Momentum, not history, on N.Y. side

July 04, 1998|By John Eisenberg

NEW YORK -- How good are the Yankees? Good enough to shatter the Orioles, that's for sure.

Also good enough to win the AL East in a walk and draw comparisons to the century's greatest teams.

But good enough to win the World Series?

"That's the question that'll matter in the end," the Orioles' Joe Carter said last night at Yankee Stadium.

It might seem like a given now, with the Yankees having won 59 of 79 games, including last night's 3-2 win over the Orioles, and three of four last month against their No. 1 challenger, the Braves.

If they keep it up, they're a threat to the AL record of 111 wins in a season, set by the '54 Indians, and the major-league record of 116 wins, set by the '06 Cubs.

Yet if recent history is any precedent, they're no lock to win the Series, despite their current dominance.

Not once in the '90s has the team with the majors' best record during the season gone on to win the Series.

Seven times in a row, the season's most dominant team has fallen in October.

Coincidence? To some degree, no doubt. But it's also true that winning the Series is that much harder now with an extra round of playoffs, which arrived with the addition of wild-card qualifiers in 1995.

More and more, the baseball postseason resembles college basketball's March Madness, in which the hottest teams, not the best teams, often prevail.

"The pressure is always intense on teams that bring good records into October, because they feel like they have to win," said Carter, who played on two Series-winning teams in Toronto. "Throw in that extra five-game [first-round] series and it's getting really tricky. I can see how [losing] happens."

Of the seven teams in the '90s that have lost in October after leading the majors in wins, four won 100 or more games during the season. Several excellent teams have failed to deliver when it counted, in other words.

But at this rate, this year's Yankees are going to set a new standard for in-season excellence.

They have lost only six of 37 home games. Only two of 32 series. Last night's win against the Orioles gave them the most wins of any team in the season's first 81 games since the 162-game schedule was instituted in 1961. That's staggering.

"Twenty losses in early July, that's something special," Carter said.

It clearly was a factor in the Orioles' demise, even though the rivals have played only seven games against each other. There's no doubt the Orioles became more and more discouraged every day as they picked up the paper and found themselves farther behind in the standings.

Most teams that get off to such a start eventually cool off, giving teams behind them a reason to believe.

The Yankees haven't cooled off at all.

They're so hot that they rallied from a 7-2 deficit to beat the Phillies on Thursday night, tying the game in the bottom of the ninth after trailing by three runs with two outs and no one on. It was the signature victory of '98 for a team that always finds a way to win.

"I'm proud of the way we're playing," Yankees manager Joe Torre said last night. "It's a good feeling for a manager when he knows his players don't phone it in."

It's no secret why his team is winning at a record pace.

"Balance," Orioles manager Ray Miller said last night. "Great starting pitching. Solid middle relief and set-up relief. A terrific closer [Mariano Rivera]. Speed at the top and bottom of their lineup. A lot of guys hitting."

Carter said, "Someone asked me what they have that's working so well. A better question is ' What don't they have?' "

They might not have turned out quite like this if not for some good fortune. David Cone and Hideki Irabu were question marks before the season -- Cone because of arm problems, Irabu

because of a terrible U.S. debut in 1997 -- but both have pitched well.

Add them to a rotation that includes Andy Pettitte, David Wells and Orlando Hernandez, and you have a team that gets a quality start almost every night.

They're the opposite of the Orioles, whose rotation has struggled.

That's why the Yankees continue to win despite losing Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter to injuries at various times. They're first in the AL in walks, second in steals and a remarkable 22-13 when the opposition scores first. (The Orioles are 11-31.) They play smart, manufacture runs, hit cutoff men. Face it, they're just good.

"They have the confidence that they're going to win every night," Carter said. "We had that on those good teams in Toronto. You come to the park knowing your hitting will carry you if your pitching doesn't, and vice versa. One way or another, you're going to win."

But that confidence can shatter in a hurry in October, as it has for many top teams in the '90s.

Playing for a demanding owner in a town expecting a Series title, the Yankees will face heavy pressure in the fall.

Maybe they're so good that it won't matter.

Maybe.

"They still have to do it in October," Carter said. "That's what counts."

Pub Date: 7/04/98

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