Stottlemyre told him it was his best of the year. If Wells pitches well, he'll be the fourth starter in the playoffs.

There is always the spectre of the owner, criticizing everyone who doesn't make him look like a benevolent genius every day.

But, along with the character of the core of the team, there is a lot to be said for the Yankees and their chances to get past the White Sox, A's, Mariners or even the Red Sox.

Mike Mussina
New York Yankees
184.1 15-7 157 32 167 3.22

First, in Mike Mussina, Clemens and Pettitte, they have three experienced, big-time winning starters.

Second, in contrast to the Red Sox, they are a better road offensive team than they are at Yankee Stadium. The Yanks lead the league in runs per game on the road, and their .837 road OPS is the best in baseball (followed by the Braves, Cardinals and Mariners). Remember, the Giants were the National League's best road offensive team last year, the Angels the AL's second best, and we know what that did for them in October.

Boston, on the other hand, has a .941 OPS at home, .778 on the road. Houston (.794/.717), Arizona (.801/.683) and Montreal (.788/.676) also have striking home-road differentials.

Now, it helped the Yankees that the Boston bullpen, which had been expensively retooled, continues to struggle like its New York counterparts. The Sox are built to win 8-6 games, yet their new bullpen had a 5.13 ERA in August, as Scott Sauerbeck has allowed 21 baserunners in 9 1/3 innings and Kim has struggled to consistently get his fastball inside on hitters.

Yet over the weekend, the Red Sox treated the Yankees with due respect. On Saturday, Boston management had Spike Lee, in full Yankee uniform, throw out the first ball. After Lee tossed his pitch, PA announcer Carl Bean said, "thank you for entertaining us all these years." Then on Sunday when Clemens left in the seventh, not only did he receive a thunderous, emotional standing ovation, but he came out of the dugout and tipped his cap. Anyone who knows Roger knows his affection for the area, for the team he won 192 games with, and for the park where Sunday he won his 100th game. If there weren't that feeling, Debbie Clemens would not have flown in for the weekend.

Now, the divorce is accepted and Roger and the New England fans have expressed how they really feel about one another. On the megaboard, Red Sox's management offered a message: "We congratulate Roger Clemens on a Hall of Fame career. We're proud of and grateful for the 192 victories he brought to the Red Sox."

Over the entire weekend, there were few obscenities, few of the "Yankees (----)" that usually litter the city. It was as if Red Sox's fans were getting over Roger, appreciating what it means to watch Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter play their hearts out with dignity, understanding that even when Pedro doesn't win he leaves his soul on the mound and that, indeed, these guys named Williams and Giambi, Jeter, Posada, Johnson, Pettitte, Mussina and Rivera will never stop trying to overcome all the shrapnel that surrounds them.

People win, which is why these Yankees always have a chance.

Marlins get tougher with Conine
When the Phillies came home after losing nine out of 13, they were still at the head of the wild-card line. So were the Marlins, having lost eight out of nine before sweeping the Expos at home. And while the Diamondbacks lost seven of their first 12 on a critical homestand, they actually moved 1.5 games closer to the Phils and Phish.

Jeff Conine
First baseman
Florida Marlins
493 .290 15 80 .338 .799

But for Philadelphia and Florida, what was important was where they were at the end of their slides. "We got home after that road trip, realized we're right where we'd like to be and knew it was time to get after it," Florida GM Larry Beinfest said. Then came the next bad news -- Mike Lowell out for the season. "We felt," said Beinfest, "that we've come this far, so we owe it to our fans and to the players to do whatever we can do to win."

So Beinfest gave up two of the organization's best pitching prospects to bring home Jeff Conine. "This is one of those deals that makes sense," Beinfest said. "He is a quality player who can play third, first or either corner outfield position. He is a middle-of-the-order bat. He is a quality person who brings veteran leadership, and they talk a lot here about what Darren Daulton meant to them in '97. Jeff lives here, and is immensely popular with our fans. He's also not a one-month rental, because he's signed for two more years. So this made sense in a lot of ways."

Earlier in the year, the Orioles had discussed a Conine-Derrek Lee deal, since Lee could make as much as $8-9 million as a fifth-year arbitration eligible player. With as many as 14 Marlins eligible for arbitration this off-season, Conine is protection should they have to deal Lee or Juan Encarnacion.

Meanwhile, for now, Miguel Cabrera will move to third, with Conine in left field.

As for the Orioles' future, Jim Beattie -- who had a notable history of acquiring good young pitchers in deals in Montreal (Zach Day, Tomo Ohka, Tony Armas, Carl Pavano) --now has acquired five young pitchers in the deals for Conine and Sidney Ponson. At the trading deadline, the Marlins steadfastly refused to discuss 20-year-old fireballer Denny Bautista, who hit 95 on the radar gun at the Futures Game. Baltimore got Bautista, as well as Don Levinsky, who has a terrific arm but has struggled with command issues in the Florida State League.

The on-base argument
Three dozen GMs, executives and scouts were asked to rate 2003's most improved players. The most commonly named players were Jose Guillen, Marcus Giles, Melvin Mora, Vernon Wells, Angel Berroa and Michael Young.

Now, granted, in cases like Wells, Sean Burroughs, Hank Blalock, Giles and Aubrey Huff, improvement came with experience and playing time. But when one looks at the list of the 15 players who got the most votes, there is one common denominator -- on-base percentage. No fooling, although there are those who hate that statistic because "Moneyball" types like it. Never mind that Barry Bonds says, "on-base percentage is everything -- because all hitting comes off it." Or that Sammy Sosa's career took off when Jeff Pentland helped him understand the concept of command of the strike zone in 1997.

Buck Showalter talks about the "approach" Young has developed with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, and the Royals appreciate Berroa's learning curve with Pentland. Bonds is right, as usual.

Anyway, here are the 15 players with their career on-base percentage before 2003 and this year's stats (through the weekend):

  Pre-2003 2003      
Marcus Giles .312 .387 .314 18 65
Aubrey Huff .327 .365 .312 25 82
Melvin Mora .338 .420 .325 14 46
Scott Podsednik .292 .379 .313 6 42
Preston Wilson .332 .349 .287 32 127
Verson Wells .308 .357 .314 30 103
Milton Bradley .301 .421 .321 10 56
Angel Berroa .301 .341 .292 15 61
Michael Young .305 .336 .303 11 61
Jose Guillen .305 .363 .316 27 73
Alex Cintron .319 .361 .313 11 41
Luis Matos .276 .359 .304 10 38
Hank Blalock .306 .368 .311 23 75
Jay Gibbons .307 .343 .286 21 90
Sean Burroughs .317 .363 .297 5 52

Mark Grudzielanek's on-base percentage was up 60 points when he got hurt, hence his improved offensive season. Trot Nixon (+58), Junior Cruz (+49), Corey Patterson (+55), Albert Pujols (+54) and Carlos Beltran (+44) all have their improved seasons traced to that statistic. And of course there's Bonds, who improved from .440 to .515 from 2000-2001 -- and hit 73 homers -- then went up to .582 last season, and batted .370.

Curiously, Morgan Ensberg didn't get much attention, and he's become a 30-homer, All-Star-level third baseman. All he needed was the opportunity.

Alou earns consideration
There is never any one choice for manager of the year, and this is no exception, especially in the National League. Bobby Cox could be the selection every year, especially this one in which he's had to patch together his pitching staff. And Dusty Baker and Tony LaRussa. Or Jimy Williams, for his pitching woes. Or, especially, Frank Robinson.

But has anyone faced more adversity than Felipe Alou? While holding a significant lead in the NL West, Alou has had to use more than 100 lineups and employ 13 starting pitchers. The Giants moved their two innings horses, Russ Ortiz and Livan Hernandez. They lost Rob Nen. Kirk Rueter has been injured. They've had J.T. Snow, Rich Aurilia, Benito Santiago and Ray Durham on the DL, and seen Edgardo Alfonso struggle at times.

News and notes
  • Those around the Orioles expect them to make serious runs at Miguel Tejada as well as Vladimir Guerrero. As for Kaz Matsui, the star Japanese shortstop has not had any contact with the Angels or any other American team, but he will be the subject of serious bidding from Anaheim, Los Angeles and Seattle, among many teams. If he were willing to play second base, there will be more interested parties, although Matsui wants to play short. When word got out that the Yankees would like to sign Matsui as a second baseman and move Alfonso Soriano to the outfield, Soriano was not pleased, and let it be known that he wants to stay at second.

  • One NL executive suggests that if the Cubs could find one more starter to go with Mark Prior, Carlos Zambrano and Clement, that Kerry Wood could be their answer to Eric Gagne and John Smoltz.

  • The A's added SS Bobby Crosby to their roster on Aug. 31 to make him eligible for the playoffs. The former No. 1 pick had a breakout Triple-A season, hitting .308 with 22 homers, and while he is the successor to Tejada, Crosby might help in September and October at second and short.

  • The other rookie shortstop to watch in September is San Diego's Khalil Greene. "All I ask," says Greene, "is that people don't watch me in infield (practice), watch me in the games. That's when I play my best. I've never heard of games being won in infield or batting practice." With Sean Burroughs, who is comfortably settled into the leadoff spot, the Padres may have a championship left side of the infield for years.

  • When Rondell White arrived at Kaufman Stadium, George Brett was waiting outside the clubhouse to greet him. Credit GM Allard Baird for playing the market as hard as his players have played the game. The Indians had to trade Brian Anderson so they can re-sign him this winter, as it's unlikely he could have had a deal struck before the December arbitration date.

  • If the Mariners can get Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche and Ryan Franklin -- who between them have one win as a starter in September -- back on track, Bob Melvin's biggest problem will be figuring out what to do with Kaz Sasaki. The veteran's velocity hasn't come back, but he can't work in the middle because he takes so much time to get ready. And he wants to be the closer ?

  • If you're a Diamondbacks' fan and saw Randy Johnson's slider Saturday, you feel a lot better.

    AL rookie race
    A look at AL Rookie of the Year candidates entering September:

    Player BA HR RBI OPS AB
    Gerut, Cle .282 18 64 .839 380
    Berroa, KC .290 15 61 .806 465
    Teixeira, Tex .255 20 66 .796 431
    Matsui, NY .287 15 92 .792 533
    Baldelli, TB .296 9 66 .753 534

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