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No starters means time to start panicking

NEW YORK -- In two days, Chase Whitley, who has never thrown a pitch in the major leagues, will be handed a baseball and asked to throw it for as long and as effectively as possible against the New York Mets at Citi Field.

On Sunday, Vidal Nuno, who got abused for 3 1/3 innings by the Mets on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, will be given another chance against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In between, we will see David Phelps, who got nicked up pretty good by the Brewers on Sunday, and Hiroki Kuroda, who gave up two homers to the Mets on Monday night.

"We have to stay in rotation," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after the Mets' 12-7 win to complete a sweep of the Yankee Stadium portion of this year's Subway Series. "These are the people that we have."

Luckily, the Yankees also have Masahiro Tanaka, but the way things look right now, the sensational Japanese righty, who has not lost a regular-season game in nearly two years, better not pick Wednesday night's opener at Citi Field as the time to lose his first as a Yankee.

Yes, it's only mid-May, the season is not quite a quarter of the way over, and as Girardi rightly points out, no one is running away with the AL East. Even with this long (3 hours, 58 minutes), dreary and dispiriting loss, the Yankees remain in a three-way tie with Boston and Toronto for second-place in the division, 1½ games behind Baltimore.

But it would be a mistake to assume that, because it's early, these losses don't really mean that much, or that, because the division is mediocre, the Yankees can survive a starting rotation as threadbare as the one they have now.

As Girardi said, Nuno is a guy who has to live on the edges. Last night, he died in the middle of the plate. He is hardly a long-term answer to the rotation problem, but for now, until CC Sabathia (who is out indefinitely) and Pineda (who is out probably another month) return to action, he is going to get the ball every five days.

So, too, is Phelps, who is capable of a good game but is also a guy who is not overpowering enough to get by on days when he is at less than his best.

Kuroda was very hittable in Monday's loss to the Mets, allowing two home runs in six innings, and by the way, when was the last time anyone was looking forward to Sabathia's next start?

The hard truth is, right now Tanaka is the Yankees' starting rotation, and even though he went 24-0 last season in Japan, and is 33-0 in regular-season games since August 2012, the law of averages says that he, too, is going to get roughed up at some point. It may not be tomorrow, although off the first two games of this series, the Mets look like an aggressive bunch at the plate whose plan may be to attack Tanaka early in the count, when he is more likely to throw his fastball and before he can throw that nasty splitter for strike three.

But that remains to be seen.

What you don't have to look too hard to find is the dire straits the Yankees are in, pitching-wise, and I haven't even gotten to the bullpen.

Shawn Kelley, who was emerging as a pretty good set-up man, went on the disabled list Tuesday with a lingering lower-back issue. He will be shut down for a while and no one can say for sure when he will be back. Remember, Brendan Ryan came down with a similar condition in early March and didn't return to action for nearly two months.

David Robertson has been excellent, and both Adam Warren and Dellin Betances have been very good, but there may come a point when the Yankees decide they need to stretch Warren out for a return to starting pitching. But if there was any bright spot to Tuesday's ugly defeat it is that none of those three had to be pressed into service.

As for the middle relievers, the less seen of Alfred Aceves, Matt Thornton and Preston Claiborne, the better these days. By far the most effective Yankees pitcher Tuesday night was Matt Daley, and he was DFA-ed a day after allowing six runs in 1 1/3 innings back in April, only to be optioned to Scranton a couple of days later. So no one is expecting him to morph into Mariano Rivera.

In previous years, you might sit back, crack a beer and wait for Brian Cashman to raid some other organization for a surplus arm.

But as Girardi pointed out, due to all the injuries hitting pitchers this year, especially the rash of torn UCLs needing Tommy John surgery, there aren't exactly a lot of spare arms lying around. And frankly, the Yankees don't have a lot of major league-ready talent, or even close to major league-ready to offer in trade. (Please, forget about Jeff Samardzija. Contrary to popular belief, the rest of baseball does not exist to provide the Yankees with young talent.)

It truly is hard to believe that this team, which seemed so pitching-rich in spring training -- the Yankees thought they were set for their Nos. 1-to-4 starters and had four legitimate candidates for the No. 5 job -- could now be stretched so thin. Last night the offense scored seven runs, yet still the Yankees got steamrolled. That's what bad pitching does to a team. It's even more difficult to believe it has happened so quickly.

But it has, and Girardi really doesn't seem to have an answer for it.

"That’s not my job," he said when asked if the club might go outside the organization in search of pitching help. "That’s Brian’s job. My job is to manage the players that he gives me. And I’m sure he’s always searching to make our team better. I mean, that’s what we do here."

It is certainly what they have always done. But this time their hands may be tied.

It's barely six weeks into the season and the New York Yankees have run out of big league arms.

Of all the fates that could have befallen this team, that may have been the least likely of all.