- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- For most of the day, it felt like a flashback to June again for the Yankees -- those worry-free days before their 10-game lead melted away in the AL East, before the Baltimore Orioles were dead even with them or the hard-to-kill Tampa Bay Rays were trying to leapfrog them both in the standings, before the Yanks' starting pitching slumped and too many of their stars got hurt and, most of all, their overreliance on home runs seemed likely to finally doom them. As predicted.
Saturday, the Yankees hit back-to-back home runs in the second inning -- one of them by Curtis Granderson, his fifth in six games. Yet the game-winning run in their 5-3 win over the Rays came by playing small ball and allowed them to hang on to their AL East lead for at least one more day. And the season-long debate about them began again: What kind of ball should the Yanks aspire to play?
See how much easier the Yanks make it on themselves when they play even a little small ball?
No, wait -- don't try making them something they're not. No sense overreacting to how tight the race has become. They're a power team, period. And a power team is what they have to remain.
"They're like a coiled snake," Rays manager Joe Maddon said before the game. "So no matter how they're going [hot or cold], you just have to make sure you go and play your own game."
Granderson is the best symbol by far of why this Yankees team has been alternately successful and yet difficult to appraise as the division race has fallen into a dead heat. Among all the hitters on this feast-or-famine Yankees team, he's the ringleader.
Granderson's second-inning, two-run homer lanced some of the early tension at Yankee Stadium on Saturday and chased away the hangover of watching Yanks ace CC Sabathia lose -- again -- the night before. Then Eduardo Nunez, another of Friday's goats, hit a booming solo shot right after him.
Yet, the reason the Yanks eventually had enough offense to back Ivan Nova's fine pitching and escape by the skin of their teeth was the insurance run they added in the fifth thanks to a stolen base by Ichiro Suzuki, then a beautifully stubborn at-bat by Derek Jeter that ended with the sore-legged Captain chopping a two-out RBI single up the middle. That gave the Yanks a 4-1 lead and earned Jeter a partial standing ovation from the crowd.
The sight of how the Yanks pushed across that run was different from their usual M.O., Granderson allowed after the game.
But Granderson was also steadfast about where he falls on the debate on what's the best way for the Yanks to aspire to play with their season in the balance.
It's the same as how he looks at his own game.
He was asked Saturday if he has found his own year "baffling" -- he again looks on his way to a career high in home runs and yet his batting average is now .234; he has 90 RBIs and yet he's one strikeout away from setting a career high in that column too (175), so he could've easily driven in even more runs. But Granderson shook his head no. He said his season hasn't been confounding to him.
"Not necessarily -- because I never go into it thinking what my average might be," Granderson explained. "It's never been a goal of mine. I've never looked at average as an important stat. It's one of those things where you look to get on base, no matter how you happen do it. And you've got to score runs. Those are the keys to winning ballgames. You can go ahead and see a lot of teams end up with a bunch of hits but not win ballgames. The team that ends up scoring a lot of runs wins ballgames."
So what does Granderson prioritize?
"Runs. And driving in runs," he said. "I think the big thing is scoring runs, no matter how you happen to do it. So much has been made out of the fact 'You guys score runs by hitting home runs.' I've never seen that as a negative.
"The fact that you put runs across the board -- no matter how you happen to do it -- is always a good thing. And it puts us in opportunities to win ballgames. So, it was a little bit of both today. But either way, as long as we end up with more runs than the other team, it doesn't matter how you end up doing it."
Not everyone agrees. But it's not surprising Granderson sees it that way. The Yanks have relied on home runs and just enough of the sort of pitching that Nova gave them Saturday to win as many games as they have. And even if their season is in the balance, they still prefer to see themselves as that team that built the 10-game lead -- not the one that struggled to play .500 ball these past two months, validating all those predictions that their lousy situational hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP) would come back to bite them as it has.
Back in June, when they still led the majors in wins, the Yanks could laugh at the questions. Now it looks as though even if they do get to the postseason, that overreliance on home runs is going to indeed be their undoing unless two old-timers like Ichiro and Jeter can collaborate on a few more opportunities like they did Saturday, and inspire everyone else to do the same. If Jeter hadn't extended his at-bat as long as he did, Ichiro wouldn't have had a chance to steal and get into scoring position for him to drive in.
Ex-Red Sox manager Terry Francona was just the latest longtime baseball man to say the problem with the Yanks' Hero Ball approach is most home runs are hit on "mistake" pitches, and when you get to the postseason, especially, you're not feasting on other teams' No. 4 or 5 starters anymore. It's the Verlanders and Weavers of the game.
But the debate won't be settled until the Yanks' final finish is in -- and, after that, telltale philosophical decisions like what the Yanks do about picking up the $15 million option they have to keep Granderson for at least one more year.
After seeing Granderson get them off to a much-needed fast start Saturday -- and how he ranged far to his left and far to his right to make two outstanding catches in center the past few days -- hearing critics gripe about what he doesn't do is like that old joke about the guy who would desperately like to be married to Angelina Jolie -- but would still expect her to have dinner on the table every night at 5 p.m. too.
These Yanks aren't likely to change much now. Neither is Granderson. If anything, he probably got asked what in the world he was thinking Saturday when he tried to lay down a bunt to lead off the seventh, with the Yanks leading by only a run.
Feast or famine, 10-game lead or none at all, the Yanks are who they are. And Granderson is too.
The suggestion they should change is just another thing they prefer to swat out of the park.
4hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com