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Keefe To The City: Yankees In 1st Place Through First Third

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By Neil Keefe
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Every game in baseball counts and every game is just as important as the next one. At least that’s what I believe. The only problem is that not everyone is under the same impression. Not everyone thinks that a game in April is of equal value to a game in August, as if early games on the schedule are somehow worth less than late games on the schedule.

Luckily, we don’t have that problem anymore.

It’s June 2, which means yesterday was the unofficial start to the season for those who think that the first two months of baseball are meaningless (tell that to the Indians or the Twins). It means that no one can say, “it’s still early,” and it means that from here on out, every game is important. Or you know, as important as every game has been already.

Going into the three-game series with the A’s, I looked at the pitching matchups and saw Brett Anderson and Gio Gonzalez — two of the best young left-handers in the game — facing the team known to be shut down by young lefties. Here were the Yankees coming off a series loss to the Mariners, in which they could have won all three games, now about to face what has been their kryptonite over the years. In my eyes, the Yankees stood about as much of a chance as Ben Roethlisberger going on a pub crawl at Simmons College.

For some reason the first two months of the season have left me thinking the Yankees have been a disappointment. Maybe it was all the Red Sox fans in Boston over Memorial Day weekend telling me, “don’t worry, they’ll turn it around,” and, “they’ll still be there in the end,” in reference to the Yankees. Even at 31-23, the first exact one-third of the season hasn’t felt like the Yankees are a first-place team, but that’s exactly what they are. That’s right, the New York Yankees are in first place in the AL East with the 2011 baseball season having started yesterday.

Before the season started, I was scared about Brian Cashman’s master plan to try and stay afloat and “in it” until the end of July when he could then try to make a move for a front-line starter. It seemed like a good way to imply to fans that the Yankees were screwed for 2011, but that things would get better in 2012. It seemed like it was going to be like Summer of 2008 all over again — a summer I would like to forget.

It seemed like we were going to go to war with a Yankees team we knew would need a “Braveheart”-like upset to win. But like Sterling says, “You can’t predict baseball, Suzyn” and you can’t predict what a stem cell surgery, an A.J. Burnett changeup and a magic act from Freddy Garcia every five days will do either.

A rotation of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia (and then Bartolo Colon) resembled a rotation only Brian Cashman could configure with the highest payroll in baseball. And if I had known that 18-game winner Phil Hughes would have gotten off to a Chien-Ming Wang-like year from 2009 and would have landed on the DL after only three starts from an unknown injury, I might have hibernated through this summer.

But everything has gone according to plan, or at least according to Cashman’s plan. Though I’m not sure if he thought Colon (3-3, 3.26) and Garcia (4-4, 3.34) would be as good as they have been. And if he did, maybe he should be picking lottery numbers for a living.

Everyone likes to talk about and guess what day Colon and Garcia will break down or what morning you will wake up and see the headline that Colon has been suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball. (Hopefully none of those things happen). But for now, the Yankees have a rotation that looks like it can keep them in it until July 31.

Cashman’s plan to “stay afloat” has gone better than expected, and instead of trying to stay in the race, the Yankees are leading it. How have they done so? I’m not really sure. But here are my five MVPs of the Yankees through the first 33 percent of the season.

1. Number 14, Curtis Granderson, Number 14
Remember when people were upset last season when Granderson was struggling and Austin Jackson was near the league lead in hitting? I do too. And for someone who worries about everything with this team, I wasn’t one of those people. The Grandy Man has become the Yankees’ best offensive weapon in the No. 2 hole and has been the reason they are where they are in the standings after two months.

I have a feeling when Johnny Damon watches Yankees highlights on TV, a few tears fall down his face when he sees Granderson hitting line drives out to right field and thinking that maybe he should have taken that two-year offer from the Yankees. The way Damon made that right field porch his own, Granderson has taken it over, peppering the area formerly known as “Box Seats Suck!” and doing so against both righties and lefties.

It still amuses me whenever Granderson hits a home run or has a big hit off a lefty that the camera immediately switches to a shot of Kevin Long. But when Nick Swisher strikes out with the bases loaded or Jorge Posada does the same, or Robinson Cano swings at the first pitch after the pitcher just walked the previous two hitters on eight pitches the camera forgets where Kevin Long is in the dugout. Maybe, I’m being too harsh, but it only makes sense to give credit where credit is due both ways. Right?

2. Number 52, CC Sabathia, Number 52
Will CC opt out after the season? Probably. Will he re-sign with the Yankees. He better. I’m not sure what some writers are talking about when they say that CC isn’t having the type of season (6-3, 2.98) that would allow him to opt out and re-up, or that the Yankees would be better off if he did opt out, so they could use those finances elsewhere.

Sabathia leads the Yankees in innings pitched and strikeouts and is tied for the team lead in wins with A.J. Burnett. Yes, A.J. Burnett. He is 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in his last three starts and has pitched at least eight innings in all three starts. So yeah, he’s having a pretty horrible season. He definitely can’t opt out with these numbers.

The only blemish so far this season for CC is that he is 0-2 against the Red Sox having been outpitched by Josh Beckett (the undefeated and undisputed No. 1 ranked person on my “Athletes I Hate To Look At” list) twice. (But to his credit, the Yankees were shut out in both games). CC has a chance to change that next week at the Stadium and totally redeem himself.

3. Number 55, Russell Martin, Number 55
I know Martin had a bad May (.200/.333/.347), but his April was so good and he had so many important clutch hits for the Yankees in the opening month that he reminded me of Nick Swisher in 2009 — another player trying to rejuvenate his career in pinstripes.

Martin has been a breath of fresh air behind the plate blocking pitches, preventing “Posadas” … I mean preventing passed balls, and throwing out runners. He has been every bit as good as Brian Cashman said he would be at that breakfast at the Hard Rock Cafe in Midtown in January and then some. Once again, I would like to thank my friends who are Dodgers fans for letting Russell Martin wear pinstripes. The same friends who warned me that I would hate Martin.

Before the season, I had multiple conversations with Sweeny Murti about A.J. Burnett and whether or not Larry Rothschild would make a difference in Burnett’s career. Sweeny said that at this point, only A.J. Burnett could fix A.J. Burnett, but maybe Russell Martin is now the man who fixed A.J. Burnett? And a good Burnett (6-3, 3.86) has taken the Yankees rotation from recipe for disaster to a recipe for success. “Monsieur Martin est la!” (I’m still not sure if that’s what Sterling is saying).

4. Number 40, Bartolo Colon, Number 40
I have apologized to Bartolo several times now since Opening Day, but I would like to apologize for this again. I think it’s only write that I apologize to Colon every time I write about him. I at least owe him that. Well, that and the eight Wendy’s Baconators he has earned through incentives.

Do I care what went into Colon’s stem cell surgery, if anything, that put his career in a Hot Tub Time Machine back to 2005? Nope. Not at all. I don’t care what went on this offseason or last season with Colon as long as he keeps throwing in the high 90s late in games.

It’s pretty nuts to think that if the playoffs started today (that is nuts to think anyway since it’s June 2 and I’m not about to give up this summer for the fall) that Colon would start either Game 2 or Game 3 for the Yankees in the ALDS. The only really crazy thing about that scenario is that I would feel 100-percent confident giving him the ball in a postseason game and feeling like the Yankees would win.

5. Number 13, Alex Rodriguez, Number 13
The decision to put A-Rod on this list might puzzle some people. It kind of puzzles me too. A-Rod’s power numbers don’t yet compare (and might not) to those of Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano, but when Teixeira and Cano are struggling the Yankees still win games. When A-Rod struggles, so do the Yankees.

A-Rod’s importance in the lineup has been a common theme in his now seven-plus seasons with the Yankees. It was best on display in 2009 when he came back on May 8 when the Yankees were 13-15 (.464) and went on to go 90-44 (.672) after his return. And this season it has been pretty much the same thing. As A-Rod goes, so do the Yankees.

In spring training it looked like A-Rod might make his case for his third AL MVP as a Yankee in 2011. And when he was hitting .370/.483/.826 with five home runs and 16 RBIs through 14 games played, it looked like we might be seeing something special from A-Rod this season.

Then the Yankees stumbled from April 25 to May 16, going 8-13, and A-Rod struggled hitting .175/.214/.238 with one home run and five RBIs. But over the last 15 games since the Yankees’ six-game losing streak, A-Rod is hitting .391/.418/.563 with three home runs and nine RBIs. The Yankees are 11-4 in those 15 games.

The more I looked at these numbers, the more I think he could be No. 2 on this list despite “poor numbers for A-Rod.”

Follow Neil on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NeilKeefe

Who is No. 6? Let Keefe know in the comments below…

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