- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- This was mid-afternoon on Tuesday, before the New York Yankees had finished off their day-night doubleheader sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays with a walk-off hit that brought them streaming out of the dugout to mob Jayson Nix. Yankees manager Joe Girardi didn't literally say "no mas," but he'd finally had enough. There was a rare tinge of resignation in his voice when he was told between games that Major League Baseball had suspended Boston Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster for five games -- or one game shy of being forced to miss his next start -- after MLB ruled that Dempster "intentionally" threw at Alex Rodriguez on Sunday night in Boston.
With a world-weary wave of his hand, Girardi revived his days-old argument that other pitchers might now be encouraged to declare "open season" on hitting Rodriguez. He shook his head when told his $5,000 fine for going ballistic and being ejected was twice as much as Dempster's. But Girardi's genuine anger was gone. It was as if even he were finally allowing there's no escaping the obvious.
Weird is the new normal for the Yankees. And this is the way it's going to stay the rest of the way.
They've now won eight of their past 10 games and are raising a question that seemed unthinkable even 15 days ago: Could the most dysfunctional franchise in baseball really remain one of the hottest clubs, too? Maybe even challenge for a wild-card berth?
"We talked about it a few weeks ago -- we're in the playoffs now." Nix said with a nod. "I think we all feel pretty good and excited for this final push. ... We have to win every game."
Other than the Dempster ruling -- which Rodriguez never surfaced to comment on, but Yankees starter CC Sabathia criticized, saying "You don't throw at a guy four straight times. He [Dempster] violated every unwritten code, in every way" -- Tuesday's sweep of the Blue Jays with scores of 8-4 and 3-2 qualified as a very good day in the Yankees' universe.
You just had to conveniently ignore a New York Daily News report that general manager Brian Cashman and team president Randy Levine had been summoned to Tampa by owner Hal Steinbrenner, who was characterized as being unhappy about how the Yanks' scouting and player-development groups are being run. Then overlook the ongoing tabloid ugliness in which Cashman's alleged former mistress, who is being prosecuted for attempting to extort him, claimed in court papers that he told her secrets about Yankees players he suspected of using PEDs.
(Funny how mudslinging works. Cashman, who called A-Rod a liar on Sunday, is now accused of betraying his employees three days after A-Rod was accused in a "60 Minutes" report of dropping a dime on some fellow players who were also suspended in the Biogenesis scandal, including Yankees teammate Francisco Cervelli.)
It was just another reminder of how ugly and far afield this fight between Rodriguez and the Yankees and baseball has gotten from the original Biogenesis/PED scandal.
Baseball would like to keep the focus on Rodriguez's alleged relapse into banned drug use and the landmark 211-game suspension he's appealing. But A-Rod -- who has refused to say whether he used PEDs again -- engaged lawyers who spent the previous four days accusing the Yankees of conspiring to ruin their client, in part by withholding medical information from him.
In the meantime, Rodriguez puts on a happy face and plays on.
Rodriguez was presumed to be the loneliest guy on the club before all this. But as it turns out, that was wrong too. It's really been Robinson Cano.
Cano has caught fire at the plate since the Yankees traded for Alfonso Soriano and Rodriguez came back from his hip surgery, which finally gave Cano some protection in the lineup. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cano hit .453 in the first 14 games after A-Rod's Aug. 5 debut after hitting only .189 in the previous 14 games without him.
"You can see a different lineup," Cano said after going 4-for-4 with 4 RBIs in Tuesday's opener. "It's been a huge difference."
"A different energy," Nix agreed after hitting a game-tying homer in the seventh and slapping a ninth-inning single to left to drive in Ichiro Suzuki with the winning run in the second game. This after the 39-year-old Suzuki, running on his own, daringly stole third with one out.
"That bag was huge," Nix said.
Now the Yanks are not only winning, there are upbeat storylines going on all over the place -- if you can just rip your eyes away from the A-Rod tabloid train wreck. Cano's three-run homer in the opener against the Jays was the 200th long ball of his career. Ichiro is one hit shy of 4,000 for his career. (He has 1,278 hits in Japan and 2,721 in MLB.) Soriano arrived from Chicago trailed by talk that he wasn't a difference-maker anymore. But he has been here.
Despite the scorched-earth tactics going on all around them, the rest of the Yankees -- even Rodriguez himself -- are somehow still managing to concentrate on playing good ball. "The Red Sox woke us up," Sabathia said. And Derek Jeter could be back by the weekend too.
In short -- unbelievable as it sounds, given some of the godawful B-list lineups the Yanks threw out earlier this year -- there are concrete reasons to believe this current hot streak is not a mirage.
The Yanks are a better team now than they were in June. They're playing with a different confidence. If Sabathia ever gets it together, it would be a huge help.
They have only 37 games to make up the 5½ games that separate them from an American League wild-card spot. And while that's certainly doable, everything about this team remains fragile and flammable too.
Asked now what mindset he's been preaching to the team, Girardi said: "Just win the game that's at hand. Don't look too far ahead. Don't look at tomorrow, don't look at the next day, don't look at the next series. Just win the game at hand."
Weird is the new normal here, right?
On and off the field, the Yanks just had one of the franchise's most unusual, mortifying, incendiary weekends in memory. Yet they're still talking about playing in October, same as they always have.
Instead of folding under the tabloid heat, the Yankees are heating up. Huh?