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July 8, 2011

On the Beat

Pinstriped Recuperation

by John Perrotto

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It would make for a good story if the Yankees said the embarrassment of being swept at home by the hated Red Sox is what has sparked them to have their best stretch of the season. Unfortunately for those who like a good yarn, the Yankees won't play along.

The Yankees fell out of first place when the Red Sox took three games at Yankee Stadium from June 7-9, getting outscored 25-13. The naysayers said it was the beginning of the end for the Yankees. They looked old and tired and were in the midst of a controversy concerning veteran designated hitter Jorge Posada, who removed himself from the lineup in the middle game of the series after manager Joe Girardi dropped him to ninth in the batting order.

Yet the Bombers' obituary hasn't been written yet, and the burial plot remains empty. The Yankees have looked anything but dead since the sweep: despite losing their last three games, they have won 18 of 26 and stayed neck-and-neck at the top of the American League East standings with the Red Sox, who lead by half a game after using the sweep to help propel themselves to 21 wins in 32 games.

"It's funny how things change, huh?," Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher said earlier this week with a smile. "But that sweep really didn't have anything to do with the way we've been playing the last month. We knew we had a good team before we played the Red Sox, and we still knew we had a good team after getting swept by them."

Girardi also gave a relatively pedestrian answer as to why the Yankees didn't fall apart after their lowest moment of the season.

"The starting pitching has been outstanding, but we've really just been playing very good baseball for the past month in all phases," Girardi said. "We've gotten great starting pitching and the bullpen has been good, the defense has been good, and we've been hitting the ball well."

The Yankees have allowed just 3.1 runs and 8.0 hits a game during their hot streak, while striking out 7.4 and walking 2.9. Meanwhile, they have averaged 5.7 runs a game with a slash line of .278/.357/.464.

Though the Red Sox were installed as the favorites to win the AL pennant by most oddsmakers at the start of the season, it certainly isn't a surprise that the Yankees are right there with them. After all, the Yankees have a star-studded roster and a $206 million payroll that is the largest in the game. They have also been to the postseason 15 times in the last 16 seasons.

Swisher believes all of those factors are part of the reason why the Yankees have been winning and never bought into the feeling of doom that swept through the New York talk shows and tabloids following the sweep.

"We have so many veterans on this team, guys who have been through the wars for so many years, that we never got to the extremes," Swisher said. "We never get too excited when we're playing well or too down when we're struggling. The people outside the locker room might think we're going to extremes, but it's a great thing to have your own little world inside the clubhouse where you block out the expectations of those on the outside."

Starting pitching was the Yankees' biggest concern at the start of the season, as they were hoping that retreads Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia could channel their former famous selves to prop up the back end of the rotation and A.J. Burnett would pitch more like a No. 2 starter than the No. 5 he resembled in 2010.

Colon has been fantastic in his return to the major leagues after sitting out last season, as he has a 3.21 SIERA and a 3.74 Fair Run Average in 84 1/3 innings. Meanwhile, Burnett (4.25, 4.76) and Garcia (4.61, 4.25) have pitched well enough to support ace CC Sabathia (3.53, 3.41) and help the Yankees survive the loss of No. 2 starter Phil Hughes, who returned to the rotation Wednesday night after missing almost three months with shoulder inflammation.

"It always starts with the pitching, especially the starters," Girardi said. "We've had a lot of guys step up in the rotation, and that's been a big plus for us."

Closer Mariano Rivera (3.19, 2.94) has been his usual All-Star self, and David Robertson (2.64, 0.35) has stepped into the breach as the primary set-up man, important now that Joba Chamberlain is out for the season following Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery and Rafael Soriano and Jose Feliciano are out indefinitely with arm injuries. Robertson's FRA is easily the best among major-league pitchers with at least 30 innings, far ahead of the Phillies' Ryan Madson, who is second with a 2.21 mark.

The Yankees' offense, not surprisingly, tops the major leagues in runs scored with 5.3 a game. Center fielder Curtis Granderson has been the best hitter, with 25 home runs and a .332 True Average in what is shaping up as a career year, while first baseman Mark Teixeira (.310), second baseman Robinson Cano (.304), third baseman Alex Rodriguez (.304), and Swisher (.299) are all having fine seasons.

However, the offense has taken its production to another level in recent weeks, and Granderson is having an MVP-type season. His 3.7 WARP is fourth in the AL, behind only the 6.5 of Blue Jays third baseman Jose Bautista and two Red Sox with 3.9, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Granderon's 20.8 percent HR/FB ratio is the best of his career. His career high for homers is 30 in 1999 and for WARP is 6.2 in 2007, both accomplished while playing with the Tigers.

"It's not like I’m hitting towering or mammoth home runs," Granderson said of his power surge. "I'm just trying to hit the ball hard, and more of them are going over the fence."

Granderson has been consistently good all season, and now the rest of his teammates have caught up.

"I think every team finds its stride at different times," Swisher said. "For us, it's been a major stride because of the relatively short time in which it has happened. It all branches back, though, to where we have everybody doing what they need to be doing now. There were a couple of guys struggling early, especially myself and Jorgie (Posada). We started doing better, and everybody started jelling together. It's really been a group effort."

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Rumors and Rumblings

Much of the speculation about the Phillies has them trying to acquire a right-handed-hitting outfielder before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, but they may instead opt to deal for bullpen depth, as only two of the seven relievers on their active roster—Antonio Bastardo and Danys Baez—have spent the entire season in the major leagues… The Mets' chances of trading shortstop Jose Reyes before the deadline diminished greatly Thursday with the news that he will likely be out until late in the month with a strained hamstring, but they are showing a willingness to deal right fielder Carlos Beltran… The Indians and Pirates, both surprise contenders, have been given the go-ahead to add payroll via trade. The Indians are looking for a right fielder and the Pirates for a catcher and a first baseman or right fielder. Both clubs have made it clear, though, that they will not surrender their top prospects for rental players… The Mariners are more than willing to trade infielders Chone Figgins and Jack Wilson, who have basically been rendered nonentities with the emergence of rookies Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager… The Dodgers are in a holding pattern while Major League Baseball is in control of the franchise, meaning that their plans to try to trade right-hander Hiroki Kuroda and infielder Jamey Carroll may be fruitless… The Royals are willing to listen on left-hander Bruce Chen and infielders Mike Aviles and Wilson Betemit.

The Athletics are on the fence about whether to be sellers at the deadline, but they would have plenty of attractive pieces to offer, including relievers Grant Balfour, Brian Fuentes, and Michael Wuertz, and outfielders Coco Crisp and David DeJesus. Word is they might even part with closer Andrew Bailey in the right deal… Mike Cameron, acquired from the Red Sox on Tuesday, is expected to split time in center field for the Marlins with Bryan Petersen… The Orioles plan to use the All-Star break to give rookie left-hander Zach Britton nine days off between starts. They are hoping to limit him to 175 innings this season, and he already has pitched 103… One opposing National League player wonders if winning the World Series last year has gone to the Giants' heads: "They showboat more than any team in the league now. It seems like every one of their players has a celebration ritual for everything. It's like playing an NFL team."… Nationals manager Davey Johnson relied on sabermetrics before the concept was cool, so he understandably doesn’t like one-run strategies. However, his belief system has been challenged by the Nationals' weak offense: "I'm having to open up a new playbook, and it's not what I like."… Look for MLB to hold a summit meeting in the offseason in an effort to improve the continuing deterioration of relations between the umpires and uniformed personnel.

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Scouts' views

Brewers shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt: "If the Brewers are serious about trying to get to the postseason, then they are going to have to upgrade at shortstop. This guy is just brutal in the field, especially going to his right. He tries to go to one knee and backhand the ball and everything gets by him. You don't win with him at shortstop."

Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos: "He's one of the best defensive center fielders I've ever seen. He runs down everything from gap-to-gap, comes in on the ball well, and isn't scared of crashing into the wall. He's so good that he can hit .230 and you'll still find a place for him in your lineup. He has multiple Gold Gloves in his future."

Indians right-hander Josh Tomlin: "He's one of those pitchers where if you went strictly by his physical appearance and the quality of his pitches then you'd say he's not a major-league caliber guy. Then you watch him pitch, and you understand why he's so successful. He throws four pitches for strikes and puts them in spots that are tough for the hitters to do anything with them. He's a surgeon, kind of like a poor man's Greg Maddux."

Tigers right-hander Justin Verlander: "I know (pitching coach) Rick Knapp just took the fall in Detroit, but he worked wonders with Verlander. Before Knapp got there, Verlander just threw as hard as he could. Now, Verlander still throws 100 mph, but he's a pitcher. He doesn’t just overpower hitters, but he carves them up with his slider and changeup. He's real close to surpassing Roy Halladay as the best pitcher in baseball."

Athletics second baseman Jemile Weeks: "What really stands out to me is that he looks like a guy who has been in the major leagues for 10 years instead of one month. He has really good instincts and handles himself like a veteran. Plus, he's got talent."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Yankees,  The Who,  Curtis Granderon

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