09/28/2003 1:55 PM ET
Pitching the key for Yankees
NEW YORK -- Last season, the Yankees won 103 games and appeared to be on the verge of making their sixth straight World Series appearance.
By Mark Feinsand / MLB.com
Then the Anaheim Angels systematically dismantled New York's pitching staff, sending the Yankees home after the Division Series for the first time since 1997.
Beginning this week, the Yankees will try to get back to the Fall Classic, looking for their first championship in three years -- a stretch that has the organization, from the top down, itching for new rings.
"It seems longer than just two years since we've been to the World Series," said manager Joe Torre, who is making his eighth playoff appearance in eight seasons. "Getting knocked out in the first round, that's a long time of having to watch baseball when you're not in it."
The four-game series against Anaheim came down to one thing for the Yankees -- starting pitching. Actually, it was the lack of starting pitching that did them in. New York's starters went 0-1 with a 10.41 ERA in the four-game knockout, as only Roger Clemens made it five full innings. If the Yankees are to advance deep into October, they will need Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Clemens and David Wells to lead the way.
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The names may change, but the pinstripes always remain the same. That's how things work at Yankee Stadium. The 57,000-seat "House That Ruth Built," located in the Bronx, is considered by many to be baseball's cathedral. The Yankees have captured nine of their 26 World Series titles at home, the last coming in 1999, when they completed a four-game sweep of the Braves.
The fans make their presence known right away, as the "Bleacher Creatures" chant the name of each starting Yankee in their customary roll call. For those first-timers out there, watch each player tip their caps one-by-one to acknowledge the fans.
Yankee Stadium doesn't necessarily favor pitchers or hitters ... unless, that is, you're a left-handed power hitter. The 314-foot short porch in right field gives sluggers, including New York's own Jason Giambi, an easy target to take aim at.
Although there is no real "home-field advantage" for the Yankees when it comes to the field itself, their edge comes from the crowd, which is as knowledgeable and excitable as there is in baseball.
Several Yankees players, including Hideki Matsui, Aaron Boone and Jose Contreras, will be experiencing October in the Bronx for the first time.
"It's going to be great to get home in front of our fans, to feel that playoff atmosphere," Roger Clemens said. "I'm excited for the guys who haven't seen it. I'm looking forward to it, and I know exactly what it feels like."
-- Mark Feinsand
"I think they're hungrier this year," said catcher Jorge Posada. "They want to prove that last year was a fluke. I think the whole team feels that way. We're focused, and we're looking forward to getting started."
"After two or three innings, we knew we had our hands full," Clemens said. "I don't think we have to anything to prove, we just have to execute and find a way to get it done this time around."
Mussina, who gave up four runs in four innings before leaving Game 3 with a groin injury, will try to set the tone for the staff this week, opening Game 1 against the Twins. Torre believes that Minnesota presents a challenge much like Anaheim did, as the Twins' lineup boasts a group of contact hitters who won't go down easy.
"They may change the way they go about things," Torre said. "Last year, they may have tried to strike out too many people, which wasn't going to work with the Angels. It won't work with this club, either. They put the bat on the ball. If there was a lesson to be learned, it's pitch the way you pitch and just get people out."
Mussina's 20-2 lifetime record against Minnesota should give him a slight psychological advantage against the Twins, whom he dominated in both of his starts this season. That said, this Twins team does not look anything like the one that the Yankees swept seven games from in April, and has been the hottest team in baseball since the All-Star break.
"What I've done in the regular season against them is just the regular season," Mussina said. "This is a different atmosphere, a different scenario, a different game. The playoffs are a different game."
"They're a different team in that dome," Torre said. "They're an AstroTurf team, while we're not used to playing on that stuff. It's a different game, because you just hit it and run. The only way to neutralize that is with pitching, to put yourself in a position where you can slow the game down."
The Yankees' four starters compiled a 70-32 record and a 3.86 ERA, leading New York to its second consecutive 100-win season. Pettitte's 21 wins ranked second in the American League, while Mussina (195), Clemens (190) and Pettitte (180) ranked 4-5-6 in the AL in strikeouts.
Despite all of the talk about the Yankees' on-again, off-again bullpen, the onus will be on the starting foursome to put New York in a position to win.
"Bullpen is only good if you give them a little touch here or there. Any time you have to go to the bullpen often, it's not a good sign," Torre said. "The only thing we have to guard against is trying so hard to the point where we're not who we are. That's the human part of it we have to keep under control. I sense that everybody will be ready to pitch. We'll certainly make somebody beat us."
While the rest of baseball looks to see whether or not the aging rotation can bounce back after last season's October disaster, the pitchers themselves don't seem to think that they have much to prove after the regular season numbers they posted.
"I think this staff has gone out and proven that we're capable all year," Mussina said. "In a short series, it's tough to go out and prove something. With five games at the most, everybody gets one turn, one guy gets to go twice. We're just going to try to win games, whether they're pretty, ugly or somewhere in between."
Mussina, Pettitte, Clemens and Wells have a combined 78 postseason appearances, while the Twins' likely foursome of Johan Santana, Brad Radke, Kyle Lohse and Eric Milton have a total of 14 October outings, only five of which were starts.
"I'd like to think it's an advantage for us," Torre said of the experience factor. "But when a club is on a run like they are, they don't know what fear is, what hesitation is or anything. It's similar to what the Angels did last year."
Posada, who has seen his share of playoff games, knows that the starters' success against the Twins in the regular season won't mean a thing come Tuesday. After watching his 103-win staff get pummeled in the first round last year, the All-Star catcher knows that anything can happen.
"We're going to find out real quick," Posada said. "The playoffs are a different ballgame than the regular season. Every pitch counts, every at-bat matters, and one pitch can change an entire series. Knowing what we're capable of doing, we have what it takes to make those pitches and win some games."
If not, it could be another long winter for the Yankees.
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.