Yanks better not breathe too easy

You can practically hear the Yankees exhaling, long and slow, having finally out-run the ghosts of 2004 this weekend. Sunday night’s 4-3, 10-inning victory over the Red Sox means the worst is over for Joe Girardi — even if the four-game losing streak that preceded it left everyone wondering what the heck is wrong with this year’s Bombers.

Girardi has one week to re-calibrate the engine of a team that, for a while anyway, looked like it was on a straight, unfettered path to the World Series. The good news for the Yankees is that they still have weapons to die for – Alex Rodriguez’s current hot streak (.333 this month with eight home runs and 22 RBIs), Andy Pettitte’s career .667 postseason winning percentage, and Robinson Cano, who’s been their most consistent hitter all year.

But there are still a few asterisks in the October playbook. While GM Brian Cashman insists, "we’re going to do some damage" next month, here are the issues that need to be resolved.

Mariano Rivera’s command: As was discussed here last week, the great closer is having trouble throwing the precise strikes of his past. Rivera blew yet another save on Sunday night, allowing the Sox to take a 3-2 ninth-inning lead – his third meltdown in his last six appearances.

A-Rod was right when he said it would have been "devastating" to be swept by the Sox at home. Not only would the losing streak have been extended to a season-high five games, the Yankees would’ve been a step closer to a historic choke.

Rivera is no longer repeating his delivery with machine-like efficiency; his arm slot varies ever so slightly from pitch to pitch, which prevents him from feathering the edges of the outside corner with his cutter.

While there’s no reason to believe Rivera is hurt, he hasn’t been the same since Girardi used him in back-to-back appearances against the Rangers on Sept. 10 and 11. Since then Rivera has allowed six runs on nine hits in 5.2 innings.

It goes without saying the Yankees are in danger of being ousted in the first round unless Rivera regains that legendary shut-down quality. What’s most concerning to the Bombers is that Rivera had plenty of rest before Sunday’s disappointing performance; he hadn’t pitched in nearly a week.

The closer will say he’d had too many days off – too much rust – and he could certainly be right. But something’s amiss with the Division Series just around the corner.

Stopping the running game: One of the more embarrassing elements of Sunday’s near catastrophe was the Red Sox’s four stolen bases in the ninth inning against Rivera. He’s never been particularly attentive to base runners, but that lack of concentration, his long delivery and the sub-par throwing arms of Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli could turn this into a significant problem in the postseason.

If the Sox could run at will against Rivera, what would the Rays do if they faced the Yankees in the ALCS? Tampa Bay leads the American League in stolen bases and could theoretically devour Posada and Cervelli, who’ve thrown out only 16 and 15 percent of base stealers, respectively. In all, Yankee catchers have foiled just 23 attempted thefts, the fewest in the majors.

Not that Posada and Cervelli are getting much help. The league is 8-for-8 stealing against Rivera this year, 15 of 18 against CC Sabathia and a whopping 36 of 41 against A.J. Burnett. Only Andy Pettitte seems to command respect on the base paths, as opponents have attempted just three swipes against him in an injury-shortened season.

Girardi’s management style: It finally sunk in that the Yankees needed a win against the Red Sox this weekend – hence, Girardi’s 11th-hour decision to start Phil Hughes over Dustin Moseley on Sunday.

Until then, Girardi seemed strangely content to save his ammo for the playoffs, pushing Sabathia back to Friday in Fenway and originally tabbing a journeyman like Moseley to hold off Boston’s surge. There’ve been countless other examples of Girardi’s conflicting agendas – using second-tier Royce Ring and Chad Gaudin in a dreary 7-3 loss on Saturday, when better options like Boone Logan and David Robertson were available.

Taking their cue from the manager, the Yankees appeared to have lost their edge on the eve of the postseason. It reminded Bronx historians of the dreadful finish in 2000, when the Yankees lost 15 of their last 18, including the final seven in a row.

That prompted Joe Torre to close the doors of the clubhouse and get in his players’ faces. Whatever he said worked, as the Yankees went on to win their fourth and final world championship of the Torre era.

Girardi recognized his team needed a pep talk, but chose not to deliver it himself. Instead, the manager invited former NFL coach and Super Bowl winner Tony Dungy to speak to the Yankees on Saturday.

Even though Dungy was merely following up on an invitation that was extended in spring training, the timing reflected poorly on Girardi. This late in the season, in the middle of a losing streak, no less, it appeared as though Girardi had out-sourced the job of motivating the Yankees. The experiment clearly failed, as the Yankees didn’t get their first hit off Jon Lester until the sixth inning.

Whether Girardi panicked or finally used his power of reason, starting Hughes on Sunday was ultimately the right choice. He’s got the final six games to take care of the remaining loose ends.