Yankee fans and management had been growing uneasy recently, as the state of the starting rotation heading into the final weeks of the season has helped to create as many question as it has answers.
The prospect of heading into the post-season with a starting rotation led by CC Sabathia, followed by Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett, and Javier Vazquez or Ivan Nova was enough to shake the confidence of even the most ardent supporter of the team.
Of course, CC is the indisputable ace of the staff, providing stability at the head of the rotation, and the obvious choice to start any Game One the Yankees have. Immediately thereafter however, the uncertainty begins.
Phil Hughes, the 24-year-old right-hander, whom the Yankees view as a potential future ace, has stumbled occasionally down the stretch as he nears the proposed innings limit the Yankees have in place to protect his arm. He has won 16 games, and was named an All-Star in July, but as he has ventured deeper into uncharted territory in regard to his innings total, fatigue has appeared to take its toll upon him.
That's not to say he has pitched poorly, because that's not the case, but his results over the last three months have been uneven, and in three of his last five starts, has given up four earned runs or more. Of course, in his last start against the Rays in Tampa, he pitched masterfully, but was undone by two swings of Dan Johnson's bat, ending up on the wrong end of a 4-3 result.
As he has now doubled his innings total from last season, it is difficult to know what to expect of the young hurler going forward into October. Add to that, the fact that he has not yet started a playoff game in his young career, and one can understand the reluctance to lean on him too heavily.
A.J. Burnett on the other hand, boasts 12 seasons of major league experience, as well as five starts for Yankees in their run to the World Series title during the 2009 post-season.
Despite the resume, the 33-year-old Burnett represents possibly the biggest question mark on the Yankee staff. To say he has been inconsistent in 2010 would be an understatement. The variance between his good days and his bad days, could literally be the greatest chasm in baseball today. Blessed with such phenomenal stuff, he is capable of hurling a thoroughly dominant gem at any time, but he is just as likely to completely lose control and toss what appears to be batting practice to the opposing team.
In Burnett's 30 starts in 2010, he gone at least 6 innings and allowed two earned runs or less ten times. Conversely, he has given up at least five earned runs in nine other starts. The utter inconsistency becomes more frustrating when you know what he is capable of. His four September starts have been an improvement from his embarrassingly awful August when he went 0-4 with a 7.80 ERA. A continual trend of improved performances must be demonstrated if Joe Girardi is to show faith in Burnett and reward him with post-season starting pitching assignments.
Javier Vazquez has been similarly inconsistent, but he has at least developed enough of a pattern to gain some level of expectation regarding his performance. After dealing with "dead arm" issues, and apparently working through them to see his velocity increase once again, Vazquez has returned to the bullpen for the time being. This could only be temporary however, so he remains a consideration for the October rotation.
His candidacy is harmed by his poor playoff experience, especially that of his showing against Boston in 2004, too recent to have been expunged from the collective memory of Yankee fans.
The other issue being that against stronger offensive clubs in the AL, Javy has almost invariably struggled. His efforts against Tampa, Texas, and Minnesota, his likely playoff adversaries, are among his very worst of 2010. Against those three potential foes, in five starts, over 27 innings, he has allowed 52 base-runners and 27 earned runs, not exactly instilling the confidence necessary to send him to the mound in the ALCS against one of them. He would likely serve out of the bullpen in the first series, as a fourth starter may not be necessary in a best-of five set.
23 year-old Ivan Nova, he of five career major league starts, will be around for an emergency, but is unlikely to see a spot in the playoff rotation with all those veteran arms around. If, for some unforeseen reason, it became necessary for the Yankees to use him, while not an ideal situation, his demeanor and poise could serve to calm the panic over starting such an inexperience pitcher on such a dramatic stage. However unlikely the scenario may be, Nova doesn't seem the type of young player to wilt under pressure.
These various uncertainties combined to make the return of Andy Pettitte all the more critical for the Yankees. After a few hiccups on his path back to the big league rotation, Pettitte finally found himself back on a mound at Camden Yards yesterday. Out of action since injuring his groin against Tampa on July 18, the veteran left-hander's presence had been sorely missed as the rotation faltered in his absence. At the time of his injury, Pettitte had been 11-2 with a 2.88 ERA, and was in the midst of one of his finer seasons in his career.
Earlier a strength for the team, the starting rotation, aside from Sabathia, has faltered in the second half, nearly coinciding perfectly with Andy's placement on the disabled list. In the first half with Pettitte, the rotation had been 47-22, with a 3.68 ERA, setting the tone for the Yankees in their quest to repeat as baseball"s champions. Almost as if on queue, once Pettitte went down immediately following the All-Star break, so did the performance of much of the Yankee starting staff.
CC of course, has done anything but struggle, but otherwise the other starters the Yankees have utilized have met with varying degrees of difficulty over the second half of the season. Collectively, the rotation has seen their record drop to 23-21, ERA jump from 3.68 to 4.97, WHIP from 1.23 to 1.45, opponents' OPS from .696 to .802. Tiring arms and the absence of Pettitte's key veteran presence led to an almost across the board downturn in Yankee starting performances.
The sight of him on the mound in Baltimore helped to quell fears over what the rotation might look like come October. Still though, management and fans had to wait until afterward to make sure he got through the start with no lingering pain or discomfort due to the groin injury. Thankfully, not only did he make it through the outing healthy, but he excelled on the mound.
Pettitte completed six innings in which he only allowed three hits, one walk, and one earned run. He left in line for his twelfth victory, only to see that opportunity squandered when Mariano Rivera allowed a solo homerun to Luke Scott leading off the ninth inning. Although the game was eventually lost in the eleventh, Pettitte's return had to be counted as a different kind of victory for the team.
Not only does he help anchor the rotation for the remaining few weeks, and the push for home-field advantage, but he immediately slots in near the top of the post-season starting staff. Pettitte's all-time record 40 games started, 249 innings pitched, and 18 playoff victories all represent the post-season pedigree that the Yankees crave, and he helps put to rest concerns over the remainder of the starters.
With Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia both at Joe Girardi's disposal in the playoffs, the pitching situation doesn't appear as dire as it may have just last week. They just now have to hope that they can catch A.J. Burnett in the midst of another hot streak, and that Phil Hughes can coax a handful of starts out of his young, but tiring arm, in order to make a successful run at defending the World Series title that they currently hold.