Struggling Yanks eye playoffs, not O's With big wild-card lead, their focus is consistency, and if they catch O's

September 04, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- New York Yankees manager Joe Torre called a team meeting the other day here at Veterans Stadium. He wanted to make sure that his players knew they were still in first place.

Torre was talking about the wild-card derby, of course. The Yankees hold a commanding lead over the Anaheim Angels in the race for the American League's extra playoff berth. They need only to play consistently the rest of the way to assure themselves of new life in the postseason.

So, what about the series that starts tonight in New York against the first-place Orioles, who hold a comfortable 6 1/2 -game lead in the American League East, or the four-game head-to-head series next weekend at Camden Yards?

The Yankees probably would have to win six of those eight games to make a serious run at the top of the division standings. Torre -- his pitching staff suddenly in shambles -- doesn't even want them to think about it.

That's why he told reporters last weekend that the race was all but over. His comments were widely construed in New York as a concession speech, and skeptically viewed in Baltimore as another deft psychological ploy by the manager who guided the Yankees through a tumultuous 1996 season to win an unlikely world championship.

"That was no mind game," Torre said this week. "Sure you want to win. But the Orioles have been playing .660 ball all year. If you think you're going to go out and sweep those games, that's just not realistic. They're a different club than they were last year."

Torre was sizing up his own club, too. The Yankees are struggling. They just were swept by the second-worst-record-in-baseball Philadelphia Phillies and blew a big opportunity to shave some games off the Orioles' division lead. They just found out that right-handed ace David Cone will not be available for this weekend's series and may not be back in time to pitch in the four-game set at Oriole Park. They've also stopped hitting, which gives them something in common with their division-leading rival.

"We're pressing," Torre said. "We're not used to being as dry as we are right now. We've played good all year, but we're not used to things going the way they are going now."

That's why Torre chose to refocus the Yankees on the wild-card race. It's all a matter of perception.

Now, if the Yankees split the four-game series this weekend, they can look at it as a step toward winning the wild card instead of two steps back in the division race.

"We have a lead over the Angels that's pretty sizable [six games]," Torre explained, "but you still have to win and it doesn't matter who you beat. That's not to say that we're not going to try to beat the Orioles and beat the odds and win the division, but we're going to have to play like heck to do that. Let's focus on winning, not on the standings. Let's make sure we get the wins we need to get into the postseason.

"We're not going to concede, but you have to be realistic. To beat Baltimore, we're going to have to win just about every game. They're a pretty good team. They're going to have to cooperate."

The Yankees have made only one serious bid to interrupt the Orioles' wire-to-wire dash for the division title. They drew to within 3 1/2 games of the lead in mid-July, but the Orioles went on a 20-6 run to push them back again.

Left-hander David Wells, who is scheduled to start tonight against Orioles left-hander Rick Krivda, agrees with Torre's approach to the series.

"I think we're just going to take it in stride," Wells said. "Why put all that pressure on yourself? Just go out there and play ball and execute like we've been doing all year."

Wells and left-hander Andy Pettitte will start the first two games of the series, but the Yankees' rotation falls off considerably after that. The continued absence of Cone and the decision to put Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu in the bullpen have left the club thin in an area where the Yankees were once the deepest team in the league.

Inexperienced right-hander Ramiro Mendoza (5-5) will go on Saturday, and embattled left-hander Kenny Rogers (5-6) is scheduled to pitch in the series finale. Torre concedes that it is the most distressed his pitching staff has been this season.

"Probably because David has been such a big part of our rotation," Torre said, "and with Irabu, we're still searching for the consistency we hope will be there. This is the first time we've had to mix and match to find guys to start."

It's also the first time the Yankees have had to struggle with several elements of their game. The rotation is thin, and the offensive attack has been sketchy.

"Every night you take the field, you wonder if this is the game that's going to put you over the hump," said outfielder Paul O'Neill. "Up to last week, we've played consistent baseball.

"We came into spring training this year to get this team back to the postseason. Then, it's a new season. Obviously, we're not going to get there playing this way, but that's why it's a six-month season. I still like this team. I'm comfortable with it."

But they are without one of the best pitchers in the game and -- perhaps -- without third baseman Wade Boggs, who was scratched from Tuesday night's game with a groin strain. The Orioles, who also have been slowed by injuries, would appear to have a manpower advantage, but the series is in the Bronx and the Orioles haven't exactly been tearing up the league the past week either.

"You want to stress the positive," Torre said. "You have to tip your hat to Baltimore. I told [his players] that we beat Baltimore 10 of 13 times last year and looked up and there they were again [in the playoffs]. We didn't think it was fair last year, and I bet they won't think it's fair if they get to the postseason and see us again."

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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