Yankees on top and not sweating flaws

The trip took longer than the Yankees expected, and for a while in mid-May there was an uncomfortable murmuring throughout the organization as the Rays’ lead swelled to 5 1/2 games. The Bombers had their moments of self-doubt, looking slower and less athletic than the AL East’s newest threat, and not as driven.

But things are changing rapidly in the division, thanks to a surge in pitching. The Bombers are back on top, tied with Tampa Bay, for the first time since April 21. For all the emphasis the Bombers have placed on their offense, it’s the pitchers who’ve fueled this mini-comeback. They have the AL’s lowest ERA this month, 3.26, shaving a full run off last month’s mark. The rotation, in fact, has turned into a model of balance: all five starters have at least six victories, the first time that’s happened after 62 games since 1939.

The schedule-maker delivered the Yankees a boost, as well. They played three last-place teams — Orioles, Indians and Astros — in a recent 16-game stretch. The Yankees devoured them like plankton in the ocean, going 12-4, including a weekend sweep of Houston. They’ve now won eight in a row at home, and the momentum will come in handy this week. The Yankees now host the Phillies and Mets in back-to-back series which will answer questions all around.

The Phillies have temporarily lost last year’s spark, not to mention their offense — they’re now only 11th in the National League in runs. The Mets, meanwhile, have won four in a row, 8-of-10 and are just unpredictable enough to create problems for the Yankees over the weekend.

That’s because the Bombers need data on Alex Rodriguez, who’s been nursing a sore hip flexor for the last week, maybe longer. He’s expected to return to the lineup Tuesday night, and the Yankees are unanimously ecstatic that A-Rod’s recent injury is apparently unrelated to last year’s surgery on the very same hip.

Maybe Rodriguez has healed, and if so, maybe he’ll regain the thunder he’s been missing so far this season. The third baseman has just eight home runs, and, approaching his 35th birthday, there are enough metrics that suggest he may have finally begun his decline phase.

One talent evaluator said recently, “I think it’s a safe bet that (Rodriguez’s) days of hitting 50 homers are over.”

Throughout his career, one out of every five fly balls Rodriguez hit made it over the wall. In his best years, the ratio improved to one almost every three. Pitchers dreaded working up in the zone to A-Rod because it seemed like anything he got in the air found a jet stream.

But this year, only 11.9 percent of those fly balls are turning into HRs — the worst ratio of his career, and an indication that the slugger is losing power. It’s either his bat-speed or hip-torque problems. But clearly, something’s not right.

It’s possible a stay on the disabled list will cure A-Rod. Maybe not. But in the meantime, the Yankees have found two credible work-arounds. The first is, of course, Robinson Cano, who leads the majors with a .371 average, including a .409 mark this month.

Cano, batting cleanup during Rodriguez’s absence, hit his 100th career HR on Sunday, No. 13 of the season, in the 9-5 win over the Astros. While it might be tempting to make Cano the permanent No. 4 hitter, Joe Girardi has no intention of making any such switch. Cano will remain in the No. 5 spot, if for no other reason than to force pitchers to deal with A-Rod.

Sooner or later, the Yankees figure, Rodriguez will see enough strikes to become a beast again. And the Bombers’ offense, which ranked first in the majors last year in HRs, will resume its march to the early projection of 900 runs.

Still, the Yankees are leading the majors in runs, which is why no one is sweating the drop-off to No. 7 in HRs this year. The real reason the Rays were caught and passed is because Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes have replaced CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett at the front of the rotation, and because Javier Vazquez has been more successful than any of them, going 5-1 since May 17.

Vazquez said, “I’m being more aggressive, throwing strikes,” after a 9-3 win over the Astros on Saturday. He’s also making peace with the fact that his mid-90s fastball is probably gone forever.

Of the 94 pitches Vazquez threw on Saturday, none reached 90-mph on the gun. Instead, he was at 87-88 most of the afternoon, and Girardi admitted, “he may end up there (for the rest of the season).”

But neither man is worried about that outcome. Vazquez says, “I’m proving that I can win at 88.” The manager, meanwhile, points out, “Jamie Moyer has lost 12 mph (from his prime) and he’s still winning ballgames.”

The upshot to Vazquez’s renaissance is that the Yankees will now almost certainly pass up the opportunity to chase Cliff Lee. Not that GM Brian Cashman was ever crazy about the idea of trading prospects for a free-agent to be; he never made a move on Johan Santana three years ago under similar circumstances.

Instead, the Yankee hierarchy is betting that Lee is still available this winter, when they can make him a blow-away offer to replace Pettitte, whom the front office assumes will retire.

For now, however, the Yankees are content to let Pettitte and Hughes carry them, let Vazquez keep surprising them, and hope A-Rod returns as a new man in time for the Phillies and Mets.

Curiosities everywhere, but in the Yankees’ current state, not a crisis in sight. First place does, after all, have a way of calming the nerves.