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Friday, August 17, 2012
October thunder the key for Swisher

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

White lightning struck Yankee Stadium on Friday night, not once but twice, and it had nothing to do with the stormy weather.

It had everything to do with Nick Swisher and his new bats, which arrived at the ballpark a couple of hours before the game and were immortalized by the man himself a few minutes after it ended.

"I call them white lightning," the ever-ebullient Yankees right fielder said after the Bombers used five solo home runs, two of them by Swisher, and one RBI single to beat the Red Sox 6-4 in the first game of a three-game series. "Or the white bombers. I'm not sure yet. I haven't decided on a nickname."

Nick Swisher
If Nick Swisher doesn't bring the noise in October, he'll be going, going, gone.

Swisher was basking in the glow of full awesomeness after his multihomer performance, a game in which he had homered from both sides of the plate for the 12th time in his career, a number exceeded in baseball history by only one player -- his teammate Mark Teixeira.

"I feel like [I've] been chasing Tex for a long time," Swisher said. "That's one cool thing being a switch hitter, because it's rare you feel good from both sides of the plate at the same time."

Swisher's feeling it now and has been for the past 10 games or so, ever since Joe Girardi dropped the slumping Curtis Granderson in the batting order and slid Swisher into the No. 2 hole.

Since then, Swisher has batted .333 (14-for-42) with four home runs and 14 RBIs.

"I don't think that's it," Swisher said of the batting order. "I feel like everybody's trying to make a big deal about that second spot, but I'm just trying to be a little more selective, get some pitches to hit. I feel like I'm getting my pitch and I'm not missing. I felt for a couple of weeks like I was getting my pitch and I was fouling it off. I just feel like I'm just having fun. I'm stress-free right now."

That last sentence might be the key to the whole thing.

You see, Nick Swisher is in the final year of a contract and there is no guarantee he will be a Yankee next season.

In fact, if I were a betting man, I would take the odds that Swisher ends up in another uniform for 2013.

But the odds of him somehow ending up back in the Bronx next year don't seem quite as long as they did a few months, or even a few weeks ago, for a couple of reasons.

One of them is the way Swisher is hitting right now and the other is the way Granderson is not, even if one of the five Yankees home runs Friday night was also Granderson's 31st.

There is a big decision facing Brian Cashman and Yankees ownership this offseason, and it involves Swisher, Granderson and Robinson Cano. Granderson and Cano have team options for 2013 that will cost the Yankees $13 million and $15 million respectively. Swisher will be a free agent, demanding a lot more than the $10.25 million he is making this year.

And considering the fact that owner Hal Steinbrenner has issued a mandate to reduce payroll to $189 million by 2014, there is no way they can keep all three of them.

It's a no-brainer they will pick up Cano's 2013 option and sign him to a long-term deal after next season.

But there is no guarantee on either Granderson or Swisher.

A couple of months ago, when Granderson was among the league leaders in home runs and Swisher was struggling to stay above .250, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Yankees would be bidding Swisher farewell at the end of this season, especially when you take into account his dreadful history of October non-performance.

But there might be reason to rethink that now. Even when he is not hitting, Swisher is an on-base machine, among the most selective hitters on the team.

And even when he is hitting, home runs, that is, Granderson should spell his first name with a capital K. Although he is on pace to be at or near 40 home runs for the second straight year, he is just as likely to demolish the Yankees' single-season record for strikeouts, held by himself (169). He might even reach the rare 200 mark, a number he is right on pace to hit if he gets to 600 at-bats, which seems a certainty.

So if there is anything for Swisher to stress over, once again it is October, and not only because his career postseason batting average is .169 over nine series or that his on-base percentage is a puny .295.

In fact, there was a school of thought in spring training that this entire season would be one long October for Swisher, that the pressure of having to sing for his supper would cause him to choke for six months rather than just one.

Back in June, it looked as if that might be happening, but not now. To his credit, he has never mentioned his contract status or used it as an excuse when he was mired in a slump that lasted from mid-May to July.

Nor did he seem to have an explanation for his sudden turnaround.

"You're looking for an answer and I haven't got one," he said. "I'm just having fun playing the game that I love and it just so happens that I'm hot right now."

Swisher's first home run of the game, and 17th of the season, came in the first inning, hitting right-handed against the Red Sox's left-handed starter, Franklin Morales, on a hanging slider on the eighth pitch of the at-bat.

His second came in the seventh inning, hitting left-handed against righty reliever Clayton Mortensen on a 3-0 fastball.

"In that count, it's just got to look good, you know?" he said. "At 3-0, if he throws me a fastball on the middle part of the plate where I can drive it, I'm going after it. It's just kind of a feel thing for me. I'm either feeling it or I'm not feeling it."

The way he is hitting right now, Swisher is on pace to put up his typical career numbers -- .260 batting average, .350 OBP, 25 or so home runs.

But will that be enough to convince the Yankees to choose him over Granderson if it comes down to one or the other?

Probably not, because although they will deny it publicly, the only stats that really matter around here are the ones that are gathered in the second season, the one that begins after the regular season is over.

Swisher won't even discuss that part of his career or its likely impact on where he will wind up playing in 2013. But it seems simple enough -- if he has a normal Swisher year, and finally shakes off the jinx of October, he could be back.

If not -- well, lightning struck twice Friday night at Yankee Stadium.

But three times might be too much even for Swisher to ask for.