By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — As any cardiologist will tell you, stress is never a good thing. It changes a person, rarely for the better.
The Yankees and their fans are no strangers to stress. They often find themselves in more pressure-packed situations than any team and fan base in professional sports. It’s a byproduct of the franchise’s continued excellence.
Matchups with the Red Sox bring on episodes of heightened blood pressure for both players and fans, as do pivotal series against other division rivals, which, unlike years past, is now the case every time the Yankees take on the Rays. Add the much improved Orioles and Blue Jays to the mix and you get a wide-open AL East that for the first time that I can remember is a legitimate five-team race.
Then there’s the Angels, a team that is probably better equipped to beat the Yankees over a seven-game series than any in the AL. The Bombers seem to be reduced to mere mortal status each and every time they head to Anaheim. Weird things happen there. No lead is ever safe. The Angels are equally menacing when they come to the Bronx. It’s a credit to Mike Scioscia, whose hybrid NL style of managing gives the Yankees fits no matter the date on the schedule or his team’s record.
But short of a late September do-or-die situation or a playoff series, the Yankees’ most stressful scenario involves six supposedly “meaningless” games in June.
The Mets. The team the Yankees have no choice but to beat.
The two three-game legs of the Subway Series are almost always a no-win situation for the Yankees. They are expected to win the majority of the games every season. The teams have met 84 times in the regular season since interleague play began in 1997, with the Yankees winning 49. The games have often been wild affairs and despite the Yankees’ significant edge in wins, the Mets have more often than not elevated their game to a new level. Guys like Mike Piazza have shown why they have the reputations they have and players like Dave Mlicki have stepped up in ways never before imagined.
The 2000 World Series was an even greater nightmare scenario for the Yankees. Though they did win the series in five games, it felt like a seven-game odyssey. The Mets would have won Game 1 had it not been for an immortal at-bat from Paul O’Neill in the 9th, followed by an eventual opposite-field slicing single from utility infielder Jose Vizcaino.
The Mets showed massive heart throughout that series. Down six in their last at-bat in Game 2 they rallied for five runs, in part off of legendary Mariano Rivera. Think about that for a second while you consider Rivera’s standing in the pantheon of the greats.
They won Game 3, beating Orlando Hernandez, who had been 6-0 in his postseason career. They fought tooth and nail in Game 4, only to fall 3-2. Then, in the Bombers’ clinching Game 5 win, the Mets got a Herculean effort from Al Leiter only to fall behind for good on Punch and Judy hitter Luis Sojo’s seeing-eye dribbler up the middle in the 9th. And I don’t care who you are, when Piazza connected off Rivera with two outs and a man on in the bottom half you thought for sure it was long gone. But for whatever reasons the ball died in the winds of Shea, as did the Mets’ season.
My point is, the Mets bring it when they face the Yankees. They don’t play like the perennial little brother. They come locked and loaded for the big, bad bear and very often upset the balance of nature.
Expect more of the same starting this Friday at the new Yankee Stadium.
The Mets are without question the best story of the 2012 season. The doom and gloom of an offseason filled with constant screaming about Bernie Madoff and ridicule of the Wilpons, later followed by calls for the public stoning of General Manager Sandy Alderson, has been replaced by the type of hope and optimism that hasn’t been seen since the gut-wrenching 2006 seven-game NLCS loss to the eventual world champion Cardinals.
Depending on who you read and took to heart this past winter, the Mets, with their lopped off payroll and roster supposedly infused with one home-grown and not-ready-for-prime-time player after another, were to be lucky to win 77 games, the same number of wins they had last season. But yet, here we are just a few days before Part I of the 2012 Subway Series and the Mets are a half-game out of first place in the NL East, have more grit and determination than seemingly any team in the league, have already had a signature historical moment with Johan Santana’s no-hitter, and have a manager in Terry Collins who, if things keep going the way they are going, will win NL Manager of the Year by a landslide.
This is a team that may be too young and naive to realize it’s really not that good. Their fans have no intention of reminding them any time soon. The Mets seem to get tremendous starting pitching on a nightly basis and have a bullpen that may not be sexy in names but is better than many thought it would be. They have kids learning on the fly throughout their lineup, and, more importantly, these same youngsters are producing, a new face doing the honors seemingly every night. Then, of course, there’s David Wright, who is right now the best player in New York by far and could very well end up being an MVP.
And the list goes on and on.
Collins has been the maestro of this incredibly diverse if not inexperienced orchestra. When he was hired prior to last season the consensus was he’d be a stop-gap measure, just someone to offer a veteran voice to a team in need of a father figure. Little did the baseball world really know that Collins would in fact turn out to be a manager that pushes all the right buttons and someone who has become a perfect fit in his surroundings.
The Yankees better be careful here. That’s all I can say. They have many issues, the two most prominent being their repeated horrifying failures to hit with runners in scoring position and their starting pitchers’ inability to keep the ball in the park. While the Mets seem to be whole and on a mission that grows with each passing day, the Yankees have been a step slow since spring training.Yes, injuries have played a part, but they have not been the overwhelming reason why this team has lacked any type of consistency over the first third of the season.
Injuries to Michael Pineda, David Robertson and Rivera do not explain why this lineup has failed at an alarming rate with men on base. Even the injury to Brett Gardner hasn’t been this big dilemma as some are portraying because Gardner’s bread and butter is getting into scoring position and then actually touching home plate. He’s not a huge RBI bat missing from the lineup. Even without him the Yankees put a ton of guys on every night, but for whatever reason struggle in clutch situations.
The bottom line is the Yankees right now don’t win unless they hit home runs. They are on pace for around 90 wins, which is pedestrian at best by their lofty standards. Couple their inconsistency with the overall strength of their division and others teams in the AL, and it’s possible these Yankees won’t even sniff October, something that has happened just once since 1994.
You could say the Yankees could go a long way toward solidifying themselves with a series win against the Rays to begin this week, but even if it happens will you suddenly be confident the proverbial corner will be turned? Despite their recent 6-3 road trip there’s not yet a reason to believe the Yankees will become the Yankees again, regardless if they get healthy in a hurry. There are no game-changing trades to be made and no impact players to call up. They will live and die with what they have, which is kind of a scary proposition when you consider what you’ve witnessed. In the past, one-third of the season wasn’t a fair barometer of what would eventually be with this team, but this season? Who knows? At times they just look very old and rarely look really young.
The Mets are primed to go into the Boogie Down and do work, because unlike their historical tormenters, they have believed since Day 1. They have come through in clutch situations time and time again. They are not relying on big names rounding into form because, really, they have but a few big names. They really do play to the scoreboard and act as if each inning is their last.
And while October might yet tell another story for both of these clubs, rest assured that the Mets, as is their custom, will treat both legs of the Subway Series like their Fall Classic, but only this time they seem to have the swagger. They are the ones capturing the minds and hearts of the people and are giving those who look at winning as a birthright a moment or two of pause.
The question is will the Yankees take this as a challenge and respond accordingly, thus using these six games in the next two weeks as a catalyst going forward to get back to what we’ve grown accustomed to and expect? Are they still good enough to beat the Mets simply on talent and dollars alone? I don’t know anymore. I’m not sure they or their fans know either.
Sooner or later, heart has to play a role. And right now the Mets’ ticker can power the city, while the Yankees’ is in need of a bypass or two.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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