Sports Nut

Slide of the Yankees

New York dithers its way into Game 5.

Everything went the Yankees’ way on Sunday—the called strikes, the misplayed balls—and that’s exactly what they needed to drag themselves back from death’s door and force a deciding fifth game tonight in New York. But the team that beat back the A’s did not look like the smooth, unflappable bunch we’ve come to know over the past five years, even though many of the faces are the same. No, in this short series and particularly in yesterday’s game, the once powerful Yankees performed like dysfunctional flakes, and it is nothing short of incredible that manager Joe Torre found a way to coax another victory from them, probably not their last.

Let us start with Exhibit A, starting pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez. The Cuban exile had a mostly disastrous season, complaining of mysterious ailments such as “dead arm” and giving off the distinct impression, as he occasionally has in the past, that the season is much too long and tedious for his tastes. Given his druthers, he would like to join the team in, say, mid- to late-August and participate only in the pennant drive and postseason.

This is not how big-league baseball works, but somehow El Duque gets what he wants. Though he barely pitched this season, compiling a 4-7 record in 16 starts, there he was yesterday on the mound in a key playoff game nursing an early lead. Would it be too much to ask that he merely throw strikes and get the Yankees the quick outs they so badly needed? Yes, as it turned out. With a 4-0 lead and facing Jason Giambi, El Duque went into a bizarre stalling tactic, waiting for an eternity between pitches. Whatever he was doing didn’t work, as Giambi outlasted him and drew a walk. Everyone in the ballpark, including El Duque’s teammates, seemed fully exasperated. Later in the same inning, as El Duque continued to struggle, he glimpsed daylight when he worked the count to one ball, two strikes against the tragic Jeremy Giambi, still traumatized by the play at the plate during Saturday’s 1-0 A’s loss, when he failed to slide and got tagged out by mere inches (it’s hard enough when your brother’s the big star; you don’t want to be the goat, too). With Jeremy on the ropes, El Duque decided to get cute and bounce one in, guessing incorrectly that Giambi would flail at whatever was coming next. Instead, the result was a passed ball, the baserunners advanced, and the inning dragged on. Only some very generous strike calls by the home-plate umpire prevented a full season-ending implosion by El Duque.

In a sense, this is quibbling. Every successful pitcher, after all, relies on luck and the good graces of the umpiring crew. El Duque surrendered just a couple of runs before departing with two outs in the sixth, salvaging not only his own season but, for the time being, his team’s as well. All the same, it was an agonizing performance. Hernandez seemed to think he was out clowning around on some crabgrass field in Cuba, playing mind games with overmatched hitters and just having a good ol’ time of it. Instead, he was facing one of the toughest lineups in baseball, and he turned what should have been an easy Yankee victory into a savagely long, nerve-racking affair. What a relief it was to see him replaced by the swift and efficient Mike Stanton.

Exhibit B in the Yankee head-case sweepstakes is our old favorite Chuck Knoblauch, who quietly had a dreadful game. If it weren’t for his quite sensational sliding catch in Game 3, he would deserve a full chorus of boos tonight at Yankee Stadium. Who would have ever thought that defense would be Chuckie’s salvation this year? Though he managed a cheap hit into centerfield in his first at-bat, he looked horrible every other time up, taking wild, Little League-ish uppercuts at anything within a mile of the strike zone. He popped out at two critical junctures, screaming an obscenity after the second time and petulantly throwing his bat in a manner that would’ve gotten him kicked out of the game if he were an actual Little Leaguer. Then, late in the game, given an opportunity to once again make amends with his glove, he tracked down a deep drive to the gap in left but mysteriously failed to make the grab.

The reason that Knoblauch, despite his awful season and his evident lack of discipline, is in the lineup at all is that “speed at the top of the order” is one of the shibboleths of Major League Baseball, and not even the great Joe Torre is willing to question it. Speed, of course, means nothing if you don’t get on base, which Knoblauch hasn’t (his on-base percentage for the playoffs is a measly .235). And it’s not even clear how fast he still is. Yesterday, A’s third baseman Eric Chavez double-clutched when he was trying to throw out Chuck on a grounder and still nailed him easily. The Yankees would be better off with Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, and Tino Martinez as their one-through-four hitters, but Chuck Knoblauch’s name will be there on top of the lineup card tonight. You can count on it.