Newsday targeted five "Florida Keys" for the Yankees at the start of spring training, with the first and foremost being manager Joe Girardi's decision about the fifth starter. Needless to say, he made the right call.
The Yankees have the best record in baseball (56-32) at the All-Star break and hold a two-game lead over the Rays, who will visit Yankee Stadium for a three-game series beginning Friday. A look at those "Keys" from spring training, what they've meant to the season's first half and what they could mean for the second half:
Taking the fifth Phil Hughes, 24, winner of the competition for the role of fifth starter, is an All-Star, having gone 11-2 with a 3.65 ERA.
The assumption was that the loser of that competition - either Hughes or Joba Chamberlain - automatically would fall into the eighth-inning role and succeed, as Hughes did last season.
But Chamberlain's ERA rose to 5.79 after he allowed a grand slam in Saturday night's 4-1 loss to Seattle, consistent with his odd season. In five of his appearances, he has allowed 17 earned runs in a total of three innings. In his other 34 appearances, he has allowed seven earned runs in 341/3 innings. With the exception of Mariano Rivera - having another brilliant season, though with some nagging injuries that must be managed - the bullpen is this team's most significant second-half question mark.
Outfield shuffleAfter Curtis Granderson was acquired, Girardi asked him if he would consider a switch to leftfield from center, but from the start of spring training, it was pretty obvious that Granderson would be in center and Brett Gardner in left. Gardner has been a revelation, hitting .309 and leading the regulars in on-base percentage (.396) after doing virtually nothing in spring training (a .200 average with a .286 OBP). He also has stolen 25 bases in 31 tries. The established player, Granderson, is the one who has been a disappointment.
Now batting . . . As spring training began, Girardi said the two uncertain spots in the order were the Nos. 2 and 5 positions. They were awarded to Nick Johnson and Robinson Cano. Some thought Cano might press hitting fifth but all he's done is develop into an MVP candidate (recent slump aside), batting .336 with 16 homers and 58 RBIs and hitting .340 with runners in scoring position. Cano, who didn't win the Gold Glove last year, has to be considered the leader for it now. Johnson, meanwhile, has been what he's been in his career, meaning "injured.'' He suffered a setback in his rehab from May wrist surgery last week and the Yankees aren't counting on his return. It's a shame - he was hitting .167 but still managed a .388 OBP.
Welcome back, JavierCould Javier Vazquez win over Yankees fans still holding a grudge from 2004? They were vocal with their lack of patience when Vazquez started miserably - 1-3 with a 9.78 ERA after allowing five runs, seven hits and four walks in three innings in a no-decision May 1 - but he's been among the Yankees' best starters since, going 6-4 with a 2.75 ERA and allowing 46 hits in 72 innings for a .183 opponents' batting average. He was outpitching Felix Hernandez 1-0 through seven before Chamberlain's implosion Saturday.
Staying hungryThere's always talk about a "championship hangover," but that hasn't been a problem with this team, demonstrated by a 21-8 start and 30-14 finish, including 10-3 in two recent western trips.
Said Girardi: "The guys didn't start their break early."
If the Yankees don't win their 28th world championship, it won't be because of a post-title hangover.
Had the Cliff Lee deal gone through - Yankees brass is still steaming that it didn't - it would have been difficult to see how this team wouldn't win a second straight World Series. Still, barring an injury to a rotation that, in Mark Teixeira's words, "has carried us" - CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Hughes are 34-7 - or an injury to one of the key everyday regulars, they're still the prohibitive favorite. Scary thought for the rest of baseball: The offense hasn't clicked on any kind of consistent basis.