It was a rare opportunity for the Yankees to exhale during this sprint of an American League East race. After what must have been one of their most stressful stretches of the year, the Yanks seemed to enjoy the spoils of a much-needed 13-3 drubbing of the Orioles.
"You're assuming that we had stress," captain Derek Jeter said, the sliver of a smirk hinting at one corner of his mouth. "I wouldn't necessarily say that. We're just trying to win games. We played some tough teams. Sometimes tough teams are going to beat you."
The Yanks awoke on Monday morning still owning a precarious one-game advantage in the division, having survived a 10-game gauntlet against the O's and Rays. There are 22 games remaining, but manager Joe Girardi said it is too early to begin counting down.
"We still have a lot of important games left," Girardi said. "Every win that you get at this point, it almost seems, because of the time of year, that it's doubly important."
New York picked up two wins in a four-game weekend series in Baltimore, and though the club cried foul when Mark Teixeira was called out on a game-ending play Saturday, perhaps some of the angst was born from knowing that a better outing from CC Sabathia would have helped the Yankees' chances immensely.
Winning Sunday's series finale seemed extremely important in particular to Teixeira, who will have a MRI performed on Monday to determine the state of his strained left calf and is hoping to return this weekend against Tampa Bay.
"It shows our character, shows our heart," Teixeira said. "We battle for every pitch, every run, every game. We have a group of guys who want to win very badly. After a disappointing loss [Saturday] night, we come back and win, and win big. It was great to see."
It is of little consequence at this point that the Yankees did own a 10-game advantage in the division on July 18, holding about as much bearing on this race as Reggie Jackson's three homers or Ron Guidry's 18 strikeouts. The Yanks never expected to run away with the AL East, and the reality is that they probably will have a fight to the finish.
"It's all right in front of us," general manager Brian Cashman said. "I know it's easier said than done and I'm not belittling how difficult that stuff is. I know we've certainly got a hell of a competition going with both Baltimore and Tampa Bay. But I know we're up for that challenge and we're not afraid of it. I know our guys are not afraid of it."
Wielding a rotation that has struggled to strike dominant notes -- to be fair, Phil Hughes has pitched well of late, but even reliable Hiroki Kuroda has wobbled some -- the Yankees may just have to rely on their offense to power the final push.
Curtis Granderson had been ice-cold in recent weeks, but after a three-hit, five-RBI performance Sunday, the center fielder expressed optimism that the bats can still save the day.
"If everything is clicking right, we can," Granderson said. "If we are able to do those things, this offense definitely has the potential to carry us to victories day in and day out."
It would be silly to keep expecting the 13 runs they produced on Sunday, but to wrap up a week in which hitting coach Kevin Long floated bunts as the cure-all on a glum night at Tropicana Field, there were signs that the Bombers were coming back to life.
Other than Nick Swisher, who is in an 0-for-28 skid, the Yanks have seen production in the order. Along with hot runs by Russell Martin and Ichiro Suzuki, Alex Rodriguez's return has certainly fueled optimism; Rodriguez is 8-for-26 with two doubles and two homers since coming off the disabled list.
"As an offense, we need to stay focused on our goals," Rodriguez said. "If we can come out and score five to six runs per night, you can go from there."
That stat, six runs per night, was something Rodriguez brought up when the Yankees held a team meeting on Wednesday, then marched out to beat the Rays.
"Home runs are sexy, but ultimately they don't win championships," Rodriguez said. "It's about timely hitting, good at-bats, passing the baton."
The Yanks know there is an opportunity to create distance this week, heading to Boston for a three-game series that looks much cushier than it promised to when the schedule makers sketched the trip out last year.
Bobby Valentine's squad may be a shell of the one he brought to Spring Training this year, but with winning the division as their only goal, the Yankees know that they can't afford to be lulled into a false sense of security.
"At this point, there's no letdown," Jeter said. "You go to Boston, I don't care what their record is. It's always a fun atmosphere, the games are big, the fans get into it. We don't have the luxury of letting down."