Yanks can take lickin', keep on tickin'

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The New York Yankees were 24-14 in the first 38 games of the 2013 season, the 38 games they played without Curtis Granderson.

They are 5-4 since he returned to the roster after missing nearly three months with a broken right forearm suffered when he was hit by a pitch in the first at-bat of spring training.

The point is not that the Yankees are a better team without Granderson than they are with him; that is certainly not the case.

The point is that the Yankees not only survived the loss of Granderson the first time around; they actually thrived in his absence.

And there is no reason to believe they can't survive his loss again.

Not that they will have any choice but to try. Granderson left Friday night's game against the Tampa Bay Rays in the fifth inning, having suffered the consequences of another collision between baseball and body, a collision the ball always wins.

This time, it's a fractured fifth metacarpal on the left hand, also known as the pinkie, in the area at the midpoint of the wrist and the knuckle. This is also known as a "boxer's fracture," because it is most commonly caused by the collision of fist and skull, a collision that is always won by the skull.

But no matter what you call it, it is another body blow to a team that has already absorbed a season's worth of them but somehow keeps on coming.

The Yankees were already leading 6-0 Friday night when Granderson disappeared into the dugout, probably not to re-emerge for another 4-6 weeks.

And they wound up going on to a 9-4 win over the Rays at Tropicana Field, a place that has been like a house of horrors for them over the past three seasons, a place in which they have lost 13 of their past 17 games.

And even when it seemed as if the baseball gremlins had exacted what seems like their nightly pound of flesh from the Yankees, they still had to weather another anxious moment when David Phelps, who started the game and set down the first 13 batters he faced, took a line shot off his pitching arm with two out in the eighth inning and was removed from the game.

In a major upset, Phelps' X-ray came back negative, and he insisted afterward that he would make his next start. "I'll be fine," he said, his forearm wrapped in about 30 yards of Ace bandage.

Most likely he will, and so will the Yankees.

With 47 games in the books, the story of this season so far is not what the Yankees have done -- which is won 29 of them and grabbed sole possession of first place in the AL East -- but how they have done it, or, more accurately, what they have done it in spite of.

Before a pitch was even thrown, the Yankees knew they would be without Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Granderson, Michael Pineda and Phil Hughes for various lengths of time, most of them substantial.

Since the season began, they have also lost Kevin Youkilis, Eduardo Nunez, Francisco Cervelli, Andy Pettitte, Ivan Nova and Joba Chamberlain.

Add in the offseason defections/rejections of Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones and it is obvious that a great chunk of this team's infrastructure had been torn down.

And yet, they keep on winning. On the field, they miss almost no one. The statistics show a slight decline in power -- last season's Yankees had hit 72 home runs and scored 217 runs to this point and this season, the numbers are 59 and 204 -- but not the standings.

After 47 games, the 2012 Yankees were 26-21 and in third place, 2½ games out; the 2013 Yankees, the walking-wounded, makeshift, bargain-basement quasi-Yankees, are 29-18 and a game in front.

So it makes sense to see this latest injury in what seems like an endless procession of hurts for what it is -- a personal catastrophe for Granderson, who not only must go through another long recovery and rehab process but is heading into free agency, as well -- rather than what conventional wisdom would tell us it should be.

"It's heartbreaking," Phelps said. "He puts in all the hard work to get back, and now he's got to do it all over again. But he's proven to himself that he can do it, so there's no doubt he'll be back and be a big part of our lineup for the rest of the season."

At no point did Phelps speak of the effect on the team, because, well, to this point, there really hasn't been any, no matter who the latest victim is.

"It's a big loss. We know what kind of player he is, and what he's capable of doing in the game," Robinson Cano said. "Last thing you want, like I said, is to see one of your teammates go down again. It's going to hurt all of us. He's one of the guys you can't replace."

But if the Yankees have proven anything already this season, it is that they can replace even the guys you think they can't replace.

Granderson went down and Vernon Wells, written off as a washed-up, overpaid anchor on the roster of the Los Angeles Angels, comes to the Yankees and begins playing like it's 2006 all over again.

Teixeira went down and the Yankees snapped up Lyle Overbay almost as soon as the Red Sox released him in the final gasps of spring training. He has been a more-than-adequate replacement, both on the field and at the plate.

A-Rod went down and the Yankees signed Youkilis, who also looked used-up last season, but he did OK for a couple of weeks, and when he went down, there were a couple of stopgaps -- Jayson Nix, Chris Nelson -- until David Adams became available from Triple-A; and he has showed nothing but poise and ability in his first eight games, hitting .323.

Even Jeter's absence has barely been noted due to the capable play of Nunez and Nix at shortstop.

Earlier Friday, Joe Girardi made official what has seemed obvious and logical for weeks now, that Phelps would replace Nova in the rotation, and Phelps justified that call with his work in the first five innings of the game.

With Chamberlain out, Shawn Kelly and Preston Claiborne have stepped up. And on Saturday, Vidal Nuno, who pitched an excellent game in emergency duty in the Yankees' makeup doubleheader in Cleveland two weeks ago, gets a chance to do it again, replacing Pettitte against the Rays' so-far-unbeatable Matt Moore.

It has been a truly remarkable performance by a team that seemed to have had every reason to lower its expectations, and its performance, while waiting for the "real" Yankees to heal up and return to the lineup.

That is a testament to GM Brian Cashman, who rolled the dice on guys like Wells and Overbay, and to Girardi, who made it clear to his club that while the names on the lineup card might be different for a while, the expectations would be the same.

Most of all, it is a testament to the players who have not shrunk from the pressure but have grown in spite of it.

These are the "real" Yankees, and the loss of Curtis Granderson, even for another two months, is not likely to change that.