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Monday, June 11, 2012
Streaking Yankees far from their best

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

ATLANTA -- The New York Yankees have now won four games in a row and 14 of their past 18. They are a season-high 10 games over .500 at 35-25, are tied for the best record in the American League and, with their 3-0 win over the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on Monday night, have moved into a tie for first place in the AL East for the first time since April 24.

Imagine if they could hit in the clutch!

That, of course, is a joke of sorts -- despite another night of RISP failure (1-for-8), of heavy casualties on the basepaths (11 LOB) and of yet more futility with the bases loaded (0-for-3), the Yankees pretty much cruised to victory behind the efficient pitching of Ivan Nova and the spectacular glove work of Nova, Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano.

Still, don't mention that other thing to Joe Girardi, because in spite of his team's recent run of success, the subject is apt to make him scream.

And in fact, a few minutes after the conclusion of the game, he did.

No onomatopoeic spelling on the printed page can possibly do justice to the sound the Yankees manager produced when a question began as follows: "Joe, I know it seems silly to talk about it on a night when you win, but the situation with runners in scoring position …"

That was as far as I got before the man let out a shriek that had the attending media fearing for a moment that he had been knifed in the back, or something similarly dreadful.

"So let's not talk about it, and let's see if it changes," Girardi said. "Let's try a different way, and see if it changes."

Girardi then made it clear that he believes The Streak, if that's what you want to call it, thrives on discussion the way a vampire thrives on human blood.

"Let's see if we can kill it," he said.

The truth is, The Streak can only be killed by being pummelled with baseball bats, many of them, in timely situations like the one that came up in the third inning, when the Yankees loaded the bases with one out and came away with just one run, and that one because of a wild pitch.

Or the one that arose in the seventh, when they again loaded the bases with one out, only to come away empty when Sunday's hero, Russell Martin, rapped into an inning-ending double play.

On a night when the Braves could manage only five hits all night, two of them that never even left the infield, and only got one man as far as second base, courtesy of a balk by Nova, such matters can easily be dismissed as trivialities.

But in reality, the Yankees have not hit the way they are supposed to, which only makes their current hot streak that much more astounding.

At risk of repeating myself, what happens if these guys ever start to hit?

"I think we're just going to get better and better," said Raul Ibanez, who hit a solo home run in the second inning, his 10th of the season. "I don't think this lineup has hit its stride yet."

Despite his superstitions, Girardi, too, has acknowledged that the Yankees have yet to hit on anything like all cylinders even now, 60 games into the season.

"We had some opportunities to blow the game open, we just didn't get it done," he said. "But tip your cap to our pitchers tonight, because they did a great job."

Nova followed up his outstanding eight-inning, four-hit, one-run performance against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday with an even better one Monday, allowing just the five hits, walking one and striking out six on a night in which he felt he did not have his best stuff.

But he made a great play to snag a line drive off the bat of Andrelton Simmons to start a big third-inning double play, got a spectacular assist from Swisher, who leapt high to rob Brian McCann of a possible two-run homer in the fourth, and saw Cano make one of his patented sliding backhand stops on a shot by Freddie Freeman that appeared ticketed as an RBI single after Nova had balked Martin Prado to second in the same inning.

"I was enjoying watching those guys play out there," said Nova, who also had the pleasure of collecting his first big-league hit on a line drive to right in the second inning.

Nova is now 8-2 (with a 4.64 ERA) this season, and 24-6 over the last two. Despite the high ERA, he has been as close to a guaranteed win as the Yankees have had all season -- Nova has gone to the mound 12 times this season and the Yankees have won 10 of those games, thanks to a team-high 6.62 average runs per game when he pitches.

On nights like these, it is easy to overlook things like the Yankees' performance w/RISP, which was already the lowest in the league and fell to .220 after this one, or their average with the bases loaded, which dropped to an abysmal .149.

For a bit, Girardi was clinging to the belief that things would improve when Robby Cano started hitting (he has) or when Alex Rodriguez started hitting home runs (he has not) or when Mark Teixeira finally came out of his early-season funk (still waiting). More recently, Girardi has pointed to the expected return of Brett Gardner as the spark that would finally ignite his offense.

That, too, is not going to happen any time soon now that Gardner is out indefinitely and consulting with elbow specialists all over the country.

So, the same way the answers for the starting rotation and the bullpen were located right in the Yankees' clubhouse, so, too, will the answers to the clutch hitting conundrum need to come from within.

As the players like to say, the back of their baseball cards say they always have hit, and will once again. But the nightly box scores say they still aren't hitting yet.

In spite of it all, the Yankees are playing their best ball of the season without playing anywhere near the top of their game.

"These guys are all too good hitters for this to go on forever," Girardi said. "Sooner or later, it will come around."

In the meantime, it's enough to drive a man -- or a manager -- to scream.