Defending champs seek respect Yanks' chances may lie on Cone's shoulder

Playoff Preview

September 30, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- The discussion began among a few New York Yankees on the charter flight from Detroit on Sunday night and filtered into the bustling and cramped clubhouse yesterday at Yankee Stadium. The defending World Series champions had just completed a remarkable season with 96 wins and were a day away from the Division Series against the Cleveland Indians. Still, some players felt like the Rodney Dangerfield Nine.

When the electricity and excitement of postseason baseball returns to a raucous Yankee Stadium tonight, the Yankees will be searching for some respect after routinely creating some intrigue.

Joe Tor-

re surprisingly benched Cecil Fielder for Game 1 for the second straight year, preferring Chad Curtis' defense in left field and Tim Raines as the designated hitter. Graeme Lloyd was chosen as the last pitcher over Kenny Rogers and Hideki Irabu, turning them into $32.8 million worth of cheerleaders.

tTC But the sensitive Fielder, the unemotional Rogers and the diplomatic Irabu did not publicly complain about Torre's decisions. Torre will have incredibly arduous decisions as the Yankees try to snatch the most elusive 11 victories of an interminable season for the second time in 12 months, so everyone was silent. Even David Wells. But the Yankees did grouse about being ignored, a handy motivational tool.

"We definitely got overlooked," first baseman Tino Martinez said. "We definitely feel a lot of people wrote us off and said there was no way we could do it again. We didn't feel that way. Obviously, we knew that we could get to the playoffs, and we did. I think anything short of another World Series would be disappointing."

Reliever Jeff Nelson added: "We want another ring, and everyone says it's too difficult to repeat. Nobody gave us much attention. We'll keep winning and winning until we do it again and they look up and realize the Yankees are that good."

Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove already realizes it.

"Anybody who plays the world champs should be the underdog," Hargrove said. "I have no problem with that."

How good are the Yankees? They will probably be as good as David Cone proves to be when he faces Orel Hershiser, a pitcher Cone called "one of the best big-game pitchers of our generation." Cone, who is not at full strength because of tendinitis in his shoulder, and who will try to fool the powerful Indians with sliders, sinkers and split-finger pitches since his fastball is sluggish, might pitch only five innings in Game 1. But the Yankees are hoping that Cone is gritty and guides them again.

"Even if Coney doesn't have his best stuff, there's no one I'd rather have out there," outfielder Paul O'Neill said. "He's done it before in big games."

The opener is probably more important for the Yankees than the Indians because they feed off Cone more than Cleveland does off Hershiser. If Cone's shoulder troubles him or he does not pitch effectively, the Yankees could be deflated. But Cone pitched no-hit ball in his five innings on Thursday in a 5-4 victory over Hershiser, and he has handled David Justice (.154 average), Sandy Alomar (.231, one homer), Marquis Grissom (.207) and Jim Thome (.267). No matter how optimistic Cone tries to sound, he realizes the tendinitis could make his night difficult.

"That element is always there," he said. "But I was pleased with my side session in Detroit after I had thrown five innings. That eased a lot of my worries. It's the first time that I looked Joe in the eye and said, 'I'm ready.'"

The Yankees won six of 11 games against Cleveland this year after snaring two of three games last week. They had 10 more triumphs than the Central Division champions. "It's our trophy until someone takes it away, and that will start [tonight]," catcher Joe Girardi said. "We want another one."

Today's games

AL Division Series

Indians at Yankees, Game 1

Time: 8:13 p.m.

TV: Ch. 45

Pitchers:

Orel Hershiser (14-6, 4.47) vs. David Cone (12-6, 2.82)

NL Division Series

Astros at Braves, Game 1

Time: 1:07 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Pitchers:

Darryl Kile (19-7, 2.57) vs. Greg Maddux (19-4, 2.20)

Giants at Marlins, Game 1

Time: 4:07 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Pitchers:

Kirk Rueter (13-6, 3.45) vs. Kevin Brown (16-8, 2.69)

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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