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BOB RYAN

Yankees lacking Zim and vigor

NEW YORK -- Nick Mattera of Ozone Park, N.Y., has it figured out. In a letter in yesterday's New York Post, he identified just what was ailing the Yankees: The Curse of the Zim.

The Yankees' decline, he postulated, began with the loss of Don Zimmer. "Torre, with Zim, was a great manager," Mattera wrote. "Torre, without Zim, is mediocre, at best."

Voila!

On second thought, the players may have something to do with it.

When the Yankees, who host the Red Sox for three games beginning tonight, have pitched, they haven't hit. When they've hit, they haven't pitched. And they very often look old in the field, which isn't all that surprising, given the only everyday regular in his 20s is second baseman Robinson Cano.

And the luck? Don't ask.

Take Saturday afternoon, for example. On the ninth pitch in the bottom of the first inning at Shea Stadium, Endy Chavez sent a hard one-hopper toward the mound. The ball hit Darrell Rasner on the middle finger of his throwing hand, and he was forced to leave the game (never mind that he wound up as the losing pitcher after throwing those nine pitches). He will be gone for three months.

You may recall that in the very recent past another Yankees starter, Jeff Karstens, was hit by a line drive off the bat of the Red Sox' Julio Lugo, the ball breaking his leg. Two in the same year? That's got to be enough to have Torre playing the Tevye "Why Me?" role, no?

"I really don't look at it that way," Torre says. "That's all part of it. So many good things have happened over the years that I'm more inclined to say 'Why not me?' It's something to deal with."

The skipper has been dealing with an extremely full plate in the first quarter of the 2007 season. Thanks to injuries, the Yankees have become the first team in baseball history to employ seven rookie starters through their first 42 games. As Red Sox fans discovered Saturday night, bad things often happen when you replace a quality veteran with someone just up from Triple A.

These are strange, grim times for the Yankees, who are not used to facing double-digit deficits before they even get to Memorial Day. By the way, Torre doesn't want to hear about the standings.

"I can't worry about the standings," he says. "We just have to take care of ourselves. We need to start winning games. If I'm sitting here, and we lose two, but the Red Sox lose two, that's not my concern. Until we get ourselves straightened out and start doing what we need to do, the standings are insignificant."

One of the funny things happening down here is that in the midst of all the negative feelings, there are some impressive individual things going on. Are you even aware that Jorge Posada leads the league in hitting? Or that Derek Jeter has hit in 74 of his last 77 games, which is downright historic?

Well, no one is worrying very much about these accomplishments since the basic idea is to win games, and the Yankees have had a hard time doing that.

When you're going bad, you're going bad, and Exhibit A was a play in the third inning of Saturday's 10-7 loss to the Mets. There was a man on first with none out when David Wright, who had hit a mammoth first-inning homer off Mike Myers, launched another bomb to dead center. Johnny Damon drifted back, back, back and appeared to be making a nice catch when the ball hit off the heel of his glove and plopped over the fence for a two-run homer.

"You drop a ball every now and then" Damon said, "but that's a helpless feeling."

There's some media grousing down here about Damon, who is always playing through some hurt or other and who has yet to be much of an offensive force in '07, and who, of course, still can't throw. Johnny's not offering up any excuses, and, as usual, he is one guy who continues to submit himself to legitimate inquiry.

"It is frustrating," he says. "Here it is, the middle of May, and we're 10 games out. The good news is that we've got 120 games to go."

That's certainly true, and Torre will happily talk numbers and history with you.

"I've seen a lot of leads dissipate," he says. Among Torre's references: the 1951 Giants (13 1/2 games behind Brooklyn Aug. 11) and, of course, the '78 Yankees (14 games in arrears of the Sox in late July).

While the local critics see a team with a very questionable pitching staff, even if healthy, and a team with a very un-Yankee-like bench, and a team that appears to be in constant need of Rust-Oleum, Torre sees a skilled group that has been beset with bad luck and that just hasn't started putting things together yet.

"Do I think that maybe we just aren't good enough?" he says. "No. That would be a disservice to the people you work for and the people you manage. The only thing I can do right now is show them I have confidence in them."

Though he shies away from discussing the standings, he is willing to discuss his chief rival in general terms.

"They went out in the winter and made moves to accentuate pitching," he says of the Sox. "They had Schilling and Beckett and Wake, and then they add [Daisuke] Matsuzaka, and then, of course, they had Papelbon, who certainly is the real thing. They are controlling the average game. It's a different type ball club."

His team, meanwhile, has been just the opposite. "Opposing pitchers are getting deep into games and dictating the tempo against us," he says. "And often you're talking about pitchers who really don't have great records who have done it to us."

Whatever he's really thinking, he has to put on the happy face in public. What choice does he have? Thus, says the manager of the 19-23 Yankees, "We can turn it around. I just can't give you a date. This is probably the toughest task we've had [since he's been here], trying to get untracked, trying to develop a personality that will work for us. And we keep getting in our own way."

There haven't been many pleasant baseball games for Torre to watch, but last night's was one of them. Tyler Clippard had a very successful major league debut, going six strong innings, while Jeter, Posada, and Alex Rodriguez smashed homers as the Yankees handled John Maine and the Mets, 6-1. The start of something big? Or a brief diversion from a new reality?

We'll soon see, but if all else fails, I can give him Zim's number if he wants it.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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