By Neil Keefe
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The Yankees and Mets meet this weekend in the Bronx for the first installment of the 2011 Subway Series. Both teams are playing well entering the series, but even though the Yankees have won three in a row and ended their mini road trip at 3-1, it hasn’t all been good for the Bombers lately.

It’s been three weeks since Sweeny Murti, “The Voice of Reason,” joined me for an email discussion, and since then things have gone south for the Yankees. With the Mets coming to the Stadium this weekend, it’s important for the Yankees to keep this three-game winning streak going, so Sweeny and I talked about the state of the team with the Bombers returning home.

Keefe: The last time we talked was via podcast and everything was going great, and I made the mistake of saying that I didn’t really need any of your therapy sessions. You were surprised because I usually have something to complain about, and while there were minor issues, there weren’t any real problems with the Yankees. Well, since that podcast the bottom has fallen out.

The Yankees have lost six of nine, are 7-10 in May and have gone from first place to just a 1/2 game ahead of the Red Sox. Losers of two of three at home against the Royals and swept by the Red Sox before blowing a 5-1 lead to the Rays led to a terrible stretch that made this team look very vulnerable and old of late. However, this three-game winning streak heading back home has done a little to erase the previous horrible week.

But it’s not just the losses that hurt. It’s the way the Yankees have been losing when they lose. Questionable bunts, missed bunts, caught stealings, errors, a failure to hit with runners in scoring position, wild pitches and passed balls have become common with these Yankees and it has become shocking when something disastrous doesn’t happen to them.

The “it’s still early” theory is sort of over with for 2011 since 25 percent of the season has been played, and there is just one full week of baseball left in May with interleague play beginning around the majors this weekend.

Maybe the Yankees aren’t as good as I thought they were at the very beginning of the season, but I don’t think they are as bad as they have been over the last two-plus weeks. I guess they are somewhere in between. Has your mind or opinion on the 2011 Yankees changed at all after their weaknesses have been exposed this month?

Murti: The one thing I have concluded about the Yankees probably since around 2007 is this: when they lose, they don’t just lose … they look bad doing it and look extremely old doing it.

When the Yankees lose like they have been — errors and lack of hits to drive in runs — those are signs that make you want to say this team is too old and can’t get it done.

The truth is they go through a stretch like this every year. The problem is the slump looks so bad that it’s hard to imagine this team ever pulling out and looking like we expect them to.

But are the Rays and Red Sox as bad as they looked in the first week of the season? Are the Rangers as good as they looked in the first week? The Yankees haven’t put together a great streak yet, and they have kind of gone back and forth before the recent six-game slide put you back on my couch for an hour of therapy. The wins on Tuesday in St. Pete and Wednesday in Baltimore (no matter how you viewed the games themselves) are indications this team has put the losing streak behind them.

The offense is still the most stunning part about this team, but I have a hard time believing we go through this season without a single Yankee hitting over .300. They should start to bounce back offensively at some point, especially Teixeira and Cano, the younger, in-their-prime stars.

Keefe: It seems like every day there is a new topic of discussion regarding Joe Girardi and a move he did or didn’t make. The latest example of this is his decision on Wednesday night to pull Bartolo Colon after 87 pitches in favor of Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of 1-0 game. As all moves seem to do for Girardi … it didn’t work out.

Before a decision was made I tweeted that Bartolo Colon should pitch the ninth but it really didn’t matter to me if No. 42 pitched the ninth either since he is No. 42. But I broke down Girardi’s decision in several ways:

1. If he brings in Rivera, he eliminates the option of the media truly second-guessing him because no one can question bringing in Rivera to close out a one-run game. If Colon happened to blow the game, everyone would be all over him for not bringing in Rivera. Also, Colon was at a perfect pitch count for a complete game, and since he is 39 and on a one-year deal, there is no point in trying to save his bullets since you never know when or if he might break down.

2. With the Yankees losing a lot lately, Rivera hasn’t really pitched and when he doesn’t pitch with consistency, he isn’t fatigued but his command and control are off. So even though he is Mariano Rivera, you are risking pulling a dominant guy who has been part of the game for three hours in favor of someone who might just not have it at that night and you aren’t sure.

3. In my opinion, if Colon comes out for the ninth and blows the game, it was his game to blow. It was the best effort for a starter on the Yankees this season in 42 games and he deserved to finish it since his pitch count was low and he showed no signs of getting tired. In fact, Colon seems to get better as the game goes on and I’m pretty sure I saw 96 mph a few times in the eighth inning.

4. If you leave Colon in there, you are increasing his confidence even though I’m sure he doesn’t need more of it of late. You are telling him that this is his game to win or lose. Otherwise by pulling him, you are telling him that no matter how dominant he looks, he isn’t going to get the chance to finish close games.

I completely agree with the move to bring in Rivera and would have completely agreed with the move to leave Colon in. It’s not often Girardi has a win-win situation to decide, and this one just didn’t happen to work out. It was just a unique situation and as has been the case lately, Girardi’s decision fell through.

Murti: Well, the Yankees’ recent six-game losing streak featured four games decided by one or two runs, so I can see where you would have opportunity for plenty of Girardi-bashing … I mean, second-guessing. Sometimes the team is going to lose, and moves don’t work out no matter what.

I would have applauded Girardi for leaving Colon in the game and taking the chance, but I cannot condemn him for bringing in Mariano Rivera. It’s Mariano Rivera. Remember him?

The Yankees play every day hoping to have a lead in the ninth with the ability to bring in Rivera to close it out. I understand Colon’s pitch count was low, but you are wrong when you think there aren’t bullets to save.

There are few people who believe that Colon will hold up all season long. One scout told me he is surprised he’s lasted this long and that when he starts to falter it will be a rather sharp decline, not a gradual one.

Colon’s pitch count warranted a shot to finish the game, but I cannot argue with bringing in Mariano Rivera. You yourself just said to me he hasn’t pitched a lot lately, so they’re supposed to sit him in a save situation?

I’m still astounded by the simple fact — regardless of situation — that there are fans campaigning to leave Colon in a game rather than go to Rivera. It’s Girardi-bashing for the sake of doing it. Every manager in baseball would gladly hand Rivera a 1-0 lead in the ninth. He didn’t convert this time. You have to live with it.

Every time you bring in the closer there is risk of what you call “pulling a dominant guy who has been part of the game for three hours in favor of someone who might just not have it at that night and you aren’t sure.” You can’t manage with that consideration when your closer is Mariano Rivera. And I don’t know how many times I have to say that.

As for Colon’s confidence, the New York Yankees give him the ball every five days with the idea that he is going to help them win. They have confidence every time he takes the mound now. There is no need for the subtle shot of confidence you think he is going to get by staying in that game.

I know Rivera has now blown three saves and it isn’t even Memorial Day. I’m still not ready to bring him down to mortal status. If there is a trend that keeps going, then decisions like this one will come under more scrutiny. Until then, he’s Mariano Rivera.

Keefe: Last Saturday, Jorge Posada took himself out of the lineup and chaos ensued. Now it seems like a new piece of information comes out every day regarding his situation and his relationship with the Yankees. The latest of that information being that he asked Cashman about being released following being moved down in the order.

On Monday, I wrote about the Posada situation and how you can look at it two ways:

1. Jorge Posada is hitting .165 and should be lucky that he’s in the lineup at all.

2. Jorge Posada is hitting .165, but should keep his spot in the order since Joe Girardi has been hesitant to move any other veterans down and has created a double standard and somewhat of “favorites.”

I agree with Posada’s original statement that he brought this upon himself, but it seems like Girardi chose not to move down or bench other veterans that had bad starts, but took the chance to move Posada down as quickly as he could.

Murti: I don’t think Girardi “took the chance to move Posada down as quickly as he could” as you put it. It was mid-May and Posada was batting .165. The team had lost three in a row and couldn’t build a rally. It was obvious after Friday night’s loss to Boston that Girardi was contemplating a lineup change. Without blowing up the whole lineup, there were few options because he was committed to keeping the 3-4-5 slots the same and Granderson near the top. Thus, moving Posada — and Swisher, by the way — down the order was the way to go.

You’re going to say he left Jeter near the top when he was struggling, but the team was in better shape then. They didn’t require a shake-up move.

Posada was OK with the move when we spoke to him at 4 p.m. that day. At 6 p.m. he went on his rant and reportedly asked to be released. Something happened between those two hours, and it wasn’t just batting ninth. The report that Posada’s son is heading for surgery in the next few weeks I think has a lot to do with his state of mind. We’ve seen it affect him in the past, and for Pete’s sake why wouldn’t it?

I think Posada had an emotional moment and was wrong in his actions, but I am stunned that there wasn’t more public support for the guy. Fans talk all the time about whether this guy or that guy is a “true Yankee” and that ends up meaning very little if a guy with Posada’s pedigree can’t get a chance to explain what’s going on before he gets jumped. Other players, like Kevin Brown or A.J. Burnett have been guilty of indictable offenses, but didn’t have the established Yankee status to fall back on. Posada has been around too long, I thought, to receive the kind of reaction he did.

That said, the Yankees are in a tricky position with their legacy players. They aren’t putting on Old-Timer’s Day every day. They are playing real games against significant competition and they have little room for sentiment. Brian Cashman gets cast as the villain, and I’m sure he’s used to that, but his teams are built with high payrolls and multi-year contracts and sometimes they will be hard to deal with. Injury and aging are the two factors that turn contracts into bad deals. When you reward players for their championship play, you run the risk of them getting old and not getting return for your investment.

The truth is, the players don’t walk away at the top of their game. They walk away when someone finally convinces them they aren’t able to do it anymore. The more the player has accomplished, the harder that becomes. The Yankees don’t have the luxury of running a Cal Ripken Jr. out there every day just so the fans can applaud and let him wave his cap. The Yankees have to field a championship team. Fans want loyalty, but it only goes so far.

Posada is on alert. If he doesn’t start to hit, it’s not impossible to see the day the Yankees have to release him. It’s happened to Hall of Famers before. It can happen to Posada too if he doesn’t prove the last month and a half is just a slump, and not the end.

Keefe: I don’t think Jeter should have been moved down earlier on, and you know me, I’m not going to say anything bad about No. 2 and complain that he is hitting at the top of the order, whether that is a double standard, or fair or not.

When things are going bad, as they have been, every little thing becomes something to complain and worry about and the defense of Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher are two of those things.

Cano is coming off his first Gold Glove and has already matched his error total from 2010. And Swisher, while he has never been an exceptional fielder, he did take obvious strides toward becoming a better player in the field and that seems to be going down the drain.

Now it seems like every night there is a defensive miscue or brain fart or just mind-boggling play from either of the two. With Cano it’s been bobbling grounders or not getting the ball out of his glove on double plays or forgetting to cover first. With Swisher it’s been odd routes to balls, bad throws and on Wednesday night it was sitting back and watching a runner tag up and go to second on a ball to right field.

Is this just part of the entire team’s slump? Is Swisher’s defense a result of his hitting slump that he’s now brought into the field with him? What is wrong with these two?

Murti: I wouldn’t limit sloppy defensive play to these two guys. Several pitchers have had trouble picking up ground balls, making throws to first and other fielders are juggling and throwing away balls. It’s unusually sloppy and there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.

Sometimes there are reasons. The ball you talk about with Swisher on Wednesday night, he slipped twice, once going after it, and once planting to throw, so the runner tagging up is understandable.

Cano has fallen into some bad habits defensively. I think he’s matured enough as a player where he will be able to get himself out of this quickly, but he needs to no matter how it happens.

The Yankees have a few players with diminished range, but they should not be this bad at picking up the ball and throwing it. If this isn’t a phase, I don’t know what it is. But with 21 unearned runs in their first 42 games, they are essentially adding half a run per game and that has to stop.

Keefe: Aside from his disastrous start against the Royals, Ivan Nova has been excellent over his last five starts (3-1, 2.54) and is figuring out how to extend his outings and get through the order for a third time. It seems like recently he is more confident on the mound and throwing his curveball with more conviction and for more strikes rather than nibbling and trying to always paint the corner.

Before the season, Nova was one of many question marks even with his great spring, and after a rocky start, he has settled down to become a nice piece of this rotation. Was there any talk early on during his struggles of possibly changing the rotation and taking him out of it?

Murti: Nova has been very good, considering what the realistic expectations have to be for a guy who only made seven starts last season.

We got tired of hearing the phrase “growing pains” in 2008 as it pertained to 3/5 of the rotation, but it’s easier to deal with just one young pitcher at a time. The emergence of Colon and Garcia as legitimate starters here have lessened the burden on Nova and allowed him to continue developing at a reasonable pace. He has the talent, but will have some bad games and you’ll just have to deal with them.

Nova might have pitched his way out of the rotation last month if the Yanks had a legitimate option, but Kevin Millwood wasn’t going to be the answer and that gave Nova enough time to turn things around and show he’s worth the gamble.

Keefe: David “Copperfield” Robertson has been doing what made me give him that name in the 2009 playoffs. He has been called upon to get the Yankees out of jams and clean up the mess of others and has even gotten out of some jams created by himself. Sure, he wasn’t able to escape last week against the Royals in an eventual loss, but even I can accept the fact that he can’t get out of every jam, every time.

Now that Rafael Soriano is on the disabled list with an elbow issue (which can’t be a good thing even though I have grown tired of him blowing games early on and making close games closer than they should be) what happens with the eighth inning?

Girardi is so set on announcing set roles for guys that Soriano being unavailable changes his master plan of Joba for the seventh and Soriano for the eighth. Does Joba become the eighth-inning guy? Does Robertson get that job? Or for once, does Girardi just manage the bullpen according to the game and situation rather than giving guys permanent roles?

Murti: Most managers don’t give out so many “permanent roles” as you put it, because they don’t have enough good relievers. How many teams can you name that have two guys with 40-plus save seasons and making over $10 million in their bullpen?

Bullpens are volatile by nature of their position, and that’s simply a fact you’re going to have to get used to. If seventh and eighth inning relievers were that lights out, they won’t be seventh and eighth inning relievers for long.

Robertson and Chamberlain will probably split those duties based on availability and match-ups, but I guarantee you will be screaming about how they are used no matter how they are used. How a reliever performs does not mean the manager used him wrong, which is what you seem to think a lot.

Anyway, Robertson has been terrific. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get some chances on a day when Rivera is unavailable. He walks a tight rope sometimes, but he’s got some guts out there and is a valuable arm out there.

Keefe: Since it has become a tradition now with our email discussions, let’s finish up with Boone Logan.

Logan has actually been better of late and has kept inherited runners from scoring and it seems like his trust with Girardi is starting to slowly build again, which in all likelihood will only end badly for the Yankees and myself at some point. I don’t think we’re at the point yet where I have to give my second annual apology to Logan, but it seems like he could be on his way there, and I can only hope for that. Maybe he is starting to put together the type of run he had last year getting out lefties.

Murti: Without a second lefty, Logan has been given an opportunity to prove to Girardi he belongs here. I can’t tell you how close he was to losing the job, since there aren’t any suitable replacements, but he didn’t start the year very well. He’s come on of late, as you said, and has earned his place for a little longer.

The problem with lefty relievers like that is, you get one batter to prove you’re stuff that night, and that’s it. There isn’t a lot of margin for error. That’s why it’s so hard to evaluate all these relievers. A guy like CC Sabathia can give up four runs early, then shut it down for the next five innings and get the team to a win. A relief pitcher, like Logan, gives up even one hit sometimes and it means you’ve lost the game. And the middle relievers are typically the worst pitchers on the staff, so you can see how it becomes increasingly more difficult to get the type of results that keep you from visiting my office.

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How would you grade the Yankees’ season so far? Let Keefe know in the comments below…

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