Monday, May 28, 2007

Sometimes It’s Over Even When It Ain’t

Published: May 28, 2007

Without realizing it, about half a century ago Yogi Berra, baseball’s old philosopher, described the perilous situation of these Yankees. Asked about the shadows in left field at Yankee Stadium when all World Series games were played in the afternoon, he shrugged.

“It gets late early out there,” he grunted.

And as the Yankees struggle to qualify for the American League playoffs for the 13th consecutive year, it’s already late early. Maybe too late. With a 21-27 record, they are 12 ½ games behind the Red Sox in the East and the season isn’t even one-third over.

Optimists point out that there is still a lot of time left in the season, but realists counter that the Yankees have yet to show the overall consistency required to turn around what Joe Torre acknowledged to be “the toughest” slump of his 12 seasons as the Yankees’ manager.

In a semantic twist to Yogi’s line, after yesterday’s 4-3 loss to the Angels at the Stadium, Torre said, “We’ve been bad early in other years, but not this late.”

Not as late as Memorial Day and not only after having been swept by the Angels, but after having lost 7 of their past 10 games and 10 of their past 16.

As if that’s not bad enough and late early enough, the Yankees go on the road for 10 games beginning tonight in Toronto. After three games with the Blue Jays, they go to Boston for a three-game weekend series and then to Chicago for four games before returning to the Stadium for interleague games against the Pirates, the Diamondbacks and the Mets.

By then, maybe they’ll be on a roll. Then again, maybe not. They’ve won as many as three in a row only twice this season, series sweeps of the Indians and the Rangers.

“We’ve been spinning our wheels,” Torre said. “You spend your time wondering what piece of the puzzle to move around and what to say to the young players who have never been through something like this.”

Torre recalled going through something like this as manager of the Braves (and as the National League manager of the year) in 1982, when Atlanta finished first in the West.

“We won our first 13, then lost five in a row,” he said. “Later on we lost 19 of 21, then won 13 of 15. That 13 of 15 started the day I scratched Pascual Pérez as the starter because he couldn’t find the right exit for the ballpark off the interstate. He ran out of gas and had to borrow money for gas because he didn’t have his wallet. I started Phil Niekro instead, and he got us going on that 13 of 15.”

And if the Yankees are to make a run for even the wild card, they’re going to need winning streaks similar to what those Braves had.

Although the Cardinals salvaged the N.L. wild card last year with only 83 victories and went on to win the World Series, the A.L. wild card team in recent seasons has usually had victories in the low 90s — the number that Mike Mussina figured the Yankees would need to earn the wild card.

“To get there, we’d have to go, say, 72-42 from now, 30 games over .500,” Mussina said. “That’d make us 93-69, and that might make it.”

Mussina figured those numbers in his head so quickly, had he been a math major at Stanford? “No, economics,” he said. “That’s close.”

Mussina was close to improving his record to 3-3 this season when he departed in the seventh inning yesterday after a one-out walk to Casey Kotchman, but the right-hander Scott Proctor couldn’t protect a 2-1 lead.

After giving up a line-drive double to Howie Kendrick, Proctor walked three consecutive batters, forcing in two runs before Reggie Willits’s sacrifice fly against Brian Bruney produced the decisive run.

The Yankees rallied in the ninth on Bobby Abreu’s walk, Jorge Posada’s pinch-hit single, Johnny Damon’s pinch-hit groundout and Melky Cabrera’s sacrifice fly, but with Posada on third with the potential tying run, Angels reliever Francisco Rodríguez got Derek Jeter to fly out.

And so the Yankees, who had taken two of three from the Red Sox earlier in the week, were swept by the Angels, the West Division leaders.

Was Jeter, the captain, starting to worry that the Yankees were on a treadmill, or that it was already too late for them to make much of a move in the standings?

“I don’t sit around and worry,” Jeter said. “If you go into a game worried, that’s when you’re in trouble. Too late — that doesn’t enter your mind. It’s hard enough to play this game, much less think about that. You have to string together a few games. You can’t sprinkle one game here and there.”

But in only sprinkling one game here and there, it’s getting late early for these Yankees. Maybe too late.