We live in a world where Bartolo Colon is the Yankees' second-best starter. The surprise of spring training as he came back from a year away from the majors and secured a spot in the bullpen, Colon was nothing short of a revelation in his first major league start since July 24, 2009. Facing the Blue Jays on Wednesday night, the 37-year-old righty helped erase the sting of Tuesday's Mariano meltdown, and worked long enough to avoid straining the bullpen for a second straight night. In all, he gave the Yankees 6.2 innings of strong work, allowing just five hits and two runs while striking out seven.
Hell, he looked like a guy who had a Cy Young award on his mantel and hadn't entirely forgotten how he'd secured it — as flawed as the voting that year may have been.
Colon was shaky in the early going, putting runners on first and second in the opening frame, and allowing a solo homer to J.P. Arencibia to lead off the second, but by that point, the Yankees had put up three runs against Blue Jays starter Brett Cecil, taking some of the pressure off. After Arencibia's homer, Colon recovered to strike out Travis Snider and Jayson Nix, and ultimately retired 12 straight Jays. He yielded an infield single to Yunel Esocbar to lead off the sixth, but erased him in a double play on his next pitch, to the hacktastic Corey Patterson.
Colon's night ended in the seventh as he worked his way into a jam, yielding a one-out double to Edwin Encarnacion, a walk to Arencibia, and a single to Snider, but Arencibia gifted the Yankees an out by taking third base with Encarnacion already parked there. Colon departed in favor of David Robertson, who surrendered an RBI single to Nix, but by that point, the Yanks still held a 5-2 lead. Lance Pendleton and Rafael Soriano would make things adventurous in the ninth as the Jays loaded the bases with one out, but the latter calmed down to get John McDonald — a player who has no business batting with the game on the line, ever — to pop out to catcher Russell Martin, and Escobar to fly to center to secure the win.
In all, Colon put on a pitching clinic. He mixed four pitches, a four-seam fastball that ranged from 89 to 94 MPH, a two-seamer that hung around 90 MPH, a changeup that was effective when used sparingly, and a slider:
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Colon was efficient, needing just 89 pitches to go further than any Yankee starter besides Sabathia, who went seven innings against Minnesota on April 5. He benefited from the Jays' impatience; five hitters put the first pitch in play, all of them making outs. Between the walks he issued in the first and seventh, no Toronto hitter went to a three-ball count. When the Blue Jays did put the ball in play, Colon got eight outs via groundballs, compared to three fly outs and two pop outs.
Furthermore, Colon not only got the occasional swing-and-miss, he generated a ton of called strikes with both of his fastballs, including three called strike threes; announcers Ken Singleton and David Cone (a dream team, to my ears) cited an Elias Sports Bureau statistic which said that Colon's 419 called strikeouts from 2000-2005 — his salad days, as opposed to his start-seriously-considering-salad days — led the majors; he was just 19th in swinging strikeouts during that time. For the year, he now has 20 strikeouts in 18 inning, 10 of the backwards-K variety and — wait for it — he's second in the American League with his 10.0 K/9. Moreover, given how well he pitched, he was fun to watch — and fun has been in short supply during the grueling and often grim outings of A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova and especially Phil Hughes.
It's fair to point out that the Blue Jays were a relatively favorable matchup for Colon. They see fewer pitches than any AL team besides the White Sox (3.74 per plate appearance), swing at more pitches than all but three teams, and strike out at a higher clip than all but two others (19.3 percent); meanwhile, they're just seventh in scoring. The Yankees have plenty of those teams to face, though, and Colon was more than up to the task, a pitcher who despite his appearance and his unlikely narrative has legitimate stuff.
The possibility that Colon could contribute meaningfully to the Yankees this year is no longer as farfetched as it seemed a few weeks ago. Wednesday's performance almost certainly pushes him above Nova in the rotation pecking order, in the eventuality that Hughes returns and more closely resembles the Phil Hughes of yesteryear. His run may not last forever, but he could provide a few highlights along the way.