Yankees @ Rockies Series Preview

After two pressure-filled interleague series, during which their bats were significantly quieted, the New York Yankees get a big boost starting Tuesday when they travel to Coors Field to face Colorado. After blazing on a record pace for home runs in a season, the Yankees have hit a bit of a drought, hitting just two in the last four games, three of them losses. Now at 43-26, New York remains just 1½ games behind Boston, since the Red Sox dropped two of three to Atlanta over the weekend.

All the hype surrounding consecutive series against Arizona and the Mets might have taken some of the Yankees' focus away, particularly the Mets' series and all that went along with it.

But humidor or no, New York hitters ought to love having three games at Coors, the majors' best hitters' park. Even if the balls are altered to counter the thin air in Denver, they still fly out of that stadium more than any other. Rockies' hitters have 45 of their 69 home runs in 35 games at Coors and have a .309 team average.

Surprisingly, Colorado pitchers have given up more home runs on the road (28) than at home (27), and have held opponents to a .256 average.

The Rockies are in fourth place in the tough NL West with a 33-36 mark, but were 6-16 when Buddy Bell was fired as manager on April 25 and replaced by Clint Hurdle. Since that time, Colorado is 27-20.

Interleague play has not been kind to the Rockies, who are 2-7 against Toronto, Boston and Cleveland. Overall, Colorado has lost 10 of its last 13 games.

As usual, lefty sluggers Todd Helton and Larry Walker are leading the way at the plate. Helton is second in the NL in average at .343 and tied with Houston's Lance Berkman for the league lead in RBI with 56. Walker, despite missing eight games due to injuries, is at .321 with 14 homers and 49 RBI.

Ex-Met Todd Zeile is experiencing a career renaissance with Colorado, hitting .309 with 10 homers – equaling his total from all of last year – and 39 RBI.

The hitting prowess is expected. The improvement in the Rockies' pitching was definitely not expected.

The keys to the turnaround have been the work of starter Jason Jennings and closer Jose Jimenez. Jennings, Tuesday's starter, leads the team with eight wins and has a 4.20 ERA. Jimenez is 18-for-19 in save opportunities and hasn't allowed a homer in 34 1/3 innings over 33 games.

MOUND MATCHUPS


Jennings (8-2, 4.20) will take on Mike Mussina (9-3, 4.43) as the teams' leading winners square off. Jennings started just seven games last year, going 4-1, but has emerged as the team's ace this season. After losing two of his first three starts, Jennings has reeled off seven straight wins, including an impressive seven-inning, three-hit gem in a 3-1 win in Boston last Tuesday. A control specialist, Jennings has walked just 19 batters in 75 innings and only one in his last three starts.

Mussina saw his six-decision winning streak ended in his last start, a 9-5 loss to Arizona in which he gave up six runs and 10 hits in five innings.

Wednesday's game features a battle of lefties as ex-Met Mike Hampton (3-8, 6.72) faces Andy Pettitte (1-1, 2.87). Hampton has struggled mightily since leaving New York for Colorado and an eight-year, $121 million deal following the 2000 season. After starting the season 9-2 with a 2.98 ERA and making the All-Star team last year, Hampton has gone 8-19. While only giving up four homers in 14 starts, not much else has worked for Hampton. He has allowed 111 hits and 54 walks in 80 1/3 innings, an average of more than two baserunners per inning.

Pettitte returned from two months on the disabled list with an abbreviated start Friday night against the Mets. He threw 92 innings in four innings, giving up two runs – one earned – and five hits while walking three.

If sufficiently recovered from the foot injury suffered Saturday, Roger Clemens is scheduled to go Thursday against John Thomson. Thomson (6-6, 4.69) was until recently Colorado's most effective starter but has lost his last three decisions, allowing 15 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings and seeing his ERA rise nearly one full run during that span. The key for Thomson is the long ball – in his six wins, he's given up just three homers, but in his six losses, he's allowed seven.

Clemens watched his seven-game winning streak end at the hands of the Mets Saturday, giving up nearly as many home runs in that game (two) as he had in his previous 14 starts combined (three). He'll be tested by a group of hitters who love seeing a fastball at Coors, including one old nemesis, Zeile, who was 5-for-14 with a homer and six RBI during his stint with the Mets.

SERIES NOTES


The Yankees will continue to be a bit short-handed in this series, as closer Mariano Rivera is still at least a week away from returning from the disabled list. And shortstop Derek Jeter is day-to-day after fouling a ball off his left knee Sunday. X-rays taken Monday were negative. … Yankee starter Orlando Hernandez, on the DL with an upper back injury, made his first appearance in a minor-league intrasquad game Monday. He threw 56 pitches, 43 for strikes, in giving up one run and three hits in four innings. El Duque struck out four and didn't walk a batter. … The Rockies will be missing a starter as well, as second baseman Jose Ortiz went on the 15-day DL Sunday with a strained left hamstring. Rookie Brent Butler is expected to get most of the playing time while Ortiz is sidelined. … Zeile and Hampton won't be the only ex-Mets the Yankees will see. Benny Agbayani is the fourth outfielder for the Rockies and will certainly start against Pettitte, if not more games in the series.

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