Thursday, October 12, 2000

AL playoffs

Now that's more like the champs

        NEW YORK — George Steinbrenner can cancel that termite inspection. There's nothing wrong with the quality of the New York Yankees' wood, and maybe not all that much the matter with the men who wield it.

        After 21 innings of agonizing impotence, amid allegations of advancing age and declining bat speed, baseball's wobbly World Champions arose from their lumber slumber Wednesday evening with a barrage of base hits.

        What it portends is supposition. What it provides is renewed suspense. Post-season baseball is a day-to-day proposition, and the Yankees are significantly better situated in the wake of Wednesday's 7-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners. They have tied the American League Championship Series at one game apiece and, at least momentarily, shifted their story line from panic to possibilities.

        “I wouldn't say it took the pressure off,” said Yankee outfielder David Justice. “But it alleviates some of it.”

        Shut out in Tuesday's series opener, the Yankees went to bat in the bottom of the eighth Wednesday six outs away from a 1-0 defeat. Their frustration was palpable. Their anxiety was high. With the best-of-seven series headed to Seattle's Safeco Field, the prospect of a 2-0 deficit filled the Yankee Stadium dugout with dread.

        But somewhere on the road to oblivion, the champions became reacquainted with the line drive. They ended their longest post-season scoring drought since 1921 with a seven-run, eighth-inning rally involving eight hits and a sacrifice fly. Every hitter in the lineup contributed in some way to the offensive onslaught. Many of them were much relieved.

        “I think some players try to force the issue and do too much,” said Yankee outfielder Bernie Williams. “Some players keep grinding. Some players don't care too much. Taking the clubhouse as a (single) entity, I think, is a little bit mistaken. A lot of people think different things.”

        What Williams was thinking was that the eighth inning offered him a reprieve. The Yankees had loaded the bases in the first inning with no one out, and Williams had struck a one-foot dribbler for a rally-killing double play.

        “I said to (coach Don) Zimmer, "Have we seen everything yet?' ” Yankee manager Joe Torre recalled.

        Williams was unable to get the ball out of the infield in three attempts against Seattle starter John Halama, and his cuts could not have looked much more feeble had he been swinging a cane.

        Yet when Justice led off the Yankees' eighth by ripping a double off the wall in left-center field, Williams returned to home plate for another chance against Rhodes. Ahead in the count, three balls and one strike, Williams fouled off three wicked inside fastballs before tying the game with a line single to center field.

        “In at bats like that, you try to keep it simple,” Williams said. “This guy throws 92-94 miles an hour. There was no way I could be thinking too much.”

        Before Rhodes could get an out, the Yankees had taken the lead on successive singles by Tino Martinez and Jorge Posada. By the time Mesa retired Justice on his second at-bat of the inning, it was 7-1.

        Is it a trend? Stay tuned.

        “This is baseball,” said Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, whose home run completed the assault. “You're going to go through periods when you don't score runs. We don't sit around and say, "It's been 21 straight innings.' You concentrate on the game.”



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