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Mound of Trouble

Even before Kevin Brown's punch-out, the reeling Yanks had a degenerating rotation

SOMETIME AFTER the sixth inning in its game last Friday night against the Baltimore Orioles, the fragile New York Yankees rotation hit a breaking point: the third and fifth metacarpal bones of righthander Kevin Brown's left hand, to be precise, which he smashed against some unforgiving part of the Yankees' clubhouse after having been removed from the game with New York trailing 3--1. At age 39 Brown has a history of meltdowns. (His swath of destruction has previously cut through a toilet in Florida, a television in Chicago and a wall display in San Diego.) This eruption endangered the rest of his season and that of his team.

As security and law enforcement personnel in New York spent the week trying to control the chaos around the Republican National Convention, the Bronx flank apparently was left unguarded. In addition to a senseless injury, the Yankees also suffered their worst shutout beating ever (a 22--0 undressing by the Cleveland Indians on Aug. 31) and a ransacking of their home (a weekend series loss at the Stadium to woeful Baltimore). The week underscored that the Yankees may be entering the postseason--if they do so at all--with the most suspect of their nine teams under manager Joe Torre. "They'll score runs," one American League scout says of New York, "but I don't know if they can shut anybody down."

The Yankees' battle-hardened 2003 rotation, featuring Roger Clemens, David Wells, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina, led all AL staffs in innings pitched. This year's version, with only righty Mussina as a holdover, ranked eighth in the league in innings at week's end. Mussina, 35, and Brown had missed a combined 15 starts because of elbow and back ailments, respectively. Only 18 times in their 42 outings had they given New York a quality start (no more than three earned runs allowed in at least six innings). Since July 2 Mussina was 0--5.

"Those two are just not that good," the scout said before Brown's latest injury. "When Brown's velocity is in the 92-to94 [mph] range, he can dominate. Now he's at 88 to 89, which puts his slider, splitter and fastball all around the same velocity. He's Kevin Appier now. And Mussina was throwing 84 awhile ago. Amazingly, you tell your hitters to sit on soft stuff against the Yankees."

Brown, who was the losing pitcher last Friday, also twisted his knee and took a batted ball off his right forearm before lashing out in frustration at the clubhouse wall. On Sunday he underwent surgery to have two pins placed in his left hand. The Yankees were hoping that Brown would be able to return in three weeks.

Who could pick up the slack? Righty Javier Vazquez had an ERA 4.59 through Sunday) well above his mark with the Montreal Expos last season (3.24). Righty Jon Lieber was inconsistent after missing last year following Tommy John surgery. Righty Esteban Loaiza, acquired from the Chicago White Sox on July 31, had been so awful (0--2, 8.46 with New York) that he mopped up the 22--0 defeat. Only rejuvenated righty Orlando Hernandez (6--0, 2.62) had provided Torre with any consistency.

As the Boston Red Sox cut into the Yankees' AL East lead, New York shortstop and captain Derek Jeter said, "We can't worry about them. We have to take care of ourselves." However, with suspect starters, to say nothing of a temperamental one, the Yankees have become a danger to themselves. --T.V.




A glum Brown has lost plenty off his fastball--which, thanks to his tantrum, he won't throw for a while.



  [See caption above.]