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It was 9:30 p.m. on a nondescript Tuesday night in April. The Bronx air was a
little damp, a little cool, and filled with tension and frustration. The
Yankees trailed 8-4 to the Oakland A’s in the eighth inning, having watched
their nominal ace blow an early 4-1 lead while pushing his ERA up to 6.55.
Coming off an embarrassing three-game sweep by the Red Sox, this game was
pushing the 8-10–soon to be 8-11–team ever closer to one of those mid-1980s
scenes in which a manager, a pitching coach, and two or three random clubhouse
attendants were fired.

Then Bernie Williams singled.

Then Alex Rodriguez singled right behind him.

Then Jason Giambi walked.

By a little after 10 p.m., the Yankees had a 10-8 lead and a new lease on
life. That half-hour, in which they beat up Jim Mecir and
Ricardo Rincon for six runs, looks like the most important
moment of the 2004 season. The Yankees won that game, the next seven after it
and have gone 30-9 since then, buring the field on the way to posting, by far,
the best record in baseball. A team that couldn’t score to save its life in
April, that put up an anemic four runs in losing three games to its hated
rival on the last weekend of that month, has hit like a team full of
Jeff Kent clones since then:


April: .227/.332/.370, 4.2 R/G
Since: .288/.369/.508, 6.3 R/G

The Yankees’ offense has been the critical element in their run, rendering the
collective agita over April’s struggles just a bad memory. Bernie
Williams
, who looked done in the cold weather, has hit .286/.366/.500
in May and June. Despite all the attention focused on his early-season
“struggle” Alex Rodriguez really only had two bad
weeks. He’s at .323/.419/.586 since May 1. Heck, Enrique
Wilson
has slugged .463 over that timeframe.

Even Derek Jeter, whose slump was so bad it made the cover of
Sports Illustrated, may be returning to his level. He’s off to an
8-for-20 start, with power, in June. Jeter has never been a walk machine, but
his plate discipline fell apart in May to the tune of three walks and 25
strikeouts in 119 at-bats. With some success at the plate, the apparent
pressing that led to the collapse of his selectivity should dissipate; I’d be
surprised if Jeter didn’t finish the season around .300/.370/.440, which would
be pretty good numbers given how he hit for two months.

The Yankees have needed most of the 242 runs they’ve scored in the 39 games,
because the team’s pitching hasn’t matched the offense’s resurgence. They’ve
allowed 4.85 runs during that stretch, and rank in the middle of the AL in
runs allowed (275) this season. The culprit is the starting rotation, which
despite the best efforts of Javier Vazquez, has a
Support-Neutral Value Added of -0.9, ninth in the AL. Everyone other than
Vazquez and Kevin Brown has been below average, although
Mike Mussina has edged up to basically average since his
horrible start.

The back end of the rotation has been brutal, and while Jon
Lieber
isn’t a bad solution, no amount of wishcasting is going to
make Jose Conteras a reliable #4 starter. He just doesn’t
throw enough strikes. If Kevin Brown‘s back sends him to the
disabled list, the prospect of Tanyon Sturtze picking up
starts is frighteningly real. The Yankees’ inability to produce internal
solutions for roster problems is a major failure of the front office, perhaps
its only one.

On the other hand, the Yankee bullpen has been excellent, ranking second in
the AL in Adjusted Runs Prevented. Last season, Joe Torre didn’t have the
personnel to run his pen the way he had for nearly a decade. He has had a much
easier time of it this year, with Tom Gordon available to set
up Mariano Rivera. The offense is a more obvious point, but
Gordon has had almost as big an impact on the season because he’s secured the
eighth inning, such a problem for the Yankees last year. Paul
Quantrill
has provided innings, and while no left-hander has been
effective so far–Gabe White and Felix
Heredia
have allowed 42 hits and 11 walks in 27 1/3 innings–that role
will be filled, internally or externally, come July 31. The imminent return of
Steve Karsay will only help.

Make no mistake, though, this team is all about the offense, and will go as
far as its eight-man lineup allows. The Yankees will score 900 runs for the
first time since 1999, and probably allow 800 for the first time since 2000.
It’s a much different team than the one we’ve seen for the past few seasons,
more able to win games when getting a bad start–and getting more bad
starts–and more prone to blowing teams out. The preponderance of guys who can
get on base makes this a dangerous come-from-behind team, as the game that
started the streak shows. If the Yankees were to acquire an upgrade at second
base, even one like Junior Spivey, they could have a 200-run
month down the stretch.

Thanks to the 30-9 streak, the Yankees have opened up a three-and-a-half game lead on the
Red Sox, an eight-game swing from the completion of the sweep. That would be
reasonable cause for consternation in Boston if not for the fact that the Sox
have the second-best record in baseball. They survived playing a third
of the season without Nomar Garciaparra, and will get
Trot Nixon back sometime in the next week or so. To have the
second-best record in the game, and be in the wild-card slot, is a heck of an
achievement under those circumstances.

I’m still not convinced that the better team is in first place, given that the
Sox are so close while having gotten so little from 15% of the payroll. I am,
however, convinced that both of these teams are superior to the two in the AL
West, and that my “gang of four” theory is now invalid. The Yankees
and Red Sox are both going to the playoffs, and the A’s and Angels are
fighting for one playoff spot, not two.