Torre on the hot seat

NEW YORK -- With the race for October down to the final 18 games, the Yankees know what's at stake if they fall short. The consequences, in fact, hang over them like an anvil.

It's more than just the embarrassment of not making the playoffs with a $203 million payroll. It'd be more than failing to avenge the collapse in last year's championship series against the Red Sox. This time, Joe Torre's job could be at stake -- despite the fact he's taken the Yankees to the playoffs in each of his first nine seasons in the Bronx.

Those past successes haven't created a safety net for 2006, according to club insiders. Not even the two years remaining on Torre's contract, and the $13.1 million he's guaranteed, have stopped club insiders from speculating that Lou Piniella will be managing the Yankees next year. At least that's the watercooler gossip in the front office, as George Steinbrenner has distanced himself from Torre in the last two months.

One way to gauge the cold war against Torre is the tone of postgame questions by the YES Network, especially after a Yankee loss. It's an open secret that Steinbrenner and his lieutenants use the Network to tweak, if not challenge Torre, and funnel questions through field reporters. Torre is fully aware which way the wind is blowing, and is showing signs of strain.

He appeared run-down during last weekend's series with the Red Sox, and while insisting "the game is still fun, the players are still fun," he nevertheless admitted: "The rest of it isn't fun anymore."

So far, however, Torre has avoided discussing the second-guessing, asking a reporter "Aren't you proud of me?" for not going public with his complaints about Steinbrenner. The Boss has always resented Torre's popularity, and the perception that he's been responsible for the empire's success. The Boss believes it's his money, not Torre's managerial skill, that drives the Yankee engine.

But for the first time since 1996, Torre is vulnerable because his primary advocate, general manager Brian Cashman, may be on the way out no matter how the Yankees fare. His contract expires Oct. 31, and while it's believed Steinbrenner has offered to renew Cashman's contract, the 38-year-old executive has yet to respond.

Friends in and out of the organization say Cashman's evasiveness is a sure sign he's bolting -- fed up, they say, with the New York-Tampa factionalism that makes the Yankees so dysfunctional. One intriguing offseason scenario has Cashman going to the Orioles and taking Torre with him.

But if Cashman is contemplating new surroundings, he's keeping it a secret. A's GM Billy Beane, one of Cashman's closest allies said, "I think the only people who know what Brian is thinking are him and his wife."

Without Cashman's projecting as the GM of the future, Torre is on his own to deal with the club's second-guessers, which according to one source, include virtually everyone except Cashman. But Torre isn't panicking, and promises not to manage with job security on his mind.

"Honestly, I wouldn't know how to do my job any differently," Torre said. "I don't know the difference between trying to win and trying to save my job. If you're going to get fired, you might as well do the things that you think are right."

Torre nearly committed professional suicide Sunday in what was arguably the Yankees' most important game of the year. With a 1-0 lead over the Red Sox after seven inning, Torre chose to remove Randy Johnson, replacing him with Tom Gordon. The Big Unit had allowed only one hit, but walked off the mound after the seventh with a tender left calf.

Torre could've allowed Johnson to start the eighth, bad leg and all, and could've hidden behind the left-hander's gun readings (he topped out at 99 mph) and relatively low pitch count (just 100 after seven innings). But the manager said, "I knew in my heart" that Johnson had thrown his last pitch. Without asking the Big Unit if he could continue, Torre summoned Gordon and said a furious, silent prayer.

"I know that when I turn around, there's no one behind me and no one else to blame except me. It's the nature of what I do," Torre said. "The decisions can't all be no-brainers or easy to explain. I knew the right thing to do was what I did."

Torre was vindicated -- but just barely. Gordon allowed Tony Graffanino a leadoff single in the eighth, and Mariano Rivera eventually arrived to face David Ortiz (whom he walked) and Johnny Damon (who grounded out after a 10-pitch at-bat). Even in the ninth, Torre had to sweat. The Red Sox had runners on first and third before Rivera finally struck out John Olerud to end the game -- and, no doubt, buy Torre breathing room.

The irony is that the Yankees seem blissfully unaware -- or are at least uninvolved -- in Torre's political struggles, which is just the way he wants it. That's one reason Beane considers the Yankees the "most dangerous" of the 11th-hour contenders.

"There's always a sense of calm about them," Beane said. "There might be chaos around them, but somehow I don't think [Derek] Jeter and A-Rod walk to the plate thinking about that. That's the beauty of that team and why they're never out of it."

Of course, the Yankees could soften the winds of controversy by catching the Red Sox, or at least the Indians. Surviving the regular season would help Torre avoid the anvil. But if Torre thinks September has been rough, just wait until October.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.