Torre, Yankees complete an April to forget

NEW YORK -- With Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte in the rotation and Mike Mussina scheduled to return from a hamstring injury Thursday, Yankees manager Joe Torre can take comfort in the knowledge that competent, veteran starters will soon be working in 60 percent of his team's games.

The arrangement is a welcome departure from much of April, when Torre could have used input from Ron Guidry, Tom House, Mike Marshall, Dr. Jim Andrews, the Columbia University kinesiology department and the Army Corps of Engineers just to make it through the day.

The Yankees will finish April at 9-14, having lost eight of their past nine games. The skid ensures that wherever Torre goes the next few days, someone will be sticking a notebook or a microphone in his face and asking him, "Have you heard anything from George today?"

Kei Igawa's strong emergency relief effort Saturday briefly turned down the heat on the Torre unemployment vigil, but it's percolating once again. The Yankees lost 7-4 to Boston on Sunday to fall 6½ games behind their main rivals in the American League East, and Torre, of course, was asked to comment for the second straight day on news reports that owner George Steinbrenner is thinking about firing him.

Torre's brother, Frank, will be undergoing a kidney transplant Tuesday, so the guy already has lots on his mind. But he answered the questions without a trace of defensiveness, paranoia, or unease in his voice. It's moments like these that show why Torre's biggest asset is his ability to manage chaos.

"It's out of my control," Torre said. "If that's what happens, it happens. It's certainly not what I'm thinking about as I'm sitting on the bench."

Maybe Torre is thinking about how much better, confident and well-rounded the Red Sox look than the Yankees at the moment. Both teams rank near the bottom of the major league standings in defense, but that's where the comparisons end.

Boston has a solid starting rotation, led by Josh Beckett, and a shutdown bullpen. And the Red Sox are 16-8 even though Manny Ramirez is hitting .202 with three home runs in April. Ramirez slugged his 50th career homer against the Yankees on Sunday to join Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx (70), Ted Williams (62), Hank Greenberg (53) and Carl Yastrzemski (52) as the only players with 50 against New York.

After the game there was plenty of talk about Boston's new lefty set-up man, Hideki Okajima, who continues to dazzle clubs with three above-average pitches and lots of deception.

"It seems like every time he's come in the game, he's been a rally killer for us," Alex Rodriguez said. "We've got to figure him out."

And if there were any doubts the Red Sox made the right decision by reanointing Jonathan Papelbon their closer in spring training, consider them dismissed. In 9 1/3 innings this season, Papelbon has struck out 15 batters and given up two hits. When Jason Giambi teed him up for a double in the gap Sunday, it was a shock in itself.

"To tell you the truth, I saw Eric Gagne pitch in L.A., and I don't think anybody is going to save (84) games in a row," said Boston infielder Alex Cora. "But (Papelbon) is making it look the way Eric made it look in L.A."

The Yankees, in contrast to Boston, have an overworked bullpen and a staff ERA of 5.02, 27th among the 30 major league clubs. Bobby Abreu, Robinson Cano and Hideki Matsui are in minifunks, and Johnny Damon clearly isn't right because of back problems.

In Sunday's loss, the Yankees used at least five pitchers for the 10th consecutive game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it's the longest streak of its kind in the past 50 years -- just ahead of Tampa Bay's run of nine straight games with at least five pitchers used in 2006.

"I don't think the standings are an issue at this point. We all know we're going to start winning consistently sooner or later, and obviously sooner is more appropriate."
-- Joe Torre

When your team's Opening Day payroll is $195 million and you're generating comparisons to a Tampa Bay staff that included Juan Salas, Jon Switzer, Scott Dunn and Jae-Weong Seo, it might be time to ask for a refund.

Things are sufficiently grim that New York general manager Brian Cashman felt inclined to run some interference for Torre after the loss. Cashman has saved Torre from Steinbrenner's whims on more than one occasion, and he has to realize the obvious -- that it's tough to blame Torre for the team's pitching injuries. Plus, dumping Torre and turning things over to YES broadcaster Joe Girardi, third-base coach Larry Bowa or bench coach Don Mattingly would be putting Torre's replacement in a tough spot.

When a reporter asked who bears responsibility for the team's current ills, Cashman replied, "I take full responsibility. That's my job. It's the team I put together. If you're looking for blame, then blame me."

Even on days that begin promisingly for the Yankees, doubts have a way of arising. Wang, in his second start back from a hamstring injury, was uncharacteristically high in the strike zone with his sinker, and suffered a cracked nail on his right index finger. That minor injury shouldn't cause him to miss his next start, but the way things are going for the Yankees, who knows?

At least the schedule looks favorable for the short term. After an off day Monday, the Yankees will begin a run of 13 straight games against Texas and Seattle. They're 16-9 against the Mariners and 20-9 vs. the Rangers over the past three seasons.

"I don't think the standings are an issue at this point," Torre said. "We all know we're going to start winning consistently sooner or later, and obviously sooner is more appropriate. But I don't think you're concerned in April about being five or six games out of first place."

It remains to be seen if the man who pays Torre's salary shares that opinion.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.