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Yanks' week ahead may bring choices

Yanks' week ahead may bring choices

It took about six months of baseball to do it, but the Yankees have finally discovered their identity. They've seen how disappointingly mediocre they can be when all is not right and how utterly dominating they can be when everything clicks. The latter situation -- especially recently -- has outweighed the former, so with one week remaining in perhaps their most confusing season in years, the Yankees no longer need to wonder if they'll be playing come October.

Now, the only question is when they'll know for sure.

Barring a complete collapse, the Yankees should earn their 13th straight postseason experience sometime early this week. They need some combination of two wins or two Tigers losses to clinch, at which point -- for the first time in a long time -- they can finally look ahead.

And when they've finished exhaling a sigh that's been building since Opening Day, the Yankees will see a choice. The Red Sox, once completely out of sight, are now well within range at 1 1/2 games up with one week to play. With a strong charge against the Devil Rays and Orioles -- the two worst teams in the American League -- the Yankees could nose past their rivals and earn their 10th straight AL East crown.

But division crowns don't make legends. World Series titles do.

"Obviously, the second season is the most important," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "You'd like to believe whoever you happen to put on the mound and play that particular day, you hope that it's going to work."

That means that the Yankees would rather spend the final week churning out a carousel of rookie pitchers than using their top arms to upend the Red Sox. Torre said there's no doubt he would forgo a shot at the division if gunning for it meant making a mess of his rotation just prior to the playoffs.

Instead, he'll begin to shuffle his regular starters as soon as New York clinches the AL Wild Card, which could be as early as Monday. With every extra game the Yankees take to clinch, their flexibility tightens a little more.

"We have to get to the postseason," Torre said. "Then, once we get there, we'll decide on how we want to line them up. The sooner we can clinch a spot, the sooner we can start making plans."

A large chunk of those plans hinges on the health of Roger Clemens, who has already been scratched from two separate starts with hamstring soreness. The Yankees would love to give the Rocket another tune-up start before the postseason, but not at the expense of his health in October.

"The good thing is, I don't think we're in desperate means, where we have to run him out there," said left-hander Andy Pettitte, who will fill in for Clemens on Monday. "Thank goodness we've been playing as well as we have."

So in one week, the Yankees will likely enter the playoffs from an unfamiliar position. But with six Wild Card teams making the World Series in the last five years and three of them winning it, that might not be the worst fate -- as long as they make it there first.

"Obviously," Torre said, "we have something we need to accomplish."

Current series vs. Blue Jays: The Yankees will forgo what would have been their final off-day on Monday to make up a game that was rained out on April 25. It's not the best timing, as what was recently a healthy six-man rotation has since been weakened, thanks to injuries to both Clemens and Ian Kennedy. Clemens was originally penciled into this slot, before his ailing left hamstring pushed him back to Tuesday. Instead, Pettitte will pitch on regular rest.

Monday: LHP Andy Pettitte (14-8, 3.79 ERA) vs. RHP Jesse Litsch (6-9, 4.16)
• Pettitte vs. Blue Jays: 16-8, 4.10 ERA in 32 games (31 starts)
• Yankees vs. RH starters: 73-46

Upcoming series at Devil Rays: The Yankees know better than to look past the Rays, as they're just 8-7 against the AL East's worst team this season. And there's nothing this talented Rays lineup would love more than to play the role of spoiler. The Yankees have struggled against lefty starters, and they'll see two of them in this series, giving them all the more reason to tread carefully.

Tuesday: RHP Roger Clemens (6-6, 4.18 ERA) vs. RHP Jason Hammel (2-5, 5.88)
• Clemens vs. Devil Rays: 10-5, 3.33 ERA in 20 starts
• Hammel vs. Yankees: 1-1, 5.52 ERA in five games (three starts)
• Keep an eye on ... Mariano Rivera, who holds a 0.75 ERA in 36 innings at Tropicana Field and has blown just one career save against the Devil Rays in 45 attempts.

Wednesday: RHP Chien-Ming Wang (18-7, 3.72 ERA) vs. LHP J.P. Howell (1-5, 6.80 ERA)
• Wang vs. Devil Rays: 5-4, 3.90 ERA in 10 starts
• Howell vs. Yankees: 1-1, 5.00 ERA in three starts
• Yankees vs. LH starters: 17-19
• Keep an eye on ... Hideki Matsui, who is a career .293 hitter against lefties and has three hits -- including two doubles -- in nine at-bats against Howell.

Thursday: RHP Phil Hughes (4-3, 4.80 ERA) vs. LHP Scott Kazmir (13-9, 3.54 ERA)
• Hughes vs. Devil Rays: 0-1, 8.31 ERA in one start
• Kazmir vs. Yankees: 2-3, 3.20 ERA in eight games (seven starts)
• Keep an eye on ... Jorge Posada, who is batting .329 from the right side and holds a .471 career average in 17 at-bats against Kazmir.

Weekend series at Orioles: This season's final series could have any number of implications for the Yankees. There's a strong chance they'll already have clinched the Wild Card by the time Friday rolls around, so Torre's decision will be to determine whether the division crown is feasible or not. If so, he may elect to pitch Clemens and Pettitte in an attempt to upend the Red Sox. If not, he'll pitch a couple of rookies on Saturday and Sunday while lining up his rotation for the AL Division Series.

Friday: RHP Mike Mussina (11-10, 4.96 ERA) vs. RHP Jon Leicester (2-3, 6.51 ERA)
• Mussina vs. Orioles: 10-6, 4.27 ERA in 22 starts
• Leicester vs. Yankees: 0-1, 13.50 ERA in one start
• Keep an eye on ... Derek Jeter, who had two singles in his only two meetings with Leicester earlier this month.

Saturday: TBA vs. RHP Daniel Cabrera (9-17, 5.51 ERA)
• Cabrera vs. Yankees: 3-5, 4.39 ERA in 12 starts
• Keep an eye on ... Alex Rodriguez, who boasts a .370 average in 27 at-bats against Cabrera, including two doubles and two home runs.

Sunday: TBA vs. RHP Victor Zambrano (0-2, 6.41 ERA)
• Zambrano vs. Yankees: 5-6, 4.42 ERA in 22 games (13 starts)
• Keep an eye on ... Jason Giambi, who has homered three times in 27 at-bats against Zambrano. He's been dangerous even when he hasn't swung the bat, walking 10 times against the often erratic right-hander.

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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