Yankees still have room to improve

WASHINGTON -- Since May 22, the New York Yankees have won 18 games and lost only four. From that date on, they have gone from a .500 team (21-21) to the team with the second-best record in baseball (39-25), behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers.

They have won a season-high eight games in a row, are coming off back-to-back sweeps of the New York Mets and the Atlanta Braves, and are one win from sweeping the National League East-leading Washington Nationals.

And believe it or not, there's still plenty of room for improvement.

The Yankees outlasted the Nationals 5-3 in a 14-inning marathon Saturday in which they squandered another fine outing by Andy Pettitte, emptied their entire bench, fired all but one of the bullets in their bullpen and were forced to not only use Freddy Garcia, but allow him to bat for himself in the final inning.

And for the first time all season, they managed to win a game without hitting a home run, a feat they came within one out of accomplishing Friday night until Curtis Granderson screwed it up by hitting his 20th of the season with two outs in the ninth inning.

But the most remarkable thing about this most remarkable game was this: Had Cory Wade not allowed a game-tying home run to Ian Desmond in the bottom of the eighth inning, not only would the Yankees have won this game without hitting a home run, but also without getting a single hit with a runner in scoring position.

That can mean one of two things: Either the stat is relatively meaningless and endlessly misleading, or this is a remarkably resilient ballclub that finds ways to win even on days it has no business winning.

As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

It took the Yankees all day to finally get a hit with a runner in scoring position -- more than 4 1/2 hours had elapsed and 13 innings of baseball had been played before Derek Jeter finally singled with Jayson Nix on second base to break an 0-for-14 w/RISP -- and even then, they didn't score, because Nix had to hold up until he was sure the ball would drop, and he could go no further than third.

But two batters later, Mark Teixeira's double down the right-field line scored both Jeter and Nix. After Rafael Soriano worked his way through two hits and the threat of a dramatic redemption story starring Bryce Harper to nail down his 12th save, the stat guys had their numbers, the Yankees had their victory and the hot streak that began nearly a month ago continued on.

And yet, how much better would they be if only that final bugaboo were erased from their record?

"I gotta tell you, I wasn't counting," Joe Girardi said when asked about his club's continuing struggles with runners in scoring position. "To be honest, I couldn't remember. I was having a hard time remembering how we got our other three runs, it was so long ago."

Tough to blame him, because the Yankees went seven innings not only without scoring a run, but without getting a hit. They took a 3-2 lead on an unearned run that scored on an error by Desmond, the Nats shortstop, in the fourth inning and two more in the sixth, one that scored on an infield out and another that came on an Eric Chavez double that drove in Russell Martin from first.

After that, Washington relievers Ross Detwiler, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Craig Stammen shut down the Yankees until the 14th inning, when the old punching bag Brad Lidge finally gave it up.

In between, there were some questionable calls -- Girardi chose to pull Pettitte, who worked seven innings of five-hit, two-run ball, after just 95 pitches, opening the door for Wade's gopher ball; plate umpire Tim Timmons appeared to blow a call that might have cost the Yankees the game when he ruled Tyler Moore out at the plate -- and one truly brilliant, instinctive move, when Girardi switched Dewayne Wise from left field to right just in time for Wise to make the throw that Timmons determined beat Moore home.

But Girardi's final decision, inserting Garcia into the game after not having used him since June 5, was purely of necessity. His bullpen was depleted of all but David Robertson, whom he was hoping to avoid using, and Soriano, whom he was conserving in the event he needed to use a closer.

And Garcia, a veteran of 14 seasons as a starting pitcher who has uncomplainingly accepted his demotion to the bullpen, came through with two nearly spotless innings, marred only by Jeter's error in the 13th, to earn his first win since Sept. 24.

"I feel good to be part of the game, you know," said Garcia, who had pitched just four innings since May 21. "I really been having a lot of patience being in the bullpen and I feel good to feel part of something. I want to feel I'm part of the team. Just give me a chance to pitch; let me prove I can help from the bullpen."

That is the kind of attitude that pervades throughout this team, from the bullpen -- where role players such as Wade, Cody Eppley (1 2/3 innings of no-hit ball) and Clay Rapada (a key strikeout of Harper in the 10th) make important contributions -- to a guy such as Wise, who is on the roster only because Brett Gardner is on the disabled list but who can move from one side of the field to the other and make the biggest defensive play of the game.

Even if, as the replays seemed to show, Moore got his hand in to home plate before Martin was able to get the tag down, Wise's throw from right field on pinch hitter Adam LaRoche's single off Boone Logan was on the money.

"I don't want to say it, but I made a good throw," said Wise, who was wise enough not to answer directly when asked whether he thought Moore was out. "Umpire said he was out. Just make it close, and you never know what might happen."

The Yankees have made a lot of them close lately, mainly because when they have had chances to bust games open, they haven't taken full advantage of them, and Saturday's game was a prime example of that.

"I knew we had a lot of opportunities," Girardi said. "We keep saying, put some guys out there and eventually you're going to come through."

It took them an entire afternoon, but the Yankees finally did. They are a very good team playing great baseball right now, and for the rest of the league, that is a very scary thought.

But not as scary as this: As good as they're playing right now, there's still room for them to get a whole lot better.