10/03/2004 7:00 PM ET
Yanks chameleons in postseason
New York not worried should pitching falter
By Mark Feinsand / MLB.com
|Mike Mussina has opened three other postseason series for New York. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
NEW YORK -- Since 1996, Joe Torre's Yankees have built their foundation on strong starting pitching, solid defense and timely hitting.
That formula helped the team reach the World Series in six of the past eight seasons, capturing four championships in the process.
But the 2004 edition of Torre's troops may have to take another route to achieve their ultimate goal. While the starting rotation boasts several talented arms, the Yankees' pitchers have several questions surrounding them as the playoffs approach.
Will Mike Mussina look like the Mussina of old, or the one that struggled through much of this season?
Can Orlando Hernandez overcome his late-season tired shoulder?
Can Jon Lieber continue his success at Yankee Stadium?
Does Javier Vazquez have what it takes to succeed in his first postseason?
"There are always question marks," said Derek Jeter. "That just makes it more interesting."
The answers to these questions will likely determine how far the Yankees go in the playoffs. Or will they?
Unlike the teams of the past few years, Torre's current club has the ability to slug with the best of them. If the pitching stumbles, can the offense carry the load? For the first time in a while, the answer to that is a resounding yes.
"I'd hate to live that way, but we have the capabilities to do it," Torre said. "That's one thing we didn't have in previous years, the ability to slug with teams. You don't want to rely on it, but to know you're capable, that makes a difference."
New York ranks second in the American League in runs scored, and their 241 home runs is tied with the White Sox for the most in baseball, breaking the franchise record of 240, set by Mantle and Maris' 1961 Yankees.
Nine players have reached double-digits in home runs, including three in the 30s and three more in the 20s. Even the bottom of the lineup has given opposing pitchers fits, as John Olerud and Miguel Cairo have come through with several big hits.
"There is a lot of potential in this offense," said general manager Brian Cashman. "We've shown it all year. You have to maneuver carefully through our lineup."
Two years ago, the Anaheim Angels slugged their way past the Yankees in the Division Series, then rode that momentum all the way through the World Series. Can the Yankees make a serious run at a 27th title if their starting pitchers don't perform up to their ability?
"I think this team is capable of being a world championship team," Cashman said. "We're capable of winning with terrific pitching in the postseason, but we're also capable of winning without terrific pitching. It's harder to do, but it can be done."
Not that the Yankees are heading into October with a pessimistic attitude about their rotation. Mussina has excelled in the final month of the season, posting a 2.14 ERA in six September starts, while Lieber has won five in a row and seven of his last eight decisions.
Hernandez rolled through the second half of the season until a tired arm sidetracked him last week, and Vazquez remains the biggest enigma, seemingly taking that title from the recently departed Jose Contreras.
"We still have pitchers who are capable of shutting people down," Jeter said. "It's not like we take the field thinking we have to score 10 to win."
"Everyone that takes the mound for us has had success at some point in time," said Tony Clark. "Some recently, some in the past, some out of the pen and others as a starter. Come playoff time, you hope all of that experience comes together."
New York's record 61 comeback wins this season are proof that the team never quits, no matter what happens early in a game. Nine of those comeback victories have been in games in which the Yanks trailed by four or more runs, the most in team history.
"There's no panic on this team," Gary Sheffield said. "I know the playoffs are different, because it's for all the marbles. But with this team, we're a bunch of professionals. We believe that with any series, with any game, we can win it."
"The one thing about having a veteran presence, is that if things aren't like you drew them up, they don't get devoured by it," Torre said. "They go out and test themselves. They handle it very well. I'm very comfortable with this ballclub."
Which route will the Yankees have to take in order to parade down the Canyon of Heroes at the end of the month? Nobody knows, but the Yankees are prepared for anything.
"We have the capabilities to outscore any team, and we also have the capabilities to outpitch any team," said Sheffield. "It's just a matter of doing it when it counts. That's still to be determined. This is when you earn your money. You buckle down, embrace it and start having fun."
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.