The rise of the "Big Three" in September 2007 and how they helped clinch the Wild Card

"What happened to us, man?" - Andrew Burton

The Yankees' pitching future seemed so bright just a few years ago.

Earlier today, Tanya wrote about Shane Spencer and his September '98 heroics that established himself as arguably the greatest late-season call-up in Yankees history. However, the combined efforts of three young über-prospect pitchers in September 2007 might have outdone Spencer in terms of pure importance. Fans of the Yankees' minor league system knew very well who these kids were since they were acclaimed by experts as promising starting pitcher prospects. All three were first-round picks in the MLB Draft, and none spent much time in the minor leagues. Granted, only one of the three was a true September call-up, but their accomplishments still rank as among the best in Yankees history for September rookies.

The most glorified of these prospects was 21-year-old California righthander Philip Hughes, the Yankees' top pick in the 2004 draft, taken with the 23rd overall pick out of high school. That pick was originally the Astros, lost for signing Andy Pettitte away, and while people felt the Yankees were fools for letting Pettitte leave, Hughes was a very nice compensation. He dominated the minors with a combined 2.12 ERA across Rookie Ball, Charleston, Tampa, and Trenton from 2004-06, ranking as the fourth-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America prior to '07, the top pitcher under 25. Due to an outbreak of injuries, Hughes received "the call" to the majors early on in '07, and after a rough debut against the Toronto Blue Jays, he faced the high-powered Texas Rangers and dazzled. Yankee players had (perhaps unfairly in hindsight) compared the kid to Roger Clemens when they faced him in Spring Training '05, and he demonstrated why such praise was granted. He no-hit the Rangers through 6 1/3 innings before a hamstring injury sadly cut his bid short.

Meanwhile, the Yankees made a remarkable comeback from 21-29 on May 29th to surge to the Wild Card lead by the end of August at 75-60, a .635 winning percentage over 85 games. They led the race by a game over the surprising Mariners and three over the defending AL champion Tigers. Hughes was on the shelf for awhile and rusty when he returned to the pros that August, but he rediscovered his form in September when the Yankees needed him most. He made five starts against the Mariners, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Devil Rays; the Yankees won them all as Hughes pitched to a 2.73 ERA in 29 2/3 innings as opposing hitters batted just .229 against him.

In two of Hughes's five starts, he was relieved by another highly-regarded Yankee pitching prospect named Joba Chamberlain, who had become an overnight sensation in the past month. Chamberlain had excelled at the University of Nebraska and was drafted in the first round of the 2006 draft, the 41st overall pick. He was a supplemental pick from the Phillies signing away setup man Tom Gordon. He didn't pitch in the minors for the rest of that year, but he emerged in terrific form at High-A Tampa to begin the '07 season.

Although he hadn't pitched in '06, Baseball America dubbed him the 75th-best prospect in the game prior to '07, and he validated their praise with a 2.02 ERA and 0.900 WHIP over seven starts in Tampa. The 21-year-old earned a quick promotion to Double-A Trenton, where he had a 3.35 ERA and 14.7 K/9 over eight games and seven more starts. The Yankees' organization quickly realized that they had an asset who could help them this season. They thought his high velocity and wicked slider would play well in the maligned bullpen. Mariano Rivera was the only truly reliable reliever there since Scott Proctor's overuse in '06 was evident in his decline and recent acquisitions Kyle Farnsworth, Luis Vizcaino, and Brian Bruney were all underwhelming.

Desperate for help, the Yankees thus made a decision that would cause ripples for the remainder of Chamberlain's career--they began to try him as a reliever. He appeared in three games with Triple-A Scranton (one start) and pitched eight scoreless innings with 18 strikeouts and just one walk. By early August, they thought he was ready. Just 14 months after being drafted and in his first pro season, Chamberlain made his MLB debut on August 7th with two scoreless innings in Toronto. He was absolutely dominant for the final two months of the season as Rivera's setup man. Although under strict "Joba Rules" for most of the time not to pitch in back-to-back games, he appeared in 19 games and threw 24 innings, and amazingly allowed only one earned run (a Mike Lowell homer over the Green Monster in Boston), good for a phenomenal 0.38 ERA. He struck out 34 men, walked just six and gave up a mere 12 hits. He did his job and then some, as the Yankees went 17-2 in games he pitched.

One more starter came up in September to supplement the Yankees' young pitching prowess, another very confident 22-year-old California kid, named Ian Kennedy. He was actually the Yankees' top pick in the 2006 draft, taken 20 picks ahead of Chamberlain. A well-polished USC graduate, the man fans called "IPK" did not need much time in the minor league system either. After a cameo with Short-Season-A Staten Island at the end of '06, Kennedy pitched to a 1.91 ERA and 0.968 WHIP in Tampa over 63 innings and 10 starts at the beginning of '07. Like Joba, he was quickly promoted to Trenton, where he maintained success through a 2.59 ERA and 0.904 WHIP in nine starts. The Yankees continued to groom him as a starter after a second promotion to Scranton. After a 2.08 ERA in August, the Yankees felt he was ready to help their starting rotation in September.

Kennedy was called up for his major league debut at home on September 1st against the Devil Rays. He walked all over them with seven innings of three-run ball, only one of which was earned. He got his first career win, and made another start five days later, taking the place of struggling veteran Mike Mussina. He did not get the win this time through five innings of two-run ball, but the Yankees did capture the game 3-2. Kennedy made his last appearance of the season on the 13th with his best start yet, allowing just one hit and one earned run over seven innings, a Game Score of 74. The Yankees scored just one run though, so he did not factor in the decision. Nonetheless, he was clearly impressive in his three starts.

The Yankees went 19-8 in September '07 and went on to capture the Wild Card by six games over the Tigers and Mariners. The lead was considerable, but it would have been more challenging for the group to take that big lead if not for the efforts of these three young pitchers. While none of them unfortunately went on to achieve the promise they showed in '07, their month of excellence should not be forgotten.

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