Yanks ignore history of comebacks
Putting recent past aside, veterans confident in turnaround
NEW YORK -- The Yankees are no strangers to slow starts over the last several seasons. It's not exactly the most comfortable habit to fall into, but at least it does provide them with some measure of confidence that it can be overcome.
Heading into Sunday's Subway Series finale at Yankee Stadium with his club in last place in the American League East, manager Joe Girardi certainly believed the Yankees would be performing better at this point in the season.
But so did Girardi's predecessor, Joe Torre, when the Yankees were 21-29 on May 29 of last year. There were no white flags being waved during the club's sluggish 2005 opening either, when it was eight games under the break-even point on May 8. The Yankees rallied to make the playoffs both years, and Girardi believes history will repeat.
"I believe that we are a playoff team, and I think you will see this team play a lot better," Girardi said.
Girardi said that he does not enjoy starting the season in slow fashion, and he wouldn't try to compare the individual years. But his confidence remains.
"You have to start today," Girardi said. "I don't think about tomorrow or the next day. I'm not a big believer that you look a whole lot at the past. Yes, we have experienced players that don't panic. But I don't believe that you think like that."
The first and foremost player not approaching any panic buttons, not surprisingly, is Derek Jeter. The Yankees' captain has navigated enough of these situations to realize that 43 games do not make a season, as trying and frustrating as they may have been.
Sitting at his locker on Sunday, Jeter looked up from fiddling with his cell phone and coolly asked, "How many games are we out?"
Five and a half entering play today, the answer came back.
"How many games do we have left?" he asked. "That's the way you've got to look at it. We're going to get better. You have to understand it's a long season and there are going to be ups and downs. You can't lose that confidence."
And Girardi hasn't. Asked to point out reasons why the Yankees will turn the season around, Girardi pointed to the pitching staff, which he believes has competed well both in the rotation and in relief.
While the Yankees keep the lights on for Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada to return to a lineup that Girardi calls "very talented," the starting pitching has tried to hold the fort, gaining some assistance by adding the effective Darrell Rasner to the mix of Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and the resurgent Mike Mussina. The 2.25 ERA posted by Yankees relievers over their last 18 games hasn't hurt.
"I think we can hit better and I think we can pitch better," Jeter said. "That's pretty much it. I don't complicate things. Everyone tries to overanalyze things and complicate things. We're playing baseball.
"Do I think that our team is capable of hitting better? Yes. Do I think that our team is capable of pitching better? Yes. Therefore, I think we're capable of winning more games. That's the way you have to look at it."
Perhaps putting up four runs on Saturday against a tough left-hander in Johan Santana, yet another southpaw in a string of 11 in 20 games for the Yankees' left-handed-dominant lineup, could help turn the tide.
The Yankees have made a conscious effort to push the envelope in order to overcome their start -- hence third-base coach Bobby Meacham's waving home of Johnny Damon in the third inning on Saturday -- and will continue to try to approach the style of play Girardi was roundly touted for bringing in when he ran his energetic Spring Training camp.
"We haven't scored runs for a couple of different reasons," Girardi said. "We've tried to do things. The thing is, you have to have the opportunities to be aggressive. We don't have guys that can fly. We have smart baserunners that are above-average runners, but it's not guys that are going to outrun the baseball. You have to pick your spots."
And the Yankees have a couple of bonus additions on the horizon. Rodriguez's right-handed cut clubbed a grand slam in a meaningless situation on a back field in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday afternoon, but he is less than 48 hours away from potentially digging in against an Orioles pitcher in the Bronx. Posada's switch-hitting bat is expected to return to the lineup sometime after June 1.
Will slotting A-Rod and Posada back into the lineup, replacing the interim fill-ins of Morgan Ensberg-Alberto Gonzalez and Jose Molina-Chad Moeller, help level out the production? Jeter said he'd like to think so, but he cautions, "You can't look at it that way."
"Even if those guys are back, the other guys still have to do the job," he said. "It's an easy way to say those guys have been gone for [three] weeks, but we've been inconsistent for six weeks. You can't use that as an excuse. They'll help, but those guys could come back and hit 1.000 and you've still got to have the rest of the guys do the job, too."
The one thing Girardi will not do is lean on a statement that co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner made before the season, in which he cautioned fans that 2008 could well represent a year of transition. The experiment of adding Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy to the starting rotation has yielded no victories to date.
Hughes is on the disabled list until July with a broken rib in his right side, and Kennedy has already been sent down to the Minor Leagues for a two-start refresher course. Joba Chamberlain, the other member of the so-called "Big Three," said that the steady demeanor of the Yankees' veterans helps keep the waters placid.
"You see that look every day," Chamberlain said. "For these younger guys that are trying to help the team, it's a great example to set. We get to see it, and we understand that it's early and they're not panicking. We've got to be right there with them."
The growing pains may well continue, with a spoken organizational eye on serving as World Series favorites when they move into their state-of-the-art facility next season, but Girardi said it will be his task to find a way to make it all click in the here and now.
"I'm paid to look at today, in a sense," Girardi said. "Obviously as a manager, you look at the future in protecting your players and making sure you don't abuse players, whether it's in the bullpen or as starters. In a sense, as a manager, you can't say, 'In so many years, this club is going to look different.' You've got to worry about today, and you've got to win games today."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.