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Jewish World Review June 16, 2000 / 13 Sivan, 5760

Mile Lupica

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Even for Sammy, can't afford to throw this one away -- ROGER CLEMENS started to limp around with a pulled groin muscle after somehow getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the first. Clemens was out of the game after that. Even on a day when he was supposed to get a rematch with Pedro Martinez, he probably gave his team its best chance by going to the clubhouse early. After that, Joe Torre did what he has done so many times, in so many big games, all the way through October: He gave the ball to Ramiro Mendoza. This time Torre did not ask Mendoza for a handful of outs, the way he did against the Red Sox in the playoffs. He asked him to keep the Yankees in there against Pedro Martinez all day long.

When it was over yesterday, after Mendoza had been as good as the great Martinez, somebody asked Torre how many times he has made sure that the Yankees held on to a pitcher as skinny as the pinstripes on his uniform, but one with a right arm that has been more valuable than either Clemens's or David Cone's the last couple of seasons.

"A lot,'' Joe Torre said.

He paused and said, "I'm glad I don't have to bat against him, but I'll go to bat for him anytime.''

What the manager was saying, in his own quiet way, because that is always his way, is that if anybody tries to move Ramiro Mendoza, they have to go through him to do it.

But then nobody is suggesting the Yankees should trade the most valuable pitching sixth man in baseball, even for Sammy Sosa or Juan Gonzalez. The Yankees don't score enough this season. They might need more runs this time to win the American League East, or make the playoffs against the Red Sox, White Sox and Indians. It is why they are talking about Sosa and Gonzalez. They just can't give up Mendoza to do it. I would give the Cubs Clemens for Sosa before I would give them Mendoza.

At a time when the Yankee pitching staff is so old, Mendoza is young, he can start, he can relieve, and he has a heart as big as anybody in the room. If more of the Yankees pitched the way Mendoza did yesterday, we wouldn't be talking about Sammy Sosa.

But they don't. So we are. The Yankees won 2-1 yesterday. They don't win like that nearly as much as they used to.

This was an October game for the Yankees yesterday in front of 54,834 at the Stadium. This seemed like so many October games the Yankees have won since Torre got here. The bullpen door opened and Mendoza came out and this time he gave his team 5 2/3 innings, gave the Red Sox eight hits but just one run and made a pitch or got an out every time he needed one, which is why the Red Sox had more runners left on base yesterday than Clemens has had excuses this season.

Then in the ninth, at about 4:07 in the afternoon, the bullpen door opened for the last time and even before you saw that it was Mariano Rivera, the stadium told you it was him. The big crowd was as loud for Rivera as it was for Tino Martinez's home run going into the upper deck in the bottom of the eighth. It was Martinez's seventh home run of the season. Paul O'Neill, the No. 3 hitter, also has seven home runs. Bernie Williams at cleanup has 12. If the Yankees of 2000 not the Yankees of '99 or '98 got more swings like Martinez gave them yesterday, we wouldn't be talking so much about Sosa either.

They don't. So we are. Mendoza was terrific yesterday. Rivera won the top of the ninth. Everybody might still be playing if Tino Martinez didn't hit one toward the "4'' train. I love the idea that home runs from Sammy Sosa will somehow "disrupt'' the Yankees. Sure they will. Again: Just because they need more pitching doesn't mean they don't need him. Pedro Martinez had no fastball at all yesterday, the Yankees admitted that afterward, and still they were lucky to get one run off him.

In his office after the game Torre was asked if anything could disrupt his clubhouse or his baseball team.

"No,'' he said. "Disrupt this team? No.''

Torre smiled.

"Distract?'' he said. "Maybe. But that's part of what happens here anyway.''

Then he was talking about Albert Belle, whom he had been ready to embrace if Bernie Williams had gone off to the Red Sox as a free agent before the '99 season.

"He (Belle) plays 160 games a year and hits,'' Torre said. "What part of that would have disrupted this clubhouse?''

Torre could just as easily been talking about Sosa. Who plays 160 games a year. And hits home runs a lot more often than the guys in the middle of Torre's batting order.

When the Yankees play the way they did Wednesday, you wonder why they have to make any kind of trade -- you see them winning the division and the pennant and the World Series again. But now Clemens is on his way to the DL and Cone still has so much to show and prove over the summer. El Duque and Andy Pettitte have been better than Clemens and Cone, but not a lot better. This is a season when Mendoza has been as much a star of the staff as anybody except Rivera.

"We're used to close games late,'' Joe Torre said after his team won a close game, late, from the Red Sox, and got a split with them for the week.

"We win games like these,'' Torre said.

Just not as often as they used to. Not nearly as often. If Torre can't get another Mendoza, he better get a few more runs. And a few more home runs like the one Tino Martinez hit yesterday.

JWR contributor Mike Lupica is author, most recently, of Summer of '98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America. To comment, click here.


06/15/00: Go for gold, George. How does Sosa help Yanks? Let us count the ways
06/12/00: Thirty-three is the loneliest number
06/12/00: For starters, Yanks up in arms & age

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