Thursday, September 10, 2009

Jeter closes in on history as Yanks win 12th of 14

After three straight 0-4 days at the plate, it seemed like the pressure of passing Lou Gehrig as the Yankees all-time hits leader may have been getting to Derek Jeter, who had recorded five hits in his previous two games. Then again, when does pressure ever get to Jeter?

Jeter busted out of his mini-slump on Wednesday night with three hits in the Yankees 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays as the Yanks completed a four-game sweep of last year's American League champion. In the process, Jeter tied Gehrig's team record of 2,721 hits, which he will look to break when the Orioles come to town for a weekend series starting Friday.

Jeter likes to downplay individual achievements and keep the focus on the team, and that's what I will do as well. But not before I laud Jeter for what he has done throughout his career as a Yankee.

Since he came up in 1996, Jeter has won four World Series titles (1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000). He hit .361 as a rookie in the 1996 playoffs, as well as batting .353 in the 1998 and 1999 World Series. He topped off this amazing five-year start to his career with a World Series MVP in 2000.

Jeter was named captain in 2003, only the 11th player to be given that distinction in Yankees history. And this season, at 35 years old, he is in serious contention for the AL MVP in what might be his best statistical season since 1999. He is on pace for just his fourth career 20-home run season and has a .330 average through 134 games.

But enough about Jeter, who would have it no other way. After winning 12 of their last 14 games, the Yankees are an astonishing 40-13 since the All-Star Break. The performance of their lineup in late-inning situations has been beyond impressive, and this series against Tampa was no different.

In game one, Robinson Cano had a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the eighth inning, as the Yankees were shut down through seven innings but ran up Matt Garza's pitch count to 120, forcing the Rays to turn to their shaky bullpen. In game three, it was Nick Swisher getting in on the walk-off action, with a line-drive home run into the jetstream in right in the bottom of the ninth.

And last night with the Yankees trailing 2-1 in the eighth, Jorge Posada entered as a pinch-hitter with two runners on base. His ensuing three-run home run gave the Yankees a 4-2 lead and a sweep of the reeling Rays, who now sit 18.5 games out in the East and 9.5 games out of the Wild Card.

With Brett Gardner returning from the disabled list, the Yankees will only add to their impressive offensive depth and firepower. Gardner will provide them with the one niche they lacked in his absence: blinding speed. Gardner's 20 steals are second on the team to Jeter's 25, but Gardner has done it in just 207 at-bats.

But offense is not the Yankees' major issue. It would seem like there are no serious issues for a team that has won 40 of their last 53 games. But there are still a few question marks surrounding the Yankees' pitchers.

A.J. Burnett pitched well his last time out, throwing six innings of one-run ball, allowing just four hits and striking out eight Rays. But this start came with Jose Molina behind the plate, as Posada received a day off.

The ongoing struggles of Burnett with Posada behind the plate are troublesome. As good as their lineup is, the Yankees need Posada's bat when the playoffs come around. However, they also need Burnett to pitch well, which puts manager Joe Girardi in a tough spot. Does he DH or bench Posada when Burnett is on the mound, or does he try to force Burnett to work through obvious issues with Posada as his catcher?

Molina will be a gaping hole in the Yankees lineup and, for a team that relies so heavily on a lineup that has no holes, that could hurt the Yankees in late-inning situations if Posada is penciled in as the DH, since the Yankees would be unable to put Posada behind the plate.

The other dilemma the Yankees have is the young Joba Chamberlain. He has thrown just 13 innings in his last four starts, allowing 13 earned runs. Joba is obviously uncomfortable with the Yankees imposition of the innings limit and he has thrown just 149 pitches in his last three starts.

The real question is, why are the Yankees still starting him if the plan is to let him throw just three or four innings? I understand they want to keep him throwing every fifth or sixth day, but do they really expect him to be able to consistently throw 90-100 pitches in the playoffs if he isn't allowed to do it now?

I wasn't as against this innings limit as much as most Yankee fans and media initially, but now that I have seen it in action, I have seen enough. Every time he pitches, the bullpen has to throw five-plus innings. By protecting Joba, the Yankees are overextending their bullpen at the worst possible time.

Who knows what kind of shape pitchers like Alfredo Aceves will be in by the playoffs if he continues to throw three innings in relief of Joba every fifth day. And who knows if Joba will be able to handle six innings of rigorous playoff baseball after being coddled for the final month and a half of the regular season.

All of these issues have been disguised by the Yankees consistent play since the All-Star Break, but these are issues that need to be solved before the playoffs. Despite having the best record in baseball by 6.5 games, the Yankees are far from a lock to win the pennant, especially considering their past struggles against the Angels.

In the best-case scenario for the Yankees, the Red Sox knock out the Angels in the first round of playoffs to set up another Boston-New York ALCS. And considering the way the Yankees have played Boston since losing the first eight games of the season against them, that would be the ideal situation for the Bombers to reach the World Series for the first time since 2003.

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