By MIKE READLING
© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 8, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- The last time the Yankees were in town, whispers abounded about the diminishing New York dynasty.
The three-time defending world champions were on the way down, the naysayers shouted. The Yankees, eight games better than .500 and four games behind the Red Sox when they last visited Tropicana Field in late June, had finally lost it.
Don't look now, but it appears as though they might have found it.
When New York hit the field against Tampa Bay on Tuesday night they were 21/2 games ahead in the American League East, 22 games better than .500. The Yankees reclaimed first place July 3 and have not relinquished it.
"We're playing better," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "We're pitching better and I think we're playing better defense."
The biggest factor has been improved pitching.
Andy Pettitte returned from the disabled list July 1 and regained his form, allowing four walks in 44 innings since. He has won three straight and enters tonight's game at 12-6.
Roger Clemens, scheduled to face the Rays on Thursday, is 15-1 with a 3.55 ERA and is tied for the league lead with 154 strikeouts. Clemens is attempting to become the first Yankee since Al Downing in 1964 to lead the league in strikeouts.
And, as if New York needed the boost, Orlando Hernandez made his first rehabilitation start Monday night as he returns from toe surgery. He is expected to join the team in time to pitch the final month of the season.
"I feel good. I feel much better," Hernandez said through an interpreter Tuesday. "I'm happy to be able to pitch again off the mound without any pain."
The Yankees also made some key moves before the trading deadline, acquiring Mark Wohlers and Jay Witasick to shore up the bullpen. Wohlers made his mark Sunday, coming in to pitch New York out a jam against Anaheim, pitching 21/3 innings, allowing one hit and striking out four.
The offense has picked up quite a bit since its last trip south as well.
New York has hit 32 home runs in its past 16 games and is the only AL team with eight players in double figures.
All that offense leads to streaks, and streaks lead to building a lead in a pennant race, and that's exactly what New York has done. It won 10 of 11 before the All-Star break and put together an eight-game streak when play resumed. It has lost three straight, but Torre is far from panic mode.
"It usually takes the first half of the year to figure out what your club is all about," Torre said. "We've lost the last couple of games but we had an eight-game run on the back end there. We're capable right now."