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Girardi at his best in 2013 keeping Yankees together

Despite struggles, injuries, manager keeping team in postseason discussion @RichardJustice

This season has been Joe Girardi's finest hour as Yankees manager. Through all the injuries and all the disappointment, they're still hanging around, six games behind the Red Sox in the American League East and 1 1/2 games out in the AL Wild Card race.

To have done this with a patchwork lineup dotted with castoffs and a starting rotation that hasn't been nearly as good as advertised is a tribute to many things, including clubhouse leadership, effort, etc.

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There really is magic in those pinstripes. The Yankees surely have gotten more from Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay, etc., than they thought possible. Those players are a tribute to general manager Brian Cashman's judgement and to their own smarts and work ethic and professionalism.

But it all begins with the manager. In challenging times, his job is to keep the effort consistent and the environment positive. He does this in a variety of ways, the most important being his demeanor.

If he does not keep his composure, he can't ask his players to keep theirs. If he's the same as always, if he's positive and consistent and unwavering, the players get the message.

If he shows up each day focused only on winning THAT day, that is, not worrying about tomorrow or next week or next month, the players get that message, too. His job then is to put the guys he has available in position to succeed, to gets them to play fundamentally sound baseball and to keep the distractions out in the hallway.

Girardi has passed these tests with flying colors. Now with Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter perhaps a month from returning and with Cashman shopping for help, the Yankees seem to be in a better place than almost anyone could have imagined last Spring Training when they were gutted by injuries and slower-than-expected recoveries from surgery.

There's no way of knowing if they've got enough to make the playoffs for the 18th time in 19 seasons. The Red Sox have spent 81 days leading the AL East and opened up a 4 1/2-game lead, so they might just be the best team.

The Orioles got better this week with the acquisition of Scott Feldman, and David Price's return means the Rays are close to being whole again. A case can be made for any of those three teams being better than the Yankees.

Jeter's return will mean plenty in the clubhouse and the lineup. If he were any other 39-year-old shortstop coming off a gruesome ankle injury, there'd be significant questions about what he was still capable of contributing.

But he's not. He's Derek Jeter. He hasn't been considered normal for a long time, and there's no reason to do so now. He hit .316 last season and seemed to be about the same player he'd always been.

A-Rod's situation is more complicated, because Biogenesis suspensions could be coming, and because he looked overmatched, especially by right-handed pitching, at times last season.

If A-Rod and Jeter both can still play at a high level and if Curtis Granderson and Kevin Youkilis get back in the lineup for the last 10 weeks or so, the Yankees would seem to have a puncher's chance of getting back to the postseason.

No matter how it plays out, Girardi has done a tremendous job. New York can extract its pound of flesh -- not to mention sanity -- from managers. Joe Torre did the job better than any other skipper in the Steinbrenner era.

That's because he was completely unflappable. He was unfailingly honest with his players and rock solid in everything from strategy to dealing with ownership and the media.

He created a clubhouse environment in which the focus was on baseball, and that wasn't always the case with the Yankees. He could be tough, too. Players talk about screwing up and catching a laser-like stare from the manager.

Having watched a lot of good men almost come undone by the job, some of us thought no one would ever handle the position as well as Torre did.

But Girardi is right there. He's the same every day. He's positive every day. He communicates with his players, both the good news and the bad. He's strategically sound.

Some fans criticize him for sticking to "the book" too often, but this is silly criticism. When Girardi does something, he has a reason for doing it. To do anything else would be to play a hunch, which most of baseball's best managers haven't done for years.

In ways large and small, Girardi probably is the prototype for every future Yankee manager. He hasn't been dealt a great hand, but he has made the most of it. No matter what happens, the Yankees have the right guy in charge, both in 2013 and the years ahead.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

New York Yankees