Commentary

Mystique, aura or a mirage at Stadium?

Yankees are 9-5, 4½ games ahead of Boston after 19 days ... but how long can it last?

Updated: April 19, 2011, 11:31 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Since the 2011 baseball season began 19 days ago, the Yankees have lost two pitchers to the disabled list, have dropped their struggling leadoff hitter to ninth in the batting order, added a portly 37-year-old with an injury history longer than his belt to their starting rotation and continued to field a regular lineup with five players hitting .241 or below.

They have also hit more home runs than any team in baseball, have a closer who has saved seven of their nine wins -- and got the win in another -- and have enjoyed the resurgence of two players cast off by their former teams, one considered damaged goods, the other a punched ticket.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
John Munson/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireAn injured Phil Hughes watched from the bench as the Yankees took two out of three from Texas.

It certainly has been an interesting start to the baseball season for the Yankees, who in spite of it all, sit three games atop the rest of the AL East and a whopping 4½ games ahead of the Boston Red Sox, just about everyone's preseason favorite to run away with it all.

The question is, how long can they keep it up?

This week might provide an answer or two. Then again, it might not.

Their just-concluded three-game series with the Texas Rangers, a World Series team last year -- at the expense of the Yankees, of course -- had the look of a disaster in the making Friday afternoon.

That day, Phil Hughes, counted on to pick up where he left off in 2010 when he won 18 games in his first season as a starter, went on the disabled list with what the Yankees were calling a "dead arm."

That night, Ivan Nova, considered a rotation anchor based on 42 mostly impressive innings pitched in the second half of last year, failed for the second straight time to last five innings and the Yankees lost, 5-3.

The next day, things got worse when Alex Rodriguez left a game with some vague soreness in his oblique/lower back area, his status unknown and his return unclear.

And yet, by the time the series concluded shortly before midnight Sunday, the Yankees had taken two of three from the defending AL champs. The retreads, Russell Martin and Eric Chavez, had picked up for the regulars, even on a night when the undisputed ace, CC Sabathia, had faltered.

Winning two of three from Texas in April in no way makes up for losing an ALCS five months ago, but what looked like a lost weekend going in turned out to be a pretty good one coming out.

But now, a lot of the concerns that plagued the team over the winter are likely to resurface. The weakness of the starting rotation minus Andy Pettitte and without the addition of Cliff Lee, which was glossed over during spring training when everyone was pitching so well, is about to become an issue again.

In camp, the choice was either Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon in the starting rotation. Now, with the injury to Hughes, both are in and both are necessary.

Garcia looked great against Texas in his first start as a Yankee on Friday. Colon, who makes his first start on Wednesday against the Blue Jays in Toronto, hasn't started a major league game since July 24, 2009.

How much can the Yankees realistically expect of either of them, let alone both?

And then, of course, there is A.J. Burnett, who is 3-0 so far this season but still has a ways to go to earn anyone's unconditional trust. Burnett has had terrific Aprils before; he had one last year but finished up 10-15, with an ERA over 5.00 and was left out of the rotation for the first round of the playoffs.

No one knows what the future holds for Hughes -- although he continues to deny there is any injury to Hughes' arm, Joe Girardi used the word "inflammation" Sunday night -- and Nova, for all his promise, continues to struggle the second and third time through a lineup, assuming he gets that far.

The Yankees are typically downplaying Rodriguez's injury, but when asked Sunday afternoon if he thought a trip to the DL was possible, A-Rod didn't say no. Instead, he blurted out, "I hope not."

Brett Gardner, the leadoff hitter coming out of camp, was the No. 9 hitter Sunday night, and after two more futile at-bats, Girardi sent him and his .140 batting average -- and .213 on-base percentage -- back to the bench in favor of Andruw Jones, another retread.

Derek Jeter, with his new batting approach, is "up" to .241, and hitting even more ground balls than he did last year. After a hot March -- there was one game -- Mark Teixeira is at .220. And Jorge Posada, still adjusting to his move to DH, is at .163, with just seven hits this season, although five of them are home runs.

So far, it is the retreads and the castoffs who are carrying this $200 million team, they and Mariano Rivera, who is a perfect 7-for-7 in save opportunities and has allowed no runs and only four hits in 8 1/3 innings so far.

It all makes you wonder how much about this team is real and how much illusion. It makes you wonder if their 9-5 record is any more legitimate than the 40,000-plus attendance figures the team announces every night when your eyes tell you there is closer to 30,000 actually in the ballpark.

Starting Tuesday, the Yankees have two games against the Blue Jays followed by three in Baltimore over the weekend. Chances are we will see both Colon and Garcia this week, as well as Burnett and Nova.

And along with them, we may see what many have expected to see from the Yankees this season: shaky starting pitching, inconsistent offense and a creaky starting lineup that is not a year better than last year's, just a year older.

Or, we may see what we have seen through the first 14 games of the 2011 season: a team that simply knows how to win, even if no one on the outside or the inside can figure out precisely how.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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