It had to happen.
No baseball team, not even the 1998 Yankees, has the right to experience a season with no pitfalls.
So here it is: A stressful situation staring these Yanks right in the face as they prepare for Game 3 of the AL Championship Series with the Indians at Jacobs Field Friday night.
For perhaps the first time all season, Joe Torre's juggernaut, winners of an AL record 114 games this season, will take the field with a true sense of urgency.
This, after a series-tying 4-1, 12-inning loss in Game 2 that got the Yankees all riled up and might have saved the Indians' season.
Whether home-plate umpire Ted Hendry cost New York the game by not calling interference on Travis Fryman's bunt will always remain a question mark.
But the result will be etched in stone. The Yankees lost a game that was very winnable because they couldn't hit with men in scoring position.
Then, there is second baseman Chuck Knoblauch who couldn't hit at all (0-for-6) and chose to argue instead of fetching a ball 20 feet behind him.
The stench from this loss will only linger as long as the Yankees let it. A victory Friday, and all is forgotten. A loss, and suddenly New York is in a semi-crisis and Knoblauch is a goat for who knows how long.
A day later, the beleaguered second baseman sounded like he didn't get much sleep.
"You know, I screwed up. I screwed up the play, and I feel terrible about that," Knoblauch said. "I should have went and got the ball, regardless of what the outcome of the umpire's call was. For that, I need to apologize to my teammates and my manager and the Yankees and all the Yankee fans."
Words won't fix the problem. But a few hits could go a long way toward patching things up.
He is the leadoff hitter in this loaded Yankee lineup. Yet, he hasn't hit, fielded or provided the spark owner George Steinbrenner was looking for when he madthe offseason's biggest trade.
Yet Knoblauch's struggle went largely unnoticed thanks to the Yankees' unforgettable regular season.
However, nothing goes unnoticed in October. And Knoblauch knows full well who will be vilified if Game 2 winds up as the start of a stumble that prevents these Yanks from what they believe to be their rightful place in history.
"If I never play another game, this will be what I'll be remembered for," said Knoblauch, who might be labeling himself the next Bill Buckner a little prematurely.
"But hopefully we can wipe that out tomorrow. You know, in the game of baseball and in life there is ups and downs and it's just a matter of how you recover from them."
In a way, this might have been just the wake-up call the Yankees needed. Teams don't just cruise to a World Championship. A champion is only crowned once they show their ability to overcome adversity.
And this is the Yankees' first real battle against adversity. That, of course, excludes the revelation just last week that teammate Darryl Strawberry had colon cancer.
But in no way did that affect the Yankees on the field, since they have a barrage of left field/DH types.
The closest the Yankees came to an actual baseball crisis was, believe it or not, the first five games of the season. They had started 1-4 on the West Coast and George Steinbrenner uttered the now infamous, "It looks like they've been spending too much time reading their press clippings."
After that well-planned salvo from The Boss, the Yankees spent the rest of the summer making new press clippings. They won at a torrid pace, and opened up a cushion bigger than any you'd find at a furniture store.
However, easy street came to a screeching halt as soon as the Indians had escaped New York Wednesday with a 1-1 split.
"There is no magic formula that will help us forget (Game 2)," conceded Torre. "So we just have to move on."
How fast that move takes place depends mostly on the Yankee lineup. The pitching has been stellar in all five playoff games, and there is no reason to think that will change Friday with 16-game winner Andy Pettitte on the mound.
The bats have been an entirely different matter. Except for its breakout against Jaret Wright in Game 1, the meat of the lineup has been more like flab.
Nobody is in more of a funk than first baseman Tino Martinez. If you wanted to see first-hand what it looks like when a baseball player presses, just look at some of the balls Martinez has been trying to lift from the dirt.
"Tino is taking on a lot of responsibility (for the loss)," said Torre. "But we're rallying around Tino. "
"You're not going to get a hit every time up. The postseason is much more magnified because all you (media) people are here."
The only thing the Yankees can do to escape this newfound scrutiny is to win. And that is something they have a ton of practice at.
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