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The Yanks Are Starting To Come Together Pepper
July 2, 2009 - John Whittaker
They're starting to come together, Pepper.
Some people laugh, other people need an explanation.
There's this scene in Major League where Lou Brown is peering out onto the field after the Indians win a game. As the players shake hands on the pitcher's mound, Brown looks at his bench coach, or pitching coach, or whoever he is, and says, "Starting to come together Pepper. Starting to come together." With that, he ambles out of the dugout to congratulate his team.
My buddy Finn is nodding his head right now.
Well, this year's Yankees have had a few "Pepper" moments, and the Whitless Wonder is starting to get excited.
Last year, I sat down at the computer and tried to find ways to make another half-season with an obviously overmatched team make sense.
I was talking myself into Jose Molina for 300 key at-bats, Xavier Nady as the answer to an anemic offense and Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson to make 20 key starts in the second half. Looking back, I might as well have tried talking myself into buying General Motors stock.
Words can't describe the shame I feel when I think back on that blog. I knew the team was seriously flawed, but I couldn't just write off an entire season. Hindsight being what it is, I should have known better - the 2008 Yankees didn't pass the "Pepper" test.
That team couldn't win if it was trailing after seven innings. A deficit late probably got bigger because the bullpen was terrible. Three days out of five, the starting rotation belonged in Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Jose Molina wore down, probably the product of too many beef and bean burritos.
Now, though, I see a Yankees team that could be worthy of late-season attention - they can come from behind and win games late, they have a couple of mashers in the middle of the lineup, likeable role players, two really good starting pitchers, and some youngsters flashing some serious potential.
Is it just me, or is Francisco Cervelli becoming a nice second catcher and a player who could possibly actually replace Jorge Posada when he retires? Is Phil Hughes really showing signs of being a good major league pitcher? Ramiro Pena might not be terrible. The two-headed Melky Gardner monster in centerfield is kind of productive, and any Yankees fan who doesn't want Brett Gardner on their team needs to hop off the back of the bandwagon. After a slow start, Mark Texeira is mashing the ball. After a couple of days off, Alex Rodriguez has stepped out of the juvenation machine and raised his batting average nearly 30 points. Even Robinson Cano is hitting the ball with some authority, and last season I really wondered if he'd ever hit.
The bullpen, which a month ago sent me to early Two and a Half Men reruns rather than watch the late innings of a Yankees game, looks passable. Now that Hughes is starting to lock down the seventh -- and possibly the eighth inning, if Brian Bruney keeps getting hit around the yard -- the late innings are set. David Robertson is alright as a middle reliever, I really like Phil Coke as a lefty specialist, "Chicken" Alfredo Aceves is a nice swing man, and Mariano Rivera is still Mariano Rivera. Most nights, he's a robot.
What's even more exciting is the return of late-inning magic to the Yankees.
Whereas the team would fold like a bad poker player if it trailed after seven innings the last couple of years, the Yankees have been able to take a shot on the chin this year and bounce back, and it all started with Melky Cabrera's game-winning single May 15 against Oakland.
You remember Cabrera, don't you. Muffed an easy fly ball in his first start in centerfield a couple of years ago, then rebounded to look like the center fielder of the future. Then, after a great April last season (the News Wife and I saw Cabrera win a game for the Yanks in Cleveland with a home run off of C.C. Sabathia) he disappeared. I swear he spent the last five months of the season with Elvis and Dennis Rodman on a spaceship.
Nobody knew what to make of him this year. Was he the prospect who could lock down a key position, or a backup who can't hit consistently.
Not only is he hitting consistently, but he grows a sack in the late innings, and Melky's late inning testicular fortitude is contagious.
Ever since that May 15 game, it seems like the Yankees are winning at least one come-from-behind game a week. Just look at Tuesday's comeback against the Mariners. The offense gives Joba a lead, Joba gives it back. The offense gives the bullpen a lead, Brian Bruney gives it back. The offense gives Mariano Rivera a lead, the Yankees win the game.
And, it's not like one guy has been the late-inning hero. Alex Rodriguez, he of the many testicular-fortitude issues the last five years, has had a few key hits. Cabrera has been great in late-inning situations. Derek Jeter, in the midst of a typical Jeter season, has driven in some late-inning runs. Johnny Damon, who is loving right field in the new Yankee Stadium, has come through in tight spots. Jorge Posada, Cervelli, Ramiro Pena, Nick Swisher -- every one of them has had at least one key hit this year.
Through June 7, the Yankees had 20 come-from-behind wins, and 11 in their last at-bat. They've had at least 10 more comeback wins since then - and it shows no sign of stopping. Each one of those fluky wins - like Luis Castillo dropping an easy pop-up and Mark Texeira scoring from first base - is a coming together moment. Every Ramiro Pena double that scores the go-ahead run, or every time Cabrera hits a late-inning homer, or even Francisco Cervelli throwing out a baserunner late and then laying down a sacrifice bunt to get a runner into scoring position for Derek Jeter or Johnny Damon is a coming together moment.
I know the Yankees payroll could be mistaken for a federal stimulus package. I know you should be expected to win when you spend the gross domestic product of Bolivia. But, I've seen higher-priced teams come and go with no results. After a while, as a fan, you start to develop a smell test for crappy teams and for good ones, too.
This one feels like a good team. It's a different vibe from last year, when the Yankees were counting on Mike Mussina to win every time out, when the offense just couldn't score consistently, when the bullpen just couldn't seem to hold a lead or keep teams from adding to a lead late. That team smelled like my living room after Mexican food.
This year's team has a lot of talent, but it seems to mesh, too. The last few years, the pieces just didn't seem to fit -- there was always a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. I can't put my finger on it, and there's a lot of season to go, but something feels different about this team. I like our chances.
It's starting to come together.
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