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Pregame notes: “It’s business as usual”

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Is it safe to say that this is the biggest series of the season for the Yankees?

With the Baltimore Orioles coming into town just three games back of the lead in the AL East, they have an opportunity to put a serious dent into the Yankees’ shrinking lead — or even worse (gasp), get out of the Bronx tied for first with a sweep.

But ask Joe Girardi, and he’ll tell you this series is no different from any other.

“I think you can walk in the clubhouse and realize that there’s no sense of panic,” he said. “Everyone has a smile on their face, and everyone came to work today ready to go. Guys are taking early BP. It’s business as usual.”

Girardi is right about the feel in the clubhouse. Players were joking with each other and the media as they have all season, with Joba Chamberlain doing impressions for anyone who would listen. That’s what we’ve come to expect out of this veteran group, and Girardi spoke with supreme confidence about that attitude not wavering.

“There’s this thought that your philosophy changes depending on where you are in the standings or who you’re playing,” he said. “I would be disappointed if every day they didn’t come to work, or I didn’t come to work, with the anticipation that we were going to win that game.”

Girardi did acknowledge that the Yankees have been inconsistent at times this season, and these past three series have been a perfect example. The Yankees went 3-6 during that span, and while the group still seems as loose as ever, that might finally change if this series with the O’s does not go as planned.

“The thing about a season is, you’re going to go through ups and downs,” Girardi said. “It’s how you manage them. This isn’t the first down that we’ve had during the course of the season, and we’ve responded and we’ve bounced back. That’s what I expect.”

[3]• One of the reasons that Girardi sounded so optimistic is because of tonight’s starter. Hiroki Kuroda has been the Yankees’ best pitcher this season, and he’s the guy who they’re hoping will set the tone for the series. “He’s pitched great for us, and you feel good everytime he takes the ball out there,” Girardi said. “You look at his last start, and he gave up three runs in the first inning, but he ended up giving us eight innings total and pitched another great game for us.”

• Girardi was asked if this is the type of game that can be a good indication of how Kuroda will perform in the postseason. “I think we’ve learned a lot about him already,” Girardi said. “I think what we’ve realized is that he’s a really good pitcher, and he can pitch at any point. Are you going to learn anything about him today that I didn’t know? I don’t think so.”

• Girardi also announced that they are changing the rotation plans for the weekend. Freddy Garcia was originally slated to take the ball for the second game tomorrow, but he’s being pushed back until Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays. David Phelps will now start tomorrow, with Phil Hughes being pushed up to Sunday and CC Sabathia taking the ball on Monday. Girardi wouldn’t give a specific reason for the change, other than saying, “It’s not just one little thing; it’s things that we look at, and we decided to go that way.” There’s two things that I take away from the decision: The Yankees clearly are growing more confident in Phelps, and Garcia is likely the first man out whenever either Ivan Nova or Andy Pettitte is ready to to return to the rotation.

• Speaking of Pettitte, he spoke with the media after throwing 20 successful pitches off of the mound today. He noted that he wasn’t pushing off at 100 percent, but said, “I feel like I’m getting real, real close.” This was the most encouraged that Pettitte has sounded throughout his recovery process, and it sounds like he’ll definitely throw off of a mound soon. “It was huge,” he said. “I was getting a little paranoid about how it was going to feel, but today was good.”

[4]• Girardi also said that the next step for Pettitte is a “full-fledged bullpen,” similar to what he would do in between starts. He said he expects Pettitte to throw 35-40 pitches, but did not have a definitive date. “His leg is obviously feeling a lot better for him to do what he did today,” Girardi said. “That’s what we needed to see.”

• Girardi also said that Nova long tossed today. “We’re trying to map out a schedule for him,” he said. “We’ll see how he feels tomorrow, but he’s progressing as well.”

• It also sounds like Mark Teixeira is progressing, but Girardi said he doesn’t expect him to play until at least next weekend’s series in Baltimore. I doubt he’d want to put him on the turf for the Tampa series. “He feels better, I can tell you that,” Girardi said. “It’s been about four days, so we’ll just take it day by day. That’s all we can do. We don’t have him doing anything but treatment today.”

• The injury notes just keep on coming. Alex Rodriguez is set to make his first rehab appearance tonight with Single-A Tampa. Right-handed reliever David Aardsma will also be there to begin his rehab assignment. Lefty Pedro Feliciano has been transferred to short-season Single-A Staten Island for tonight’s game, and he’s a guy that could potentially be called up when rosters expand tomorrow.

• Girardi, who is usually a big advocate of mixing in righties and lefties to balance his lineup, has loaded the lineup for tonight’s game with five pure left-handed hitters (plus Nick Swisher, who will be batting from the left side against Orioles’ starter Miguel Gonzalez). He clearly decided to just go with his best hitters against the right-handed starter, with the Yankees 3-4-5-6 hitters all being lefties. That could make it very easy on Buck Showalter’s bullpen, so expect to see Andruw Jones and Steve Pearce off of the bench at some point to offset that. No Yankee has more than three career at-bats against Gonzalez, with both Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez going 2 for 3 with a homer.

• Here is the Orioles’ lineup: 1. Markakis (RF); 2. Hardy (SS); 3. McLouth (LF): 4. Jones (CF); 5. Wieters (C); 6. Davis (DH); 7. Reynolds (1B); 8. Quintanilla (2B); 9. Machado (3B).

Associated Press photos