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Now's the time for Bombers to go for it

Yankees: The time is now

NEW YORK -- Ivan Rodriguez has spent the majority of his career in the American League, so he is intimately familiar with both the Yankees and the Red Sox --- he knows the greatness of both organizations, the nuances and quirks of two classics who play home games in storied facilities.

Yet while Rodriguez is well aware of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry and how two of baseball's most passionate fan bases react when their rosters clash, it is still almost a rumor to him. The late July acquisition will get his first taste of the intensity when Boston opens a three-game series at New York on Tuesday, and he will have a front-row seat to what should be a crucial set.

"I'm excited -- I can't wait until Tuesday," Rodriguez said. "I love to see those kinds of things. I've been in those things before, a lot through my career, so it's going to be fun. We've got to just take one step at a time and win games."

Of all the statistics the Yankees could compile in their remaining 32 games, wins are the most important, needed as much as oxygen or water at this point.

Their sweep of the Orioles wasn't as pretty as it was serviceable, with New York trailing in each game and watching a five-run lead fritter away on Sunday before Robinson Cano homered to center to break a seventh-inning tie. Cano called it his "best" hit of the year, and it wasn't about any sort of personal victory over Jamie Walker.

Above all, the weekend helped keep hope alive for the Yankees, particularly in the department of the American League Wild Card. Most admit that while the division is not out of question, it does seem a bit out of reach -- the Rays' 9 1/2-game advantage over the Yankees appears daunting, with Tampa Bay's little-engine-that-could primed to reach its October destination.

It's a neighborhood that the Yankees, of course, know well. They have not missed the playoffs since 1993, when their manager was Buck Showalter and the starting shortstop was not Derek Jeter -- and not even Tony Fernandez, the forever-referenced last Yankee to hit for a cycle -- but Spike Owen, he who carried a .234 batting average while letting Mike Stanley and Paul O'Neill handle the heavy lifting.

But they are in danger of not printing playoff tickets this first year of the Joe Girardi regime, taking over after Joe Torre piloted the club to 12 of their 13 straight October appearances. As co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner has been all too happy to remind the national media, the Yankees' season has been changed by injuries, a point few would contend.

Rodriguez, for example, was acquired near the trade deadline when it became apparent that Jorge Posada's ailing right shoulder could not hold up without a surgical procedure. Chien-Ming Wang is lost for the season, Joba Chamberlain's right shoulder is mending on its slow path back, and more than two months whipped by without the services of designated hitter Hideki Matsui, who has since returned and changed the landscape of the Yankees' lineup for the better.

"Having Hideki back in the lineup, everybody is starting to settle in and get that second run," Jason Giambi said. "They talk about the dog days of August, and I think everybody's starting to come out of it now and get ready, so hopefully it'll be a good September."

To make that happen, the Yankees needed nothing less than their sweep over the weekend in Baltimore, coming in the middle of a stretch when they are playing 25 of 35 games against clubs with winning records.

The Yankees were wary going in, knowing that the Orioles, though regarded as one of the softer clubs in the mix, are among the teams that always get up to play them. Clutching passports and preparing to leave Toronto, the Yankees were not in particularly terrific spirits, having dropped two of the three games and knowing that their road wouldn't be much easier once they got through customs.

Their smiles should have been more evident after work was complete on Sunday going into Monday's off-day, but the Bombers outlook was tempered with reality: the Red Sox will be checking into a midtown hotel and trudging up to the Bronx with the playoffs on their collective mind.

There is, however, a certain quality of recklessness. Why not? The chips have been down all season, so perhaps that is the perfect atmosphere for New York to go for broke.

"We have a veteran team, and we've been counted out so many times this year," Johnny Damon said. "We've got nothing to lose. We've got to go out there and just play the game. A lot of people weren't expecting us to do anything except the guys in this clubhouse now."

Girardi said that he believed the timing of Monday's off-day came at a good time for the Yankees, who opened the second half by reeling off an eight-game winning streak, but stumbled soon after.

New York has maintained a plus-.500 record since the break, playing 20-15 ball, but they have been absolutely break-even in August with 11 wins and 11 losses. They have scored just two more runs (116) than they have allowed in August, a good example of water treading.

"We get a chance to rest our bullpen, we get a chance to rest our position players that have played every day," Girardi said. "Our starters have been really going hard, they get an extra day here which i think is important, so I think it's a great time for a day off."

New York and Boston have evenly split their 12 games so far this season, meeting another six times before the championship schedule is packed away with the summer clothes, including the final series of the year Sept. 26-28 at Fenway Park.

The Yankees know that it is too early to peek ahead to that weekend of New England foliage. With a five-game deficit in the AL Wild Card -- and the pesky Twins to jump between them -- Giambi said that the Yankees can still settle into the driver's seat, playing 12 of their remaining 32 against Boston and Tampa Bay.

"It's late in the season, and the one nice thing is that we do control our own destiny," Giambi said. "We play the teams that are ahead of us, which sometimes is rare in this game, especially when you're playing for the Wild Card. We have a chance to move up in the standings, so we've got to take advantage of that."  

This week's Yankees-Sox tilt will not provide an opportunity for the home team to secure their playoff existence. But it does give them a stage where their hopes can be soundly dealt a crushing blow. It is up to the Yankees -- who begin play on Tuesday by sending Andy Pettitte to the mound, opposite the returning Tim Wakefield -- to ensure that does not happen.

"If we don't play well in that series, it sets us back some more," said Damon, "but we know the urgency of playing well in that series or winning games. So if we need a time to catch up, Tuesday's the time for us."

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

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