NEW YORK — For any other team, the wheels might have already come off the wagon.
There they were, the mighty New York Yankees, caught in an early-season sprint for first place in the American League East with the red-hot Boston Red Sox. But fortune did not seem to be on their side.
Andy Pettitte, an anchor in their pitching rotation, was already on the disabled list. David Wells and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, also starters, would miss their turns because of back problems.
It was the equivalent of taking three pistons out of a five-piston engine.
So what did the Yankees do? They kept winning, 13 out of 15 games to be specific, and by midweek they had reaffirmed their position as one of the best teams in Major League Baseball.
"We can't afford the luxury of being frustrated," said manager Joe Torre before a game against the Toronto Blue Jays this week. "This is all part of what happens in the course of a baseball season. You just hope you have enough ammunition to pull through to the finish line."
The season is certainly still young, but there seems to be a glow surrounding this team, something that is evident from the looseness of their clubhouse to their clutch play on the field. They look like winners, and they act like winners. Torre sits comfortably in the driver's seat.
The question for now is how long they can keep this pace without some of their best pitchers, especially as they travel to Boston this weekend to play their archrivals and toughest American League competition, the Red Sox.
In their May streak, the Yankees beat up on mediocre teams, particularly the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They did it with the help of an impressive home-run streak that put them atop the American League in long balls with 74 before yesterday's game (something they haven't done over the course of a season since the days of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle in 1961). At midweek, third-baseman Robin Ventura shared the league lead in homers, with 12.
Yes, Robin Ventura.
But wins won't come so easy against the stiffer competition that June brings, including the subway rival Mets, Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants, and the team that beat them last year in the World Series, the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"It's very hard for the team to have 3 out of 5 pitchers from the starting rotation down," says Wells, a mountain of a man who, if his back problems persist, could be close to the end of his career. "People are starting to wonder: What's gonna happen next?"
"I'll tell you," he adds, "the offense is keeping us alive. The other guys are picking up the slack."
It helps to have a $126 million payroll, the highest in baseball (Boston is a distant second with $108 million). The Yankees were not only able to add slugger Jason Giambi this off-season, but they bolstered their pitching staff, particularly in the bullpen with the addition of Steve Karsay.
The result, on offense, is a six-man top to their batting lineup that reads like an All-Star roster: Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Giambi, Jorge Posada, and Ventura. In what other lineup would the designated hitter, Nick Johnson, bat ninth?
So far, the precocious Soriano has been the best of the group. He's among the league leaders in nearly every offensive category (.322, 11 home runs, 33 RBIs before last night) and he's only getting better.
Giambi (.308, 11 home runs, 30 RBIs), meanwhile, has started to settle into his new environs after a rough start, which at one point was accentuated by boos from the hometown fans.
Other new additions have likewise stepped in line, forming a club that is a combination of homegrown talent and free agents, young and old. With these modern-day Yankees, there are no rebuilding years.
"There has always been a lot of turnover in the Yankees organization," explains Ventura, who came over from the Mets during the winter. "That's made it easier for the new guys to blend in."
What is most remarkable about this year's Yankees, however, is the depth of the pitching staff and how well Torre has managed it. With so many injuries, Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina have stepped it up a notch. Last Sunday, Clemens pitched a 13-strikeout masterpiece; two days later, Mussina was excellent substituting for Hernandez on three days' rest. Ted Lilly has been capable in the rotation, as has Sterling Hitchcock.
Because the starting pitching has been solid, the bullpen has not been overused. Mariano Rivera has looked human at times, but, with 14 saves and a 1.77 earned-run average, he's still putting together an exceptional season.
"You can't have too much pitching," says Torre. "It helps to have guys you can go to like Lilly and Hitchcock. We're lucky in that regard."
What's frightening is how good the Yankees will be when everyone is healthy.
Then George Steinbrenner, the owner, "will be happy," Wells says. "He'll have all the pitching in the world."