Yankees look like fodder for upstarts again

Dan Wetzel

CLEVELAND – Delirious Cleveland Indians fans hung over the New York Yankees bullpen, waving towels and hurling insults, calling for them to send in another sacrificial lamb.

The Indians were slamming balls all over (and out of) Jacobs Field on their way to a 12-3 rout on Thursday, and Yankees manager Joe Torre was scrambling young arms beyond the right-field fence, readying this one and that, calling some in to pitch, telling others to forget it.

The Indians' bats were alive and the Yankees' pitching staff was dead on arrival in Game 1 of the American League division series. They had no answers to start and no way to stop the bleeding before it was over. The best they could do was huddle under a covering to shelter them from the abuse raining down around them.

This perfect night for the Indians was turning out to be New York's perfect nightmare.

Yankees ace Chien-Ming Wang got rocked early and often while Cleveland starter C.C. Sabathia was able to battle to safety before handing over a turn-out-the-lights four innings to the bullpen against a New York lineup already out of fight.

Torre could only hope Wang could do it, and he couldn't, getting drilled for eight runs in 4 2/3 innings. Torre's options were bleak; eventually he turned to Ross Ohlendorf, who got hit for three more runs as the fans at Jacobs Field soared into delirium.

More than anything, these Yankees need exceptional starting pitching or it's over. That is how they used to win and now it is the only way they can.

For all the money and all the free agents, in recent years this team makes the playoffs only to fade at first fight. Their payroll and fame serve as the ultimate motivator, sending opposing fans into mayhem and opposing teams (most recently the Tigers and Angels) soaring to new heights.

Which is why no matter how potent the lineup (and five hits Thursday isn't potent) or how hot the team has been at times, the Yankees can't belt their way to a 27th World Series crown. They have to get some pitching to calm the crowds, put doubt in the opponents and seize victories the way they once did.

"No excuses tonight," Torre said. "We got out rear ends kicked."

It was just a single game, Cleveland grabbing a 1-0 lead in this best-of-five series, and for all the fun and fury of the evening for the Indians and their title-starved fans, it may mean nothing when Game 2 begins Friday at 5:07 p.m. ET.

Or, it may mean everything. If not in this series (should New York rally to win), then down the line when the competition gets tougher, the games tighter.

Now the Yankees turn to their two venerable prodigal sons: Andy Pettitte, who delivered Game 2 masterpieces long ago, and Roger Clemens, 45 and fresh off rehab, but still capable.

Of course, so was Wang. He won 19 games this year and despite having a road ERA two points higher than at Yankee Stadium, he was Torre's choice to take on Sabathia. But Wang left too many pitches high in the strike zone and the Indians hit them all over Ohio.

"He just wasn't down," Torre said. "And if he's not, then you're flirting with danger, especially against this ballclub."

Worse, he couldn't muster the fight shown by Sabathia, who battled out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fifth inning to maintain a 4-3 lead. Of course, Sabathia could turn to an Indians bullpen that allowed one hit over the final four innings.

The Yankees' season has been about bouncing back, finding ways, maintaining confidence. The team was left for dead in June only to wind up back in October. So there is no panic in pinstripes, no reason to give up.

"We (understand) that we certainly can't feel sorry for ourselves," Torre said. "If someone beats us up, you tip your hat to them and come back the next day."

That said, their Achilles' heel is obvious. Cleveland worked counts and battled Wang each at-bat in an effort to run him out of the game.

"There was a lot of hunting going on up there at home plate," Indians manager Eric Wedge said.

Cleveland was patient until it pounced and rolled to victory. Striking early can mean so much in a short series. Torre talked about watching the past two years as young teams (Anaheim, Detroit) gained confidence from a single victory over the vaunted Yankees in the ALDS and never looked back.

"A five-game series is certainly scary," Torre said.

Especially when your ace just got wrecked, when your bullpen has no immediate answers, when so much suddenly rides on Pettitte and Clemens like it's the late 1990s. They certainly need that old magic now, those old World Series ghosts to reappear before it's too late.

Because ever since they led Boston 3-0 in the 2004 ALCS, the Yankees haven't done much of anything in October except serve as big-name, big-game fodder for frenzied fans who hang over the bullpen and heckle them right out of the park, right out of the playoffs.