Chris Hammond spent his two-year retirement, in 1999 and 2000, on his ranch in the country hamlet of Wedowee, Ala., whiling away the days by bass fishing, deer and duck hunting, and minding his three young children. On the strength of his first season back in the majors—last year with the Braves, the lefthander was 7-2 with a 0.95 ERA in 63 appearances—the Yankees made Hammond the centerpiece of their bullpen makeover. "It's just like in Atlanta with [closer] John Smoltz," Hammond says. "You've got to have those sixth-, seventh-, eighth-inning pitchers to get to Mariano Rivera. I prepared myself for this the second half of last year; I pitched the sixth and seventh innings of almost every close game, and it's not going to be any different this year."
The hallmark of the New York dynasty has been bullpen rhythm, the ball passed like a relay baton from Ramiro Mendoza to Mike Stanton, to Jeff Nelson or Steve Karsay, to the closer, Rivera. In regular-season games under manager Joe Torre the Yankees are 523-54 when leading after six innings. In postseason games their record is 37-3. Yet New York overhauled that bullpen this winter. Gone are Mendoza and Stanton, who accounted for a 6-2 record and a 3.47 ERA in 46? playoff innings. Karsay, who underwent back surgery in November, opens the season on the disabled list with right shoulder soreness, and the aura of invincibility around Rivera, who made three trips to the DL in 2002, has been punctured.
Once a straight shot, the journey from the sixth inning to the ninth has become less certain. "It's going to take time to put things in order," Torre says. "With Stanton and Mendoza gone, I have nobody I'm used to [for the middle innings]."
Rivera, for one, will see his workload lightened, as the Yankees attempt to minimize the risk of injury. "Because of the physical problems he had last year, our goal is to pitch Rivera only in save situations and not to overextend him," Torre says. That suggests more multi-inning save opportunities for Karsay or former White Sox closer Antonio Osuna, who will fill Mendoza's role after being obtained in the three-way trade that sent Orlando Hernandez to Montreal and Bartolo Colon to Chicago.
Hammond is being counted on to replace Stanton, a versatile workhorse who had earned Torre's trust. Happy in retirement, Hammond considered pitching again at the urging of his wife, Lynne. "She was kind of disappointed that my kids didn't know me as a baseball player," Hammond says. "They could only look at pictures and videos, but after watching SportsCenter and seeing the lefties who were in some bullpens, I started thinking, I can pitch better than that."
Last year Hammond was a nonroster invitee to the Braves' spring training and quickly dusted off a devastating, fluttering changeup as slow as his Southern drawl. Hammond paired it with a pinpoint mid-80s fastball—which appears to be 5 mph faster because of his deceptive change—and excelled as Smoltz's setup man. After the season the Yankees offered Stanton, Hammond and Mark Guthrie, another free-agent reliever who spent 2002 with the Mets, the same two-year deal for just under $5 million. Hammond bit first.
"Our scouts wanted Hammond over Stanton," says general manager Brian Cashman. "They felt [in the long run] that Chris would be a better guy to get the hitters out than Mike." Because he throws his changeup with equal effectiveness to lefties and righties, and prefers facing the latter, Hammond can be used not as a situational reliever, as Stanton was, but to work full innings in tight games.
The 2002 AL leader in on-base percentage (.354), as well as the club that was second in slugging percentage (.455) and home runs (223), the Yankees added to their embarrassment of riches by signing leftfielder Hideki (Godzilla) Matsui. The three-time Japan League MVP showed excellent bat control this spring, striking out only four times in 51 at bats through Sunday. With depth at nearly every position, the Yankees are fulfilling the prediction made on the satirical website The Onion in February: YANKEES ENSURE 2003 PENNANT BY SIGNING EVERY PLAYER IN BASEBALL.
Still, much rests on Hammond, who has come 999 miles, as the crow flies, from lazy days in Wedowee to pressure-packed nights in the Bronx. The city at the end of this thousand-mile journey won't countenance a single misstep.