Like a patient on ER who suddenly jerks up off the gurney and begins belting out show tunes in the middle of an open-heart massage, the Yankees sprang back to life with shocking, almost comical, suddenness during Game 2 of the ALCS, overcoming the largest 1-0 deficit in playoff history with a giddy seven-run outburst.
But does that mean that the Bronx Bombers are really back, or did they merely experience a particularly theatrical death throe? Our publishing schedule prevents us from knowing whether, by the time you read this, the Yankees will have clinched their third straight World Series berth, or suffered a collapse of near-Red Sox proportions. In either case, there are clues in the recent past that should foretell their future.
With his team up against the proverbial wall, Joe Torre seems finally to have realized that he’s got a club that, talent-wise, is more or less dead even with his opponents. So he’s returned to 1996-vintage managing, bringing a senior circuit spin to American League baseball. Sure, some of his little ball moves seem downright desperate, like Derek Jeter trying to bunt Chuck Knoblauch over in the opening stanza of Game 3. But, for the first time in ages, the Yanks are playing something besides station-to-station baseball, with runners tagging up on long fly balls, motoring from first to third on a single, and even pulling off the odd hit-and-run. And if it comes to that, it should make for great theater to watch Bobby Valentine or Tony LaRussa try to play chess with a guy who admits he’s playing checkers.
But more importantly, Torre’s charges seem to have regained at least some of the patience at the plate that earned them those first three rings. During the Oakland series, they saw an anemic 3.66 pitches per plate appearance (compared to 4.15 for the patient young A’s). In the Seattle series, that number is up to a respectable 4.05. The result? They’ve exploited a Mariner bullpen that’s suddenly as shaky as the NASDAQ.
Still, this isn’t your father’s Yankee team. Sure, they’re as strong as Warren Sapp up the middle, with Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and, yes folks, a Luis Sojo who’s suddenly hitting like he’s on the C.J. Hunter fitness plan (although one look at his endomorphic physique will dispel any rumors of chemical assistance). But beyond David Justice, the rest of the team seems to have slipped enough that running up those pitch counts isn’t as easy as it used to be. Being selective isn’t about standing at the plate with a bat on your shoulder. It’s about waiting for the right pitch and punishing it. Even if that pitch is an 0-0 fastball that, say, Freddy Garcia (or . . . Bobby Jones) grooves just to get ahead in the count. The problem, of course, is that Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, and especially Paul O’Neill have, with a few notable exceptions, largely seemed incapable of doing so, helplessly watching early-count strikes and then waving at nasty sliders in the dirt.
But that’s a problem for the off-season. To have a chance at a three-peat the Yankees need to give Michael Kay the chance to end his postgame report with the magic words that are music to any Yankee fan’s ears: “Time of the game, an utterly unmanageable three hours and forty-five minutes.”