Monday, August 17, 2009

Yanks open up 7.5-game lead on Boston after taking three of four in Seattle

The Yankees are playing the best late-season baseball I've seen them play in years. The youthful exuberance brought on board by the likes of Nick Swisher and A.J. Burnett has turned this team into a fun-loving group that enjoys watching each other succeed, especially in important late-inning situations. General manager Brian Cashman has done well to hang on to young players in the system over the past few years (Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and the ever-excitable Joba Chamberlain come to mind). This year's version of the Yankees has a solid mix of old and young and they couldn't have picked a better time to bring it all together.

After allowing 28 hits in his previous 19.2 innings, second-half stud C.C. Sabathia has allowed just five in his last 15.2, striking out 19 Boston and Seattle batters and allowing just one earned run. The Yankees gave him plenty of run support in the series opener, with Hideki Matsui belting two homers and driving in five against ex-Pirate Ian Snell on their way to an 11-1 win.

This is the same Ian Snell who just a few weeks ago refused a recall from AAA in Pittsburgh, saying he was "happy" where he was (talk about motivation and desire). He was then traded to the Mariners along with shortstop Jack Wilson and promptly added to the major-league roster, where he has surprised nobody by struggling. Snell allowed eight earned runs in six innings, while Sabathia got his fifth win in his last six starts. Seems like not even below-average players like Snell want to play for the Pirates anymore.

In game two of the series, Seattle put up a two-spot against Andy Pettitte in the first inning but Pettitte settled down and threw five scoreless innings after that, allowing the Yankees to tie the game. Pettitte battled through those six innings, throwing 111 pitches, but struck out a season-high 10 batters and kept the Yankees within striking distance.

Mark Teixeira (pictured right) hit the go-ahead home run in the top of the ninth inning, a moon shot to right field that was gone the moment it left the bat. He has been building a strong case for the AL MVP with his power and Gold Glove defense, which has saved the Yankees infield (Robinson Cano in particular) from numerous throwing errors. The Yanks would add an insurance run on a Swisher single to make it 4-2, providing plenty of cushion for Mariano Rivera to shut the door.

After Pettitte's departure, Brian Bruney and Phil Hughes pitched scoreless innings to set up Teixeira's heroics. Bruney seems to be putting it together once again, as he hasn't allowed a run in his last five innings of work. A healthy and effective Bruney would go a long way to making this Yankee bullpen even more effective. Good pitching from Bruney will allow Alfredo Aceves to work in long relief and Phil Coke to work situationally, while Bruney can handle the seventh and Hughes can continue his dominance in the eighth on the path to Rivera.

In game three, Sergio Mitre finally put together a decent start for New York, pitching into the sixth inning and allowing just one earned run, the first time all season he has allowed less than three. He allowed seven hits and walked two, but kept the Mariners at bay after the Yankees scored four unearned runs in the second inning, capped by a two-run home run by Swisher.

Going for the sweep in game four, the Yankees came up well short, losing 10-3. But in the process, Derek Jeter become the all-time leader for hits as a shortstop with 2,674, passing Luis Aparicio in the process. Chamberlain, who was initially supposed to start Sunday but was pushed back to Wednesday and then back to Sunday again, allowed four earned runs for the third straight straight. His first three starts after the All-Star Break were outstanding and his last three have been pedestrian. So what gives?

Lots of pundits will look at the proposed innings limit and blame that for Joba's struggles, despite the fact that his last two starts have come on regular rest. Many Yankee fans, including myself, probably got a little too excited about Joba's performance out of the break. He's still just 23 years old and prone to bouts of wildness (12 BB in his last 16 IP). And as I mentioned in my last Yankees blog, he has thrown more innings already this season than any other season in his career.

Chamberlain's next start will be on Tuesday, August 25 after eight days rest and I'm very curious to see how he will react to the extended rest. He is a prime example of why pitchers should not be treated with kid gloves in the minor leagues.

If the Yankees continue to pitch him on regular rest and tax his arm for an extra 50-60 innings, they may compromise his future. But by throwing him intermittently for the final month and a half and not preparing him for the rigors of playoff baseball, they may compromise the best chance they have to win a World Series THIS SEASON: A four-man rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte and Joba that few teams in baseball, if any, can match. In the end, protecting Joba's young arm over the past few seasons has put them in a no-win situation this season.

For now, New York has a 7.5-game lead on the Red Sox, who dropped two of three to Texas over the weekend. The Rangers now hold a half-game lead in the Wild Card race, a game ahead of Boston in the loss column. If the season ended today, Boston would be out of the playoff picture, a dream for all Yankees fans.

The only problem with that is I don't see Texas' pitching holding up the rest of the way, as their starters outside of Kevin Millwood came into the season with just 12 career victories. But they can hit and the back end of their bullpen is solid, so if their patchwork rotation can hold up for another month or so, we may see a Rangers-Yankees divisional matchup, one in which the Yankees could average 7-8 runs per game on their way to the ALCS against the Angels (yes, I'm discounting whichever team wins the sad AL Central).

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