The New York Yankees have always won ballgames. But hardly ever in the manner they are now.
Since 2002, the aptly-named Bronx Bombers have finished in the top five among all major league teams in runs scored every year but one. The lone exception – 2008 – coincided with the only time in the past 18 years the Yankees missed the postseason. Historically, they are a club predicated on offense.
This season, though, the Yankees have not lived up to their brawny billing. They rank 17th in the league in runs scored (252), 18th in slugging percentage (.397) and find themselves in the company of such offensively muted teams as the Minnesota Twins and Chicago Cubs. The Bronx Bombers have been anything but.
And yet 63 games into the regular season, Joe Girardi’s Yankees boast a 37-26 record, and trail the first-place Red Sox by just a game and a half in the wickedly tough A.L. East. This is a team that most pundits picked to finish last in the division.
They entered the season with a rash of injuries to star players, including Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez. They were aging in a division that was mostly getting younger, seeming like dinosaurs compared to the budding Orioles and sprightly Rays. Throw in the bolstering of the Blue Jays and the reinvention of the Red Sox, and indeed, the 2013 Yankees seemed destined to tumble.
But the 2013 Yankees are their own team. They are not trying to imitate the Pinstripes of the past, in all their Herculean glory, because that is not who they are. Early in the season, they identified themselves as a team that can win games through stout starting pitching, timely hitting, brave base running and mistake-free defense. And Mariano Rivera. A lot of Mariano Rivera.
Still, it would be a group effort.
This past weekend in Seattle, where the Yankees took three of four from the Mariners, this winning formula came to the fore.
On Thursday, Phil Hughes delivered seven innings of 1-run ball, totally overpowering the Seattle offense. To back him, the offense plated six runs in the third inning, blending some traditional Yankee muscle with some newfound peskiness. After Jayson Nix and Brett Garnder set the table, Robinson Cano and Teixeira cleared it with back-to-back homeruns. Then Travis Hafner and Kevin Youkilis got aboard and were driven home by a bloop single from Vernon Wells and a deft, little line drive from Ichiro.
The latter scenario might have resembled the play-by-play of a 2004 All Star Game. Nine years later, Hafner is more known for his faulty knees, Youkilis for his achy back, Wells for an albatross contract, and Ichiro for his quirky superstitions. But there they were Thursday night, knocking the ball around the field and rounding the bases with verve, turning back the clock to the years of their prime. Not one of them is hitting above .260, but together, they’re still a powerful force.
After dropping a 4-1 decision on Friday night, the Yankees handed the ball to 40-year-old Andy Pettitte on Saturday. Locked in a pitching duel with fellow southpaw Joe Saunders, the unyielding Pettitte dug his studs into the ground and refused to break, surrendering just one run on three hits through 7 1/3 innings. After a first inning RBI-single by Robinson Cano, the offense from thereon was supplied by journeyman Jayson Nix, who, as resident shortstop of the New York Yankees, has to feel like a sky-ad pilot flying Air Force One. In the fifth inning, he lashed a line drive to right field to score Ichiro, before driving a single up the middle to bring home Gardner in the seventh. Rivera struck out the side in the ninth to nail down his 22nd save, but the hero of this game was Nix.
It’s someone new every day for these Yanks.
On Sunday, it turned out to be catcher Chris Stewart. With the score tied at 1 in the top of the ninth inning – thanks to a game performance by starter David Phelps who matched “King Felix” Hernandez through six innings – Stewart came to the plate with two outs and Ichiro standing on second base. The towering catcher, whose career number of teams played for (6) rivals his career number of home runs hit (7), smoked a 1-0 fastball through the left side of the infield, and off went Ichiro. His speed still his greatest asset, Ichiro slid across home plate with the go-ahead run as Stewart pumped his fists and strode into second. Rivera notched his league-leading 23rd save in the bottom half, and the mercenaries and the castoffs and the nameless skipped out of Seattle with a wholly satisfying 3-1 series win.
Now, they’re off to Oakland for a three-game set with the Athletics, another team defying baseball odds. With more games to be won for this team, there are more heroes to be discovered.