Uphill climb not so steep for Yanks

0-2 comeback vs. A's, Clemens on mound lift champs' spirits

World Series

October 30, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHOENIX - The New York Yankees already have done the seemingly impossible once during this postseason, so the difficult task of rebounding from two quick losses to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 97th World Series remains firmly rooted in the realm of possibility.

The Yankees became the first team to win a best-of-five playoff series after losing the first two games at home in the Division Series. The Oakland Athletics had them backed so far up against the wall that they could feel the plaques in Monument Park scraping their shoulders.

Everyone knows what happened. Mike Mussina turned the tide in Game 3 and Derek Jeter made one of his patented postseason plays to seal the victory, and the Yankees came all the way back to dismiss the swaggering A's from the postseason for the second straight year.

No doubt, the Diamondbacks were paying attention. So were the Yankees, who still seemed surprisingly self-assured after Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson overpowered them in the first two games at Bank One Ballpark.

"We have dug ourselves a hole," reliever Mike Stanton said, "but we know we have the ability and talent to get the job done. It's not like we haven't been in this situation before and don't know how to react."

The Yankees will react by sending soon-to-be six-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens to the mound tonight for Game 3. The Diamondbacks will go with left-hander Brian Anderson in a game that is considered such a mismatch that the Vegas oddsmakers have the Yankees a 2 1/2 -1 favorite.

Trouble is, the Diamondbacks may have Schilling waiting in the wings for Game 4 if Anderson is not equal to the biggest task of his career. Manager Bob Brenly has the option of compressing his rotation so Schilling and Johnson would be available three times in the final four possible games of the best-of-seven series.

"We ran into two quality pitchers in the first two games, and they kicked our butts," Jeter said. "You can't worry about those two guys. We face Anderson in Game 3, and that's what we have to focus on right now."

Manager Joe Torre has had a lot of success keeping his teams focused on Job One, while playing on their experience in previous postseason pinches to keep their confidence high.

It was Torre who marched into a team meeting during the Oakland series in a funny-looking baseball cap that bore Yogi Berra's most famous quote: "It ain't over 'til it's over." Maybe it was dime-store psychology, but he reminded his players during that short meeting that it was they - not the A's - who already have a handful of World Series rings.

Now, he can use that experience to try to pry his team off the mat. The A's, after all, won 102 games and were the hottest team entering the postseason before the Yankees completed their three-game comeback by defeating Mark Mulder - the American League's winningest pitcher - in Game 5. The Diamondbacks are not as well-rounded as the A's, and the Yankees are not yet in a sudden-death situation.

"This is where we need to get it back and get it going," Torre said. "That [the Division Series comeback] is something that tells us something. What we did against a very good team, we need to find that form again.

"Roger is the key. We need to get him a lead, and he needs to go out and dominate like these two guys have."

If Clemens can get the Yankees on the board, perennial playoff hero Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez would have a chance to even the series against Diamondbacks No. 4 starter Miguel Batista or, if Brenly is so inclined, Schilling.

"You don't want to be in that position [0-2]," said left fielder Chuck Knoblauch, "but I don't see any panic in this team."

The Diamondbacks aren't clearing any space in the trophy cabinet just yet. The Yankees were similarly bounced around by the Atlanta Braves in the first two games of the 1996 World Series before coming back with four straight victories to win their first world title in 18 years.

The similarities are almost eerie. The Braves pounded the Yankees, 12-1, behind an effective John Smoltz in the opener, then New York was shut out, 4-0, in Game 2 - the same score as Sunday's game. The only real difference was the location. The Yankees lost the first two games at home in '96. This time, they are coming home to an emotional city that has turned to them for diversion and solace at a time of great crisis.

"We know we have got a real rough road ahead of us," Brenly said. "It's no trip to the beach going to Yankee Stadium and playing in that environment, and they play extremely well at home, so we know we have our work cut out for us."

The terrific performances of Schilling and Johnson - who combined to give up just six hits in the first two games - has to boost the confidence level in the Diamondbacks' clubhouse. It also figures to loom large over the Yankees, who can't win their fourth straight title without beating both of them later in the Series, but the Yankees say they are not intimidated.

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