Notes: Leiter moves to bullpen

Notes: Leiter moves to bullpen

NEW YORK -- The seed was planted about two weeks ago, as Al Leiter and Joe Torre shared a casual conversation in the visitor's dugout at Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field.

"You know," Leiter said, pointing toward the bullpen, "I can pitch out there, too."

So it was no great surprise that, with rookie Chien-Ming Wang returning to the Yankees this week and ready to rejoin the starting rotation, Torre decided to take Leiter up on that offer. The 39-year-old left-hander spent his first night in New York's bullpen on Wednesday, available to pitch in relief if needed.

"The thing that made it easy to do is the way Al Leiter has opened himself up to anything to help the ballclub," Torre said.

Leiter made one relief appearance earlier this season with the Florida Marlins, but that was more of a shock, as Leiter had been unceremoniously removed from his team's starting rotation.

With the Yankees, a different situation has played out. Professional athletes are conditioned, as famously shown in the 1988 film "Bull Durham," to pull out the "I'm just happy to be here" cliché with reporters.

But Leiter -- whom the Yankees signed specifically to fill the hole left by Wang's trip to the disabled list -- said he truly is happy to be with the Yankees, the team that drafted him in the second round in 1984 and with whom he made his Major League debut three years later.

"When I first got here, I was in a position of no position," said Leiter, who has gone 4-4 with a 5.33 ERA since coming back to New York.

"So when I say that I'm happy to be here, it's not some form of Nuke La Loosh nonsense. It's for real, man."

Leiter's movement to a potential relief role has been made easier by a confluence of reasons. Knowing that he was only to be a placeholder for Wang coming into his stint with New York, Leiter's recourse would have been to argue that he, not Aaron Small, deserved to pitch on Friday against Boston.

But Small and Shawn Chacon have been the surprises of the Yankees' rotation, and Leiter's timing wouldn't have been very good anyway, coming off a start in which he pitched two-thirds of an inning at Oakland last week.

More importantly, Leiter seems to be caught up in the Yankees' ongoing pursuit of a postseason berth.

The left-hander said he hasn't felt any sort of October excitement since the Mets' post-Sept. 11 run at the Wild Card in 2001, and it's this time of year that can make players put aside their individual goals and bond together for the good of the club.

"This is exciting," Leiter said. "I've been lucky. I've had a career where every organization I've played for has always put together a team that's really legitimate and had a chance of winning coming out of Spring Training every year."

As of this moment, Torre couldn't commit to saying that Leiter would get another start in pinstripes, saying that he was handling the roster on a game-by-game basis and with no long-term plans. Leiter said he has no problem with however it all shakes out.

"I thank the Yankees for giving me a chance to end it where it all started," Leiter said. "It's all good. I'll be ready."

Sheffield out: Gary Sheffield left Wednesday's game in the first inning with what the Yankees called tightness in his left hamstring.

The outfielder was helped off the field after aggravating the injury chasing Jonny Gomes' run-scoring triple. Sheffield called the injury a cramp, and he agreed with an assessment that he would be day-to-day, possibly available to play Thursday against Tampa Bay.

"It's a little tight; I feel it still," Sheffield said. "I don't think it's that serious. I think it's something that will feel better."

Torre said he would consider using Sheffield as a designated hitter on Thursday if the hamstring showed improvement. Sheffield reached down and massaged the cramp a little bit before walking off the field, and he said that an in-game treatment of ice and a rubdown helped.

"It wasn't getting worse at all," Sheffield said. "It was just feeling tight."

The ninth-month push: If you've thought that this September feels a little different around Yankee Stadium, it might be some comfort to know that the manager agrees with you.

What differentiates this September from those past, Torre said, is that instead of filing down his troops for the postseason and pondering playoff pitching rotations, the Yankees' postseason -- or at least the support module of it -- is arguably already underway.

"This is our playoffs right now," Torre said. "We have to play with that in mind. We have to win every series to continue."

This current series got off to a head-scratching start on Tuesday night, with the Yankees losing to the Devil Rays despite holding a 3-0 lead after two innings.

The victory gave the Rays, a 1998 expansion club, its first season-series win against the Yankees, but Torre didn't hold that as indicative of what New York might be able to do with a hot September.

After all, Torre reminded, once a team gets to the postseason, it takes only 11 victories to hold the World Series trophy.

"Every year, there's going to be someone who's going to be a thorn in your side. This year, it's the Devil Rays," Torre said. "You look at their record lately, and it's not too shabby. They've always had talented people."

Injury update: Torre had little news to report on the injuries of first baseman Tino Martinez (rib cage) and Mike Mussina (sore elbow), but he said Martinez -- who suffered the injury a week ago -- is feeling somewhat better and could return by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, Mussina has said he doesn't know how much longer the tendinitis in his pitching elbow will take to clear up. A good test will come on Friday, when Mussina -- who has wandered the Yankees' clubhouse with a light cloth sleeve hugging the elbow -- will test himself in a throwing exercise.

"We're not going to know anything until he throws," Torre said.

On deck: The Yankees and Devil Rays will play the third and final game of this series on Thursday, with right-hander Wang opposing left-hander Mark Hendrickson. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. ET.

Bryan Hoch is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.