10/10/10 2:17 AM ET
Never fear, Yanks' rotation comes through
"I think a lot of people coming into this series were like, 'CC [Sabathia] and then who?' sort of attitude," said Phil Hughes on Saturday night. "That was the word going around. We knew what we had. ... CC carries us, but we have some formidable guys behind him."
The only thing wrong with Hughes' comment is that "formidable," at this point seems a little too modest. Three games into another October, those Yankees pitchers seem to be 3-0. And the Yankees seem to have swept the Minnesota Twins in an American League Division Series, again, winding up Saturday night at Yankee Stadium with a 6-1 victory. The Yankees now advance to the AL Championship against the winner of the Texas/Tampa Bay AL Division Series.
There were never any doubts about the rest of the Yankees' game. They led the Major Leagues in runs scored, with a very healthy 5.30 runs per game. They also led the Majors in fewest errors. So the offense was potent, the defense was certain, but would the starting pitching not only hold up, but could it reach the necessary lofty level that October baseball demands?
The pitching held up, all right. Sabathia wasn't at his absolute best in Game 1, but he didn't get beat, either. Andy Pettitte -- with only three starts since coming off the disabled list -- two of them not encouraging, shifted into postseason gear, worked a typically strong game and stretched his postseason victory record to 19.
Hughes was making his first postseason start in Game 3, which was seen in some quarters as a problem. Hey, it worked out all right for Roy Halladay, didn't it? It was Hughes in the clincher Saturday night who put an exclamation mark on the ALDS triumph. Seven shutout innings, four hits, one walk, six strikeouts -- a superb performance. Hughes pitched with composure and purpose. He pitched a postseason game with the effectiveness of, in other words, Pettitte, but coming up with even glossier numbers in his own performance.
It ought to be remembered that Hughes moved ahead of A.J. Burnett on the rotational depth chart -- and into the three-man Division Series rotation -- not merely by default. Hughes won 18 games in his first full season as a starter. He is a talented 24-year-old who should only get better.
Hughes said after winning the series clincher that he got a lift from the performances of Sabathia and Pettitte in front of him in the rotation.
"CC pitched well in the first one," Hughes said. "Then Pettitte. People were wondering what kind of outing he would have. Obviously, he pitched great.
"You know you have to go out there and pull your weight. We know what we're capable of doing. We just kind of went out there and did what we did all year, just tried to get outs, get outs early. That was sort of it. I did want to sort of feed off those first couple of outings and put up a good on there myself."
Again, Mr. Hughes is guilty of nothing worse than modesty. Given the circumstances, the consequences and the pressure, he put up not just "a good one," but something much closer to a tremendous one.
Against a deep Minnesota lineup that had done persistent damage throughout the season, even in the absence of slugging first baseman Justin Morneau, the Yankees recorded a 2.00 ERA in this series. The three starters kept the bullpen from overwork by putting in a total 20 of innings. At the back end, Mariano Rivera finished all three games, earning two saves and giving up the usual nothing.
Looking at this, the baseball world is not going to be questioning the foundation of the Yankees' pitching going into the ALCS. The question that could be asked is: Who is the fourth starter? If the answer is: "Burnett," then other questions will follow.
But this whole thing about "CC and then who?" has been answered comprehensively by Pettitte and Hughes. Yes, Pettitte can still pitch at a high level and win in the postseason. Yes, Hughes cannot only pitch at a high level and win in the postseason, he can produce the best outing of any starter in an ALDS.
The Yankees can move into the ALCS with baseball's best offense, steadiest defense and three starting pitchers who are at least, as one of them says, formidable. The pitching questions should be gone, erased, eliminated from the Yankees' rotation -- at least in spots one through three.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.