Things are really looking up in Yankee land. The team is back over .500 for the first time in almost two weeks. They now have third place in the AL East to themselves, having picked up a half-game on the Blue Jays who were idle last night. They're 5-2 in their last seven games. And, most importantly, this latest winning streak can be directly tied to the improvements made by several of the team's key players.
In the rotation, Randy Johnson has been downright nasty in his last two starts (18 IP, 9 H, 1 R, 1 HR, 0 BB, 18 K), Mike Mussina's last outing was his second shutout of the year, even tonight's starter, Carl "Meat" Pavano, has been solid in his last two outings (12 IP, 11 H, 3 R, 1 HR, 3 BB, 5 K). And, while Tanyon Sturtze has suddenly given up homers in each of the last three innings he's pitched, adding almost a run and a half to his season ERA (though those are the only three homers he's allowed all year), Mariano Rivera is as lights out as he's ever been. Don't look now, but Mo's rate stats look like this: 1.09 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 10.58 K/9. The K-rate is Mo's highest since 1996, while the ERA is more than a half run better than his career high.
On offense, the big news is that Jason Giambi is starting to catch up with those 90-plus mile per hour fastballs. As a result, a full thirty percent of his extra base hits on the year have come in the last three games. Similarly, Hideki Matsui, who has a hit in all but three games this month, has hit a full third of his homers in the last three games. Matsui's sudden power stroke is a direct result of the mild ankle sprain he suffered while playing right field in St. Louis. Unable to put too much weight on his right (front) ankle, Matsui is keeping his weight back and driving the ball. As a result, half of his extra base hits in June have come while DHing due to the sprain. (Hitting Coach Don Mattingly has reportedly threatened to whack Matsui in the ankle with a bat if he reverts to lunging at the ball once his ankle heals).
With everything going their way, the Yankees now get their biggest challenge since the Red Sox sent them packing on the Road Trip From Hell (no disrespect to the Twins there, but the Yankees weren't in challenge-facing mood when they hit Minnesota--by the way speaking of that road trip, the Kansas City Royals are now 11-4 under new manager Buddy Bell and just completed a three-game sweep of the Dodgers last night).
Ballpark (2004 park factors): Wrigley Field (106/105)
Who's replacing whom?
Jeromy Burnitz replaces Moises Alou
Jerry Hairston Jr. replaces Sammy Sosa
Neifi Perez takes over Ramon Martinez and Alex Gonzalez's playing time
Jason Dubois inherits Mark Grudzielanek's playing time
Henry Blanco replaces Paul Bako
Enrique Wilson replaces Tom Goodwin
Glendon Rush and Sergio Mitre combine to take over Matt Clement's starts
Ryan Dempster takes over LaTroy Hawkins' innings
Will Ohman replaces Kent Mercker
Cliff Bartosh replaces Francis Beltran
Kyle Farnsworth's innings are distributed among the remainder of the pen
1B Derrek Lee
2B Todd Walker
SS Neifi Perez
3B Aramis Ramirez
C Michael Barrett
RF Jeromy Burnitz
CF Corey Patterson
LF Todd Hollandsworth
R Jason Dubois (OF)
R - Jerry Hairston, Jr. (UT)
S Jose Macias (UT)
S - Enrique Wilson (IF)
R Henry Blanco (C)
R Carlos Zambrano
L Glendon Rusch
R Greg Maddux
R - Sergio Mitre
R Ryan Dempster
R Michael Wuertz
L - Will Ohman
L Mike Remlinger
L - Cliff Bartosh
R - Todd Wellemeyer
R Joe Borowski
L - Rich Hill
R Mark Prior
R Kerry Wood
R - Nomar Garciaparra (SS) (60-day)
R - Chad Fox (60-day)
R - Scott Williamson (60-day)
S - Neifi Perez (SS)
L Corey Patterson (CF)
R Derrek Lee (1B)
L Jeromy Burnitz (RF)
R Aramis Ramirez (3B)
L Todd Walker (2B)
L - Todd Hollandsworth (LF)
R Michael Barrett (C)
The Cubs have been the default second place team in the NL Central all year as the Cardinals have been running away with the division while the rest of the Central has been struggling to either reach .500 (so far, no luck) or avoid .400 (a mark the Reds have slipped below). Looking more closely, the Cubs look like a contender (they're second in the NL Wild Card hunt right now behind the Phillies), but they're just 1.5 games ahead of the Yankees, which means this weekend's series could be a lot more fun that we initially might have thought.
The Cubs season has been largely sabotaged by two things: Injuries and Dusty Baker's fondness for human out machines such as Neifi Perez and despised ex-Yankee Enrique Wilson. The injuries have hit hardest in the starting rotation, where Mark Prior has made two trips to the disabled list and Kerry Wood has made just five starts (posting a 6.15 ERA in those starts, no less). Prior and Wood have combined to make as many starts as Greg Maddux (who currently boasts his worst ERA since his rookie year of 1987).
The good news is that Glendon Rusch has thrived since being moved into the rotation in May, posting a 2.63 ERA in eight starts, and tonight's starter, Crazy Carlos Zambrano has been every bit the overlooked ace he's supposed to be, increasing his K/9 and K/BB rates for the third straight year at age 24 while allowing just 57 hits in 84 2/3 innings. The bad news is that the Cubs have not been able to find a fifth starter, having recently demoted their last candidate, John Koronka, earlier in the week.
In the pen, the Cubs are overloaded with young lefties. Lead by 27-year-old Will Ohman (1.93 ERA), former Indian Cliff Bartosh (struggling) and Koronka's replacement, rookie Rich Hill (one lousy inning thus far). That doesn't count their ancient lefty, LOOGY Mike Remlinger (1.02 WHIP, 8.14 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, but a 5.09 ERA). Ohman, 26-year-old righty Michael Wuertz, and 28-year-old converted starter Ryan Dempster (who has taken over the closing job in the wake of LaTroy Hawkins being dealt to San Francisco), form a solid Big Three. 26-year-old Todd Wellemeyer has been a solid middle man. Rutgers grad and one-time Yankee Joe Borowski is just hanging on to his job at this point.
As for those out-machines, the prime offenders are all bench players:
Henry Blanco: .151/.179/.283
Enrique Wilson: .133/.188/.200
Jose Macias: .267/.286/.317
But one must not be fooled by the season totals of infamous out-maker Neifi Perez (.269/.301/.380 career through 2004). A shocking .368/.403/.559 April has skewed his season averages to hide his performance since: .272/.283/.391.
Then there's the matter of the on-base percentages posted by their starting centerfielder (.292) and left-field combo (Dubois: .302, Hollandsworth: .318). Their catcher and right fielder, meanwhile, are struggling (and failing) to reach base in a third of their trips to the plate. At least this quartet is hitting for power, with Michael Barrett actually improving on the career-high slugging percentage he posted at age 27 last year. In fact, the Cubs may be struggling with their on-base figures, but they're third in the majors in slugging.
Credit for that goes to the trio of Todd Walker, Aramis Ramirez and especially Derrek Lee. Walker missed more than a month to the disabled list, but has been smoking the ball since returning in late May. Ramirez, who turns 27 a week from tomorrow, is proving that his break-out season last year (and seemingly forgotten .300/.350/.536 performance for the pirates in 2001) did indeed reflect his true level of ability. And Derrek Lee . . .
What can you say? Derrek Lee is one homer short of leading the major leagues in all three triple crown categories. He leads all qualifying major leaguers with a .385 average, .466 OBP, .711 slugging, just about every advanced metric you could care to use (EQA, VORP, etc.), is tied with Alex Rodriguez with 56 RBIs, and is one short of Rodriguez with 18 homers. He also leads the majors in hits and runs and is one double behind Brad Wilkerson for the major league lead in that category. In addition, he's 9 for 10 on the bases and has a career-high 112 Rate at first base. He also has the sport's neatest goatee.
Which reminds me, don't forget to check out our fellow Toasters over at Cub Town to see how the other half is living this weekend. The most recent post over there as of this writing is an interview with our very own Alex Belth regarding the degree to which the Yankees have sucked this season. Here's hoping what I wrote at the top of this post is more indicative of how the Yankees perform this weekend than what our Cub Town cohorts coaxed out of Alex.