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Confident Lieber ready to shine
10/12/2004 10:19 PM ET
NEW YORK -- When you're Joe Torre, little details add up to big anecdotes.

The Yankee skipper is a storyteller of the highest order, capable of capturing characters in crystallized moments. Torre is at his best when discussing a guy like Jon Lieber, for instance. The right-hander is generally stoic and guarded, even with his teammates. That changed last week, at least in one small moment on the mound.

It was a typically Torre inside story, detailing what happened when he tried to remove Lieber from Game 2 of the ALDS. That game was the pitcher's first postseason experience, and he surprised his manager with a small request.

"When I went to take him out of the game and take the ball from him, he said, 'Can I keep it?' I said, 'Sure', and he walked off the mound with the ball that he used," said Torre. "I haven't seen any evidence outwardly of his excitement, but that evidently meant an awful lot to him. And I'm glad we got through that. It's not going to make tomorrow any easier, but at least it gives him a sense of what it's like."

Indeed, Lieber's next assignment is a totally different animal. He has to take on one of the toughest offenses in the league, and he has to do it one night after Mike Mussina mowed down the Red Sox for the first six innings. Boston will clearly be pressing for a better start in Game Two of the ALCS, but that doesn't disturb New York's starter.

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After all, he's faced tougher situations. Lieber had to rebuild his career after elbow surgery, and he had to find a new team while he rehabbed his injured wing. The Yankees signed him five months after his operation, even though they knew he needed another year to get back to his best form. In Torre's mind, that was a prudent investment.

"I thought at the time we did it it was an excellent gamble. And you know, it's really played out," said Torre. "I'd say, probably over the last six or seven weeks -- maybe a little longer -- he was pretty consistent every time he went out. In light of who we had lost in the offseason, I thought it turned out real well for us."

It's been even better for Lieber. The 34-year-old's career now has a handy partition -- pre-surgery and post-surgery. He's not the same guy he was in 2000, when he won 20 games for the Chicago Cubs and led the Major Leagues in innings pitched.

He's not even the same guy from Spring Training, his confidence having grown immensely over the last few months. It's easy to see why.

Lieber went wild in September, posting a 5-0 record and a 3.12 ERA in his final six starts. He followed that up with a well-pitched no-decision against Minnesota in the divisional series.

"I think the only thing I really found out is I've definitely gotten a lot stronger than where I was two or three months ago," said Lieber. "I'm definitely feeling a lot better physically -- and probably more mentally -- than anything right now."

If he's feeling better, consider his teammates. Including the playoffs, the Yankees are 19-9 when Lieber starts the game. They're 3-0 against the Red Sox when he pitches, but Torre said that the way he carried himself meant more than the actual stats.

"The first series answered a lot of questions," he said. "You don't control the result, but you can control how you approach the game as an individual. You just want guys who are ready to play, who won't let anything distract them."

Count Lieber in that class. Torre already felt that way before the season, but he still needed to see it for himself. The skipper said he got an in-depth scouting report from a well-placed former Yankee, Joe Girardi, the former backstop and current broadcaster, who related everything he knew about Lieber.

"He had a little touch of Jon because he caught him when he won his 20 games," said Torre. "That sort of encouraged us to look forward to him, because he was pretty simple as far as what he does on the mound. And it seemed like he was able to keep things together when things got a little emotional. That's good -- especially playing here."

The cauldron will be deeper and hotter this time around, but Lieber won't need any souvenirs. He'll have his mind set on a victory, but he'll make sure to enjoy every moment while it lasts.

"It's really hard to explain. It's something that you look forward to your whole career," he said. "I've waited a long time to be a part of something like this."

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

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