New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman studied the numbers last season and realized his team's dynasty was in jeopardy. Since 1996, the Yankees had made winning look easy, but the team's offensive fortunes were getting progressively worse.
Between 1996 and 2000, the Yankees never scored fewer than 871 runs. Last year, they scored 804.
Between 1996 and 2000, the Yankees never drew fewer than 631 walks. Last year, they drew 519.
Between 1996 and 2000, the Yankees never posted a collective on-base average lower than .354. Last year, they sank 20 points below that mark.
Patience at the plate had become a Yankees signature, like Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." Suddenly the Yankees, while more patient than most teams, were seeing fewer and fewer pitches per at-bat and becoming easier outs.
With pitchers such as Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera, this decrease in production didn't stop the Yankees from winning 95 games and their fourth consecutive American League pennant last year. But Cashman figured changes needed to be made, and the Yankees always have the money to make them.
Enter Jason Giambi, Robin Ventura, Rondell White, Nick Johnson and former Orioles hitting coach Rick Down.
The Yankees entered Friday on a pace to score 921 runs, with 645 walks and a .361 on-base average. They also were on a pace for 258 home runs, which would shatter the franchise record.
"We wanted to get a lineup with a high on-base percentage, and I think the home runs are a byproduct of that," Cashman said in a phone interview last week. "When you get guys on base, and get into better hitter's counts, you see better pitches and the home runs will come."
Entering another big series with the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox, the Yankees had won 18 of 22 games to remain one game back of Boston, which is off to its best start since 1946.
The Yankees hit 45 home runs during that stretch, including two games in which they hit six and one in which they hit five. Alfonso Soriano was tied with Giambi for the team lead with 14 home runs, Ventura had 13, Bernie Williams had 10, and Jorge Posada and Johnson each had eight.
Of course, the Yankees also led the league with 421 strikeouts.
"Seven guys in our lineup are extremely selective," Cashman said. "Alfonso Soriano [60 strikeouts] and Rondell White  do their damage by being aggressive."
Another major showdown
The Orioles will be at Yankee Stadium for a four-game series beginning tomorrow, but first the Yankees must finish their three-game series with the Red Sox. The division leaders split their four-game series last weekend, and they returned to this series as the two top teams in baseball, with the Red Sox winning at a .700 clip and the Yankees right on their heels at .667.
Asked if seeing Boston play that well has been tough psychologically, Cashman said, "It works both ways."
"We're playing terrific baseball right now," he said, "and despite all that, we're still one game behind them. Conversely, it has to be a little frustrating for them. They're playing some of their best baseball in franchise history and still are only ahead of us by one. Normally when you play like that, you leave your competition in the dust."
With the Minnesota Twins approaching a legal settlement that could assure their existence through 2003, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were reported to be the new leading candidate for contraction, along with the Montreal Expos.
But Devil Rays managing partner Vince Naimoli strongly refuted that possibility.
"The facts are, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are not ... a candidate for contraction," Naimoli told the Tampa Tribune. "Were we on the original list of 18 teams? Yes, we were. That's the only time our name has ever appeared anywhere."
The Devil Rays still have 25 years remaining on their lease at Tropicana Field.
"First of all, the ownership has to volunteer to be contracted," Naimoli said. "I and my partners have worked hard to get baseball to Tampa Bay. We have never had thoughts of volunteering for contraction. Our only hope is to make this a very successful franchise for many years to come."
Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.