December 20, 2014

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Youngsters big reason Yankees back in playoff picture

CLEVELAND — They are still the New York Yankees, the Microsoft of Major League Baseball, the haven for the old and overpaid.
But ever so slowly, that image is changing. For all that a $220 million payroll can buy, it doesn’t guarantee World Series rings, nor does it guarantee stability. And quietly, the Bronx Bombers have undergone a fundamental shift.
Over the last two seasons, the Yankees have altered their emphasis from fielding the game’s most expensive collection of former All-Stars and Cy Young award-winners to focusing their energies on developing a core of young, homegrown talent.
The latest and best example of New York’s renaissance is Phil Hughes, a 21-year-old right-hander who dominated the Cleveland Indians for six innings, and Joba Chamberlain, a 21-year-old power reliever who slammed the door in a 6-1 victory Friday at Jacobs Field.
When the Yankees awoke on the morning of May 29, they sat a staggering eight games below .500 at 21-29. The offense couldn’t hit, the pitching staff couldn’t throw strikes and the door appeared to slam shut on a team which has reached the postseason every year since 1994.
Since then, they have rattled off 43 wins in 65 games, becoming the league’s hottest and thrusting themselves into wild-card contention. New York is now tied with Seattle for the wild-card lead and closed within five games of the Boston Red Sox in the AL East division.
“We’re at a point where, as long as we continue to win, we’re in control of our own destinies,” said Yankees manager Joe Torre, who was serving a one-game suspension for Tuesday’s fracas with the Toronto Blue Jays. “We don’t have to be watching the scoreboard and paying any attention to anybody else.”
Consider that since the All-Star break, the Yankees have led the major leagues in batting average (.324), home runs (50), hits (324), runs (214), RBIs (208), on-base percentage (.396), slugging percentage (.554), pitching winning percentage (.714) and strikeouts by a pitching staff (202).
The reasons for the Yankee surge: players who had initially struggled through some of the worst slumps of their careers, like right fielder Bobby Abreu and second baseman Robinson Cano, have driven their batting averages back toward .300.
Injured veterans such as Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Mike Mussina are healthier.
“A lot of that is the law of averages,” said Damon. “Veteran players always know that by the end of the year, your numbers usually end up evening out. And on this team, we just had to be patient. It was only a matter of time.”
Just as important has been the influx of youth.
Hughes was superb over his six innings, at one point sending down nine straight hitters and allowing two baserunners to advance to second.
His only blemish was a solo home run by light-hitting Indians second baseman Josh Barfield in the fifth, who hadn’t homered since May 25.
Chamberlain appears to be cut from the same cloth. He started the season in Class A as a starter and has since moved to the bullpen, using a devastating slider and curveball to accompany his 99 mph heater.
On Friday, he was dazzling over two innings, striking out four of the six batters he faced in only his second big league appearance.
“I don’t know if all this youth was something (Yankee management) was intentionally trying to do,” said Yankee veteran left-hander Andy Pettitte. “It just kind of worked out that way. Some guys struggled that were veterans, so (management and the coaching staff) tried some younger guys to take their place.”
Hughes and Chamberlain are the centerpieces of Yankee general manager Brian Cashman’s new, welcome-to-the-21st-century blueprint for the Yankees. Why buy an ace down at Mercenary Mart for 100 million bucks when you can grow your own?
“We have a bunch of young guys coming in now and making their mark at the big league level,” said Pettitte. “That’s not easy to do in New York — especially on this team.
“But that’s how I did it. They threw me into the fire in ’95 in the middle of a playoff hunt. Maybe that’s the best way. They’re certainly showing they’re up to the task.”
Contact Pete Alpern at 329-7135 or palpern@chroniclet.com.