David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Joe Maddon is more interested in the past these days than he is the present. When not thumbing through scouting reports, the Rays manager has been reading "11/22/63," the Stephen King novel about an English teacher who travels back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination.
As for where Tampa Bay stands on June 7, 2012 -- Maddon couldn't care less, even after the Yankees removed his club from the top spot with last night's 4-1 victory at the Stadium. There's no point in getting too wrapped up in positioning this early, and nowhere does it matter less than the American League East, a division where all five teams are separated by a total of four games.
"Last year taught me that lesson," Maddon said. "What, were we down nine games in September? You don't want to worry about all that stuff. You want to go out and play your game. If we do that -- even if we don't win -- I can go back, open my Stephen King book, read a couple of chapters and I'm fine."
Here's something that Maddon and the rest of the AL East should worry about, however. The Yankees' rotation, once considered a weakness, is now pitching as if it has plans to get this team to October -- and not for the one-game, do-or-die playoff game, either.
Yesterday, Ivan Nova pitched one of the best games of his young career, leaving to a loud ovation after two triples knocked him out in the ninth inning. To that point, Nova had allowed four hits and one run. That followed a 10-strikeout performance by Andy Pettitte, and before that, Phil Hughes' four-hitter to beat the Tigers at Comerica Park.
"It's kind of hard not to be a believer right now," Russell Martin said. "Everybody's chipping in. They're making me look good. They're making me look like I'm calling a good game."
Since June 1 -- the latest time through the rotation -- the Yankees' starters are a combined 4-0 with a 1.64 ERA. And they're fully intent on sustaining that success. After Pettitte finished up Tuesday, he made a point to speak with Nova. "He was waiting for me," Nova said. "He came out and the first thing he said was, 'Your turn tomorrow.' That motivates you. Guys like that, they want you to do good."
That's some nice momentum heading into the CC Sabathia-David Price showdown in tonight's series finale. It also means a lot more than where the Yankees are currently sitting in the division. They've won 10 of their last 13 games to move a season-best seven games over .500 at 31-24.
All along, manager Joe Girardi has felt as if he's been sitting beside a sleeping giant, and the Yankees seem ready to leave a very large footprint on the rest of the AL East, even if they currently sit a half-game behind Baltimore. Not that Girardi claims to check the standings or anything.
"I think at this time of the year," Girardi said, "you're really pretty caught up in how you're doing and how you're playing."
Even with Mariano Rivera finally scheduled for season-ending knee surgery on Tuesday, the early crisis appears to have passed. David Robertson will return later this month -- but in a set-up role for Rafael Soriano -- and Girardi said he hopes to have Brett Gardner back for the series in Atlanta next week.
Rivera, obviously, is impossible to replace. But with Soriano warming to the closer's role and the rotation vastly improved by the addition of an ace-caliber Pettitte, the Yankees are again looking like the AL East favorite many figured them to be. Lest we forget, Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano -- two of the slower starters this season -- also went deep in last night's win.
As much as Maddon tries to play cool when talking about Evan Longoria's absence, it's created a canyon-sized void in the middle of the Tampa Bay lineup this week. Longoria is expected back by the middle of this month, and that should help the Rays' chances.
Only now they will have to fight their way past the improved Yankees to get to the top spot -- and stay there. That won't be so easy, and for Maddon, first place might be just a thing of the past.