When others worry, Damon shrugs it off
Despite '09 playoff struggles, veteran not losing any sleep
NEW YORK -- Don't get Johnny Damon wrong. He's aware of it, of his 1-for-12 slump, of his four strikeouts in Game 3 of the American League Division Series and of the perception that he has begun to struggle at precisely the wrong time.
The thing is, Damon doesn't particularly care. It's not that this slump hasn't hurt his pride -- it has, to the point that Damon felt obligated to march into Yankee Stadium for optional batting practice on Tuesday. It's not even that Damon knows he has nowhere to go but up -- a theory that would seem to be true.
It's just that Damon, quite simply, has not needed to hit.
"It's very easy to put it behind you when you win three games to nothing," he said.
And the Yankees did win the ALDS, 3-0, dispatching the Twins before returning home to prepare for the Angels in a best-of-seven AL Championship Series that begins on Friday at 7:57 p.m. ET on FOX. If the Yankees plan on beating the Halos to advance to the World Series, they'll need more strong pitching from CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, more timely hitting from Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.
But they'll also need Damon to produce.
"We need to get my bat going," Damon said, "as well as a couple other guys."
Lost in the Yankees' sweep of the Twins was the fact that Damon, other than a walk in the sixth inning of Game 2, did little to help. His lone hit was a one-out single in Game 1, after which he was quickly erased on the basepaths. He misplayed a Brendan Harris hit in Game 2, resulting in a triple. And he struck out four times in Game 3, three of them against Carl Pavano.
Certainly, Damon was not the only Yankees player to struggle against Pavano, who struck out nine batters in total and generally kept the Yankees off balance all day. And certainly Damon referenced those collective struggles in his explanation, noting that he "didn't see the ball well at all" off Pavano. But none of that stopped Damon from coming into Yankee Stadium on his off-day, taking BP and trying to eliminate what he called some excessive movement of his head.
"I just wanted to come in and get some peace of mind," Damon said, "and make sure that I'll be ready to go come Friday night."
For Damon, this is all somewhat strange. The author of so many memorable postseason moments in Octobers past, Damon is now seeing how champagne flows from a different angle. Of course, he would rather win as a team than produce at the plate. But ideally, he'd prefer to do both.
Then again, Damon has struggled a bit in postseason play since 2004, the year he famously grew out his facial hair and hit a grand slam to sink the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS, before leading the Red Sox to a World Series victory over the Cardinals.
Since that October, Damon has hit just .217 in four postseason appearances, the first three of them first-round exits. No longer able to contribute regularly with his glove, Damon must produce with his bat to be useful. In two of the Yankees' Division Series games against the Twins, for example, manager Joe Girardi replaced Damon late in the game with defensive whiz Brett Gardner -- a practice that was not uncommon during the regular season.
But Gardner won't be starting games in left field anytime soon, nor will anyone not named Damon. A 1-for-12 slump is hardly reason to panic for a player who hit .282 with a career-high 24 homers during the regular season.
"All hitters have gone through times when they haven't gotten hits," Girardi said, referencing Derek Jeter's struggles back when the shortstop was chasing Lou Gehrig's all-time franchise hits record in September. "I feel really good about Johnny at this time of year, because Johnny has played at this time of year and played at a very high level."
Pointing to the quality of Damon's at-bats in a simulated game setting Tuesday, Girardi said he could not honestly worry about his No. 2 hitter. And Damon agreed that he had no reason to lose sleep, knowing in large part that he won't be facing Pavano anytime soon.
Instead, in Game 1, Damon will face John Lackey, against whom he is a .333 hitter over 48 career at-bats. Damon will also be back at Yankee Stadium, where he hit 17 of his 24 homers this season. He will be rested, no small detail for a 35-year-old outfielder with two balky hamstrings. And he will know in the back of his mind that he is only a swing away from busting out of his slump.
"That's why I'm not going to beat myself up over what happened in Game 3," Damon said. "I felt like I had a chance every time I stepped to the plate. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. But my teammates picked me up, and they helped us get a big win and they helped us get to this part. So here we are."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.