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Yankees see progress with series split against Texas

NEW YORK -- You can't blame the New York Yankees if they look around at the rest of the American League and then at their own relentlessly mediocre record and think, "You know what? We still have a shot at this thing."

It sounds silly, of course, especially because with just about half the season gone, the Yankees have lost precisely as many games as they have won. They sit 8½ games behind the division-leading Baltimore Orioles, who never seem to lose anymore. They need to climb over five other teams just to sneak into the second wild-card slot, which guarantees you nothing more than a single postseason game -- on the road, no less.

And yet, look at what they did the past two days at Yankee Stadium: They rallied for four ninth-inning runs on two home runs for a come-from-behind 9-7 victory Wednesday and stole one Thursday on a passed ball, also in the ninth inning, to salvage a split of a four-game series with the Texas Rangers, who have the best record in the AL. Then you think, sure, the Yankees are imperfect, but there are no perfect teams in this league. Every team has a flaw that on any given night or during any given series can be exploited by a team even more flawed.

Hence the two Yankees victories in a series in which they easily could have been swept. The Rangers, who have outscored the Yankees by 73 runs, have out-homered them by 22 dingers, have a team OPS 49 points higher and a run differential of plus-55 compared to the Yankees' minus-13, have an Achilles heel: Their bullpen can't hold a lead.

That was apparent Thursday, when the last two pitchers out of the Rangers pen gave the Yankees four free baserunners, one of whom, Chase Headley, scored the game winner on a passed ball. The weakness was also apparent Wednesday, when the Texas bullpen couldn't safeguard a 7-2 lead after 7½ innings, and closer Sam Dyson allowed four earned runs in one-third of an inning on two huge home runs, including Didi Gregorius' walk-off, two-run shot.

True, it is the imperfections of other teams rather than the assets of their own that continue to give the Yankees hope this season, and what happened the past two games might turn out to be the worst thing for the Yankees because it could steer them away from doing what logic says they must: dismantle their aging, overpaid roster and begin preparing for the next (younger) generation of Yankees.

But logic often has little to do with big league baseball, and now, as the Yankees prepare to embark on a three-city, three-time zone, 10-game road trip, the Yankees can find plenty of reasons to believe they will be buyers at the trade deadline.

"Well, you feel a lot better about your club moving forward, that they were able to bounce back the way they did," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I can look at these four games and say, 'OK, maybe we shouldn’t have won [Wednesday], but we had a chance to win the other three, and we ended up winning two. So overall, I thought we played pretty well against this club."

The Yankees' main reason for optimism should be the resurgence of Michael Pineda, who turned in his best performance of the season by striking out 12 in six innings and allowing just two hits, one of them a first-inning home run to Shin-Soo Choo. That continues a run of six starts in which Pineda has allowed 11 earned runs in 36 innings (a 2.75 ERA) while striking out 49. Pineda said a slight downward adjustment of his arm angle while delivering his slider has made all the difference, but you can't discount the effect of the pep talk he gave himself on the mound following Choo's home run, in which he was clearly mouthing the words "Come on, Big Mike!" to himself.

"Yeah, you know I like talking to myself on the mound," he said. "Let’s go, do your best, make a pitch right now, get an out."

It seemed to work as well or better than anything pitching coach Larry Rothschild could have told him during his one and only mound visit of the game.

Other than that, there weren't a whole lot of positives from the Yankees' offense, which mustered only two hits off Rangers starter A.J. Griffin, who missed all of 2014 and 2015 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Fortunately for the Yankees, one of those hits was a solo home run by Gregorius that knotted the game in the fifth inning. Alex Rodriguez, who isn't supposed to be able to hit righties, had a pair of hits off right-handers. Brian McCann and Headley had singles, and that was it.

Even the ninth-inning rally was underwhelming: a leadoff walk to Headley, a sacrifice bunt by Gregorius, another walk to Aaron Hicks, a groundout by pinch-hitting Carlos Beltran that moved the runners to second and third and that final fastball by Tony Barnette that sailed past the glove of catcher Robinson Chirinos and allowed Headley to score.

This was no carryover from Wednesday night's rousing win -- Griffin's effectiveness killed whatever momentum the Yankees brought into Thursday -- and there was no real reason to think the Yankees' bats would awaken any day soon.

In reality, it was a reminder that, as Yogi Berra supposedly said, a baseball game is never over until its over. The same can be said of a season.

The Yankees have no logical reason to believe they can contend for anything except tee times in early October. Yet after two improbable wins over the Texas Rangers, they have every reason to believe that great -- and greatly unexpected -- things might still happen for them this year.