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Yanks still have much to prove

Column as I see 'em:

* The Yankees entered Monday's game in Anaheim with a 26-21 record, precisely their record at the same stage a year ago. They had won five in a row and moved to within two games of the AL East lead in the loss column, easing the sense of impending doom among their more fretful fans.

There's no reason to think the Yanks won't be a factor in a suddenly competitive division. Mark Teixeira is hitting. Andy Pettitte seems rejuvenated. Hiroki Kuroda finally pitched well in a road game. But don't kid yourselves. The win streak came against the Royals and A's. It's still a team with a lot of issues.

Closer Mariano Rivera is gone for the year. Brett Gardner is nursing a bad elbow. Gardner is throwing, but manager Joe Girardi doesn't sound optimistic. Catcher Russell Martin is hurting, too. As of Monday, Derek Jeter had one extra-base hit in 18 games.

Oh, and Alex Rodriguez's slugging average is down for the fifth straight year. A-Rod is slugging .430 in 172 at-bats. Counting last year's playoff no-show, he had slugged .440 since the 2011 opener. He adjusted his stance last week and hit two homers off the Royals' Will Smith, who was making his big-league debut. A-Rod and the Yanks need to beat up the real contenders if they expect to win the division. The Rays are better.

* Early in 2011, after Auburn won the NCAA title, many experts felt defensive tackle Nick Fairley could be the No. 1 overall draft pick. People were calling Fairley the best defensive lineman in the nation. Some early mock drafts had him going third overall to the Bills. Fairley went 13th to the Lions. Be thankful they did their homework on the guy.

Early Sunday, Fairley was charged with DUI and attempting to elude police while driving 100 mph in Alabama. He was also charged with no insurance, having an open container and reckless driving. In April, Fairley was arrested in Mobile on charges of marijuana possession.

This is what they refer to during those pre-draft luncheons when they talk about "character issues."

* Darryl Sutter, who took over the L.A. Kings in December, is the third coach in four years to reach the Stanley Cup final after assuming the reins during the season. Dan Bylsma won the Cup with the Penguins in '09. Peter Laviolette guided the Flyers to the final a year later.

But at some point next year, if the Sabres stumble again under Lindy Ruff, we'll be hearing that in-season coaching changes rarely work in the NHL.

* It's nice to see the Williams sisters playing the French Open after both missed with injuries a year ago. Serena is seeded fifth. But I'll be rooting hard for Venus, who is suffering from Sjogren's Syndrome, an incurable autoimmune disease that compromises her strength and stamina. Venus hopes to be healthy enough to play in the Olympic doubles with Serena in London. Tennis players are more eager than usual for the Games because they'll be played at Wimbledon.

* Baseball trivia practice: Who has the most hits in the Majors since the start of the 2011 season? Melky Cabrera of the Giants, who was hitting .369 and leading the bigs with 73 hits as of Monday. Cabrera is sixth in total bases since the '11 opener with 420. Cabrera is on a one-year, $6 million deal with the Giants, his fourth team in four years. Do you think the Yanks regret sending him to the Braves in 2009 for Javier Vasquez?

* The Devils' Ilya Kovalchuk is leading all playoff scorers and revising his reputation as a selfish underachiever. Do you suppose it might inspire some NHL general managers to reconsider their aversion to using Russian players?

* Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey has a quality start (six-plus innings, three or fewer earned runs) in 21 of his last 22 starts. He's 4-0 with a 1.83 ERA in May.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com