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May 5 2000: Summing Up April

Remember the month of April, because come October it will seem so far away. Remember how it was ridiculously cold all over the country, how the Indians sat in their clubhouse three games in a row in Boston, with rain cancellations every day, how the Dodgers/Mets were snowed out. Remember Ken Griffey, Jr. having a tantrum because he wasn’t hitting, and then starting to hit. Remember the Mariners seeming rejuvenated without him. Remember Mark McGwire being sidelined from his one chance at Coors Field with a back problem. Remember the Chicago White Sox suddenly making it all work. Cal Ripken’s 3000 hit, and the Orioles on a tear–for a short while anyway. The young Kansas City Royals winning four in a row in the bottom of the ninth — was it three on walk off home runs? But then… getting stopped cold by the New York Yankees.

The Yankees of the new century are not the Yankees of the seventies and eighties. Why? Because in the 70s and 80s, Steinbrenner would have been trading people left and right, dangling big money in front of great players who would come to New York and gripe about sitting on the bench, getting hitters when we needed pitchers, getting pitchers when we needed fielders, etc. Torre and Cashman have finally learned to handle George, or maybe George has finally learned to handle his impulses.

The result was an April where there was much nail-biting and teeth-gnashing among the fans, as various members of the team slumped, and they struggled to make it work without any big trades. The team as a whole looked lackluster. Maybe it was the background worry that every player had for beloved Mel Stottlemyre, who was going to miss Opening Day because of treatments for cancer. (As it turned out, this year’s typically cold, rainy April postponed Opening Day by one day, and Mel was able to join the team after all.) Or maybe it was the plague of injuries keeping some bright stars from shining.

Scott Brosius went first with a pulled rib cage muscle on the second day of the season. Alfonso Soriano, the blue chip shortstop prospect brought up from Columbus, couldn’t play third very well, or bat. The home runs were nice, but how about some base hits when we needed them? Shane Spencer found himself in a similar spot. When he connected, he blasted the ball four hundred feet. But too often he was sent back to the dugout with nothing. Ricky Ledee, after having a hot spring (seven home runs) and hitting the first home run ever in Enron Field in Houston (exhibition game), had a run of bad luck and bad hitting, including many balls that should have been doubles or triples that were miraculously caught by outfielders, and one or two that should have been home runs, but weren’t. And what was up with Jeter and Knoblauch? Jittery, trying to pick their teammates up, they swung at too many pitches, didn’t walk as often as they should, and both had low on base percentages compared to what they are used to. Jeter put the bat on the ball well a lot, but too often the ball went right to an infielder. Thems the breaks. At least they were both fielding well, Knoblauch seems to have left the throwing weirdness behind, and for once it is Jeter who has four errors to his name.

There was good news, too, though. Even as those guys were slumping, Jorge Posada came out of the gate like a bullet, hitting home runs, clutch hits, and gunning down runners at second base as if he’d been doing it all along. Suddenly only Pudge Rodriguez is a better catcher in the American League. And Bernie Williams, who traditionally starts slow, didn’t. Bernie showed why he deserved that Gold Glove and also had a hot bat. In one game in Toronto, he and Jorge made history by being the first set of switch-hitting teammates to hit home runs from both sides of the plate during a single game. And Paul O’Neill threw off the critics who claimed he was too old, batting over .400 against his supposed weakness, lefty pitchers, and driving clutch hits. Lance Johnson was a bright spot on the bench too, coming in to pinch hit a few times, and connecting with the ball. Tino Martinez hit well against lefties too, at least partly, he said, because now the Yankees are seeing so many of them. Various teams have stacked their bullpens with lefties, specifically aiming for the Yankee lefthanded weakness, but that plan may have backfired.

Speaking of pitching, here was another area where nails were bitten. Andy Pettitte went on the DL with a strained back muscle. Ramiro Mendoza pitched a perfect game into the seventh inning when he took a spot in the rotation, and Jason Grimsley filled in one day as well. But ‘Doza wasn’t as perfect his next several starts, and David Cone and Roger Clemens struggled. (El Duque was stellar, though.) Clemens was walking way too many batters, and way too many of those guys were crossing the plate. Cone was having trouble with his mechanics, and batters were pounding him. But Cone moved from one side of the pitching rubber to the other, and by the end of the month had one brilliant start. That same week, Pettitte came off the DL and had a brilliant start as well. Then Clemens did it. As the end of the month came on, it looked like the rotation was finally going to be all there… well, except for the fifth starter question, but with guys like Mendoza and Grimsley around, it’s a question that can wait. The bullpen was incredible, becoming the first bullpen in history to be undefeated in the month of April. Jeff Nelson was on the leader board with 4 wins, 0 losses, tying him with El Duque and Pedro Martinez. Not bad company, Nelly!

That final week of April and going into the first week of May, Spencer and Ledee started to hit, their averages climbing into the 200s. Jeter had stolen seven bases on eight attempts. But all was not completely rosy yet. Injuries continued to shake up the team. Roberty Kelly had gone down with a sprained elbow. Allen Watson pulled a muscle in his side. Felix Jose came up from Columbus, had two base hits in a row, then tragically went on the DL with a pulled groin muscle. Chris Turner, a backup catcher, then came up, hopefully to let them use Leyritz more and get him out of his slump. And Knoblauch became the latest injury victim with a strange wrist sprain–if he gets put on the DL, it will be the first time in his ten year major league career.

Still, the cliche about these Yankees is “they know how to win.” Even with the spotty pitching, slumping offense, and injuries, they are now (May 5th) in first place, three games ahead of Boston, with an 18-8 record. So we may remember it as a cold April, with the team as unsettled as the weather, but ultimately, it was still good.

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