by Paul Knepper
The Yankees have become as synonymous with October as the leaves changing color and candy corn, but they were no sure bet to make the post-season this year. Coming out of spring training they had major question marks in the rotation. Ace CC Sabathia, unpredictable A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes, an 18-game-winner last season, were penciled into the first three spots in the rotation. It was the fourth and fifth starters that were a concern.
The Bombers suffered two major blows to their hopes for a rotation during the off-season when GM Brain Cashman lost his number one priority, prized free agent Cliff Lee, to Philadelphia and Yankee great Andy Pettitte decided to hang up his pinstripes for good. Those losses were compounded by the rival Red Sox apparent plethora of quality starters.
Cashman attempted to plug up the holes in the rotation by signing over-the-hill veterans Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon to minor league contracts. Colon turned 38 in May, hadn’t pitched 100 innings in a season since he won the Cy Young award with the Angels in 2005 and sat out the entire 2010 season while undergoing controversial stem cell procedure on his shoulder. Garcia was another reclamation project who has lost a great deal of velocity after undergoing shoulder surgery in 2007. Nine years removed from his last all-star game, his E.R.A. hadn’t been below 4.00 since 2005 and he won a total of five games from 2007-2009.
Colon and Garcia’s main competition for the last two rotation sports came from unheralded rookie Ivan Nova. The Yankees signed the Dominican right-hander as an undrafted free agent in 2004, then lost him in the 2008 Rule 5 draft before re-signing him as a free agent a year later. The 24-year-old wasn’t considered one of the team’s top prospects and failed to generate the kind of hype surrounding Hughes and Joba Chamberlain a few years ago. He pitched decently over 42 innings during a cup of coffee with the big club in 2010, but didn’t appear ready to start for a playoff caliber ballclub.
Needless to say, the Yankees didn’t know what they were going to get from Nova, Colon and Garcia and were rested their pre-season hopes on Sabathia, Burnett and Hughes. So if somebody told Cashman in spring training that Burnett and Hughes would both have an E.R.A. over five and win 16 games between them, but the Yankees would easily win the A.L. East, he would have thought they were crazy. That’s exactly what happened.
Hughes’ velocity was down at the start of the season. He got shelled in the month of April and ultimately landed on the DL with inflammation in his shoulder. Burnett has a disaster, failing to bounce back from a putrid 2010 campaign and criticizing manager Joe Girardi in the process. The season could have been lost, but Colon, Garcia and Nova surprisingly picked up the slack.
Colon’s fastball began reaching the mid 90’s for the first time in years. He’s given the Yankees 150 quality innings and his E.R.A. just recently rose to 4.00 as he began to tire. Garcia’s been even more impressive. Relying on guile and changes of speed the one-time 18-game winner has kept hitters off balance all season long. He won 12 games, sporting a 3.62 E.R.A. and will likely be the team’s third starter in the playoffs.
But it’s Nova who’s been the most pleasant surprise among the Yankee starters. The right-hander throws five pitches well, though his two-seam fastball is his out pitch. Reaching the low 90’s on the radar gun, the two-seamer ties up hitters with its late sinking action. Nova has shown unusual poise on and off the mound, especially following an undeserved mid-season demotion when Hughes returned form the DL.
Nova’s become manager Girardi’s second most dependable starter after Sabathia and a leading candidate for A.L. Rookie of the Year. He’s won 16 games in just 27 starts, including his last twelve decisions, the longest such streak by a rookie starter since Larry Jansen of the Giants did the same in 1947.
Nova seems poised to be a mainstay in the Yankee rotation for years to come, though as with any other Yankee, the true test is how he performs in the post-season. And with Garcia and Colon finallly showing signs of fatigue over the past few weeks, Girardi will be depending on his young right-hander even more so in October.
Nova will be slotted in the number two spot in the rotation, behind Sabathia, where he has big shoes to fill. Over the past fifteen years, Pettitte set a pretty high standard for the number two starter, winning more post-season games (19) than anyone in Major League history, after often changing the momentum series with his Game 2 starts.
As the old adage goes, pitching wins championships, and history has demonstrated that a team needs at least two hot starters to survive and advance in the playoffs. Sabathia is a pretty safe bet to pitch well in the big games ahead. If the Yankees are going to pop champagne after a 28th World Series championship Nova needs to pitch like a star.