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May 31, 2006; Walking Wounded

If you haven’t been paying much attention lately, you can be forgiven for looking at the standings this morning and finding the New York Yankees tied for first place with the Boston Red Sox. After all, the Yankees are the walking wounded, aren’t they? And they are playing the best-record-in-baseball Detroit Tigers, no? While the Red Sox are coming off a series with Tampa Bay and now facing Toronto.

Yes, the Yankees are hurting. The disabled list includes Hideki Matsui (broken wrist, 3 months), the guy who would have replaced Matsui in left, Bubba Crosby (hamstring, 2 weeks), Tanyon Sturtze (surgery, out indefinitely), and starter Shawn Chacon (got whacked with a comebacker, unknown). Don’t forget Johnny Damon who is playing with a broken foot, Gary Sheffield who is playing with a broken bone in his hand, Derek Jeter who won’t admit his hand may bother him after a slide into the bag the other night in Detroit, Jorge Posada who is having a leg/knee tendon issue, and no one has said anything about an injury yet but am I the only one who has noticed that in the past 3 weeks Jason Giambi’s bat seems to have slowed considerably? After his hot April, May has brought an unusual number of pop ups to left field. Last night he got a fastball down Broadway on a 3-1 pitch and missed it. Fortunately, in the 11th inning, he got a curve ball, guessed right, and jacked it into the seats for the game-winning RBI. It was reminiscent of a day in Oakland when he did the very same thing off Mike Stanton’s curve ball, though that one was a walk-off since Giambi then played for the home team.

So, how are the Yankees doing it? The outfield that was supposed to be Matsui, Damon, and Sheffield has been replaced by Melky Cabrera, Bernie Williams and Terrence Long. They had to call Long out of retirement, for goodness’ sake. Well, after looking a bit rusty in his debut at Fenway, Long has been fine as a fill-in guy, had two hits last night and will continue to be a fine stop-gap. Bernie Williams has stepped up big over the past ten days, hitting .389 (14 for 36) in that span. Melky Cabrera had four hits last night and is batting .333 over the past ten days with 9 RBI. He’s 13 for 39 with six walks.

And Damon, bum foot or no, has still been hitting at close to .300 and playing fine defense. Sheffield sat last night but will be back in the lineup most of this week.

How about the infield? Alex Rodriguez hit .375 over the past ten days, with 12 RBI and 11 runs scored. Jeter has been his usual self–let’s knock wood that the hand injury doesn’t cool him off more than a day or two. Giambi’s bat-speed woes we already discussed, and we’ll keep an eye on him. Robinson Cano continues to be a plain great hitter, hitting .299 this season. Posada’s injury will hopefully not derail what otherwise looks to be one of his best years at the plate so far. And even backup Kelly Stinnett looks like he is coming out of his slump–perhaps the increased playing time he received is the silver lining on Posada’s injury.

Of course, the real question is the pitching. Randy Johnson, who has been the cause of so much hair-tearing over the past month, took a no-hitter into the sixth in Detroit. Aaron Small, who seemed spectacularly ineffective out of the bullpen, has had two strong outings now where his only problem seemed to be he tires after four innings, as you might expect from a guy who just spent a month in the bullpen. With Chacon out and Pavano still not due back for quite a while, Small can once again save the Yankees’ bacon as he did last season. Mussina has once again been simply great, having added a new change-up to his mix this year. As usual Moose’s weakness is the long ball, as with many pitchers who throw a lot of strikes, but this is no more of a concern this season than in any other. Chien Ming-Wang has been consistent with his ground-ball inducing sinker, and Jaret Wright seems to have regained his effectiveness.

The bullpen has had some hiccups, but overall they have been good. Scott Proctor, who was lights out in April, had a rough stretch likely brought on by over-use, but hopefully he is over that now. Kyle Farnsworth has alternated between excellent and awful, sometimes from one pitch to the next, but he appears to be finding himself. Ron Villone has been steady, and Mariano Rivera pitched three innings of effortless relief last night to earn the win–the first time he pitched three innings since the fateful 2003 Aaron-Goes-Boone ALCS game seven.

So how are the Yankees doing it? By mixing and matching and working hard. They don’t have all the parts working together, but they have enough that they have won seven of their last 10 games.

The dogfight with Boston resumes next week with a four-game set at the Stadium. Hang on to your hats as the ride is likely to stay bumpy.

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