Finally, the torture of the tedious All-Star break is about to the end. As the Yankees (51-37) return to the field tonight against the AL Central-leading Tigers to start a 10-game homestand, they find themselves in good shape for a playoff push, sitting in second in the AL East, three games behind the Red Sox.
The Yankees have been a much better second-half team in recent years, going a major-league best 186-109 since the 2005 All-Star break. But to make the playoffs, they'll need to improve on the 39-28 record they had in the second half of last season. They'll likely need 93-95 wins to secure a berth.
So let's take a look at the five keys to the Yankees' second-half success.
Deliver The Goods
CC Sabathia was given a big, fat, eight-year, $161 million contact in the offseason to be the team's ace. He was expected to be the leader of the staff, the stopper and the workhouse. Normally in baseball one out of three ain't bad, but not in this case.
Sabathia went 8-6 with a 3.86 ERA anda 1.15 WHIP in 19 starts in the first half. He's pitched 128-1/3 innings, but had only nine quality starts. The numbers are pretty good for most pitchers, but Sabathia is a former Cy Young Award winner and the guy who pitched the Brewers into the playoffs last season. He's had his dominant moments and he's been hit around at times. The Yankees expect and need more.
The good news is that over the last two seasons, Sabathia has gone 16-6 with a 2.14 ERA and 1.03 WHIP over 223-1/3 innings in the second half. He needs to step up and pitch like that.
Fix The Back End
Brian Cashman is going to have to make a decision on whether the Yankees can survive with the back end of the rotation as it presently is constituted.
Chien-Ming Wang (strained shoulder) is expected to resume throwing and begin a rehab program shortly after the All-Star break. If all goes well, he could be back by August, though the Yankees will have to figure out what kind of pitcher they'll be getting when he returns. Will it be the disaster from the start of the season or the guy who won 19 game in each of 2006 and 2007? If Wang has a setback, Cashman won't have a choice but to find another arm.
Then there is Joba Chamberlain. He's 4-2 with a 4.25 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in 17 starts covering 89 innings. That's less than 5-1/3 innings a game. And over his first 29 starts, he has only 10 decisions (7-3). It's time for Joba to take that next step. The Yankees are going to find it more and more difficult to send him out there every fifth day if he can't at least pitch into the seventh inning with much more regularity. The bullpen has thrown the fourth-most innings in the majors and it just can't sustain that workload and be effective. So Joba, no more nibbling at the strike zone. No more being passive with the fastball. No more working slowly. Joba needs to show he's ready and able to be a legitimate major league starter.
That leaves Andy Pettitte, who traditionally has been a stronger second-half pitcher. He went 8-5 in the first half, but posted a 4.85 ERA and allowed 15 homers. He also went 1-2 with a 7.26 ERA and 1.71 WHIP in his last four starts, leading some to wonder whether age is finally catching up with him.
The first two starts of this half are going to be huge for Joba and Pettitte. If Cashman senses either won't be able to turn things around, he may be forced to make a move -- though not necessarily for Roy Halladay.
Reinforce The Bullpen
The relief corps was an absolute disaster to start the season. Through April and May, any time a reliever came in, the outcome was in doubt.
But that changed in June as Alfredo Aceves (5-1, 1 Sv, 2.03 ERA, 0.93 WHIP in 40 IP as a reliever) emerged and Phil Hughes (18-1/3 IP, 0.98 ERA, 0.65 WHIP in relief) was sent to the bullpen. Once that happened, Phil Coke (1-3, 1 Sv, 3,99 ERA, 1.04 WHIP) was able to settle into a role and flourish and the Yankees were getting to Mariano Rivera (1-2, 23 SV, 24 SVO, 2.48 ERA, 0.89 WHIP) regularly.
That's a nice foundation for the bullpen, but it's not enough. Brian Bruney entered the season as the eighth-inning bridge to Mo, but has been derailed by injuries and has struggled to regain his form since coming off the DL. Lefthander Damaso Marte was expected to be a big part of this unit, but was terrible to start the season and landed on the DL. He just began a rehab assignment.
If both of those guys can start pitching effectively again, the bullpen could be come the strength of this team. If not, Cashman will need to go out and find at least one more arm.
Rise To The Occasion
The Yankees' offense has been great in the first half ... except when it plays the Red Sox or in Anaheim. And the biggest reason for the lineups' difficulties has been its inability to hit with runners in scoring position and its passiveness on the bases.
Joe Girardi and his coaches need to get back to the National League style that Girardi promised he'd institute when he was hired. We need to see more hit-and-runs called and a greater willingness to put pressure on the defense by taking the extra base on hits.
But the lineup also has to be better than .265 (217-for-819) with runners in scoring position. Being more aggressive on the bases will help with that because instead of needed two hits to bring in a runner, it will take just one.
However, the biggest onus for this will fall on four players: Robinson Cano (23-for-109, .211); Mark Teixeira (23-for-94, .245); Hideki Matsui (15-for-63, .238) and Nick Swisher (15-for-68, .221). All have to greatly improve their production with runners in scoring position
Teixeira, Cano and Matsui were all expected to be key run producers for this team and they must pick it up this half.
Keep That Hot-Rod Purring
Yankees fans should have a much greater appreciation for what Alex Rodriguez means to this lineup. He missed 28 games to start the season because of hip surgery and the team went 13-15. When he returned, the team ripped off 19 wins in 25 games. He went into a slump in June and the team went into a 4-9 slide. Yet once he started hitting again, the team went on to win 13 of 15.
He is the engine that makes this lineup run.
His first half numbers were pretty good. In just 199 at-bats, he hit 17 homers with 50 RBI, a .959 OPS and a .411 OBP. He even was decent with RISP, hitting .278 with four homers and 36 RBI. The one disappointing number is his .256 batting average.
But in order to keep that engine revving, Girardi is going to have get A-Rod enough rest. The plan is to sit him once a week and Girardi must be disciplined and stick to that plan. If A-Rod has another slump like the one he had June, it could be devastating to the Yankees' chances.
Friday vs. Tigers, 7:05 p.m., YES
Lucas French (1-0, 1.93) vs. A.J. Burnett (8-4, 3.77)
Burnett's been the Yankees hottest pitcher, winning four of his last five. He needs to get the Yankees off on the right foot.