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It's a test of strength

Yankees gauging Giambi's status

NEW YORK -- Would Joe Torre have written Jason Giambi's name on his lineup card last night if a playoff spot had been at stake?

Not likely, which is why, for all the buildup this Yankees-Red Sox series received coming in, one shouldn't lose sight of the fact that in some ways this was just an elaborate dress rehearsal for October, albeit one with enough appeal to bring Jack Nicholson out in the rain.

Torre needs to know whether Giambi, whose season has been one continuous calamity of BALCO-related steroid rumors, a bizarre intestinal parasite of indeterminate origin, and a mysterious benign tumor that apparently sapped him of his strength and caused him to miss 49 games, will be able to help the Yankees in the postseason. Giambi, after playing five games for Triple A Columbus on a rehab assignment, returned Tuesday in Kansas City, Mo. He played two games, going hitless in seven at-bats, which made him hitless in his last 28 at-bats.

But with a 3 1/2-game cushion over the Sox, and in no danger of being caught by anyone else, Torre elected to sit regular center fielder Bernie Williams last night and had Giambi batting sixth as the designated hitter. Kenny Lofton played center field.

The last time Williams missed a big Sox-Yankees game for a reason other than injury? "I think it was 1991," Williams said, though that may have been a case of selective memory.

Another victim of parasitic activity, pitcher Kevin Brown, remains sidelined, although this current absence is for an affliction entirely self-inflicted. Brown still can't pitch because he fractured his left (non-pitching) hand punching a clubhouse wall after his last start. Brown, who was supposed to anchor the Yankee rotation in much the same way as the slugging Giambi was supposed to prop up the lineup, is scheduled to see a hand specialist Monday, and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman wasn't forecasting a return any time soon.

"I'm assuming no," Cashman said when he asked if he thought Brown would be available before the end of the season. "Right now, we're not counting on him. Hopefully, we'll be pleasantly surprised."

Torre obviously wasn't planning on Brown being a factor. "Brownie's really not in our plans," he said.

The Yankees have yet to discipline Brown for his regrettable act -- there were even rumors that they were exploring ways of voiding his contract, a highly unlikely scenario given the fight that would provoke with the union -- but Cashman indicated the episode is not likely to get the forgive-and-forget treatment, not when the Sox should be the team thinking of voting Brown a playoff share. If last night's starter, Orlando Hernandez, had not tricked his way to an 8-0 record, the Yankees would have been in dire straits.

"We're assessing what our options are," Cashman said.

In a different context, that's what the Bombers are doing with Giambi, who had hit 41 home runs in each of his first two seasons in the Bronx and had knocked in 122 runs in 2002 and 107 last season. His batting average fell to .250 last summer, and for all the big production numbers he has put up since leaving Oakland, he hasn't been the game-breaker he was for the A's, when he was MVP in 2000 and finished runner-up to Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Still, the Yankees, who have depended on first Tony Clark and now former Mariner John Olerud in Giambi's absence, would love to have another lefthanded power threat in the middle of their lineup.

"He can be a benefit," Torre said before last night's game. "I'm not doing this to be anybody's friend. I'm doing this to see what I've got for a player. We're not doing this to make anyone happy except, hopefully, ourselves."

Former Sox hitting coach Rick Down, who was bounced from a similar position with the Yankees after last season but resurfaced as the team's minor league coordinator of instruction, was with Giambi during his stint in Columbus.

"I talked to Rick Down," Torre said. "He said [Giambi] felt better and better, but was just a little short. What he needed was a little more work."

But with the Yankees' minor league teams no longer playing, the team had no alternative but to give Giambi that work here. He struck out in his first at-bat last night, swinging far in advance of a third-strike offspeed pitch from Bronson Arroyo, who was facing a guy whose stat line (.214, 11 HRs, 36 RBIs) bore scant resemblance to the player who hit an Oakland-record .342 in 2002, when he became just the ninth player in big-league history to increase his average in six consecutive seasons.

"I'm trying to make it back in a short period of time," Giambi said yesterday afternoon. "Joe and I talked. I told him I'd do whatever's best for the team, pinch hit, do what I can. He's been great about it."

His strength? "It's coming back," he said. "It just takes some time to get back in the grind of it."

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