|Thursday, April 24
Yankees pounding fear into opponents
By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The days and games are already starting to turn into a blur: the Yankees arrive at the ballpark, flog another helpless pitcher, exponentially run up the score, shower, change and in 24 hours, begin a new cycle of televised batting practice.
If it feels like history is being made ... well, it is. For starters, the Yankees' payroll is at $174 million, an-all-time high, far beyond the limits of fairness -- at least to those who thought a luxury tax would matter to owner George Steinbrenner. As a result of this dollar-orgy, the Yankees are off to an 18-3 start, a franchise best-ever start, which has prompted Jason Giambi to call the Bombers "a machine."
He was smiling but definitely not kidding. Giambi is talking about the American League's top-ranked offense -- first in batting average, runs, home runs, slugging percentage, walks and on-base percentage.
Giambi was talking about the starting pitchers, who have yet to lose a game this season. More significantly, the Yankees have allowed the fewest home runs in the major leagues.
And talk about indestructible: 40-year-old Roger Clemens picked up his 297th win on Wednesday night, the primary storyline in the Yankees' 9-2 rout of the Angels.
The Yankees delivered their message early to the world champs, starting with Alfonso Soriano's leadoff home run against Mickey Callaway. The Rocket came out throwing 94-mph fastballs, and it wasn't long before the Yankees had turned another game into a billboard for George Steinbrenner's credo:
Spend shamelessly. Score relentlessly.
Just as his teammates have been all month, Clemens was stoic about the win, even as career win No. 300 is now in his airspace. "It's getting close," the Rocket allowed. He'll be shooting for No. 298 next Tuesday against the Mariners, and could be on track to win his 300th on May 10 in Oakland.
By then, the AL could have a better idea if the Yankees are on an extended winning streak, or if they're flirting with greatness, attempting to clone their 114-win team in 1998.
Jorge Posada insists "it's still a little early" to start comparing the 2003 edition to anyone, let alone the '98 team. But not even the most conservative Yankees deny their offense has unnerved, if not intimidated, opposing pitchers.
After the Yankees finished off a four-game sweep of the Twins last weekend -- during which they outscored (38-9) and outhomered (12-1) Minnesota -- Rick Reed spoke for every AL pitcher who's had to deal with the Bombers' lineup in April.
Reed was the losing pitcher in a 15-1 mauling, after which he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "I'd like to give you my glove and you go out there and try to pitch to that lineup. I'm thanking God we're in the Central and not the East.
"That (lineup) is unbelievable. Un-be-lievable."
Incredibly, the Yankees have won almost 90 percent of their games without Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, both on the disabled list, and with Giambi hitting under .200. Yet, at the core of the Yankees' 21-game sprint are these irrefutable facts:
Soriano is even more dangerous this year than in 2002, if that's possible, leading the AL in HRs, hits and runs. Bernie Williams, who historically remains invisible until May, is leading the Yankees in hitting and is among the top five in the league, and Giambi is still getting on base, tied for the team lead in walks.
"I can't even count how many times I've taken a walk with runners on first and second, just to load up the bases for Bernie," Giambi said. "To me, being disciplined at the plate, getting on base, scoring a lot of runs, it's the most important thing."
Giambi's plate discipline has rubbed off on many of the Yankees, as they've seen more than 200 more pitches this season than the American League average (3,109-2,895).
In other words, because the Yankees extend so many at-bats and so many innings, they wear out opposing starters faster, get into opponents' bullpens earlier in every series -- and otherwise ruin a manager's hope of crisp, well-pitched games.
Put even more simply, Jeff Weaver says, "We know if we can hold the other team down long enough, sooner or later our offense is going to break it open. Every game, it's just a matter of time."
At this rate, the AL could soon realize trying to puncture the Yankees, at least during the regular season, could be futile. Comments like Reed's bolster the Yankees' belief that, psychologically, the war is being won.
"It means we're frustrating them, which is a good thing. It means we're in their heads," manager Joe Torre said. "So much of this game is mental, any edge like that has to help us."
Not even cold logic -- which insists that, eventually, Soriano and Williams will cool off -- seems to deter Yankee hitters. That's because Jeter and Giambi still aren't part of the larger calculation.
And to that, Giambi says: just wait.
"As soon as some of the other guys get cold, I'm going to get hot. And then Jeter is going to be back," Giambi said. "That's what a machine does -- it never stops. That's us. This could go on all year."
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.