Thursday, August 30, 2012
Broken Bombers need intensive care
By Wallace Matthews ESPNNewYork.com
In their past two games, the Yankees' cleanup hitters have been Steve Pearce and Andruw Jones.
If this continues, the Yankees will have a lot of free time in October.
It is not Joe Girardi's fault that Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are hurt, leaving the Yankees as the world's most expensive doughnut, a $210 million team with a gaping hole in the middle of its lineup.
Yankees fans, meet Steve Pearce. (You know, your cleanup hitter.)
But it is the reality he and the Yankees are going to have to deal with this weekend against those stubborn Baltimore Orioles, and probably for at least the beginning of next week, when they travel to Tampa Bay for three crucial games against the Rays.
A-Rod is just beginning his rehab assignment, DH-ing Friday night for the Class A Tampa Yankees, and although GM Brian Cashman says he won't rule out a return to the Yankees sometime during the Rays series, A-Rod has yet to take a swing against serious pitching since July 24.
As for Teixeira, he will miss a minimum of 10 days with a calf strain, which puts his return no earlier than Sept. 6, and probably later.
In the meantime, the team formerly known as the Bronx Bombers has had to make do with a 29-year-old journeyman who couldn't stick with the Houston Astros, the worst team in baseball, and a 35-year-old with bad knees who is struggling to keep his batting average above .200.
And oh, yeah, in Wednesday's 8-5 loss to the Blue Jays, Jones' protection in the lineup was Russell Martin. Batting .197. Murderer's Row, it ain't.
Suddenly, the team that had no soft spots in its lineup has grown a great big flabby midsection.
"You can't do anything about it," Nick Swisher said after the Yankees, in the midst of a pennant race, had lost a series to the Toronto Blue Jays, who are playing out the string.
"You've just got to keep going out there and plugging along. Obviously if we could script it any different we wouldn't have any of our guys banged up, but that's kind of the way the season goes. No excuses, we've just got to go out there and get it done. I feel like we've dealt with that extremely well this year."
They had, to this point anyway. Eric Chavez has been a fine backup for A-Rod, outhitting him in 25 games and homering at a far greater pace than the man with 644 lifetime round-trippers.
Swisher and Chavez, and later, Casey McGehee, were serviceable filling in for Teixeira during his periodic absences for the illness and minor injuries that preceded his latest. And Jones and Raul Ibanez had combined, through the first half of the season, a powerful alternative to the speedy Brett Gardner, a void that since has been filled by Ichiro Suzuki.
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But now, with barely more than a month of the season left and a three-way dogfight shaping up in the AL East, it appears as if the Yankees' bill is coming due, the bill for signing aging players to long-term contracts, and then signing even older players to take their place in case of emergency.
The 40-year-old Ibanez, who showed a surprisingly live bat early in the season after a poor spring, was hitting .273 on May 13. Since then, his numbers have marched steadily downward. He is now hitting .238 and hasn't homered since Aug. 5.
Jones has hit for power this season but never for average, and since the end of June is batting just .185. And to anyone who saw Wednesday's game, the thought of him as an outfielder these days is nothing short of terrifying.
Even Chavez, the baby of the bunch at 34, reminded you recently of his fragility when after playing brilliantly four straight games in Detroit -- going 9-for-16 -- he needed the next three games off to recover.
As the race heats up, Jones and Ibanez are running out of steam. So, too, are some of the bullpen guys who seem to work nearly every day. Only one pitcher in the league has appeared in more games than Boone Logan's 61. Clay Rapada is right behind him with 59. And Rafael Soriano, who has emerged as a worthy substitute for Mariano Rivera, has been in 56.
There are 32 games left before we even get to the postseason, and already these guys are showing signs of strain. And Girardi has hardly begun his annual St. Vitus dance of mixing and matching relievers.
"Obviously we've had to ask our second-line guys to run out there more than we would have liked to," Cashman said. "But we've got a lot of broken guys and so far, these guys have stepped up for us."
But how much longer can it go on?
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This weekend, with three crucial games against a hungry young Orioles team stalking an older horse from just three games back after Thursday's games, is no time for the Yankees to be sending out a lineup with guys like Pearce or Jones in the cleanup spot, or Martin hitting fifth.
And even though the reinforcements will begin to arrive Saturday, when rosters expand, there is no Mike Trout heading up from Scranton to shore up the offense and no Chris Sale to bolster the pitching staff.
Instead, barring a last-minute waiver deal -- and no, the Yankees did not put in a claim on Joe Mauer -- we will get the usual suspects. McGehee will be back, and maybe Francisco Cervelli (or Austin Romine) and Eduardo Nunez and Adam Warren.
None of them is a game-changer or a season-saver.
If the Yankees are going to pull this off -- and a collapse of not only monumental but historic proportions is hardly out of the question -- it is going to have to be done with the guys who are in the room now, and the ones they are waiting on to return.
That means CC Sabathia is going to have to go back to being not a twice-a-month ace, but an every-five-days monster. It means Hiroki Kuroda cannot afford to falter, and it means Phil Hughes has got to find some real consistency -- like right now.
And it means that Andy Pettitte, whose recovery from a broken ankle has been slower than the Yankees expected, needs to throw off a mound this weekend to line himself up for at least two or three regular-season starts to prepare for October.
It also means that the lineup has to get back to a semblance of what it was on Opening Day, before the injury bug clamped its jaws and refused to let go.
Because a lineup whose heart consists of Steve Pearce, Andruw Jones and Russell Martin is not simply not going to get it done.
Not against the Baltimore Orioles, or against anyone else.