Tuesday, April 14, 2009

As We Lay Dying

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I like to think that when William Faulkner wrote those words, in 1951, he was secretly hoping a sports blogger would one day use them to introduce a discussion of the New York Yankees.

Today, Mr. Faulkner, your wish is granted: I’m ready to declare a state of emergency in the Bronx, and it’s not because of the rampant crime. After a week of baseball, the pale demons of the last eight years are creeping under the doors in Yankee-land. It's not panic time yet, but there are serious issues requiring solutions.

The first is Chien-Ming Wang. Since 2005, he’s been a reliable starter, winning 19 games each in 2006 and 2007. His featured pitch, and really the one on which everything else hinges, is the sinker. If the sinker ain’t sinking, he turns into a paper tiger who throws a low 90s batting practice fastball and a mediocre cutting slider that nobody feels compelled to chase. And despite his impressive regular season stats, he never brought his best stuff to the playoffs, where he’s 1-3 with a 7+ ERA.

Still, it seemed like he’d be a guy you could count on for 15 wins a year as long as he could summon the nasty, ground-ball inducing sinker a majority of the time. Then, last season, he hurt his foot running the bases in an inter-league game. He missed the rest of the year, and a lot of fans (including myself) believe the injury cost the Yankees a playoff spot. Thus far in 2009, his sinker looks positively feeble, and he’s 0-2 with an ERA just shy of 30. The upstart Rays absolutely shelled him last night, scoring 8 runs in his 1+ inning of work.

More than the awful numbers, Wang’s body language is completely downcast. It’s a familiar sight for Yankee fans who remember his playoff performances; he hangs his head, slouches, and looks like a frustrated kid about to throw his glove and stalk home. It’s hard to know what he’s thinking, especially since he doesn’t speak English, but I get the sense that mental toughness isn’t Chien-Ming’s calling card. That shortcoming has been on full display this year, and it may signify more than a mere downturn. We could be witnessing a new and ugly pattern- an early forecast of Wang's numbered days.

If there’s one thing Yankee fans have grown accustomed to since our last World Series win in 2000, it’s disappointing starting pitching. It seems to rear its ugly head on a yearly basis. Our free agent acquisitions have been mostly catastrophic, from Randy Johnson to Kevin Brown to Carl Pavano to Roger Clemens. The home grown products haven’t been much better (the names Kennedy and Hughes still produce a blinding red anger somewhere behind and between my eyes). Sabathia and Burnett look promising so far, but if Wang joins the list of disappointments, it could be another long year.

The second resurgent problem is injuries. I mentioned Wang’s fluke baserunning mishap last year, which is a strong example of our terrible luck. It seems like the Yankees are plagued by more tears, sprains, strains, and breaks than any team in America. Last year alone, Wang, Joba, Hughes, Jeter, A-Rod, Mariano, Posada, Damon, Matsui, and Kennedy missed significant time due to various ailments. In 2007, Torre had to use 13 starting pitchers just to squeak into the wild card spot. Over and over, the Yankees get nailed. You could argue it’s because we have a lot of old players, but the numbers are too staggering to explain it away by age alone. And now, Teixeira has tendonitis in his wrist, A-Rod is gone until mid-May, and a good portion of our line-up look like they’re only a patch of uneven ground away from losing one or both legs. We can’t escape.

The final returning ghost of seasons past is Girardi’s chronic over-managing. It was a big complaint last year, but 2008 was also his first go-round with the Yankees, and most fans were willing to give him a pass and wait for better times. Well, the future has arrived, and early results have not been stellar. In Kansas City, we faced the two worst Royal pitchers on Friday and Saturday, and their best, Gil Meche, on Sunday. If you were a manager, which day would you pick to rest two of your better hitters? Friday or Saturday, right? Well, Girardi picked Sunday to bench Posada and Damon, and it left us with a four-man stretch of Melky Cabrera, Cody Ransom, Jose Molina, and Brett Gardner. The result? Meche completely shut them down. The four went 2-for-12 and grounded into three double plays. Oh, and did I mention that leaving men on base, and double plays specifically, were a gigantic Yankee killer last year? Why couldn’t Girardi have rested Damon on Monday, after the flight to Tampa Bay?

Still, we would’ve won the game on Joba’s strong start if another classic micro-management blunder hadn’t blown it in the 8th. Up 4-3, Girardi put Damaso Marte in the game, and he quickly got two outs. Instead of leaving him in to finish the job and set things up for Mariano, ole Joe saw that Billy Butler, a righty, was coming to bat. Marte is way more than some kind of lefty specialist, but Girardi decided to bring in Jose Veras, who’s had control problems all year, to face one batter. Surprise surprise, he walked Butler, and then Phil Coke blew the game. Over-thinking spoiled the day, and a much-needed sweep turned into a heartbreaking loss that segued into yesterday’s embarrassment in Tampa.

To re-cap, four huge bugaboos of the last decade seem to be haunting us anew in 2009: disappointing starters, injuries, a lack of opportunistic hitting, and over-management. To see this club plagued by the same headaches that derailed us for eight years produces a sick, helpless feeling that undoubtedly reeks of overreaction to milder temperaments. My cousin Justin recently wrote in a group e-mail that the mere sight of Girardi, by all accounts a decent human, makes him furious. My stepfather and uncle are calling for his head.

Again, it’s only been seven games. Are we all making mountains out of molehills? Maybe. But we can also recognize a pattern, and when the same exact problems start rising like an oppressive fog to obscure any prospect of hope, when a 3-4 start signifies a lot more than a 3-4 start, we have to tip our caps to Faulkner and recognize that yes, that dreaded beast we call the past is alive and well.


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