Monday, May 30, 2011 Updated: May 31, 3:37 PM ET
Colon still thumbing nose at Father Time
By Wallace Matthews ESPNNewYork.com
OAKLAND -- Here it is, Memorial Day, and Bartolo Colon continues to make a fool out of Father Time, a liar out of Mother Nature and a mockery out of modern athletic training methods.
He's 38, looks 48, and probably orders his pants with a 58-waist. He hadn't pitched a full season in the big leagues since 2005, the year he won the AL Cy Young Award, when the New York Yankees decided to roll the bones and invite him to spring training as a non-roster invitee on a cut-rate minor league deal.
The gamble paid off when he made the team as a long man in the bullpen even though he outpitched every younger, stronger, higher-priced arm on the roster.
Now, that no-risk $900,000 investment continues to pay huge dividends for the Yankees. Colon not only found his way into the rotation when Phil Hughes got hurt, the case can be made that he is now 1A in the rotation, a slight second to CC Sabathia only on the basis of service time, certainly not performance.
On the day after Sabathia threw an eight-inning gem at the Mariners, Colon went the nominal ace one better, dropping a complete game shutout on the Oakland Athletics that was every bit as economical as the deal the Yankees signed him to back in January.
Bartolo Colon tossed his first shutout since a 2006 four-hitter against the Seattle Mariners.
Needing just 103 pitches, 71 of them strikes -- and most of those nasty two-seamers on one edge of the plate or the other -- Colon allowed just four hits, walked no one and struck out six as the Yankees cruised to an easy 5-0 victory in the opener of a three-game series.
In fact, it had been so long between complete-game shutouts for Colon that it was not at all certain he would even remember the last one. But the same way his arm remembers how to throw a fastball, his mind retained the memory of that day.
"I think it was in 2006 against the Mariners," he said. July 5, 2006, to be exact, a four-hitter. Three starts later, his season was over. He pitched sporadically over the next three seasons, never throwing more than 100 innings, and didn't pitch at all in 2010 before the Yankees got a tip from their bench coach, Tony Pena, that Colon might be worth taking a look at after pitching well for Pena's team in the Dominican Winter League.
Now, two months and eight starts into his second career, no one is surprised when Bartolo Colon pitches well anymore. Quite the contrary.
"He's been so good this year that it's like a surprise if he gives up a hit," said Mark Teixeira, who provided all the help Colon would need with a two-run homer in the first inning off Trevor Cahill. "He's really exceeding our expectations. If we didn't have him in our rotation we'd be scrambling right now."
Colon has been so good, in fact, that when Teixeira says something like, "He's been huge for us," as he did several times in the postgame clubhouse, it's not even a joke anymore.
Even with his worst outing of the season (6 IP, 6 ER vs. the Toronto Blue Jays) just a week behind him, the question of whether Colon could still pitch in the major leagues has long been answered.
It has since been replaced with a new question: How much longer can he keep it up?
"None of us really know," Joe Girardi said. "He's thrown a lot of innings before in his career but he hasn't done it in a while and he is 38. So you have to be careful, but we haven't really seen his stuff drop off at this point."
This represents a sea change in the manager's thinking, since the reason he gave for not awarding the No. 5 spot in the rotation out of spring training to Colon over Freddy Garcia, who has also pitched well, was concern over Colon's durability due to the nearly six years of inactivity.
But of necessity, attitudes change, and with Hughes not expected to pitch again before the All-Star break and likely beyond, a healthy, effective Colon is no longer a bonus but practically a necessity.
"I stopped being surprised by him in February," said Derek Jeter, who singled in the first inning (No. 2,981) and drove in the Yankees' fourth run with a sacrifice fly. "When he first came up he threw the ball as hard as he could, 100 miles an hour but pin-straight. He was more of a thrower back then. Now his ball is moving all over the place. He's more of a pitcher now."
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Teixeira concurred with Jeter's assessment, that the development of a two-seam fastball has added movement to his repertoire without compromising a lot of velocity; Colon hit 95 mph on his final pitch of the game. The downward movement of his ball seems especially perplexing; three of his K's were looking, on fastballs that on videotape looked to be right down the middle.
And then, of course, there is that mysterious procedure in which a concoction of Colon's fat and bone marrow stem cells were injected into his arm by a surgeon in the Dominican Republic to ease his chronic shoulder and elbow woes, a procedure that Major League Baseball is said to be "investigating."
Whatever the reason, Colon agrees he is a better pitcher now than he was in his prime, but he attributes his success more to better control than to better stuff or to weird science.
"I throw more strikes now," he said through an interpreter. "And less walks."
Girardi thought Colon's moment of truth came in the second inning when Josh Willingham led off with a double into the right-center gap, but went no farther as Colon retired, in rapid succession, Hideki Matsui on a foul out, Kurt Suzuki on a strikeout and Mark Ellis on a groundout.
The A's didn't get another baserunner until Kevin Kouzmanoff singled to lead off the sixth, and one more in the ninth, when Cliff Pennington led off with a double.
Although he had Joba Chamberlain warming up, Girardi never moved a muscle on the Yankee bench, having been assured after the eighth by Colon that he was good to finish up.
"I asked him how he felt," the manager said, "and he told me, 'I can go two more.'"
Only one was necessary, of course, and for the third time in a week -- Sabathia pitched a complete game against Toronto on May 24 -- the stretched Yankees bullpen had a vital day off.
Colon, too, had had a day off, working on an extra day's rest on Monday due to an off-day in the schedule last Thursday. He will have an extra day before each of his next two starts because of days off this Thursday and next Monday.
"The extra days off will help him," Girardi said. "But there's nothing that tells me that he can't continue to do this."
Asked how long he believed Colon was capable of keeping this up, Jeter said, "I don't sit around trying to predict the future. As long as he can do it again five days from now, that's all I care about."
But a full two months into the season, the Yankees are no longer surprised to get quality pitching out of Bartolo Colon. Now, the question is one they hardly dare ask: How long will it all last?
Teixeira's 16th home run of 2010 didn't arrive until July 9, and he still ended up with a team-leading 33. But Teixeira, whose first-inning shot into the right-field seats was his fourth in five games and seventh in his past 11, refused to predict how many he might wind up with this year. "Home runs come in bunches and right now I'm just in one of those streaks where I'm hitting them out of the park a lot," Teixeira said. "I don't know what it is but I hope I can keep it up. I wish I could bottle it." Russell Martin was in the original starting lineup but was scratched after the pregame stretch, still suffering soreness from fouling a ball off his left big toe Saturday night in Seattle. Girardi said he originally hurt it after being hit by a line drive in batting practice about three weeks ago and aggravated it two nights ago. "My hope is he'll be available [Tuesday]." Jorge Posada went 0-for-4 and is now 0-for-10 on the road trip and 1-for-his-past-17. Robinson Cano knocked in the third run of the game in the first inning with a double to right, but was thrown out after overrunning second base. Garcia (3-4, 3.26) faces LHP Brett Anderson (3-4, 2.84) Tuesday night, first pitch at 10:05 p.m.