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Seventh Heaven

Can a pair of aces keep the Yankees from another title?

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Posted: Wednesday October 24, 2001 11:46 AM
Updated: Sunday November 04, 2001 12:51 AM

By Tom Verducci

Sports Illustrated If the Yankees are to become the first team since 1953 to win a fourth straight world championship, they will have to accomplish what the Cardinals and the Braves could not in five of six tries this postseason: win a game started by either of the Diamondbacks' aces, Curt Schilling or Randy Johnson. Should Arizona manager Bob Brenly pitch his top starters on short rest -- meaning Schilling would start Games 1, 4 and (if necessary) 7, and Johnson Games 2 and (if necessary) 5 or 6 -- New York would have to win twice against them.

"I think the Diamondbacks have to pitch them on short rest," Atlanta righthander John Burkett says. "What you did over 162 games gets thrown out the window now. Depth in your rotation isn't as important, not when you have two guys dealing the way they are."

Referring to the lack of depth in Arizona's rotation, Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone says, "The Diamondbacks better win the games those guys start."

Schilling and Johnson say that they'll pitch whenever Brenly wants them to. However, even Arizona assistant general manager Sandy Johnson cautions, "Pitchers on short rest in the postseason over the last two years have one win and seven losses. It hasn't worked out very well."

The Yankees' offensive credo while winning 11 consecutive postseason series has been to drive starting pitchers from games by running up their pitch counts with lengthy at bats and then to attack the opponent's bullpen. Since 1996, relievers are 3-13 against New York in the postseason. That tactic figures to be less effective against the Diamondbacks because of the stamina of Schilling and Johnson. Brenly may have been exaggerating only slightly last week when he said each can throw as many as 160 pitches in a game. Schilling has worked a hefty 283 2/3 innings this year, including the postseason. Johnson's odometer is at 273 2/3.

Should the Yankees knock Schilling and Johnson out, they can beat Arizona's relievers. New York has a distinct advantage in the bullpen because of Mariano Rivera, the best postseason relief pitcher ever. Byung-Hyun Kim, who has had bouts of wildness, led the Diamondbacks with 19 saves in the regular season; no team since the 1988 Dodgers has won a world championship without a closer who saved at least 25 games. Kim walked more batters this season (44 in 98 innings) than Rivera has over the past two years (37 in 156 1/3 innings). In Game 5 against the Braves, two outs from the World Series and trying to protect a one-run lead, Kim walked pinch hitter Keith Lockhart on four pitches. Atlanta let Kim off the hook. The Yankees aren't so forgiving. In four World Series under manager Joe Torre, New York has outscored opponents 37-19 from the seventh inning on. In the past six postseasons, the Yankees are 36-1 in games in which they've led after the sixth inning.

New York's remarkable late-inning record means that Arizona must score early. Outfielders Luis Gonzalez (57 home runs and a .688 slugging percentage) and Reggie Sanders (33 and .549) are the best power hitters on either team, but the Diamondbacks' hidden advantage is the deepest bench this side of Washington, D.C. Arizona pinch hitters tied a major league record by delivering 14 home runs during the regular season and have continued to contribute in the playoffs. Erubiel Durazo's pinch-hit, two-run shot off Braves lefty Tom Glavine provided the winning margin in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. During Games 3, 4 and 5 at Yankee Stadium, Brenly can use lefthanded specialists Durazo and David Dellucci as designated hitters; they combined for 22 home runs and 78 RBIs in 392 at bats this year but have batted only six times in the postseason.

The Yankees know how to win late. They will find a way again and add a new jewel to their crown: their first Game 7 victory since 1962.

Issue date: October 29, 2001

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