Cruel timing for Yankees injuries

All month, the AL East has been nervously monitoring the Yankees as they threatened to wipe out the rest of the division. The Bombers had suddenly become an opposing manager’s nightmare: The home runs were flying at a near-record pace, the starting rotation’s ERA was a half-run lower than the closest runner-up and the relief corps was so airtight it didn’t even seem to miss Mariano Rivera.

The Bombers are 19-5 in June, boasting the best record in baseball, and until Wednesday it felt like no one along the East Coast could touch them. That is, until the first disaster of the season, and it was nothing short of a doozy.

In a matter of hours, both Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia were placed on the disabled list, presenting the Yankees with a doomsday challenge: Can this monolith survive without its two most experienced, successful starters?

To a man, the Bombers believe they’re deep enough to absorb the overlapping injuries, especially since Sabathia, who’s suffering from a grade-1 groin strain, is expected back immediately after the All-Star break. Still, the timing of his injury couldn’t have been worse, since Pettitte, who suffered a fractured left fibula in the fifth inning against Cleveland, is lost until mid-August and possibly into September.

Pettitte did his best to remain upbeat, insisting, “time flies” and “I’ll be back before you know it.” But there was no disguising the core of his disappointment. Good guy that he is, Pettitte was merely saying what he believed the traumatized Yankee family wanted to hear.

Suddenly, the Bombers’ run-prevention apparatus feels barren. It’ll be up to Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes to assume responsibility for the rotation’s success, while the back end belongs to Freddy Garcia and Adam Warren, who’s being summoned from Class-AAA.

That’s no one’s idea of a killer rotation, but GM Brian Cashman says, “we’ve got to step up and prove we can handle this.” The Yankees still have two factors working in their favor: First, they continue to hit more home runs than anyone in the sport, and could address the emergency simply by ratcheting up the run production. And, second, Kuroda has quietly fashioned a hot streak of his own, with six quality starts in his last seven appearances.

But what the Yankees can’t quantify is how much Kuroda and Hughes, in particular, have benefitted from the safety net Sabathia and Pettitte provided. Although neither one was having career years statistically, the Yankees were never more comfortable than when one of the veteran left-handers was on the mound.

No wonder everyone was so shocked late Wednesday: Pettitte was hobbling around the clubhouse on crutches and Sabathia admitted he’d hidden his injury from team officials for a day and a half after Sunday night’s appearance against the Mets. The Yankee hierarchy was less than thrilled with Sabathia’s decision to wait until Tuesday afternoon to admit he was hurt, although one club elder said, “CC’s earned the benefit of the doubt on this.”

The Yankees had no reason to believe Sabathia was being sneaky or duplicitous: He was simply living up to his job description as the rotation’s guardian, willing to absorb the aches and pain that accompany most pitchers through the season. Sabathia felt something “grab” in the fourth inning at Citi Field, and assumed the leg would have improved by Monday morning.

However, “it didn’t,” Sabathia said before gambling one more time. The lefthander went to the bullpen on Tuesday for his normal, between-starts throwing session and again kept his injury a secret. By the end of his tuneup, Sabathia was staring at an unpleasant truth — “it wasn’t getting any better” — and finally confessed to the coaching staff something was wrong.

Sabathia actually fought the decision to go on the DL, even though an MRI revealed a slight tear in the left groin. Had the injury occurred in September or October, it’s likely he could’ve remained in the rotation. But not now, not just before the All-Star break, not with the team on a roll and Pettitte ready to assume the role of temporary ace.

At age 40, Pettitte was the clear choice to shepherd the rotation through the tempest and was mowing down the Indians — until Casey Kotchman’s one-bouncer nailed the lefthander flush on the leg, just above the ankle. Pettitte went down instantly, and left the game one pitch later after experiencing, “an awful lot of pain all the way down my foot.”

Pettitte limped off the mound, straight to the doctors and MRI techs who found a partial fracture. The prognosis? Six weeks before the bones fully fuse, although no one’s realistically expecting Pettitte back before Labor Day. In the meantime the Yankees will be left wondering if Pettitte’s cut-fastball can be resurrected after a two-month layoff, just as they’ll be grappling with an underlying concern about Sabathia, too.

About to turn 32 next month, he’s no longer a young (or even youngish) superstar. Instead, Sabathia is reaching an age where nagging injuries will become more common and 200-plus inning seasons will no longer be a guarantee.

That’s not to say either problem will necessarily ruin the Yankees this October. Pettitte was right when he said, “we’ve got a good thing going on here.” But that was before the Bombers learned a hard lesson about the random cruelty of a baseball summer. In just one day, the Yankees turned into an ace-less entity. And who could’ve seen that coming?