Commentary

Yanks stepping up without Jeter, A-Rod

With their two stars out, it's clear the Bombers are not lacking offensive production

Updated: August 30, 2011, 2:33 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BALTIMORE -- Alex Rodriguez and his 627 home runs are almost definitely out. Derek Jeter, with his 3,059 hits and five gazillion intangibles, might very well be out too.

And CC Sabathia, the rock upon which the New York Yankees have built their cathedral, hasn't beaten their main rival in his past four tries.

Is this any way to head into Boston for yet another episode of the Greatest Rivalry in Professional Sports?

Well, believe it or not, for the Yankees, it could be worse. A whole lot worse.

It could be Curtis Granderson or Mark Teixeira or Robinson Cano who were hurt and potentially unable to play these next three games, or -- perish the thought -- Nick Swisher.

When it comes to name value, there are no bigger Yankees than Jeter and A-Rod, the Lennon and McCartney of Major League Baseball, but the truth is the team's two rock stars are hardly its most indispensible players.

All season long, that honor has pretty much belonged to Granderson, the league's leader in RBIs and runs scored and co-leader in home runs, and for this week at least, it certainly belongs to Swisher, who right now can't seem to hit anything but home runs, the poor guy.

Jeter has been hitting extremely well lately, batting .348 since coming off the disabled list on July 4, his season average up to .297, and A-Rod is still A-Rod, a fearsome-looking presence in the middle of the Yankees' batting order even if his numbers --.289-14-53-- are extremely ordinary.

Yet the team won 14 of the 18 games Jeter missed with a calf strain and a whopping 25 of 38 minus A-Rod, who was out six weeks after undergoing knee surgery in July.

Clearly, the Yankees are a lesser attraction without Jeter and A-Rod as they are with them. Just as clearly, they are no less a baseball team.

Rodriguez is unlikely to play in the opener of the three-game series with the Red Sox that begins Tuesday night at Fenway, and Joe Girardi left open the possibility that he might not play at all after having aggravated a jammed left thumb suffered on a diving play in the field on Aug. 21, his first game back.

And there is no guarantee that Jeter will be available Tuesday night either, although he expressed optimism that he will be recovered enough from the bruised right kneecap he suffered after fouling a ball off his leg on Sunday.

And so what?

Right now, the offense is being carried by Granderson and Teixeira and Cano and, yes, Swisher, who needed 22 games to hit his first home run of the season but has now hit six in his past seven games, his season total up to 21. Suddenly, the 29 homers he hit in each of his previous two Yankees seasons seems within reach this year, too.

Swisher's two-run homer in the fifth inning Monday night, a bomb that looked puny next to the one he launched out on to Eutaw Street on Friday night, proved to be the margin of victory in the Yankees' 3-2 victory over the Orioles at Camden Yards, a triumph more of the guileful pitching of Freddy Garcia than the potency of the Yankees' offense.

Still even without much pop out of A-Rod's bat, the Yankees lineup has not lacked for run scoring. They still lead baseball in runs scored and, by a wide margin, in home runs.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesThe Yankees haven't missed a beat when A-Rod and Derek Jeter have been out of the lineup.

And despite Jeter's first-half struggles to perform his duties as a leadoff hitter, namely getting on base, the rest of the Yankees still afforded Granderson (107) and Teixeira (who got his 100th on Monday night, for the eighth consecutive year) plenty of opportunities to drive in runs. Cano, too, has had plenty of men on base when he has come to the plate -- his 95 RBIs put him on pace for 116 this year, or seven more than he had in his breakout 2010 season.

The truth is, while both Jeter and A-Rod are still excellent players, they are hardly indispensible players anymore, and a trip to Boston either without them or in a diminished capacity is hardly the nightmare scenario it would have been even a couple of years ago.

"Right now, we do have some guys out, there's no doubt about that, and obviously everybody wants to be the guy to try and step up,'' Swisher said. "I know everyone in the lineup is stepping their game up a little bit.''

No Yankee has stepped it up more than Swisher, who has followed his awful start -- .213 batting average with three homers and 20 RBIs through Memorial Day -- with a power surge through June, July and August. He has hit 18 home runs in the past three months, knocked in 57 runs, raised his batting average to .267 (he is a career .252 hitter) and his on-base percentage to .383.

And hitting behind Cano, who is batting .302 as a cleanup hitter in A-Rod's place, Swisher provides a dangerous bat in the heart of the Yankees' lineup.

"Swish has been extremely productive,'' Girardi said. "When you've got some guys out, you need someone to pick us up, and Swish has been good.''

If there is anything to worry about the next three days, it is not the bats, it is the arms. Sabathia is 17-3 against the rest of the league and 0-4 with a 7.20 ERA against Boston. On August 6, he got lit up for seven runs in six innings in a 10-4 Boston win.

And he, of course, is the pick of the litter the Yankees are throwing against Boston's John Lackey, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. Phil Hughes, who got shelled in less than three innings by the Oakland Athletics on Thursday, goes Wednesday, and A.J. Burnett, who needs no further introduction, gets the ball on Thursday.

When you consider that, the absence of Jeter and A-Rod doesn't seem all that significant after all.

Nor, really, should this particular series, coming as it is with a full month remaining in the regular season and a scant 1-1/2 games separating the two teams.

The second-place Yankees need a sweep, of course, to leave Boston in first place, but the odds are that lead will change hands several times before finally settling into one team's hands for good by the end of the season.

The Yankees took Monday night's win, which evened this hurricane-shortened four-game series at two games apiece, as a big momentum boost for their final trip to Boston of the season.

Asked if he thought his team was "ready'' for the challenge, Girardi said, "Yeah, I think so. You look at last week and we didn't play particularly well." The Yankees had lost five of their previous seven, to inferior teams, before winning the last two in Baltimore. "We had our struggles but I like the way our guys bounced back.''

"They have a great team, everyone knows that, and we need to play well,'' Jeter said. "As the number of games dwindle down, yeah, the games are important and we need to be up for the challenge. It's like every time we go to Boston.''

It's the same old thing, and at the same time, it's very different.

The Yankees are heading into Fenway without Alex Rodriguez and, possibly, without Derek Jeter.

Once, that would have been a scary proposition.

This year, it's more like business as usual.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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