"This is like scoring five runs in the first inning," Cashman says. "There are still eight innings left, but it sure gives you a good feeling."
The Yankees can be such a devastating team that by the third inning of the second game in a two-game series against West Division-leading Texas last week, Rangers manager Johnny Oates was dialing his general manager from the dugout in The Ballpark in Arlington for reinforcements. "We're going to need a pitcher for tomorrow," Oates said to Doug Melvin, who was sitting upstairs. Oates changed pitchers 10 times while losing the two games, 7-2 and 15-13.
"They're solid everywhere," Oates says. "I thought picking up Brosius was a key move for them. He plays as good a third base as anyone in the league."
New York went on to defeat Minnesota 5-1 last Friday (its eighth straight win) in typically resourceful fashion. The Yankees were tied 1-1 with two outs and nobody on base in the seventh when nettlesome leadoff man Chuck Knoblauch singled against righthander Brad Radke. When Knoblauch took off for second on the next pitch, Derek Jeter dutifully did not swing, allowing the stolen base. "The only way I'm going to swing if I see him go is if the pitch is grooved," said Jeter, who two pitches later slapped a single into leftfield to drive home Knoblauch with the run that put New York ahead for good.
"They make you work every single pitch," Radke said. "They didn't swing at one ball in the dirt all night. They know what pitch they want to get, and they'll wait until they see it. When they do get it, they knock the [stuffing] out of it."
The Yankees are drawing walks at a rate that threatens to break the club's 66-year-old record (766), and they're swiping bases often enough to make them a virtual lock to become the first Yankees team since 1914 with 200 steals. Manager Joe Torre encouraged such behavior in spring training when he gave every player the green light to steal. "I wanted people to go out there and try it when it didn't cost anything," Torre says. Last Friday his lineup included six players still free to run at will (Jeter, Knoblauch, Strawberry, Williams, Chad Curtis and Paul O'Neill), not to mention seven .300 hitters.
O'Neill, who had 18 steals in his five previous years in New York, helped win a game in Kansas City on May 1 with enterprising baserunning. With his team down 1-0, he took off from first base on his own with one out in the sixth. He wound up at second on what most likely would otherwise have been a double-play grounder by Martinez, then scored the tying run on a two-out hit by Williams. The Yankees went on to win 2-1.
In that game, as well as the one last Friday, Irabu pitched splendidly into the eighth inning for a victory. Buoyed by his first spring training with New York, a better curveball and a two-seam sinking fastball to complement what used to be a too-straight four-seamer, Irabu (2-0, 1.42 ERA) is a changed pitcher. Opponents have hit .159 against him, down from .311 last year. The man his teammates call Boo Boo but who's built like Yogi Bear is throwing gas instead of tantrums, another improvement over '97.
"He's been sensational," pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says. "From the first day of spring training I could tell. He had a bounce in his step and just looked much more comfortable."
Irabu and his fellow starters have been supported by a bullpen so good that closer Mariano Rivera, who has allowed three hits, no walks and no runs while facing 29 batters this year, spent 18 days on the DL last month (with a groin injury) without being missed. Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton have converted six of eight save chances between them. The Yankees have lost only two games in which they had a lead. Give them at least four runs to work with and the New York pitchers are unbeatable: 20-0 through Sunday.