The same team that appeared over the weekend to be losing even a feeble grasp on what remained of the 2007 season has, over the past two nights, looked a great deal like the New York Yankees.
This is what happens to anybody, even the Yankees, when the starting pitchers have performances that vary from woefully ineffective to totally competent. A situation that appeared to be somewhere between out of hand and hopeless against the Detroit Tigers a few nights ago now, against the Boston Red Sox, seems to hold renewed hope.
The encore from Andy Pettitte's sturdy start in the opener of this series came from Roger Clemens on Wednesday night. Clemens, at 45, is no longer the Rocket, but he did just win his 354th game. Only seven men have won more, although all of them made considerably less money.
Clemens, truth be told, was one of the culprits in the Yankees' 1-3 Detroit series, giving up six runs in five innings in his last start. But he regrouped in a large way, in a perfect setting, against the Red Sox.
Clemens held Boston hitless for 5 1/3 innings. It is true that during this time, he walked a season-high five batters and a hit a batter, but this was still work of obvious quality. David Ortiz ended the no-hitter with a solo home run, but Clemens worked through a difficult sixth as though he was, you know, Roger Clemens. He emerged giving up only one run on two hits for the evening, and he left with a 3-1 lead.
The difficulties for the evening were not at an end, because Kyle Farnsworth, to the surprise of no one who had been paying attention, surrendered a two-run home run to Kevin Youkilis in the eighth. This eventually required a four-out save from Mariano Rivera, but Rivera was, as usual, up to the task at hand, keeping the situation well under control with four harmless ground-ball outs.
The Yankees' 4-3 victory brought them to within six games of the Red Sox in the American League East. That isn't exactly the thick of the hunt at this juncture, but the bonus was that the outcome put the Yanks in a virtual tie with the Seattle Mariners for the AL Wild Card lead. And given the circumstances, Wild Card should not be regarded as two four-letter words, but one gold-plated opportunity.
The variable for the Yankees is the pitching. Their high-powered offense is a virtual given, at least during the regular season. When the starting pitching falters, the next thing you know, you're on the short end of a 16-0 embarrassment. But when the starting pitching performs as expected, you can beat the team with baseball's best record two nights in a row and this will appear to be a matter of routine.
"If we get good pitching, we have a chance to win ... all the games," said outfielder Johnny Damon, who paused a bit during that thought but finished up on a relentlessly positive note.
When Yankees manager Joe Torre was asked on Wednesday night about the difference between the road trip and the last two nights, he returned directly to the pitching theme. Torre suggested that he had said this often enough recently that people might be getting tired of him saying this sort of thing. But for people who understand the game, talking about the importance of pitching is something like a mantra. It can be chanted -- repeatedly, comfortably.
"The thing that we know has to happen is that we have to pitch to win," Torre said. "We need to pitch, and if you don't pitch, there are a lot of teams in this league that will beat your brains out."
Boston would be one of those brains-beaters, but neither Pettitte nor Clemens was about to allow any cranial damage. The difficult issue with Clemens on Wednesday night might have been how he could have possibly been taken out if he was pitching a no-hitter. You can't have a 45-year-old man throwing a limitless number of pitches, but you can't pull Roger Clemens out of a no-hit start, can you?
Torre said this might have been resolved by speaking with Clemens about it. Ortiz's home run made the question moot, but Clemens said that a no-hitter was definitely not on his radar at this late date, anyway.
"That was not my concern," Clemens said. "I had plenty of other things going on."
Clemens said he had been "battling through some things," one of which came down to this basic human dilemma: "I'm asking my body to be 25 again."
But Clemens was in charge of another basic premise -- the need for the Yankees' starters to string together a long series of effective outings.
"When I'm in a slot behind Andy and he's on a roll, I need to go out there and perform," Clemens said. "And I didn't do that in Detroit."
But he did it at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night. And two consecutive high-quality starts, timed perfectly against the Red Sox, were enough to turn what looked like an impossible situation into a situation that was merely really difficult.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.