Yankees grinding their way toward October

Nick Swisher watches his two-run home run off Nick Swisher watches his two-run home run off Minnesota Twins pitcher Liam Hendriks during the first inning. (Sept. 24, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City ...

MINNEAPOLIS

Think of it as the power of thinking small.

I mean, really small, as in fractions. That's what the Yankees had on their minds after last night's 6-3 win over the Twins nudged the division lead to 11/2 games over the Orioles.

"I was just trying to figure out where the other half-game came from," Curtis Granderson said.

Hey, every little bit counts, and for the Yankees, that's what passes for arm's length these days. With only nine games left, their magic number to clinch a postseason berth is now down to four.

The important thing is getting there. How it happens is secondary, and with the grind of the past month, intensified by the relentless push of the Orioles -- who split Monday's doubleheader with the Blue Jays -- the Yankees have been forced to be creative at times.

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That means doing it without Mark Teixeira, who is still rehabbing in Tampa, as well as dealing with the inexplicable disappearance of Robinson Cano at the plate. Yet somehow they've survived, and Monday was another example of the Yankees' adjustment on the fly.

Granderson hit his 40th homer to become only the fifth Yankee to do it in consecutive years, joining Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Jason Giambi. Nick Swisher, Eric Chavez and Raul IbaƱez also went deep.

Ichiro Suzuki, fresh off being named the AL's Player of the Week, doubled off the rightfield wall in his first at-bat. Derek Jeter scored a run and extended his season-high hitting streak to 18 games. Cano and Alex Rodriguez were invisible again.

Still, there's reason to believe the Yankees should have enough to get them to the division title -- and possibly even the AL's best record -- if only because they just have to do it for another nine games.

Beyond that, who knows? But that's not what the Yankees are worried about at the moment. The pressure of this neck-and-neck sprint with the Orioles has given them a singular focus. Back in April, everyone wants to criticize how the Yankees are winning games. There is a certain freedom in not having to deal with those concerns during the final week of September.

"Right now, I feel like we're playing the best baseball we've played all year long," Swisher said.

That certainly is the case with Ichiro, who may be motivated by trying to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2001 with the Mariners. He's become an indispensable piece of the Yankees' patched-together lineup, which relies on Jeter's taped-up left ankle in the top spot, the occasionally threatening A-Rod at No. 3 and the flat-out misfiring Cano batting cleanup.

The Twins served up Liam Hendriks and his 5.88 ERA for the series opener. The Yankees responded by clubbing him for six runs, including four homers, in 61/3 innings. Tuesday, it's Esmerling Vasquez (6.75 ERA) followed by Samuel Deduno (4.54) for Wednesday's finale.

As late-September games go, these are virtual gimmes, especially with what's at stake for the Yankees down the stretch. Maybe it's not realistic to suggest they could run the table. But with the way the Yankees have rallied lately, and the basement level of competition awaiting them, let's not rule it out either.

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Cano would help. So, too, would Teixeira. But Girardi isn't holding his breath as he tries to protect this slimmest of leads.

"You want to worry about yourselves and not so much what other people are doing," Girardi said, "because I believe that could be wasted energy."

And neither the Yankees nor the Orioles have much to spare.

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