Wang's still Cy-high

Wang's still Cy-high


Published:September 10,2006_New York Daily News

BALTIMORE - Johnny Damon was at first base in the fifth inning yesterday when he began chatting with his old Boston teammate, Kevin Millar. One of the topics was Chien-Ming Wang, and Damon said Millar, who now plays first for the Orioles, was overwhelmed by Wang's development from one season to the next.

"(He) was saying, 'Holy ----!' about how much the guy has improved," Damon said. "Last year, he wasn't this tough. (Millar) was saying that his fastball was moving a foot; if the fastball moves a foot, that's pretty sexy."

The Yankees can certainly appreciate that sentiment. While Mariano Rivera's arm and Jason Giambi's wrist still linger as potential problems, the Bombers continue to take comfort in Wang's sustained excellence. The reliable righty allowed one run in 7-1/3 innings of the Yanks' 3-2 victory over the Orioles, and has won his last four decisions. With 17 wins, he's tied for most victories in the majors with Minnesota's Johan Santana and the White Sox's Jon Garland and has earned repeated praise for a sinker that falls precipitously around the plate; 16 of his 22 outs yesterday were ground balls, and he also mixed in a slider and changeup to keep hitters off balance.

"I don't know how you can't consider this guy as a Cy Young (Award candidate)," Millar said. "I know that he doesn't have the strikeouts and all that baloney, but he has the wins, he's got the ERA and he throws bowling balls at the plate."

Wang (17-5) left to a standing ovation from the partisan crowd of 45,827 at Camden Yards (Yankee fans always flood the Inner Harbor) and Derek Jeter got a similar ovation for driving in what proved to be the decisive run with a sharp single to right in the eighth. Jeter, who was 2-for-4, extended his career-high hitting streak to 19games and is four points behind Twins catcher Joe Mauer, who had the day off yesterday, in the AL batting title race (.344 to .348).

The Yankee captain batted third yesterday because the Bombers started a makeshift lineup that was without Alex Rodriguez (stomach bug), Giambi and Bobby Abreu, who is in an 0-for-11 slide and needed a day off, according to Joe Torre.

With Wang on the mound, however, the Bombers knew they probably wouldn't need many runs. Wang has dropped his ERA from 4.86 on June 1 to 3.60 after yesterday's outing and has to be considered a legitimate candidate to earn the Game 1 nod from Torre when the division series begins next month.

That's why Torre felt a pang of fear when he saw Wang get hit by Nick Markakis' liner in the fourth. Torre had gone into the clubhouse to check on Giambi - the first baseman was getting a cortisone injection to alleviate tendinitis in his left wrist - and saw Wang get hit on television. He quickly headed back to the field to learn that Markakis' shot had smacked off Wang's hip and rear end, allowing the manager to breathe easily.

"He's been very special for us," Torre said. "He plays defense and does everything - he's been a complete player."

That aspect of Wang's game was on display in the sixth, when he sprinted over to first and caught a return throw from Jeter to finish a 3-6-1 double play that ended the inning.

The Bombers had taken a 2-0lead the frame before when Damon blooped an RBI single to right and Melky Cabrera hit a sac fly off Adam Loewen (5-5). The O's got one run back in the seventh on Brandon Fahey's RBI single, but Jeter delivered his 87thRBI of the year in the eighth and Kyle Farnsworth - filling in for Rivera - worked around Millar's solo homer in the ninth to record his third save.

Afterward, Wang admitted that even he never expected to have this many wins. One writer asked what he thinks when he hears people suggest he could win the Cy Young. "No," he said simply with a shake of his head.

And what about possibly winning 20 games? Wang just shrugged.

"I will try," he said.