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Let Yankee Second-Guessing Begin

October 29, 2001|Bill Plaschke

PHOENIX — It was an old play, with a new twist.

Yankees, Damn.

So they said Sunday night, again and again.

They cursed at the umpire. They cursed at themselves.

They mashed fists into gloves, planted toes into dirt, whined and winced like a grand dowager who had fallen from her heels.

It was odd. It was awkward.

An October with green jack-o-lanterns, tuna cider, and a dynasty on the verge of a breakdown.

The Arizona Diamondbacks' 4-0 victory in Game 2 of the World Series Sunday did more than merely give the scraggly veterans a two-games-to-none lead.

With the force of a Randy Johnson slider and the intimidation of his gum-chewing glare, the win shoved the Yankees into a dim and unsettling place.

"A little bit of a hole," is how reliever Mike Stanton described it.

A little bit?

Two games into the series and, with the exception of catcher Jorge Posada, the Yankees are batting .075 (four for 53).

"Every year, this time of year, we do the little things to win," said Luis Sojo. "This year, we don't."

Two games into a World Series, and playmaking hitters Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter are a combined 0 for 15.

"We're certainly going to see what we're made of," Knoblauch said.

Two games into the series, and overmanaging by Joe Torre has placed one of his big-game veterans, Paul O'Neill, on the bench for all but one at-bat.

"There's nobody smiling in here," O'Neill said late Sunday in clubhouse. Indeed, in past Octobers there were always at least a couple of relaxed Yankees able to laugh about anything.

On Sunday, the room was blanketed in worry.

In one corner, Andy Pettitte was still scolding himself about the waist-high fastball that he threw Matt Williams in the seventh inning, resulting in the clinching three-run homer.

"I have experience in those situations ... you just do not make mistakes like that," Pettitte said.

In another corner, Knoblauch was worried that the hitters had blown it for Pettitte. He threw a five-hitter through seven innings but was blown away by Johnson's three-hitter for nine. "To have your guy do a great job and then waste it ... that makes tonight very tough to swallow," said Knoblauch. "A real heartbreaker."

In the manager's office, there was unusual worry about the Yankees' sudden failure to accomplish the routine.

Two errors in Game 1's 9-1 defeat didn't even seem as bad as the grounder that third baseman Scott Brosius couldn't get out of his glove in the seventh with Luis Gonzalez on first and none out.

A would-be double-play grounder was good for only one out. One batter later, after Danny Bautista reached on a grounder off Pettitte's knee, Matt Williams homered to clinch it.

"He basically got the double-play ball; we couldn't turn it," Manager Joe Torre said.

Everywhere, finally, there was worry the emotional victories in the previous two playoff series might have finally zapped the nation's sentimental favorites.

"This is very surprising," Sojo said.

Everything about the Yankees so far is surprising.

In two games, only half of their eight position players have played the same position and batted in the same spot in the order.

Torre seems to be more dazed by Johnson and Curt Schilling than any of his players.

O'Neill hasn't been in the starting lineup yet? And Randy Velarde has? In place of the team's leading power hitter Tino Martinez?

When asked before Sunday's game about whether his team wakes up after lopsided losses, Torre bristled, saying: "I sort of resent the wake-up portion of it. You're only as good as your starting pitching."

Fine. Then what explained Sunday?

Johnson was overpowering. But in his own shifty way, Pettitte was nearly as effective.

Yet while the Diamondbacks patiently figured out Pettitte, the Yankees flailed at Johnson as if his fastballs were pinatas.

Fourth inning, one out, Randy Velarde walked on four pitches.

Everyone in baseball knows that when Johnson throws four consecutive pitches out of the strike zone, there is a chance that his 6-foot-10 delivery could suddenly go lopsided.

Jeter, the next hitter, watched ball one. Then he swung at ball two, driving it into the dirt for a fielder's choice grounder that essentially killed a potential rally.

"I'm actually feeling pretty good, but I'm not getting any holes," Jeter said.

When is the last time that arguably the best postseason player in baseball history said he needed holes?

The Yankees' next, and last, real chance Sunday occurred in the eighth, when Shane Spencer and Alfonso Soriano reached base on singles. Up stepped Brosius, another former World Series hero who suddenly looks 50.

He fell behind 1 and 2, then watched strike three cross his knees. He might still be shouting at home plate umpire Mark Hirschbeck.

Then Sojo, batting for Pettitte, fell behind 1 and 2 before grounding into a double play.

"Their hitters did a better job than our hitters," Martinez said.

Now comes the realization that for the Yankees to win their four consecutive world championship, they must beat Johnson or Curt Schilling at least once.

"Aw, we got to try to forget about those guys for now," Sojo said.

Good luck.

The one thing they will certainly remember is that, just a couple of weeks ago they trailed the Oakland Athletics two games to none before sweeping the next three games to win the division series.

And those first two losses were at Yankee Stadium. And the Athletics were the hottest team in baseball.

Heck, in this group's first world championship in 1996, they trailed the Atlanta Braves two games to none.

"We know what it's like, we've been here before."

Like the man said, a little bit of a hole.

And without a shovel in sight.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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