Hernandez's tired shoulder feeling fine

BOSTON -- Orlando Hernandez is healthy, happy and determined to give the New York Yankees another outstanding start in the postseason.

Sidelined since Oct. 1 with a tired right shoulder, El Duque will get the ball in Game 4 of the AL Championship Series against Boston on Saturday at Fenway Park -- weather permitting. The forecast called for heavy rain Friday night, leaving Game 3 in jeopardy.

Kevin Brown is scheduled to start that one for the Yankees, who are trying to take a 3-0 lead over the rival Red Sox in the best-of-seven series. And while a rainout could bump Brown's start back and delay the return of Hernandez, the most important thing for New York is that he's finally well enough to pitch.

"I feel happy that I feel much better than last week," a smiling Hernandez said Thursday after most of the Yankees' workout was washed away by rain.

Without a translator nearby, he was gracious enough to answer questions in English, doing his best to explain his situation despite a limited vocabulary. Hernandez even apologized for being unable to offer more.

It was very different from late September, when he was curt and visibly agitated about the injury. But this time of year, he's got plenty to get excited about.

The crafty Hernandez is 9-3 with a 2.51 ERA in 16 career postseason appearances, including 13 starts. No wonder manager Joe Torre decided Thursday to pass up struggling right-hander Javier Vazquez for El Duque.

"Experience," Torre said. "We spoke to both Duque and Javy today and explained to Javy, obviously, it wasn't anything he did wrong. It's just the fact that Duque has this postseason experience and we feel that he's healthy enough to try this. Just obviously to
be ready, especially in light of the fact that the forecast isn't real good this weekend, or at least tomorrow. So the danger of starting and stopping could mean that you may need that extra starter."

Vazquez, who gave up five runs in five innings against Minnesota in Game 4 of the division series, will be prepared to pitch in long relief of Brown or Hernandez.

"I'm disappointed, sure. I wanted to start," Vazquez said. "It's a big game, ALCS. You know, I understand. I just want to win. I just want to help the team in whatever role."

Shaky starting pitching was supposed to be the biggest question mark for New York coming into October -- especially without Hernandez, the team's most consistent starter in the second half. But besides Vazquez, the rest of the streaking rotation has been
shutting down opponents since the playoffs began.

"Our starters pitched pretty well the last month. There were a lot of encouraging signs," pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said. "I think they enjoyed sometimes being the underdog, which hasn't been the case with us, especially pitching-wise. And everybody
knows the strength of our bullpen. That's one thing why it maybe didn't look as gloomy to us as it did to everyone else. Our bullpen has just been magical this year."

Mike Mussina was a hard-luck loser to Johan Santana in Game 1 against the Twins and then took a perfect game into the seventh inning to win Tuesday's opener against Boston.

Jon Lieber threw 6 2/3 solid innings in his first-round start and then outpitched Pedro Martinez for a 3-1 victory Wednesday night.

And the 39-year-old Brown rebounded from an ailing back and broken left hand to beat the Twins in Game 3, allowing only one run in six innings.

That's five excellent outings in six games, making Yankees starters 3-1 with a 3.76 ERA in the postseason. The staff has a 3.81 ERA overall, best among all playoff teams.

"It's been a lot of fun to catch those guys. Every pitcher had a purpose. Every pitcher had a plan," Jorge Posada said. "I'm not surprised."

And now the Yankees add the ageless Hernandez. Believed to be 39, the Cuban right-hander went 8-2 with a 3.30 ERA in 15 starts this year, winning his first eight decisions after missing the 2003 season following shoulder surgery.

"Our pitching staff has definitely risen to the occasion," said Derek Jeter, adding that he was never concerned. "The only thing you doubt is someone's health. You don't doubt someone who helped you win 101 games during the regular season."