Thursday, October 1, 2009

A.J. Steps Foward, Joba ... Oy Vey!

Two weeks ago, talk radio in New York was filled with Yankees fans who were concerned about the state of the team's pitching.

Nevermind that the Yankees statistically had the AL's best pitching staff since the All-Star break. Fans were worried about a scuffling A.J. Burnett and a Joba Chamberlain who looked to be more like a fragile porcelain figurine and than a tough, fireballing bulldog on the mound.

Burnett responded by putting together three outstanding outings, capped by Tuesday's 4-3 walkoff win over the Royals on Juan Miranda's ninth-inning single.

After showing the form he had in winning three straight after the All-Star break in a win over the Red Sox, Joba reverted to the form that had Yankees fans pulling out their hair through much of the second half in a 4-3 loss Wednesday.

Burnett had miserable August and start of September and failed to win a game between July 27 and Sept. 7. But he's been brilliant in his last three starts, recapturing the form that made him one of the best pitchers in the majors in June and July. In his last 19 innings, he's posted a 1.89 ERA, struck out 25 and allowed 17 hits and nine walks.

Tuesday he was at his best. Burnett allowed two runs -- one earned -- on three hits and three walks, while striking out eight. He was lifted with one out in the seventh at 108 pitches (69 strikes) only because with nothing left to be decided in the regular season, the Yankees (102-57) capped Burnett's pitch count at 110.

For a while, however, it appeared that Burnett would be tagged for loss in this one as Phil Coke, who relieved in the seventh, forgot to take his brain with him to the mound. With the score tied at 1 after Mark Teixeira's 39th homer of the season in the sixth, the Royals had a runner on first with one out and elected to have Alex Gordon lay down a sacrifice bunt.

Gordon executed, sending the bunt to the left of the mound, where Coke fielded the ball. However, he took his sweet time and was late with the throw, allowing Gordon to reach with a single. Josh Anderson then bounce a tapper back to the mound. Coke fielded, but instead of getting the sure out a first, he wheeled, fired wildly to second and sent the ball in to center allowing the go-ahead run to score.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, Coke botched the next play, too. Mitch Maier bounce a tapper back to Coke, who could have caught Gordon drifting off third for the second out of the inning. Instead, he turned and got Maier at first, but allowed Gordon to score to make it 3-1.

I know lefties, such as Coke, can be flighty at times, but that was ridiculous. A major leaguer has to know better than that. This was was Little League-where's-the-play-type decisions the Coke botched.

But the Yankees bailed out Coke. First Nick Swisher homered in the bottom half to make it 3-2. Then the Yankees victimized former teammate Kyle Farnsworth in the ninth.

With one out, Francisco Cervelli and Eric Hinske singled to put runners on the corners. Robinson Cano then brought in the tying run, lofting an 0-and-3, 94 mph fastball into deep center for a sacrifice fly.

Hinske then displayed some surprising speed, stealing second and hustling to third when John Buck's throw sailed into center. Farnsworth responded by walking Johnny Damon to get to Miranda, who earned the whipped cream pie by lining a shot off Farnsworth to bring in the winner.

It was the Yankees' 50th come-from-behind win and 15th walkoff this season.

Burnett has one more start left in the regular season, but he looks to be back in the groove. If he can carry that into the playoffs, then look out because when Burnett is right, hitters simply detest facing him.

Joba, on the other hand, has become an enigma.

Since the end of July, he has gone 2-4 with both wins coming against the Red Sox. The rest of the time he's simply looked scared.

Wednesday, he was awful. Once again he was passive, afraid to challenge with his fastball and unwilling to attack the strike zone. It was maddening.

He allowed three runs on seven hits and four walks while throwing 91 pitches (just 52 strikes) in a mere 3-2/3 innings.

And the question becomes whether the Yankees can really trust him when they need a fourth starter in the ALCS? If he is aggressive, Joba can slow down any lineup. We've seen that this year. But when he's off, he's miserable. Who knows? Maybe the electricity of the crowd in the playoffs gets Joba's adrenaline going and he delivers.

But with Chad Gaudin having pitched well with the Yankees having won each of his starts, it sure is tempting to go with him over Joba.

The good news is there is time for that decision to be made.

The bad news is that the Yankees couldn't escape Joba's poor start with a win, snapping their winning streak at seven.

Derek Jeter hit his 23rd career leadoff homer, one off Rickey Henderson's team record, and Nick Swisher hit a two-run homer in the fifth to tie it at 3.

Swisher, however, misplayed a flyball from John Buck into a triple, allowing the go-ahead run to score in the seventh and capping the Yankees' last regular season homestand at 5-1.

Now it's off to Tampa after an off-day today, as the Yankees do some more fine tuning in their final three games of the regular season.

Runners In Scoring Position
1-for-4 (.250)
0-for-4 (.000)
409-for-1,513 (.270)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
192-for-694 (.277)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
344-for-1,240 (.277)
Vs. Red Sox
45-for-204 (.221)

Up Next
Friday at Rays, 7:38 p.m., YES
CC Sabathia (19-7, 3.21 ERA) vs. David Price (9-7, 4.60)

The Yankees would love to make Sabathia the majors' first and possibly only 20-game winner, but they won't do it at the expense of extending him deep into this game. Like Burnett on Tuesday, expect Sabathia to have a pitch count of around 110.

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