By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Yankees were aiming to stay close with a patchwork lineup assembled to buy them time until the likes of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson returned from injury.
Instead, their collection of cast-offs and rookies have helped set the pace in the American League East with a 25-14 mark and with some of the celebrated veterans on the road to recovery, the Bronx Bombers may be on their way to a big season.
Making up for the loss of firepower from the missing quartet, who have 32 All Star Game appearances between them, outfielder Vernon Wells has nine home runs and first baseman Lyle Overbay has six homers and 24 runs batted in (RBI).
Rookies who have taken up some of the slack include pitchers Vidal Nuno and Adam Warren, and catcher Austin Romine.
"We don't even think about making excuses or saying let's just tread water until they get back," Overbay told Reuters in the locker room before Wednesday's home game against the Seattle Mariners.
"We're capable and still got some good guys in this clubhouse and when those guys get back we'll be clicking on all cylinders."
Granderson, who led the Yankees last year with 43 home runs, was the first of the big names to return, rejoining the team on Tuesday after breaking his forearm during spring training.
Teixeira has just begun batting practice at the team's Florida training headquarters after hurting his wrist, while Jeter, recovering from a broken ankle, and Rodriguez, rehabbing from hip surgery, are expected back after the All-Star break.
Overbay, a 13-year veteran who played on four other major league teams, was picked up by the Yankees during spring training and has proven to be a clutch bat in the lineup.
"We're just in a holding pattern until these guys get back," said Overbay. "We all came in knowing what each other could do and I think that's why we've gelled so well together. We're not trying to do too much."
The foundation of the Yankees' success this season has been their pitching with starters CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte leading the way, and a bullpen spearheaded by Mariano Rivera, a perfect 16-for-16 in save situations.
Overbay said he casually knew many of the Yankees from informal chats at first base during games in past Major League Baseball seasons, but had a newfound respect for the quality of the clubhouse chemistry.
"It's a great clubhouse," said Overbay. "When you're on the other side you kind of wonder how this is. Now you know why, because they have such good guys.
"You got Jeter running the show and Robbie (Cano), he's running it now while Jeter is gone, and Mariano taking care of the pitching staff, and CC and Andy, all those guys are great team mates.
"Now I know why these guys are so successful. Because they've got each other's back. When times go bad, that's all you have."
The Yankees, who have relied heavily on free agents over the decades, are getting solid help from rookies as well.
In a win in Cleveland on Monday, starting pitcher Nuno earned his first career win, Warren picked up his first career save, second baseman Corban Joseph registered his first major league hit and catcher Romine collected his first RBI.
Manager Joe Girardi said he enjoyed working with rookies.
"There were hurdles you know that young players have to overcome that you don't worry about with older players," he said. "One, believing that you do belong. Two, not always looking over your shoulder if I have a bad day today.
"The thing is that all players make mistakes. Older players learn how to turn the page usually fairly quickly. Younger players beat themselves up. And that's the one thing that I think as a manager you have to assist them in."
Girardi said giving young players a chance to succeed with the major league team, provided a trickle down benefit.
"It's a great thing that you see your buddy do it who has basically been running alongside you for three or four years and saying, 'I put up some of the same numbers that this guy did. I can go up and do it.'
"It gives them confidence."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)