Sunday, October 7, 2007
Damon turns on the power, rescues Yankees
By Jerry Crasnick
NEW YORK -- It's amazing how quickly it went from wall-to-wall baseball action on television to, "Do you need any work done around the house, honey?" In Boston, Phoenix and Denver, three of the four league championship series qualifiers are in place, and they have the luxury of aligning their pitching rotations while experimenting with a variety of hangover remedies.
Thank goodness for the Yankees and Indians, teams with such creative flair they can generate plot twists that don't include an army of insects dropping miraculously from the sky.
Three innings into Game 3 of the American League Division Series, New York manager Joe Torre was soon-to-be-unemployed, Roger Clemens was limping around the clubhouse on a strained hamstring and we were fast approaching that time of year when Alex Rodriguez spends more time conversing with agent Scott Boras than with hitting coach Kevin Long.
Shortly after 10 p.m. ET, the executioner's song had been replaced by Mariano Rivera's personal theme, "Enter Sandman." And the victorious Yankees were looking forward to a Monday night date with the hittable (they hope) Paul Byrd.
It's amazing what 3 2/3 innings of emergency relief from Phil Hughes, a three-run homer from Johnny Damon and an 8-4 victory can do for a team's morale.
"I know the Red Sox are off waiting for the next team," Damon said. "Hopefully that team is us."
After the Indians benefited from Joba Chamberlain's midge-induced meltdown in Game 2 of the series, you wondered what local angle the folks in New York might take to distract the Indians. Send an army of squeegee men to attack their team bus? Pelt them with corned beef sandwiches from the box seats? The mind boggles at the possibilities.
In an ironic twist, the Yankees' pregame wounds were self-inflicted, and they came close to being done in by a time-honored New York tradition: the media-generated soap opera.
You knew it was going to happen eventually. In Sunday morning's edition of The Record of New Jersey, owner George Steinbrenner told columnist Ian O'Connor that Torre had better beat the Indians or else.
"His job is on the line," Steinbrenner said.
Torre, who claims to read the papers only when things are going well, said he didn't learn about The Boss' comments until he arrived at the ballpark. Not long after, Torre entered the downstairs bomb shelter that passes for an interview room at Yankee Stadium and showed precisely why he's been able to maintain his sanity and his dignity through 12 years in this cauldron.
Through question after question, Torre replied in the same calm, reasoned tones he might use to explain a lineup change. Managing the Yankees is a great job, he said, and he understands that high expectations are part of the bargain. Security and unwavering support from above? Well, not so much.
"You're not surprised by whatever comes down the pike," Torre said. "You don't always get used to it, but you understand that there are certain things you have to deal with if you want to work here."
If Torre's tenuous job status was a hot topic of conversation in the clubhouse, the New York players did their best to conceal it. Derek Jeter flat-out refused to address the topic after the game, and Bobby Abreu claimed to have no earthly idea what reporters were talking about.
"Sorry about that," Abreu said.
Most likely, the New York players were trying not to get caught up in their manager's future because there's too much going on in the present. Damon was one of the few New York players to share his emotions on the subject.
"What we have to understand as players is, Mr. Steinbrenner is the boss," Damon said. "He gets to make the decisions here. And what we can do as players is to go out and keep playing as hard as we can. We all love Joe Torre, and we'd love for him to win another championship. He's meant so much to the Yankees organization."
In the biggest game of the season so far, the Yankees took a flier on Clemens, whose storied career includes 354 wins, seven Cy Young Awards, 11 All-Star appearances and a forgettable 2007 season. Clemens went 6-6 with a 4.18 ERA, and he missed the past three weeks with a balky hamstring.
|Johnny Damon had three hits and drove in four runs in Game 3.|
In his return to the rotation, Clemens looked less like a savior than like a 45-year-old guy with a bad wheel. He generally pitched in the upper 80s, had a tough time finding the strike zone and was too limited physically to push off the mound with authority.
By the second inning, Clemens said, the hamstring injury "activated," and he summoned catcher Jorge Posada to the mound for a conference.
"I've got a problem going on here," Clemens told Posada.
Yankees trainer Steve Donohue wrapped the hamstring between innings, and Clemens tried to gut it out through sheer concentration and muscle memory. But he eventually reached the point at which reality trumped valor.
"I thought I could continue on and get outs and we would be fine," Clemens said. "But I finally said, 'I can't put these guys in a situation where the game gets out of hand.'"
Torre called on Hughes in the third inning, and the rookie dazzled the Indians with his fastball, breaking ball, changeup and impressive poise. He kept the game close until Damon summoned his flair for the dramatic, hitting a three-run shot off Jake Westbrook in the fifth to give the Yankees a 5-3 lead.
"He's the best leadoff hitter in the last 10 years, in my opinion," Alex Rodriguez said of Damon. "He's amazing."
Although school is still out on the Yankees, they're accustomed to rewriting story lines. On May 29, they were 21-29, tied for fourth place in the American League East, 14½ games behind first-place Boston. They turned around their season by plugging away, day by day, with the mind-set of underdogs rather than of a $195 million juggernaut. Now they're conditioned to thinking no obstacle is insurmountable.
"There's a lot on the line," Damon said. "We're playing for our manager that we love. We're playing for fans that we love. So we'd like to prolong the season as long as we can."
Three games into the division series, love is in the air at Yankee Stadium. And it feels a whole lot better than bugs.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
He's the best leadoff hitter in the last 10 years, in my opinion. He's amazing.
--Alex Rodriguez, on Johnny Damon