NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees have slipped well behind the streaking Orioles in the American League East, which would make this the perfect time to start second-guessing everything the club did in the off-season to turn the defending world champions into a bunch of bird-watchers.
No one has to remind Yankees fans that former Yankee Jimmy Key is 8-1 with a 2.38 ERA and one of the main reasons that the Orioles arrive at Yankee Stadium today with a six-game division lead. No one has to remind them that future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens, who bypassed a big Yankees offer to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays, is 8-0 and the major reason why that club is jostling with the Yankees for second place.
Manager Joe Torre is not one to panic. The season is just seven weeks old and the Orioles' lead is far from insurmountable, but he has to admit that they look imposing.
"You knew that Baltimore would be up there," Torre said. "Their pitching is terrific. Jimmy Key is a stable starter. Scott Erickson is pitching great. [Scott] Kamieniecki, too. That doesn't surprise me."
The Orioles' rotation is a combined 26-7. The Yankees' rotation has been impressive, too, but it doesn't take a mathematician to figure out what Key's eight victories would add to the equation. The fact that two-fifths of the Baltimore rotation -- Key and Kamieniecki -- were in pinstripes last year has to make it particularly galling to look up at the Orioles in the standings.
"I'm a Jimmy Key fan," Torre said. "He was the big guy for us in the playoffs last year. A lot went into the fact that he's not back here. We were making a run at Clemens and we came up short."
The Yankees were so focused on signing Clemens that they balked at guaranteeing two years for Key. The Orioles stepped in and gave him a two-year deal.
The Yankees watched Clemens go to the Blue Jays, then signed Orioles left-hander David Wells. Though all of this happened in the free-agent market, the end result looked like a straight-up ZTC Key-for-Wells deal, and the Orioles -- so far -- have gotten the better end of it.
Wells was scheduled to pitch against the Orioles tomorrow night, but because of yesterday's Yankees rainout, Andy Pettitte and Kenny Rogers will pitch for New York in the two-game series.
The next few weeks could be an important challenge for the Yankees, since it appears the Orioles are for real. They meet just twice in this series -- and it's early in the season -- but the Yankees cannot afford to cede much more ground in the American League East.
They have fallen far enough behind already that Torre was explaining the other day how the extra playoff berth has altered the chemistry of the division race.
"It gives you the ability to keep an eye on your own team instead of worrying about how the other team is doing," Torre said.
The wild card might be on the other foot this year. It was the Orioles who had to fall back on the wild card to reach the playoffs in 1996, then parlayed that opportunity into an American League Championship Series showdown with the Yankees.
"Last year, we beat Baltimore 10 out of 13 times," Torre said. "That was probably the difference in the division race. But we still had to come back and beat them in a four-of-seven series at the end. That [the wild card] negated what we had done over the long season, but that's all part of it now."
Torre has to be thankful that the race still is on. The Orioles got off to another sizzling start, and the Yankees needed a few weeks to pull their bullpen together.
The front office gambled that young Mariano Rivera could replace high-priced John Wetteland in the closer role, only to watch him blow three of his first six save opportunities and create tremendous -- though temporary -- anxiety about the decision to let Wetteland get away.
Rivera bounced back quickly and the Yankees rode the tremendous offensive performance of first baseman Tino Martinez back to within striking distance of the Orioles, before a recent five-game losing streak dropped them six games back.
"People came around trying to place blame," Torre said, "but during the time we weren't playing as well as Baltimore, we held it together. I'm very proud of this club."
The Yankees' rotation is a combined 22-11. Left-hander Pettitte is leading the way again at 6-2, but former Cy Young Award winner David Cone is 5-3 and healthy again and Wells has bounced back from a tumultuous spring to pitch very well.
There have been problems. Dwight Gooden's rehabilitation is going slowly after hernia surgery and Darryl Strawberry could be lost for the season with a knee injury.
And, of course, embattled owner George Steinbrenner might be on the verge of his third suspension, but that's just life in the Big Apple.
The quiet guys -- Martinez, Paul O'Neill and Bernie Williams -- have kept the offense moving and the unflappable Torre has kept the peace.
Now, the question is whether the Yankees can pick up where they left off last year, when they defeated the Orioles 14 times in 18 regular and postseason meetings.
"I think this series means something because you want to try to establish something," O'Neill said. "We played really well against Baltimore last year. We got used to beating Baltimore. Every year, you want to beat the team you're competing against.
"If you look at it, they lost the division probably because of the way they played against us, so I'm sure there is some extra feeling there."
Both teams seem eager to resume their historic rivalry.
"They've got a great team," Martinez said. "The [ALCS] could have gone either way, and right now they're pitching great and playing great defense. I think it's going to be a great series. I think it's going to be like this all year long in this division."
Pub Date: 5/26/97