Commentary

Pitching remains Yanks Achilles' Heel

Even with phenom Jesus Montero set to arrive, pitching is still needed to top the Sox

Updated: September 1, 2011, 2:49 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- Not even Jesus can save the New York Yankees if they can't figure out a way to beat the Boston Red Sox on a consistent basis.

Not Jesus Montero, anyway. Not unless he can pitch.

The most highly anticipated Yankees rookie since maybe Brien Taylor in the early 1990s is expected to arrive in the visitors' clubhouse at Fenway Park in time to be included in the lineup, if manager Joe Girardi sees fit, for Thursday night's series finale between the Yankees and Red Sox.

People are justifiably excited, considering the amount of organizational hype that has surrounded Montero since last winter, when GM Brian Cashman called him "a high-end bat'' and said it would take "a very rare situation for me to include him in a deal of any kind.''

It was said he would compete for the starting catcher's job in spring training, a plan that clearly changed when the Yankees signed Russell Martin, and then, after being practically handed the backup job when Francisco Cervelli broke his foot in March, proved himself incapable of even winning that. It may be almost impossible to remember, but a journeyman named Gustavo Molina went north with the team as the No. 2 catcher on Opening Day.

The Yankees attributed Montero's slip-up as a case of a 21-year-old putting too much pressure on himself and trying to do too much when all he needed to do was be Jesus Montero.

Then, he had trouble doing that at even the Triple-A level for the first half of the season, and was benched for two games for lack of hustle, a lapse his manager put down to Montero's being "bored'' in the minor leagues.

But the young man rebounded strongly over the second half of the season, being named to the International League All-Star team and hitting eight home runs in August, including five in his last seven games, to raise his numbers to a respectable .288-18-67.

Now, he will be a New York Yankee, at least for the last month of the season, but if you think he will be the difference-maker in a divisional race that right now has just a game and a half of separation between its first- and second-place teams, think again.

The Yankees and Red Sox have played 14 games so far this season, and the Yankees have managed to win just three. They have been outscored in those games, 86-56. And even with their encouraging victory in Tuesday's night's series opener, 5-2 behind CC Sabathia, and their battling back to erase a 4-1 deficit and take a 5-4 lead in the sixth inning Wednesday night, they have yet to beat them twice in a row.

And if they have any hopes of getting to the World Series this year, they are going to have to figure out a way to beat the Red Sox four times in roughly a week in October. So far, the regular-season meetings between the teams have not been encouraging.

The problem has not been the hitting. All season long, the Yankees have either led the league or been among the league leaders in runs scored, and have hit the most home runs in baseball, by a healthy margin. Wednesday night, they nicked Josh Beckett, who came in having allowed them three earned runs in 27 innings pitched (a 1.00 ERA), for five runs, four of them earned.

The reason the Yankees haven't been able to beat the Red Sox comes down to two words: Starting. Pitching.

[+] EnlargePhil Hughes
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonPhil Hughes gave up six earned runs against the Red Sox on Wednesday.

Consider the records of their starting rotation against Boston: Even after his performance on Tuesday, Sabathia, their ace, is 1-4 with a 6.39 ERA. A.J. Burnett, their joker, is 0-1, 11.12. Ivan Nova, their phenom, is 0-0, 8.32. Phil Hughes, their enigma, is 0-2, 14.65, including Wednesday's 9-5 loss, after which Girardi made it sound as though Hughes had pitched like Bob Gibson. Freddy Garcia is 0-2, 6.92.

Among the starters, only Bartolo Colon has a decent ERA against Boston -- 3.00 -- but he, too, has failed to beat them, losing his only two decisions.

The problem seems to be that Boston's lefty-heavy lineup feasts on the Yankees' righty-heavy pitching staff. And Wednesday night, even their "lefty specialist,'' Boone Logan, one of the few Yankee pitchers with impressive numbers against the Red Sox -- he came in 1-0 with a 1.35 ERA in 6-2/3 innings pitched, including an impressive outing on August 5 in which he struck out Adrian Gonzalez with the bases loaded -- was victimized, allowing a long home run to the first batter he faced, Jacoby Ellsbury, who is of course, a lefty.

The Yankees aren't summoning any left-handed help for their bullpen on Thursday, at least not the only other name that seems to stimulate as much excitement in the hearts of Yankees fans as does Montero, Manny Banuelos.

According to a team source I spoke with on Wednesday, neither Banuelos nor Dellin Betances, a 6-10, 23-year-old righty who had an impressive spring, will be among the first round of call-ups and may not make the jump this year at all.

But Montero will be there, and the likelihood is that any at-bats he gets will come at the expense of Andruw Jones, who after a slow start has done exactly what the Yankees signed him to do, which is crush left-handed pitching.

It's doubtful that in his first go-round with major-league pitching, Jesus Montero will provide an upgrade over a guy with 418 career home runs and is still capable of losing baseballs. Still, his arrival will send ripples through the fan base, if not the lineup.

He is one guy's name who we have talked about a lot, I will tell you that,'' Girardi said. "And as of late, if you look at his second half numbers, he has swung the bat very well.''

But that is not what the Yankees need to beat the Red Sox. They don't need more hitting. They need to stop the Red Sox from hitting, and so far, they have not been able to do that.

The Yankees were in a great position to win an important game Wednesday night. After the Red Sox had opened a 4-1 lead punctuated by David Ortiz's two-run homer in the fifth, they battled back to retake the lead with a four-run fifth inning sparked by RBI doubles by Robinson Cano and Eric Chavez.

But Hughes ran into some bad luck in the sixth -- Girardi said a moth flew into Hughes' right eye on a 3-2 pitch to Josh Reddick, resulting in a leadoff walk, and Jason Varitek followed with a line-hugger that eluded both Eduardo Nunez and Brett Gardner for a game-tying double -- and then Logan came in and surrendered Ellsbury's bomb.

Two innings later, the normally reliable Luis Ayala gave up a two-run homer to Varitek and whatever hopes the Yankees had of reversing the trend with Boston were dashed.

Now, they must rely on Burnett Thursday night to salvage a series win and send them home with a solid basis for the belief that when the time comes for them to win four of seven from Boston, they are capable of doing it.

Jesus Montero can't help them with that one, either.

"We can't think about what has happened up until this point," Derek Jeter said. "It really makes no difference. If that were the case we would just give them the games and say, 'You can have them.' We're not going to do that.''

Nor is Jesus Montero going to be of much help to them.

For all his gifts as a hitter -- and no less an authority on the subject than Reggie Jackson told me he is excited to see Montero's major league debut -- Montero does not provide the one skill the Yankees desperately need to beat the Red Sox.

This Jesus would have a better chance of walking on water than of getting their hitters out.

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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