CC: Captain Crutch leaves rotation hobbling

May, 18, 2014
May 18
10:10
PM ET
NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees don't know exactly what is wrong with CC Sabathia's right knee, or exactly what course of treatment will be necessary to relieve his pain. They don't know if the inflammation that caused the knee to swell with fluid in his past two starts was the reason for his early season ineffectiveness, or if he will be better, worse or pretty much the same pitcher when he finally does return to the Yankees' rotation.

But they do know this: Sabathia will not be in uniform when he is eligible to come off the disabled list a week from Monday.

"It's not going to be a 15-day DL, it's going to be longer, I can tell you that," manager Joe Girardi said after the Yankees split a doubleheader Sunday with the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning the first game 4-3, behind Hiroki Kuroda, and losing the nightcap 5-3 when Alfredo Aceves gave up a seventh-inning home run to Josh Harrison that proved to be the game-winner.

[+] EnlargeHiroki Kuroda
Al Bello/Getty ImagesHiroki Kuroda lacked his best stuff Sunday but got the job done.
Girardi said Sabathia -- who had just returned from a visit to Dr. James Andrews' clinic in Pensacola, Fla., where he received stem-cell treatment via injection -- would be examined by team doctor Chris Ahmad on Monday at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

"The doctor will examine him and they’re going to try to get a game plan for how he moves forward from here," Girardi said. "When we’ll get him back I don’t think any of us really know, because this is not something that's done very often."

The Yankees have said Sabathia has "degenerative changes" in his right knee, the same one that underwent surgery for a meniscus tear after the 2010 season. Other than that, Girardi couldn't provide many specifics. He didn't know if Sabathia was likely to have in-season surgery, an almost certain season-ender, or if he would need prolonged treatment and rest followed by a spring training-like period of buildup before he could return to the rotation.

He cited the differences in Michael Pineda's injury, characterized as a "right shoulder muscle injury" in the area of the latissimus dorsi, and Sabathia's injury, which appears to be soreness, inflammation and fluid buildup of unspecified origin.

"You look at Michael’s injury, there’s a lot of data behind that one to give you an idea it’s going to be about six weeks," Girardi said. "But on CC’s, there’s not."

Sabathia made a brief appearance at the Stadium during the first game Sunday, had some treatment and left, on crutches, without speaking to the media. So it was impossible to gauge his level of pain, frustration, or encouragement -- or discouragement -- over the injury, or to get his opinion on how long he expected to be out.

But it was clear from watching six hours of baseball against a poor Pirates team that the Yankees' makeshift rotation is living on borrowed time. Both Kuroda and Vidal Nuno worked six innings in their games, and neither was particularly damaged. Each gave up three runs -- one of Nuno's was unearned because of a pair of unsightly errors by Yangervis Solarte, who threw a ball away at third, and Brian Roberts, who mishandled a throw at second.

But they were facing the offensively challenge Pirates, who loiter in the lower half of the National League in batting average and runs scored. Kuroda allowed two home runs, one to Tony Sanchez, who had hot only one all season, and Nuno allowed a two-run shot to Starling Marte, who had struck out four times in the first game. Kuroda was helped immensely by three of Marte's strikeouts, and escaped a bases-loaded jam in the fourth when the Pirates couldn't come up with a timely hit. And Nuno got lucky in the second inning of the second game when Jose Tabata pulled a hamstring rounding second on Chris Stewart's RBI single, cutting short the inning after just one run.

[+] Enlarge Vidal Nuno
AP Photo/Bill KostrounVidal Nuno received a no-decision in Sunday's loss.
Both pitchers pitched well enough to win, as did David Phelps (five innings, five hits, no runs) in Saturday's 7-1 victory, but the Yankees needed three relievers behind Phelps, four behind Kuroda -- including David Robertson for a four-out save -- and three behind Nuno. None of them seem capable, or have enough of the manager's trust, to pitch deep enough into a game to save the bullpen. And with Shawn Kelley still down with a lumbar spine injury, and Girardi reluctant to use Dellin Betances in back-to-back games, that can quickly tax a relief core.

And they are still counting on rookie Chase Whitley, who pitched well but for only 4 2/3 innings against the Mets in his first big-league start on Thursday, to come up with a similar performance when his turn comes up Wednesday night against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. That may be expecting a little too much.

Right now, the only truly reliable starter the Yankees have is Masahiro Tanaka, and truly, that has been the case all season long.

"They’re the veterans in the group," Girardi said, speaking of Kuroda and Tanaka. "Even though Tanaka is a rookie, he’s been a starter for awhile in his career, and he knows what he needs to do."

But Tanaka, who has not lost a regular-season game in nearly two years, is only human, and the law of averages, and of Major League Baseball, say that he can not possibly remain undefeated forever.

Any way you look at it, the Yankees are going to need to add a starter, and maybe two, and as GM Brian Cashman told me on Friday, there is no one down in Triple-A right now who is even close to being able to make the step up. Aceves, who was brought up in the hope he could make some spot starts, is no longer trustworthy to give the Yankees an inning in a close game.

"Well, they’ve given us a lot of chances to win," Girardi said of his Kleenex-thin rotation. "We had a chance to win a doubleheader today and we won the game yesterday. I know we didn’t pitch too well the first two games of the homestand, but they had given us a chance most of the time to win games."

And incredibly, because of the early mediocrity of the AL East -- Girardi prefers the word "parity" -- the Yankees ended this day atop the division, a half-game ahead of the Baltimore Orioles.

“I think our division we knew was going to be extremely tough, and it seems like no one has taken off yet," Girardi said. "Teams have had to deal with some injury issues; all the clubs, really, in a sense. It sure beats the alternative of not being in first, but we know we have a long way to go.”

And with a starting rotation that remains in a condition similar to Sabathia's -- hobbling on figurative crutches and not sure how to right itself -- it remains to be seen how far this team can really advance.

The Yankees need pitching, and they need it fast. And right now, it seems as if they will have to look outside their own clubhouse to find it.
Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Jacoby Ellsbury
BA HR RBI R
.269 15 67 69
OTHER LEADERS
HRM. Teixeira 21
RBIJ. Ellsbury 67
RB. Gardner 81
OPSB. Gardner .755
WM. Tanaka 12
ERAH. Kuroda 3.81
SOM. Tanaka 135