Contenders counting on ailing stars

BY Bob Klapisch • August 25, 2011

Take your pick as to which party was more relieved by Carlos Beltran’s decisive home run against the Padres on Wednesday night — the Giants, who needed the 2-1 win to stay close to the Diamondbacks, or Beltran himself, who’d been feeling pressure to rescue the National League’s worst offense.

Beltran may or may not be the difference-maker in the Giants’ quest to defend their world championship. But he was acquired for one reason only: to spark the run-scoring mechanism that’s been bogged down ever since Buster Posey was lost for the season.

You don’t have to ask Beltran (or the Giants) how things have gone since the trade from the Mets. Despite the irresistible resume — switch-hitter with home run power, playoff pedigree, big-market experience — Beltran was hitting just .239 with no home runs since the trade. He was so invisible that fans at AT&T Park already had started booing by the time the slugger went on the DL with a strained wrist.

Beltran tried to minimize the friction, insisting it was “nothing” compared with New York’s crowds. Still, he knew the Giants needed a return on their investment — after all, they’d shipped top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to New York in exchange for grace under pennant-race pressure.

Finally, Beltran delivered.

“It gives us a lot of confidence that he’s healthy and he’s going to step up,” Orlando Cabrera told reporters after the game. “Hopefully, he can carry us the rest of the season and put up big numbers.”

Beltran’s dramatic return from the DL is just one example of a to-the-rescue script that several teams are hoping to copy. The Yankees are imagining Alex Rodriguez hitting home runs again, after his surgically repaired knee and jammed thumb finally mend.

The Red Sox, who once thought they had the American League’s best offense, realize how much they need Kevin Youkilis, who’s out until next week with lower-back problems. And whatever hope the White Sox have of catching the Tigers could rest on how quickly A.J. Pierzynski comes back from a wrist injury that landed him on the DL last week.

There are similar health issues in Atlanta (Tommy Hanson, shoulder tendinitis) and Milwaukee (Rickie Weeks, severely sprained ankle). But let’s face it: Both the Braves and Brewers are insulated from playoff pressure, on their way to the NL wild-card and Central Division title, respectively.

The most compelling DL vigil is going on in the NL West, where the best race in the big leagues is taking shape. And it’s not just Beltran’s injury that made the Giants nervous. Now, they’re focused on Brian Wilson, who was put on the DL retroactive to Aug. 16.

How worried is GM Brian Sabean? He claimed Heath Bell on waivers Wednesday, hours after the Giants’ bullpen-by-committee couldn’t contain the Padres in a 7-5 loss.

Ramon Ramirez, Wilson’s stand-in, has a 7.36 ERA and 2.05 WHIP in August. He was beaten up for two runs in the ninth inning of the San Diego loss. Remember, this is the same bullpen that led the major leagues with 57 saves last year, 48 of them from Wilson.

While Beltran’s return is huge, Wilson’s status looms even larger. There’s no timetable for his return, which is why the Giants are pushing to complete a deal for Bell in the next 24 hours.

A much less visible return to action takes place this weekend, when the Yankees’ Freddy Garcia starts one of the games of a doubleheader against the Orioles. The right-hander has been the least noticeable starter, yet he’s enjoyed a de facto surge since going on the DL after slicing his index finger in a kitchen accident.

Garcia, unable to throw his splitter until the gash had healed, suddenly looks like a better alternative than A.J. Burnett, who has a 10.70 ERA in August, and Bartolo Colon, who hasn’t won a game this month and has mysteriously stopped throwing his two-seam fastball.

Garcia is emerging as the No. 4 starter in what’s been a six-man rotation since mid-August — although the Yankees are a long way from deciding whom they’ll use in Games 2 and 3 in the Division Series.

Could it be Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes?

“No question,” said one Yankee official, which says plenty about the team’s diminishing trust in Burnett and Colon.

Then again, the Yankees know they’ll go into the postseason with the AL’s top offense since the All-Star break. Their ability to prevail in any slugfest makes it imperative for Boston to nurture Youkilis, who has the highest OPS among American League third basemen.

With the Sox on the road, Youkilis remained behind in Boston to continue his rehab — he’s already received at least one injection to alleviate the pain in his back. Youkilis will miss next week’s three-game series with the Yankees, but the Sox are hopeful he’ll return as soon as he’s eligible to come off the DL on Sept. 2.

NEWS ITEM: Bartolo Colon’s two-seamer is MIA.

Whatever happened to the freakish, reverse-lateral two-seamer that made Colon so important to the Yankees in the first four months of the season? No one seems to know, but it’s definitely vaporized.

Of the 106 pitches Colon threw against the A’s Tuesday night, only two were two-seamers. The right-hander still thinks that sinker is his best pitch, but admits he was shaken by the fact that the Royals hit two HRs off two-seamers last week.

The Yankees will nudge Colon away from what’s now an over-reliance on the four-seam fastball, but they’re worried that Colon is finally wearing down. His 131 innings are the most he’s thrown since 2005, and his radar-gun readings are slowly diminishing. Against Oakland, Colon’s average fastball was clocked under 92, prompting one scout to say, “He isn’t throwing hard enough anymore to just keep throwing straight fastballs.”



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