Long balls sink Birds

Long balls sink Birds

NEW YORK -- The Yankees know full well they're embroiled in a fight with Detroit for the American League's best record and the chance for home-field advantage throughout the postseason -- a race that remains tied following the Yankees' 5-4 win over Baltimore at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night.

Yet, the Yankees are also trying to do much more over the next week, including getting their lineup healthier and game ready, their rotation settled and their playoff pitching staff in order.

The former was at least partially accomplished with Hideki Matsui returning to left field for the first time in almost five months, Gary Sheffield playing a full game at first base without incident, while also driving in a run, and Jason Giambi reporting no problems with his left wrist and a likely return to the lineup Wednesday.

With Randy Johnson's back problems a concern, it's the latter issue regarding the pitching staff that still needs working on.

That's why Cory Lidle's strong outing Tuesday -- especially after missing his last start with tendinitis in his right forefinger -- offered the Yankees some encouraging signs should the worst happen with the Big Unit.

Whether he's needed in long relief -- or even if he's needed to replace Johnson in the rotation altogether -- Lidle's 6 2/3 innings for the win over the Orioles was a definite dose of good news.

"It was very surprising for being as idle and as down for as long as he was," manager Joe Torre said of Lidle's 60 strikes out of 87 pitches. "Early on, you could see it right away; he was pretty much throwing the ball where he wanted to. It just looked like his body had a lot of life to it."

Twelve days of rest has a way of doing that.

Lidle, who is 4-3 since moving to the Bronx this summer last pitched on Sept. 13 -- a four-inning outing in which he gave up four runs on nine hits against Tampa Bay. Yet on Tuesday night, even while allowing three solo home runs, Lidle was much more confident and on his game.

"I felt fresher, I felt more confident," said Lidle, who allowed three runs on six hits and a walk while striking out five. "I took some time off for my finger, but it helped my whole body so it's a good thing."

Throwing a few miles per hour above his norm, Lidle said he threw his splitters more aggressively and pitched with a lot more confidence, allowing him to throw strikes earlier in the count.

"He's one of those guys that when the game keeps going, he feels comfortable on the mound," said Bobby Abreu, who came over to New York with Lidle in the July trade with the Phillies, and whose two-run home run off the upper deck in right broke a 2-2 tie in the fifth inning to give the Yankees the lead for good. "He could have problems early in the game but when the game keeps going, he knows what to do. He knows the strike zone very well."

While the Yankees haven't announced their playoff roster and player roles yet, it seems clear Lidle is headed for long relief.

"However they want to use me in the postseason, that's fine with me," Lidle said. "I'll be comfortable, because either way, I'll be prepared for whatever team we play. I'll just be ready when they say my name."

After a Corey Patterson home run in the seventh got the Orioles to within one, Sheffield gave the Yankees some insurance with an RBI single in the bottom of the inning.

The Yankee bullpen took care of the rest. Mike Myers helped Lidle through the seventh, while Brian Bruney continued his stellar September with a scoreless eighth.

Despite allowing a run on three hits, Scott Proctor survived the ninth for his first Major League save, allowing closer Mariano Rivera to rest his sore right forearm after pitching Monday.

"It was definitely good to get it out of the way. Right now the goal is to hit the playoffs running," said Proctor, finishing his outing with a big exhale. "Really, just the thing is you have to remember it's just three outs. You just have to get three outs any way you can. You just have to get over the mental block that it's a big situation."

Ramon Hernandez's home run in the second inning put Baltimore up 1-0, but the Yankees tied it up in the bottom of the frame after loading the bases with one out against Hayden Penn as Johnny Damon beat out a double play, allowing the run to score.

Jay Gibbons homered in the fourth to put the Orioles back up, but Robinson Cano answered with a home run the next half-inning to tie the game again.

Cano finished the night 2-for-4, raising his average to .343 for second-best in the league behind Minnesota's Joe Mauer (.349). Derek Jeter kept himself among the batting leaders, as well, with two hits to raise his average to .341.

Abreu's blast gave the Yankees 200 home runs for the seventh consecutive season, tying them with the White Sox for the longest such streak in Major League Baseball history. Both are active streaks.

Peter Zellen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.