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YANKS LEFT TO LAMENT THE EFFECTS OF DEALS GONE AWRY

When the Yankees arrived at the SkyDome for Monday's series opener against the Blue Jays, a number of players said the flight from New York the night before had been the quietest they could remember.

It was understandable. The Yanks had just been swept by the Red Sox. Their lead in the American League East had been whittled to 3 1/2 games. The silence on the airplane was the sound of a baseball team coming to the realization that it is no longer invincible.

A year ago, the Yanks went 114-48, setting an AL record for victories in a season. They swept the Padres for the World Series title. People were debating their rank among the great teams of all time.

But as we approach the end of the regular season, the question is whether the Yankees are even the best team this season.

As the Bills are discovering, no team has the same identity from one year to the next. The Yanks are still very good. But the aura that surrounded them in '98 is gone. Manager Joe Torre says he isn't worried. George Steinbrenner says he won't get involved -- at least for now.

Well, they ought to be worried. The Yanks lost five games off their lead in 13 days. Only one position player -- Derek Jeter -- has put up better numbers than he did a year ago.

As of Monday, they had scored a single run in three of their previous four games. Pedro Martinez threw a one-hitter with no walks and 17 strikeouts. On Monday, David Wells threw a four-hitter at them. Torre sat out Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez to spare them the trouble of facing a tough lefty.

O'Neill, who hit .300 or better in his first six years in New York, is hitting .286. Since Aug. 3, he's batted .262 with three homers. Martinez, a .290 hitter as a Yankee, is at .263, and he's usually worse than that in October. Bernie Williams is slumping, hampered by tendinitis in his left shoulder.

Scott Brosius, last year's World Series hero, was in a 4-for-35 slide. He has other reasons to be somber: His father died last Sunday from colon cancer. Chuck Knoblauch has committed 25 errors at second base. The entire Mets infield has 24. Knoblauch is the most overrated player in baseball, a shadow of the player he was in Minnesota. He can't throw. He's an undisciplined hitter, prone to over-swinging.

The Yankees should rue the day they ever acquired Knoblauch from the Twins. Do you think Steinbrenner is beginning to regret giving up Eric Milton for him, especially after Milton's no-hitter?

Do you suppose he's having second thoughts about trading Wells, Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd to Toronto for Roger Clemens? At the time of the deal, Steinbrenner called him the "Michael Jordan" of baseball. Clemens has pitched more like the Will Perdue of baseball -- 12-9, 4.65 ERA.

Meanwhile, Bush has been a revelation as Toronto's second baseman. He's having a better season than Knoblauch at 1/2 0th the salary. Bush has a higher batting average (.313 to .286), more stolen bases (29 to 24), and fewer errors (14 to 25).

Lloyd has been terrific for Toronto in long relief. The Yanks could use him to shore up their dubious middle relief corps. That'll become even more evident in October, when having a lefty to come in and get one man out can decide a series.

The bullpens could be the difference in the AL playoffs. The Yankees' likely rivals -- Texas, Boston and Cleveland -- all have deeper bullpens. Boston solved its biggest problem by acquiring closer Rod Beck, who didn't allow a run in his first six outings.

New York will need reliable relief in October, because its starting pitchers are a mess. Only one of them, Orlando Hernandez, has been consistent. David Cone is so worn down, he's pitching on seven days' rest. Andy Pettitte is erratic. Hideki Irabu has allowed 33 earned runs in his last 42 innings.

So it's no wonder the Yankees are in a somber mood. On Thursday, they travel to Cleveland for a four-game series against their chief rival. A month ago, it figured to be a meaningless series between teams that had locked up their divisions.

But if the Yanks don't at least split with the Indians, they could be in deep trouble by the time they leave. Last Sunday's flight might seem almost festive by comparison.

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