Entering play tonight, the Yankees sit just two and a half games out of the final wild card spot in the American League. Earlier in the year, it was their pitching that kept them afloat, but the roles have been reversed. They’ve managed to make a late surge despite an underwhelming month of August from their top two starters — Hiroki Kuroda and CC Sabathia — but many wonder if the Yankees can maintain this pace if those two don’t turn it around in September.
“I hope so,” manager Joe Girardi said in his pregame press conference. “I think it makes it easier if you have five starters on a roll, obviously. But I can’t really tell you, because I can’t tell you how the other teams are going to play. You can look at Tampa, and they’ve struggled as of late. I don’t think any of us would have predicted that, so it’s hard to say. We could go out and bang 10 runs a game, and your pitching becomes less of a factor. Obviously, we’d like to see them get on a roll in the month of September, and if (they do), it’s going to help us.”
Girardi is right about the Yankees getting help when teams like Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Cleveland struggle, but he’s also not the type to come out and publicly demand more from his star players. Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova have been very good of late to offset the poor outings from Kuroda and Sabathia, but you’d feel much better about the Yankees’ postseason chances if all of them were throwing well.
“It’s all part of being a player, where you’re going to have times when you’re going to struggle,” Girardi said. “It’s never predictable when it’s going to be, but when you’ve been as good as (Kuroda) has for so long, it seems odd when you do struggle. But every pitcher goes through it, and every position player goes through it. Right now, we’d really like him to get back to where he was.”
• Kuroda will start tonight’s game against the White Sox, while Sabathia will pitch the series finale tomorrow night. This would be a good team to get on track against, and you have to like Hiro’s chances more than CC. Sabathia has been pretty shaky all year (He has a worse ERA than Phil Hughes. Seriously.), but Kuroda had been brilliant until August. At 38 years old, some have pointed to fatigue as the biggest factor, and Girardi acknowledged that he hasn’t thrown a bullpen since his last start. “It’s a decision usually made by the pitcher,” Girardi said. “They say, ‘You know what? I’m going to skip a bullpen.’ You don’t do it a lot, you don’t do it a number of times in a row, but every once in a while, you do it. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly the same, but sometimes you skip BP and those sort of things because you feel like your guys need to save their energy for the games.”
• Girardi was asked if there’s anything else that he can do if Kuroda continues to struggle. “Nothing,” he said. “You can back off on some of your work between starts, but it’s not like we can afford not to start him. He got an extra day here, and we’re hoping that helps. You can watch his pitch count, but we’ve done that all year long. We haven’t extended him just because he’s one of those guys who’s not 25 anymore. We’ve had to watch it, but he’s got to go out there and pitch for us.”
• Kuroda will be opposed by Chicago ace Chris Sale, who has established himself as one of the best left-handers in the AL. The Yankees are collectively batting .205 against him. “If he makes a mistake, you’d better not miss it,” Girardi said. “He’s got outstanding stuff. He’s got deception to him because he drops down a little bit, his breaking ball comes into the right-handers hard and he’s really difficult for lefties to hit.”
• With Sale pitching, Girardi went with the right-handed heavy lineup that we’ve seen a lot recently against lefties — meaning no Curtis Granderson, Ichiro Suzuki or Lyle Overbay. Part of me wonders whether it’s worth it to keep sending Wells out there at the cost of sitting Granderson, who has proven that he can pop one every now and then off of a tough lefty. Derek Jeter is DHing, which makes sense because it gives his legs a half day off and allows Girardi to get another right-handed bat in the lineup with Eduardo Nunez. Jeter had his best day at the plate on Monday since his most recent return from the DL. “I’m trying to make sure that we can run him out there almost every day,” Girardi said. “It’s nothing physically.”
• Austin Romine is not in the lineup today, but Girardi has split the playing time up pretty evenly between him and Chris Stewart recently. Personally, I think this is one of those situations where Girardi is being a bit too loyal, because Romine seems like much more of a threat at the plate at this point. If Stewart continues to struggle as the regular season dwindles, we might see more of a shift in favor of Romine. “He’s just made big strides,’ Girardi said. “It took some time, but I think for Austin, he was a kid who was used to playing every day. He came, and he was playing once every four or five days, and it was probably odd for him. He probably didn’t know how to prepare, and probably tried to do too much when he got in there. He worked hard with Kevin, made some adjustments, and we’ve been feeling good about him at the plate.”
• Mark Reynolds will start for the seventh game in a row. He was supposed to be a platoon player with Overbay, but he’s forced his way into the every day lineup. It also doesn’t hurt that the Yanks have seen a lot of lefties recently. Girardi was asked about whether Brian Cashman sought his input before picking up Reynolds. “Brian will call us to talk to us sometimes about players and what we think,” he said. “We were pretty aware of what Mark Reynolds can do. He wasn’t a guy who wasn’t in our league and we hadn’t seen, so in that instance, we were pretty aware of what he could do… We knew that he was struggling, but he really hadn’t changed a whole lot from the time when he was really hot in the month of April. It’s just things weren’t going his way.”
• Girardi has said this before, but he acknowledged again today that he is closely monitoring what the other teams in the wild card race are doing. “It’s pretty hard not to scoreboard watch because it’s right in front of you,” he said. “It’s flashed in every ballpark, so you always notice what teams are doing. Does it take your attention away from the game? No, but it’s really pretty hard not to look.”
• The Yankees have had a nice run as of late, but they’ve also let a few winnable games slip away, such as Sunday’s bullpen implosion that cost them a sweep of the Orioles. One thing Girardi has always been good at is turning the page. “That’s baseball,” he said. “That’s going to happen. I think every team that ends up close to making the playoffs could probably go look at a handful of games and say, ‘What if?’ But there’s probably a handful of games that you won that you’re shocked that you won. It usually all evens out.”
Associated Press photos