Play today, win today

Yankees' mantra is working wonders
07/22/2009 11:15 PM ET
By Jon Lane /

Nick Swisher credits the Yankees' series against Anaheim with putting a fire under the Bombers. (AP)
NEW YORK — Perceptions are fickle in this town, where one can drop from hero to zero at the speed of light or skyrocket back to flavor of the minute.

Perhaps the Yankees were tired of hearing it. More than a parent is forced to change a toddler's clothes, the prognosis of these Yankees ranged from serious championship contenders to a desperate attempt to re-capture lost glory. Take the two weeks before the All-Star break. The Yankees were on a 7-2 run when they boarded a plane to Southern California and their house of horrors, Angel Field. They scattered in different directions for R&R reeling from a three-game sweep and more questions on if they're in the same league as the Angels — or for that matter the dreaded Red Sox.

"We had a rough time in Anaheim and everybody thinks you're the worst team in baseball," said Nick Swisher. "I think that really put a fire in us and I really think we're taking our emotions out on the field."

Swisher's game was a microcosm of how emotions are measured in the big city. He started the third inning by pulling a Luis Castillo, dropping Brian Roberts' routine fly ball to right. He ended it by mirroring Willie Mays, tracking down Ty Wigginton's liner and stealing a double that would have put the Orioles back in the game. The fact that the Yankees blasted rookie Jason Berken for four runs on six hits in the first was enough of a spark that led to a 6-4 win and a three-game sweep that buffed their AL East lead, which grew to two games after the Red Sox were swept in Texas.

New York is 19-5 in its last 24 games and are 20 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2007 season. That championship vibe has returned along with a certain mojo that didn't exist during the later years of the Joe Torre Era. Post-championship Yankees teams have always wanted it. This year, more and more players have gone out and taken it.

"It has been very professional the way these guys have went about their business," said Joe Girardi. "Every game you expect to win, and when you don't win you're upset and shocked. I sense this about this club."

Indeed, the numbers are glossy: 26-9 since Alex Rodriguez returned from hip surgery and 32-16 at Yankee Stadium. All that is great until you realize the Yankees have fattened up on junk food. They've bullied patsies like the Orioles (9-3 this season), but there's that track record against the Angels since 2002 and the brutal truth that aggravates you to no end if you're a Yankees fan.

They're 0-8 against the Red Sox and 5-15 against the four teams in first place at the break: Boston, Detroit, the Angels and Philadelphia. Life may be grand now, but next week presents the Yankees' first litmus test when they travel to St. Petersburg for three games against the Rays. After dates at Chicago and Toronto, they return home for four games against their buddies from Boston.

In case you didn't notice, Hal Steinbrenner was in the house on Monday and not just to announce Notre Dame football at Yankee Stadium in 2010. He showed up at a time his team was playing exceptionally well — and also to remind Girardi what's at stake. That starts with standing up to opponents your size, but reaching a benchmark has provided confidence that things will be different when the games really start to matter.

"We need to continue to grind out these games," Girardi said. "We're going to have some tough road trips and homestands, and we need to win every game. To get to 20 [games over .500] after what we went through in Anaheim, I'm very happy."

Girardi was happy with A.J. Burnett too. The right-hander recorded his team-high ninth win by allowing two runs on six hits with six strikeouts in seven strong innings and is 7-2 with a 2.31 ERA over his last 10 starts while holding opponents to three earned runs or less. Burnett has historically turned it on in the second half, but will soon face the Red Sox carrying a 0-1, 12.91 ledger in two starts against them, the first when he blew a 6-0 lead at Fenway April 25. A big reason the Yankees signed him was his 2-0 record and a 2.60 ERA in four starts versus Boston last year.

When asked why it'll be different come August, Burnett whipped out one of sports' oldest clichés, albeit with a different spin.

"We're going one game at a time right now," Burnett said. "That's the big difference as opposed to looking ahead and worrying about who's coming into town or where we're going. It's just one at a time."

Besides those 10 games left with Boston, there are 10 more against the Rays along with 17 against three Wild Card contenders: the Mariners, White Sox and Rangers. In fact, the Yankees' final 68 games feature only 30 against teams with losing records, a stretch that will define their merit as a contender. Mariano Rivera — 28 saves in 29 chances — knows what's ahead. He's experienced enough to recall advice from Mariano Duncan sound enough to help win a World Series in 1996.

We play today. We win today.

To date, those words have been contagious. They're not worrying about Boston now, but they soon will. That's when we'll learn the true fabric of this team.

"We don't have to think about it," Rivera said. "We just have to play the game. It's not anything I have to worry about. We just play today and tomorrow, and see what happens."

Jon Lane can be reached at comments