Gambling on El Duque no stretch for Yankees

October 03, 2002|By LAURA VECSEY

NEW YORK - Joe Torre could not resist. Later, he might regret this, but at the time, it felt right to the New York Yankees manager who pushes the right buttons and plays hunches as well as anyone in the game.

The Bronx night was lit up like New Year's with Orlando Hernandez on the mound in relief.

One of Torre's best postseason pitchers had come out of the bullpen, shut down the scrappy Anaheim Angels for four scoreless innings while the Yankees mounted a comeback so stirring, it felt impossible that something bad could happen.

So what did Torre do? He sent Hernandez out there again.

Top of the eighth, it was an American League Division Series game the man called "El Duque" had brought back from rag-tag disaster. Starter Andy Pettitte had struggled through three innings, giving up four runs on eight hits, making "bad pitches, hittable pitches," Torre said.

So now it was El Duque's game. It was his moment - or at least it had been, until the magic evaporated, just like that. With a 5-4 lead and the win his to claim, El Duque gave up back-to-back homers to Garret Anderson and Troy Glaus. Just like that, the entire tenor of this short series changed.

In the silence of a Yankee Stadium that knows little silence, El Duque opened the door for the Angels' 8-6 win of this best-of-five series that is now two-out-of-three.

"He had great command. There's no quit in either club, but it was just one of those things. These have been two exciting ballgames but anytime a pitcher is cruising [like Hernandez was] you're always surprised," Torre said, never once hinting that he had any regrets.

In theory, why should he? Once, a year or two back, the literary lions of this city put a dramatic illustration of Orlando Hernandez on the cover of The New Yorker magazine.

El Duque. What a ripe, rich subject.

The Cuban defector, whose age and pitching odometer may or may not have been seriously messed with along the way from Havana to Miami, possesses one of the finest, highest leg lifts in the history of baseball.

It is a thing of beauty, accentuated by the way he wears his navy blue socks stretched tight up to his knees. Suitable for framing, certainly.

The Yankees, who like to pay free agents from all countries whatever it takes to secure their services, have happily ridden El Duque to postseason dominance.

With a 9-2 record in the playoffs, El Duque has been all but automatic in his 14 appearances - 13 as a starter. He became the first pitcher in major-league history to win his first eight postseason decisions. His nine postseason wins are one shy of the Yankees record shared by Whitey Ford and Andy Pettitte.

So this is why you either love the Yankees or you hate the Yankees.

Because last night, El Duque was in the bullpen, available for long relief. For a strange, wondrous crystallized stretch of time, with the 56,695 spectators inside Yankee Stadium shouting "El Duque! El Duque!" he was king of the hill.

He was the mystery man whose quirky delivery befuddled the Angels so seriously, manager Mike Scioscia should still be digging his corkscrewed batters out of the dirt. The Angels flailed and whiffed, until El Duque's stuff stopped working.

"I'm a fastball hitter. I'm looking for them up there and fortunately, he left one out over the plate," Anderson said.

Glaus, whose homer came on a 3-1 pitch, got the green light to swing away. He made the most of it.

"A guy like El Duque, you have to wait for him to elevate the ball. On my first at-bat against him, he didn't do it. Then he did. I was just lucky I got a hold of it," Glaus said.

In the other Yankees script, the one that guarantees comeback wins and surprise cameo performances by unlikely heroes, what happened last night does not happen.

In the other script, El Duque gets Anderson to fly out or Torre, guessing a different way, pulls El Duque after the seventh, understanding that you can't push your luck, not against these relentless Angels.

In theory, the availability of El Duque proved exactly what it means to be the Yankees.

This fifth starter in the bullpen, maybe six if you include trade deadline acquisition Jeff Weaver, is the luxury for which owner George Steinbrenner will pay that luxury tax. Unless, of course, Steinbrenner follows through on earlier promises to sue baseball for trying to clamp down on his cable-rich ability to stockpile arms.

The Yankees have a starting rotation for the playoffs that includes Roger Clemens, Pettitte, Mike Mussina and David Wells. Yet in the bullpen, there is this eccentric pitcher who, when he is not taking roundhouse punches at his fellow Cuban catcher, is capable of delivering some of the best stuff October has ever seen.

El Duque? He is either 34, as the Yankees media guide says, or he is closer to 38 or 40, as educated speculation has tallied.

What is not in dispute is his postseason ERA of 2.48, better than any of the four starters. So of course the Yankees understood what they had in their bullpen. Of course, Torre can't be faulted for thinking that El Duque had something left in that contorted wind-up that could fool the Angels one more time.

It was a gamble. It was the kind of high-wire drama we've come to expect out of this Bronx locale this time of year, only this time, the ending was very different.

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