Pitching a concern for Yanks, Rays

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 20, 2010

All you kept hearing last week was how the thrilling Rays-Yankees showdown amounted to a preview of the American League Championship Series.

I’m not sure the Rays will get past the first round. I’m not sure the Yankees will, either.

You know what, though?

I’m also not sure that the mediocre recent performances of both teams will mean all that much come October.

The AL playoff qualifiers are all but set; the teams are playing only for seeding. The final two weeks are not insignificant, not when the Yankees, Rays and Twins all could finish with the league’s best record and gain home-field advantage throughout the first two rounds.

But genuine urgency?

As good as the games were last week at Tropicana Field, it’s not there.

The two things that matter most right now are a club’s health and the state of its starting rotation. The Yankees and Rays are healthier than the Twins and Rangers — “All the horses are in the barn,” Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher said. “It’s time to run.” But the rotations of the AL East powers are not nearly as stable as those of their projected opponents.

Right now, the Rays’ No. 2 starter for the postseason probably would be rookie right-hander Wade Davis. The Yankees’ No. 3 probably would be rookie righty Ivan Nova — and that’s presuming the No. 2, lefty Andy Pettitte, continues what he started Sunday in his return from the disabled list.

Nova outpitched Matt Garza as the Yankees pounded out an 8-6 victory over the Rays on Monday night, extending their lead in the AL East to 1 1/2 games. That’s three poor starts in a row for Garza: one against the Red Sox, two against the Yankees. And he is not the only Rays starter who is struggling.

The Rays rank third in the AL in rotation ERA, best among the likely playoff qualifiers, thanks in large part to lefty David Price. Righty Jeff Niemann has a 14.43 ERA in five starts since coming off the DL. Righty James Shields, who pitches Tuesday night, has a 5.97 ERA since May 29.

Then there is Garza.

Well, the train is slowing to a chug.

Garza, who pitched a no-hitter earlier this season, has struck out only 15 in his last six starts.

“We really want to get the (starters) sharp, absolutely, as we go into the playoffs,” Maddon said. “I don’t want to say there’s plenty of time — there’s not plenty of time — but there is time.”

The Yankees, of course, have their own rotation issues, but their offense still possesses the ability to bludgeon. Curtis Granderson, a relative bit player, hit two homers on Monday night. Derek Jeter, 9-for-26 with three multihit games in his last six, seems to be coming out of it. Swisher, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, A-Rod . . . you get the idea.

Yet, how secure should the Yankees be?

They almost certainly will open at home against the Rangers if they win the division, on the road against the Twins if they are the wild card. The Rangers are 35-39 on the road, and outfielder Josh Hamilton might not fully recover from his bruised ribs by the start of the playoffs. But if the Rangers started lefties Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson in the first two games at Yankee Stadium, things could get interesting.

Lee, as we know, has no fear of the Yankees — see Game 1 of last year’s World Series. He and Wilson, one rival executive said, would control the Yankees’ left-handed hitters, turn around their switch-hitters and pitch inside to their righties, diminishing the threat of the short porch in right field. Righty Colby Lewis, who has been better at home than on the road, could start Game 3 in Texas.

The Twins, who lost first baseman Justin Morneau to a concussion on July 7, also are dealing with some lesser physical issues, most notably catcher Joe Mauer’s jammed left knee.

Right now, it’s all prelude.

Some players are tired. Others might be looking ahead, if ever so slightly, to the playoffs. Yes, the Twins and Rangers likely will gain an edge by clinching early as the Yankees and Rays compete to the end.

But how much does this all mean, really?

The record shows that the Yankees have won only five of their past 14 games and the Rays only six of their past 15. But the 2000 Yankees lost 15 of their final 18 regular-season games and won the World Series. The 2006 Cardinals lost nine of their final 12 and did the same.

Let’s not predict an ALCS preview between the Rays and Yankees. Let’s not predict the imminent demises of either club, either.

Best just to wait and see.

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