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Sunday, April 17, 2011
Updated: April 18, 8:31 AM ET
Yankees' new trio embraces the Bronx

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The reputation of New York City in general, and Yankee Stadium in particular, is that of a heartless, soulless maw with an insatiable appetite for devouring its own, young and old alike.

On this square mile of real estate alone, it has happened to Javier Vazquez and Jason Giambi, Ed Whitson and Tino Martinez, Jack McDowell and Kyle Farnsworth.

Some withstood the early assault and thrived; others withered under the glare and were never the same. And the jury is still out on whether A.J. Burnett, currently in favor around here, will remain so as the season, and the remainder of his five-year, $82.5 million contract, wears on.

And then there are the three newest Yankees: Eric Chavez, Russell Martin and Rafael Soriano. Through the first three weeks of their Yankee tenures, they have played, and been welcomed, as if they've been here all their lives.

Eric Chavez and Russell Martin
Eric Chavez and Russell Martin are right at home at Yankee Stadium.

"You're talking about some guys who have played in some really important games, who have been in the playoffs a lot in their careers," manager Joe Girardi said after a 6-5 victory over the Texas Rangers on Sunday. "I think that makes somewhat of a difference.

"And if you look at Chavez and Martin, they didn't come over with big deals. I don't know if that has anything to do with it, but the guys we brought over played a big role tonight."

The deals certainly have something to do with it. Only Soriano, who signed for closer's money -- a hefty three-year, $35 million deal with opt-out clauses after each of the first two years -- to do a setup man's job, has suffered any of the traditional rites of passage that generally mark the beginning of a career in the Bronx.

But the performances have a lot more to do with it, and on Sunday night, Soriano (who pitched a scoreless eighth at a time in the game the Yankees really needed a shutdown inning), Martin (with a two-run homer when the Yankees really needed a two-run homer) and Chavez (with a game-winning RBI single when, well, the Yankees really needed one of those) took three more steps toward keeping the wolf that sometimes resides in the Bronx away from their doors.

It's rare enough for one new arrival to have a smooth transition from Wherever to Here. But for three out of three? Positively unheard of, and possibly unprecedented.

And yet, all three -- even Soriano, who was smart enough to nip his first crisis in the bud last week and to wipe away the memory of his second, a meltdown on Saturday, with his bounce-back on Sunday -- have not only blended in with their surroundings here, but are on their way to becoming fan favorites.

Chavez, of course, is a great comeback story, having left the Oakland Athletics, the only team he had ever played for, in bitterness and disappointment after 13 seasons that started off phenomenally well but ended in injury-marred frustration.

Martin has been a find, coming off an injury-shortened season in 2010 to seamlessly take over the pitching staff -- even Burnett likes throwing to him -- and providing some unexpected pop at the plate.

And Soriano, the one big-ticket item on GM Brian Cashman's winter shopping spree -- and therefore, the one with the biggest target on his back -- looked like the pitcher who saved an AL-leading 45 games last season for the Tampa Bay Rays in holding the line in the eighth.

None of them could quite explain how or why what has been such a difficult step for so many has been so easy for them, but each had his own take on the subject.

"I think I just enjoy the intensity here," said Martin, whose two-run homer off Alexi Ogando -- who came into the game 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA -- in the fifth inning knotted a game that often appeared on the verge of getting away from the Yankees. "It's a pleasure. If you like intense baseball, this is the place to play. I like it so far."

Martin then sprawled on an easy chair and lapsed into a long, intense conversation with a reporter -- in French, his native language. He fits into the Yankees clubhouse the way his hand fits into a catcher's mitt. His four home runs put him in a three-way tie with Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson for second place on the team HR list (Mark Teixeira has five).

"I always felt he had the potential to be a great player," Girardi said. "I had seen him play at a high level, but I didn't know him personally. He's laid-back and able to control his emotions really well."

Chavez, slightly less outgoing, acknowledged that coming to New York could be intimidating for some players. Not, however, for a mature 33-year-old with several career-threatening injuries behind him.

"I haven't really thought about whether this town was gonna eat me up or not," he said. "I'm just trying to do my job. Maybe it would have been a lot different when I was younger, but as close as I was to maybe not even being in a uniform this year, my perspective on things has been so simple."

Playing once again on short notice, after Alex Rodriguez went down with an oblique injury in the seventh inning of Saturday's game, Chavez hit a simple single off reliever Arthur Rhodes in the eighth -- and drove in what turned out to be the winning run. His batting average is .467.

"I'm just trying not to do too much," Chavez said. "Really, when I made the decision to come here, I knew what it was going to be. I know Alex plays a ton of games, and when I get that chance I just have to be ready to play. People talk about change of scenery, and whatever that means, I don't know. But obviously I needed a change and it's been working out so far."

Soriano, the most outwardly intense of the three, benefited from both Chavez's and Martin's performances -- as well as those of Cano and Granderson, who also homered off Ogando -- to earn his first win as a Yankee a day after being booed by the crowd for allowing two eighth-inning runs in a game the Yankees would go on to win 5-2.

He was so stung by his first bad outing, against the Twins on April 5 in the fifth game of the season, he bolted the clubhouse without speaking to reporters and even blew off a phone call form his own mother.

But he was smart enough to come back and apologize to the fans the next day, because, as he said Sunday night, "That's not the kind of guy I am."

Against the Rangers, he was the kind of guy who blows people away with a 93 mph fastball offset by a nasty slider. And he says his fastball will heat up along with the weather. "I told the manager, 'In April, you're not gonna see 95-96,'" he said. "But wait until the weather gets better. That's how it's been for me the last four years."

Asked about the reaction of the crowd to his performance on Saturday, Soriano said, "I'm not listening to any of that, just trying to focus on my job. I feel fine here."

Sunday night, all three made you forget once again that A-Rod was out of the lineup, that Jorge Posada was no longer a catcher and that Joba Chamberlain hadn't been able to cut it as a setup man.

In front of fans who made Tino Martinez aware he was no Don Mattingly and reminded Jason Giambi he would never be Tino Martinez, it is a huge step in a shockingly short time.

"Those guys are veterans, and I think they knew what they were stepping into," Sunday's starter, CC Sabathia, said. "This is a great clubhouse and a great team to be around. They've embraced it and it's been paying off."

• • •

The Yankees' three home runs made this, statistically, the most powerful Yankees team in franchise history -- through 14 games, anyway. The 2011 Yankees came in tied with the 1932 Murderers' Row Yankees of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey and Tony Lazzeri, and the 2003 AL champion Yankees, with 24 homers in their first 13 games. Now, this team has 27 in the first 14 games, three more than the 1932 team and two more than the 2003 team, and eight more than Texas, the runner-up so far this year. ... Rodriguez went for an MRI during the game on his sore oblique/lower back, which Girardi said "came back clean." Still not sure if he will be ready to go in the series opener against the Blue Jays on Tuesday night in Toronto. ... Brett Gardner, inserted back into the lineup after two days off but dropped to ninth in the batting order, went 0-for-2 with a DP and a strikeout, and was lifted for pinch-hitter Andruw Jones in the seventh. Gardner's BA is now .140, his OBP .213. ... Girardi said Phil Hughes, on the DL with a misplaced fastball, did some long toss before the game and "did well." Girardi said that according to pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Hughes showed some life on his ball and would accompany the team to Toronto. ... A.J. Burnett (3-0, 4.67) gets the start on Tuesday and Bartolo Colon, added to the rotation to replace Hughes, gets his first Yankees start on Wednesday.