Patched-up Yankees a fun group to watch
New York getting it done despite plethora of injuries to star players
It has become almost impossible to root against the Yankees. Yes, the New York Yankees.
Maybe that's a stretch. Certainly, the Red Sox and Orioles don't feel that way. On the other hand, even they have to admire how the Yankees have handled their amazing run of injuries.
No team in baseball has been hit harder. Even worse is that there's no certainty when the Yankees will be whole again.
Curtis Granderson should return next month, but Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are out indefinitely.
So many players have gone down that losing Ivan Nova and Francisco Cervelli during a victory over the Blue Jays on Friday night doesn't even seem like a big deal.
Hey, what's two more? As if the challenge could be any greater. As if anyone is going to extend the Yankees any sympathy anyway.
Through it all-- and this is where the admiration part comes into play --the Yankees have never uttered a complaint about their lot in life.
Certainly not Brian Cashman or Joe Girardi -- in fact, they've been absolutely consistent that expectations remain the same as always.
That is, if the Yankees don't end up holding the World Series trophy, this season will be a failure.
They're not just saying it, either. They absolutely believe it. There's a collective confidence -- or ego or whatever you call it -- among a group of players who've won as much as the Yankees have.
They believe they're going to win no matter what. Players come and players go, but the group's core confidence is unshakeable. New Yankees buy in.
Andy Pettitte said it over and over during Spring Training as we'd rush to his locker to ask his reaction to the latest bit of bad news.
"I like our club," he said each time. "I still believe we're the team to beat."
He wasn't just blowing smoke. Despite the injuries, the Yankees still began the season with a terrific rotation and a very solid bullpen.
At a time when baseball has never had more parity, one of the easiest ways to measure teams is by the quality and depth of the pitching staffs.
The Yankees believe as long as they have CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Pettitte at the top of their rotation and Mariano Rivera at the back of their bullpen, they'll stay in contention.
At the moment, the Yankees' rotation has the fifth-best ERA in the American League. Cashman and Girardi probably expect more, and they may get it as the weather warms up and Sabathia puts a string of quality starts on the board.
Phil Hughes is winless, but he been plenty good enough in his past two starts. To replace Nova on the roster, the Yankees have summoned 25-year-old Vidal Nuno from Triple-A.
Nuno is perfect for this team. In fact, he could be the poster boy for what the Yankees stand for in 2013. He's a former 48th-round Draft pick of the Indians who isn't very big and doesn't throw very hard, and who has believed in himself when almost no one else did.
Nuno has learned that pitching is as much about location, movement and changing speeds as velocity. In four Minor League starts, he aggressively attacked the strike zone, walking two and striking out 26 in 23 1/3 innings.
Scouts say Nuno may have to learn not to be so aggressive in the strike zone against Major League hitters, but he has shown such an ability to adjust in the past and has earned the promotion.
If he becomes the latest Yankee success story, it'll add just a bit more of a storybook quality to a season that has already had plenty in just these opening weeks.
This team was constructed around the hope that Vernon Wells and Kevin Youkilis and Lyle Overbay and Travis Hafner and Ichiro Suzuki still have some productive baseball left in them, around the hope that Brett Gardner would stay healthy and that Robinson Cano would have a monster year.
Beyond the numbers was the approach. Wells, Youkilis, Hafner, etc., are veteran players who have the reputation of being consummate professionals and good teammates.
So far, it has worked out. The Yankees lead the AL in home runs and are fifth in runs, and even the most optimistic Bomber fans never saw that one coming.
But it has been great fun to watch, to see how Girardi mixes and matches his lineups, to see him maneuver his bullpen through the late innings.
The Yankees have won 12 of 17 since a 1-4 start and have the AL's fourth-best record. All this means is that the Yankees have survived the opening month of the season, and that the blueprint appears to be working.
Baseball seasons expose every weakness, and so the real tests are ahead. In their clubhouse, there's plenty of confidence that there'll be October baseball at Yankee Stadium. Day by day, they may be convincing others, too.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.