The New York Yankees brought an old and familiar form with them this afternoon when they arrived at Jacobs Field for the start of a four-game series against the Cleveland Indians. Battered by the Red Sox and stung by the Blue Jays, having seen their lead in the American League East melt from 8 1/2 games to 3 1/2 games in a span of 13 days, the Yankees seemingly were reborn with a pair of come-from-behind victories in Toronto.
Three days after pitcher David Cone described their season as being in "free fall" and Manager Joe Torre spoke of "a cloud" over his team, the Yankees are again whole.
"Our confidence is back," Torre said before his team defeated the Cleveland Indians, 9-5, tonight in front of 43,054 at Jacobs Field. After four consecutive disheartening defeats, the Yankees have won three in a row to stretch their still-tenuous lead over Boston back to four games with 16 remaining.
At 88-58, they are within a game of the Indians (89-57) and are in a virtual tie with the Texas Rangers (88-59) for the best record in the American League (and accompanying home-field advantage in the AL playoffs).
"We can't even start thinking about the playoffs yet," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "We haven't clinched anything. We've got Boston right behind us. We've just got to keep playing well and going hard."
If the Yankees are something less than the team that won a record 125 games last season, they're still the one every other in baseball compares itself against in terms of performance, professionalism and poise. They won tonight because their fifth starter, Hideki Irabu (11-6), held baseball's highest-scoring offense to two runs in seven innings. In addition, Paul O'Neill hit a two-run home run in the first inning to get the Yankees going, and Chili Davis broke it open with a two-run pinch double off Indians starter Dave Burba (14-8) in the sixth.
Once more, they looked like the best team in baseball, one easily capable of winning the World Series for the third time in four seasons.
The Indians may have a better everyday lineup than the Yankees and could be the first team in 49 years to score 1,000 runs. They may not have one dominant starting pitcher, but a front three of Bartolo Colon, Dave Burba and Charles Nagy could be the best in the American League. Their bullpen will be solid once Steve Karsay returns from the disabled list.
The Indians have also proven their own toughness by running up the best record in the American League in a season when injuries have forced them to use 51 players, including 25 pitchers.
"We've been able to do it with all the injuries we've had," Indians General Manager John Hart said. "If somebody had said at the beginning of the year that we'd have 20-plus moves onto the disabled list and would lose four starting position players for big chunks of the season, and still do this -- that's a real tribute to the ballclub. We've had a lot of guys do yeoman's work for us this season."
Still, there's much to like about the Yankees. Even with Roger Clemens having lost three straight starts and Cone pitching despite a tender elbow, New York's starting rotation leads the league in earned run average, victories and innings. The bullpen has baseball's most reliable closer in Mariano Rivera. And the everyday lineup still is as good as almost any in the game.
Jeter, O'Neill and others play with the kind of drive that is admired by general managers around the majors. Clemens still has some of the best stuff in the league. Rivera still is perfect most nights.
But unlike last season, the Yankees still have something to play for. They may be planning for the playoffs, but first they'd like to put away the Red Sox and then edge out the Indians for the best record in the American League. "Obviously, it's a more important series for them than for us," said Indians Manager Mike Hargrove, whose team already has clinched a fifth straight division championship. "From a motivational standpoint, our motivation is different. We could lose all four and still be playing in October. But we take every series seriously."
Hart agreed with that assessment, adding: "Our priorities now are twofold. First, we want to work our guys who are coming off the disabled list back into the lineup and get an idea if we can count on them in the postseason. Second, we want to continue the pursuit of having the best record in the league, to finish as high on the totem pole as we can."