Punchless offense punches out weary Yankees

Wednesday, October 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Steve Krasner / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

NEW YORK -- It was only one game.

That's what the New York Yankees kept repeating after losing to the Seattle Mariners, 2-0, last night in the opening game of the American League Championship Series on a cold night at Yankee Stadium.

"This isn't football," said Derek Jeter, who fanned three times. "It's a series. This is just the first game. We'll see how it goes."

They are well acquainted with the ALCS rules. It takes four wins to capture the best-of-seven series and advance to the World Series.

Last night's victory was only the first one for the Mariners. There's still a long way to go. The Yankees, meanwhile, say they'll hit. They know it. Or do they? Are they just trying to convince themselves?

Hey, it was a cold night. They were tired, what with all the jet-lag caused by four cross-country flights in nine days. And some nights you have to tip your cap to the opposing pitchers. On this night, that meant the Mariners' starter, Freddy Garcia, who racked up eight of the staff's 13 whiffs.

The excuses were hanging in the air, like a fat 3-and-0 pitch.

Of course, the way the Yanks are swinging the bats these days, they probably would miss that cookie, too. Until the ninth last night, New York managed only four hits, two apiece by Luis Sojo and Chuck Knoblauch.

A leadoff single by Bernie Williams and a one-out single by Tino Martinez in the ninth off Seattle closer Kazuhiro Sasaki put the Yankees in position for a stirring comeback.

But it turned out to be just a cruel tease for the boisterous crowd of 54,481. After smoking a liner just foul down the right-field line, Jorge Posada flied to right. Sojo, after lofting a fly ball just to the right of the right-field foul pole, lined to center. Where was Jose Canseco? He was left off the roster for this series.

Derek Jeter was 0-for-3 with a walk. Williams was 1-for-4, punched out twice. Paul O'Neill was 0-for-3, and he was lifted for pinch hitter Glenallen Hill in the eighth. Hill looked at a third strike.

New York was 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position last night. The Yankees now have scored runs in only three of their last 27 innings. That qualifies as a drought.

Certainly, the Yankees are battle-tested, which, in this case, also means they are getting a tad long in the tooth.

But as Seattle manager Lou Piniella and his players have acknowledged, New York still is the reigning champion and therefore is deserving of respect. New York has won two consecutive World Championships, and three over the last four years.

This is a different year, however. And it hasn't been smooth sailing for the Yankees. Not like two years ago, when they were setting records for victories. Not like last season, when they made it two straight, losing only one postseason game.

No, this year has been a struggle. The Yankees never did pull away from a flawed Boston Red Sox team. Indeed, New York slid so badly over the final three weeks of the regular season, that the Red Sox were mathematically eliminated from the wild-card race before they were officially knocked out of the A.L. East title chase.

And the Yanks didn't exactly steamroller the Oakland Athletics in the division series, failing to close out the upstart A.L. West champions at home, forcing them to take yet another cross-country flight for a nail-biting 7-5 Game 5 win on the West Coast Sunday.

Last night? There was little in the aging Yanks' tank.

But while they worried how left-hander Denny Neagle, turned to for last night's start out of desperation, would fare, it turned out to misplaced worry.

Neagle, who allowed 18 earned runs in his last three starts, totaling only 102/3 innings, was bypassed throughout the division series, a testament to manager Joe Torre's concerns.

Neagle was a little rusty last night, going to three balls on 11 batters, but he didn't surrender a hit until there were two outs in the fifth. He lasted 52/3 innings, giving up three hits and two runs.

Pitching wasn't New York's problem. The offense was. Again.

New York's offense has been missing in action since early September, a factor in the Yanks dropping 15 of their last 18 regular-season games.

New York scored seven runs in subduing the Athletics, but that was the result of one big inning, a six-run flurry in the first. Thereafter, the Yankees settled for only one more run, on a homer by David Justice in the fourth, New York's only home run in the series.

Last night, the Yanks had chances. Their best came in the sixth when a leadoff double by Knoblauch and a walk to Jeter had runners at first and second with none out and the heart of the order coming up.

But Garcia coolly fanned O'Neill, getting him fishing for a pitch down and away. Then he got Williams waving weakly at a breaking ball down and in. And the young right-hander survived Justice's long fly ball to the center-field fence for the final out.

It was only one game, say the Yanks. They'll hit, they say.

"It's frustrating," said manager Joe Torre. "The players are as frustrated as anybody. I have confidence they'll hit when I write their names into the lineup. When they don't hit, it surprises you."

The surprises have been coming often lately. Three more of them, and the Yankees will be watching the World Series on television this year.