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Sox are facing a Yankee team that's on the rise

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By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 9, 2009
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NEW YORK - They emerged in pairs and threes from the back room in the extravagant clubhouse at Yankee Stadium one day last week, roaring with laughter.

We are told they have these moments often.

"That's the thing," said right fielder Nick Swisher, who was traded to the Yankees from the White Sox in the offseason. "It's completely different than anything I thought it would ever be.

"You hear stories about the Yankees and how it's very corporate. It's not like that at all. And I think that starts from the top - owners, general manager, staff, players, weight staff.

"It's just a bunch of great guys. It's so much fun coming here to the locker room not only because we have the greatest locker room ever, you want to be around your friends. You want to be around your second family. I think that's really paying off for us."

Good guys, bad guys, loose guys, uptight guys, whatever they are, they make up the most expensive baseball team ever assembled. Manager Joe Girardi was accused of being uptight a year ago, in his first season at the helm, but according to Yankee players, he has lightened up a bit and become more of the player's manager Joe Torre was.

There was a light tit-for-tat between Girardi and Mariano Rivera when the future Hall of Famer blew a save against Tampa Bay Saturday. Rivera allowed four runs in a 9-7 loss and afterward questioned Girardi's strategy of walking Evan Longoria to pitch to B.J. Upton, who has never hit well against Rivera. This time Upton succeeded.

Girardi even admitted to the New York media Sunday - after Rivera saved that day's game by retiring Longoria - that Rivera was right after all.

Girardi has been somewhat concerned about Rivera. It's not being uptight so much as it is fearing that at some point the extraordinary closer might be feeling his age (39).

That aside, the Yankees have emerged from the gloomy early days of the season when there was every reason to call them a $200 million bust.

CC Sabathia was struggling. Mark Teixeira couldn't hit a softball. A.J. Burnett was just another overpaid guy. Alex Rodriguez was dodging reporters after his steroid admission and the juicy details of a book while trying to rehab a surgically repaired hip in Tampa. On top of all that, they had been embarrassed by the Red Sox in five straight games.

Now the Yankees return to Fenway in first place. So much for the $200 million bust. They're actually pretty good.

I threw out the phrase "smooth sailing" to a few Yankee players, but none of them bit. There could be more bumps along the way. If there's one area that needs attention, it's the bullpen.

"It's never smooth sailing with all of the tough teams we have to play in the AL East alone," said Johnny Damon. "We got through with Tampa and now we're heading to Boston and all of these teams can beat you on any given day.

"I think earlier this season we just weren't able to win the close games and now we are, and that's the difference. When we played Boston earlier this year, we felt that not many teams were going to beat them the way they were swinging the bat and pitching.

"They really had it going. They won 11 straight. They had clutch hitting. They were playing great defense, so not many teams could have beaten them during that time. We just had to look at it like we're 0-5 against them but we have 14 more."

Swisher's response to the "smooth sailing" suggestion?

"Hell, no! Sports in general is anyone can beat anybody at any time. In our minds, we feel like we have a great team. That only goes as far as we're going to take it."

So what happened?

Rodriguez came back, and while he struggled at first, it was clear he made a difference hitting behind Teixeira, who all of a sudden saw better pitches to hit. Sabathia strung together a few good wins.

Burnett started pitching better. Joba Chamberlain started to shake off his first-inning woes and shuttered talk of a move to the bullpen.

Damon has been hitting at Yankee Stadium as if the architects had his swing in mind when they designed it. He has 12 homers, 34 RBIs, and has transformed himself from leadoff hitter/center fielder to No. 2 hitter/left fielder. Melky Cabrera (.297) has gone from a demotion last season to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to being beaten out for the center-field job by Brett Gardner to having himself one terrific season.

Robinson Cano (.300) has rediscovered his batting stroke. Jorge Posada has survived yet another injury and his clutch bat is back in the lineup.

The captain, Derek Jeter (.306), shows no signs of aging.

"Even when things weren't going right, we had that no-quit attitude, the comeback kids," said Swisher. "Whatever the score of the game was, we just had that feeling that we didn't want to lose and we had that confidence in ourselves to go out and find a way to come back and win the game."

A-Rod surely will get booed to the heavens at Fenway tonight; he was booed even at home during his early struggles. But it seems to be a sound that he simply ignores.

Rodriguez has struck up a nice relationship with Teixeira; when they were teammates in Texas, their relationship was portrayed as cold.

"He's a great hitter," said A-Rod. "To have that quality of a bat in the lineup, a guy who can hit for power, drive in runs, that makes us all better."

Smooth sailing? It's probably not that easy.

"But no matter," said Swisher. "You've got to feel pretty good about your chances when you bring guys like CC, A.J., Tex over here, and we feel like we're a good team. We've got to go out and show it."

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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