Commentary

Yanks' road trip about to get bumpy

Bombers did what they needed to vs. weaker opponents, but tough tests loom

Updated: May 29, 2012, 2:09 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Over their past six games, all of which were at home, the Oakland Athletics scored a total of eight runs and batted .157 as a team. Not surprisingly, they lost five of those six contests.

So before we get too crazy over the Yankees' three-game sweep of the A's, a good start to this 11-day, nine-game, three-city road trip, let's take into account the quality of the opposition (poor so far) and the outlook for the week to come (getting tougher as it goes along).

A win is a win is a win, and the Yankees did what they needed to do this weekend, stepping on the throat of a weaker ballclub and keeping it there for three straight games.

Most encouragingly, they showed signs that the surprising weak links in their batting order, notably Mark Teixeira, might be about to snap out of the early-season funk that had lasted nearly 50 games.

If all goes well, they will get David Robertson back at the end of the week or a couple days beyond, and Monday will be an important day in Brett Gardner's baseball life as well. He will swing a bat for the first time in 10 days, and if the strained right elbow that has kept him on the disabled list since April 18 and limited him to just nine games all season responds well, he could be back at Yankee Stadium when the team returns home on June 5.

But in the meantime, the Yankees have to run a gauntlet that includes Jered Weaver and Albert Pujols beginning Monday night in Anaheim, and moves on to Justin Verlander, Jose Valverde and all those other fine folks in Detroit who ended the Yankees' season prematurely last October.

By the end of the week, we will have a much better idea of whether the current five-game winning streak -- the Yankees beat the Royals in their last two home games before embarking on this road trip -- is truly a sign of better things to come for this team or merely a brief respite before the rigors of true major league competition resumes again.

"We're playing better," manager Joe Girardi said. "I still don't think we've hit on all cylinders; I don't. I think we can even get better, but we're playing better and winning games. That's the most important thing."

The Yankees are playing better, of that there is no doubt. But judging by the level of opposition, it's tough to determine just how good they really are.

Oakland's starter, Tommy Milone, pitched well on Sunday, allowing just a solo home run to Andruw Jones leading off the second inning and an RBI double to Teixeira in the seventh.

In between, the Yankees' problem with runners in scoring position continued, beginning in the first inning when they loaded the bases with one out and failed to score. Once again, their hitting w/RISP was pitiful (1-for-11).

And on the other side, Hiroki Kuroda threw his best game of the year -- eight innings, just four hits, no runs -- but he was facing a lineup in which the cleanup hitter, Seth Smith, was batting .226 with four home runs and 12 RBIs and the DH, Kila Ka'aihue, was a .250 hitter with two homers and 10 RBIs.

And still, this one was not truly locked up until Rafael Soriano, who has performed flawlessly as the interim closer in the absence of Mariano Rivera and Robertson, struck out Smith, representing the tying run at the plate, to end the game.

Even in tidy victory, this one seemed tougher than it should have been.

And now, the road only gets tougher. Verlander (5-2) has the lowest ERA in the American League (2.15) and Weaver (6-1) is third (2.61). After struggling until May 6 to hit his first home run with the Angels, Pujols hit four this week. And while neither the Tigers nor the Angels are offensive powerhouses, neither are the Athletics, whose team batting average is .210.

"It's a nice stretch for us, but we know going into Anaheim, that's a tough place to play, especially with their starting pitching," said Teixeira, who went 8-for-14 with two home runs and eight RBIs in Oakland. "But our confidence is a lot better than it was a week ago. It's simple. Winning is good. Losing is bad."

Derek Jeter, who passed George Brett to take sole possession of 14th place on baseball's all-time hit list with a first-inning single, said, "When things are going poorly, you're usually not as bad as it looks, when things are going good, you're always that good."

He was joking, of course.

This weekend, the Yankees looked good. Very good.

But this week, we might getter a better idea of how good they really are.

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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