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Yanks' pitching is their biggest problem
You are Joe Girardi, faced with the dark task of paring down your rotation in the next few days, which is another way of saying you have to decide whether to send A.J. Burnett or Phil Hughes to the bullpen.
Brace yourself, someone's about to get fired.
Whoever's left will anchor the back of a rotation that still hasn't solved the Red Sox's predatory lineup. No wonder Girardi looks so worn out lately, even as his Yankees are cruising towards the playoffs. It should be a quiet, sane September, but it's what's waiting in October that has him worried.
In fact, the Bombers' 9-5 loss at Fenway on Wednesday night underscored everything that's gone wrong with their pursuit of the Red Sox this summer. They've lost 11 times in 14 tries, an imbalance that's grown to embarrassing proportions.
With the season series beyond salvaging, the Yankees' only option is take advantage of the small part of the schedule that remains. That means beating the Sox on Thursday, winning the final three-game series in the Bronx in September and maybe catching a break against Josh Beckett — all before the playoffs, at which point the Bombers will pretend the account is even.
But who's kidding who? The Red Sox have the majors' best record since May 1, and have a growing reservoir of confidence against the Yankees.
"That's a very, very dangerous lineup," Girardi was saying before the game. "Look at the numbers; they're dangerous."
The Yankees' concerns actually go beyond the Sox, especially if you consider Alex Rodriguez (thumb), Russell Martin (back) and Derek Jeter (knee) are all nursing injuries. While Girardi was unequivocal a week ago about a maximum-velocity pursuit of the division title, the landscape has since changed. The final month could now be about healing, not chasing, even though that tactic cost the Yankees in 2010.
They lost 17 of their last 26 games last year, settled for the wild card and ended up getting crushed by Texas in the ALCS. Girardi is desperate for home-field advantage this time around, but he knows he can't match the Red Sox's offense without A-Rod and Martin at close to 100 percent.
And then there's the pitching, which has never seemed more muddled after Hughes' loss on Wednesday. Thing is, he had a terrific fastball the first two innings — his best of the season, clocked at 94-95 mph — leaving after 5-2/3 innings, charged with six earned runs. And therein lies the mystery of this former 18-game winner — where, exactly, does the velocity go after the first 40 pitches?
Hughes admitted, "I made a couple of mistakes and they cost me," in the fifth and sixth innings. What hurt even more is that the Yankees had staggered Beckett with a four-run rally in the sixth, rallying from a 4-1 deficit to take a 5-4 lead.
Don't underestimate how much the Bombers wanted to bloody Beckett. That was their goal from the moment they stepped on their field, just as they wanted to get a win for CC Sabathia on Tuesday.
Beckett had a 3-0 record against the Yankees this season and was attempting to become the first pitcher to beat them four times in the same season since Al Nipper in 1987. The Bombers, who lead the AL in offense since the All-Star break, had openly targeted Beckett in the wake of Sabathia's victory 24 hours earlier.
"It's important that we figure out a way to get to him," is how Girardi put it. And that's why Hughes' appearance mattered so much, because someone other than Sabathia has to prove he's capable of out-pitching Boston's front-line starters in Fenway.
Is it Bartolo Colon, who's had an on-again, off-again relationship with his sinker (although it was decidedly on after his last start against the Orioles)? Is it Ivan Nova, who've never pitched a postseason game? Or is it Freddy Garcia, the illusionist who has everything a veteran pitcher could want — brains, experience, guts — except arm strength?
You can forget about Burnett, even though he's taking the mound against Jon Lester on Thursday. And maybe it's time for the Yankees to move on from Hughes, too, at least until 2012. The two-run home run he allowed Ortiz in the fifth inning, and the bizarre one-out walk he issued to Josh Reddick in the sixth — the one that started the decisive three-run rally — was started by, get this, a moth that flew in Hughes' eye as he was in his wind-up for the 3-2 pitch.
The right-hander was temporarily blinded upon releasing the ball. "I missed the target by about eight feet," he said ruefully. The rest was just more of the same dreary results the Yankees have been forced to accept from the Sox: Jason Varitek lashed a run-scoring double to left, and Boone Logan arrived just in time to surrender a two-run homer to Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Yankees are turning a semi-desperate gaze towards Burnett tonight, crazy as it sounds, because Girardi still thinks there's a way to resurrect him. Burnett will be using a newer, more economical wind-up, which may or may not reverse his brutal downward slide — the AL is batting .415 against the troubled right-hander in his last four starts.
Changing hand-glove position isn't much to go on, but as the Yankees say, at least it's something. Against the Red Sox, with October closing in, even a long shot has its charms.