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Yankees' reluctant youth movement paying off

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Understand that it was not the New York Yankees' idea to suddenly get younger.

If Mark Teixeira hadn't broken his own leg with a baseball, and if Michael Pineda hadn't felt a twinge in his forearm, Greg Bird and Luis Severino would probably have just finished up their season with Triple-A Scranton and would have joined the Yankees as September call-ups. They would have been left to languish in the clubhouse, collecting big-league meal money and presumably watching the way the big boys do it until someone in the front office deemed they were ready for prime time. Just ask Robert Refsnyder, Jose Pirela, Gary Sanchez, and even Slade Heathcott.

No, the Yankees' 2015 youth movement came about of necessity, because they needed a first baseman and a pitcher, pronto. Despite the "untouchable" tag GM Brian Cashman applied to both Bird and Severino, he would be the first to admit that no one really knew if either of them would be adequate fill-ins for the players they would be asked to replace.

Well, it turns out they have been more than adequate. In fact, both have become vital to the continued success of this ball club.

Behind a pair of RBIs by Bird -- one of them a titanic solo home run that hit the farthest of the three catwalks that ring the upper reaches of Tropicana Field, the first ball to hit it this season -- and 5⅔ strong innings by Severino, the Yankees beat the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 on Wednesday night to at least preserve the status quo in the American League East. (The Toronto Blue Jays, who the Yankees are chasing, beat Atlanta 9-1 and remain three games ahead in the division).

As incredible as it might seem, the Yankees no longer seem to miss Teixeira, whose 31 home runs and 79 RBIs continued to lead his team for a couple of weeks after he went on the disabled list. In 101 at-bats, Bird now has seven home runs, or about one every 14 at-bats, which is not far behind Texieira's rate of about one every 13 at-bats.

As for Severino, he has secured a permanent spot in the Yankees rotation in the space of eight big-league starts and, by most assessments, is no worse than their No. 2 starter behind Masahiro Tanaka. Earlier Wednesday, Yankees manager Joe Girardi determined he needed to trim one arm from his starting rotation for the final three weeks of the season. He chose to send Ivan Nova to the bullpen. Severino, only old enough to buy a drink for seven months now, isn't going anywhere.

And both he and the 22-year-old Bird now seem as comfortable around the Yankees' clubhouse as any of the veterans. Teammates use similar terms to describe both of them. Poised. Calm. Self-contained.

And they both fit in so well now that not only they are fair game for razzing from their older teammates, but feel comfortable enough to give it back, too.

After Bird's big game -- he drove in the first run with a second-inning double and the third with his ninth-inning home run -- he was holding court in front of his locker, which is two away from Brian McCann's in the visitor's clubhouse, when he suddenly turned away from his inquisitors to direct a question to the veteran catcher.

"Hey Mac, what was up with that ball you caught?" Bird said. "Did you dive for it or did you tip over for it?"

He was referring to a fifth-inning pop fly off the bat of Evan Longoria that McCann seemed to lose in the ceiling before lurching forward to make an inning-ending catch with a runner at second.

"It's called f--ing athleticism," McCann shot back. "Something you wouldn't know about. Eighth-grade point guard over here."

"You looked like an athlete for a minute there," Bird said, and everyone laughed. He has become one of the guys.

So, too, has Severino, who has shed his early nervousness around the media to conduct his interviews in quite-good English. He and Bird have become something of a mutual admiration society, ex-Scranton teammates who have come up together, succeeded at the same time, and hope to go further with their new team.

"Greg Bird is a great hitter," said Severino, who got his fourth win. "He's a great hitter and a great first baseman. Every time he goes out there, he puts a good at-bat together."

"I knew he would succeed," Bird said of Severino, "And it's awesome to watch. I'm sure it's as much fun for you guys as it is for me. He's just a competitor. You know what you're going to get every day when he goes out there and grabs the ball. You want to play behind him and you want to do well behind him."

To be sure, the Yankees got some huge breaks to help them win this game, and this series, from the fourth-place Rays. The first was Steven Souza Jr.'s RBI double in the sixth that looked like a routine fly ball that Jacoby Ellsbury would catch in center until he suddenly spun around in confusion. The ball hit the wall behind him and about 15 feet to his left, arousing suspicion it had also hit a catwalk, which under the Tropicana Field ground rules would have made it a game-tying home run. That wasn't the ruling, and Souza stopped at second.

The other was a either a botched sacrifice or a botched hit-and-run that turned into an eighth-inning double play when Nick Franklin popped up a bunt to Chase Headley, who doubled off Souza, who was standing on second base.

But this one belonged to the Yankees kiddie corps, a couple of players who ordinarily would never have gotten a chance to play but now are counted on regularly to help the Yankees win.

Everyone knew the Yankees were going to have to get younger, whether they liked it or not. In the end, they were forced to. And so far, they like it.