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Back at six games over, Yankees just need to keep rolling

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David Robertson and Francisco Cervelli celebrate after finishing off the Tigers on Thursday.

Welcome back to high ground in The Bronx. Anyone know where we’re headed from here?

Detroit’s March of the Cys through The Bronx wound up elevating the Yankees, rather than burying them. Their rookie, Shane Greene, outperformed his Tigers counterpart, Rick Porcello, on Thursdsay afternoon at Yankee Stadium, and so the Yankees prevailed, 1-0, to take three of four games in this highly hyped matchup.

They bring a 60-54 record into their weekend home series with Cleveland, and this marks the third time this season the Yankees have reached six games over .500. They have yet to get to seven, as losses followed their ascents to 39-33 and 54-48.

“I think we’re a better team now,” said David Robertson, who retired mega-dangerous pinch-hitter Miguel Cabrera on a ninth-inning double play en route to his 31st save. “We just need to get on a run and we need to start winning games against AL East opponents. I think that’s going to be our biggest key.”

“It seems like we’re doing all of the little things to win,” Joe Girardi said. “Getting the big hit when we need it. Our pitchers have done an outstanding job. Our bullpen has continued to do an outstanding job. Our defense has been a lot better. It’s just helped us. As long as you continue to pitch and play defense, you’re going to be in every game.”

Then again, as Carlos Beltran said, “It’s been on and off. What [can I] say? For us, it’s been on and off, a lot of injuries, a lot of things that happened to our ball club. But at the end of the day, we have to find a way to do it with what we’ve got.”

What the Yankees have got, however, continues to defy simple definition. While the Tigers sent the last three AL Cy Young Award winners in reverse chronological order (Max Scherzer, David Price and Justin Verlander) to the mound in this series, followed by the improved Porcello, the Yankees went with Brandon McCarthy, Hiroki Kuroda, Chris Capuano and Greene, who combined for a 0.99 ERA.

“This is the game of baseball,” Robertson said. “You can win against anybody at a given time.”

True, but the Yankees need to win against many over an extended period, as they stood a half-game behind Toronto (for the AL’s second wild card) and 4 ½ games behind Baltimore (atop the AL East) entering Thursday night’s Orioles-Blue Jays game in Toronto.

They own a 13-7 record since the All-Star break, 10-4 at home in that period, and have won five of seven (including five of their last six) since the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline. The July additions of McCarthy, Capuano, Chase Headley, Stephen Drew (who drove in the game’s only run with a fourth-inning double) and Martin Prado clearly have upgraded the squad.

“It’s changed the complexion of our team,” Girardi said. “When a guy gets a day off, you’re putting in an experienced player. We got better defensively. We’ve had pitchers that pitched late into the season, have compiled innings, understand what you have to do to be successful.

“…The additions have been huge. I think that’s the reason we’re playing better.”

Really, though, they’re playing only marginally better. In this five-of-six run, they have outscored their opponents, 25-17. In their six games prior to that, of which they lost five, they were outscored, 33-27. They weren’t getting killed during their bad week, and they haven’t killed during their good week. Their only “comfortable” victory came Wednesday night, 5-1 over the Tigers, and that was a 2-1 contest until the Yankees broke it open with three runs in the eighth.

“We believe in ourselves,” Beltran said. “… It would’ve been better if [Masahiro] Tanaka was in the rotation and CC [sabathia] was in the rotation, but at the end of the day, the guys that we have, have been doing a pretty good job also.”

Both Beltran and Robertson noted the importance of the Yankees’ road trip next week through Baltimore and Tampa Bay. The Yankees are an underwhelming 21-23 in intra-division games.

At this juncture, the Yankees, from ownership down to the players and everyone in between, deserve credit for never saying die. For keeping things interesting in August when even that appeared in doubt at times.

It’s doubtful whether this can result in an October presence, yet that’s not how ballplayers and their managers think. For now, the only suspense lies in whether they can raise their high ground to seven.

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These 2 plays Cervelli made saved the Yankees’ victory

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Franciso Cervelli shares a laugh with Derek Jeter after the Yankees' 1-0 win over the Tigers Thursday at the Stadium.

When David Robertson got Miguel Cabrera to hit into a double play in the ninth, it didn’t exactly mean Francisco Cervelli could breathe any easier.

That’s because it sent Ian Kinsler to third as the tying run with Don Kelly at the plate — and Cervelli knew he likely would have to deal with a few nasty Robertson curveballs with no margin for error.

Cervelli responded with a pair of terrific stops on pitches in the dirt before Robertson finished off Thursday’s 1-0 win over the Tigers by getting Kelly to hit a soft liner to shortstop.

Cervelli’s secret?

“I just put in my brain, ‘You’ve got to stop it,’ ” Cervelli said. “I don’t know how, but you’ve got to stop it. Forget about mechanics, forget about anything.”

OK, so maybe that shouldn’t be the slogan for the Francisco Cervelli Catching Clinic, but it was effective and helped save the game.

“He’s been doing that all year,” Robertson said.

Though Cervelli undoubtedly has improved his performance behind the plate, both pitches would have been difficult to handle for even the most seasoned backstop.

Robertson bounced an 0-1 curve well shy of the plate that Cervelli managed to corral.

After Kelly took a fastball on the next pitch to make it 1-2, Robertson bounced another curve that was smothered by a sprawling Cervelli.

“That’s what I wanted, so I’ve got to be ready for that,” Cervelli said of the second ball in the dirt.

Neither was easy, though.

“Especially the first one, because it was a short one,” Cervelli said. “The only right way to do it is by standing up. It’s just reaction. If I told you I planned that, it’s not true.”

It was a strong end to another good game for Cervelli, who helped guide rookie Shane Greene through eight shutout innings.

“His first two starts, his adrenaline was up and that’s normal,” Cervelli said. “It’s happened to me in the past. If I can get him to calm down, we can work together. If I’ve got a lot of energy, he’s going to be crazy.”

Whatever Cervelli did, it worked.

“I’m a little more mature now, and I can recognize the differences in each guy,” Cervelli said. “That’s the key: Some guys you’ve got to go [at] hard, some guys not. [You have to] step back. It’s like a relationship, boyfriend and girlfriend. They’re never the same, so you’ve got to figure it out.”

Maybe if the catching clinic doesn’t work out, Cervelli has a future doling out dating advice.

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Shane Greene of the New York Yankees pitches in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium on August 7, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

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Brendan Ryan of the New York Yankees completes a third inning double play after forcing out Alex Avila of the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium on August 7, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

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Chase Headley of the New York Yankees follows through on a fourth inning base hit against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium on August 7, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

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Stephen Drew of the New York Yankees follows through on a fourth inning RBI ground rule double against the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium on August 7, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

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Brendan Ryan of the New York Yankees watches his throw complete a ninth inning double play hit into by pinch hitter Miguel Cabrera (not pictured) of the Detroit Tigers after forcing out Victor Martinez at Yankee Stadium on August 7, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

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Ichiro Suzuki ® and Chase Headley of the New York Yankees celebrate after defeating the Detroit Tigers at Yankee Stadium on August 7, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

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From the Pinstriped Alley:

On Saturday, the Yankees will honor longtime right-fielder and current YES Network color analyst Paul O'Neill with a plaque in Monument Park. No matter what you think of the whole plaque thing - who has one that shouldn't... who doesn't that should - it's a tribute that O'Neill, a top contributor on Yankee teams that won four World Series and five American League pennants, richly deserves. Alongside the rings, the four All-Star appearances, the 1994 batting title, "the one-legged catch," "the walk," and the Seinfeld episode, one of the more regal hallmarks of O'Neill's pinstriped tenure was the absolute steal of a trade that transformed him, at age 30, from a middling National League player into a Yankee legend.

At the end of the 1992 season, the Yankees weren't the Yankees, at least not in the way we know them now. Their 76-86 record in '92 marked their fourth straight losing season, and they were riding an eleven-year playoff drought. Their no-name manager, a 38-year-old Buck Showalter, was the tenth man to hold the job in that span and George Steinbrenner was just returning from a two-plus year suspension for associating with known gambler Howie Spira. That winter's free agent class included the likes of Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux and Kirby Puckett, a cache that would have the club salivating today, but back then, their $37 million payroll was roughly 20 percent below those of the league's top spenders and the roster in place wasn't exactly one that future Hall-of-Famers were itching to join. Don Mattingly was breaking down, the top starter was Melido Perez, and Danny Tartabull, at least in the lens of batting average-home run-RBI evaluations used at the time, was looking like a big-money bust. One of the few bright lights was a toolsy 28-year-old center-fielder named Roberto Kelly.

When he arrived on the scene in the late '80s, Kelly was touted by Yankee brass as their next great superstar - a five-tool, do-everything kind of guy. He wasn't the Panamanian Mickey Mantle that everyone was hoping for, but Kelly did do enough early in his career to keep fans intrigued. He amassed 12.2 fWAR between 1989 and 1992, swiping 137 bases and slugging 54 homers in the process while showing off with a few highlight reel catches in the outfield. It's not surprising that when GM Gene Michael dealt Kelly away for an older, less versatile Cincinnati Red, a career .259 hitter who'd just finished a totally pedestrian .246/.346/.373 '92 campaign, he did so without much public support. Michael was panned pretty much universally for the Kelly-O'Neill swap. Give up on a homegrown talent? Create a logjam with the incumbent Tartabull in right? Leave no one but the unproven Bernie Williams to man center? What was he thinking?

Michael's justification for the deal at the time was the Yankees' need for lefty hitters. "We were looking for left-handed bats because I didn't think we had enough," he told reporters, including Jack Curry, then with the New York Times. "I always said we were too right-handed. I feel this is a quality hitter and Yankee Stadium should be conducive to his hitting."

Michael was careful with his words, but there was more to it than just handedness. O'Neill was the kind of hitter he wanted to build his offense around and Kelly wasn't. The Yankees of that era were among the first front offices to emphasize the importance of getting on base by any means, and patience wasn't one of the tools in Kelly's repertoire - his 6.7 percent career walk rate to that point was well short of O'Neill's 10.3. With the plate discipline already there, Michael believed that putting O'Neill in the Bronx, and somewhat counter-intuitively, urging him to go the opposite way more, would turn him into a much stronger offensive player than the guy he was replacing. Michael ignored popular opinion and gambled, knowing that if the deal backfired and Kelly emerged as a star, it could easily cost him his job. It didn't.

You don't need me to remind you how it all worked out, but I will anyway. In the nine seasons between 1993 and 2001, O'Neill hit .303/.377/.492 with a wRC+ of 125 and collected 26.7 fWAR. He got going right away, posting a career-best .871 OPS in '93 and an even-better 1.064 in '94 that was good enough to place him fifth in the AL MVP race. He managed six straight seasons with wOBAs of .380 or better and during his tenure, the Yankees finished a combined 250 games over .500. Kelly, meanwhile, played on eight different teams in eight seasons, including a short stint back in New York in 2000. His post-Yankee wRC+ was 104 and his fWAR was just 5.5, just 0.1 above O'Neill's number for 1998 alone. He did find a niche as a useful right-handed platoon bat in the late '90s with Seattle and Texas.

Where does the O'Neill deal rank among the top trades in Yankee history? You could put it as high as second, right behind Babe Ruth for No No Nanette, with Roger Maris for Don Larsen and Hank Bauer, Willie Randolph and Dock Ellis for Doc Medich, and A-Rod for Alfonso Soriano forming some stiff competition. No matter where you rank it, the O'Neill trade was a benchmark moment in the construction of one of the great teams of all time and in the transformation of the '90s Yankees from also-ran to dynasty. As we honor O'Neill this weekend, let's also remember Gene Michael as the architect of one of the epic transactions in Yankee history.

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Carlos Beltran blasts grand slam, Esmil Rogers solid on mound as Yankees defeat Indians, 10-6

Brian McCann was forced from the game with what the Yankees’ termed 'a mild concussion' and it’s unclear how long the Bombers’ starting catcher might miss.

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Carlos Beltran points to the sky after his sixth-inning grand slam.

If there was a night for the Yankees to feel good, this should have been it.

The Yankees pounded the Indians for a 10-6 win before 43,972 at the Stadium on Friday, their sixth victory in seven games to remain right in the thick of the playoff chase and continue flipping the script from the snake-bitten saga of the first half.

Carlos Beltran, no longer a slugger diminished by injury, was a five-RBI powerhouse who continues to drive the offense. The starting rotation isn’t a tragedy of injuries, but a series of success stories like the strong spot start by Esmil Rogers and the impending return of Michael Pineda. Derek Jeter singled in a five-run first for his 3,430th career hit to tie Honus Wagner for sixth place on the baseball’s all-time list.

All good stuff and yet all dampened a bit by a single piece of bad news. Brian McCann was forced from the game with what the Yankees’ termed “a mild concussion” and it’s unclear how long the Bombers’ starting catcher might be out.

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Yankees righthander Esmil Rogers allows a run and four hits over five innings.

Joe Girardi said McCann will be evaluated Saturday and could be headed for the seven-day concussion DL. “We’ll probably have to make a decision about something,” he said.

McCann took a foul tip squarely on the front of his mask during a third-inning strikeout of Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis. He remained in the game after a visit from trainer Steve Donohue. But in the sixth inning, with the Bombers up 9-2 after Beltran took Tribe reliever John Axford over the right field fence for a grand slam, McCann came out of the game.

Girardi said McCann came off the field in the middle of the sixth, but had trouble articulating what was bothering him.

Girardi finally used the word “foggy” and the catcher agreed. “There’s a concern – that’s why I pulled him out,” Girardi said. “With what we know now and what has (gone) on, someone tells me he doesn’t quite feel right I am going to be cautious. I am going to play on the side of cautious and that’s what we did tonight.”

Beltran went into the All-Star break with a .216 average after returning from three weeks on the DL with bone chips in his right elbow, two cortisone injections and a little more than a month back without results. Since then, he has been the behemoth the Yankees went after in the winter – batting .364 with five home runs and 17 RBI in 21 games.

With the Yanks’ lead at 5-2, Axford walked the first two batters in the sixth and Jeter sacrificed them into scoring position. Axford intentionally walked Jacoby Ellsbury to load the bases for Beltran and he took a 1-and-2 pitch deep over the right field fence, his 11th career grand slam.

“For sure, you want to do well there. You want to at least get the job done and get one in. I faced John Axford many times in the National League so I guess I have maybe like one hit against him,” said Beltran, who was 1-for-7 against the righty who was briefly his teammate in St. Louis last year. “He felt that it was the right matchup for me. I was able to put a good at-bat and come through for the team.”

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Carlos Beltran gets dugout high-fives after putting Yanks up 9-2.

That was part of the second five-run Yankee rally of the night. The first came in the first inning, when they sent 10 men to the plate, forced starter Trevor Bauer (4-7) to throw 44 pitches and scored the runs on four hits – including Jeter’s to shortstop – three walks and a heinous Kipnis error.

Rogers (2-0) got slotted in for the spot start after righty David Phelps (elbow) went on the disabled list at the beginning of the week. While he was putting together a solid five innings of one-run ball, Pineda was performing well for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in his second and possibly final minor league rehab start.

Pineda had been on the disabled list since early March with an injured muscle in his right shoulder. He was 2-2 with a 1.83 ERA and an embarrassing 10-game suspension for taking pine tar onto the Fenway Park mound when he went on the DL. In Moosic, Pa., he threw 72 pitches and he went 4.1 innings, allowed one run on six hits and no walks and struck out seven. The righthander should be ready to rejoin the Yankees in the coming week. This spot in the rotation that Rogers filled on Friday night will next come up Wednesday in Baltimore. Pineda could pitch that day on the standard four days’ rest.

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Reliever Shawn Kelley pulled after allowing a walk with the bases loaded.

“I think there’s a lot of things that are tied together here that we’re going to have to try to unwrap to see what we do next,” Girardi said.

At 10-2 the Yanks tried to get to the finish line without using the late-inning regulars. But after David Huff and Shawn Kelley combined to allow four runs in the seventh, Girardi used Adam Warren, Rich Hill and Dellin Betances to get the last nine outs.

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Micheal Pineda wants to join Yankees after sharp outing

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Michael Pineda struck out 7 in less than 5 innings of work in Triple-A.

MOOSIC, Pa. — The Yankees rotation is getting closer to looking a little more like it was supposed to.

Michael Pineda may soon be on his way back to The Bronx, following a second successful rehab start with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, in which he allowed one run over 4 ¹/₃ innings and struck out seven Friday night at PNC Park.

The losing pitcher in the 2-1 loss to the Columbus Clippers, Pineda allowed six hits and walked none, getting pulled in the fifth inning after throwing 72 pitches, including 52 strikes. In his previous appearance with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pineda threw 3 ¹/₃ shutout innings, tossing 58 pitches, allowing three hits and one walk, while striking out four.

“I was feeling pretty good,” said Pineda, who threw an additional seven pitches in the bullpen after being removed. “My arm feels 100 percent and everything was working good. All my pitches were working better than the first time.”

With two Yankees starters (CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova) out for the season and another two (Masahiro Tanaka, David Phelps) also on the disabled list, Pineda could return to the rotation for Wednesday’s game in Baltimore and immediately boost the shorthanded squad, after missing all of the past two seasons following shoulder surgery.

Pineda didn’t know when he would be called up, but he said he was ready to return, feeling as good as he did in his four early-season starts with the Yankees, when he went 1-1 with a 1.83 ERA. His last appearance in the big leagues came on April 23, when he was ejected against the Red Sox after being spotted with pine tar on his neck, leading to a 10-game suspension.

“I’m going to be very excited to go back,” Pineda said. “I feel ready to go. I feel good. Everything’s working good. I was happy with everything. I’m feeling ready to pitch in New York.”

With Pineda on the disabled list since May 6 with an injury to a right shoulder muscle, Yankees assistant general manager Billy Eppler, who was in attendance Friday, said the two starts were as good as the organization could have asked for, though he wouldn’t comment on when the 25-year-old would be recalled.

“I would say he looks pretty good,” Eppler told The Post. “He looks the way we remember coming out of spring training. He had a lot of pitches working for him. He showed velocity, the slider looked good and the changeup actually looked good. He should walk away pleased. We’re happy.”

Pineda got sharper as Friday’s game went on, retiring the final seven hitters he faced. Getting ahead in most counts and pitching better than his line indicates, Pineda allowed only one truly hard-hit ball, with two hits coming on bloops and another coming on an infield single.

He faced trouble twice, pitching with two runners in scoring position in the first inning and with runners on the corners in the second inning, but he escaped each jam with a strikeout.

“You obviously got to check out how he feels the next day, but I walked away feeling good because of the command of the fastball,” Eppler said. “When you’re dealing with that area, if you can finish your pitches in order to command them that’s usually a pretty good sign.”

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Mitchell called up to boost Yankees’ bullpen

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Bryan Mitchell

When David Phelps went down with an elbow injury, it marked the latest in a series of injuries that have beset the Yankees’ starting pitching staff.

Eighty percent of the team’s Opening Day rotation is out, with Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia done for the season.

Though starters such as Brandon McCarthy, Shane Greene and Chris Capuano have given a boost to the rotation, the Yankees also have had to rely heavily on the bullpen.

With this in mind, the Yankees called up Bryan Mitchell, who was available in relief for Friday’s series opener against the Indians.

In 19 games — 18 starts — split between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Mitchell posted a 5-6 record with a 4.29 ERA.

“He has a good arm,” said a National League scout. “He was up to [around] 96, 97 [miles per hour] when I saw him in Trenton.He’s always had good stuff.”

Mitchell has battled bouts of inconsistency this season. He began 2014 allowing eight runs in eight innings, but then bounced back, allowing just one run in 16²/₃ innings.

He then posted an 8.10 ERA in five starts, had a quick promotion to Triple-A, and when he returned to Double-A, he recorded a 3.24 ERA in his final three starts in Trenton before returning to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

“It’s just a matter of getting out [on the mound] every five days and repeat his delivery and release point,” Trenton pitching coach Tommy Phelps said when asked what he thought Mitchell could do to correct his inconsistency.

Mitchell’s fastball is his best pitch, but he could stand to work on his secondary pitches.

“He’s got a mid-90s plus fastball [with] some life to it,” Phelps said. “He has a good curveball with depth and bite, a usable [changeup] and cutter. They’re quality, but they needed to be commanded consistently.”

The scout who has seen Mitchell had similar things to say.

“If you were to grade him, [he would be] plus-plus fastball, average curve, average [changeup] and cutter,” the scout said. “He needs to get better command. “He has all the pitches, [but he’s] inconsistent in commanding his stuff [and] tends to pitch in the upper half of the zone. He needs to command his stuff better.”

Mitchell — who was sought after by the Mariners in trade discussions leading up to last week’s non-waiver deadline, in a potential swap for utilityman Dustin Ackley — took the long road to The Bronx, beginning with being drafted in the 16th round in 2009 from Rockingham County High School in Reidsville, N.C.

After spending most of 2010 in the Gulf Coast League, 2011 in Staten Island, and 2012 in Charleston, Mitchell finally rose above Single-A late last year, making three starts in Trenton at the end of the season.

Mitchell started this season in Trenton before eventually getting the call up to Scranton, and now the majors.

It appears Mitchell will be brought along slowly, as he was bypassed for the potential start in Friday’s game in favor of veteran Esmil Rogers.

“I can definitely see him [as a] mid-rotation [starter],” Phelps said. “You can never have enough starting pitching.”

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Esmil Rogers of the New York Yankees pitches in the first inning against the Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium on August 8, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

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Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians is tripped up by Chase Headley of the New York Yankees to break up a double play at Yankee Stadium on August 8, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

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Carlos Beltran of the New York Yankees hits a grand slam in the sixth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium on August 8, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

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Ichiro Suzuki of the New York Yankees hits a single in the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians at Yankee Stadium on August 8, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.

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We sure could use not only one but a bunch of guys like O'Neill.

Here's a little more about him and his induction into Monument Park. My favourite part? His disdain for losing, nothing defines a winner better than this.

There are so many images that remind me of Paul O'Neill's career with the Yankees, a career in which he helped them win four championships in his nine seasons. Images of pivotal hits, bulldozing slides, lunging catches and percolating emotions. Watching O'Neill play was like watching a simmering tea kettle. Eventually, he was going to boil over.

But the image of O'Neill that lingers with me more than any other has nothing to do with his hits, slides or explosions. It has everything to do with his disdain for losing. When I think of O'Neill, I remember him sitting in front of his locker after a loss, his elbows resting on his knees, his hair flaring in 13 directions and a scowl decorating his face.

In those moments, O'Neill looked as unapproachable as a 300-pound bouncer who just saw you cut the two-block long line and just felt you step on his foot, his injured foot. But here's what was interesting about O'Neill. He was approachable in those darkest moments. He wanted to discuss what had gone wrong in the game and wanted to revisit what had thrust him into such a sour mood.

"I guess I just had to share it with someone," O'Neill said. "Talking about it made it feel like it would go away quicker."

The raw anger that O'Neill exhibited after making an out, emotions that helped endear him to fans, came because O'Neill was a perfectionist. We all know perfectionists, people who push and prod in trying to do everything exactly as they think it should be done. Perfectly. And they all fall short of that goal.

In baseball, a hitter's pursuit of perfection is a ridiculous goal. If a hitter is successful in three out of ten at bats, he is an elite player. But O'Neill, who batted .303 with the Yankees, really thought he could and should get a hit every time up. That's where the flying helmets, sailing bats and dented coolers came from. O'Neill hated failing, hated being anything less than perfect.

"I truly believe you're just wired that way," said O'Neill, in an interview that will air during "Hail To The Warrior" on the YES Network at noon on Saturday. "Some people are wired to be able to turn the page quickly. There were times out on that field where I knew that, if I didn't turn things around, I wasn't going to sleep that night. That's motivation in itself. You want to do well. It's not always someone in the front row that's booing you. It's to do it for yourself. You just feel this need to be better, to be better and to work harder."

Saturday promises to be a humbling, memorable day for O'Neill, who will be honored with a plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. He will thank his parents, Charles and Virginia, who let the youngest of their six children behave like he was bigger and tougher than he really was and that's how he became bigger and tougher and fashioned a 17-year career in the major leagues.

Hours before the Yankees won the 1999 World Series, Paul's father passed away from heart disease. O'Neill played in the clinching game, won another ring and then wept in right field after the final out. On O'Neill's ring finger, he wears two wedding bands: his and his father's.

"My mother gave this to me two days ago," O'Neill told me during the 2000 World Series, fiddling with the thinner gold band under his thick gold band. O'Neill called his father, who was a former minor league player, his "hero" and added, "Anything you accomplish is because of what your parents did for you."

Are you still friends with any of your classmates from kindergarten? O'Neill is. He is more than friends with Nevalee, the neighbor who he car-pooled to school with when they were five years old in Columbus, Ohio. They became husband and wife. O'Neill will thank Nevalee and their children, Andy, Aaron and Allie for the endless support. And he will thank his four older brothers and one older sister, the siblings who helped mold his competitive spirit because he was constantly chasing them.

"He's been playing like his life depended on it since he was a little kid," wrote Molly, his sister and the person who has written the most eloquent pieces about O'Neill.

When George Steinbrenner first called O'Neill "The Warrior," O'Neill was taken aback and didn't know how to react. At first, O'Neill thought it was corny. But then O'Neill reflected on Steinbrenner's passion for winning and the expectations that the owner had for his players and he embraced the nickname. Still does. So O'Neill will surely thank Steinbrenner and the rest of the members of the Yankees family, from ownership to the front office to Manager Joe Torre and teammates like Joe Girardi, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter.

"You start to think about what you want to say on that day and you get nervous," O'Neill said. "It's an unbelievable honor."

To be successful as a player, O'Neill said he had "a drive every single day" of his career because he wasn't the type of player who couldn't have one amazing month to carry him through a season. He felt as if he needed to have one productive day followed by another and another. He judged himself from at bat to at bat.

As insane as it is to think a batter could be successful every time at the plate, O'Neill actually explained to me why that approach made sense to him. O'Neill hated the theory that batters needed to "tip your cap to the pitcher" and credit them for getting you out.

Because, at some point in O'Neill's career, he said he had drilled the pitch that just retired him. Whether it was a low and away fastball or a curveball up in the zone, O'Neill said there "wasn't a strike out there," that he had failed to pummel.

"So don't tell me to tip my hat because I've hit that pitch before," O'Neill said. "I made an out. I made the out. I never thought, 'The pitcher got me out.' I made the out."

With that answer, the ornery O'Neill was back. Eventhough he was wearing a suit and tie and we were sitting in a quiet room, O'Neill, who is now a broadcaster on YES, reverted back to being a hitter who just lined out with two runners on base. Don't dare say the pitcher got me out, O'Neill stressed. That was typical O'Neill. Still fighting for hits, 13 years after retiring.

In 1999, I asked O'Neill about the possibility of someday being honored in Monument Park and he dismissed the question. O'Neill said he didn't even like to look in that direction because he didn't belong with those legendary players. Now that O'Neill will be joining those famous Yankees, he said he will bring his family and friends there and say, "Hey, look at that. They made a mistake. They put one of me up there."

It is no mistake. O'Neill deserves the plaque, a fitting tribute to how much he meant to those dynastic Yankees. But, when someone asks me what I remember most about O'Neill, I'm going to talk about that dejected guy sitting near his locker with his head bowed and his uniform crumpled at his feet, the guy who chased perfection and despised losing. That's the Paul O'Neill I will remember.

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Yankees unveil plaque for Paul O’Neill during Stadium ceremony as ‘The Warrior’ heads to Monument Park

The fiery outfielder played nine season in pinstripes, winning four World Series titles from 1996-2000, the 1994 American League batting crown (.359), and making four All-Star appearances.

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Paul O'Neill thanks the Yankees family during a day in his honor at the Stadium on Saturday.

There is a new face in Monument Park.

The Yankees unveiled a plaque dedicated to Paul O’Neill in a brief ceremony Saturday afternoon before the Yankees battled the Indians. O’Neill’s will be the 29th plaque that will sit in its famed centerfield museum.

“When you think about what the Yankees mean to the sports world, basically they are the best,” O’Neill said. “That’s just the way it is.”

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Paul O'Neill and his wife unveil the plaque that will be displayed in Monument Park at the Stadium.

The fiery outfielder known as “The Warrior” played nine season in pinstripes, winning four World Series titles from 1996-2000, the 1994 American League batting crown (.359), and making four All-Star appearances.

Former Yankees David Cone, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera were all on hand for the ceremony, along with O’Neill’s former manger and new Hall of Famer Joe Torre and former athletic trainer Gene Mohanan. O’Neill was also joined by his mother Virginia, wife Nevalee and his three kids. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and manager Joe Girardi presented their former teammate with a replica of the plaque and a commemorative ring, respectively.

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Paul O'Neill helps the Bombers to four World Series titles during his stint in pinstripes.

O’Neill thanked the entire Steinbrenner family, his late father, Charles, and the late Don Zimmer for what he called “a great honor.” He also thanked the Yankee fans for being behind him during his career, particularly for the moment they gave him in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series - his last home game - when “50,000 fans started singing my name.”

In his nine seasons in New York, O’Neill batted .303 with 185 homers, 858 RBI and 304 doubles.

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Yankees could use a Paul O'Neill now

Seeing O’Neill get the 29th plaque in Monument Park while the likes of Joe Torre, Jorge Posada and David Cone looked on sort of brought home the reality that the Yanks’ dynasty days are long gone. Are good times like that ever coming back to the Bronx?

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Paul O’Neill’s monumental day draws big crowd at Stadium including Joe Torre (from l.), Gene Michael, Gene Monahan, Mariano Rivera, Tino Martinez, David Cone and Jorge Posada.

It’d be nice, wouldn’t it, if there were another Paul O’Neill out there now for the Yankees to trade for, like they did before the 1993 season? Sure, these new-look Yanks are interesting now and, improbably, plucky but any team could benefit from a jolt of the intensity — and talent — of someone like O’Neill.

Could that make up for all the rotation injuries and some of the so-so performances by big-name hitters? Maybe. Sure couldn’t hurt — well, unless you’re a water cooler.

Ha, ha. Seriously, though, one of the takeaways from Saturday’s pinstriped pomp, in which O’Neill got the 29th plaque in Monument Park, is that there are few players like him. That is a compliment to O’Neill, not a slap at the current Yanks. His burning competitiveness made teammates — some more talented than him — even better.

“He expected perfection,” Derek Jeter said.

Seeing O’Neill get the 29th plaque in Monument Park while the likes of Joe Torre, Jorge Posada and David Cone looked on sort of brought home the reality that the Yanks’ dynasty days are long gone. Are good times like that ever coming back to the Bronx?

Brace yourself for reality, Yankee fans: We may never see it again. Maybe we all should better appreciate what the late ‘90s teams accomplished with O’Neill as their fiery glue.

If you needed a reminder Saturday of how much has changed, there was a scene from the end of the ceremony in which O’Neill was posing for pictures with Tino Martinez, Torre, Posada and the rest and, 50 yards away, Jeter, the last one left in the lineup, was doing sprints in preparation for the game against Cleveland.

Jeter, the final playing link to the three-peat teams of 1998-2000, is one of only six guys left from the 2009 World Series team, too. (It’d be seven if you include Alex Rodriguez, but why would you? He’s not around this year).

So many special players are gone now and Jeter is going at the end of the year. The Yankees have discovered that finding that kind of tremendous talent at the same time and then adding complementary pieces isn’t really as easy as they once made it look.

Four titles in five years and six World Series appearances over eight is pretty remarkable. None of that is guaranteed when you switch on YES or buy a big-money ticket to the Stadium, no matter what went on in the recent past.

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Derek Jeter is the only player still in uniform from the late 1990s dynasty teams.

From what O’Neill was saying after the dedication of his plaque, maybe even he realizes he did not know what those Yankees had.

“You win in ’96, get back in ’97 and you assume it’s going to happen again and then you see how quick it’s over,” O’Neill said, referring to the playoff loss to Cleveland that seems to still haunt him. “I think the fear of going through that again helped us unbelievably and that’s why I think we won in ’98, ’99 and 2000.”

O’Neill went on to say that his era “looks like one you’re not going to replicate soon.” That wasn’t him handicapping the current club’s efforts to remain in the playoff hunt; it was just the truth.

“That was just the perfect people together, obviously the perfect manager,” O’Neill said of his time and Torre. “Everything came into play at once. People stayed healthy and you can’t say enough about Mr. (George) Steinbrenner keeping those teams together.

“Looking back, you take it for granted when you’re going through it, but you know how hard it is to win four championships in five years? It’s almost unheard of.”

That’s why the loudest cheers of the day Saturday came before the game started, when O’Neill and Torre and the other famous old Yankees were introduced. Early birds from the crowd of 47,376 seemed especially delighted to see Mariano Rivera. The only thing that came close to that kind of noise during play was when Jeter passed Honus Wagner on the all-time hit list.

Twenty years from now, O’Neill said, fans will still be talking about the late ’90s teams. He grew up in Ohio when Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine flexed its muscles and recalls the fun. That’s what folks who were kids in the late ’90s will feel about his Yankees.

Not that they can’t enjoy the current team, too, if they realize they’re not the same Yankees. And that there probably isn’t another Paul O’Neill out there now.

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The Yankee Who Just Wouldn't Quit

Brett Gardner, Initially Cut by His College Team, Persevered to Become a Star in New York

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Speed has always been a major part of Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner's game, but this season he has added power. He had 15 home runs entering Friday.

It was 3 a.m., and Jerry Gardner lay awake, a few days after his son—a pint-size College of Charleston freshman named Brett—had failed to make the school's baseball team.

Jerry Gardner had heard something through the grapevine, and it hadn't sat right. He had heard that Brett had been rejected because his bat wasn't ready, and his arm wasn't strong enough—and he could accept that. But he had also been told that Brett hadn't made it because he wasn't fast enough—and Jerry, who played in the Philadelphia Phillies' minor-league system in the 1970s, knew that was wrong.

So he walked down the hall, took out pen and paper and wrote a letter. It was four pages at first, but his wife, Faye, forced him to cut out some of the choicer parts.

"I said a couple things in there, that I really thought he could contribute," Jerry Gardner said. "Whether it's laying a bunt down, or coming in to pinch run. He could help the team.

"I don't know that he was given what you'd call a fair chance," Jerry Gardner said.

A few days later, Brett got a message on his answering machine, from his college coach. He told him to come to practice tomorrow. If the coaches liked what they saw, maybe he could come again the day after.

Brett sped through the hourlong trip back home to tiny Holly Hill, S.C., grabbed his baseball gear and made it to practice the next day. He did enough that Saturday that no one told him to get lost. So he kept coming back until the season was over.

No one, Jerry said, ever told Brett he had made the team. He was just that relentless kid, 17 and rail-thin, who wouldn't leave.

Four years later, he left Charleston as the best player in the school's history.

"Obviously it ended up turning out pretty well for them, because they have his picture on the outfield wall now at the College of Charleston," said his agent, Joe Bick, with a laugh.

That is the road Brett Gardner has taken to surprisingly become the Yankees' best position player, a versatile, fast, reliable outfielder who has added power to his game this year to complete the package. He has done it by leveraging a 5-foot-10, 185-pound body that he was always told was too small, and by never, ever taking no for an answer.

"That's the reason he's here," Jerry Gardner said Thursday as he watched his son warm up in the Yankee Stadium outfield. "He doesn't have the talent that these other guys have. But as far as the heart, he's not second to anybody. And that, and the God-given speed, is why he's here."

Brett Gardner has fueled his climb to the majors with slights from every angle. When he was Charleston's best player as a junior, and still went undrafted due to his small size, he just went back to work. A year later, he co-led all of college baseball in hits and was drafted in the third round in 2005.

"It's certainly the best progress of anything I've ever been involved with," said his agent, Joe Bick. "There were literally four or five teams that were calling me, saying to me, 'Where do I need to pick this guy to get him?'"

The two teams most interested were the Boston Red Sox and the Yankees, with Boston general manager Theo Epstein and New York GM Brian Cashman and their assistants calling Bick nearly daily, but when similar player Jacoby Ellsbury fell to Boston in the first round that year, that filled that need for Boston and opened up the avenue for the Yankees to take Gardner.

After struggling initially in his first year, Gardner broke out in his second season in the minor leagues, forcing his way into the Yankees' long-term planning. But Gardner's attributes proved divisive. He showed no power and an uncertain bat. The idea of a slight, powerless Yankee center fielder playing the position of DiMaggio and Mantle didn't sit right.

"I remember [minor-league coach] Gary Denbo telling me…telling me that this guy will play center field for the New York Yankees someday. And people in the industry didn't see it," Cashman said. "I remember one person said Mickey Mantle will roll over in his grave if Gardy plays center field."

To Gardner? That was just more fuel for the fire. Jerry recalls his ultracompetitive 8-year-old son beating his adult friends at ping pong, and so on. "I could take him and a friend somewhere to eat ice cream, and next thing I'd know, he's racing his friend to eat the ice cream the quickest," he said.

So Brett proved the skeptics wrong, became the Yankees' regular center fielder and is now manning left field after the Yankees' surprise signing of Ellsbury this winter.

That seemed like another bad break for Brett Gardner. It initially appeared that he would be traded or would depart after 2014, when he became a free agent. But the Yankees made it clear that wasn't their goal. They wanted Gardner and Ellsbury both, and signed Gardner to a four-year, $52 million extension.

"There's a reason we signed him to the extension," Cashman said. "I met with his agent at the winter meetings, said we have no intention of trading Gardy. I'm a huge Gardy fan. We're going to sign him if you let us."

Gardner has responded with the best season of his career, ranking among the Yankees' top three in most offensive categories. At age 30, he was hitting .283 (first) entering Friday with 15 home runs (second), 50 RBI (third), 72 runs (first), 18 steals (second) and an .818 OPS (first).

And at a time when power is becoming scarcer and more valuable in the game, Gardner is suddenly offering it. After working on being more aggressive with hitting coach Kevin Long, Gardner is on pace to hit more than 20 home runs despite never before cracking double digits, to the surprise of many who never saw this power coming, including manager Joe Girardi.

"I always felt that he had double-digit power," Girardi said. "I can't tell you I ever thought he had double-digits with a two in front of it, but it's not out of the question with where he's at now."

Gardner acknowledges that the change in approach has led to more hard contact and hence more home runs, but he maintains that this isn't what he's trying to do.

"It's all fun and all that, but my job is still to get on base up at the top of the order," Brett Gardner said. "If I catch a couple of balls out front and hit them over the fence, that's great, but it's not what I'm trying to do."

Yet is he loving it? Sure. Take the case of Yu Darvish, the otherwise unhittable Texas Rangers ace who can't beat Gardner. Gardner crushed two home runs off Darvish last month in Texas, giving him five hits and four homers in 11 career at-bats against Darvish, the best record of any hitter.

When asked why Gardner torments him, Darvish delivered an all-time testament to Gardner's mom and dad. "I just blame the parents of Brett Gardner," Darvish said. "I just blame them for creating a great hitter."

The next day, an ebullient Gardner was bouncing around the Yankee dugout, joking with David Robertson about the line. "You hear that?" he said, before bounding onto the field. "Not a good hitter. A GREAT hitter."

Jerry Gardner said he has never gotten more text messages.

"It's a good line. It's my wife, Faye. Give her the credit," he said, before grinning and needling Brett a little. "As we know, he was exaggerating a bit, but we'll take it."

Just what his son needs. A little extra motivation.

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Masahiro Tanaka feels no pain after Yankees ace throws from 90 feet

Joe Girardi said the next step after 120 feet will be for Tanaka to throw pitches on flat ground, then eventually move to a mound. There is no date for that, though the Yankees have said they don't expect him to be ready before September.

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Masahiro Tanaka continues to make progress as he tries to get himself healthy to return to the Yankees this season.

BALTIMORE — Masahiro Tanaka isn’t close to rejoining Michael Pineda in the rotation, but the Yankees’ ace continues to make progress in his throwing program as he tries to rehab the partially torn ligament in his right elbow.

Tanaka made 50 throws at 90 feet on Monday, reporting no problems. He will extend that distance to 120 feet on Tuesday.

“So far so good,” Joe Girardi said. “He’s not throwing pitches, but he’s at 90 feet and he let it go a little bit today.”

Girardi said the next step after 120 feet will be for Tanaka to throw pitches on flat ground, then eventually move to a mound. There is no date for that, though the Yankees have said they don't expect him to be ready before September.

“You want to see his stuff, obviously,” Girardi said. “Pain-free is the big thing because if he’s pain-free I feel that the stuff will come.”

BUCK: JETER A CLASS ACT

To Buck Showalter, one of the hallmarks of Derek Jeter’s character is what he says — and doesn’t say.

“In today’s world with all the twoots and tweets and bloobs and blogs and all that stuff, I think one of the best things is, he cares about the weight his words carry,” Showalter said. “A lot of people get a little drunk with that. He knows how much it impacts his teammates, the fans, the organization.

“You can’t really come up with up with many times where he’s done something to embarrass the Yankees, his family or the game. and I’m going to tell you what: Hold on to that as you go forward, because the world we live in today in sports, it’s going to be real rare to see that down the road.”

SHADES OF MAIER

Showalter says he knows exactly what the Orioles should present to Jeter when he makes his last visit to Camden Yards next month.

“I’d give him (a) big picture of the home run,” Showalter said, referring to the infamous fly ball Jeter hit against the Orioles in the 1996 playoffs that Jeffrey Maier turned into a game-winning homer. “Well, it wasn’t a home run, we know that. (But) I’d give him a big picture and have the whole Baltimore Oriole team sign it. It’s a good idea. It's cheap too, right? Make it bronze. Not that we remember that at all.”

MCCANN STAYS HOME

Brian McCann did not accompany the Yankees to Baltimore after being placed on the 7-day concussion DL on Saturday. … Girardi said Carlos Beltran could return to right field “in the real near future,” though no date has been set. Beltran (elbow) has been a DH exclusively since June 5.

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Michael Pineda will start for Yankees on Wednesday against Orioles

Pineda hasn't pitched since April 23, when he was found with pine tar on his neck while facing the Red Sox. He was suspended 10 games but then suffered a shoulder injury, keeping him out until this week.

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Michael Pineda is 2-2 with a 1.83 ERA in four starts for the Yankees in 2014.

BALTIMORE — Michael Pineda will make his long-awaited return to the mound on Wednesday. And no, he won’t be using pine tar.

The Yankees announced that the 25-year-old righthander will take the mound Wednesday against the Orioles at Camden Yards, his first start since he was ejected — and eventually suspended 10 games — for illegal use of pine tar during an April 23 game in Boston.

“I know I make a mistake, so I learned from that,” Pineda said. “Everything is in the past right now. I want to continue my career and that’s it. I’m focused on my game and I’m focused on pitching. I said sorry to my team and sorry to everybody, so now everything is in the past.”

Pineda has been on the disabled list since May 6 with a right shoulder muscle strain, an injury he suffered while pitching a simulated game in Tampa during his 10-game suspension for being caught using pine tar against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

Pineda, who had a glob of the sticky stuff on his neck at the time he was busted, had been photographed with pine tar on his hand during his April 10 start against the Sox in the Bronx. Asked Monday if he planned to continue using pine tar when he pitches, Pineda was matter of fact with his response.

“No,” he said.

Pineda was 2-2 with a 1.83 ERA in four starts this season before the suspension and injury brought his season to a halt. Pineda will take the spot in the rotation filled last turn by Esmil Rogers, who was pitching in place of David Phelps.

The Yankees are bringing Pineda back after only two minor-league rehab starts with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, having thrown 3.1 innings on August 3 and 4.1 innings on Friday. The team had initially said Pineda would need to throw 90 pitches in a minor-league start before coming back, but that was before Phelps landed on the DL a week ago with an elbow injury.

“It’s a little surprise,” Pineda said of his accelerated return. “But I’m working hard and I want to do good.”

“We wanted to make sure he was ready; that we felt he was ready, that he felt he was ready,” Joe Girardi said. “You always try to give (players) plenty of time to get ready, and you err on the cautious side, so if he felt he needed another one, or we felt he needed another one, that was built in. But we feel he’s ready now.”

Pineda got up to 72 pitches before throwing another half-dozen or so in the bullpen Friday, so Girardi feels comfortable letting him throw 85-90 on Wednesday.

“The stuff was good,” Girardi said. “The slider was good, the fastball was good and the changeup was good. You’re never sure when a guy’s rehabbing how the arm strength is going to be or how sharp they’re going to be, but he threw the ball well.

Pineda was the second of four Yankees starters to land on the DL during the first half, though with Ivan Nova and CC Sabathia out for the season and Masahiro Tanaka still going through a throwing program, he’s the first to return.

“This is a guy who threw very well before he went on the DL and it will be nice to have him back,” Girardi said. “The fact that he feels good and he's throwing the ball well, we like it.”

Pineda said everything from his velocity to his command feels the same as it did back in April, leaving him eager to resume his season after missing the past three-and-a-half months.

“Everything is the same,” Pineda said. “Everything looks good. I’m happy I’m feeling really good. I’m feeling powerful. I’m happy with that. Everything is good. I’m so excited.”

Given everything he’s gone through this season, does Pineda think he’ll have to deal with a case of nerves when he takes the ball Wednesday night?

“No, not nervous,” Pineda said. “Excited, but not nervous.”

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Pineda8-13.jpg

Starting pitcher Michael Pineda of the New York Yankees throws a pitch in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles during a baseball game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 13, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.

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