- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- The Yankees just came off a rough stretch of games, six of which were on the road, that revealed cracks in what just a month ago looked like an impregnable shell of armor.
But if that baker's dozen of games, six against the Twins, three against the Mets and two each against the Red Sox and Rays, turned into an uphill slog, what the Yankees face over the next two weeks looks more like an easy coast down a waterslide capped with a refreshing splash in a mountain lake.
Every baseball season is a long haul, a daily soap opera with plot twists O. Henry would have been proud to concoct and rough patches that make a drive over the Cross-Bronx Expressway feel like a bobsled run.
There are games you are going to blow, series you are going to lose, stretches where it will be easier to lose seven of 13 games, as the Yankees just did, than it will be to win them.
This next 16 games is not one of those times. Beginning with Friday night's Memorial Day weekend series opener against the lowly Cleveland Indians -- a perfectly appropriate 8-2 Yankees victory, highlighted by Robinson Cano's seventh-inning grand slam -- the combined record of the Yankees' next four opponents is 76-107.
Only one of the four teams they will face -- the Yankees have the pleasure of meeting the 15-34 Baltimore Orioles twice, beginning here on Tuesday and moving there a week later -- has a winning record, and that is the Toronto Blue Jays. Besides the Indians, who are here for the pounding throughout the holiday weekend, the Yankees get to entertain the 16-32 Houston Astros after they return from Baltimore before the major league baseball season resumes with a visit from the Philadelphia Phillies on June 15.
If there was ever a time for the defending world champions to wax some stiffs, ladies and gentlemen, this is that time.
"I don't ever consider any game a breather," Joe Girardi said. "But it is important that we get back to winning series. And we got off to a good start tonight."
Since reaching their high-water mark of 21-8 on May 8, the night of the 14-3 pasting of the Red Sox at Fenway, the Yankees have gone 7-11. Worse, they have seen their position in the AL East erode from a half-game behind the Rays to 3½ games back after Tampa Bay's 3-2 loss Friday night to the White Sox. Plus, they Yankees have allowed both the Jays and the Red Sox to close some of the gap behind them, now down to 2 and 2½ games, respectively.
None of this is cause for real alarm, of course, but the fact is that baseball teams that win a lot of games win most of them against the soft touches of the league. That is why the 2009 Yankees were able to lose the first eight meetings of the year with the Red Sox and still stay close to the top of the division. They were beating up on everybody else.
So it follows that starting with this weekend, it is time for the Yankees to leave the doldrums of the past two weeks behind. It is time for them to put some distance between themselves and the team behind them and close a little more of the gap between themselves and the team in front of them. For the first 30 games of the year, they looked not only as good as the team that won the World Series last year, they looked better.
But over the past 13 games, they haven't looked nearly as good. Part of it is injuries (they lost Nick Johnson, Jorge Posada and Alfredo Aceves in rapid succession), part of it is the continued inability of the middle of the order to sustain any kind of offense (notably Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez) and part of it is the pitching (particularly Javier Vazquez and any reliever not named Mariano Rivera).
Except on the two occasions when it was Mariano.
But the time for such foolishness is over. The lazy days of summer are practically upon us, as is the soft underbelly of the Yankees' schedule. This is the kind of stretch where even mediocre teams will win nine of 16. Great teams, or teams that aspire to greatness, have got to do better than that.
On Friday night in the Bronx, the Yankees did what they were supposed to do against the likes of the Indians. After a subpar outing last Saturday against the Mets, Phil Hughes came out smoking, striking out the first five Indians he faced and holding an admittedly anemic lineup to five hits and two runs over seven innings.
When asked if this was an opportune time for the Yankees to fatten up on some of the league's cream puffs, Hughes said, "That would be nice," although he was quick to add, "There are no bad teams. It would just be good for us to do a little better than we've been doing."
Having already demonstrated he could handle the No. 5 spot in the lineup, Robinson Cano was upgraded to cleanup, as Alex Rodriguez got the night off, and justified the manager's call by hitting a bomb for a seventh-inning grand slam that broke the game open.
"Are you sure?" was Cano's reaction to Girardi when he saw the lineup card. "I was a little surprised," he said. "Because you never see Alex take a day off. I didn't want to let the team down."
Most encouraging of all, Curtis Granderson made a successful return after nearly a month on the disabled list with a strained groin muscle, reaching base three times, including a sharply hit double in the seventh. Best of all, he ran both fast and smoothly, both on the bases and in the field. If there was any lingering doubt about his fitness, his running catch to track down Shin-Soo Choo's drive to deep center in the sixth should have laid them to rest.
"It was good to get tested in so many different ways," Granderson said. "We can drill everything we want, but it's not game-like intensity. I felt today was a good test of everything and hopefully everything will come back all right [Saturday]."
True, the Yankees were facing a team that could not handle a lineup featuring a virtual rookie (Juan Miranda) at DH, a kid (Ramiro Pena) playing the part of A-Rod, and a catcher (Chad Moeller) who had not played in a major league game since September and had, in fact, been deemed unfit to stick with the Orioles during spring training.
Still, you've got to beat what's in front of you, and Friday night, the Yankees did just that. Now, they've got 15 more chances to keep doing it before things get rough again.
Let the beatings resume.
GAME NOTES: Granderson handled the ball five times, two of which were difficult running catches. "Even though all the reports were good," Girardi said, "you can't be sure until you see it with your own eyes." ... Granderson had the night off compared to Mark Teixeira, who handled the ball 10 times, including a spectacular catch of a line drive off the bat of Choo in the fourth and a terrific full-length stretching stop of Jason Donald's grounder in the seventh. ... Girardi said the doctor's report on Jorge Posada's injured right foot was "good," and that the catcher would begin some "movement drills" and perhaps hitting off a tee this weekend. Still no projected date for his return, however. ... Moeller, starting at catcher in place of Francisco Cervelli, collected his first big league hit since last Sept. 30, a double in the eighth inning. ... Saturday's matchup: LHP CC Sabathia (4-3, 3.86) vs. LHP David Huff (2-6, 5.25). Sabathia is coming off a season-worst five-inning, 10-hit, six-run performance in Sunday's 6-4 loss to the Mets.
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