Yankees pursue pennant with young arms
Vail, CO Colorado
NEW YORK ” In the spring of 2005, New York Yankees scout Steve Lemke got into his Dodge Intrepid and drove from Chicago to Missouri, checking out prospects. Joba Chamberlain wasn’t on his list.
Chamberlain didn’t start pitching until his senior year at Lincoln Northeast High School, was overweight and hadn’t even been drafted. A member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, he spent his freshman year at Division II Nebraska-Kearney before transferring to the University of Nebraska.
But when the burly right-hander with the unusual name started throwing fastballs and sliders, Lemke took notice. He reported back to his bosses that he’d found someone special in his eight-state territory.
“He almost dropped out of the sky in some respects,” Lemke said.
When the Yankees languish, they usually trade for stars of distinguished pedigree, with shelves full of awards and trails of All-Star appearances.
This year, they reached down into their minor league system for players many fans had never heard of at the start of the season, promoting Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes at warp speed.
Wide-eyed yet confident, they meshed immediately with Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano and the veterans to create a new kind of Yankees, giving the team a youthful vitality it lacked for a decade.
“This is exciting to me, to be here as long as I’ve been here, and all of a sudden you’ve got this crop of young arms that have come along,” manager Joe Torre said.
As George Steinbrenner and nearly every Yankees fan can point out, while New York is making its 13th straight postseason appearance, it hasn’t won the World Series since 2000.
They lost in the last inning of the 2001 World Series to Arizona. There was the 2002 first-round loss to Anaheim, the 2003 World Series defeat to Florida. Then came the 2004 collapse against Boston in the AL championship series, and first-round exits against the Angels in 2005 and Detroit in 2006.
They looked old and frail, especially their pitching. MRIs were talked about more than ERAs.
That started to change as the roster turned over this spring and summer.
“We wouldn’t be here without our young studs,” Alex Rodriguez said. “They deserve a lot of credit. The energy from the young guys is exactly what this team needed.”
Chamberlain and Kennedy are 22 and Hughes is 21. Cabrera, just 23, displaced Johnny Damon from center field. At 24, Cano is nearly a veteran already ” having started the youth movement in 2005. Chien-Ming Wang, now 27, also came up three years ago.
Shelley Duncan, a relatively old rookie at 28, quickly became a fan favorite. Ross Ohlendorf, a 25-year-old out of Princeton, made his debut Sept. 11 and could see postseason action.
They’ve made a difference.
Third base coach Larry Bowa noticed the way Cano, Cabrera and Duncan celebrate in the dugout after home runs. Bowa thinks that enthusiasm reaches some inner sanctum inside veterans.
“Maybe they forgot how it was to have fun before and they see these kids up here, having lot of fun, kidding around and joking, not afraid to show their emotions,” Bowa said. “Some veteran players, if they’re from old school, some don’t show emotion. Now they watch these kids and it reverts back to when they first came up. They’re running out every ground ball. They’re going from first to third. It doesn’t matter what the score is. When you have kids, they don’t throw up the white flag ’til the last out’s on the board.”
Think back to where they were at the start of the season.
After pitching for the West Oahu CaneFires in Hawaii last winter, Chamberlain injured a hamstring during spring training and didn’t make his pro debut until May 7, when he pitched four innings for Class A Tampa at Legends Field against Daytona before a crowd of 2,920.
After signing with the Yankees in 2006, Kennedy spent the summer at Class A Staten Island and was moved to Tampa for the start of this year. Hughes, who signed out of high school in 2004, was the Yankees’ most-heralded prospect and began the season at Triple-A.
Hughes was the 23rd pick overall in the 2004 amateur draft and needed time in the minors to develop his breaking ball, according to Damon Oppenheimer, a Yankees senior vice president and director of scouting. Kennedy, a star at Southern California, was taken with the 21st pick of the 2006 draft. Chamberlain, projected as a high-level pick after his sophomore season in 2005, slid down to 41st.
“There was a lot of rumor out there about injury things and stuff like that, but we didn’t see it and we watched him pitch all the time,” Oppenheimer said. “He threw hard. He really had a sharp slider. He dominated the game with his stuff.”
Chamberlain made his major league debut on Aug. 7 and went 2-0 with one save, a 0.38 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 24 innings, his appearances limited by the Joba Rules ” designed by the Yankees to make sure he didn’t get overworked. With a 100 mph fastball and 92 mph slider, he pumped his fists and got fans excited just when he walked on the mound.
Hughes made his first appearance April 26 and threw 6 1-3 no-hit innings at Texas five days later before hurting his hamstring. He was tentative when he returned and finished 5-3 with a 4.46 ERA ” but he did go 3-0 with a 2.66 ERA in his final four starts.
Kennedy, a precision pitcher in the mode of Mike Mussina, made his debut Sept. 1 and was 1-0 with a 1.89 ERA in three starts ” a promotion so unexpected that he had scheduled his wedding for this Saturday. He didn’t pitch after Sept. 13 because of a strained back muscle, but he could be back on the roster for the second round of the playoffs
Kennedy expected to be an outsider in the clubhouse but was surprised from the outset.
“When I came in here, everybody took you in,” he said.
It wasn’t too hard to gain acceptance. They contributed to the second-half surge and even took their rookie hazings in stride, when the vets had them dress up as characters from “The Wizard of Oz” for the final regular-season trip.
“They played well. That’s the biggest thing,” Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. “If you play well, you’re going to bring energy.”
And they had each other to lean on.
“When we walked into the clubhouse years ago, you sort of tiptoed in,” Torre said, “These kids seem able long before we were, and I think that goes for society, too.”
Away from the stadium, Hughes and Kennedy can still walk the streets without being recognized by all but the most hard-core fans. That’s fine with them.
“I don’t have to go with an entourage or anything,” Hughes said. “I can still do whatever I want to do and not get bothered.”
In a few weeks, that could change.
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