Yankees up in arms again Cone, Wetteland give pitching staff a lift

September 10, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- When time is running out and the walls are closing in, it's nice to have an ace in the hole.

The New York Yankees have two.

Right-hander David Cone has pitched very well in the two starts he has made since coming back from surgery to repair an aneurysm in his right arm. Closer John Wetteland has returned from the groin injury that kept him sidelined for much of August. The Yankees -- reputed to have the best pitching in the American League when the season began -- finally have their staff back together.

"David coming back takes pressure off the other starters because he is their leader," manager Joe Torre said. "Now they can concentrate on just doing what they have to do. [Wetteland] takes a little pressure off everybody."

Cone might be the best late-season pitcher in the game, and he showed why last week when he pitched seven hitless innings in his first start back after spending the entire summer on the disabled list. Wetteland is one of the game's top closers, and leads the American League with 38 saves, even though he has missed the past three weeks with the groin strain.

"It's very important to get Cone and Wetteland back at this time of year," said first baseman Tino Martinez. "Every game is very important, so to be back to full strength now is a big lift."

It couldn't have come together at a better time. The Yankees suddenly are in close quarters in the AL East. Most of the 12-game division lead that they held July 28 melted away during a 9-17 slump that had owner George Steinbrenner howling at the moon and New Yorkers wondering if Torre would survive the season. The Orioles went 19-9 over the same period to pull close enough that next week's head-to-head series at Yankee Stadium could be very meaningful.

"They've had a lot of opportunities to close the gap even more," Martinez added, "so we're happy to be where we are."

Dwight Gooden's amazing comeback had come unraveled. Kenny Rogers had become Steinbrenner's new whipping boy. Jimmy Key was coming around, but only one year removed from shoulder surgery, he figured to have a certain degree of inconsistency.

"We were doing piecework," Torre said. "Our pitchers were giving up a lot of runs in the first inning, and that was affecting our lineup. It was very frustrating. We needed David Cone, because of what our starting pitchers were going through."

The lead over the Orioles was down to four games when Cone returned from the disabled list. It fell to three after the Yankees dropped back-to-back games to the Toronto Blue Jays over the weekend, but Cone pitched well in one of those defeats and served further notice that he will be a major factor the rest of the way.

"Obviously, what David did early in the year [4-1, 2.03 ERA with numbness in his right hand] with absolutely no command is a testament to what he's all about," Torre said. "He keeps getting traded to clubs that are in a pennant race. That should be a pretty good indication, too."

No one is going to argue Cone's credentials. The only question was the price he would have to pay for the invasive surgery that corrected the arterial aneurysm in his upper arm. Doctors performed an arterial transplant to repair the damage, then Cone went back to work preparing for an early return that many said was a pipe dream.

Torre watched anxiously as Cone took the mound for his first start Sept. 2, but he had nothing to worry about. Cone held the Oakland Athletics hitless through seven innings and forced his manager to pull him out of a no-hit bid.

"For a pitcher like David to do that -- it's a tremendous lift for a

team when you know that your pitching can dominate a game," Torre said. "It's like when I was with the Cardinals and we had Bob Gibson and the Dodgers had [Sandy] Koufax and [Don] rTC Drysdale. Just knowing those guys are out there makes a big difference."

Cone made his second start Saturday night and gave up three runs in the first inning, but settled in to deliver another solid performance. No pain. Lots of gain.

The Yankees can only hope that the psychological impact of the return of Cone and Wetteland is widespread. Their presence definitely is a positive factor for that club, and it figures to put added pressure on the Orioles, who have no guarantee of a wild-card berth if they do not overtake the Yankees in the AL East.

It isn't a perfect baseball world in the Bronx. Gooden has struggled badly in his past two starts, and was moved back two days into tonight's game against the Detroit Tigers in the hope that a little rest will do him good. Rogers remains in a funk and out of the rotation, the disparity between his recent performance and his $5 million salary making him the perfect candidate for the Boss' doghouse.

Torre can thank 20-game winner Andy Pettitte for holding things together with 13 victories after Yankees losses, and hope that Key is ready to pitch consistently down the stretch.

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