NEW YORK -- Joe Torre maintains that he has not lost an ounce of faith in his starting pitchers. But then, what choice does he realistically have?
"These are our starters," Torre said Thursday. "If I don't have faith in them, where do we go?"
Out in the opening round of the postseason would seem to be a likely answer there. But you know what the manager is saying.
At this point in the season, even the New York Yankees do not have a lot of options. What is striking, given the Yankees' history, is that the issue of uncertainty in the rotation even exists.
But Thursday night, Yankees starter Jon Lieber didn't require any testimonials. He resembled the pitcher he was in Chicago in 2001, before the Tommy John surgery, when he won 21 games. Then-Cubs manager Don Baylor used to refer to Lieber as "a strike machine," and the pitcher certainly fit the part on Thursday night. Lieber pounded the lower part of the strike zone, inducing ground balls and encountering no serious problems as he and the Yanks beat the Cleveland Indians, 9-1.
The right-hander pitched seven highly efficient and shutout innings, getting 12 ground ball outs and never allowing more than one baserunner in an inning.
"I finally can say that I felt like my old self tonight," Lieber said. "Kept the ball down the way I wanted to."
This performance was greatly encouraging for the Yankees, who find themselves in the atypical -- for them -- position of desperately needing more encouragement from their starting pitchers.
There are serious questions in the Bronx about the starting pitching. This kind of thing becomes more acute when the Boston Red Sox trim a 10 1/2-game lead to a 3 1/2-game lead.
Torre was the voice of carefully considered confidence Thursday. He does this sort of thing very well.
You know, Mike Mussina was obviously getting stronger. Kevin Brown was, too, and anyway, he had been much more good than bad. Orlando Hernandez didn't need much defending, and then Thursday night there was Lieber, offering a positive answer of his own.
OK. Mussina and Brown are coming back from injury and/or illness and have obviously not been in peak form. El Duque has been terrific (6-0, 2.62 ERA), although there can be some doubt about the way his right shoulder will hold up.
Javier Vazquez / P
Weight: 205 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
This left Vazquez, whose work Tuesday night only pointed the Yankees down the road to the 22-0 debacle. This happened less than two hours after Torre had spoken at length about the trust he had in Vazquez, the intangible sense that the pitcher would succeed. Torre has not budged in that feeling or that judgment.
"He is going to be a big-time guy," Torre said Thursday. "It's just a matter of when it's going to happen. That's the only question with him, not his ability to handle things here. ... Vazquez, to me, unless I'm just dead wrong, I'll give him the ball any time."
But for other people, that "handle things here" is the question. This is always the question that is asked of a player who comes to the Yankees for the first time: Can he take the heat in New York?
Nobody disputes the potential of Vazquez. But the rest of his career was spent with the Montreal Expos. Big-time pressure was not an issue there. Trying to figure out whether home was in Puerto Rico or Quebec was an issue. But huge expectations, no, they weren't part of the landscape.
"You know why I stress starting pitching?" Torre said Thursday. "Because every other place I've been [as a manager] I didn't have it. But the ability of our starting pitchers is a reason to be optimistic."
That is, of course, the basis for the managerial faith. Torre talks about his pitchers being "the people that they're supposed to be," and that rings a bell. All of these pitchers have had success. Plus, Mussina, Brown and Hernandez have highly public records of coming through in big-game, high-profile situations.
Torre also helpfully noted that Lieber had pitched in Chicago. Chicago is a major market by any definition, but the question of what pitching for the Cubs prepares anybody for remains an almost theological debate. Better to be greatly encouraged by Lieber's Thursday night performance and leave it at that.
The very fact that the manager of the New York Yankees, in early September, feels the need to reiterate his trust in his starting rotation, could, all by itself, give some comfort to those who regard the Yankees as the bully on the block or the enemy or the Evil Empire.
This is not one of those push-button Yankee operations, not with the basic questions persisting at this late date.
But on the other side of the question, Joe Torre's faith in his starting pitchers is based on something better than wishes. In every case, there is something there in the reputation and the track record, if not the most recent work, to make this all seem plausible for the Yanks.
And then there is the inescapable notion that these are the Yankees and even the really serious issues get worked out in a first-place way.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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