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Lieber set to lead Yanks in Game 2
10/06/2004 2:10 AM ET
NEW YORK -- Who knew, just a few months ago, or maybe just a few days ago, that the most important Yankee in the American League Division Series could turn out to be Jon Lieber?

This is not to demean Lieber's ability in any way. The man won 20 games with the Chicago Cubs in 2001. But it was not that long ago that he was considered to be at the back of the Yankees' starting rotation. It was also not that long ago that there was some question whether he would even be in the Yankees' postseason rotation.

Still, Wednesday night against the Minnesota Twins, Lieber will be what stands between the Yankees and a two-game deficit in a best-of-five series. And he isn't going up against some marginal pitcher, either. Brad Radke was just 11-8 this season, but he had a 3.48 earned run average.

"As far as number of wins," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire of Radke, "he doesn't have that huge, huge number, but he's really pitched his tail off. It's the old sue for lack of support. We haven't scored many runs for him, but he's given us a chance to win pretty much every time out."

But with a victory on the road in hand, the Twins will have at least some margin for error. Jon Lieber and the Yankees won't.

Lieber, coming back from Tommy John surgery, was 14-8 this season with a 4.33 ERA. Most encouraging for the Yankees, though, was the fact that he seemed to regain his form later in the season. He was 5-0 with a 3.12 ERA in September.

On his best days, Lieber is what his manager in Chicago, Don Baylor, termed "A strike machine." He can pound the lower half of the strike zone with a hard sinker. The opposition has to hit its way on against him. In 176 2/3 innings this season, he walked just 18. (Then again, Radke, in 219 2/3 innings walked just 26.)

The Yankees like Lieber, not only as a strike machine, but as a competitor and a teammate. They have seen him come back from the elbow surgery and they have seen him improve over the season and they have seen him remain a businesslike, understated fellow.

"Just his personality and his temperament, he's been under the radar, with everything else that goes on around here," manager Joe Torre said Tuesday. "But he does, obviously, have a lot of courage, knows how to win. He does that on a pretty big stage in Chicago.

"But this is different. This is postseason. This is Yankee Stadium. He seems to be ready for the challenge. He's going to have plenty of support because I don't think there's a soul on this ballclub that doesn't pull for him, or, you know, feel good about what he's done, because it's not easy coming back. It's a lonely existence."

This is all very nice and all very true. But with the Yanks' Game 1 loss, Lieber has gone from a heartening comeback story to being, for the moment at least, The Man. Lieber is 34 years old and he's won 100 games under the big tent and he's thrown strikes and he's induced ground balls. But he has yet to face a moment of this magnitude in his career. Tuesday, he at least sounded ready.

"This is what I've been waiting for, for 11 years now that I've played in the big leagues," Lieber said. "You know, this is what it's all about. And it could not happen at a better place than New York City and Yankee Stadium.

"I've seen it the previous seven, eight years through this organization. I've been watching it every time on television, watching this team go through the postseason. And to actually be here and be a part of that, especially after going through Tommy John surgery, really is something special."

And now, after all this, the Yankees need Lieber to be something special Wednesday night. He has fashioned a heartening story of a comeback, and he has been the same modest, matter-of-fact person that he was while working in the National League for teams not as talented or as notable as the New York Yankees.

But all of that will be historical footnotes in Game 2. Nice story or not, the New York Yankees need Lieber to be very, very good here. Unless the Yankees' offense comes to life in a big way against Brad Radke, nothing less will suffice. John Lieber has gone from a comeback, complementary pitcher to the man of the moment.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.