"That's why you play the games -- anything can happen," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "You've got to go out there and play well every day, regardless of who you're playing. That's why you don't do things on paper."
The Yankees have been perched in the division's top spot since July 20, and by reeling off a 9-1 homestand at Yankee Stadium coming out of the All-Star break, they showcased a little bit of what they could look like at their best.
"We've been playing great team ball," Nick Swisher said then. "I'll tell you what, we couldn't ask for better starting pitching than what we've been getting. I think that's a huge key for all of us. It makes the rest of the day a lot easier."
The Road Ahead
|Home games remaining: ||29|
|Road games remaining: ||28|
|Games vs. teams over .500: ||32|
|Key series: ||vs. Boston, Aug. 6-9|
| ||at Boston, Aug. 21-23|
| ||at Angels, Sept. 21-23|
| ||vs. Boston, Sept. 25-27|
But that enjoyable stay, plus a three-game stint at Tropicana Field that left victories in the hip pockets of A.J. Burnett and Joba Chamberlain, was followed by a major stumble on the streets of Chicago.
New York lost three of four to the White Sox, who ran ragged on the Bombers' pitching staff before CC Sabathia finally put a halt to the bleeding with a five-run, seven-plus inning outing on Sunday heading into the Yankees' off-day. It wasn't pretty, but they'd count their blessings.
"You can't be perfect all the time," Jeter said. "If you were perfect all the time, you'd never struggle. Struggles are a part of seasons. You've just got to fight your way out of it."
Despite those tests, the Yankees still feel as though they have the stuff to take this show into October.
"We're extremely happy," manager Joe Girardi said. "You have to look at the way we've played since about May 1st. That's pretty good. We've played at a very high level. We're trying to get to that next level of 25 [games] over .500, and after that, 30. We'll just keep pressing forward."
The two headliners of the pitching staff have stepped up, as Sabathia incorporated mechanical tweaks and is 3-1 with a 4.39 ERA in his last four outings, while A.J. Burnett is 5-1 with a 3.20 ERA in his last seven starts.
"They've been able to be on top of their pitches and execute some pitches," catcher Jorge Posada said. "We've gone through some good game plans and we've been able to execute."
The $243.5 million tandem has combined for 21 victories already, but don't count them as satisfied.
"It's not what I had in mind yet," Burnett said. "When we get to the postseason, that's what I have in mind."
The Bombers shuffled their pitching rotation over the weekend, part of the secret plan for scaling back Chamberlain's inning count to approximately 160 -- he's up to 110 2/3 heading into Thursday's start against Boston in the Bronx.
Chamberlain might be the biggest reason the Yankees feel optimistic for their second-half pitching. He found something during a four-day break in a Nebraska backyard, playing with 3-year-old son Karter, and has gone 3-0 with a 0.83 ERA in three starts since then.
"I've got faith in my teammates and I've got faith in myself," Chamberlain said. "We work so hard for a reason. We're just doing what got us here."
Though he hasn't been similarly rewarded, stalwart Andy Pettitte has also given the Yankees a consistent chance to win and slots in nicely at the back end.
He was winless in five starts going into Tuesday's head-to-head tilt with Roy Halladay in Toronto, but Pettitte has a 2.70 ERA over his last three efforts with 23 strikeouts in 20 innings.
"He could be 3-0 after the All-Star Break, too," Girardi said. "We just haven't scored him very many runs. I even said before the All-Star break, I thought he was throwing better. His cutter has been very good and that's increased the number of strikeouts."
That leaves the fifth spot as the one glaring weakness, as fill-in Sergio Mitre self-evaluated the first of his three starts as "OK" and the other two as "horrible."
In his last effort, Mitre lasted just three innings and 75 pitches at Chicago, taking a no-decision in New York's 10-5 loss. But there are few other choices down below -- general manager Brian Cashman named Kei Igawa and Ivan Nova as the next pitchers in line at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
"I'm not sure that we have a lot of options at this point," Girardi said. "He's got to get it done for us."
Mitre said he feels it's a great opportunity to try to keep the line moving in a rotation that seems to feed off one another.
"You can definitely see one of them goes out there, and the next guy goes out there and they follow each other going deep into ballgames," Mitre said. "I'm just trying to go out there and do my job and getting into the late innings as much as possible."
While the Yankees never danced seriously with the Jays on Halladay, they would have liked to acquire left-hander Jarrod Washburn from the Mariners before he went to the Tigers for two prospects. But Seattle wanted outfield prospect Austin Jackson, a bounty the Yankees wouldn't cough up.
Of course, should the Yankees make it to October and end their one-year absence, a fifth starter becomes relatively unimportant. The key is making it there, which is why Cashman said he must remain engaged with the waiver wire to see if there is more support for the taking.
"I don't think the moves are done," Girardi said. "I think you'll see a lot of moves in August. Brian will continue to try to address the depth question and, for me, I've got to worry about the guys that are here. I'll continue to focus on them."