Commentary

Yanks eager for the real games to start

Wednesday's starter? Who cares! Bombers are focused on start of playoffs and beyond

Updated: September 28, 2011, 9:58 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ST. PETERSBURG -- The silence in the New York Yankees clubhouse was as heavy as a Florida thunderstorm, but it had nothing to do with the ballgame that had just been played at Tropicana Field and everything to do with one still being contested 1,000 miles north in Camden Yards.

The Yankees had played hard, but not very well, against the Tampa Bay Rays on this night, losing 5-3 after a rare implosion by a key component in the So-Ro-Mo bullpen chain that has shortened so many games for them this season, but less than a half hour after the final out, everyone had moved on.

Now, the attention was riveted on the TV screens throughout the clubhouse, where Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was struggling to finish off the pesky Baltimore Orioles in the bottom of the ninth, and there was no mistaking where the allegiances lie.

And when on the 10th pitch of his at-bat, Adam Jones bounced the ball to third base for what would be the final out, a familiar voice -- the voice of Derek Jeter -- could be heard crying out from the recesses of the players lounge in what sounded a lot like anguish: "Oh, God!"

After holding on to beat the Orioles, 8-7, the Red Sox's hopes live on another day, as do those of the Rays.

Meanwhile, the Yankees mark time until Friday night, when they will meet a still-undetermined opponent in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium.

They don't even have a starting pitcher for Wednesday night's regular-season finale against the Rays, and in truth, manager Joe Girardi didn't seem all that concerned about it.

"Well, I know who I can't start," he said. "I can't start A.J. and I can't start Freddy and I can't start Bart and I can't start CC. But we'll figure it out. I will have a starter by 7:10."

Clearly, all the serious Yankees thoughts are on Friday and beyond. They concern the start of the playoffs, and possible opponents -- right now, the skirmish between the Detroit Tigers and the Texas Rangers, the Yankees' two prospective first-round opponents, remains unsettled -- and the definite prospect that either the fading Red Sox or the surging Rays might still rise up to haunt them again in the American League Championship Series.

Either way, the Yankees are eager to get beyond the exhibition portion of the season and get back to games that really matter.

"I'm super-ready," declared Russell Martin. "I couldn't be any more ready, I don't think."

[+] EnlargeBartolo Colon
William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireSo long, Bartolo. It was a blast while it lasted.

Joe Girardi said the same of his lineup, and his bullpen, despite the meltdown by Rafael Soriano, his normally reliable seventh-inning man who surrendered the game-winning three-run homer to Matt Joyce on Tuesday night.

"If you're going to have it happen, may as well get it out of the way now," Girardi said of Soriano's implosion. "He's been so good for us that I don't make too much of it. So, we move on."

And unofficially, the Yankees move on, too, from Bartolo Colon, who in his final regular-season appearance as a Yankee -- and probably, his final appearance of any type -- worked 5 1/3 innings, allowed seven hits and two runs, and generally pitched creditably but nowhere near the way he pitched in the first half of the season.

"Bart was great for us this year," Girardi said. "He picked us up at a time when we were struggling and we were not sure what we were gonna do for starters."

If that sounds like a testimonial, that's probably what it was. Although Girardi paid lip service to the possibility that Colon was still in the mix for a postseason start, that now seems about as remote as Colon himself was all year.

After a phenomenal spring training and an excellent first three months, Colon's performance slowly, steadily and perhaps inevitably tailed off as the season wore on, the unusual workload on his oft-injured and surgically repaired right shoulder -- he had not thrown this many innings, 164 1/3, since 2005 -- taking a toll on his command and his velocity.

"He did a great job for us, especially early," Martin said. "He was pretty much untouchable there for a while. As it went along, he kinda wasn't as consistent but he still kept us in a lot of games. After seeing him a couple of times you start to realize how many fastballs he throws and stuff. But when his sinker's on, it really doesn't matter."

But in reality, Colon was never the same pitcher after straining a hamstring in June; from then on, he was 3-7 with five no-decisions and his ERA rose from 2.08 to where it finished up, at an even 4.00.

Still, if on the first day Colon showed up in camp, with some 280 pounds crammed into his 5-9 frame and not a major league inning thrown since 2009, anyone had told the Yankees he would stabilize their rotation early in the season and wind up winning eight games for them, they would have signed up for that in an eyeblink.

"Absolutely," Girardi said.

Throughout the season, Colon remained a folk hero and something of a man of mystery, speaking to the media only after his starts -- never on the day before, the day after or any of the other four days in between -- and always through an interpreter.

To the media, he remained aloof and remote. He never made small talk with a reporter, or said hello, or even acknowledged one's presence. In his eight months as a Yankee, he remained that way. His teammates loved him and swore he was a barrel of laughs, but no one who covered Colon really got to know him except through his work, which was mostly remarkable.

And then there was that mysterious stem-cell treatment that involved, it was said, reinjection of his own fat cells into his injured elbow and shoulder, a procedure that rejuvenated him and is reported to be under investigation by Major League Baseball.

In a clubhouse packed with players about as colorful as a convention of CPAs, Colon was a figure of intrigue and fascination, a source of cheap humor -- I should know, having engaged in, ahem, tons of it -- and for most of the season, a revelation.

But now, it's over, as evidenced by Girardi's lukewarm response when asked if Colon was still being considered, along with Freddy Garcia and A.J. Burnett, for a postseason start after the two locks, CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova.

"I don't know," Girardi said. "We'll talk about it more before I make an announcement and whatever we do, we'll talk to the players before I'll talk to anyone else.''

Which obviously means no.

Wherever the Yankees go from here and whatever their destiny, they will face it without Bartolo Colon. He helped them get this far, but will take them no further, and vice versa.

That may be why he did not appear in the postgame clubhouse to issue his brief, noncommittal, translated answers to the assembled media. When it's over, it's over, and everyone in the room seemed to know it.

For the rest of them, however, the important part of the chase is really just beginning. That cry from the trainer's room as Boston bought itself another day of life was just a reminder that even if the important games are on hold right now for the Yankees, they continue in other parts of the country and will resume again in the Bronx very, very soon.

"Our guys are playing hard. We're trying to win these games," Girardi said. "But are we excited to get to the playoffs? Absolutely. There's some exciting days ahead."

•••

Martin had the dubious distinction of hitting into the Yankees' first triple play in more than a decade, his hot grounder to third with runners on second and third was quickly converted by Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez into a 5-4-3 rally killer. Martin attempted a head-first dive into first but still became the first Yankee to hit into a triple play since Shane Spencer in 2000. Asked if he thought the play was a sign that the Rays were a team of destiny, a rueful Martin said, "I don't know what to think about that. I'm still scratching my head." ... After toying with the move for weeks, Girardi finally flip-flopped Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira in the batting order. The move did not pay immediate dividends -- neither man scored nor drove in a run, although Teixeira had two hits and the Rays intentionally walked Cano to get to Alex Rodriguez in the third. ... Derek Jeter was given the night off, but Girardi said he and the rest of the Yankees' regulars can expect to be in the lineup for Wednesday's finale, facing LHP David Price (12-13, 3.35). Although Girardi said he has not decided upon a starter, it is possible Phil Hughes could get the ball for a couple of innings, followed by a procession of relievers. ... The Yankees will hold a workout, closed to the public, at Yankee Stadium at 3 p.m. on Thursday afternoon in preparation for Friday's Game 1, which starts at 8:37 p.m.

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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