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Yankees return to full strength at just the right time
By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published October 1, 2006
As baseball's regular season comes to an end, we've seen a lot.
We've seen the Tigers go from 119 losses just three years ago to a playoff berth. We'll see a player who began the season as a part-timer - the Pirates' Freddy Garcia - win the NL batting crown.
The Braves' string of dominance ended. Frank Thomas showed he's anything but done. The Twins showed that they're just getting started.
The injury bug bit the Red Sox's season. Joe Girardi will likely be the top NL manager but lose his job after just one year. And the Royals and Devil Rays just plain lost.
And then there are the Yankees, who appear primed for another lengthy run into October.
While New York faced a rash of midseason injuries, others had to emerge.
It was no surprise that Derek Jeter was one of those players. Jeter had an MVP-caliber year, all while sluggers Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Robinson Cano sat injured. The best closer in the game, Mariano Rivera, missed most of September with a bad shoulder.
Another was Chien-Ming Wang, who assumed the role of ace in a rotation that included Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina. Wang finished his regular season and his first full-big league season Thursday with a 19-6 record. Wang, who quickly earned the reputation of having one of the best sinkers in the majors, will be the Yankees' Game 1 starter in the division series. Given Johnson's sore back and Mussina's inconsistency, he might have to carry the Yankees through October.
And now manager Joe Torre faces the enviable task of choosing a lineup full of stars. Sheffield is back, pitching in at first base. So is Matsui. Rivera pitched his third straight scoreless outing Thursday.
To give a glimpse at the kind of talent Torre has, Cano - the league's second-leading hitter - batted ninth on Thursday.
"It's pretty darn good right now," Torre told reporters. "We have a guy named Bernie Williams sitting on the bench. We have Melky Cabrera, who's not in the lineup. We have some pleasant problems to solve before next Tuesday."
CLOSING LIKE NO OTHER: One of the reasons the Padres are heading into the postseason with the second-best record in the NL is their bullpen strength. That's a tribute to Trevor Hoffman, who passed Lee Smith a week ago today with his 479th career save.
Hoffman's record-breaking save was his league-leading 43rd of the season, and he has added one since. In only one other season, the Padres' 1998 World Series campaign, has Hoffman compiled more saves and a lower ERA.
In the process, Hoffman has made a claim for the NL Cy Young Award just two weeks short of his 39th birthday.
"The last two or three years, he hasn't had the velocity he once had and he's as good as he's ever been," Padres GM Kevin Towers said. "He's got tremendous location, tremendous work ethic, tremendous intestinal fortitude. He beats a lot of people because of who he is. A lot of teams are beaten before he comes out of that (bullpen) gate."
DIFFERENT WORLDS: One of the hot names being mentioned as a top managerial candidate is Trey Hillman, manager of the playoff-bound Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese Pacific League. Hillman, 43, has been rumored as a strong candidate to replace Dusty Baker in Chicago and Girardi in Florida. He previously worked in the Yankees and Rangers organizations.
In last Sunday's game, Hillman lifted the Ham Fighters' starting pitcher, Satoru Kanemura, with two outs in the top of the fifth inning. He had a three-run lead and was one out away from earning his 10th victory.
Kanemura, a double-digit winner the previous four seasons, was incensed that Hillman pulled him before he qualified for a win. After the game, he said he would never forgive his manager and added, "I don't even want to see his face."
The club responded by fining Kanemura 2-million yen and suspending him through the playoffs.
"As someone who should know better as a member of society, I have done a shameful thing," Kanemura said. "They could have easily fired me."
It's obviously a much different philosophy in Japan. Here in the States, the manager would have undoubtedly taken the fall for such a decision.
PLAYOFF TIDBITS: Minnesota's Torii Hunter has 15 homers and 35 RBIs since Aug. 17, showing he's fully recovered from an ankle injury. ... St. Petersburg native and Twins pitcher Boof Bonser is 4-0 with a 2.20 ERA in September. He has pitched well enough that he's the favorite to start Game 2 of the division series. Former Jesuit High standout Brad Radke, who pitched well in his grand comeback Thursday, could start Game 3. ... The Reds were 24-34 in August and September heading into the weekend, going from wild-card frontrunner to playoff afterthought. ... Since his first start on June 22, Astros pitcher Roger Clemens owns a 2.35 ERA, best in the majors in that span. ... The Cardinals ended a seven-game losing streak Wednesday. Had they lost, it would have been their third eight-game losing streak of the season, something that hasn't happened to a St. Louis NL team since 1907. ... The return of Oakland pitcher Rich Harden is a good sign for the A's as they head into the postseason. Oakland is 8-0 in games Harden has started.
MISCELLANY: Speaking of Girardi, not since Davey Johnson parted company with the Orioles after 1997 has a newly named manager of the year failed to return the following year. It has happened only one other time since the award was instituted 23 years ago: After winning the award with the Blue Jays in 1985, Bobby Cox resigned to become Braves general manager. ... Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood knows Chicago is going to exercise its $3-million buyout for 2007, but he hopes he and the Cubs can work out a new deal. He told a Chicago radio station he feels an obligation to return and that "there is something to prove." ... Mariners manager Mike Hargrove's job was seemingly saved by a 20-14 record since mid August. ... Since manager Buddy Bell took leave to have a lump on his left tonsil removed, the Royals are 1-7 under interim manager Billy Doran.