The four players in the middle of the Yankees' batting order combined to hit 137 home runs and drive in 456 runs last season, an average of 34 homers and 114 RBIs per man.

It's an impressive quartet to say the least, one which conjures images of a modern-day Murderer's Row.

• Alex Rodriguez: two-time American League MVP and considered by many the best player in baseball

• Jason Giambi: former AL MVP and last year's Comeback Player of the Year

• Gary Sheffield: four-time Silver Slugger honoree, including the past two years with the Yankees

• Hideki Matsui: New York's iron man, two-time All-Star and a master with men in scoring position

The Yankees have plenty of firepower to display this season, but ask any of them about the key to the team's success in 2006, and you'll be surprised what you will hear.

Small ball.

"We understand that there will be certain games when one run will be huge," said manager Joe Torre. "Even though we're capable of big things here, we have to diversify our attack a little bit."

The philosophy, which was in place during the team's four championship years from 1996-2000, is not a new one. Many teams -- primarily those that do not have the kind of artillery the Yankees possess -- employ a small-ball strategy, looking to manufacture runs any way they can.

If that means having A-Rod move a runner into scoring position to allow Sheffield to knock him in, so be it. If it means calling a hit-and-run with Sheffield at the plate, then that's what Torre is prepared to do.

"We're stressing more this year to forget about numbers, just go out and do whatever it takes to win," said Sheffield. "If you have to get a guy over, get him over. Whatever you can do to get the runner into scoring position, then let the next guy drive him in."

The idea to return to small ball came during some organizational meetings in January, as Torre and hitting coach Don Mattingly decided it would be necessary to play for one run at times instead of waiting for the big extra-base hit.

Even before the team reported to Tampa, Fla., for Spring Training in mid-February, Torre had reached out to some of his players to let them know what he had in mind.

"It's something we really planned on doing," Torre said. "It's not something we'll do on a regular basis, but we want to make sure we're prepared to do it. It helps you stay in the game more."

Now, this doesn't mean that the Yankees plan to take the bats out of the hands of these four talented sluggers all of the time. The small-ball approach won't be an everyday thing, but the Yankees know that in games against tough pitchers, the difference between a win and a loss can be one run.

And when you consider that they won the American League East last season by virtue of a tiebreaker, every game could be the difference between playing in October and sitting at home, watching the playoffs on the couch.

"There's obviously a lot of potential here, but the bottom line is that we still have to do the little things to win," said Derek Jeter. "When we won, we weren't hitting 40 home runs or driving in 150 RBIs. We were doing the little things, and that's what we're going to focus on this year."

"It's very important for all of us to commit to this," A-Rod said. "We're all more than power hitters; we're good hitters who are capable of hitting for a high average. We're not going to hit 40 homers and bat .220. We have to be the best hitters we can be, the toughest outs we can be."

Nobody personifies the small-ball philosophy like Jeter, whose annual statistics pale in comparison to those of his teammates. Jeter has hit 20 home runs in a season just three times and has driven in 100 runs just once, but his yearly runs totals, batting average and on-base percentage make him as valuable as anyone else in pinstripes.

"There are people on this team who have had great individual seasons, put up numbers, won awards, done this or that, but the bottom line is that we're trying to win," said Jeter. "Who cares what numbers you put up, what accolades you get; you want to win. If we're going to win, we have to do the little things."

Enter Johnny Damon, whose presence at the top of the lineup gives New York a potent 1-2 punch to set up the sluggers. With Damon leading off, Jeter moves back to his customary No. 2 spot in the lineup, where he can use his ability to hit to the opposite field to help push Damon into scoring position on what the team hopes is a regular basis.

"Over the course of the season, you're not going to score 10 runs every night," Giambi said. "You need to win the 2-1 games, too, and we're not going to have to sit back and wait for a big homer to win a game. We can scratch and claw with Johnny and Derek up top, which is important."

Mike Mussina is glad he won't have to stand on the mound and see A-Rod, Sheffield, Giambi and Matsui looking back at him. But as frightening as those hitters can be when they're mashing the ball out of the park, Mussina believes that they may be even more dangerous if they stick to the new philosophy.

"If you're on another staff and you look at our lineup, you have to think that day for you is going to be pretty challenging," Mussina said. "If these guys approach a game the way we know they can, if they're not all trying to hit 40 homers and we do the little things, we're going to score a lot of runs. We'll have a good year and be where we want to be in October."

Several people have predicted that the 2006 Yankees have the potential to score 1,000 runs, a mark reached by just one team in the past 55 years. New York may very well reach that total, but the players know that it won't be by scoring 6.17 runs every game.

And even if the Yankees were able to score that consistently, October would surely present a more difficult challenge. After all, when you play for the Yankees, nothing matters more than October.

"Against good teams, like in the postseason, there's a premium for runs," Rodriguez said. "The way you create that is with small baseball; hitting the ball the other way, moving runners. We're all well aware of it. We've talked about it a lot, and we had never talked about it in my first two years."

There is a very good chance that A-Rod will post his typical 45-homer, 130-RBI year, or that Giambi will find his way back to the 40-homer plateau. Matsui may collect his fourth consecutive 100-RBI season and Sheffield could post another monster season. All of that would be great for the Yankees, as long as the end result is another trip to October.

"Everybody's goal is to win," Giambi said. "When you're a veteran player, you don't worry about getting your numbers, because everybody here has gotten their contract and has gotten paid. It's all about winning, and to do that, you have to concentrate on the little things."