Cloud over Yanks' pennant

Wednesday, October 14, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEW YORK -- David Cone was looking for a defining moment. One game to put his career in context. Something to savor when the pitcher's mound is just a memory.

He walked out to work at Yankee Stadium, resolved to bring the World Series back to its ancestral home, intent on atoning for the sins of seasons past.

"I kind of felt like I let our team down last year when I told Joe Torre I was ready to go," he said. "In reality, I probably fooled myself."

The New York Yankees won the pennant Tuesday night, and Cone was credited with the clinching victory. Maybe in the end, that's all that matters. But amid the champagne and the cigars in the Yankee clubhouse, there was also cause for concern.

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Cone, the spiritual if not actual core of the New York pitching staff, was presented with a 6-0 lead and nearly blew it. The Yankees ultimately beat Cleveland 9-5, securing the American League Championship Series in six games. But if anything was defined about Cone, it was danger.

If the Yankees are to win another World Series, if they are to validate their 114 regular season victories, they must solidify their starting pitching in short order. They will need more from Cone than he was able to provide Tuesday night. They can not continue to rely so, er, heavily on David Wells.

Shaky rotation

But as the Yankees await the winner of the National League Championship Series -- the pitching-rich San Diego Padres or the pitching-richer Atlanta Braves -- Joe Torre's rotation is in need of some repairs. Cone is the key -- a pitcher who is alternately precise or pliable -- and Torre has been reluctant to pitch him in cold weather or on short rest. But there are also unresolved questions about Andy Pettitte, the left-hander who pitched so brilliantly against Texas and so badly against Cleveland.

An hour before Tuesday's game, Torre refused to commit himself to a starter in the event of a Game Seven. It would have been Pettitte's turn, but his position was severely weakened when the Indians clubbed four homers against him last Saturday.

A World Series might be won with a pair of hot pitchers. For the Yankees right now, that would be the combustible Wells and the Cuban refugee, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez.

"I think it's important to make a plan and live with it," Torre said. "If it works, fine. If it doesn't, well, you know, you had a plan."

For four innings, Cone's quest for redemption was running according to script. The Yankees seized a 6-0 lead while their ace wiggled and danced his way out of difficulty.

Three times in the first three innings, the Indians moved a runner as far as third base, and each time Cone left him there. He struck six in the first three innings, including David Justice, Manny Ramirez, Sandy Alomar and Jim Thome with runners in scoring position. But the Houdini act is hard on the nerves, and it is supremely difficult to sustain against a lineup as lethal as Cleveland's. When Cone ran into difficulty in the Indians' fifth, there was nowhere left for him to hide.

A succession of singles loaded the bases -- the last of them when Omar Vizquel's line drive struck the unfortunate Ted Hendry, umpiring at second base. A walk to Justice forced home Cleveland's first run, and Thome's subsequent grand slam made Cone's defining moment very dicey.

Thome makes for a menacing sight in the batter's box -- so thick through the shoulders, so sweeping his swing. He hit Cone's first pitch so high and so hard that only its distance was in doubt. When it finally landed -- at least 20 rows deep in the upper deck, yet estimated at only 405 feet -- Cone's lead had been slashed to a single run.

Cone finished the inning without sustaining further damage, but left the game in need of a more lasting legacy. He did get the win, and the World Series awaits, but he was not the dominant presence New York will need in the next round.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com

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