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Sunday, April 28, 2013
Updated: April 29, 11:59 AM ET
Yanks flip upside-down expectations

By Andrew Marchand
ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- As he has done his whole career, Mariano Rivera is leading from the back. He closed out the New York Yankees' four-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays with a 1-2-3 ninth. At 43 years old, No. 42 picked up his ninth save of April, the most he has ever had in the month.

"Having nine save opportunities in a month is pretty good," manager Joe Girardi said after his Yankees took down Toronto, 3-2, in the Bronx on Sunday.

Girardi's 15-9 team is pretty good so far. Without Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez and, for most of the last week, Kevin Youkilis, they keep winning. With baseball version's of a cupcake, the Houston Astros, coming to town for three, beginning Monday, it doesn't figure on stopping soon.

A team that entered the season with more questions than the most eager reporter is playing .625-baseball.

"I would have signed up for it," Girardi said.

It is a 101-win pace.

Mariano Rivera
Lyle Overbay, left, put the Yankees ahead for good in the seventh, and Mariano Rivera recorded his career best in saves in April.

On Sunday, it was Teixeira's replacement, Lyle Overbay, who provided the huge hit. Overbay, who received a three-day tryout at the end of spring training after being cut loose by the Red Sox, nailed a go-ahead, two-run homer in the seventh to beat reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey.

Before the injuries hit in spring training, the private talks among Girardi and the players were about not allowing the negative expectations about their demise to infect the clubhouse.

"The first meeting of spring training, we talked about that," said Phil Hughes, who threw a solid six innings Sunday, his third straight quality outing.

It continued from there. When reporters were not around, the Yankees discussed how many prognosticators thought the season's standings were supposed to be upside-down. They didn't go public with their resolve, but the challenge was clear inside the locker room.

Hughes said the spring message about the lowered expectations was straightforward: "It is not going to affect us."

At the beginning of the spring, the Yankees had only lost Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez, among others from last year's team. Since then, Jeter, Granderson and Teixeira have yet to play, too, but the Yankees have found a way to keep pace with the first place Red Sox and the Orioles.

Overbay, chosen over Juan Rivera at the end of camp because he can defend better and hit lefty, has taken over first. With Youkilis down, Jayson Nix has been steady at third. Eduardo Nunez -- who earned the nickname "NunEEEE" in his brief career -- has been a slick fielding replacement for Jeter. Travis Hafner, at DH, and Vernon Wells, in left, have been raking like it is 2006.

Even as they won this week, they lost starting catcher Francisco Cervelli for at least six weeks because of a broken hand, while Ivan Nova went to the DL with a triceps issue.

Girardi just grabs the next number like a deli clerk. At this point, who doesn't think Chris Stewart or Austin Romine will play like Thurman Munson in Cervelli's absence?

On Sunday, it was Brennan Boesch bookending Overbay's homer by knocking a solo shot off a mostly dominant Dickey. Boesch's second-inning solo shot was one of only four hits off Dickey.

"It is a group that has something to prove," Girardi said. "There are some guys who are older who have had some down years or some injury plagued years. There are some younger guys who are trying to establish themselves, they have found a way to make it work, putting them all together, coming together.

"We had guys [Overbay] coming into our clubhouse the Wednesday the week before we [ended] spring training. They have integrated very well and I give them a lot of credit because it seems to be a close-knit group that feels if we keep it close and we have an opportunity to win we'll find a way to comeback."

They have all bought in, forgetting what people expect from these 2013 Yankees and just expecting what the club does every season.

"We know we have guys who can fill-in and do the job," Hughes said. "It starts with pitching."

It also ends with it. Rivera is one of the more amazing athletes of all-time. It is nearly a year since his knee injury and Rivera is as consistent as ever.

"He is a little bit like Jeter and Andy [Pettitte], there is not a lot that he is going to do that is going to surprise you because you are so used to seeing it," Girardi said. "The way they go about their business, it is what you have come to expect."

No one expected too much at this point from Overbay. He was just available. After the Red Sox cut him, the Yankees gave him a three-day tryout. By Opening Day, he was manning the position made famous by Gehrig, Mattingly and Teixeira.

"We got a little bit lucky when [Overbay] became available at the end of spring training," Girardi said.

On Sunday, Overbay got all of Dickey's knuckler in the seventh, making Rivera's record possible. He ran around the bases, focusing on the fundamentals.

"I always tell myself not to trip," Overbay said.

He didn't. Neither have the Yankees after 24 games.