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SportsColumnistsJim Baumbach

Baumbach: Health is the biggest key for these Yankees

Yankees manager Joe Girardi returns to the dugout

Yankees manager Joe Girardi returns to the dugout after taking out pitcher Phil Hughes in the 6th inning against the Seattle Mariners. (June 29, 2010) Photo Credit: John Dunn

Marcus Thames' walk-off bloop single followed by the pie in his face brought a thoroughly upbeat end to both the Yankees' holiday afternoon as well as the first half of their schedule.

With a 7-6, 10-inning victory over the Blue Jays, the Yankees reached their official halfway point exactly halfway to 100 wins, a number that almost certainly would give them another postseason berth.

The way the standings sit Monday, the American League East is setting up as if it might stage one of the best pennant races in years. The Red Sox trail the Yankees by 11/2 games and the Rays sit two back.

But with this Yankees team, don't you continue to get the sense that their greatest nemesis is not the tough competition within the division but rather the baseball mortality of their best players?

Watching Jorge Posada suffer yet another injury, this time a sprained left ring finger on a foul tip, it once again drills home that all it takes is a freakish swoon of injuries to ruin a promising season.

The Yankees know they dodged one yesterday, as Posada easily could have broken the finger instead of spraining it. And isn't this close call indicative of how well this first half has gone for this team? Although they've had their injury issues, they've made it through 81 games relatively unscathed as far as the most valuable veteran players are concerned.

Posada has spent time on the disabled list, but that's it in terms of the top veterans. With their aging roster, their health figures to play as much a role as their play on the field in determining whether they reach the postseason.

Manager Joe Girardi believes his team can play better than it has. "Our starting pitching has been really influential in our record," he said. "I think we can pitch better in the bullpen and I think we can hit more."

At the same time, no one is saying the Yankees won't make the playoffs because Joba Chamberlain has been inconsistent or Curtis Granderson is hitting .226. These still are small issues in the big picture.

Yet if a Yankees fan were to voice some trepidation about whether the team's veterans will remain healthy through the remainder of the season, well, it's hard to argue with reality. Mariano Rivera is 40, Posada nearly 39, Andy Pettitte 38, Derek Jeter 36 and Alex Rodriguez nearly 35.

And that's where Girardi's cautious tendencies come into play. In his three years as Yankees manager, he's proven he has a keen understanding that managing the health of his veterans and seeing the big picture can be at least as important as managing a given game. That makes him a perfect leader for this team's needs right now.

The latest example came in the form of Jeter appearing on yesterday's lineup card as the designated hitter to give him a half-day off. A small example, for sure, but on a day in which the game-time temperature was 93 degrees, these are the decisions that presumably will save an aging player over the long haul.

On their way to the victory, the Yankees saw three of their runners get thrown out at the plate on drives to the outfield, Phil Hughes give up three home runs, Rivera blow a save and Posada suffer yet another injury. This wasn't your typical winning blueprint, to say the least.

But when the day was over and they headed for the West Coast, they did so victorious and still intact from a health standpoint. So in the big picture, this goes down as a very good day and a very good first half.

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