Commentary

Yanks need mojo workin' for weekend

Impressive showing in Baltimore would smooth out Bombers' road to AL East title

Updated: September 6, 2012, 1:54 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The New York Yankees got a gimme Wednesday night, a win over the Tampa Bay Rays that came gift-wrapped courtesy of a shortstop playing out of position, with the help of an opposing manager who got a little too cute for his team's own good.

In fact, they got two gifts. Not only did the Yankees benefit from Elliot Johnson's seventh-inning throwing error to come away with a 6-4 win over the Rays, they also got a reset in their suddenly pressure-packed AL East division tussle with the Baltimore Orioles.

The Yankees won, and the Orioles lost in Toronto, which means that at least for the start of their crucial four-game series this weekend in Baltimore, baseball's universe will be aligned as the Yankees believe it should be, with them on top of the division and the Orioles and Rays looking up at them.

[+] EnlargeIchiro Suzuki
J. Meric/Getty ImagesLast Sunday, Ichiro Suzuki became the third Yankee in the past 30 years to play all three outfield positions in the same game.

Wednesday's victory by no means solved the problems that have plagued the Yankees for the past six weeks or so -- they still gave back two leads, they still couldn't provide Hiroki Kuroda with much run support, and without Johnson's help, they might well have wound up getting swept here and limped into Baltimore as a second-place team.

But it did provide them with an opportunity to take what has been a team nightmare, the slow but steady erosion of a 10-game lead, and turn it into a footnote on their 2012 season, a funny little cautionary tale to amuse the grandchildren with when recounting the story of the 28th World Series championship a generation from now.

All they need to do now is have a big weekend in Baltimore, the kind of weekend that would have even worn out Edgar Allan Poe.

Grabbing that one-game cushion, as flimsy as it seems, means that just about anything but an out-and-out disaster this weekend leaves the Yankees in pretty good shape.

If they split the series, they still come home on Monday a game ahead. If they win three of four, they come home three games up. If they sweep, it's five games.

If they get swept?

Well, that's what I mean by out-and-out disaster. Just about anything else, even losing three of four, and the Yankees return to the Bronx no worse than a game out.

And just about all of those scenarios bodes well for the final chapter of this tumultuous season.

Because after this one, it's a pretty smooth ride home the rest of the way. After four tough games in Baltimore, the Yankees will have 22 games left in the regular season.

And 16 of them will be against three teams -- the Boston Red Sox, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Minnesota Twins -- whose combined record is 180-230, or 50 games below .500.

Of the three teams fighting it out for control of the AL East, the Yankees have the softest schedule.

That is, once they get past this weekend.

"Big, big series," said Russell Martin, the unlikely hitting star who drove in three runs, two with a fourth-inning double and another with a sixth-inning home run and finished a game with his batting average above .200 -- .202 to be exact -- for the first time since June 22.

"The Orioles have been tough all year," Martin said. "But it gets down to just staying within ourselves and doing what we have to do, doing fundamentals the right way, probably going to have to play a little small ball and find some ways to win."

Martin was just one of the many things that went right for the Yankees in this game. In fact, so many things went right for the Yankees, it's hard to believe that Elliot Johnson's name didn't come up in their unusual pregame team meeting, as in, "Hit the ball to the guy who's only played second base eight times this year."

But more on Johnson's big night for New York later.

No one made Joe Girardi look better than Martin when, inserted into the five-hole in the lineup behind Alex Rodriguez, he delivered that rarest of Yankees commodities this season, a timely hit in the form of a line double to left that gave his team an early 3-1 lead.

"We've said all along we like his at-bats; his luck hasn't been real good," Girardi said. "He's hit the ball pretty hard consistently for us so we decided to put him there tonight."

"It's nice for the skipper to recognize that you're doing the right things at the plate even if you don't always get the results that you want," Martin said.

Martin's early heroics nearly went for naught when Kuroda, who has suffered from non-support by his offense all year, was handed a rare lead and promptly gave it back, allowing a two-run triple by Ben Zobrist in the fifth, all the damage coming with two outs and Kuroda a single strike from being out of the inning.

So it was up to Martin once again, and his solo home run in the sixth off Matt Moore put the Yankees back in the lead. Temporarily. In the bottom of the inning, Luke Scott returned the favor with a solo shot off Kuroda and the Yankees were back to square one.

Enter Johnson, who had already contributed to the Yankees' three-run fourth by failing to catch Derek Jeter's pop fly to short right, which was ruled a single. Jeter wound up scoring on a double by A-Rod before Martin's two-run double.

And in the Rays second, Johnson was set up for failure by his own manager when Joe Maddon had him lay down what was presumably a safety squeeze bunt with runners on second and third and one out. But Johnson bunted it too hard and Kuroda was able to look back the runner before getting the out at first. As a result, the Rays blew a golden opportunity to score.

Now came the seventh and the Yankees with runners on second and third and one out after Jayson Nix, unlike Johnson, was able to lay down a successful bunt. Maddon pulled the infield in, and Jeter hit the ball right at Johnson. All he needed to do was play catch with Jose Lobaton behind the plate and Ichiro Suzuki, pinch-running at third, was dead to rights.

But Johnson fired the ball way wide, so wide that both runners scored easily and Jeter wound up at second.

And to complete the circle, in the bottom of the seventh, Jeter was able to make the play Johnson could not, ranging far into left field and looking back over his shoulder to nab Matt Joyce's bloop with two out and two runners on.

"We got a lot of breaks tonight that we haven't been getting lately," Nick Swisher said. "And now, guess what? It's a 26-game season."

No, it's really a four-game season now, four games in Baltimore that could render the 22 that come after them relatively meaningless.

Only one question remains: Can the Yankees bring Elliot Johnson with them to Camden and persuade Buck Showalter to use him at second base?

Ah, if only it were that simple.

But if the Yankees can come out of Baltimore on Monday with three wins in four games, the road to the AL East title will seem a lot simpler than it did Tuesday night.

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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