Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson makes a running catch on...

Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson makes a running catch on a ball hit by the Tigers' Brandon Inge in the ninth inning. (Mar. 31, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Curtis Granderson's sore oblique received an immediate test on Opening Day when the season's second batter, Will Rhymes, sent a sinking liner to center.

Granderson charged in and made a diving catch, popping right up with a smile on his face and allowing manager Joe Girardi to exhale.

It was a ball Granderson probably wouldn't have gotten to last season. Or in previous ones, for that matter.

Granderson has been playing shallower in centerfield this year, the result of a collective spring training suggestion from third-base coach Rob Thomson, who coaches the outfielders, and two coaches who work with Thomson in the spring, Lee Mazzilli and Jack Hubbard.

"[They asked], 'Where do you think you played last year?' '' Granderson said before Wednesday night's rainout. "I said I felt I was pretty deep and they asked why and I said, 'I'm not too sure; I just kind of kept pushing back.' They said, 'Let's practice it in the spring. If anything happens, it's not going to mean anything good or bad, but we'll have a chance to test it and see how far in you can go.' "

Thomson said it was something he discussed with Hubbard and Mazzilli, the former Orioles manager and Yankees bench coach who rejoined the organization as a spring training instructor. They took it to manager Joe Girardi, who gave his go-ahead.

Granderson's speed, Thomson said, should allow him to get to enough balls he has to go back on and cut down on the amount of balls falling in front for hits.

The former also was demonstrated on Opening Day when Granderson made an over-the-shoulder catch -- after a long run -- of Brandon Inge's ninth-inning drive off Mariano Rivera.

"So far, so good," Thomson said. "And we're going to get beat at times -- there's some times where there's going to be some balls hit over his head -- but we're going to take more of the bloop hits away."

Thomson, who positions the outfielders from the dugout, said nothing specific prompted the idea, just the reality of where most base hits fall. It's something he said he's working on with all the outfielders.

"If you look at spray charts, most balls are hit in front of the outfielders as opposed to behind the outfielders,'' he said, "so we're trying to take some of those away."

Thomson said Granderson is playing, on average, 10 to 15 feet shallower than he did last season, though game situations and the batter, of course, also can dictate positioning.

In the late innings of Tuesday's 5-4 loss, the Yankees were at a "no-doubles" depth, Granderson said, which is the case in most tight games.

"There's going to be times where we have to back him up, depending on the situation, depending on the weather," Thomson said. "If the wind's really blowing out, we have to obviously back him up because those bloop hits are going to go another 10 feet further."

Granderson said the message from Thomson and Mazzilli was simple.

"That's the main thing: Just trusting that you can get back there. If you get the right read and you're placed right, you still have a good chance of getting it," Granderson said. "And if it gets over your head, it's not always your fault . . . That was one of the things that Mazzilli told me that stood out. You can't catch everything. It's always taken me a little bit of time to understand that and be OK with that. Just to be OK with the fact that you can't catch everything."

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