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Yanks looking as strong as ever

Special to

September 9

They haven't won as many games as the White Sox, but the Yankees' stake to what they consider their rightful place in the World Series is firmly planted.

Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens has allowed just one run in his last 26 innings of work.

They have all but clinched first place in the AL East and along the way have won three of the four games they have faced Pedro Martinez. Roger Clemens is also now the AL's second-best pitcher, while Andy Pettitte is on his way to 20 wins and with Orlando Hernandez and Denny Neagle the Yankees have the best rotation in baseball. And while they were 11th in the AL in runs scored on June 29, the day they acquired David Justice, they are now third.

Add in that Chuck Knoblauch is back on the field attempting to make the best of a tough situation, they have more bench presence than any Yankee team in this great five-year run and they have enough time to get Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill healthy.

Of course, they had decided to rest Williams before they even got to Boston, but then the Yankees and Braves begin spring training thinking about preparing for the World Series. Everyone else thinks about just making the playoffs.

But as the Yankees look at the possibility of riding Clemens, who right now is better than anyone they've had in their rotation during the last five years, for four or five postseason wins, there is one critical crack in their armor.

"What we've got to do now is get the bullpen straightened out," says Joe Torre. "I think we can do it, and we know now we won't have (Ramiro) Mendoza, so we have to get everyone else in gear."

The role of Mendoza will be played this October by Dwight Gooden, and he may surprise everyone. "The first day he threw for us in Tampa after we signed him, we looked at one another and just laughed," says Yankees pitching guru Billy Connors. "Really," says Gooden, "I was that bad."

Connors brought over legendary Orioles pitching mind George Bamberger, and they set out to change Doc's style, which had always been about power. They felt that in Tampa he'd been throwing uphill, and they changed his arm angle. Then they got him to think down in the zone.

"I'd always worried about how hard I was throwing," says Gooden. "They got me thinking 'sink,' and even though it might not be that hard, it could be effective." Gooden showed them a changeup he learned in Cleveland but had never broken out. "I've been recreated," Gooden says.

OK. But remember, Doc is the sixth/seventh inning pitcher. And remember this: In the last three years, Mariano Rivera, Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson have thrown 117 innings and had a combined ERA of 1.10. Right now, all are struggling.

"We always had the luxury of holding them back and keeping them fresh," says Torre. "We had to use them a lot to get through the first couple of months, and they've now hit a rut."

The bullpen was 7-0 in April, but by late June, Nelson and Stanton were already up to 37 appearances, and Rivera had thrown more innings than Torre would have liked. The pen had a 2.41 ERA on June 10. Through Saturday, it has been 5.20 since. Stanton has struggled and so has Nelson, who when he complained about how Torre was using him, felt the wrath of owner George Steinbrenner. Rivera's baserunners per nine innings is up from 8.2 a year ago to 10.3 and he's already thrown as many innings as he did in 1999.

But the Yankees are 8 games up of the fading Red Sox through Saturday. This means Clemens, Pettitte, El Duque and Neagle and the bullpen can rest and get ready for the opening October series. "It's what we have to get done," Rivera said on Saturday, before going out and pitching for the second straight day in a non-save situation. "And we will."

It's practically impossible to survive an October series without a deep bullpen. The Giants, with Felix Rodriguez and Robb Nen, have had the NL's best duo for the last 2½ months. The Mets, meanwhile, have generally been strong all season (though there's always the worry that Turk Wendell and others will wear out). The Braves, on the other hand, are just falling into place with John Rocker finally filling his role as the club's closer. As for St. Louis, well they are trying to get Jason Christiansen, who has better stuff than the Cards even realized before they traded for him, and Mike Timlin in gear in front of closer Dave Veres.

People keep wondering about the White Sox pitching, but they score so many runs with that deep lineup and their bullpen is so good and so deep, they can win games 3-2 or 8-6. The Indians think that as Ricardo Rincon rediscovers the tilt on his slider and if they get Steve Karsay and Paul Shuey to throw as they did Wednesday, they will be all right. Seattle's bullpen has been strong all season, while Oakland's has struggled of late. Boston's bullpen, which held the team together on days Pedro didn't pitch, is on the verge of falling apart as Hipolito Pichardo and Bryce Florie are out for the season while Rich Garces is troubled by a pulled groin.

"Nelson and Stanton have been there in October, and that stands for something," says Torre. Indeed it does -- especially with Clemens, Pettitte, El Duque and Neagle in front of them.

News and notes

  • Clemens, who has allowed just one run in his last three starts, was around 96-97 mph all night in Boston on Friday, not bad for a 38-year-old. The biggest difference is that Clemens is back to doing what he does best -- using his fastball to throw strikes, and is using a hard, boring two-seam sinker that runs so hard that catcher Jorge Posada has to do a long pregame taping in order to save his thumb.

    Clemens' fortune turned around after he went to work with Connors back in late June. When Connors first saw Clemens he told him, "you bleep." Asked if he'd ever had anyone as good as Clemens is now, Torre replied, "Well, I had Tom Seaver for two weeks. Seriously, no. Maybe if I had I wouldn't have been fired three times."

  • Sean Casey has been neck-and-neck with Moises Alou as the NL's second-best hitter (after Todd Helton, of course) since the All-Star break.

    "The best thing for my career is that when I was so awful earlier in the season and wondered if I'd ever get another hit," says Casey, who's been over .360 the last two months. "Baseball is a game of dealing with adversity and struggling the way I did was the best thing I ever encountered."

  • One scout following the Dodgers the last week offered this report:

    "They have talent, but they are a disgrace the way they play. The people who own that team must get sick, especially watching Gary Sheffield walk after balls."

  • Torre, whose Yankees played a four-game series in Kansas City earlier this week, thinks highly of the young Royals talent.

    "They can be a very good team if they keep them together," says Torre. "Their good hitters don't strike out, which is unusual today." Mike Sweeney has gone down on strikes just 59 times in 542 at-bats while Johnny Damon has done so 51 times in 567 at-bats.

    The key for Kansas City will be to sign Damon at the end of the season, which won't be easy. The other priority is rebuilding the bullpen around young Kris Wilson and, if they sign him, Ricky Bottalico.

    "We think our starters can be OK," Royals GM Allard Baird says of Dan Reichert, Jose Rosado, Jeff Suppan and Mac Suzuki. Baird and his key assistants Brian Murphy and Art Stewart are pure development people, so they're forcing prospects like Mike MacDougal to work only with fastballs and changeups in their development.

    "We made the mistake with Reichert of letting him get to the majors quickly throwing his slider close to 50 percent of the time," says Baird. "They can't hit that pitch in the minors, but in the majors they lay off it and because he hadn't learned to command his fastball he struggled. He's learned now, but we're going to make sure that our young pitchers command their fastballs before they get to the big leagues."

    Don't be surprised to see left-handed pitcher Chris George, who is on the Olympic team, in Kansas City before the midseason point of next season.

  • The Twins offered Auburn right-hander Chris Bootcheck $2.5 million to be the second pick in the June draft. Bootcheck and advisor Scott Boras turned it down and Bootcheck just signed for $1.8 million as the 20th pick by the Angels. Adam Johnson took Minnesota's money, got 70 innings of pro experience (with 92 strikeouts) and thus is both richer and closer to the big leagues than Bootcheck.

  • Mo Vaughn has done very well for the Angels, but he isn't the same hitter he was playing at Fenway Park. "We all know The Wall created so many good habits in allowing him to stay back and take the fastball the other way," says an AL scout. "He's now a completely different hitter. He used to stay inside the ball and took the whole field. Now he's jerking off the ball trying to pull everything."

  • So, maybe some playoff contender should have taken Jose Lima, who is 6-2 since July 9.

  • Now that Ken Caminiti has succumbed to personal problems, the Tigers (who almost signed him before last season), Mariners and Red Sox (who both tried to get him in June) can be glad they failed to acquire him.

  • How bad was the line drive that hit off of the face of Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie on Friday night? Well, Yankees second baseman Jose Vizcaino was seen crying. And Jose Canseco said, "The way players acted in our dugout, you'd have thought he was on our team."

    Florie likely would have been a spot starter with three doubleheaders upcoming during a six-day span for the Sox. And that's not even mentioning that he is one of the most popular players around. This scary incident was even worse than the 1975 line drive hit by the Orioles' Tony Muser that struck a great young Red Sox pitcher named Dick Pole, who afterwards always had blurred vision in one eye and was never the same.

  • Major League Baseball was really tough on two talented players who were dropped from the Olympic team because they tested positive for Andro. "They passed USOC tests," says one executive. "But both players thought they were going to the major leagues, and then were told they were going to the Olympics and weren't prepared for the testing. It really wasn't fair to either guy."

  • It rankled most everyone in a Red Sox uniform that when it came to the showdown with Clemens they had to win, Carl Everett did not even leave the batter's box after hitting a pop fly that would have landed fair had Scott Brosius not caught it. Later, Everett tried to drop a ridiculous bunt in an RBI situation.

    With Nomar Garciaparra limping and unable to do a whole lot because of a bad hamstring, Trot Nixon, Jose Offerman and Jason Varitek all playing hurt, Everett's act did not sit well with many in Boston.

  • If you like art and sports, check the web site for Susan Miller-Havens ( The Boston-based artist has done a number of brilliant commissioned portraits, including one that the Smithsonian Institute is trying to purchase. The Carlton Fisk exhibition will begin on Sept. 22 at the Miller-Havens Studio on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Mass.

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