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Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Yanks are who you thought they were

By Wallace Matthews

No matter what happens Thursday night in the finale of what has become a nightmarish Subway Series for the New York Yankees, Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis are scheduled to arrive Friday morning.

That's the good news.

The bad news is, the Yankees many of you expected to see out of spring training -- the patchwork, replacement, not-quite-good-enough quasi-Yankees -- beat them here by a couple of days.

It was a fine run while it lasted, but all along, you had to suspect a lot of the Yankees' early success was being accomplished with smoke and mirrors.

New York Yankees infielders
The Yankees' infielders could barely stand to watch as their pitchers faltered.

But this week, the smoke has cleared and the mirrors have cracked, the vision in them is not very pretty at all.

Losing on Monday because of a bad inning by David Robertson was surprising. Losing on Tuesday because Mariano Rivera blew his first save of the year was borderline shocking.

But Wednesday night's 9-4 loss to the New York Mets before a crowd that sounded as if it had migrated up from Flushing? That was embarrassing.

It was embarrassing because David Phelps, inserted into the starting rotation because he is better than Ivan Nova, took the Yankees out of it before they even had a chance to get into it.

It was embarrassing because Jeremy Hefner, who was 0-5 coming in and behind whom the Mets were 0-10 this season, tamed a tinkered-with Yankees lineup that was something less than fearsome and a whole lot less than awesome.

It was embarrassing because not only did the Yankees pitch poorly -- Phelps allowed five runs, Adam Warren gave up three and Nova, pressed into mop-up duty, gave up the final run in an otherwise impressive performance -- they also fielded amateurishly and, with the exception of the sixth inning, batted as if they had a train to catch.

Mostly, it was embarrassing because they made the Mets, sporting a lineup with two starters under imminent threat of demotion to the minor leagues due to lack of performance, look like a good team that had yet to find its stride.

In fact, Lyle Overbay pretty much used those exact words to excuse the Yankees' performance during their four-game skid, in which they have scored a total of nine runs.

And it only gets worse. On Thursday night, the Yankees must hope that Vidal Nuno, whose Friday morning ticket back to Scranton is probably pre-punched punched regardless of how well he does, can pitch them out of the ignominy of being swept in four games by their little brothers from Queens.

So, yeah, you can celebrate the return of Teixeira and Youkilis, because there's no doubt that as well as Overbay, Jayson Nix and David Adams have played in their absence, Tex and Youk are better.

But you must also recognize that Teixeira and Youkilis are mere Band-Aids, hardly sufficient to close all the wounds from which the Yankees are currently bleeding.

After all, they can only play first and third. The Yankees are are still getting precious little production out of their shortstop, their catcher and both corner outfield spots.

And the pitching, which has been the glue that has been holding this ragtag collection together, might be starting to come apart at the seams.

Phelps had "a stinker" Wednesday night, in the words of manager Joe Girardi. CC Sabathia had a stinker on Sunday in Tampa. And on the nights Hiroki Kuroda and Phil Hughes pitched well, they were let down by the two most reliable links in their bullpen chain.

Now, there is no reason to panic when Robertson has the odd sloppy inning, or when Rivera, as all closers will, occasionally blows a save.

But the Yankees have already played 15 one-run ballgames -- they are 9-6 in them -- in the first 52 games of this season. At that rate, they will play some 60 over the course of the year (they played 47, going 22-25, in 2012).

That means a lot of games in which Robertson, or Rivera, or both, are pitching under a lot of pressure, with no margin for error, as Robertson did Monday and Rivera did Tuesday. And on the nights one or both can't go, that pressure gets shifted to lesser lights such as Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain.

That is the effect having an anemic offense has on a bullpen, an effect that increases as the games and weeks of a season wear on.

And right now, the Yankees' offense is pretty puny, averaging a tick more than four runs per game.

Having generated practically nothing at the plate in the first two games of this series, Girardi shook things up a bit for game three, benching the slumping Vernon Wells and David Adams and moving Overbay, a good hitter but not especially threatening, into the cleanup spot. Travis Hafner moved up to third, Brennan Boesch got slotted in fifth, followed by Ichiro Suzuki (.251), Jayson Nix (.246), Reid Brignac (.071) and Chris Stewart (.256).

Clearly, once you got past Boesch -- who justified his spot in the lineup with a home run and an infield single that drove in a run -- it was clear sailing, even for Jeremy Hefner.

Assuming they are ready to step in and play as if this really were the cusp of June and not more like Opening Day, Teixeira and Youkilis will beef up that batting order somewhat.

But you've got to start wondering if the Vernon Wells we saw for the first month of the season, the one who hit over .300 through April 30 and showed the kind of power that prompted the Toronto Blue Jays to give him a contract that is now almost universally reviled, was the real thing or an adrenaline-fueled mirage.

Same goes for Ichiro, who looked rejuvenated in his two months as a Yankee last year but this season has reverted to the kind of numbers that prompted the Mariners to give up on him after 12 Hall of Fame-caliber seasons.

In addition to his batting average, Ichiro's on-base percentage is a woeful .288, which make his lack of power for a corner outfielder -- two home runs, just eight RBIs and a .341 slugging average -- stand out all the more.

Even Brett Gardner, who the Yankees are all in on as their center fielder, has been disappointing at the plate, hitting .263 with a .332 OBP.

It makes you miss Curtis Granderson and his threat of a home run at any point in the game, strikeouts and all, that much more.

Of course, the overall picture is still positive; even with three straight losses to the Mets, mortifying as they are, the Yankees remain eight games over .500 and a game behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL East.

There is no longer any argument over whether the fill-in Yankees could adequately fill in for the "real" Yankees. That they did, and quite well, for longer than many of us thought they were capable of.

But it's the last week of May, and the fear is that maybe that crew has finally -- or already -- run out of gas.

Asked in his postgame interview if he thought he had stretched his makeshift roster as far as it could go, Girardi said, "I don't feel that we've stretched as much as we can. It's a term that I hear and I still think these guys have got more in the tank, I do. I think right now, offensively, we're going through a little bit of a difficult time, but all offenses -- the best offenses -- go through that, and that's where our pitching has to pick us up. We're not scoring a lot of runs, but we'll score runs."

The suggestion was made to the manager that the imminent return of Teixeira and Youkilis, along with the expected return next week of Andy Pettitte, would inject some new life into a team that suddenly looks weary less than a quarter of the way into its race.

"We're hoping we get some people back, but they're still rehabbing and you can't focus on that," Girardi said. "I haven't focused on that all year long. We've focused on the guys that are in the room and that's what I'll continue to do.

"Until they get here, I'm not going to worry about it."

But these past four games have given more than ample reason to worry about these Yankees, who came out of the gate fast, only to discover that this race may turn out to be a little longer and more demanding than they thought.