Giambi's role still undetermined

NEW YORK -- The sensation of hitting a fastball with a sweet perfection -- right on the sweet spot, just below the label -- hasn't been wiped out of Jason Giambi's memory bank, at least not entirely. But it's been so long since he's properly caught up to a 90-mph fastball, Giambi knows he's become quasi-invisible, dropped to No. 6 in the lineup. And that's assuming he even makes it off the bench. "Square one" is how Giambi describes the state of his comeback from a benign tumor on his pituitary gland. Therein lies the Yankees' dilemma: just where does Giambi fit in the postseason plans, if at all? Although he slashed an opposite-field home run against the Blue Jays on Tuesday, ending an 0-for-32 slump, and reached base three times against the Devil Rays on Thursday, Giambi admits anyone expecting a flurry of offense and 2002-like bat-speed should probably wait until 2005. That's why Yankee officials are preparing for the Division Series without Giambi's formidable assets -- namely, his unique ability to hit home runs with a .400-plus on-base percentage. Although he looks healthier today than even two weeks ago, Giambi appears to be out of October's calculus. Instead, the manager's choices narrow to Bernie Williams or Kenny Lofton in center field, and then to Williams or Ruben Sierra at DH. While refusing to tip his hand, Joe Torre appears to be leaning towards Williams and Sierra, with John Olerud as the every day first baseman. Williams, in particular, has made an impression on the Yankees this week, going 5-for-16 with a .500 on-base percentage. It's a small sample, obviously, but Torre says, "if you're going to get hot, now is the time. We're trying to build towards something." Torre's loyalty towards Williams was further justified last Friday, when Lofton failed to grab a decisive ninth-inning fly ball against the Red Sox, costing the Yankees a 3-2 loss. Lofton's reluctance to dive for Johnny Damon's flare allowed the Sox to score the go-ahead run against Mariano Rivera, and prompted the usually-stoic closer to fully extend his arms in disbelief. TV cameras showed Rivera mouthing the words, "catch the ball, come on" as he stared at Lofton from the mound. After the game, Rivera said, "from my view, that ball should've been caught" although he later softened his remarks. When reporters gathered at Lofton's locker, he testily asked, "oh, you blaming me (for the loss?)" Told of the center fielder's response, one Yankee official shook his head in disgust, saying, "And George (Steinbrenner) loves the guy." Despite his unpopularity, though, Lofton can't be entirely ruled out as a possible starter, especially since Williams could still replace both Giambi and Sierra as the DH. That's because while Giambi spent almost two months on the disabled list, Sierra suffered from the overexposure. He's batting .224 since the All-Star break, down 46 points from the first half. And his on-base percentage -- never one of Sierra's strengths -- has dropped to a mere .288. Maybe that's why officials are taking a long, last look at Giambi. As GM Brian Cashman admitted the Yankees are seeking, "a pot of gold" from the former MVP. No one questions Giambi is the best-possible option at DH when he's healthy -- and he says, "I'm getting there." Indeed, there were moments this week when Giambi offered a glimpse at the skills he insists are still intact. The home run against Roy Halladay on Tuesday was significant not just because it was Giambi's first since June 20, but because it was powered to the opposite field. Torre said, "that was big, because that told me Jason was staying on the ball and not cutting through it. That was nice to see."

I'm going to do whatever Joe (Torre) wants me to do, whatever's best for the team. This hasn't been a selfish thing. The ego's going in the back pocket. I've never been a quitter and I'm not going to quit now.
Jason Giambi
On Thursday, while the Yankees were smothering the Devil Rays and guaranteeing themselves at least a wild-card berth, Giambi enjoyed another time-tunnel moment. In the fourth inning, he smoked a down-and-in fastball from Franklin Nunez off the right field wall, a ball hit so hard, Jose Cruz Jr. would've certainly gunned Giambi down had he tried for a double. Instead, he eased into first base, glad to at least be making a case for October relevance. Still, Giambi knows his likely destination is the bench, and he's even prepared for the possibility of not being on the roster in the Division Series if Torre decides to keep 11 pitchers. "I'm going to do whatever Joe wants me to do, whatever's best for the team," Giambi said. "This hasn't been a selfish thing. The ego's going in the back pocket. I've never been a quitter and I'm not going to quit now." It's actually unlikely that Torre will require that many pitchers in the first round. If so, Giambi would be a virtual guarantee to be on the roster, somewhere. Even if he's just pinch-hitting -- or even waiting to be used in a pinch-hitting role -- Torre believes Giambi still has star-power. "The other managers know they have to be careful about Jason," the manager said. "If you don't believe that, go back to the 1988 World Series and Kirk Gibson."

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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