"I didn't really feel like my feet were on the ground today," Mitre said.
No matter. His pitches stayed low and the Yankees stayed high, beating the Orioles, 6-4, to move into sole possession of first place for the first time since June 8. And Mitre, filling in for injured righty Chien-Ming Wang, combined with a cyclical offense to win his first game since July 2007.
"We're getting great pitching and scoring runs," said third baseman Cody Ransom, who reached base three times out of the ninth spot in the lineup. "That's kind of what wins games."
That first part -- pitching -- was the chorus, uttered by Ransom, manager Joe Girardi and so many others in the Yankees' clubhouse. The Yankees have it right now, allowing an average of two runs in their five games since the All-Star break. And it is little surprise that they have won all five.
More surprising was that their No. 5 starter, the stopgap Mitre, seemed as natural on the mound as any of the other four. Until he allowed three singles in the fourth inning -- the third of them Melvin Mora's two-run knock -- Mitre was doing a fine job of keeping the Orioles in check. Mora's hit included, Mitre allowed a total of three earned runs in 5 2/3 innings, striking out four and walking one.
Not bad for a guy who is barely more than a year removed from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and who has battled arm and back troubles so frequently that he hadn't made a start since Sept. 15, 2007.
The Yankees, however, opted to sign Mitre this past winter on what the righty suspects was the advice of Girardi -- his manager with the Marlins in 2006.
"We thought that he had a real opportunity to help us at some point this year," Girardi said. "I've known him for a while, and Sergio has always been an extremely hard worker. I knew that he would get back."
Mitre did so Tuesday, after what seemed to him an interminable delay. Nearly called up two weeks ago to replace the disabled Wang, Mitre instead waited until the Yankees decided to put Alfredo Aceves in the bullpen for good. Then he had to wait through a 26-minute rain delay, which "took a long time," in his words.
By the time he threw his first pitch to Orioles leadoff hitter Brian Roberts -- a fastball that Roberts promptly smacked for a double -- Mitre could hardly contain his nerves. He allowed hits to two of the first three batters he faced and retired Luke Scott on a hard line drive to end the inning. And though he appeared to settle down after that, allowing an unearned run in the third inning, Mitre was hardly calm.
"I did OK," Mitre said. "I did pretty good for being overly excited."
Helping was the fact that the Yankees were pumping out runs off Rich Hill, Mitre's former Cubs teammate, scoring once in the second, twice in the third and three times in the fourth. Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano contributed the big blows -- the former a two-run single in the third and the latter a two-run homer to chase Hill in the fourth.
Both of those hits came off curveballs, a pitch that Girardi considers Hill's best.
And from there, the game turned to the bullpens -- a battle that the Yankees of July were not about to lose. This time it was Aceves, Phil Coke and Mariano Rivera who strung together 3 1/3 shutout innings, stopping the Orioles in their tracks and vaulting their team to its fifth straight win.
The streaky Yankees have now won five in a row on the heels of three consecutive losses that followed a run of 13 wins in 15 games. And this time, their streak has provided a tangible bit of success. Shortly after Rivera recorded the final out at Yankee Stadium, the Rangers completed a 4-2 victory over the Red Sox in Texas.
The Yankees, five games out of first place less than a month ago, now stand in sole possession of it -- even if they're not willing to acknowledge it just yet.
"We're not looking at the scoreboard, man," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "It's just way too early for all that."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.