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Down The Stretch They Come

Second half promises intrigue for Yanks, Mets

Joe Girardi's job security likely hinges on a return to the posteason for the Yanks (AP/Bill Kostroun).

Joe Girardi's job security likely hinges on a return to the posteason for the Yanks (AP/Bill Kostroun).

Major League Baseball resumes its regular season following All-Star festivities, with the Mets and Yankees returning to the diamond this weekend. With the clubs headed in different directions and less than half a season left to play, here’s a look at where they’ve been and what’s to come.

The Bombers shrugged off a 12-10 April to finish the first half 14 games over .500. It’s no coincidence they surged after the return of third baseman Alex Rodriguez on May 8, who promptly homered on the first pitch he saw back in the big leagues. Of particular note for the Yanks in the first half was a galvanizing four-game sweep of the Twins at Yankee Stadium from May 15-18, three of which were of the walk-off variety, and their inability to beat the rival Red Sox, against whom they were 0-8. Several storylines bear watching for the Yanks in the second half.


Staff solutions: The baseball axiom that a team can never have enough pitching is proving true for the Bombers, who entered the season with more starters than they needed, leaving Phil Hughes to languish in the Minors behind the Opening Day rotation of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Joba Chamberlain, Andy Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang. Sabathia has been a stud and Burnett has rounded into form of late, but Chamberlain has been inconsistent at best, Pettitte looks every bit of 37, and Wang was not the same in his return from the foot injury that cost him most of 2008 before landing back on the DL. Hughes, recalled for six spot-starts in April and May, has since been moved to the bullpen, and the Yankees seem disinclined to move him back to the rotation. That leaves the rotation with two rocks in Sabathia and Burnett, two question marks in Pettitte and Chamberlain, and reliever Alfredo Aceves rounding out the back end. On the farm is veteran righty Sergio Mitre, who’s enjoyed success in the Majors previously, but any meaningful contribution from him would be gravy. Meanwhile, the division-rival Blue Jays are considering dealing one of the game’s best pitchers in ace Roy Halladay, and the Yanks are thought to have both the prospects and inclination to land him. Stay tuned.

Girardi watch: The Yanks’ second-year skipper was given a pass after falling short of the playoffs in his rookie campaign a year ago, his first at the helm after replacing the legendary Joe Torre (and his stretch of 12 straight years of postseason play in the Bronx). This year, with the Bombers spending a boatload of cash in the offseason to land premier free agents Sabathia, Burnett and Mark Teixeira, there will be no such pardons. The straight-laced Girardi differs in that way from the serene Torre, but he shares one trait with his predecessor: dubious bullpen management. If he makes strange decisions like bringing mop-up man Brett Tomko into the fifth inning of a tight game as he did June 21 vs. the Marlins, it could be a long winter for the Girardi clan. With his job likely hinging on a postseason berth, will the pressures of managing baseball’s most recognizable team get the best of Girardi?

Walking wounded: The Yanks are a veteran ballclub and it’s shown at times this season. A-Rod missed Spring Training and April following offseason hip surgery. Wang’s return from last season’s injury has been futile at best, marred by ineffectiveness and two return trips to the DL this season. Lefty reliever Damaso Marte has missed most of this season due to left shoulder tendinitis and is on rehab assignment. Outfielder Xavier Nady underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and is out for the season. Deep at the corners of the infield and outfield, the Bombers can’t afford an injury up the middle – just ask the Mets.

What started as a promising season for the Amazin’s has quickly eroded to despair. Injuries to key players have revealed a hideously shallow roster. After a seven-game winning streak in early May, it’s been all down hill, punctuated by dropping five of six in the Subway Series. Among those five defeats was a new low for even the Mets, when second baseman Luis Castillo flubbed what would have been a game-ending popup, instead giving the Yanks a win on a walk-off error. The Mets can go two ways in the second half: They’ll either get healthy, get better and make a chase at the Phillies, or finish a miserable season and limp into the offseason. Either way, there will be plenty to watch for.

M.A.S.H. Unit: Injuries are inevitable. Try as they might, teams can’t dictate when and to whom bumps, bites and bruises strike. But the Mets have had the particular misfortune of enduring serious injuries to four of their best players. Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and J.J. Putz have been replaced by the platoon of Daniel Murphy/Fernando Tatis, Alex Cora, Jeremy Reed and a hodgepodge of relief specialists, respectively. To put it kindly, it’s been a steep dropoff. Delgado is recovering from hip surgery but is old and probably will not fire on all cylinders upon returning. Reyes is suffering from the lingering effects of a torn hamstring tendon, and his recovery has been slow at best. Putz underwent surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow and should be back by August or September. Most troubling, Beltran may need microfracture surgery for his balky knees, which would end his season and cast serious doubt about his long-term career prospects.

Buyers or sellers? It’s hardly general manger Omar Minaya’s way to concede defeat, but with uncertainty surrounding the returns of the injured players and a team simply ill-equipped for a playoff run as presently constituted, will the Mets give up on ’09 and look ahead to a hopefully brighter future? If so, that could mean parceling off whatever players they have of value, outside of Reyes and Wright, who are in the primes of their careers and signed to favorable contracts. Otherwise, the Mets, like every team in baseball, would be well advised to place a call to Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi and inquire about Halladay.

Carte blanche: Mets owner Fred Wilpon was among the dozens of high-profile investors fleeced in the Madoff scheme, and rumors have persisted since that the Mets simply don’t have the budget to add significantly to their payroll. If so, that would preclude them from swinging a deal for Halladay, free-agent-to-be Matt Holliday of the A’s and several other impact players.

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