Over the long weekend, the Yankees experienced their worst-case playoff scenario: they had to pitch four out of their five starters in succession. Ivan Nova, Javier Vazquez, Phil Hughes, and A.J. Burnett lined up to take the mound. The Yankees lost two of the four games, and only won Vazquez’s start because the Blue Jays started an injury case who has posted a 6.00-plus ERA at both Triple-A and the majors and Joe Girardi had a quick hook. The shaky starts continued a long-term trend for all three, and bodes ill for the playoffs—unless the Yankees are prepared to push CC Sabathia to three days’ rest between starts, they will need to go four starters deep to get through the first two rounds.
Of the four, Burnett was the best and might have had a better outcome had Girardi shown the same doubt he did with Vazquez and not pushed him to a seventh inning. I’ll be frank: that’s a second-guess, and in fairness to Joe G, Burnett wasn’t exactly hammered in the seventh. He gave up two singles and a sacrifice, and that happened to be enough to undo him. In retrospect, Burnett had done enough through six. He had given up five hits, four walks, and three runs, and made 94 pitches. It wasn’t exactly a smooth performance, which not only should have been a hint, it should have been a sufficient building block given how lost Burnett seemed just one start ago.
Rookie Nova failed to strike out a single batter against one of the league’s best offenses, coincidentally the kind of offense he would face in the postseason were he to earn a start. This has been the problem with Nova even as he’s moved through the minors and moved his fastball into the low 90s: where is the strikeout pitch? Perhaps it will come in time given the way Nova exceeded expectations this year, but it’s not here now. Pitching to contact is a dangerous sport when the opposing batter is Josh Hamilton or Joe Mauer.
Vazquez’s failure was one of those inevitabilities that happens to some team in baseball once a year or so. They push a failed starter to the bullpen, the guy pitches well, and so the team figures he’s remembered how to pitch and puts him back in the rotation, where he goes back to getting blasted. Normally, I might criticize such a lack of resolve, but in this case one must be sympathetic to the Yankees’ desperation to fix the rotation. They have to try everything and everyone, no matter how desperate. That it didn’t work is going to be no impediment to trying again, because at this point in the season, they’ve run out of time and opportunity to pursue other options in a sensible way.
Hughes’ ERA since mid-May, a span of 20 starts, is now 5.26. His home-road split remains dramatic, 4.88 with 1.8 home runs allowed per nine innings at home versus 3.38 with 0.44 home runs per nine on the road. Note, though, that although Hughes has kept the home runs down when away from the Bronx, he hasn’t exactly been lights out. In those last 20 starts, he has been hit for .269/.317/.494 rates at Yankee Stadium versus .296/.346/.423 on the road. This isn’t just a question of a fly-ball pitcher struggling to succeed in the giving, generous House that George Built, but a guy who just ain’t pitching up to his abilities, period.
If the Yankees haven’t figured out how to fix this Foursome of Fear by now, and chances are they won’t; they will enter October hoping that, as the old baseball cliché goes, someone will "step up." Even if Andy Pettitte returns and continues to pitch as wonderfully as he did before his groin quit (something no man approaching 40 wants to contemplate), the Yankees will likely need two starters to go with him and Sabathia. The Yankees are likely to face the Rangers in the first round, which means Cliff Lee (presumably over his bad back), Colby Lewis (assuming his two recent bad starts don’t represent a trend), C.J. Wilson, and Tommy Hunter. If Lee is healthy, a Sabathia-Lee confrontation has to be rated a toss-up. Beyond that, it would be difficult to rate the Yankees ahead of their opponents in any other series matchup unless Pettitte is at the top of his game. It’s going to be a fascinating postseason, but it could be a short one.