David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
For weeks, as a 10-game lead in the AL East dwindled to zero, the Yankees said not to worry. Everything would be fine. This malfunctioning behemoth of expensive baseball machinery would be fixed. Consider it a software glitch.
Now is the time to prove it.
With yesterday's 6-4 win over the Rays, a victory that featured another strong start by Hiroki Kuroda and a hustling, small-ball style we've heard about but not really seen, the Yankees appear to be gaining some September traction.
That's back-to-back series wins for the first time in a month, and after Monday's scheduled breather -- their last off day of the season -- the Yankees host the Blue Jays for three games.
We won't bother looking too far ahead to the weekend showdown with the A's, a potential playoff preview. But not everyone showed the same restraint after Sunday's game. Joe Girardi was asked about Kuroda possibly starting a Game 1 over CC Sabathia and the likelihood that Eduardo Nuñez will be part of the postseason roster.
"We got three weeks to go," Girardi said, laughing. "Let me worry about Tuesday."
Girardi may be uncomfortable with those topics, but it beats the alternative. Would he rather be peppered with questions about his job security? That's the direction in which things were headed a week earlier, after the Yankees barely salvaged a split in Baltimore and Girardi lost his cool in a heated shouting match with a reporter.
Not that Girardi ever seems relaxed, but he's had reason to take a few deep breaths lately. Aside from Sabathia's middling performance in Friday night's loss, which again raised suspicions about his health, the Yankees were thrilled by Ivan Nova's return the next afternoon and now get to welcome back Andy Pettitte Tuesday night.
Nova is a major upgrade over Freddy Garcia, who was running out of gas anyway. As for Pettitte, he not only brings a resume of September success but allows Girardi to use David Phelps in the bullpen, where he took some pressure off Sunday by bridging a two-out gap between Boone Logan and David Robertson.
"When we had all those guys, we felt like we were rolling pretty well," Russell Martin said.
The Yankees still are waiting on Mark Teixeira, and the hope is that he'll be back from a strained calf during the next week. What's helped is more production from the healthy bodies that had been dormant.
Martin, who entered September batting .198, is raking at a .343 clip (12-for-35) and has 11 RBIs in his last 10 games, including Sunday's three-run homer. Alex Rodriguez drove in two runs with a single and a long sacrifice fly, giving him a .300 average (15-for-50) and 11 RBIs in the 13 games since he returned from the DL on Sept. 3. A-Rod also stole third before Martin's homer let him stroll the last 90 feet.
"It's a good time to heat up," Martin said.
The panic over the bone bruise inside Derek Jeter's left ankle has subsided to some degree. It continues to hurt and won't heal without prolonged rest. But Jeter has remained productive, adding an RBI single from the DH spot Sunday. Even Nuñez, his replacement at shortstop, has transformed the Yankees' lineup into a more multi-dimensional offense; he stole three bases and scored two runs Sunday despite going 0-for-3.
"These are playoff-caliber games," Rodriguez said, "and we're stepping up to the occasion a little bit."
Martin went as far as to describe this recent stretch as feeling like "a one-day playoff every day for us." And with the Orioles clinging like a chewed-up wad of Dubble Bubble on their spikes, that's probably not going to change anytime soon. Unless, of course, the Yankees beat up the lowly Blue Jays and play with the confidence that built the 10-game lead in the first place.
"We feel good about where we are," Nick Swisher said. As for this roll carrying the Yankees through to the finish line, Swisher counted the blocks on the schedule taped to his locker. "We've got 16 more to go, bro," he added. "I'll let you know after that."