Yanks poised for big things after strong first half

Yanks poised for big things after strong first half

NEW YORK -- Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the Yankees' first half was that even as they hit the All-Star break with the game's best record and in command of their division, they still held a sense that there should be more to offer.

You needed to look no further than the pleasantly satisfied attitude the club flashed between games of a Saturday doubleheader at Fenway Park, as the Yankees soundly won in the first game and celebrated like Little Leaguers with a mid-afternoon spread of McDonald's Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets.

Club breakdowns
First-half highlights

"As you can see, it's just nice and relaxed in here, man," Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher said. "It's nice. It's nice to be in that spot. We feel like we've had a great first half."

That's no guarantee of future success, and of course the gold standard for a winning season in the Bronx still begins and ends with the hoisting of what would be a 28th World Series championship banner.

Still, for all the hand-wringing about injuries, inconsistency and under-performance that the Yankees have deflected, they still charged into the second half with the Majors' most victories, most homers and perhaps the most confidence that any losing skid will be a short one.

"I think it's probably all the veterans that we have," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Very seldom do we send out a young player. Guys have been through it before, and they understand you're going to go through some tough times. Some days you're not going to swing the bats, but every day is a new opportunity."

Highlighted by a 10-game winning streak from June 8-18 against National League East clubs, the Yankees surged to the head of their division with a 20-win June, having finished play for the month of May in third place, 1 1/2 games out of the American League East lead.

They did so despite a rash of injuries that began most prominently with the loss of all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera to a season-ending right knee injury on May 3. Rivera vowed that he will return for the 2013 season, at age 43, but in the meantime, the Yankees have filled in for his absence with stellar relief work.

First-half awards
MVP: Robinson Cano The All-Star second baseman hit 11 homers in June, his most in any calendar month, and was named the AL's Player of the Week for the period ending July 1.
Cy Young: CC Sabathia He'd be the first to admit that his first half was more of a battle than a display of dominance, but the big lefty still went 9-3 with a 3.45 ERA and led the club with 105 strikeouts.
Rookie: David Phelps The right-hander emerged from the farm system and has done it all for the Yankees, pitching as a long reliever, short reliever and making three starts.
Top reliever: Rafael Soriano The Yankees surely miss Mariano Rivera, but not as much as they might if Soriano hadn't been around to lock down the closer's role.

Rafael Soriano seized hold of Rivera's job and flashed signs of the dominance that helped him secure 45 saves for the Rays in 2010, while David Robertson returned to the eighth inning after an oblique injury, and the club got big contributions from Boone Logan, Clay Rapada and Cody Eppley, the latter of whom Girardi called his biggest surprise of the first half.

"I think the credit has to go to the guys in the bullpen, and what they've been able to do and how they've stepped up," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. "We've had to increase a lot of their roles. ... That's been real important to our success."

So, too, has hitting the ball over the wall -- something by which the Yankees unabashedly live and die. With a Major League-high seven players owning 10 homers or more, knocking one out of the park is their answer to any lingering issues with runners in scoring position.

"This team is designed to hit home runs; it's kind of our thing," Swisher said. "Everyone talks about hits with runners in scoring position, but if you hit 200 home runs a year as a team, that's going to score you an awful lot of runs."

It was a blow to lose Andy Pettitte for two months with a broken left ankle, but the Yankees were relieved that CC Sabathia's left groin strain was not more serious and have him in line to start in the second half. Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes and -- recently -- Freddy Garcia overcame shaky performances in April to help the staff, and rookie David Phelps has proved useful.

Players to watch in second half
Nick Swisher The outgoing outfielder would certainly welcome a big second-half push, as his contract situation remains unresolved after this season. Swisher is one of three AL players with 20 or more homers in the last seven seasons, along with Paul Konerko and David Ortiz.
Alex Rodriguez A-Rod has said that he feels healthy and strong, and certainly the Yankees have taken great care to keep him well rested this year. Now would be a great time for A-Rod to prove he can still get hot and carry a team for a week or more.
Curtis Granderson He may not think of himself as a home run hitter, but the scoreboard doesn't lie. Yankee Stadium is perfect for Granderson's left-handed stroke, and he has developed into a lethal threat against both lefties and righties. A 40-homer season is within reach.
"We've been tested a little bit more than we'd like to be tested around here," Alex Rodriguez said. "Guys have stepped up. It's a long season. When you come out of Spring Training and break camp, you don't expect to have 25 guys healthy the whole year."

Girardi has confidence that more production is on the horizon. A-Rod seemed to be largely reduced to a singles hitter at times during the first half, yet a 30-homer season still appears within range.

Mark Teixeira came around from early-season struggles, battling his usual April slump as well as a lingering cough, while Robinson Cano started his warmup early for the State Farm Home Run Derby with an 11-homer showing in June.

"There's no explaining it; I've just been taking advantage of pitches down the middle," Cano said. "I feel the same way I felt in the beginning of the season. I feel good."

Brett Gardner has played just nine games this season due to a right elbow strain, yet the Yankees have held the fort with Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones in left field. Girardi also believes catcher Russell Martin will be an improved hitter in the second half.

"You just try to continue to encourage him and tell him not to try to do too much," Girardi said. "I worry about him trying to make up for what has happened the first 81 games. You can't, but you surely can have a great second half."

The Yankees are also optimistic that they may get Gardner and Joba Chamberlain back on the big league roster at some point in the near future, reinforcing what has already proven to be a winning club.

"We feel really confident about what we're doing," Swisher said. "We've just got to keep going out there and playing Bombers baseball, and we'll see what happens."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.