Okay, so the really rough part of the September schedule is supposed to be over now, right? After playing 13 out of their last 16 games against the Rays and the second place Orioles, the Yankees had their final off day of the season on Monday to rest up and prepare for a more manageable 16 game stretch (while enjoying sole possession of first place, no less). Over the next two weeks, the Yanks will play 13 of their remaining 16 games against teams that are simply treading water at the bottom of their respective divisions (Blue Jays, Twins, and Red Sox). We all know, however, that a team with some September spoiler set in its sights can be a scary beast. Let’s take a look at this three game set against the Jays and ask ourselves: cakewalk or trap? The Yankees have a 6-5 record against the Jays so far this season, with seven games against them remaining.
Game 1: Ricky Romero (8-14, 5.87 ERA) vs. Andy Pettitte (3-3, 3.22 ERA)
In the low budget film that I will someday write, direct, and star in about the 2012 Yankees season, I am hoping that this will be the scene where Andy Pettitte makes his valiant return to the rotation and pitches the Yanks well into October on the strength of a veteran 40-year-old arm that is well rested from 2+ months on the DL. With a combination of grit and guile, he uses his first start back against the Blue Jays to renew the confidence of the fan base and join Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, a resurgent Ivan Nova, and a soon-to-be-fixed CC Sabathia in a playoff rotation capable of boring through the terrifying lineups of the AL and the upstart playoff squad that emerges from the NL.
But that’s Hollywood (or, if I’m footing the production costs, probably somewhere in Brooklyn). In reality, we will see Andy Pettitte limited to around 70 pitches on Tuesday, just looking to rebuild some stamina over the next two weeks for potential October starts. Pettitte’s left arm should feel fantastic, but it will be his lower body stamina and mechanics that I will be watching. The fracture in Pettitte’s left ankle that caused him to miss two months also prevented him from doing very much lower body conditioning. When Andy was working his way back in Spring Training and beyond, he kept reiterating that it was his lower body that was lagging behind, while the arm always felt great. After joining the team in May, Pettitte was impressive over 9 starts posting a 9.1 K/9 and a 3.93 K/BB ratio – both better than his career averages. If that Andy was still “working his way back” until that fateful Casey Kotchman comebacker in June, then hopefully we can expect more of the same when Andy starts working his way back on Tuesday evening. Frankly, I’m just excited to see #46 back on the mound on a cool September night, pitching to the roar of an adoring Bronx crowd in the middle of a heated division race. Make us proud yet again, Andy.
Attempting to spoil Pettitte’s return will be fellow southpaw Ricky Romero, who always seems to baffle the Yankees with electr…WHAAA?!? 13 losses IN A ROW?? Oh boy. Folks, Ricky Romero is seemingly broken. The last time that Romero won a game was June 22 in an interleague matchup against the Marlins, five days before Pettitte hit the DL. The Yanks can take credit for causing 3 of those 13 losses, even though Romero has pitched better against them than his overall season numbers would seem to predict (4.95 ERA over 20 IP). In September, Romero has been even more miserable, allowing 10 ER and issuing 5 BB in just 5 IP over 2 starts. Given the season-long mechanical issues and control problems that have afflicted the once-promising lefty, the Yankees could be looking at an opportunity to put up some big offensive numbers early on a night where Joe Girardi may have to lean heavily on the pen. It would be nice to be able to notch a W without having to use Logan, Robertson, and Soriano for the first time in a while. Maybe even score enough runs to use Derek Lowe and feel okay about it? (That large of a lead, for me, is somewhere around 9 runs.)
Annoying Blue Jays Player to Watch: Jeff Mathis (4-for-11 w/ 2B, 2 RBI career against Pettitte)
Yankee to Watch: Jayson Nix (7-for-12 w/ 2B, 2 RBI career against Romero)
Game 2: Henderson Alvarez (9-12, 4.91 ERA) vs. Phil Hughes (15-12, 3.96 ERA)
If you spent your formative years in the ’90s (like Phil Hughes and myself) and/or you are a huge fan of the Home Alone series (like I am – I’ll have to ask Phil on Twitter) then you’ll be familiar with the phrase I am about to use, albeit for a different reason. “Keep the change, you Philthy animal!” I know that I am not alone in my awe at Phil’s changeup renaissance over his last few starts, especially the way he used to pitch to work over Jarrod Saltalamacchia in his clutch performance against the Red Sox. The more comfortable he gets with that pitch, the more consistent the results have been. Don’t look now, but Phil has been nothing but solid after a rocky start to the year, maintaining an impressive 3.24 ERA since the beginning of June. 2011 is starting to look more and more like an aberration, as Phil’s numbers are almost identical to those he posted during his 2010 breakout campaign:
2010: 29 GS, 4.19 ERA, 176.1 IP, 146 K, 1.248 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 2.52 K/BB (also reflects 2 relief appearances)
2012: 29 GS, 3.96 ERA, 175 IP, 148 K, 1.246 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 3.70 K/BB
A little scary, no? The good news is that the walks are down. The bad news is that the HRs are up (33 and counting in 2012 compared to 25 in 2010). Keeping the ball in the park against the Jays is not an easy task, but if Phil can manage it, he could be looking at a 16th W.
Over his last 10 starts, Henderson Alvarez has allowed the following number of ER: 7, 1, 3, 4, 2, 8, 4, 4, 2, 3. A clunker, followed by 4 decent outings, followed by another clunker, and then 4 more decent outings. Hopefully he is as into meaningless patterns as I am, because I feel another clunker in my bones. On the season, Alvarez has taken the mound twice against the Yanks and has been pretty unspectacular: 9.1 IP, 6 ER, 7 K, 5 BB, 2 ND (Blue Jays 1-1). Against Alvarez, watch for that power sinker as he attempts to get the Yankee hitters to swing early in the count and pound the pitch into the ground. He doesn’t strike people out, and his command can be suspect at times (1.22 K/BB ratio) so the Yankee hitters should make quick work of him if they can get deep into counts and force him to use his fairly pedestrian secondary pitches. Alvarez has had an up and down year for the Jays, but when you compare him the rest of a staff befallen by a slew of injuries, the disaster that has been 2012 Ricky Romero, and remember that he is only 22 years old, be aware that this kid is a pitcher the Yankees should expect to face much more in the future.
Annoying Blue Jays Player to Watch: Edwin Encarnacion (8-for-22 w/ HR, 3 RBI career against Hughes)
Yankee to Watch: Robinson Cano (3-for-5 w/ 2HR, 4 RBI career against Alvarez)
Game 3: Aaron Laffey (3-5, 4.55 ERA) vs. CC Sabathia (13-6, 3.63 ERA)
CC has dropped 3 straight decisions. The Yankees are 0-4 in his last 4 starts. Since coming off the DL on August 24th, CC’s ERA has risen from 3.44 to 3.63. Is it time to panic? Eh, I hope not. Despite yet again being unable to hold onto a Yankees lead in his last start, CC definitely had a lot of life on the fastball and sharp bite on the slider. Both pitches enjoyed better velocity than they had over the previous three starts, but the command was still the bigger issue. I don’t know if the big guy is hurt, but it’s widely reported that pitchers with elbow issues tend to have more problems with their location than they do with their velocity. CC’s last DL stint was the product of a sore elbow, so maybe there are some lingering effects.
For CC, this has been another year marked by noticeable in-season weight gain and sizable pitch counts (only 4 outings of fewer than 100 pitches). At age 32, it may be possible that CC is just running out of gas here in September. I hope he proves me wrong. If any particular team could break CC out of a slump though, it’s the Jays; CC has posted a 1.38 ERA with 14 K over 13 IP over 2 starts against the Jays in 2012.
Aaron Laffey is an old friend. He is one of those guys whose days in pinstripes are likely to be forgotten by even some of the most diehard of fans. He wasn’t all that bad for the Yankees, just not very memorable. As a starter this year for the Blue Jays, he may be someone that Toronto fans hope to forget as well, especially when their rotation returns to full strength in 2013. Laffey has struggled with the long ball, allowing 15 HR in only 87 IP. While his control is not a tragic issue, 3.3 BB/9 is pretty ugly when paired with a meager 4.7 K/9 ratio. Laffey is going to allow baserunners at a fairly healthy clip, and he is going to lean on his defense a lot to bail him out. In an ideal world, Manager John Farrell would not be giving Aaron Laffey the ball every five days. The Blue Jays’ world has not been an ideal one.
The Yankees have roughed Laffey up in 2012. Over 2 starts, he has lasted 8.1 IP, allowing 7 ER while walking 7 and striking out 2. Hopefully the Yankees can feast again, and get CC back in the win column.
Annoying Blue Jays Player to Watch: Kelly Johnson (5-for-15 career against Sabathia)
Yankee to Watch: Derek Jeter (3-for-8, RBI career against Laffey)
I like the way this series looks on paper for the Yankees, but I need to keep myself mentally prepared for the possibility of a trap series. I’m hoping at the very least, we see some vintage Andy and a step in the right direction from a struggling CC. As for Phil, well… Just enjoy, folks.