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No robbin' young bat-man of roster spot

NEW YORK -- Jesus Montero is young enough to take advice -- on hitting, no less -- from Freddy Garcia, and new enough at this whole major league thing to admit to still getting nervous just about every time he comes to the plate.

After all, he's made that walk from the dugout to the batter's box only 58 times in his major league career, and he has been old enough to legally buy a drink for only 10 months.

And yet, already the question has been asked and very soon it will need to be answered: Is Jesus Montero good enough to be on the New York Yankees' postseason roster after fewer than 20 major league games?

Based on his performance Saturday, the answer must be an unequivocal yes.

Facing one of the league's toughest starting pitchers, Jon Lester, in a game that meant practically nothing to Montero's team and virtually everything to Lester's, Montero came up with three hits, each bigger than the one before it, and knocked in four runs in a 9-1 win over the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.

There was a sense of déjà vu about it -- Montero's first big league at-bat came against Lester on Sept. 1 at Fenway Park, with the bases loaded -- but very little symmetry.

On that day, it was the Yankees who desperately needed to win -- they trailed Boston by 1½ games in the AL East and, more importantly, had lost 11 of the previous 14 games between the teams this season -- and it was Lester who won the confrontation, making Montero look every bit the raw rookie he was with an inning-ending strikeout on a 2-2 cutter.

On this day, however, it was Montero who won that first battle, going down to get a 3-1 sinker and line it into left to drive in the first run of the game.

"I'm feeling a little better up there but I'm not saying I'm like Derek Jeter, you know?," Montero said. "I still get a little nervous up there. But I got that base hit and I was a little more comfortable after that."

That is an understatement, considering his next time up, in the following inning, Montero jumped all over Lester's first-pitch cutter and smoked it into the left-center gap, the double driving in two runs and sending Lester to an early shower.

By then, the score was 8-0, courtesy of a Jeter three-run homer off Lester and Russell Martin's two-run single, and the Red Sox, who have been in free-fall all month, appeared to have entered their final death spiral.

Montero, however, was just getting started. Three innings later, he greeted reliever Junichi Tazawa, who had just entered the game, with a line shot into the lower right field seats on a 3-1 fastball to cap the Yankees' scoring for the day.

"We've said that he's a dangerous bat," Joe Girardi said. "We've said that all along. This guy is a guy who can put three or four RBI up against a left-hander and it's not going to shock you."

Now, no one is suggesting it is time to start forging Montero's bust for Monument Park or clearing out wall space in Cooperstown, especially since he now shares the Yankees' record for hitting four or more home runs in his first 15 games with such luminaries as Shelley Duncan, Steve Whitaker, Oscar Azocar and Kevin Maas.

But it is time to seriously consider whether Montero's bat is one the Yankees can afford to be without once the games become real again next Friday night.

"These are all things that we have to talk about," Girardi said. "I can't tell you who's going be our backup catcher. If [Francisco] Cervelli continues to progress there is somewhat of a chance there. I won't rule it out. These are questions we're going to have to answer."

The lingering question on Montero, of course, is whether he is ready to catch at the major league level, and the postseason is certainly no time to find out. It would hardly be shocking to find him behind the plate in one of the games of Sunday's day-night doubleheader, because even though Girardi has said he expects Martin to catch every game in the playoffs, catchers have been known to get hurt.

In that case, minus Cervelli, still suffering the effects of a concussion, the Yankees are going to have to make a tough call regarding the backup catcher. It's not going to be Jorge Posada. If Girardi decides Montero is not quite ready for October prime time, then it will be Austin Romine, considered Montero's superior defensively but not nearly in the same league with the bat.

But that should not preclude the possibility that Montero will go along, too. This kid has come a long way in a short time, from that first futile at-bat against Lester 23 days ago.

"I actually thought he had a pretty good at-bat that day," Girardi said. "But he had the one swing he swung at over his head, the first pitch, and I can completely understand that. First day in the big leagues, in Fenway, bases loaded against Jon Lester. I wouldn't have thought anything if he swung at three balls over his head. But as that day went on I thought his at-bats were pretty good. And since then, one thing we've learned about him is he seems to be able to make adjustments."

After hitting two home runs in the fourth game of his major league life, Montero went through a rough patch in which it appeared the pitchers had caught on to the rookie designated hitter; in a five-game span, he struck out 10 times in 19 at-bats, and off-speed pitches seemed to find holes in his swing as wide as the Yankee Stadium outfield.

But he had three hits and reached base all five times up Thursday night against Tampa, and he followed that with his impressive laser show on Saturday against the Red Sox.

Surely, the Yankees signed Andruw Jones to do this kind of damage to left-handed pitching and he has done an acceptable job at it. But right now, Montero is doing it better, and at this comparative stage of their careers, there's no doubt which player has the higher ceiling. And despite his having been pigeonholed as lefty basher, all four of Montero's home runs have come against right-handed pitchers.

Asked if he expected to be included on the postseason roster, Montero said, "I really don't know. They don't tell me anything. I wish I could be there to help this team, but I don't decide anything over here. I'm just going to try to do my best and hit a lot of home runs."

On that subject, Montero got some pregame advice from an unlikely source: Garcia, who over the course of his 13-year career, all but one spent in the American League, has come to bat a grand total of 68 times and gotten all of 12 hits, not one of them a home run.

"I told him, 'You're strong enough, just try to make contact,'" Garcia said. "That's all this kid needs to do."

Like the dutiful rookie he is, Montero took Garcia's advice. "He's been playing for a long time," Montero said. "He's got like 20 years in the big leagues. When somebody with a lot of experience tells me something like that, I try to do it."

With Montero's help, Garcia, who threw six shutout innings against a team that had tormented him all season long, may have pitched his way into the playoff rotation.

And with Garcia's help, Montero may have hit his way onto the roster.

But for now, Jesus Montero is content with what he did in Game No. 157 of the regular season.

"Today was awesome. The best," he said. "I hope every day is like that, but I know it's not gonna be."

No. It might even be better.

• • •

Phil Hughes threw a bullpen before the game and reported no pain in his troublesome lower back. Girardi said Hughes might start one of the final three games of the regular season in Tampa. Bartolo Colon will also start one, and the third will go either to Hector Noesi or an aggregate of relief pitchers. Girardi ruled out the possibility of Dellin Betances starting one of those games. ... The largest regular-season crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium 3.0 -- 49,556-- turned out for Saturday's game, eclipsing by one person the record set Aug. 6, 2010, a game the Red Sox won 6-3. ... A.J. Burnett (10-11, 5.28) will make his final start of the regular season in Sunday's first game, facing RHP Tim Wakefield (7-7, 5.08), first pitch at 1:05. Ivan Nova (16-4, 3.62) gets the ball for Game 2 vs. RHP John Lackey (12-12, 6.49), first pitch at 6:30 p.m.