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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees hitting their stride at just the right time

Alex Rodriguez and John Ryan Murphy walk off

Alex Rodriguez and John Ryan Murphy walk off the field after the Yankees beat the Orioles, 9-3, at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, July 23, 2015. Credit: Errol Anderson

Before putting the Orioles to bed for 2015 -- and yes, Baltimore can now forget defending its AL East crown -- the Yankees had only one anxious moment in Thursday's breezy 9-3 victory at the Stadium.

It came during the first inning, and we're not talking about Chase Headley's two-out, bases-clearing double. A momentum-changing hit, for sure, but the part that had the Yankees holding their breath was watching Alex Rodriguez chugging along at the rear of that pinstriped train.

A-Rod was trying to score from first base, and as he approached the plate -- the baseball tailing behind him -- the entire building wondered if Rodriguez would be intact for his 40th birthday this coming Monday. Fortunately the throw was off-line, but that didn't stop A-Rod from an awkward lunge that turned into a comical barrel roll across the dirt.

Rodriguez survived, even walking back to touch the plate again, just to double-check. And the Yankees could enjoy the 3-0 lead, which soon became 5-1 on Jacoby Ellsbury's homer in the second inning, 7-1 on his sacrifice fly in the third and 9-1 on his two-run double in the fifth.

And that was that. On a perfect, sun-splashed July afternoon, the Orioles looked as if they'd rather be eating gelato on the High Line than fighting tooth and nail to avoid a sweep in the Bronx. Masahiro Tanaka's splitter probably had something to do with the O's disinterest, but the Yankees abused Ubaldo Jimenez in knocking Baltimore to seven games back.

"I think we're very confident in ourselves," Headley said. "We expect to win each and every game. And when we play the way we're capable of, we think we an do that."

With Ellsbury, Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltran back, we're beginning to agree with Headley. The Yankees are 27-16 since the start of June, 10-3 in their last 13 home games and 21-7 in the Bronx since May 25. They are 12 games over .500 for the first time in more than two years.

There's no reason to expect it to stop, either. The Yankees blew away the O's with almost zero contribution (0-for-7, 2 walks) from bash brothers Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira -- unless you count comic relief. A large portion of the heavy lifting was done by the bottom half of the order, with Headley, Didi Gregorius, John Ryan Murphy and Stephen Drew going a combined 9-for-16 with five RBIs and five runs scored.

That's almost spooky. We still see Drew as a placeholder until Rob Refsnyder makes it past next Friday's trade deadline, and Murphy was just giving Brian McCann a breather. But Gregorius is trending upward lately, now hitting .241, and maybe the Yankees can start to expect more of an offensive boost from Headley in the second half. Heck, even Brendan Ryan had a game-winning double Tuesday to kick off the sweep.

"I think since spring training, since Day 1 in April, I feel like we really believed in what we're capable of," said Brett Gardner, whose only misstep so far this season was wearing white cleats with gold trim. "And a trust that, if I don't get it done, the next guy's going to get it done behind me. I feel like we're in a really good spot."

Can't do much better than first place.

If anyone in the AL East has designs on catching the Yankees, they'll need to get busy before the deadline because this division, as currently composed, is not talented enough to do it. Also, the Yankees play 35 of their remaining 68 games in the Bronx, where they have 76 homers, a major-league leading rate of 1.62 per home game. They also average 5.36 runs at the Stadium, the second-highest home total in baseball.

The Yankees have come a long way since that opening homestand in April, when they began 1-4 and people couldn't shovel dirt on them fast enough -- us included. The forearm injury to Tanaka back then was supposed to be the critical blow, the one thing they couldn't afford.

But Tanaka appears fine, the roster is healthy, and the Yankees are hitting their stride at the right time. They just need A-Rod to be a little more careful with those slides.

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