Saturday, May 30, 2009

Yankees Back Where They Belong

It's been two long years, but the Yankees are finally back in a familiar spot: atop the AL East.

But it may have come at a price.

Andy Pettitte pitched five scoreless innings, but left in the sixth with a stiff lower back, replaced by Alfredo Aceves, who pitched three strong innings in relief to lead the Yankees to a 3-1 victory over the Indians in Cleveland Thursday to take a half-game lead over the second-place Red Sox, a 6-3 loser to the Blue Jays.

The Yankees (28-20) have won 13 of their last 16, while the Sox are 15-15 since their 11-game winning streak in April.

The last time the Yankees held first was the end of the 2006 season. And for the younger generation of Yankee fans, that must have felt like an eternity. Now the challenge is to continue this stretch of solid play to build a lead and put some pressure on the Sox.

And offensively the Yankees have nearly all their pieces back to do that. Jorge Posada was activated from the DL before the game and Kevin Cash sent down to Scranton. For the first time since June 22, 2008, Joe Girardi had Posada, Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui together in the same lineup.

Think about that. Those are three, high-quality, 100-RBI producers who have not been in the lineup together all season until Thursday, and yet, the Yankees this season find themselves back in first.

That firepower was simply too much for defending AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee to handle. He was able to escape a bases-load one-out jam in the first by striking out Robinson Cano and Posada, but he could not avoid damage in the second and third.

With one out in the second, Nick Swisher walked and Brett Gardner singled to put runners on first and third. Derek Jeter drove in one with a single, and after Johnny Damon singled to load the bases, Mark Teixeira's topper to first drove in another run. A-Rod struck out to end the threat.

The Yankees tacked on another run in the third on Swisher's sacrifice fly. The Yankees could have had much more, going 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position and stranding 10, but the three runs were enough on this night.

Lee allowed nine hits and two walks, throwing 71 of 112 pitches for strikes in just six innings. He struck out five, but the Yankees forced deep counts and made him work all night.

Pettitte (5-1), meanwhile, flirted with trouble all night, allowing runners in every inning, but maintained his composure and made the big pitches. He allowed one run on six hits and five walks in 5+ innings, striking out one. He threw 45 of 84 pitches for strikes, but wasn't quite right.

In the fifth, Girardi and assistant trainer Steve Donahue went to the mound, but Pettitte stayed in. They returned in the sixth, but this time Pettitte returned to the dugout with them.

Mark DeRosa led off with a single and Ben Francisco walked. Pettitte then fell behind Jamey Carroll 2-and-0 and couldn't go any further.

Aceves came in and finished the walk to load the bases with no outs, but struck out Kelly Shoppach on a nasty curve, got Shin-Soo Choo to hit a sacrifice fly to left and got Asdrubal Cabrera to ground to short to escape the jam.

Ace is reminding many of Ramiro Mendoza. He is versatile, able to start, pitch long relief or get big outs in big spots late in the game. He is becoming an invaluable part of this suspect bullpen and is quickly earning the a lot of trust.

Would it surprise anyone if he were to become the eighth-inning guy during Brian Bruney's absence?

He breezed through the seventh and eighth, allowing just a single to Francisco in the eighth, before handing the ball to Mariano Rivera for his 10 save of the season.

But now there is concern about Pettitte. Backs are tricky. Sometimes they'll loosen up quickly. Sometimes it will take longer.

The Yankees, however, have a luxury few teams have: six capable starters. If treatment loosens up Pettitte's back over the next couple of days, there is no issue -- Pettitte starts.

But if there is even the slightest hint that Pettitte isn't 100 percent, there is no need to force him out there and risk a bad start. Chien-Ming Wang is eager to get back in the rotation and can be lined up to take the ball.

Pettitte is a gamer and wouldn't want to be skipped, but it's a long season and the Yankees have options right now. Just don't do anything stupid here.

But that's the only real down note from this game.

The Yankees have overtaken the Red Sox and reclaimed their rightful throne. And that's plenty reason to feel good.

Runners In Scoring Position
2-for-12 (.167)
120-for-437 (.275)

Up Next
Saturday at Indians, 7:05 p.m., YES
CC Sabathia (4-3, 3.42 ERA) vs. Fausto Carmona (2-4, 6.42)

CC has been a stud over his last four starts and would love to make it five against his former team. Since May 8, Sabathia has allowed six runs in 32 innings (1.69 ERA).

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