Yankees midseason awardsCano, starting pitching lift Yankees into first place
Considering the potentially crushing injuries to Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Michael Pineda (before he threw a pitch in pinstripes) and Brett Gardner – the hot sparkplug that makes the offense go – what the Yankees accomplished in the first half is pretty darn good. They take a five-game division lead into a four-game set this weekend at Fenway Park to face a 42-40 Red Sox team tied for last place, 7 ½ games behind their archrivals.
Think about it: The Yankees live and die by the home run. Their situational hitting (.229 RISP, .188 with the bases loaded) has been a season-long issue. Their starting catcher is batting .178. Their No. 3 hitter against right-handers (cleanup versus lefties) has only 13 home runs, 36 RBIs and a .356 on-base percentage.
The Yankees have not only survived, they’ve thrived. They went 20-7 in June – including a 10-game winning streak – and were sparked by a starting rotation that 15-4 with a 2.62 ERA. The bullpen is a source of strength with hopes of it getting even better. And even when they were a .500 team in mid-May, they overcame the adversity, and it wasn’t the first time. The Yankees seem to start slowly nearly every season, but under cries of the group being old or approaching the end of the line, they find their groove and heat up with the summer weather.
“I don’t worry about this group because I know this group is mature and they know how to handle things,” said manager Joe Girardi after Wednesday’s 4-3 win over the Rays that avoided a three-game sweep. “But it’s nice to get a win, especially before a day off and (after) the long stretch that we had. We had 13 days in a row, and we played some pretty good teams, so it’s good to get a win.”
While some have struggled, others have stepped up to produce above and beyond expectations to move the Yankees within a half-game of the Rangers for baseball’s best record entering the weekend.
MVP: Robinson Cano
Cano was a tremendous machine in June (.340, 11 HR) and hasn’t stopped in July. He leads all second basemen with 20 homers and a .588 slugging percentage. Last week in earning AL Player of the Week honors Cano batted .414 with four homers, 10 RBIs and five runs scored for the period ending July 1. Cano, one of three Yankees starting for the AL All-Star team, blasted 11 home runs last month, the most in his career for any calendar month according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Cano’s Achilles’ heel has been hitting with the bases loaded (1-for-13, 1 HR), but you can say the same for many of the Yankees. In a season where the middle of the order hasn’t put up serious numbers, Cano has been the heart of the offense. And the scary thought is that his best may still come.
Honorable mention: Soriano
The Yankees’ greatest fear, replacing the greatest closer of all time, was realized when Rivera tore his ACL fielding fly balls in batting practice on May 3. David Robertson got the first call, but once he landed on the DL Soriano stabilized the bullpen’s back end. The right-hander is 19-for-20 in save opportunities, two seasons removed from saving 45 games for the Rays, and is one of four AL Pitchers to throw at least 20 innings without allowing a home run.
Best pitcher: Hiroki Kuroda
“Hiro” went 2-3 with a 4.25 ERA in May, when there were thoughts that the veteran right-hander wasn’t fit to handle life in the AL East. Whether or not he heard the criticism, Kuroda said enough is enough in June to go 4-1, 1.98 with two seven-inning shutouts. In his last seven starts he’s 5-1, 0.77. He’s been the stopper with CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte disabled, and is the ideal guy to ride shotgun with Sabathia once the Big Lefty is back.
Honorable mentions: Phil Hughes (5-1 with a 2.59 ERA in his last six starts; perhaps the boy-to-man maturation is finally complete). Pettitte (ended a one-year retirement to go 3-3 with a 3.22 ERA before bad luck hit him in the form of Casey Kotchman’s line drive that will have him out until perhaps September).
Biggest surprise: Dewayne Wise
Called up for depth to try and ease Gardner’s absence, Wise, a career .222 hitter, batted .545 with two homers and three RBIs over his last seven games. He’s appeared in all 11 of the Yankees’ games since June 23 (five starts), but may still be fighting to keep his roster spot. Darnell McDonald was picked up off waivers and will play against the Red Sox. Then there’s a matter of who’s out if and when Gardner is 100 percent.
Honorable mentions: Pettitte (looked better than he did in 2010, his last full season). Eric Chavez (has stayed healthy and been productive as a third baseman/DH). Jayson Nix (has done a little of everything since replacing Eduardo Nunez as the Yankees’ utility infielder).
Unsung hero: Cody Eppley
Claimed off waivers at the end of Spring Training, Eppley has a 2.53 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 26 appearances. He stranded a runner at third base with two strikeouts in relief of Clay Rapada Wednesday afternoon and is moving up Girardi’s pecking order.
Turning point: A good-will visit to St. Lucy’s
On May 21 the Yankees were 21-21 after a 6-0 loss to the Royals. The next day players visited St. Lucy's Catholic School to help kids cope with tragedy. They are 28-11 since.
Biggest win: 5-4 victory over the Mets June 10 at Yankee Stadium
Down 3-0 in the eighth inning, the Yankees rallied to take a 4-3 lead and place it into Soriano’s capable arm. Soriano, however, blew his first game since replacing Rivera by giving up a game-tying double to Ike Davis. Once Nix helped Soriano escape by nailing a runner at third off Omar Quintanilla’s ground ball, Martin won it with a home run to lead off the ninth.
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC