By Neil Keefe

It’s Labor Day weekend, and the Yankees are in first place in the division with the best record in baseball, so everything is going according to plan. And with less than 30 games to go in the season, it would take a collapse of Mets proportion to miss out on October. With the season winding down and the Yankees having just one homestand left after their current one, the postseason picture is beginning to take real shape in the American League.

Sweeny Murti joined me to talk Yankees baseball, as the team prepares for the final stretch of the regular season and the postseason.

Keefe: It’s hard not to pick CC Sabathia as the MVP of the team with a month remaining in the season. But aside from being the team MVP, CC is considered to be the front-runner for the Cy Young award in the AL, and right now looks like the only starter with a legitimate chance at 20 wins in the AL.

I know Clay Buchholz is having a year worthy of winning the Cy Young, but when you stack all of his numbers up against Sabathia’s, I think CC takes it home.

Murti: It’s hard to imagine a pitcher having a better year than Felix Hernandez, but win-loss record still counts for something. After all, to quote Herman Edwards, “You play … to win … the game! Hello? ”

If Sabathia keeps winning and doing it with an ERA in the low 3s, there is no way to keep him from winning the award, in my opinion. Although let’s be clear, I don’t vote for that or any award, those privileges go to the members of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America (two writers from each league city cast ballots).

Clay Buchholz is also having a terrific year, right up there with Sabathia. September finishes could swing the race in anybody’s favor.

Keefe: I will never say a bad word about Derek Jeter and once he reaches the point where he should no longer be on a baseball field, I will just pretend like it isn’t happening, the way people pretended like A-Rod never took steroids when he was chasing No. 600.

I like Jeter as the leadoff hitter and always have, but I can’t lie, I do like seeing Brett Gardner at the top of the order. Girardi has put Gardner at the top a lot more often recently and has toyed with him at the top for a few stretches this season.

Do you think he will keep letting Gardner hit leadoff against righties and Jeter against lefties, or was this just an experiment to get Jeter going out of the No. 2 spot?

Murti: Well, it’s not really an experiment. Those lineups are all a function of not having A-Rod in the lineup. Once he comes back, I think Girardi will move Jeter back up top to stay.

Although I do agree with you that Gardner is a great weapon, he slumped earlier this year out of the leadoff spot and people wondered if it was too much pressure. I don’t believe that was it, just a slump at the wrong time, and a very small sample size to judge.

As for Jeter, I noticed the other day that his late-inning numbers are staggering compared to last year. He hit over .350 last year after the seventh inning and was around .230 this year. His bat speed is perhaps a factor against the harder throwing relievers you see late in games. While most I’ve talked to around the game notice a decline this year, they all generally agree that Jeter has always made the adjustments and believe that he can do so again.

Keefe: The idea of Boone Logan trying to get Josh Hamilton or Joe Mauer out in a big spot in the playoffs is becoming less and less of a nightmare. I feel like I can’t fully believe in or trust Logan yet because I know what he is still capable and because of all the terrible things I said about him for the first half of the year. But I have to hand it to him; he has been a lot better of late and nearly unhittable since his last call up to the Yankees.

You talked me off the ledge about the bullpen several times and specifically regarding Logan so I feel like an “I told you so” is coming any day now. Should I believe in Boone? More importantly, do you believe in Boone after nearly a full season me whining about him?

Murti: Well, I’m not the “I told you so” type, so no worries there. And I don’t think I ever denied when he was pitching badly, but just wanted you to acknowledge that he started to do exactly what you wanted him to do in the first place: get people out. The guy has retired 20 consecutive left-handed batters. 20! That still might not be enough to hold down Joe Mauer or Josh Hamilton (you’re talking about two of the best hitters in the game), but at least the Yankees now have a fighting chance in those spots.

There is still another month, so ample time for you to wring your hands about whether or not this bullpen is good enough. They will probably blow a couple games between now and then. But they have been good, very good for over a month now and you can see the potential is there. October is just about being hot, and these guys have shown they are capable.

Keefe: I was ecstatic when Brian Cashman decided to bring Marcus Thames back in the offseason to help strengthen a bench that was going to be lacking a big bat. In seasons past (aside from the moves made during the season in 2009), the bench has been a weakness of the Yankees, but this season it has produced nicely.

Thames has been exceptional in a limited role and now playing pretty regularly, he is showing the type of power he displayed with the Tigers a few seasons ago. I know that each player and each case is different, and that some players would only accept certain contracts, but it seems pretty ridiculous that Thames had to earn his spot on a team that gave guaranteed spots to Randy Winn and Chan Ho Park.

Murti: Thames hit six home runs in 19 at-bats. In his next 11 at-bats, one hit and five strikeouts. His hot and cold streaks were both of relatively small sample sizes. Let’s just look at the whole here and say that Thames has had a very good year and has shown how dangerous he can be. Girardi realizes this and Thames will continue to find at-bats, but Berkman might be an important piece here too and the only way to find out is by playing him. Thames’ biggest value has been that he provided righty power while A-Rod was on the DL. Even more power than A-Rod himself has provided for much of this year in fact.

You’re right about Thames and the improved production from the bench. The last few years, the Yankees bench has been criticized, but to be fair, they had everyday players at every position. It’s really impossible to stash “great” players on the bench, ask them to play once a month and expect them to be great. It’s even harder to get players to accept roles with the Yankees if they realize they aren’t going to get any playing time. I happen to know one veteran infielder who was very interested in signing with the Yankees last winter, but chose to go someplace where he would get more than the 130 at-bats Ramiro Pena has logged. This year, because of the outfield and DH rotations, the Yankees have had greater use for their bench, and it’s kept guys sharper.

Those last few positions on the roster are ones constantly in flux. Every GM, not just Brian Cashman, swings and misses on the marginal players and does their best to fix the roster as the season goes on. That’s something Cashman has done very well over the years.

Keefe: If the playoffs started today, the Yankees would be playing the Rangers, so maybe winning the division won’t allow the Yankees to avoid Cliff Lee in the ALDS. But the more I think about it, it might not be so bad not playing the Twins in the first round. Despite the sweep last year, Games 2 and 3 were close and could have gone either way if the umpires were on their game.

In 2007, I remember wanting the Indians instead of the Angels in the first round and that didn’t work out so well. I guess there isn’t really a point to trying to root or hope for a certain matchup, but which team do you think I should be hoping to see in the first round and which team should the Yankees be hoping to see?

Murti: Not only Cleveland, but remember the year before, in 2006, when you were so thankful the Yankees didn’t have to face Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano and the Twins in a five-game series, only to be ousted by Kenny Rogers and the Tigers in four.

I was worried for most of this season that the Yankees were vulnerable to lefties, not just Lee. But they have fixed that part of their game with the deadline addition of Austin Kearns, the emergence of Marcus Thames and the revamped Curtis Granderson (thank you, Kevin Long).

For me, the opponent is no longer an issue for the Yankees because it’s all about their own pitching. If it’s “CC and Let’s See…” then I see trouble. If A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, etc, all come back to form, then No. 28 is very possible.

Keefe: It’s still a long ways away, but we haven’t touched on it yet, and that is Joe Girardi’s future with the Yankees. Even if the Cubs are crazy enough to offer Joe Girardi an absurd contract to try to lure him away from the Bronx, I still don’t think he will go to Chicago, and I don’t understand how he could. Yes, he will probably use the Cubs as leverage to get a better deal from the Yankees, but what’s the reality of him leaving the Yankees?

The Cubs are nowhere near being a winner let alone a contender, and Girardi would be leaving a team ready to win now and for the foreseeable future for a job in which finishing over .500 right now would be an accomplishment. You are around the man everyday in the summer, are his ties to his hometown strong enough to make him actually leave the Yankees?

Murti: I agree with your entire assessment of the Cubs job vs. the Yankees job. My main point has been that Joe Girardi has one chance – right now – to make his legacy as Yankees manager, having the ability to win multiple championships. Unless Girardi manages the Yankees for 20 more years and takes it to the house, Girardi will have a handful of other chances down the road to manage the Cubs. I can’t say the same about the Yankees.

And while Girardi grew up near Chicago, his ties to this area are pretty tight too. Girardi moved his family to New York last year, and they are now living here year round.

The Steinbrenners and Brian Cashman all like Joe Girardi. He was their first choice three years ago and he’s already won them one championship. It’s a good fit for both sides, and I don’t see that changing.

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