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New-look Yanks better than ever

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BOSTON -- We all know they're supposed to riding to the park to the strains of "Old Folks Boogie (You know that you're over the hill when your mind makes a promise that your body can't fill)" and taking it slow until summer.

But the World Series champion Yankees aren't, for a number of reasons.

Friday night, in the tenth inning of one of those pitching lockjaws with the wind whipping in and across Fenway Park, Alfonso Soriano changed the game.

Alfonso Soriano
Rookie Alfonso Soriano has paid huge dividends already for the Yankees.

Boston had closer Derek Lowe on the mound in a 1-1 game when Soriano led off by carving a looper down the right field line for a double. An out later, he broke for third. When Red Sox rookie Shea Hillenbrand had to break to cover third, Scott Brosius' bounder went through the vacated hole into left for the go-ahead run. A bloop, a run, a bouncer and a 2-1 lead.

Now the Red Sox came back to win 3-2 in the bottom of the inning on three great at-bats by Trot Nixon, Carl Everett and Manny Ramirez, who drove in two for the victory.

But the one inning against what had been ten innings of superb pitching was a clear message that in 1999 and 2000 the Yankees were so much older, then; they're younger than that now. 1996 and 1998 young, that is.

Saturday, Soriano won the game for the Yankees.

After an earlier mixup with Derek Jeter that killed what should have been an inning-ending forceout followed by Trot Nixon's two-run bad hop single, Soriano came back to be the hero.

In the seventh inning, down 2-1 to Pedro Martinez, Soriano stole second, then stole third and scored on a wild pitch. In the ninth, he homered off Pete Schourek, and this time the Yankees had a 3-2 win.

"There's no question Soriano has made us a different club," Joe Torre said. "He gives us speed; and it's not that he's that fast, but he's got incredible acceleration. He's exciting. He's got great bat speed (only the wind kept him from hitting what would have been a game-winning homer Friday night). He's a special talent."

"In spring training the writers kept talking about trading him," says Roger Clemens, "and I kept saying, 'Let's play him. He's what we need.'"

Or, as Paul O'Neill suggested, Soriano made the whole Yankees team younger.

"He's going to make mistakes, he's going to make mistakes, but he keeps coming back for more and pressuring the other team," Torre says. "He's doing a lot of things for us."

"We do seem like a younger team," says Tino Martinez.

Part of it is the life that the move of Chuck Koblauch and the insertion of Soriano brought to the Yankees. But a major part is a rejuvenation of several hitters' approaches.

"I think a lot of us decided over the winter to get back to our own basics," Martinez said. "There's no question that I had become pull-conscious, started pulling off the ball and had gotten into some bad habits. Over the winter, as I worked as hard as I ever have on my conditioning, I worked on getting back to what got me to the big leagues as a hitter. I am a straightaway, gap hitter, and this winter I set up a screen from second base over on this field near my house and concentrated on staying back and hitting everything into it."

If Martinez pulled balls in his backyard, he had to go get them.

And when he got to spring training, he found an eager hitting coach in Gary Denbo, who re-emphasized what Martinez had worked so hard at over the offseason. Martinez's average had dropped three straight seasons. After knocking in 598 runs his five previous years, he slipped to 16 homers and 91 RBI. And he knew, at 33, he wanted to play another three years, at least.

"It is possible get into a rut," says Martinez.

Scott Brosius, who had the third lowest average of any batting title qualifier, had fallen into a rut, and Denbow got him going with the pitch.

The 40-year-old hitting coach convinced Jorge Posada to trust his bat speed against fastballs, stay back, better recognize the breaking ball and deal with it. Ten games into the season, Posada -- who struck out 151 times last year -- had four homers and two punchouts. In one game in Kansas City, the Yankees had 19 hits, 13 to the opposite field or up the middle.

"This is really the style that made us two and three years ago," says Paul O'Neill. "With a couple of exceptions, we're not really a home-run hitting team. I have a very good feeling about what's going on here."

The Yankees did their major addition in the off-season by signing Mike Mussina, which gives them a second free-agent signing from another team on the 25-man roster to go with Mike Stanton(signed away from Texas).

But with Knoblauch energized by escaping his nightmare at second, the addition of Soriano's electricity and the change in approach, this is a different Yankee team.

And management knows that come June or July, when there may be no top starting pitchers available, they can always find a hitter, if necessary. Last season, they made deals for Moises Alou and Juan Gonzalez that fell through because the player wouldn't move, and they were 24 hours from a deal for Sammy Sosa before David Justice became available, cheap.

News and notes
  • The Cubs' strong start (6-4 through Friday) has been epitomized by strong pitching performance and Jason Bere epitomized that with his six innings of one-run ball on Friday in a game the Cubs beat the Pirates, 4-2.

    "We have a chance to have a pretty respectable pitching staff," says Cubs GM Andy MacPhail, who besides the expected work of Jon Leiber and Kerry Wood has seen Kevin Tapani come back healthy, and strong, and Julian Tavarez and Bere each pitch two strong games. "Leiber deserved to win both his games, but that kind of thing will work its way out over the season. Once we get Flash (Gordon) back, we could be OK, and we have some depth in Triple-A that could help us in time."

    Gordon could be back from his strained shoulder muscle in the April 21-24th range, but in the meanwhile Jeff Fassero is 5-for-5 closing in his absence, including the fifth on Friday when he punched out the side in the ninth. "One time, Jeff hit 93 on the gun," says MacPhail. And while the veteran left-hander doesn't throw that hard every time out, as a reliever he can air it out and throw his heavy fastball in the 90s with a slider and a split. As a starter last season, Fassero tended to pace himself, which lessened his stuff, but in the 13 1/3 innings he pitched in relief in September last year, the life came back in his arm and MacPhail swooped in and stole him.

    One other interesting sidelight has been the progress of Kyle Farnsworth, whose filthy stuff has been harnessed in a couple of relief appearances this seaosn. As for the staff's depth, the Cubs have Carlos Zambrano, Will Ohman, Ben Christensen and a number of interesting arms in the minors.

    What concerns MacPhail most right now is the slow starts by both Todd Hundley and Matt Stairs."We really need their bats, because we need production from the left side," says MacPhail. "Our division is so right-handed in terms of starting pitching (the only left starters right now are the Pirates' Jimmy Anderson and the Cardinals' Rick Ankiel) that we have to get production from our left-handed hitters."

  • One of the most amusing aspects of living in a city is the narrow view fans and talk-show callers have of managers. Case in point: Jimy Williams. The single biggest reason that the Red Sox have been competitive the last three seasons has been his ability to handle pitching; during that time, Boston's ERA is 4.06, the Yankees are the next best at 4.45. OK, take Pedro Martinez out of the equation, and Boston's ERA is virtually the same as New York's.

    "This staff if the best we've had since I've been here," says Red Sox closer Derek Lowe. While it's early, cold and most of their games have been against the lowly Orioles -- whose Easter hunt will be for their second home run (they have only one as a team through Friday) -- and Rays, the addition of Hideo Nomo, the development of rookies Tomo Ohka and Paxton Crawford and the comeback of Rod Beck have given Williams a lot more to work with.

  • In spring training, Manny Ramirez's friends on the Indians worried about how he would stand up to the Boston crowd. "They've been great to me, wonderful," says Ramirez. Of course, the fact that Ramirez hit the first pitch he saw in Fenway for a three-run homer and had 11 RBI in his first seven home games doesn't hurt. When he singled in the tying and winning runs off Mariano Rivera on Friday -- against whom prior to the hit had been 0-for-12 with six strikeouts in his career -- in the first meeting against the Yankees, he seemed to have carved himself a niche as a cult hero.

    "When he is at the plate, Manny is a genius," says one AL scout. "If there is one hitter more intelligent than Edgar Martinez, it is Manny." As for coping with Boston, Ramirez has been living with Jose Offerman, who has helped get him used to the local culture. "I need to save money," says Manny. He laughs when he says that.

  • Dan Duquette is still looking around for a shortstop, although Williams is pleased with Craig Grebeck and Mike Lansing for the time being. Duquette has been trying a ton to get Donnie Sadler back, but thus far has been unwilling to part with Dernell Stenson, whom the Reds highly covet.

  • The John Hart Watch is on, with rumors floating in L.A., Atlanta and Baltimore (Mike Hargrove doesn't want to hear that) that he could end up in any of those cities. The other speculated destination is Tampa Bay, where despite GM Chuck LaMar putting together a solid developmental system, there is unrest that goes way above the speculation about manager Larry Rothschild's future. There is a lot of talk that owner Vince Naimoli's partners want LaMar out, and if Mark Bostick ever is the lead owner, he is a friend of Hart's and a huge admirer. Oh yes and by the way, Hart does have a home in Orlando.

  • While some GMs thought that Scott Williamson's injury and his prior availability might have indicated that Reds GM Jim Bowden was dealing damaged goods, it seems that both the A's and Indians made offers on Williamson early in spring training, and were turned down. The fact that Cincinnati's bullpen threw more innings than any NL pen except the Rockies in Williamson's first two years might have something to do with it, although Bowden insists that he doesn't feel that the rest of the pen has been stressed out and says Scott Sullivan's back problems are not workload-related and that he's starting to throw as well as he has in the last three years.

  • One NL executive has an interesting theory about small-market teams rushing their best prospects to the majors at the ages of 19-21: "Are you better off having him from 21 through 26 or 23 through 29? In terms of production, you may be better off keeping him in the minors a little longer so that if you're going to lose him to the big markets, you get some of his prime productive years."

    Around the majors

  • Despite managing to come back and win in their road game against the Cardinals on Thursday after being no-hit into the sixth inning it remains the same old story for the Rockies. "Until we learn to hit outside of Coors Field," says GM Dan O'Dowd, "this franchise isn't going to win. It just doesn't make sense, except that for this week -- which is a small period of time -- Todd Helton and Larry Walker weren't hitting."

    The Rockies have never had a winning record on the road. The lowest average they've ever had at home is .316, the fewest runs per game for a season 6.49. The highest average they've ever hit on the road is .257, the most runs per game 4.67.

  • Astros players are raving about pitcher Wade Miller. "He has four above average pitches, and a lot of heart," says one Astros player, who projects double figures in wins for Miller.

  • "The best pitcher we've seen this year," says one NL GM, "is (Padres right-hander) Adam Eaton. He's on the verge of being great." What's interesting about Eaton, whom GM Kevin Towers stole from Philadelphia in the Andy Ashby deal, is that he usually opens games throwing in the high 80s, then as the game goes along he throws harder and harder into the low to mid 90s. As he goes along, his fastball gets more and more unhittable.

  • There has been a lot of speculation that the strike zone has hurt the A's more than any other team. "We're third in the league in walks and we're batting .209 in our first nine games," says GM Billy Beane. "The strike zone isn't our problem. We're just not swinging the bats well." The Jason Giambi contract thing may have been a distraction, however. The two sides continue to talk despite earlier insistence that negotiations wouldn't carry into the season, but Giambi is entrenched on issues that Oakland ownership apparently isn't going to give in on. Now Giambi has to view the market and decide where someone might pay him more than $15 million a season.

  • Dante Bichette has lost eight pounds and is working out daily in left field, but if he cannot find a role in Boston, his agents know that to sit for a season at this stage of his career would be disastrous. So, they are pondering some proposal to work a buyout that would allow Bichette to move on and get daily at-bats elsewhere.

  • Ramon Martinez signed with the Pirates instead of Cincinnati because the Bucs could afford to give him $1 million in incentives. It might be a very good signing, for the Dodger folks who know Ramon insist that he's throwing freer and harder than anytime since he originally underwent surgery in 1997.

  • In his first two starts, the Blue Jays' Chris Carpenter has had four outs on balls hit in the air, and looks as if he's back on track as the No. 1 starter many thought he'd be. "There's no surprise, he's always been a potential top starter as long as he's healthy," says Pat Hentgen. On the subject of potential No. 1 starters, Cardinals right-hander Matt Morris hit 98 Wednesday in St. Louis.

  • Speaking of radar guns, remember the name Kris Foster. He's a 26-year-old right-handed reliever with the Dodgers' Double-A Jacksonville club in his ninth professional year. He recently threw six pitches in one outing that registered 100 mph. Health has been a problem for Foster as he pitched only 11 2/3 innings last season. But add that name to the Dodgers' stable of power arms.

  • These are the things that can't be measured in the offseason: Rick Reed's curveball keeps getting better and better, the development of Glendon Rusch's curveball has made him a different pitcher and Dennis Cook has added a split and by moving to a new spot on the rubber has started throwing first pitch strikes, which have made him a different pitcher.

  • The veteran leadership of the Mets is invaluable. When opponents were upset with Tsuyoshi Shinjo's antics -- flipping his bat after his first major-league homer, and jumping up and clicking his heels after catching a flyball -- some veterans pulled him aside and let him know that wasn't going to last long. And they also talked to pitcher Turk Wendell after his confrontation with the Expos' Vladimir Guerrero. Turk, by the way, also heard from Frank Robinson.

    This and that
  • The Angels may not have the pitching depth to be serious playoff contenders, but once again they are one of those teams that opponents respect for the way they play. "Ramon Ortiz is maturing into a legit stopper, and Scott Schoeneweis is getting to the point where he's going to be one of the league's better left-handers," says an AL scout. "For me, Darin Erstad does more for his team than any player for any other club, for his talent and the way he plays."

  • Now that Adam Kennedy is back, manager Mike Scioscia is trying David Eckstein at shortstop. Eckstein's arm may be a little short, but then he's always supposed to have been short. Only he gets on base (.415 career minor league on-base percentage), he's smart and he plays hard. "I really like that kid, and hope he makes it," says Jimy Williams, who had Eckstein in spring training last year wit the Red Sox. When Dan Duquette had to get Izzy Alcantara on the Sox's roster last summer, he had to waive Eckstein, who was claimed by Anaheim.

  • This is what happens with young pitchers: Florida's Braden Looper kept blowing away Phillies hitters with his fastball, but was getting beaten with his slider. Not much sense there. And, in the case of Oakland's Mark Mulder, he has to learn what to do now that he's throwing 92-94 mph, where last season he was throwing 86-87.

  • While another cash call to partners and low attendance signals more problems for a troubled Montreal franchise despite the club's frontline talent and good start, the Players Association doesn't put much stock in threats of contraction. "In the end, the legal ramifications may be too great," says one source. "What sounds like a good idea might not sound quite as great the closer they get. Montreal is the one possible exception, because it's Canada." But the union knows what most owners know -- that commissioner Bud Selig is too afraid of Peter Angelos' litigious power to allow a club into Northern Virginia.

  • After looking at video, Boston pitchers have this suggestion to Fred McGriff as they prepare to play one another this coming week: no more peeking back at the catcher. "We saw it, and then when we saw the home run he hit in Toronto off (Billy) Koch. We saw him peek at the catcher to get location," says a Boston pitcher.

  • In spring training, it was the Astros who were supposed to be thin in pitching. But when they designated pitcher Jose Cabrera for assignment, thus making him a free agent, it was Atlanta who claimed him and put him on their staff. "Considering the state of pitching," says one GM, "I'm surprised he got that far down the waiver list."

  • Mike Hargrove on pitcher Sidney Ponson: "I think he's still going to be a big winner. I still like Bartolo Colon a lot, but I'd rather have Ponson."

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