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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Yankees are finally looking more like Yankees

Yankees are finally looking more like Yankees

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Yankees are finally looking more like Yankees

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Go ahead and admit that everything is better when the Yankees are interesting. You know, food tastes better, sunshine is brighter, etc., etc.

No? OK, you may not love the Yankees. You may even hate the Yankees. You may hate the Yankees more than you root for your own team. Love 'em or hate 'em, you can't ignore 'em.

Anyway, for the last few months, the Yanks haven't been a factor in this baseball season. They made plenty of noise, but it was largely the wrong kind. In fact, it was remarkable to watch them scratch and claw to stay above .500 with an offense that was no better than that of the Astros.

And then...

Alfonso Soriano arrived via trade. Curtis Granderson came off the disabled list. So did Alex Rodriguez. Throwing them into a lineup that already had Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner gave the Yankees a drastically different look.

Suddenly, they began to resemble the team they always thought they'd be. Or something closer. Looking back on it, A-Rod may have done them a favor, because while he dominated the news coverage, the Yanks were becoming a pretty solid baseball team.

They've won 10 of 12 to run their record to 67-59. In that time, they're hitting .314 and averaging 6.3 runs per game. Their 76 runs are 18 more than any other American League team has scored in the past 12 days.

Red Sox slugger David Ortiz fretted that Ryan Dempster's silly plunking of A-Rod on Sunday night may have ignited the Yankees. True, they're 5-0 since the incident. But they were already playing well. What has happened since the the plunking is the Yanks have made a major move on the teams ahead of them in the standings.

In the last four days, the Yankees have cut their deficit from 6 1/2 games to 3 1/2 in the race for the second AL Wild Card berth. Meanwhile, they've picked up ground in the AL East, going from 11 games behind the first-place Red Sox to six.

Soriano is hitting .354 during the 10-2 stretch. His presence has allowed manager Joe Girardi to use Vernon Wells, who is hitting .307 against left-handed pitching, in more favorable matchups. If Derek Jeter has anything left in the tank, if A-Rod can keep it going, the Yanks have a chance to do something almost no one thought possible.

Yes, I know they're not a perfect team. CC Sabathia has looked positively average at times. So has Andy Pettitte. Even Mariano Rivera has had some bad moments lately.

That's not the larger point, which is that in a season when they seemed absolutely dead in the water, the Yankees may still make some noise in September. Sometimes, when veteran teams see that it's just not going to happen this year, they'll lose their focus.

These Yankees never did. That they never gave up on the season, that they kept going hard every step of the way is a huge tribute to Girardi and to the players in that clubhouse.

It was striking last Spring Training to listen to the Yanks as they lost player after player and as general manager Brian Cashman struggled to fill holes on his roster with players who'd been released by other clubs.

Despite all the holes on the roster, despite the strength of the AL East, Girardi and Cashman and Pettitte and others said absolutely nothing had changed. The Yankees were still in it to win a championship, and anything less would be seen as a failure.

In that way, George Steinbrenner's spirit burns brightly through the franchise more than three years after his death. Regardless of how many players go down, the Yankees are measured only one way.

With Gardner at the top of the lineup and Cano, Soriano and A-Rod in the middle, the Yanks are good enough to at least make things interesting down the stretch. This weekend's road series on the road against the Rays is one more measuring stick of how much they've grown in the last few weeks.

Their September schedule includes 12 games against teams with losing records, including the final three in Houston. They've also got 15 games against the three teams in front of them -- Boston, Tampa Bay and Baltimore.

For the last couple of months, it looked like the Yankees might be playing a spoiler role in the final weeks, and maybe that's how it'll play out. For now, though, they've done a remarkable job getting themselves back into contention. They'll never be looked at as plucky underdogs. That would be silly. Consummate pros? That's more like it.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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