Monday, April 21, 2008


ONE-EIGHTH of the season gone and the New York Yankees already trail the Boston Red Sox by three-and-a-half games in the American League East standings. The good news for Yanks fans is that it could be a lot worse.

One-third of the regular batting line-up would, on current form, have trouble hitting the backside of a cow with a banjo. Jason Giambi has a batting average of .109; Robby Cano (.169) and Johnny Damon (.215) are not faring much better.

Three of the five starting pitchers – Ian Kennedy (with an ERA of 9.64), Phil Hughes (8.82) and Mike Mussina (5.75) – are leaking runs faster than the Titanic shipped water.

Add relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins (9.64) into the equation and it’s remarkable that the Yankees have managed to go 10-10 in their first 20 games.

Slow starts have become the norm in recent seasons for the Bronx Bombers. The question is can they really give a team like the Red Sox a head start and expect to catch them?

Statistically, the Sox always have the upper hand on their east coast rivals in April. But for their rally from 11-9 down at the Stadium last week, the Yanks would have lost four of the first five meetings. They don’t play again until July.

Yanks escape sweeps against Royals and Orioles

Of greater concern is the fact that they have already lost series to the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles. And, in each case, they had to win the final game to avoid a 3-0 sweep.

Not the start new manager Joe Girardi was hoping for. Already, some of the optimism following his appointment is beginning to wane.

We’ve heard that Girardi is meticulous; that he leaves no stone unturned in his preparations. According to the players, spring training was much more demanding than in previous years.

The role the manager plays in baseball is overrated. He’s only as good as his players and, at the moment, some of them simply aren’t very good.

Would the Yankees be any better off under Joe Torre? Probably not. It’s worth noting that Torre’s new club, the Los Angeles Dodgers, are propping up the National League West Division with a record of 7-11.

My one criticism of Girardi’s leadership so far is his reluctance to bench his out-of-form senior players. With three lefties struggling for hits, I don’t understand why Shelley Duncan was sent down to the minors.

Injuries to Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, and now A-Rod, haven’t helped. Neither has a schedule requiring that the Yankees play 18 out of 20 games on the road.

It’s both surprising and disappointing that a team with such strength and depth in their batting – at least, on paper – should have been shut out twice already. And that by such notable pitchers as Zack Greinke and Brian Burres.

I’m sure that when the summer really arrives, the Yanks will start hitting again with some consistency.

Hughes suffering from a crisis of confidence

I’ve also seen enough from Hughes to still believe that he has enough pitches to win games. At the moment, he’s just lacking in belief and confidence.

Kennedy and Mussina are another matter. They’re similar in style and, right now, similar in results. But while Kennedy has youth on his side, Mussina does not.

Significantly, his one good performance in four outings this season came against the Tampa Bay Rays. He no longer has enough tricks in his bag to fool the stronger batting line-ups that are now commonplace in the American League.

How long can Girardi afford to stick with Moose? Hank Steinbrenner believes Joba is wasted in his role as reliever and wants to see him switched to the starting rotation.

The only trouble is that leaves it up to Hawkins, Kyle Farnsworth and Brian Bruney (who has been excellent so far) to hand a lead over to Mariano Rivera.

Unless Mussina, Kennedy and Hughes show marked improvement, Girardi’s decision (or is it Hank’s?) on Chamberlain will probably be made for him. Better to have a lead to protect than no lead at all.

Following a much-needed day-off, the Yanks start a three-games series against the Chicago White Sox tomorrow (Tuesday) and then play four against the Cleveland Indians – the team that ended their play-off hopes last year.

The Yanks swept the Indians in regular season games last season. Expectations will be a little lower this time around.

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