Friday, May 11, 2007
Bergen County Record
They call it getaway day for a reason – or in the Yankees' case, many reasons. By the time they'd boarded a plane for Seattle, the Bombers had put the finishing touches on a buffet table of bad omens.
Start with Chien-Ming Wang, who, five days removed from his near-perfect game against the Mariners, was outpitched by Brandon McCarthy (and his 6.89 ERA) in a 14-2 loss to the Rangers. Wang allowed seven runs in 61/3 innings, and said, simply, "my ball was flat."
The standings are a problem, too. The Yankees went only 4-3 on a homestand against the West's two worst teams. Instead of strengthening their position, the Yankees are seven games out of first place, rapidly approaching a six-game stretch against the Mets and Red Sox.
The offense, or at least elements of it, is dysfunctional. Bobby Abreu and Johnny Damon went 0-for-8 Thursday, as both hitters continue their epic struggle to rise above the .250s.
No wonder Joe Torre looked so worn-out after the game, although if anyone had a reason to be distracted, it was the manager. His brother, Frank, is in deteriorating health despite a recent kidney transplant, a situation that was clearly on Joe's mind throughout the day.
Before the game, when someone asked Joe how the elder Torre was doing while convalescing at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, the manager glumly said, "not good."
Later, in his office, after answering wave after wave of questions about the Yankees, Torre allowed the conversation road to drift toward Frank.
"He's been on borrowed time for a lot of years," he said. "When you're a 75-year-old man and you're in the hospital, nothing's ever a layup."
Typical of Torre's stoic nature, he's yet to apprise his players of Frank's condition. Derek Jeter said, "I bet there are a lot of guys in here who don't even know [Frank is in the hospital]."
Torre knows the players have their own lives and careers to worry about; he's not about to burden anyone with his own crises. But Joe's tenure is on the line, too. Don't think his professional storm has passed just because the Yankees have climbed closer to .500.
There's still something disturbingly passive about this team. Maybe it's because Damon has become so much more fragile (he had to leave the game after the seventh inning because of recurring problems with his right calf). Maybe it's Abreu's invisibility (he's hitting 51 points under his career average) or his lackadaisical pursuit of Gerald Laird's triple off the wall in the fifth inning, sparking Texas' three-run rally.
Or maybe it's how terribly Luis Vizcaino pitched in relief of Wang. It was bad enough for the Yankees to see their ace get knocked out in the seventh, outperformed by one of the American League's least effective pitchers. But Vizcaino couldn't even give the rest of the bullpen the afternoon off.
Instead, he was charged with three runs in one inning, looking even more burned out than Scott Proctor. At the rate of his current decline, Vizcaino has little or no shot of remaining on the 25-man roster. But Sean Henn, who replaced Vizcaino, suffered an even greater humiliation, allowing four runs in two-thirds of an inning.
So where does Torre turn? The eventual answer will be Roger Clemens, who's being paid to win the must-win matchups against the Brandon McCarthys of the world.
More than that, Clemens will be counted on to lift the Yankees' energy level, which is currently non-existent. Put it this way: Would an early Torre-era Bomber team have let the Rangers off the hook? Is there any way they wouldn't have finished the sweep?
Instead, the Yankees left town talking about how they're "playing better," in Jeter's words, even though they're treading water. Truth is, the offense is running on just two cylinders – Jeter and Alex Rodriguez -- while catalysts like Damon and Abreu remain non-factors.
At least Damon can point to his injuries, knowing he'll heal sooner or later. But Abreu's lethargy remains a mystery to everyone. Indeed, he's starting to hear boos as the empty at-bats are turning into a dreary blur.
"I'm in a slump, a big slump, but what can I do about it?" Abreu said. "I'm trying to stay positive, the negative [thoughts] are tough. There's nothing I can do."
Less than a year ago, Abreu was one of the AL's toughest outs: a gap hitter with a peerless eye for the strike zone. Not only did he work pitchers, he exhausted them in long at-bats.
But typical of Abreu's unraveling this season, he ended a mini-rally in the seventh – one run in, Damon on first, Yankees down by four runs – by swinging at the first pitch from Frank Francisco, flying out to left.
The rest of the game turned into glorified batting practice for the Rangers, as they scored seven runs in the eighth against Vizcaino and Henn. Everyone packed up and headed for the airport, slumps, red flags and bad omens in tow.
From Torre to Wang to Abreu, there wasn't enough amnesia to go around. The manager said, "We'll get over this." He's right, bad losses eventually turn to vapor. But worrying about his brother has become a constant in Torre's life. The flight to Seattle promised to be longer than usual.