Archive for Monday, April 29, 2002

Yankees might have a rose in Lilly

Saturday’s near no-hitter was turned in by most unlikely candidate on New York staff

April 29, 2002

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— Ted Lilly was on the team bus, on his way to Safeco Field on Saturday, when Roger Clemens mentioned to him that Derek Lowe had thrown a no-hitter in Fenway Park earlier in the day.

And Lilly was young and naive enough to say, why not me?

"When Roger told me that, I was thinking I'd like to keep that momentum going for pitchers," Lilly recalled. "Why not?"

Any such notion seemed improbable at the time, considering the little lefty is anything but a power pitcher, and has thrown exactly one no-hitter in his life, for a Class A team in the Expos organization in 1997.

It only seemed more unthinkable even as he was ringing up one Mariner after another Saturday night.

After all, Lilly was mixing in these 58-foot curveballs and changeups every few pitches or so. Yet for seven innings he kept making the Mariners look as sick as some of his own pitches.

In the end, he came within five outs of making history, and that in itself was remarkable. Not just because Lilly is merely an afterthought on the rich and famous Yankee pitching staff - a guy who started spring training no higher than seventh on the depth chart.

Put it this way: Lilly wasn't the picture of precision.

It's hard to believe anyone has ever bounced so many pitches to the plate and still come so close to a no-no.

Or hit a batter on the bounce, as Lilly did against Jeff Cirillo in the seventh inning.

Or thrown a pitch so far off-line that it actually went behind Carlos Guillen, like some scene from a Little League game.

As Joe Torre admitted afterward, it was starting to look like the weirdest thing he'd ever seen.

"I have no explanation for it," he said. "If I tried to tell you anything else, I'd be lying. He's a little herky-jerky, which probably contributes to a lack of command. But it probably contributes to his success, too."

It's true, Lilly has the kind of mechanics that make pitching coaches want to hide their eyes. He has a stiff-legged delivery, which makes it look like he's an arm injury waiting to happen.

When Desi Relaford, the ex-Met, slapped an outside fastball to right for a clean single, a pitch that Lilly intended to throw at the knees but left up around the belt, that was that.

Close, but no Derek Lowe. Worse, the only hit he gave up cost him a loss as well, as Freddy Garcia and Kazuhiro Sasaki shut the Yankees out for a 1-0 victory.

"I went at it with everything I had," Lilly said. "I just came up a little short."

He was standing at his locker, speaking without a hint of emotion. He's got a sleepy-eyed look about him that fits his personality; perhaps only Robin Ventura has a lower pulse rate.

"He doesn't say a whole lot," Torre said afterward. "After they scored he just came in the dugout and said, 'Let's score some runs.'

"But he's done a hell of a job for us, he really has."

Indeed, this was Lilly's second straight hard-luck start since replacing the injured Andy Pettitte in the rotation. For the season, he has a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings of work, including relief appearances, and opponents are hitting .108 against him.

As A's manager Art Howe said earlier this week, "They throw a No. 1 starter at you every night."

He wasn't thinking of Lilly at the time. Or Sterling Hitchcock, their other potent lefthander on reserve, as he works his way back from a back problem.

The Yankees won four championships in six years largely because they've had the best pitching in baseball, and now there is reason to believe this is their best staff of all during the Torre era.

"This could be the best pitching we've had," he said a few days ago.

He wasn't thinking of Lilly himself. But maybe he should be.

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