Yanks show signs of weakness vs. Rays

BY foxsports • September 13, 2010

The Yankees are very good — talented, confident, professional and just about everything the defending World Series champions should be.

They own the best record in the major leagues. They moved back into first place Tuesday with a pulsating 8-7 victory in 10 innings over the Tampa Bay Rays.

But don’t be fooled by the gaudy payroll and star-studded roster.

The Yankees are not what they were in 2009.

That’s not to suggest their title defense is doomed. They have sufficient moxie to overcome mistakes. That was the case Tuesday, after a 6-0 lead morphed into a 7-6 deficit. The night looked lost, given the wobbly state of the Yankees’ bullpen. Then came Jorge Posada’s game-winning, roof-scraping, pinch-hit homer in the 10th.

Look closer, though.

Mariano Rivera, bound for Cooperstown, needed two breaks to get the save. Evan Longoria missed a walk-off home run by fewer than five feet, after tattooing one of Rivera’s trademark cutters. And the final out came when Carl Crawford made the ill-advised decision to tag up on Matt Joyce’s fly ball to shallow right; Greg Golson, who spent most of the season at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, shocked the Rays with a laser throw.

“A huge win,” Manager Joe Girardi said, and he was right. But it was a revealing one, too, and not in the most flattering ways.

It’s been 11 games — and counting — since the last victory by a Yankees starting pitcher. Of course, we know that CC Sabathia (eight shutout innings) deserved to win on Monday night. But the fact remains that the New York starters, as a rule, aren’t staying on the mound long enough.

On Tuesday, Ivan Nova became the latest to leave too early. He had a 6-0 lead to start the bottom of the fifth. When the inning was over, Nova was gone and the Rays were ahead.

Nova cited “bad location” and “bad pitch selection” as causes of the meltdown. He also said his concentration was off. (And here we thought A.J. Burnett wasn’t pitching again until this weekend.)

The Yankees can’t be certain of how Nova would respond to a starting assignment in the postseason. Problem is, the same is true for Phil Hughes, who is already past his career high in innings; Burnett, who has a 6.70 ERA since Aug. 1; and Andy Pettitte, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since July 18 because of a strained left groin.

Contrast that with last autumn, when the Yankees’ sturdy rotation set the cadence for their championship march.

At this time last year, with an American League East title all but assured, Girardi doled out extra days of rest to Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte in preparation for the postseason. The Yankees gave the trio a breather in September, which enabled them to pitch on short rest when it mattered most. Girardi made it through the Twins, Angels and Phillies while using just three starting pitchers — a rare feat in the game today.

“Last year, it worked,” Rivera said Tuesday afternoon. “This year, new year. We’ll see what happens.”

We will. But I don’t know that the Yankees will even attempt such a feat with their existing personnel. Sabathia, a 19-game winner, is certainly capable of starting on three days’ rest again. But Burnett must put together consecutive quality starts — which he has done exactly once in the second half — before there is talk of upping his workload.

And the Yankees will wait until after Pettitte’s bullpen session on Thursday before confirming that he will return to the rotation this weekend. The left-hander was in Altoona, Pa., on Tuesday night, tuning up in a Double-A Eastern League playoff game.

It would be swell for the Yankees if they could trust Javier Vazquez. But that’s not happening. He has a 5.09 ERA, and six years isn’t long enough to forget about 2004.

So, the richest team in baseball may indeed have a postseason rotation that features a Cy Young Award winner (Sabathia), followed by a parade of five-inning men.

When starters last, bullpens rest. Unfortunately, as the Yankees are learning, the inverse is also true. That’s why Girardi spent several minutes Tuesday defending the team’s philosophy of resting relievers Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson after they have pitched (or even warmed up) three times in four days.

Girardi avoided using Chamberlain or Robertson in extra innings on Monday — the right move, even though it may have cost the Yankees a win. Girardi knows that his team will reach the postseason as the wild card if the Rays win the division.

The larger question is whether the young right-handers can be effective in October, after already hitting career highs in relief appearances.

And though the Yankees’ biggest questions are on the mound, the lineup doesn’t look as lethal as it did last year. Prior to Tuesday, they had averaged fewer than three runs per game since the beginning of last week.

Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are having sub-par seasons, by their standards. Nick Swisher could barely run to first base on Monday because of an inflamed left knee. Mark Teixeira is dealing with a broken toe. Posada is a 39-year-old catcher, and, Tuesday’s heroics aside, there is only so much that 39-year-old catchers can be expected to do.

All that said, it won’t surprise me if the Yankees win No. 28 this year. Their flaws are no more numerous or glaring than those of the other contenders. But the rotation won’t offer the same stability that it did one year ago, when pitching had as much to do with their championship as A-Rod’s rejuvenation.

This week’s Yankees-Rays series at Tropicana Field has offered great baseball theater. An ALCS between these teams would be thoroughly entertaining. I’m just not convinced yet that the Yankees will get there.

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