Behind CC, Yanks need answers
Rotation encountering struggles at most inopportune time
There's this theory about momentum being a crucial factor heading into the playoffs. Some buy it, others don't.
If you're a Yankees fan hopeful of another deep October run, steer clear. Because the defending World Series champions' crown looks uncomfortably heavy these days, and if you have a rooting interest, there is legitimate reason for concern with the postseason only a few days away.
Especially when considering a theory you really can't dispute: Pitching wins in the playoffs, and all hope is lost without it.
It's with that in mind that the Yankees' potency comes into question heading into the final series of the regular season. No starter behind CC Sabathia can or should be trusted right now. And the man behind everyone -- Mr. Automatic, Mariano Rivera -- is struggling in a manner he rarely does, and at a time he never has.
Rivera had three blown saves in September and posted a 4.76 ERA in the process. As for the rotation, their collective September ERA ranked 26th in the Majors heading into Wednesday. Add another poor outing from Javier Vazquez and take away the production from Sabathia, and that number is a dreadful 6.36.
"We're not pitching well right now as a staff," veteran rotation mate Andy Pettitte noted recently. "I've said it a hundred times -- when you don't pitch well as a staff, it makes things look extremely bad."
They sure have lately.
Pitching struggles delayed an inevitable postseason berth and prompted manager Joe Girardi to divert from his conservative September approach on Tuesday, when he started Sabathia earlier than originally intended.
The plan proved to be a quick fix. Sabathia fired another gem to further improve his chances for the American League Cy Young Award, the Yankees clinched and champagne flowed from Rogers Centre's visitors' clubhouse that night.
But it brought greater emphasis to a bigger question: Who else in that rotation will step up?
We know CC will pitch Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Tuesday, meaning he'll likely do so on an unwanted seven days' rest. But the fact Sabathia has a career 5.32 ERA in 15 regular-season starts and a 5.12 ERA in three postseason starts with that much time off isn't the biggest issue.
The issue is who comes next.
What if, say, the Yankees face the Rangers in the ALDS, and Cliff Lee -- like he did in two World Series starts last year -- beats them in the opener? Who do they turn to in a five-game series where the margin for error is almost non-existent?
Do they go with last year's No. 2 man, A.J. Burnett, who's been lit up consistently for a two-month period? Or Pettitte, just two starts removed from a long stint on the shelf and about a week removed from a poor outing against the Red Sox? How about the young Phil Hughes, who's been better of late but is inexperienced and in uncharted territory with his innings count? And what about Vazquez, the big offseason acquisition who has struggled all year?
Vazquez -- owner of a 5.32 ERA and just 10 quality starts in 26 tries this season -- suffered through yet another rough outing on Wednesday, giving up seven runs on 10 hits in 4 1/3 innings in an 8-4 loss to the Blue Jays.
"Sometimes," Girardi said that night, "it's hard when your starters don't give you any distance."
Girardi has had to work around that a lot lately. In fact, Wednesday was the 12th time in 27 September games that a Yankees starter was unable to pitch at least six innings. Woes like that are the kind even the best offense in baseball would struggle to bounce back from.
And nobody has struggled like Burnett.
He's 1-7 with a 6.98 ERA since the start of August, and he's set to become the first starter in franchise history -- that's a long time, by the way -- to finish with at least 15 losses and an ERA over 5.00.
Burnett wasn't lights-out last year, either. But he finished the regular season strong, and behind Sabathia, he turned in three solid postseason outings -- including a clutch Game 2 win in the World Series.
This year, he -- like Vazquez -- can't be trusted to round out the rotation. And it's hard for me to find anybody else who legitimately can.
Many say it should be Pettitte lining up at No. 2 and thus pitching Games 2 and 5 in the ALDS, with the untested Hughes settling in at No. 3. But Pettitte, who gave up six earned runs in 3 1/3 innings last week, was No. 3 in 2009, and that was when he wasn't coming off a two-month absence because of a left groin strain.
Will you put all of your trust in Pettitte being a savior once again?
And if the Yankees do hold a lead late, is it a sure thing that Rivera's September struggles will magically fade away in October?
Nobody on that Yankees roster is more deserving of your faith than the greatest closer that ever lived. But Rivera will be 41 in November, and he's never really wavered at this point in a season like this.
Velocity isn't the issue, so they say his problems can be resolved by simply doing a better job of getting on top of the ball during his delivery. And, of course, Rivera isn't acting worried.
"I'm fine," the stoic right-hander recently said, later adding: "If you execute your pitches, everything will be fine."
Will it, though?
Will October -- like it was in 2000 -- once again be the instant healer for what ails the defending champs these days, meaning the Yankees' 12-15 September record, their dreadful starting pitching and the head-scratching performances by their most consistent player are nothing but a bump in the road?
Will everything be resolved with a simple flip of the calendar?
If you believe in momentum, then probably not.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Gonzo and 'The Show'. Follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. Bryan Hoch contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.