If Yankees Cone-less, chances slim

September 15, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

The Orioles played the Yankees for the final time last night, but what did it matter? This great rivalry that lost meaning in September might not even resume in October.

Logically, the teams with the best records in the American League still figure to meet in the ALCS. But there's no guarantee the Orioles would beat Seattle in the Division Series, and even less of a guarantee the Yankees would defeat Cleveland.

Indeed, with the status of David Cone so uncertain, Orioles-Indians might be more of an ALCS preview than Orioles-Yankees, not that anyone will notice from the back-to-back doubleheaders these next two days.

Only one of the four pitching matchups will feature proven major leaguers. Clearly, the return of Eric Davis from colon-cancer surgery will be far more significant than anything taking place on the field.

Still, just as the Orioles-Mariners series could hinge on Randy Johnson -- he pitched six scoreless innings in his return Saturday night -- the Yankees-Indians series could hinge on Cone.

It's difficult to imagine the Yankees winning if their 34-year-old ace remains sidelined with a sore right shoulder. And even if Cone recovers, that doesn't mean he'll be able to pitch effectively.

A source close to Cone told the New York Daily News that the pitcher was "scared to death" by his outlook. Informed of that remark yesterday, Cone said, "I wouldn't say that, but certainly I'm concerned."

The earliest he could return is a week from today. He is scheduled to pitch a simulated game Wednesday. After that, the Yankees again will re-evaluate him.

"I'm really confident that after the next test Wednesday, I'll start a game, one way or another," Cone said. "I might not get anybody out, but I'll start a game."

How's that for confidence?

If Cone is healthy, he likely would start Game 1 of the Division Series. Left-handers Andy Pettitte and David Wells would pitch Games 2 and 3, and Cone and Pettitte could return, if necessary, for Games 4 and 5.

The Yankees would catch one break -- their series would include two days off, the Orioles-Mariners series only one. That would enable Cone and Pettitte to avoid pitching on short rest if they had to return.

And if Cone couldn't go?

The equation would change considerably.

Pettite would pitch Game 1 and perhaps come back on three days' rest for Game 3. Or, he could start 1 and 4, with Wells going in 2 and 5 and Dwight Gooden pitching the middle game.

Wells isn't exactly appealing behind Pettitte, not when he has lost five consecutive starts. And as well as Gooden pitched last night, manager Joe Torre would prefer that his Game 3 starter had a lower ERA.

True, the Yankees would play the first two games at home. True, they're 13-4 at Jacobs Field. And true, Cleveland's Big Three of Charles Nagy, Orel Hershiser and rookie Jaret Wright isn't all that imposing.

Heck, the Yankees also might have an advantage using Pettitte and Wells four times in a five-game series, because the Indians are only 18-16 against left-handed starters.

But all that avoids the issue.

The Yankees need Cone.

"He brings a lot to the table," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said.

"Pitching big games is something he's done a lot. I think they've got some options that are decent, but nothing like if you've got Cone."

The Orioles learned what Cone meant to the Yankees last season, when he underwent surgery to remove a career-threatening aneurysm from his pitching arm, then returned to go 3-1 with a 3.94 ERA in September.

His comeback this time is not as urgent, at least not for the regular season. The Yankees lead Anaheim by 7 1/2 games in the wild-card race. They're going to the postseason either way.

Still, the pitcher described his plight as "a race against the clock." The Yankees entered last night with the same record they had at this point last season. But they didn't have Cone.

"We all have an understanding that we have a chance to defend our championship," Cone said. "We also understand that we could easily go down to a team as good as us or better, including Baltimore.

"Anything can happen in the playoffs. We can get back to the World Series, or we can be beat. It may be one game that makes or breaks our season, as far as the postseason goes."

Cone wants to pitch that game.

Cone wants to pitch every game. But after years of high pitch counts and 200-inning seasons, it might be that he's finally wearing down.

The Orioles always considered the Yankees their biggest obstacle. They added Jimmy Key, diversified their offense and strengthened their bullpen with the idea of beating New York in the regular season, and then in the postseason.

They'll accomplish half their task when they capture their division.

The other half might take care of itself.

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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