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06/23/07 3:44 AM ET

Igawa's resurgence key to Yanks' hopes

Lefty returns from 'exile,' shows promise before faltering

SAN FRANCISCO -- When you gazed upon the schedule much earlier this season, this Interleague series, the San Francisco Giants at home against the New York Yankees, looked like it would be somewhere between immense and gargantuan.

Barry Bonds would surely be on the verge of breaking Henry Aaron's all-time home record. And the Yankees would, of course, be the Yankees. Their presence would be all the more memorable because this would be their first meaningful contest in San Francisco since Game 7 of the 1962 World Series.

Now this series is here and this is what the opening game is actually about: Can Kei Igawa be any good at all? Off Friday night's performance, maybe he can, but it's still a maybe.

Friday night arrived, pleasantly enough on the shores of the San Francisco Bay, and 43,425 were in attendance, the largest regular-season crowd in AT&T Park history. But these two teams were a combined 21 1/2 games out of first place. The Giants had lost seven in a row and 19 of their last 25. Bonds' inexorable progress along Home Run Road had seemingly slowed from inexorable to occasional.

But one more step on that road was taken Friday night. Bonds hit the 749th home run of his career, a solo shot in the eighth inning off reliever Scott Proctor. It was just the fourth home run for Bonds since May 8, but it was a rocket to right-center, the deepest part of AT&T Park, and it reminded you that this home run quest still appears as a matter of when, not if. If many expected Bonds to have wrapped this up a little sooner, it does not mean that he will not do it a bit later.

On the other side of the argument, the Yankees, after finally putting together a promising stretch, winning 10 of 11 games, had taken much of the air out of their own balloon, by dropping three straight to the Colorado Rockies.

The importance of this game in the standings came down to the performance of Igawa. He cost the Yankees $46 million, including the posting fee, but he had pitched so erratically and with so little effect earlier in the season that he had been sent down, sent out, sent away.

"I don't want to say exiled," manager Joe Torre said, musing over the possible ways to describe Igawa's departure, "but we sent him off to Tampa."

There and subsequently at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Igawa presumably got back in touch with his craft and his command. He was summoned back to the Majors because of that progress and because, let's face it: The Yankees really needed another starting pitcher. A series of young pitchers had attempted to fill the gap in the Yankees' rotation. One of them, Phil Hughes, looked like the real deal and more, but he was injured and will not be available until much later in the summer, at best.

Pitching remains the core issue in whether the Yankees can make the kind of sustained push that would be necessary for them to overtake the Red Sox or for that matter to reach the postseason as the American League Wild Card. The Yankees entered Friday night ranked seventh in the AL in team ERA. Their ERA of 4.44 is close to the league average. And when you have that kind of ERA, no matter how imposing your lineup is, you can end up being something very much like a .500 team.

The record this season says that if the Yankees score bunches of runs, they will generally be OK. If they don't score those bunches of runs, they don't outpitch anybody. They are 1-17 in games in which they score less than four runs.

So, another effective starting pitcher would be extremely useful. How about someone conveniently located on the existing payroll? Cue Kei Igawa's return from -- we don't want to say exile -- the Minors.

For four shutout innings, the left-hander looked like the pitcher the Yankees were looking for and needed. He accomplished the two basic things that needed to be accomplished Friday night -- he kept his team in the game while he was on the mound, giving the Yankees a head start on what became a 7-3 New York victory.

In fact, if you had to pick one sequence that illustrated the new and potentially improved Igawa, it would have been against Bonds in the fourth inning. Igawa walked Ray Durham to start the inning and you wondered if his command was slipping. But Igawa got ahead of Bonds with two offspeed pitches splendidly located on the lower edge of the strike zone, and then finished him with a high fastball for a swinging strikeout.

"The way he pitched to Barry was very impressive," Torre said. "I was very impressed with the first four innings."

Problem: That was all there was to impressed with, because Igawa lost his effectiveness in the fifth inning. If this was the eighth, or even the seventh, it could be normal, late-game, understandable fatigue. But Igawa could not get out of the fifth and thus came up one out short of qualifying for the victory. Double, single, flyout, lineout, double, walk. At that point, Bonds came up again, with the bases loaded. When Igawa walked Bonds, Igawa's evening was over.

"It looked like he started throwing more so than pitching," Torre said. "He just couldn't keep the ball down. I was sorry to see it, because he had pitched so well to that point."

"I was happy with the first four innings," Igawa said through an interpreter. "I didn't get the results today. I'll do better next time."

Those first four innings were good enough to earn Kei Igawa a next time in the Yankees' rotation. But the fifth was bad enough to keep the doubts about him lingering in the neighborhood.

The 43,425 citizens didn't buy the tickets because they were focused on the issue of Kei Igawa's future with the Yankees. But for the future of this season, that was Friday night's core issue. Yes, Barry Bonds hit a home run, but it was 749, not 756. Yes, the Yankees returned to San Francisco for a game of substance for the first time in 45 years. But for the pennant-race issue, what the Yankees need to get from where they are now to where they're supposed to be, the spotlight was on Igawa. He produced a mixed result, which means that the spotlight isn't leaving him any time soon.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.