Torre trudges through rough times


The Kickoff


NEW YORK -- Nick Mattera of Ozone Park, N.Y., has it figured out. In a letter in Sunday's New York Post, he identified just what was ailing the Yankees: The Curse of the Zim.

The Yankees' decline, he postulated, began with the loss of Don Zimmer. "Torre, with Zim, was a great manager," Mattera wrote. "Torre, without Zim, is mediocre, at best."


On second thought, the players may have something to do with it.

When the Yankees, who are hosting the Boston Red Sox for three games beginning last night, have pitched, they haven't hit. When they've hit, they haven't pitched. And they very often look old in the field, which isn't all that surprising, given that the only everyday regular in his 20s is second baseman Robinson Cano.

And the luck? Don't ask.

Take Saturday afternoon, for example. On the ninth pitch in the bottom of the first inning at Shea Stadium, Endy Chavez sent a hard one-hopper toward the mound. The ball hit Darrell Rasner on the index finger of his throwing hand, and he was forced to leave the game (never mind that he wound up as the losing pitcher after throwing those nine pitches). He could be gone for three months.

You may recall that in the very recent past another Yankees starter, Jeff Karstens, was hit by a line drive off the bat of the Red Sox's Julio Lugo, the ball breaking his leg. Two in the same year? That's got to be enough to have Torre playing the Tevye "Why Me?" role, no?

"I really don't look at it that way," Torre says. "That's all part of it. So many good things have happened over the years that I'm more inclined to say `Why not me?' It's something to deal with."

The manager has been dealing with an extremely full plate in the first quarter of the 2007 season. Thanks to injuries, the Yankees have become the first team in baseball history to use seven rookie starters through their first 42 games.

These are strange, grim times for the Yankees, who are not used to facing double-digit deficits before they even get to Memorial Day. By the way, Torre doesn't want to hear about the standings.

"We just have to take care of ourselves," he says. "We need to start winning games. If I'm sitting here, and we lose two, but the Red Sox lose two, that's not my concern. Until we get ourselves straightened out and start doing what we need to do, the standings are insignificant."

One of the funny things happening here is that in the midst of all the negative feelings, there are some impressive individual things going on. Are you even aware that Jorge Posada led the league in hitting entering last night?

Well, no one is worrying very much about individual accomplishments because the basic idea is to win games, and the Yankees have had a hard time doing that.

While the local critics see a team with a very questionable pitching staff, even if healthy, and a team with a very un-Yankees-like bench, and a team that appears to be in constant need of Rust-Oleum, Torre sees a skilled group that has been beset with bad luck and that just hasn't started putting things together yet.

"Do I think that maybe we just aren't good enough?" he says. "No. That would be a disservice to the people you work for and the people you manage. The only thing I can do right now is show them I have confidence in them."

Though he shies away from discussing the standings, he is willing to discuss his chief rival.

"They went out in the winter and made moves to accentuate pitching," he says of the Red Sox. "They had Schilling and Beckett and Wake, and then they add Matsuzaka, and then, of course, they had Papelbon, who certainly is the real thing. They are controlling the average game. It's a different type ballclub."

His team, meanwhile, has been just the opposite. "Opposing pitchers are getting deep into games and dictating the tempo against us," he says. "And often you're talking about pitchers who really don't have great records who have done it to us."

Whatever he's really thinking, he has to put on the happy face in public. What choice does he have? Thus, Torre says: "We can turn it around. I just can't give you a date. This is probably the toughest task we've had [since he's been here], trying to get untracked, trying to develop a personality that will work for us. And we keep getting in our own way."

There haven't been many pleasant baseball games for Torre to watch, but Sunday night's was one of them. Tyler Clippard had a very successful major league debut, going six strong innings, while Derek Jeter, Posada and Alex Rodriguez hit homers as the Yankees handled John Maine and the Mets, 6-2. The start of something big? Or a brief diversion from a new reality?

We'll soon see, but if all else fails, I can give him Zim's number if he wants it.

Bob Ryan writes for The Boston Globe.

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