<
>

Yanks know Santana's for real

NEW YORK -- Last week's preview was over in five innings, just 71 pitches, but there was more than enough data for the Yankees to return a verdict on the new-and-improved Johan Santana: still more man than machine, but virtually unhittable.

"He reminded me of a modern day Curt Schilling or Randy Johnson," is how Gary Sheffield put it. That's no small endorsement, considering Sheffield's normally cold exterior. But the Yankee slugger admits he was "definitely impressed" by Santana's willingness to challenge him and the rest of the Yankee lineup in a Sept. 29 start in the Bronx, allowing just one run and three hits.

Although the game meant nothing to the Twins, Santana turned the game into a warm-up for tonight's Game 1 of the AL Division Series. He brandished every weapon in his arsenal, including that mid-90s fastball, slider and, perhaps his most deadly pitch, that 74-mph changeup that's turned Santana into baseball's hottest pitcher.

The Yankees accepted the challenge as if it were already October. Eight times, they swung at Santana's first pitch -- either to prove they weren't intimidated, or else to keep the left-hander from gaining the advantage in the count. Santana had nothing at stake, yet, as Sheffield noted, "he didn't pitch around anyone and you have to respect that."

To say the Yankees have been focused on Santana ever since is an understatement; in fact, the fate of the entire Division Series could be determined by whether the Bombers solve that illusionary changeup tonight. They've spent days and nights studying it, both on video and in scouting reports, and just to make the world understand how wary the Yankees are, Joe Torre went as far as to compare Santana to Sandy Koufax.

Noting his 13-0 record and 1.18 ERA since the All-Star break, Torre said, "those numbers don't exist anymore. When you look at a pitcher's numbers now where you used to judge them by having an ERA in the 2s, now if someone is having a year and he's in the low 4s, you say, "that's a pretty good year." Years ago, 4 didn't get it done. But when you're down where (Santana) is, that's pretty damn impressive."

The Yankees' concern about Santana is sharpened by the doubts surrounding their own starting pitching. In fact, they're going into the postseason with less of a rotation-advantage than at any time since 1996. The Yankees have been able to compensate for the absences of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells with a muscle-bound, home-run oriented offense, but as Santana proved, there aren't many known antidotes for a changeup thrown with perfect arm speed.

That's why Game 1 matters so much. If Mike Mussina can out-pitch Santana, it gives the Yankees a wider berth for Jon Lieber, the Game 2 starter who's never pitched in the postseason. The same goes for Orlando Hernandez, who says his right shoulder is "still tired, still hurts" and might not be available at all in the Division Series.

Without El Duque, the Yankees will have to depend on Javier Vazquez and Kevin Brown in Games 3 and 4, and if you think the Yankees aren't worried about the possibility of going to the Metrodome tied 1-1 -- with Vazquez having to fight through a wall of noise -- then you haven't paid attention to the stones that've been trickling down the wall all year.

Mussina is, by far, the Yankees' best pitcher, but his rebirth is only a recent phenomenon. The right-hander was 0-4 with a 8.20 ERA in July and August, before finally overcoming shoulder problems in September. After regaining an extra 3-4 mph on his fastball, which is finally being clocked in the low 90s, Mussina is 3-1 with a 2.14 ERA.

After Mussina, the Yankees are in uncharted waters. Lieber is 10-3 at home this year, but the lack of an October pedigree makes him a question mark until the moment of his first pitch. The same goes for Vazquez, who until a modestly successful appearance against the Twins last week, had a 7.06 ERA in the second half and was been disturbingly vulnerable to home runs.

The 34 homers Vazquez has allowed this season is the most of any American League postseason pitcher, and unlike Hernandez and Brown, he can't blame age or injury. The Yankees can only hope the 28-year-old right-hander can find his equilibrium in time for the weekend at the Metrodome. It's either that, or hope Brown has found the sink on his two-seam fastball again. Or that El Duque's shoulder heals in a hurry.

That would be the best-case scenario -- learning that Hernandez was able to throw without pain again. But after playing catch in the outfield on Monday, the 38-year-old right-hander didn't exactly brighten the Yankees' universe.

"I feel better than I did two days ago, but not 100 percent," is what Hernandez said. The Yankees will likely wait another 24 or even 48 hours before deciding on a Game 3 starter. They'll hope Hernandez heals. Plan B is for Mussina and Lieber to deliver the Yankees to the Metrodome with a 2-0 advantage.

And if all else fails, there's always Plan C: swing for the planets, and cross the fingers. Tightly.

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