Boss turns up the heat on Yankees

When George Steinbrenner talks, Joe Torre and Brian Cashman listen. The Yankees principal owner is not exactly satisfied with the play of his team as it approaches the end of May. Neither are his manager and general manager. Steinbrenner thinks Jose Contreras should be in the starting rotation instead of Jeff Weaver. He is perplexed by the lack of power displayed so far by Japanese home run hitter Hideki Matsui. Steinbrenner says the play of All-Star first baseman Jason Giambi thus far this season is a “mystery.” Steinbrenner, who is in town this week for a Yankee Stadium battle against the arch-rival Red Sox, said it’s the job of Torre and hitting coach Rick Down to “turn it around.” “We spent a lot of money to get the people Joe wanted,” Steinbrenner was quoted as saying in Tuesday’s New York Daily News. “It’s his team to turn around. Don’t bet against us, though.” Torre sat in the dugout about two hours before Tuesday night’s game and digested Steinbrenner’s comments. Torre is 62 years old, has won the World Series four times since he took over the Yankees in 1996 and was typically unflappable. “Let me tell you, he’s the boss,” Torre said. “Mr. Steinbrenner is the boss. And as far as I’m concerned, he has the right to say whatever he wants.” The Yankees had lost 12 out of 13 in the South Bronx — their worst streak ever at Yankee Stadium. But it was nothing that a little pitching and hitting couldn’t fix, particularly starting pitching, Torre said. After all, this is the same team that opened the season 18-3 with a starting pitching staff that set a modern-day record by going 16-0 before taking its first loss. Torre must be a soothsayer. The Yankees broke an eight-game losing streak at the Stadium on Tuesday night with a resounding 11-3 victory over the Red Sox. Andy Pettitte gave them 7 2/3 innings of five-hit ball and Derek Jeter, Robin Ventura and Todd Zeile all hit home runs. The Yankees are trying to find their own personality, like every team does during the first half of the season, Torre said. “Right now, I look at the personnel we have here — the starting people we’re running out there — and I don’t believe radical pitching or position changes are necessary,” Cashman said. “What’s necessary is to get guys’ confidence back up. This has as much to do with confidence as anything else. Not their physical abilities.” Steinbrenner has owned the Yankees since 1973 and he’s changed managers and general managers quite a bit during his run. But Cashman and Torre seem securely in place. Cashman has been general manager or assistant GM for all of Torre’s eight-season tenure. “The pressure to perform is part of the New York scene,” Cashman said. “It comes from our owner. It comes from our fan base. And it comes from within our own staff. It’s there when we’re winning, and it’s certainly there when we’re losing.” Steinbrenner sprinkled his comments with qualifiers such as “I’m not going to be the one to say it,” and “I don’t want [Joe] to think I’m putting pressure on him,” and “I’m not going to suggest trying to tell [pitching coach] Mel [Stottlemyre] what to do.” Giambi, a .305 career hitter with 237 home runs, made no excuses for his 2003 output: a .217 batting average, nine homers and 31 RBIs in his first 50 games. He had two doubles, a single and two RBIs in five at-bats Tuesday night. “I’m just working as hard as I can to get out of it,” Giambi said. “Mr. Steinbrenner wants a winner. And I don’t blame him. That’s why I came here.” About Matsui, who led Japan’s Central League last season with 50 homers, Steinbrenner said he couldn’t understand his output of only three homers in the Yankees’ first 52 games. “All I know is this is not the guy we signed in terms of power,” Steinbrenner said. “This falls on my hitting coach to figure out a way to straighten this guy out.” Down said he and Matsui are working on it. “[Matsui’s] not worrying about the criticism he’s getting from anyone,” Down said. “He’s a standup guy and probably his own worst critic right now, knowing him. He’s not happy where he’s at.” Down wants Steinbrenner to get a bang for his buck from his most recent free-agent acquisitions. Matsui was signed in the offseason for $21 million over three seasons. Contreras was signed a few weeks later for $32 million over four years. Matsui has been playing stellar defense in center field since Bernie Williams went out with a left knee injury. Williams had arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus on Tuesday and will be out four to six weeks, Cashman said. But Matsui has been mostly a slap hitter with a .259 average and 30 RBIs during his first two months in the Major Leagues. He had a single in five at bats Tuesday night. “He just hasn’t been hitting the ball with any consistency,” Down said. “When his pitch selection improves and he starts to see the ball, he’s going to be a better hitter. That’s what it gets down to.” Contreras is scheduled to make his first start Friday in Detroit. He’ll replace David Wells, who has a bruised right calf courtesy of a batted baseball during his last start Saturday against Toronto. Weaver, who was obtained in a trade with the Tigers last season, has been slotted for Saturday in Comerica Park.The pressure isn’t necessarily on Weaver, who is 3-3 with a 5.31 ERA, but the focus is. It was Torre’s decision to put Weaver in the rotation and Contreras in the bullpen at the start of the season. And that decision has been subjected to second-guessing. Steinbrenner said he “kind of likes Contreras. … [Weaver] was great in the bullpen for us,” he said. “Contreras is not that kind of pitcher. He’s a starting pitcher.” When told that Steinbrenner preferred Contreras to Weaver in the rotation, Torre replied: “There you go. He’s pitching Friday.” Contreras said he understands the pressure that can be exuded from above since he pitched for the Cuban national team under the direction of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. “In Cuba, baseball is a passion, and it’s one of Castro’s passions,” Contreras said. “We always had a lot of pressure to win championships. The owner here has the same passion. I’m used to pitching under a lot of pressure from a leader or owner who has a passion for baseball.” Torre, of course, also has a lot of experience managing under an owner who has a passion for baseball. And even though he welcomes Steinbrenner’s feedback at any time, he said he expects to make his own decisions. “We have to look at it, there’s no question,” Torre said. “I’m here to manage a team, and I have make sure I do what I think is best for the team. [But] nobody has ever told me what to do. Not only here, but with other clubs. People have hired me to manage, and they’ve allowed me to do that. I don’t expect that to change.”

Also on FingerLakes1.com