Yankees treat Marlins Park series like the real thing

MIAMI – An odd week for the New York Yankees began with a road trip that meant nothing but had the markings of something important. It will end with a regular-season opening series as visitors but with the distinct feel of home. And in between they will do something they haven't since 1996: play exhibitions against their cross-town punching bag, the New York Mets.

Teams travel by bus during spring training. Even when the ride is three hours across swampy, muggy Florida, that's what they do. Unless the team is the Yankees and they are helping break in the new $600 million Marlins Park. Then they take a 40-minute charter flight from their spring facility in Tampa the night before and check into a luxurious boutique hotel in downtown Miami.

Grapefruit League teams bring maybe three regulars on road trips. No more than four. But hand it to the Yankees; the entire roster was in tow – CC Sabathia, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and, yes, Miami's own Alex Rodriguez.

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"It was like a head start on the season," Granderson said. "Playing in the new stadium is cool, and we got into the same routine we repeat all year, just a little earlier."

Their first games that count will be in Tampa against the Rays beginning Friday, meaning the Yankees can stay at their spring training homes an extra few days. Far more important than unusual accommodations is the state of the Yankees, which they profess to be excellent. They are hot, going 12-3-3 in their last 18 games.

Most of the regulars will begin the season swinging blistering bats, Cano an exception with a .237 average. CC Sabathia, the No. 1 starter, struggled with his fastball command Sunday and second-year right-hander Ivan Nova had a bumpy March, but Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia have excelled.

"I like the way we're finishing spring," Sabathia said. "I think we are ready. We're playing well and everybody is healthy."

Everybody except prized offseason acquisition Michael Pineda, whose velocity was down all spring. Not only was the right-hander ineffective, but also he appeared to lack confidence and nearly burst into tears after his last start, saying his shoulder hurt. An MRI showed no structural damage, but Pineda will begin the season on the disabled list. Even though he was an All-Star with the Seattle Mariners as a rookie last season, he'll be hard-pressed to crack the rotation when he is healthy.

Besides the current five starters, Andy Pettitte is rounding into shape after coming out of retirement and might pitch in relief against the Mets on Wednesday. Pettitte had a long talk with Pineda a couple days ago, but the veteran left-hander might end up blocking Pineda's path to the rotation.

"We'll see how he feels in the next couple days, and we'll make an evaluation,'' manager Joe Girardi said of Pettitte."There isn't anything that would tell me we need to take a step backward, or that he's not going to be on schedule. "

Nova, a pleasant surprise as a rookie last year, will make his final spring start Tuesday against the Mets. His ERA is 6.86 and if he doesn't improve soon Pettitte could wrest the ball from his hand before the end of April. Nova won't have the regulars behind him when the Yankees play at the Mets' spring facility in Port St. Lucie for the first time since 1995.

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Most of the starting lineup flew back to Tampa after Monday's 5-2 victory over the Marlins. Taking the three-hour bus ride north on I-95 Tuesday morning will be backups and right fielder Nick Swisher, the regular who drew the short straw. A busload of Yankees minor leaguers will make their own three-hour drive from Tampa to join them. On Wednesday the Mets will return the favor, bussing it to Tampa for the Grapefruit League finale.

The two New York teams stopped playing exhibitions when interleague play began in 1997. They met sporadically before then, and even had a home-and-home event in New York called the Big Apple Series in 1989 and the Mayor's Challenge in 1992 and 1993 to cap off the spring. It ended when only 14,425 fans showed up at Shea Stadium and 24,782 watched at Yankee Stadium. Too cold, too meaningless.

The only person who cared about the outcome was the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. "It was to the point of being ridiculous," former Yankee Goose Gossage told the Wall Street Journal. "It was the seventh game of the World Series [to Steinbrenner]. No joke about it. It was bragging rights for New York."

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Getting the upper hand in 2012 has nothing to do with the Marlins or the Mets. The flying and bussing and exhibitions only lead back to familiar Tampa, to Tropicana Field and three games against the American League East rival Rays. Then it's a three-game stop in Baltimore before the Yankees play host to the Los Angeles Angels.

"It's a good way to start playing for real," Granderson said. "We like the early schedule."

The regular season will be underway. Jeter, A-Rod, Tex and the rest will begin the long slog. Albert Pujols will take an at-bat in the top of the first inning at Yankee Stadium. It will be nothing but real for six months. Or, as the Yankees expect, seven.

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