Royals @ Yankees Series Preview

After completing a 12-game road trip with the same division lead as when they left, the New York Yankees return home for six games, starting Tuesday with a three-game series with Kansas City. The Yankees split four games in Anaheim to finish the trip with a 7-5 mark and maintain a four-game lead over Boston in the AL East. More impressively, New York was successful despite the absence of closer Mariano Rivera for the entire trip and starter Roger Clemens for most of it.

Clemens returns Wednesday night, while Rivera is expected back in time for this weekend's series against Oakland. Ramiro Mendoza picked up the slack on the road trip, saving the last three New York wins.

The returns come just in time for the Yankees, who sport the AL's best record at 69-41, which pus them on pace for more than 100 wins. Starter David Wells continues to have trouble with an achy lower back.

A visit from Kansas City usually cures whatever ails the Yankees. The series is the first meeting between the teams in 2002, but New York swept all six games last year, outscoring the Royals 46-19, and won five of six in 2000.

Kansas City currently sits in fourth place in the AL Central with a 45-67 record, 23½ games behind division leader Minnesota. And the Royals come to New York without their best hitter, first baseman Mike Sweeney, who has been out since July 13 with pain in his lower back and left hip.

Sweeney's absence has been felt, as Kansas City has dropped 12 of its last 14 games, not scoring more than four runs until Sunday's 12-4 explosion over Minnesota that ended a six-game slide.

The one constant all season has been Thursday afternoon's starter, right-hander Paul Byrd, who is 14-7 with a 3.42 ERA. Rumored on the trade block before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, Byrd has gone 6-2 in his last 10 starts and hasn't allowed more than three earned runs in any start in that stretch.

The two teams are opposites in most ways, but particularly offensively. The Yankees are in the top three in the majors in every offensive category except steals, where they rank seventh. The Royals, on the other hand, break into the top 25 in only runs (18th), walks (19th) and steals (2nd).

PITCHING MATCHUPS


Tuesday's game features one of baseball's established stars against one of its promising young starters, as Mike Mussina opposes Runelvys Hernandez. Mussina has struggled despite a 13-5 record. Mussina's ERA soared to 4.83 after his worst outing of the season, giving up season highs of seven runs and 11 hits in a season-low three innings last Wednesday in a 17-6 loss at Texas.

Mussina is 1-2 with a 6.88 ERA in his last three starts. The righthander is 12-5 with a 3.01 ERA in 25 career starts against the Royals.

Hernandez (1-1, 3.86) has been effective in three starts for Kansas City since being recalled from the minors on July 15. The 21-year-old righty hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his starts, beating Cleveland on July 20 for his first major league victory. This will be his first road start.

On Wednesday, Roger Clemens returns from his disabled list stint, while Jeff Suppan counters for Kansas City. Clemens (8-3, 4.02) hasn't pitched since July 12, when he left after five scoreless innings in Cleveland. Since a seven-game winning streak ended against the Mets on June 15, Clemens has four straight no-decisions.

Suppan (8-10, 4.96) has lost his last three starts despite pitching well in the last two, tough 4-2 and 2-1 losses. Kansas City's leading winner the last three years coming into 2002, his weakness is the long ball, having allowed 24 homers in 24 starts. That's not a good combination against the majors' top homer-hitting team.

The series closes Thursday afternoon with a good matchup, the Yankees' Andy Pettitte against Byrd. Pettitte has won four of his last five starts to improve to 6-4, and has his ERA down to a team-best 3.13 by allowing just six runs over his last 36 2/3 innings. He comes off a 4-0 shutout over Anaheim last Friday.

Since mid-July, Byrd has taken his pitching to the next level. In five starts over that span, with the threat of being traded hanging over his head, Byrd has given up nine runs in 43 innings and has gone the distance in all five. In his last nine starts, he's 6-2 and has trimmed a run off his ERA.

SERIES NOTES


Welcome back, Chuck Knoblauch. The Royals left fielder makes his first visit to Yankee Stadium since leaving the team as a free agent this winter. He's missed the last two games after getting hit in the arm with a pitch but is expected to play Tuesday. …. The Yankees have won 26 of the last 33 meetings between the teams at Yankee Stadium. …. In addition to Wells, Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi also spent time in the trainer's room getting his lower back worked on. Giambi left Sunday's game in the ninth inning but says he'll be ready to go for the Royals series. If problems persist, expect to see Giambi move to DH and Nick Johnson to play at first. …. Sunday's 12-4 win over Minnesota ended a 10-game road losing streak for the Royals. The bottom three hitters for Kansas City – Neifi Perez, Brent Mayne and Carlos Febles – combined to go 10-for-15 with nine runs scored.

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