Injury-riddled Yankees an early-season surprise
On Tuesday night, the Yankees handed Tampa Bay's winless David Price his second loss of the young season. They did it with a spirited two-run ninth-inning rally against Price, the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner, and relief ace Fernando Rodney, last year's AL Comeback Player of the Year.
On Wednesday night, with Rodney again on the mound in the ninth and runners on second and third, and trailing, 3-0, the Yanks were poised for more magic, but went down without a whimper. The Rays and young Alex Cobb won, 3-0.
There was no Alex Rodriguez or Curtis Granderson or Derek Jeter or Mark Teixeira around to drive in the runs. They're on the disabled list, their return not in sight. And for this series at Tropicana Field -- the Rays won two of three -- Kevin Youkilis was on the shelf with an aching lower back. He remained out Thursday.
Aside from a few familiar faces, Yankees manager Joe Girardi has been coping with his injury-riddled roster and sending out to battle an assortment of, well, Major League retreads -- the likes of Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay, Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch, et al.
And that's where the negatives end.
Yes, the defending AL East champs flew back to New York late Wednesday night having lost twice to the Rays, who after a depressing 2-7 road trip jetted off to Chicago after winning five of six against the Athletics and Yanks at the Trop.
Even with the two losses, the Yankees are playing better than anyone expected. They were to open a 10-game homestand Thursday night against Toronto at Yankee Stadium, resting in third place, just 2 1/2 games behind first-place Boston. They should have been buried by now.
The Yanks are 10-5 over their last 15 games, tied with the Red Sox for the best record in the AL over that stretch.
When they left Spring Training, last rites were being written about the Yankees as a contender in the tough AL East. Instead, Girardi's makeshift lineup has been one of the season's biggest surprises.
It's downright amazing, considering the high-priced talent that has yet to play a 2013 game.
The five players on the DL have salaries totaling $84,382,840. Add Youkilis' $12 million and the number is $96,382,840.
Consider: Rodriguez ($29 million), Teixeira ($23.125 million), Jeter ($16,729,365) and Granderson ($15 million). That's a huge hunk of their MLB-leading $230 million payroll.
"They've pieced it together pretty nicely, the guys they've brought in," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "I'm a big Ben Francisco fan. Vernon Wells has gotten off to a good start for them, Travis Hafner has shown well. Their catching is better -- a lot better -- than they've been given credit for.
"Overall, this team, the lineup, is much better than it's been given credit for. Their starting pitching is strong and I like their bullpen."
With the underwhelming lineup trailing, 3-2, on Tuesday night, the manner in which New York came from behind in the ninth inning was a confidence builder.
"It always gives you confidence when you're behind in a game [and rally to win]," said Girardi. "It builds character and they're good wins, hard-fought wins. It's good for the spirit of a club.
"When you look at the two guys we beat [Price and Rodney], they don't make a lot of mistakes."
The Yankees battled back for a run against Price in the eighth and then scored those two runs in the ninth on Ichiro Suzuki's single.
"It's the same thing if we play Toronto or Boston, it seems like," said center fielder Brett Gardner. "Every night we're facing one of the best."
On Wednesday night, Andy Pettitte's strong outing was wasted mostly because he was outpitched by Cobb and Rodney. For the veteran Pettitte, now 3-1, it was the first time this season he did not make it through seven innings.
"We had a chance," said Girardi. "That's what you want to have when you're losing games -- an opportunity to win it. Our guys put good at-bats on Rodney, but he's been outstanding. We got him Tuesday night, but weren't able to get him this time."
In the ninth inning on Wednesday, with runners on first and second, one out, All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, who entered the game batting .342 with six homers and 14 RBIs, grounded out.
Cano was New York's best long-ball chance, but Rodney then got Hafner to pop out and it was over.
"There's just not anything you can say about it," Cano said. "They beat us tonight."
The retooled Blue Jays, picked by many to win the division, are off to a dreadful start as they head to the Bronx. They're in last place with a 9-13 record. After that, the lowly Astros make their first appearance in Yankee Stadium as an AL team, followed by Oakland.
For the Yanks, even though it's early, this is an important homestand.
They're obviously a band of overachievers at this point, but before they hit the road again on May 7, the Yankees have a chance to prove their surprising start is legitimate.
Or as Maddon said, they maybe aren't getting the credit they deserve.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.