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Five Yankees to watch in the second half

07/12/2012 11:40 AM ET
By Jon Lane

Despite a 10-3 record, Ivan Nova is "not satisfied with what I’m doing."(AP)
What, the Yankees worry?

Virtually every spring, loyal fans grow exasperated over the early-season performance of their beloved Bronx Bombers. This year was no different when after a 6-0 loss to the Royals on May 21 the Yankees were residents of the American League basement.

They said this team is too old, too slow and far from adept at the fundamentals. They complained that team hits too many darn home runs and just can’t get the job done with runners in scoring position. They griped that “our” pitching stinks, star players get designated for assignment off one bad game and “we” should have never traded away Jesus Montero. And on and on and on ….

“They” talk a lot, and that echoes another season the Yankees didn’t immediately get on track. That was 2009 and there’s no need to remind you how that campaign reached its climax on November 4 at Yankee Stadium. Winning the World Series every year is the expectation in Yankeeland, but that doesn’t make it a guarantee. What’s tried-and-true is that old one-game-at-a-time philosophy, and in the throes of a long season the Yankees abide by it – and they’re good at it. Highlighted by a 10-game winning streak from June 8-18 that led to a 20-win month, New York is 31-12 since life at the bottom and owners of the best record in baseball at 52-33.

What, the Yankees worry? These guys are good at channeling their inner Alfred E. Newman.

"As you can see it's just nice and relaxed in here, man," outfielder Nick Swisher said while the Yankees were in the midst of taking three of four from the Red Sox at Fenway Park to enter the All-Star break. "It's nice. It's nice to be in that spot. We feel like we've had a great first half."

Perspective was kept despite the loss of Mariano Rivera (torn ACL), Andy Pettitte (broken fibula), CC Sabathia (briefly with a groin strain), Pineda needing labrum surgery before throwing his first official pitch and Brett Gardner’s elbow ailment that forced Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones and Dewayne Wise to play a lot more than anticipated – yet has bore surprising results. This town is a fishbowl where every nook and cranny is examined and over-scrutinized, but the men experienced in playing in New York and other large markets have been though the trials before, and they know how to handle it.

"I think it's probably all the veterans that we have," said manager Joe Girardi. "Very seldom do we send out a young player. Guys have been through it before, and they understand you're going to go through some tough times. Some days you're not going to swing the bats, but every day is a new opportunity."

It’s strange though to see a team with various components of the game on opposite sides of the pendulum own its finest record and rule its toughest division. But guys like Ibanez, Jones, Wise, Eric Chavez, Clay Rapada and Cody Eppley have all contributed --proof that you need a crop of unsung heroes to complement the superstars. General Manager Brian Cashman insists he’s staying in house in search of upgrades, but that doesn’t mean he’s not kicking any tires and being met with temptation to import Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino or Delmon Young.

“It was good,” said Ivan Nova of the first half, “but we can do more.”

The puzzle is far from complete in what remains a long journey. The Yankees right now are better than the sum of their parts – two of them a serious MVP candidate in Robinson Cano and the ageless Derek Jeter -- but five will either need to continue to get better or dramatically augment their production.

P.S. Montero is .245-8-28, and Hector Noesi ‘s 2-11 record and 5.77 ERA got him demoted to Triple-A. This trade will take years for it to be fairly evaluated in full.

Ivan Nova
All Nova does is win baseball games. His 26-7 record was third-best all time for a pitcher in his first 50 starts and since May 25 the right-hander is 6-1 and has pitched to a 1.70 ERA over his last seven starts. At 10-3, Nova leads the Yankees in wins and innings pitched (110.1) while ranking second in strikeouts (100). His run has been huge in compensating for injuries to Sabathia and Pettitte, the latter who won’t be back until September.

But like his teammates, Nova wants more, and he has the mettle to succeed.

“I’m not satisfied with what I’m doing,” Nova told the New York Post on Wednesday. “I can do more than this. I got to keep working hard. There are still mistakes I shouldn’t have and I’ve got to do better every time I get a chance.”

The Yankees need Nova to continue doing what he’s doing. The same goes for his twenty-something companion who’s also stepped up since Pettitte went down.

Phil Hughes
Hurt for much of 2011 and threatening to become a washout to open this season, Hughes has since been a revelation, arguably pitching better than his 18-win season of 2010. He finished the first half 9-7 while slicing his ERA to 4.33. In five starts since May 5, Hughes has struck out at least seven batters, with his season-high nine on June 15 in a 7-2 victory over the Nationals. That’s evidence of Hughes finally showing the ability to finish off opponents and another sign of him, like Nova, progressing from boy to man. Yet there’s still another roadblock, consistency. The Yankees will need Hughes to be stronger, and not weaker, by crunch time. In September 2010, Hughes was 1-2, 4.85 and was subsequently hit hard by the Rangers in two ALCS starts.

Nick Swisher
The affable and wholly likeable outfielder finds life in New York Swishalicious. Swisher loves being a Yankee, and the tradition and responsibilities that come with wearing the pinstripes. However, it’s far from certain that Swisher, in the final year of his contract, will be invited back for 2013 and beyond. A subject of trade rumors during the offseason, Swisher will most likely stay put for the remainder of the season given Gardner’s uncertain status. That won’t stop the Yankees, though, from exploring deals for outfield help, nor will it curb the pressure on Swisher to deliver in the second half. Swisher is one of three AL players with 20 or more homers in the last seven seasons (Paul Konerko and David Ortiz). He’s at 13 now to go with 51 RBIs and a .262 batting average. Solid, no doubt, but Swisher is playing for his future, one he prefers to be in New York.

Alex Rodriguez
A-Rod’s power numbers (13 homers, 38 RBIs) are stunningly low given the back of his baseball card, but entering the break he’s hit safely in 12 of 16 games, batting .283 with a triple, three home runs, four doubles, seven RBIs and 10 runs scored over that time. The Yankees have kept Rodriguez, who turns 37 on July 27, fresh by rotating him at third base and designated hitter, and are hoping that those 16 games are a prelude to one of his famous runs where he carries a team on his back.

Russell Martin
Martin ended a career-long 0-for-30 slide last Saturday. The next night, Girardi gave him off to help him regroup from a .179 batting average with eight homers and 21 RBIs.

“It was a tough half for Russell," Girardi said. "I gave him one extra day and I told him, come back after the break and be the player you're capable of being. Put the first half behind you."

Girardi and Cashman are standing behind Martin as their starting catcher. Besides the fact that Martin remains a hard-nosed and pitcher-friendly backstop, the Yankees have no other choice. Chris Stewart isn’t starting and cries for the dramatic return of Francisco Cervelli will go unanswered unless there’s an actual reason. Martin is a lot better that he’s shown and the best the Yankees can hope for beyond that is a healthy Austin Romine (back) to serve as an understudy for the stretch run.

Outlook
The Yankees open the second half Friday night against the Angels, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Forty-four of their remaining 77 games are against AL East teams, and their cumulative record to date against division opponents is 15-13. The Yanks will also meet their friends from Boston 12 more times and despite a 9 1/2-game hole, the Red Sox remain in the hunt for a wild card spot and are getting Jacoby Ellsbury back.


“Very seldom do we send out a young player. Guys have been through it before, and they understand you're going to go through some tough times. Some days you're not going to swing the bats, but every day is a new opportunity.”
— Joe Girardi

Returning for the Yankees will be Sabathia next Tuesday against the Blue Jays to bolster the rotation that includes Kuroda (the de facto ace) Hughes, Nova, a dramatically improved Freddy Garcia and perhaps contributions from rookie David Phelps. A bullpen that’s been impressive despite missing Rivera will also welcome the return of Joba Chamberlain, who allowed no hits, no walks and struck out two in one inning of his first rehab appearance for Class-A Tampa. Ultimately, the Yankees are proclaimed a success of failure based on October, but teams have to get there first, and the Yankees have the talent, intangibles and cushion to be in it to win it.

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

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