NEW YORK -- The closer you look, the more the 2013 Yankees look like a mirage. Until you look at their bullpen.
The lineup has been mostly mediocre since a surge in the season's first two weeks. The rotation has one man pitching like a star, two pitching well and two spots with plenty of uncertainty. They don't catch the ball especially well.
But they're 25-14, two games clear of the Orioles in the American League East and sporting the Junior Circuit's best record. It's a bit baffling, for a moment at least.
It may look like magic, but in large part, it's very simple. It's the bullpen. The Yanks have MLB's second-best record despite the seventh-best run differential thanks to the fact they just don't lose leads.
New York is 19-0 when leading after six innings, 22-0 when leading after seven and 22-0 when leading after eight. The Yankees have lost twice all year after having a lead at any point in a ballgame. They're 8-2 in one-run games and 16-5 in one- or two-run games.
And that dude in the ninth? He's pretty good. Mariano Rivera is 16-for-16 in save opportunities, with the season less than one quarter over. A team that must win one-run games, that must not let leads get away, is sticking to that script.
"I think winning those games [is] extremely important," said manager Joe Girardi. "Those games can have a real effect when you start losing them. Our bullpen has done a great job for us this year. We've had a lot of close games. Mo has 16 saves. That's quite a pace that he's on."
So you can look at Tuesday night's 4-3 win against the Mariners as another gritty, gutty, eked-out win by the Little Bombers That Could. Or you can give credit to the unit that has kept them going strong all year: the relief corps.
The Yanks did very little against Mariners starter Felix Hernandez, not that that's any great crime. They squeezed out three runs against the Seattle bullpen. Starter CC Sabathia, the other half of a Cy Young vs. Cy Young matchup, didn't locate particularly well and was done after 6 1/3 innings and 10 hits.
And then that Yankees relief corps took over, and before long the game was in the books for the home team. Shawn Kelley escaped a jam created by Sabathia in the seventh. David Robertson worked around a leadoff walk and a poor decision on a sacrifice attempt in the eighth. And Rivera was Rivera, breezing through the ninth as he always seems to do.
The Yankees are starting to get healthy. They got Curtis Granderson back on Tuesday, and Mark Teixeira may be next. Their 2013 offense won't ever approximate the homer-rific squads of a decade ago, but it's going to be stronger in the near future.
That will take some of the pressure off of the 'pen. It will provide a little extra margin for error, so that New York doesn't have to win every close game. For now, though, it's pretty essential. The Yankees are not going to rack up huge run totals most of the time. They may not get many dominant performances from the starters.
For the time being, the Yankees' best way to win games may be by scores like 4-3 and 5-4. And they appear to be up to the task.
"It's unbelievable," Sabathia said. "We knew coming into the season that that was going to be one of our stronger points on the team, and these guys haven't disappointed. They've come out every time out and given us a chance to win and shut down games when we needed to. It's exciting."