Yankees @ Royals Series Preview

A week after hosting Kansas City, the New York Yankees travel to face the Royals for three games starting Tuesday. The Yankees, now 72-44 and still holding a four-game lead over Boston in the AL East, come into the series after struggling over the weekend against Oakland. Sunday's 8-5 win allowed New York to finish its brief home stand at 3-3.

And the injuries keep piling up, this time DH/1B Nick Johnson, who went on the disabled list Sunday with a bruised left wrist. Johnson's placement on the DL came two days after closer Mariano Rivera was activated, and three days after Roger Clemens returned.

Starter Orlando Hernandez was forced from Friday's start against Oakland but will try to go Thursday in the series finale.

It's not all bad news for the Yankees, though. Second baseman and MVP candidate Alfonso Soriano is one home run shy of becoming the first player at his position to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season. Clemens made a strong return from the DL by beating the Royals last Wednesday, and Andy Pettitte had his third straight strong start last Thursday.

The Royals, 48-70 and in fourth in the AL Central, won their first series since mid-July by taking two of three against Tampa Bay. Before then, Kansas City had lost 15 of its previous 18 games.

A big boost to the offense is expected with the return of 1B Mike Sweeney, who hasn't played since July 13 with a lower back and left hip strain.

The pitching has gotten a spark from rookie Runelvys Hernandez, who beat the Yankees 6-2 last Tuesday and shut out the Devil Rays Sunday. He's the first Royals pitcher to win two straight starts since ace Paul Byrd a month ago.

MOUND MATCHUPS


The first two games of the series offer familiar pairings, as Clemens and Pettitte again face Jeff Suppan and Byrd in rematches of last week's series. The Yankees won both games, 6-2 and 6-3.

Roger Clemens (9-3, 3.94 ERA), Tuesday's starter, looked like his old self in his return from the DL, throwing seven innings of six-hit, eight-strikeout ball against the Royals.

Suppan (8-11, 5.11) was hammered for the third time in his last five starts, giving up six runs and nine hits in 6 1/3 innings, including home runs to Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter.

On Wednesday, Andy Pettitte (7-4, 3.17 ERA) and Byrd (14-8, 3.59), the starters with the lowest ERAs on their respective teams, meet again. Pettitte took advantage of homers by Robin Ventura, Raul Mondesi and Soriano, then tired late, giving up 10 hits and three runs in 7 2/3 innings.

Soriano's long ball ended a short day by Byrd, who had thrown five straight complete games before last Thursday. The six runs allowed in 5 1/3 innings were just one less than he had allowed in his previous 25 innings over three starts.

The series concludes Thursday with the return of Orlando Hernandez (6-3, 3.41 ERA), who will face Royals rookie Miguel Ascencio (2-4, 5.70). Hernandez, who left Friday's start after one inning and 18 pitches with numbness in his left leg, was diagnosed with a pinched nerve in his neck and was cleared to pitch.

Ascencio will be making his 24th appearance, 14th as a starter. The rookie made the team out of spring training as a reliever and has been wildly inconsistent. Four times this season, he's had outings where he has allowed at least three runs in an inning or less. But he's also had five games where he has pitched at least five innings and given up two runs or less.

SERIES NOTES


Pitcher Mike Thurman rejoined the Yankees from Columbus Sunday to take Johnson's roster spot. …. Posada, who sat out Sunday's game with a sore knee, is expected to play Tuesday. …. One hitter not likely to miss Yankee Stadium is OF Rondell White, who was hitless in 16 at-bats in the six games. …. A sign of the confusion that reigns in Kansas City: Second baseman Carlos Febles, who went 3-for-4 and scored twice Sunday, was sent to the minors after the game. Royals GM Allaird Baird said it was because the team needs more offense. Febles was hitting .233 at the time of his demotion.

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