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Yanks fight through injuries to stay afloat in AL East

With nearly half of expected lineup sidelined, quality pitching keeps club alive

NEW YORK -- If you were to boil down the Yankees' first half into a single game, their 92nd of the year might be a good place to start. That was the afternoon that Derek Jeter celebrated his return to the Bronx, only to limp away with a new leg injury after just four at-bats.

It has been that kind of year for the Yankees, where their captain could have an RBI and an MRI in the same day. They've kept the lights on for their injured cavalry, only to lose them again in the cases of Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Kevin Youkilis.

Still, the Yankees did win that game, something they've managed to do more often than not. Considering their challenges, the Yanks could not be all that upset about how they reached the All-Star break. New York sits seven games above .500 at 51-44, six games behind the division-leading Red Sox.

"I think our guys have done probably about as well as we can do," manager Joe Girardi said. "There's some games that I thought we had a chance to win, a hit here or a hit there, we might have won some games. I'm very appreciative of what they've given us and we'll continue to try to press on."

The Yanks' pitching has been their best asset through the first half, compiling a 3.74 staff ERA, ninth best in the Majors. You can make a case that Hiroki Kuroda was an All-Star snub; Kuroda's 2.65 ERA was the lowest in the American League for anyone not named Felix Hernandez, and his 8-6 record would have looked more appealing with better run support.

CC Sabathia turned in an uncharacteristic 9-8 record and 4.07 ERA, serving up a team-leading 21 homers and saying that his first half had been "terrible," but Sabathia's strong second-half track record suggests better days ahead. Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, David Phelps and Ivan Nova have each had their respective ups and downs in the rotation.

The Yankees have needed to lean on that pitching because of an offense that hit the break ranking 20th in the Majors with 373 runs scored. General manager Brian Cashman knew entering the season that the Yanks were downgrading their offense, but no one could have guessed how significant the drop would be.

First-half awards
MVP: Robinson Cano The Yankees needed Cano to step up as a leader both on the field and in the clubhouse. Despite a lack of protection, his .302 average, 21 homers and 65 RBIs all lead the team.
Cy Young: Hiroki Kuroda All you need to know is this: after Kuroda's last start of the first half, Mariano Rivera said, "That man is a machine. I'm glad I'm on his team."
Rookie: Preston Claiborne Overlooked this spring, the right-hander has compiled a 2.43 ERA in his first 25 appearances, striking out 24 batters in 29 2/3 innings and issuing just five walks.
Top reliever: Mariano Rivera A 1.83 ERA and he has now reached the 30-saves plateau for the 15th time in his career, another all-time record. Is it too late to talk him out of this retirement idea?.

"I'm proud of this team," Sabathia said. "No matter what, we've dealt with a lot of adversity, and to still be right there in the middle of this thing I think is an accomplishment in itself. We look forward to getting the guys back and hopefully looking to take off in the second half."

Early injuries to Teixeira and Granderson had the Yankees scrambling, and Cashman scoured the equivalent of baseball's scrap heap to field an Opening Day lineup. The Yanks took on Vernon Wells' unattractive contract from the Angels and picked up Lyle Overbay as a free agent, quite literally hours after he'd been discarded by the Red Sox.

Both played big roles in a surprising 30-18 start, while new designated hitter Travis Hafner -- the newest of Cashman's "big hairy monsters" -- had a strong first month before falling off. Wells said he gave the first half "a passing grade."

"I think we've achieved a little more than outsiders would have thought," Wells said. "I think we still could have positioned ourselves a little better. I think this has been a season that's been very unique when it comes to this uniform, the amount of injuries we've had, and the guys that have been in and out."

At times, the Yankees centered a lineup around Robinson Cano that looked more appropriate for Spring Training road trips, but Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki and rookie Zoilo Almonte delivered big hits in the first half to diminished some of the urgency of patching the roster.

Players to watch in second half
Derek Jeter The captain sums up his mission as to "get on base, score runs and try to help us win." Same as always. The Yankees have missed his presence and leadership greatly.
Alex Rodriguez A-Rod could be activated on July 22 at Texas. What can the Yanks expect from him coming off hip surgery, and will he seem distracted by the Biogenesis investigation?
Curtis Granderson The Yankees expect Granderson to return in August. After hitting a career-high 43 homers last year, bad luck has limited him to 28 at-bats this season.

Despite going 21-26 in their last 47 games, the Yanks figure to be buyers as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches. Cashman has shown willingness to make even marginal upgrades; they've already burned through six shortstops while still waiting for Jeter to play his first game there this year.

"We still have a lot of games against the Red Sox and the Rays and the Orioles, so we can pick up some ground as long as we don't panic and try to do too much," Overbay said. "They're bound to have some kind of hiccup, and hopefully we'll be on a roll."

One encouraging point is that the Yankees' bullpen has been capable of holding whatever leads they are given. Mariano Rivera has looked timeless in what he promises will be his final season, converting 30 saves and compiling a 1.83 ERA while he takes his famed cutter on one last tour around the league.

David Robertson (2.11 ERA) was a worthy candidate for the All-Star team and Boone Logan had some big moments in the first half. Girardi had reason to elevate Shawn Kelley and rookie Preston Claiborne past Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen's pecking order, displaying the strength of the relief crew.

It's possible that the Yankees could deal an arm to bolster an offense that ranks 24th in batting average, 24th in on-base percentage and 26th in slugging percentage. Granderson should come back in August and Alex Rodriguez's expected return may help, but it should not be a surprise if the Yanks shop for more.

This has not been a typical summer in the Bronx, but they still can move back into the driver's seat -- they'll come out of the break with 12 consecutive games against teams with records over .500, including the Red Sox, Rangers, Rays and Dodgers. It's a good opportunity to prove who this team really is.

"I think there's urgency, no matter what," Wells said. "The good thing is we have several games left against Boston, against the teams ahead of us. You control your destiny in the second half. If you play well, you give yourself a chance."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat.
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