Struggling Yanks hold team meeting

Updated: September 5, 2012, 10:55 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Having seen their 10-game lead over the rest of the AL East evaporate and facing a weekend showdown with the Baltimore Orioles, with whom they now share the division lead, the New York Yankees on Wednesday did what struggling teams have done throughout baseball history.

We needed this wake-up call. We had it too easy. We were like a boxer who wins every fight by knockout with his right hand and never learns how to use his left.

-- An anonymous Yankees player on the team meeting

They called a team meeting.

At around 4:50 p.m. ET, a little more than two hours before a game in which they will try to avoid being swept by the third-place Tampa Bay Rays, word circulated through the clubhouse that a meeting had been called, and within seconds, the room was empty of all but reporters and coaches.

The players filed in about 20 minutes later, many of them laughing among themselves, delaying the start of their pregame stretch by about five minutes. Manager Joe Girardi acknowledged that he had called the meeting but refused to divulge any specifics.

"I mean, I just wanted to talk about some of the things we're going through,'' Girardi said. "The importance of, you go through it, you've been through it, we'll come out of it.''

Girardi said he typically calls about four or five team meetings per season, although he was unable to recall any happening prior to Wednesday's this season.

"I've been in them as a player. I've been in them as a manager, a coach,'' he said. "It's something you do from time to time. It's no big deal.''

But with the Yankees having played sub-.500 ball (19-25) since reaching their high-water mark July 18, and frittering away what seemed like a secure lead in the AL East, the manager clearly felt it was time to say something.

And so did several of his players. According to a team source who requested anonymity, several players spoke, including one veteran who presented the Yankees' current plight as "the best thing that could have happened to this team.''

"We needed this wake-up call,'' the player is reported to have said. "We had it too easy. We were like a boxer who wins every fight by knockout with his right hand and never learns how to use his left.''

It was unclear how many Yankees spoke at the meeting or if team captain Derek Jeter delivered a message -- although one player told ESPNNewYork.com, "Everyone you would expect to talk, talked.''

Throughout their recent skid, most of the Yankees have adopted an air of nonchalance, as if losing a 10-game lead was a normal occurrence during the course of a baseball season.

"We're still in first place,'' Jeter had said after Monday's 4-3 loss to the Rays that cut their division lead to one game. "See, I look at the positives. Baseball's a funny game, a funny sport. Sometimes you struggle a bit, and then all of a sudden, things seem to change and you roll off a lot of wins. Hopefully, we start that tomorrow.''

And he chided a reporter who asked if the team was "panicking.''

"Who's panicking? You? Are you panicking?,'' he asked. "How do you deal with panic? I don't panic. So I don't have to deal with it. Everyone deals with it differently. But I'm not one to panic.?"

However, after Tuesday 5-2 defeat forced them to share the division lead for the first time since June 11, Jeter's tone was more subdued.

"Seems like the same story every day,'' he said. "Teams struggle at times; it's contagious both in good ways and bad. We're scuffling a little bit, but hopefully we'll be able to break out of it tomorrow."

The Yankees are counting on Hiroki Kuroda, their most reliable starter over the past two months, to prevent them from being swept by the Rays, who are sending out lefthander Matt Moore.

"We're still in first place,'' Girardi said, echoing a familiar Yankee theme. "That's the bottom line, and what's going to happen in this division is going to depend on how we're going to play in the next 27 games. I like our club, and I like our team. I believe they're going to get it done.''

And there was one Yankee who admitted to being energized by the idea of a pennant race again, two months after it looked ias the Yankees would run away with the division by Labor Day.

"It's exciting,'' said Andy Pettitte, out with a broken ankle since June 28, when the Yankees had a five-game lead, and hoping to return to the mound by the middle of the month. "I came back expecting to be in the playoffs, and hopefully we can pull this off. But to have that pressure, and these games  it's fun. This is what I came back for.''

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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