- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

BALTIMORE.

Here come the Yankees . . . and there goes the rest of the American League East.

Maybe.

After last night's games, the Yankees have a three-game lead over the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays in what has become an anemic division. The Orioles? Forget it. They're so far back they might as well be in the International League.

The Yankees' slender lead and record (53-42) don't compare with those at this point of their 1996, '98 and '99 pennant winners. But you had better believe manager Joe Torre will take them.

A month or so ago, the Yankees weren't scaring anybody except their fans. Beset by injuries and advancing age, they rested uneasily in third place with a 38-36 record. Torre's job was not in danger he has accomplished too much in pinstripes for that but there were suspicions that George M. Steinbrenner might come roaring back into the picture any second. And as all of us know, possibly even King George III himself, the Yankees have dominated baseball for five years because he has let his baseball people make the baseball decisions.

(Get the picture, Peter Angelos? But that's another story.)

With last night's pummeling of the Orioles, the Yankees have won 15 of 21, which is more like it. Smiles are breaking out again in the Noo Yawk clubhouse, although Torre's solid, stolid mood never seems to change much.

"This is a very professional group with a lot of confidence," he was saying in the dugout at Camden Yards. "They know how to fight through bad times."

So that's why the Yankees have gotten so hot as July heads for August?

"Hot? We haven't gotten hot yet."

Words, indeed, to send chills through fans in Boston, Toronto and Chicago, which has perhaps the best team in its 100-year history. One thing remains constant in baseball: The Yankees are the Yankees, and other pretenders to a World Series throne have failed to dissuade them 25 times in the past 77 seasons.

Yet all that mystique the memories and legends of the Babe, the Iron Horse, Hug, Marse Joe, the Yankee Clipper, the Ol' Perfessor, The Mick and Reggie wasn't doing the Yanks much good before the All-Star Game. Not with Roger Clemens struggling, David Cone practically a non-winner, El Duque pitching like Donald Duck and Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez hitting with all the force of a spring shower.

So general manager Brian Cashman started swinging for the fences with deals. In came David Justice to add pop and class to the outfield. In came Jose Vizcaino to take over for, or at least aid and abet, erratic Chuck Knoblauch at second. Most of all, in came extremely competent left-hander Denny Neagle.

In his first two starts, Neagle made the Phillies and Devil Rays look like the minor league teams they might in fact be. Suddenly 38-year-old Roger Clemens has won five straight while pitching something like the Rocket we remember. Now if somebody can only get Andy Pettitte into a consistently effective mode and "El Duque" (Orlando Hernandez) off the DL, setup man Mike Stanton and superb closer Mariano Rivera might be able to have a couple of nights off a week.

Of course, the Yankees might not be through bolstering themselves. The talk has been hot and heavy this week that Baltimore left fielder B.J. Surhoff, one of the few worthwhile Orioles, will find himself with a big "NY" on his left breast before Monday's trading deadline. Such a move would surprise no one.

If the Yankees do go all the way, and we don't mean to Hoboken, perhaps Torre will have done his best job. It's easy to manage a team that wins 114 games during the regular season, as the Yankees did in 1998. Going to the World Series by dint of a strong second half after a lousy start is more difficult and perhaps more rewarding?

"Sure," Jeter said. "Winning is never easy, although we've made it look easy the last couple of years. If we even win the division this season, it would be a lot more satisfying."

Third baseman Scott Brosius begged to differ. "It's no secret how you win ballgames, by pitching better and hitting the ball [safely] at the right times. But winning is always great, no matter how you get there."

The Yankees certainly know how to win. Now all they have to do is do it. Suggestion: Don't bet against them.

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