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Vernon Wells -- no joke -- proving to be a huge help for Yankees

Vernon Wells, YankeesVernon Wells has nine home runs and 20 RBIs this year after putting up 11 HRs and 20 RBIs all of last season. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

When the Yankees acquired Vernon Wells in the spring, it was a sign of desperation — an injury-wracked team taking a flier on an expensive player whose performance had turned him into a punchline over the past two seasons. There's been nothing desperate about the 34-year-old outfielder's performance, however. On Sunday, for the third time in the past five games, he homered to help the Yankees grind out a narrow road victory over an upstart team, a stretch via which the banged-up Bombers have claimed first place in the AL East.

It was certainly an eventful road trip for Wells. On Wednesday in Colorado, he collected three hits including a two-run first inning homer, and with the Yankees shorthanded in the infield following a pair of pinch-hitting moves, he made his first professional appearance at third base in the ninth inning. He wound up making an outstanding play to help Mariano Rivera preserve the 3-2 win, then collected two hits and drove in the Yankees' first run in the following afternoon's 3-1 win. On Saturday in Kansas City, his two-run homer off James Shields provided the tying and go-ahead runs in a 3-2 win. On Sunday, he followed Robinson Cano's two-run third-inning homer off Ervin Santana with a solo homer of his own, and collected an RBI single in his next at-bat as the Yanks went on to a 4-2 win.

Wells is now hitting .295/.343/.530 with nine homers, a total that ranks second on the team to Cano's 10 and fifth in the league behind three players tied with 11. He's two homers shy of last year's total, and well on his way to surpassing his paltry totals in just about every other category in a year that he hit an abysmal .230/.279/.403 in 262 plate appearances. He'll never do enough to justify the seven-year, $126 million extension he signed with the Blue Jays in December 2006, but he may wind up being worth the $13.9 million the Yankees are paying him this year and next; in less than one-quarter of a season, he's been worth 1.5 Wins Above Replacement, good enough to earn about half of that salary.

Improved health is one reason for Wells' rebound. Last year, he missed more than two months with a thumb injury that required surgery, the latest in a long line of injuries to his hands and legs that have caused his performance to vacillate so dramatically over the past half decade, but thus far he's been one of the few Yankees to avoid being bitten by the injury bug. Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira have yet to play a single regular season game, while Francisco Cervelli, Kevin Youkilis and now Eduardo Nunez are on the disabled list as well.

Whether it's better health or an improved approach thanks to a shorter stroke, the small sample of data thus far shows that Wells has been particularly effective in handling inside pitches, especially compared to last year. His .286 batting average on balls in play is right around his career mark of .280, where it was just .218 in 2011-2012. Furthermore, according to the Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x data at Baseball Prospectus, last year Wells was 1-for-20 on pitches in the lower two-thirds of the inside third of the strike zone, with the lone hit a single, and on the inner third overall, he was 4-for-27 with a homer. This year, he was 5-for-11 on the inner third before May 2 (the f/x graphics are several days behind), with three of those hits homers; the one he hit in Colorado fit that bill as well.

The Yankees entered Monday's doubleheader in Cleveland having won five in a row and 12 out of 16, with 10 of those wins by two runs or fewer. They're 23-13 overall, 7-1 in one-run games, and 8-3 in two-run games — the type of performance that tends to regress, as we noted approximately 162 times last year with regards to the Orioles. Their makeshift lineup has actually averaged just 4.36 runs per game, ninth in the league and a whisker below the AL average of 4.44 runs per game. Their pitching, however, has been particularly stingy, yielding 3.83 runs per game, third-best in the league.

The lineup should get a boost soon. Granderson, who suffered a broken forearm on Feb. 24, began a rehab assignment at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last Thursday, and is 7-for-17 in four games, including a homer on Saturday. Though his injury initially caused the Yankees to walk back their plan to shift him to leftfield and return Brett Gardner to center, they're now experimenting with Granderson playing both outfield corners during his rehab in order to provide manager Joe Girardi with maximum flexibility. Once Granderson returns — which could be as early as Tuesday — the righthanded Wells could find at-bats at the expense of the lefthanded Ichiro Suzuki, who has started slowly (.263/.307/.364) and who struggled particularly against lefthanded pitching in 2011 and 2012, though not thus far this year. Wells could also see time as the DH, allowing another surprisingly productive scrapheap pickup, Travis Hafner (.269/.387/.527), to sit against lefties.

The permutations will become more complicated as other players return and are rotated through the DH slot to avoid overtaxing them, but with Teixeira not due back until sometime in June, and Jeter and Rodriguez out until after the All-Star break, it's too to get too worked up about the situation. So long as Wells continues to hit, Girardi will call his number and provide the unlikely hero with a chance to help the Yankees maintain their surprisingly hot start.

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