<
>

Sheff's bat lacking its usual pop

NEW YORK -- A small riot of Yankees enveloped Gary Sheffield late Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, when he ended a 10-inning, rain-extended marathon against the Angels with a screaming double to left field. It was a typical Sheffield plate appearance -- the wiggling bat, the hyper-aggressive swing, a ball hit so hard it trounced left fielder Jeff DaVanon in a race to the wall.

Sheffield shook hands with the mob, high-fived everyone, accepted the thunderous slaps to the back. It was no small moment for the Yankees, since they'd just rallied against closer Troy Percival and ended the Angels' nine-game winning streak. But in the back of Sheffield's mind, a nagging thought lingered.

Why didn't that line drive clear the wall?

Although Sheffield calls himself, "the complete package" of both offense and defense, a startling absence of home run power in 2004 has confounded the slugger. After hitting 39 homers with a career-high 132 RBI in Atlanta last year, Sheffield has only two homers in 123 at-bats so far, prompting manager Joe Torre to observe, "I think Gary is a little impatient with (the lack of ) home runs, which contributes to the lack of home runs."

Sheffield doesn't disagree with his manager, saying, "I feel like I'm being tested spiritually" and further admits he has no real explanation for the drop-off.

"All I know is, my bat is still as quick as ever, and I have the same skills that I've always had," Sheffield said the other day. He pointed to last weekend's series against the Mariners, during which he hit five upper-deck shots -- all foul.

"That tells me it's just a matter of time," Sheffield said. He further comforts himself with the reminder that the Yankees won four world championships in five years between 1996-2000 without anyone hitting more than 30 home runs. That, says, Sheffield, "is a sign that maybe this is what's supposed to be. Maybe this is a sign of a good thing, not bad."

Indeed, while Sheffield is hitting a modest .260, he's tied for third on the team with 17 RBI. And while the Yankees have yet to become the offensive powerhouse that owner George Steinbrenner dreamed of this winter, still next-to-last in the American League with a .251 batting average, they are batting .288 in May. In Torre's words, "we've shown that we have enough power to come back against anyone."

Torre pointed to Tuesday night's victory -- during which the Yankees scored the tying and go-ahead runs against Francisco Rodriguez in the eighth inning and tying run again in the ninth against Troy Percival, and then won it, 8-7, against Ben Weber in the 10th -- as a perfect moment for everyone. And it might've been a breakthrough at-bat for
Sheffield, had he taken Weber deep.

One explanation for the disparity between Sheffield's bat-speed and home run power is a bruised right thumb, which has been swollen since spring training. Some Yankee people worry that without surgery Sheffield will never be 100 percent healthy, but friends of the slugger say he's determined not to become as invisible as, say, the oft-injured Rondell White, after his much-heralded arrival in 2002.

Sheffield all but conceded to his play-at-any-cost philosophy, saying, "I'm too far along in my career to have any operations. I'm not going through that kind of rehab anymore."

But just as quickly, he added, "my thumb is fine. It's better now than it was in March, and if it hurts, I don't even notice it anymore. As far as I'm concerned, it's healed. So I'm not going to use that as an excuse.

"To me, the problem is in my approach. The hardest thing to do is go to the plate thinking, 'I'm just going to get a hit' when I know I can do some real damage. I end up lining the ball right at someone. So I say, 'forget that, I'm going back to (trying for) the home run.' "

It's obvious how much confidence Sheffield has; it borders on a hitter's arrogance. He snaps his bat wildly, almost violently, while waiting for a pitch, as if to show off the strength in his hands. Indeed, Sheffield's power has been under closer scrutiny lately, as he's been directly linked to the BALCO investigation.

Steroids, however, is a topic he won't discuss, leaving open one possible theory for his poor home run-to at-bat ratio. Anyone who suspects Sheffield was juicing in the past might deduce Sheffield is now clean and because of it, returning to the strength-levels of most mortal 35-year-old hitters.

Sheffield's silence on the matter matches Jason Giambi's, who's also been linked to the investigation. The Yankees themselves won't address the steroids issue, either in their clubhouse or around the big leagues, until the matter has been resolved.

That leaves Sheffield on his own to explain the home run drought, although Torre continues to insist the Yankees don't need 40-something or even 30-something homers from Sheffield to flourish. In fact, Torre has no desire to move Sheffield out of the No. 5 spot, even though Jorge Posada, who suffered a broken nose Wednesday night, has thus far outperformed Sheffield.

"Gary's been around long enough, at this point he's oblivious to where he's hitting," Torre said.

Actually, Sheffield prefers to hit in the No. 3 spot, and may feel that, two slots down, home runs are part of the job-description. True or not, Sheffield has yet to find synchronicity.

"I know we're winning now, but I haven't met my own expectations," he said. "No one has higher expectations for me, than me."

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.