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10/16/09 10:00 AM EST

Strikeouts give Yankees an October edge

In regular season, pitching staff topped AL with 1,260 K's

NEW YORK -- It was merely minutes before David Robertson's Houdini act in the 11th inning last Friday, when Robertson jumped out to a 1-2 count on Twins slugger Michael Cuddyer. Eyeing a strikeout in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, Robertson instead caught too much of the plate with his next pitch. Cuddyer promptly punched it into center field for a single.

"I really wanted to get Cuddyer out on a strikeout because I got ahead of him real quick, and I had a couple pitches to waste," Robertson said. "I just didn't make a great pitch."

Moments later, Robertson escaped from the bases-loaded, no-out jam with a combination of good luck and fortunate pitches. But his approach was not lost on the Yankees.

For the first time in years, the Yankees have a power pitching staff. From CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett all the way down the depth chart to Robertson, the Yankees are capable of striking out batters at almost any time. And like home runs and stolen bases, that's a skill that carries even more weight in October.

"It's always good to have a strikeout guy," backup catcher Jose Molina said. "It takes away from the big innings. A lot of people like contact guys. I say more a strikeout guy will take you away from a lot of big innings."

No doubt, finesse pitchers have their merits. But nothing raises hair quite as much as a power pitcher in October, which -- even more so than because of their high-octane offense -- is why the Yankees are currently a feared team.

Four years ago, on their way to the first of three straight first-round exits, the Yankees struck out 985 batters during the regular season. This year, due in large part to free-agent acquisitions Sabathia and Burnett, the Yankees struck out 1,260 batters -- tops in the American League.

It starts, quite naturally, with the starters -- namely Sabathia and Burnett. Last year, Yankees starting pitchers ranked 19th in the Majors with 618 strikeouts. This year, they ranked sixth with 777 punch outs, nearly a full strikeout more per game.

Sabathia displayed those skills during Game 1 vs. Minnesota, striking out eight batters and walking none. Then it was Burnett, who punched out six batters in Game 2 -- four of them with men on base.

The Yankees' pitching staff has drastically improved its strikeout totals over the past five years.
2009 1,260 1st 4th
2008 1,141 5th 11th
2007 1,009 12th 24th
2006 1,019 6th 18th
2005 985 6th 16th

Twice, Burnett put those runners on base via one of his five walks, only to end each of those innings with strikeouts.

"When A.J. is on, no one is going to hit him," first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "That's just the way he is. He's just got such incredible stuff that if he's on his game, it's going to be a boring day for the fielders."

"You guys saw it," Burnett said. "I was pitching out of the stretch every inning. During the season, you raise eyebrows walking five batters -- that's a lot, blah, blah, blah. But in the postseason, it doesn't matter. If you make pitches when they count, those runs don't score. It's always good to have that confidence in the back of your mind that hopefully you can get a strikeout when you need it."

It's a mindset that is hardly limited to the rotation. Yankees relievers have also struck out more than a few batters this season, including Phil Hughes -- 65 strikeouts in 51 1/3 relief innings -- Mariano Rivera and Joba Chamberlain, now back in the bullpen for October baseball. Then there is Robertson, who made the postseason roster largely because of his ability to rack up strikeouts when needed.

Robertson, who whiffed 63 batters in just 43 2/3 innings this season, said he generally doesn't look for a strikeout until he has two strikes on a batter. Then he'll try to expand the strike zone, ramp up his fastball velocity -- anything to generate a swing and a miss.

"There are times when it can be a huge help," Robertson said. "With the bases loaded, you're supposed to strike people out."

Many around baseball, however, aren't so keen on the K. Because strikeouts require three pitches and usually use up quite a few more, they are a surefire way to escalate pitch counts -- a major problem at times for Burnett.

"I prefer we don't strike as many out," Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "But when we need a strikeout, we have guys who are capable of doing it."

Again and again and again. Against the Angels, a club full of pesky hitters who do not whiff too often, the Yankees may not be able to strike out batters with such proficiency. But they will certainly try.

"I give up a lot of hits," Robertson said. "I give up a lot of walks, too. So I guess strikeouts are a good way to get yourself out of those jams."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.