Yankees searching for their identity

Yankees searching for their identity

NEW YORK -- All along, the Yankees have tried to not use last season as a crutch, believing that miraculously returning once from a large deficit to make the playoffs does not ensure that it can be done again.

The tweak to the stance is that -- if Yankee Stadium is to be kept lit well beyond its closing date of Sept. 21 -- it will need to be done under the watch of a tougher American League East landscape.

As the Yankees look up in their division, they have come to realize that neither the Rays nor Red Sox are fading anytime soon, while general manager Brian Cashman continues to wrestle with the question of whether his own team is a playoff contender or just a pretender.

"We're still trying to get a firm grasp on what we are," Cashman said recently. "I know right now we're not one of the top four teams. We can be, despite all of the injuries. Injuries are part of the game -- Anaheim has fought through them, Boston has fought through them. That's part of championship-caliber DNA; you fight through that stuff. That's not the issue. The issue is finding a way to get through it."

Coming into the season, one of the points of pride was the Yankees' durable nature. Neither Jorge Posada nor Johnny Damon had spent a day on the disabled list in their careers, and both now have. Alex Rodriguez missed 16 games with a strained right quadriceps; Hideki Matsui's arthritic left knee acted up and may require season-ending surgery; and staff ace Chien-Ming Wang was the most damaging pitching injury, due back in September at the absolute earliest.

The Yankees' underperformance with runners in scoring position has been one key flaw, though Cashman offered a vote of support to hitting coach Kevin Long. Still, the inconsistency is troubling -- how else to make sense of the strange sequence earlier this month, when the Yankees scored 18 runs on July 2 and then were shut out the next night.

"From ownership's perspective, they've put some big iron out on the table," Cashman said. "We know what the DNA of this team is supposed to be. We're not living up to that at the very least."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi has tried to preach sunshine while occasionally dressing down his roster behind closed doors, and thus far, the players have only responded to the challenges with mixed results.

6/04, NYY 5, TOR 1 -- Jeter passes Mantle
Derek Jeter passes Mickey Mantle on the Yankees' all-time list with hit No. 2,416.
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6/05, NYY 9, TOR 8 -- Giambi ends drama
Jason Giambi hits a pinch-hit two-run homer to beat the Jays in the ninth.
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6/12, NYY 4, OAK 1 -- Birthday bash
Hideki Matsui powers the Yankees' offense with a grand slam on his 34th birthday.
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6/25, NYY 10, PIT 0 -- Joba's first win
Joba Chamberlain picks up his first Major League win as a starter.
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7/06, NYY 5, BOS 4 -- A-Rod ties Mantle
Alex Rodriguez ties Mickey Mantle for 13th on the all-time homer list with No. 536.
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"I look at it as, we're not where we want to be. That's the bottom line," Girardi said. "How people want to evaluate that, that's up to them. But I look at it as not where we want to be. We got on a roll, we had a great road trip when we went to Oakland and Houston." But then the Yankees sputtered and, as Girardi added, "You can't really afford to do that in our division."

Even as the Yankees mix and match on the pitching side, snapping up Sidney Ponson from the castoff pile to help their starting rotation, it is their lack of athleticism that worries some -- the Rays ran circles around the veteran Bombers earlier this season, and while some youth has found its way to the Major League level, Damon was among those who worried the Yankees still might not be able to keep up.

"We've got an uphill battle going against two very good teams, teams that are possibly more athletic than us," Damon said. "Tampa Bay's more athletic than anybody out there. We have an uphill battle."

Cashman said that he has seen character from the Yankees, battling through adversity, but he understands that time is running thin for a run to develop. There is no guarantee that outside help will be made available by the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, leaving Cashman to ponder if the team has enough strength to pull off a run from within.

"If the playoffs started today, we're not in," Cashman said. "We've got to put ourselves in position to be one of those four teams. We've got to find a way to get there, myself included. We just keep grinding through it, mixing and matching, and if we have to change the furniture a little bit, we'll keep trying that until something clicks and gets us in the right direction."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.