Odds stacked against Yankees in road to postseason
Heading to Fenway vs. first-place Red Sox, club has exhibited troubling signs
NEW YORK -- For two nights, Alfonso Soriano had been the primary assassin in what passes as the Yankees' modern day Murderers' Row. He did what no Yankees hero -- not the Babe, the Iron Horse, Joe D., Yogi, Mick, Reggie, Donnie Ballgame or the more recent set of idols -- had done. Thirteen RBIs in -- what? -- an hour, 26 minutes. Then, in the first inning Thursday afternoon, Soriano did what Derek Jeter never has done.
It made for a Sori story when the Yankees' No. 2 hitter pulled a pitch into the left-field corner, left the batter's box as if he were carrying all of David Wells and half of Cecil Fielder and arrived at second base a week or two after a terrific throw from Angels left fielder J.B. Shuck. Soriano became the second of 27 Yankees outs that occurred in an unbecoming 8-4 loss to the Angels, a loss that ended the team's winning streak at four games and provided more insight into why the Yankees' pending weekend in Fenway Park will be just another phrase of a season-long charade.
Because of their recent surge and rediscovered ability to score more often than a garden variety soccer team, a layer of the pessimism has been removed from the Yankees and their supporters. After Soriano flexed his muscles Tuesday and Wednesday, folks who consider a Yankees October a birth rite began preparing for a second Boston Massacre, 35 summers after the one that alley-ooped Bucky Dent.
Three weekend games in the home of the Saux are to serve as the springboard that will re-introduce Joe Girardi's group to the races in the American League East and for two Wild Card admissions to the postseason. However, on this wonderfully clear and thoroughly delightful afternoon -- you could see forever, or at least from what now passes as Death Valley to the Monster seats high above left field at Fenway -- one conclusion was abundantly clear: the Yankees aren't equipped to pull it off.
Even though the Sox aren't that good either. They're merely the first-place team in the division, the team the Yankees will have in their sights for 72 hours.
What was quite visible during the Yankees' matinee against the Angels on Thursday was a wall of reality, a monster of a different sort.
This was a reality dressed in pinstripes and wrapped in the inconvenient truth of the standings in the Central and East divisions. These Yankees are up against a wall -- size, color and proximity to the batter's box unimportant. Their talent, suspect before the spate of injuries and absences, remains underwhelming. Their midsummer shortcomings have left them well behind, and they don't play like a team poised to extend the renaissance begun last weekend by a 2-1 advantage in three games against the superior Tigers.
Not if Soriano doesn't lay rubber on the basepaths in the first inning with his team down one run and scoring position beckoning him. That's not how the Yankees of '78 played it when they buried the Sox in four straight games for Bob Lemon in early September. Those Yankees "took no prisoners in these games," Lou Piniella said proudly after the sweep that created a tie for first place between his team and the thoroughly spooked Sox.
So unnerved were the Red Sox that, after the fourth loss, first baseman George Scott acknowledged he had been disappointed upon awakening that morning. "[Darn]," he said to himself. "It ain't raining." The Sox wanted no part of the Yankees after losing 15-3, 13-2 and, behind a two-hitter by Ron Guidry, 7-0. The Yankees won the fourth game, 7-4, scoring five times in the first two innings (see Bobby Sprowl) in case their hosts had thoughts of rebuttal.
Even with the 14-7 and 11-3 thrashings the Yankees hung on the Angels Tuesday and Wednesday, and discounting the mostly dismal effort of the offense Thursday, the Yankees with Soriano, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez aren't the kind of contact team that can go to Fenway and not swing for the fences. The '78 team amassed 21 hits in the blowout in the first game, and not one of the 21 reached the Monster or any other wall on the fly.
"You swing for home runs when you need home runs," Thurman Munson said after the first game. "We're just trying to get hits and let the runs take care of themselves. We wanted to make sure."
Power hitting has been largely responsible for the Yankees' recent offensive resurgence. Before the returns of Soriano, Granderson and A-Rod, the Yankees proved they were lacking in small-ball skills. It's doubtful they can suddenly find success with a paper-cut approach this weekend. They'll be taking Reggie swings.
At the same time, though, the current Red Sox are comparable to Don Zimmer's team of 35 years ago. So this ain't your father's Yankees-Red Sox. Then there was Guidry, the Cy Young Award winner, against Jim Rice, the MVP. There were Reggie and Yaz. Goose and Pudge, Thurman and Lynn. The personalities of the teams were stronger. The Yankees had more spine, the Sox eventually demonstrated they had some.
That set of four games and the Dent game Oct. 2 did as much to heat up the two-city rivalry as anything that happened involving DiMaggio and Williams, Mantle and Yaz, the trades that moved Ruth and Sparky Lyle to the Yankees or even the subsequent episode involving Pedro, Posada and Zimmer.
Some residual heat and tension may exist this weekend. But compelling and memorable history is an unlikley by-product of the three-game series.
If the Sox sweep, the math will put an end to the Yankees' charade. Double digits in arrears is insurmountable even with the declaration -- "We like the challenge" -- Girardi spoke Thursday. Should the Yankees sweep, the charade will continue; but it will be a charade nonetheless. A team with legitimate aspirations finds a way to complete a sweep of the 53-66 Angels. Or at least to put up a better fight.
The Yankees did score three runs in the ninth inning, and so they could give lip service to resilience. They would have been more than one run better off had Soriano demonstrated a level of resolve in the first inning. He needed to make sure.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.