A few days ago, I mentioned to Nick Swisher that I had picked his former Yankees teammates to finish last in the American League East.
He smiled and shook his head.
“Bro,” he said, “you can’t bet against those guys. You just can’t.”
Lesson learned. When I walked into the Yankees clubhouse Tuesday afternoon, they were not last in the AL East. They were first, tied with Texas for the league’s best record.
On one level, I was baffled. No Derek Jeter. No Alex Rodriguez. No Mark Teixeira. Until Tuesday, no Curtis Granderson, either. According to research by STATS LLC, they have the second-oldest roster in the majors and the second-most days lost to the disabled list. That should portend disaster.
Nope. Despite the ad hoc lineups, the long-term questions hovering over Jeter and A-Rod, and the division’s perpetual competitiveness, the Yankees’ excellence remains unassailable.
They won again Tuesday night, 4-3 over the Seattle Mariners, despite going just 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position. They managed only one run against Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, but rallied against the Seattle bullpen. Lyle Overbay — a pinch-hitter for the Arizona Diamondbacks at this time last year — produced the game-winning sacrifice fly. Mariano Rivera broke two bats in a 1-2-3 ninth.
The names may change. The results don’t. That is the Yankees’ routine, after a record 17 postseason appearances in 18 years.
Most amazing of all: Jeter and Rivera last appeared in the same game on April 30, 2012. And yet the Yankees have the most wins of any AL team since then. The Yankees can succeed without future Hall of Famers, because the championship culture of Jeter, Rivera and Andy Pettitte will outlast even their careers.
“There’s a mystique about it,” said Swisher, who signed with the Cleveland Indians after last season. “I was able to experience that and be part of it. And it was awesome. You learn a lot from that.
“When you’re in New York, you’re held to a certain standard. If you don’t get it done, they’re going to find somebody else.”
Pitching was, is, and forever will be the most essential ingredient. The Yankees are in playoff position at the season’s one-quarter mark largely because their 3.46 team ERA is the best in the AL East. CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Pettitte have been remarkably consistent. Rivera is 16 for 16 in save opportunities with a 1.56 ERA, even as retirement looms at the end of the season.
The offense has been sufficient, if not spectacular, with Overbay, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner becoming unexpected heroes. Wells, in particular, is an avatar for the 2013 Yankees. In spring training, he was a reserve outfielder with the Los Angeles Angels. Supposedly, his contract was untradeable. But with Granderson out and the Yankees’ mythical payroll limit not taking effect until 2014, general manager Brian Cashman swung a deal.
The result: As with Ichiro Suzuki, Raul Ibañez, Eric Chavez and Russell Martin before him, the pinstripes revived Wells’ career. Wells, who hit 11 home runs for the Angels in 2012, has nine already this year. His OPS is nearly 200 points higher.
“It’s a different place,” Wells said. “Whether you’re at home or on the road, there are Yankee fans everywhere. They show up. They’re passionate. They’ll let you know if you have a bad day, or if you have a great day. It’s a fun atmosphere to be in.
“To get an opportunity to be in this uniform, and prove I can still do it, is special.”
Wells’ seven-year, $126 million contract — which he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays — expires at the end of next season, at which point he plans to retire. When I pointed out that the allure of playing for the Yankees has kept Rivera and Pettitte in the game past age 40, Wells laughed and said, “I think Mariano is sticking with his plan this time, so I’ll go with that.”
He added: “My boys will be 12 and 9. They’ve sacrificed a lot in this life. It’ll be time for me to sacrifice for them. They’re going to start growing into little men, and they’ll need their dad around. I plan on going as hard as I can this year and next year and finish my career the way I want to.”
I wonder if that perspective — which can be uncommon in major league clubhouses — has played a role in Wells’ resurgence. Like Overbay and Hafner, he heard his ability questioned as his at-bats decreased in recent years. Now they are playing regularly in a place where winning is the only option.
“I came here thinking the expectations will get you a little bit on edge,” Overbay said. “It’s been the total opposite. The coaching staff is very positive. They mean it. They’re into it. They walk down to the end of the dugout (to talk to you). They don’t wait until you walk to them. It’s the little things.”
Wells ranks second only to Adam Dunn among active major leaguers in games played without appearing in the postseason, according to STATS LLC. This may be his best chance to get there. And Wells didn’t take offense when I told him where I thought his team would finish before the season began.
“I think a lot of people underestimated the power of team,” he said. “It’s great when there’s big names and a team comes together around those guys. But sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. Sometimes things work out when you put young guys who want to prove themselves at this level with some old guys who feel like they can still play and want to prove it. Special things tend to happen.”
Monday, here were the New York pitchers who held Cleveland to one run over 17 offensive innings in a doubleheader: David Phelps, Boone Logan, Preston Claiborne, Vidal Nuno and Adam Warren. Infielders Corban Joseph and Alberto Gonzalez started both games.
Tuesday, Jayson Nix and Chris Nelson started at positions traditionally occupied by Jeter and A-Rod. Austin Romine was behind the plate. For the 25th time this year, it was good enough.
The Yankees may lose their underdog label gradually, as their All-Stars return from the disabled list. The process began Tuesday, in fact, when Granderson made his season debut. Warm applause greeted him as he stepped to the plate in the first inning. Then he grounded into an inning-ending double play, as if to remind the Yankees that stars aren’t guaranteed to produce.
For the time being, the Yankees can maintain their identity as $200 million upstarts. They are facing fresh adversity, with Tuesday’s news that Hafner must undergo an MRI on his sore shoulder. But manager Joe Girardi has (another) contingency, with Wells able to fill in for Hafner at designated hitter now that Granderson is back.
Another problem solved. Another game won. The 2013 Yankees are finding a way. I should have seen it coming.