By Neil Keefe
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The bad news is the Yankees missed an opportunity to take over first place in the AL East on Wednesday night after losing to the Rays while the Red Sox shut out the Orioles. The good news is the Yankees could move into first place over the weekend at the expense of the Mets in the first part of the Subway Series. It's been a rocky two months to begin the season for the Yankees, but even after all of their problems from starting pitching to hitting with runners in scoring position to injuries, they are still just a 1/2-game back in the division.
With the Yankees looking to move into first place for the first time this season and their pitching coming together with some keys guys set to return soon, it seemed like the right time to start up an an email discussion with WFAN Yankees beat reporter Sweeny Murti (the Voice of Reason).
Keefe: The last time we talked was on April 26. The Yankees were 10-8 back then and a completely different looking team. Since then they have gone 21-17 with some rockiness along the way. But even without talking to you for six weeks, you know that I was never nervous throughout the low points.
I have been asking myself where the Yankees would be without Andy Pettitte, and the answer is a very, very bad place. Without Pettitte, there's a chance that Freddy Garcia would be in the rotation, or worse, Ramon Ortiz could be on the 25-man roster. Despite the lack of production from the heart of the order (oh, we'll get to that), it always comes back to pitching, and when the Yankees pitch the way they have for the last two weeks (with the occasional laying of an egg mixed in), winning seems so easy.
But back to my original question in where would this team be without Andy Pettitte and how fortunate are the Yankees that his retirement wasn't for good?
Murti: Clearly you were riding on an even keel the last month and a half. You're always very good at that, you rarely overre ... oh, I can't do it. C'MON NEIL! Chicken Little didn't cry about the sky falling nearly as much as you do!
Pettitte has been as good as he was in the first half of 2010. And although I had some doubt as to how effective he would be, this is not the part of the season I was most concerned about. Given that he stayed healthy through his "spring training" I was reasonably sure he could pitch, but obviously didn't think he would do as well as he has. But, for me, the biggest question all along was whether he can take the ball 20 or more times and be effective in August, September, and – of course – October.
Pettitte has eased back in, and with the way he is pitching there doesn't appear to be any doubts about what he brings. But let's remember that his body is what betrayed him the last time, not his arm and not his heart. If Pettitte keeps this up, obviously the Yankees have a 1-2 that will compete with anybody. The 3-4-5 has looked much better the last turn through, and that probably has more to do with the Yanks' good run than anything else, since that makes up 60 percent of the rotation.
Keefe: Now it's time to talk about the runners in scoring positions problems and the bases-loaded problems and the heart of the order problems, and they are all very real problems.
I know there isn't really an answer to any of these things, or an answer that's suitable other than that you just have to wait it or out or eventually they will come around. I'm sure you're probably tired of having to talk about and hear about it and report on it, but it's turned into a crisis even for a team that is tied in the loss column for first place in the division.
So since you're the Voice of Reason, I need some reasoning as to why the middle of this order is underachieving and why when the Yankees have the bases loaded and one out I'm just hoping they get one run out of it. Is there anything you can say that will make me feel better other than that they will eventually come around?
Murti: Well, if "they will eventually come around" isn't good enough then I'm not sure what will make you feel better.
Rob Thomson was telling me the other day in a good discussion that every team goes through stretches like that at least two or three times a year. It seems, however, the Yankees combined a couple of those stretches into one long one. They are slowly coming around, but those averages will look bad for quite a while. It takes a while for things to even out.
It makes little sense that the Yankees would continually put runners on base as often as they have and still not get enough hits to break games open. It goes against every bit of baseball logic. Good hitters get hits, and good hitters will generally hit well with RISP too. It is rare that the .200 hitter bats .350 with RISP and vice versa.
I would bet that of the 25 games the Yankees have lost, I would think there are at least six or eight games where you could say, "If they got just ONE hit with RISP they would have won." For arguments sake, if I give you three hits and turn three of those losses into wins, the Yankees would have the best record in the American League. Just three hits to turn the team for which you have used so much angst into the team with best record in the league. See how slim a margin we are dealing with?
That's why the season is 162 games. Those differences usually find a way to even out.
Feel any better now?
Keefe: No, but I think "eventually" I will.
Rafael Soriano has looked and pitched like a different pitcher since taking over the closer role after injuries to Mariano Rivera and David Robertson. He has allowed one earned run in eight innings since being named the closer and he looks like the guy he was in Tampa Bay and Atlanta. So how can this be the same guy that had so many inconsistent stretches as the eighth-inning guy and then the seventh-inning guy?
I know there have been stories saying Soriano is acting more comfortable knowing that he's doing the job he did before coming to the Yankees. But maybe his success as the closer has something to do with that opt-out clause at the end of the season and knowing that Mariano Rivera will be back next season? Soriano might be able to parlay his new role and Mariano's injury and 2013 return into a multiyear deal rather than working on a one-year deal with the Yankees.
With David Robertson coming back, Joe Girardi has said that Rafael Soriano will remain the closer, and shockingly I agree. Even though I was all for Robertson being the closer after the injury to Rivera, this role reversal has seemed to rejuvenate Soriano (not that he was that bad before) and it seems like the right choice to put Robertson in the eighth inning again where he has thrived.
Murti: Soriano pitching well is not the shocking thing here and not what this bullpen story should be about. Why are we shocked that a guy who had 45 saves for a playoff team two years ago and hasn't been injured is doing the job this well? No reason to even blink at Soriano closing games now.
I agree that Robertson should have been given the first chance because if he is going to be considered an heir apparent, it's better to find out now if he is capable. The injury to Robertson threw a little wrench into that plan, and I agree, there's no need to mess with it now. Put Robertson in the eighth and Soriano in the ninth.
The story that hasn't gotten nearly enough attention is how well the Yankees have held together the rest of the bullpen. Guys like Cory Wade and Boone Logan have been thrust into more important roles and have pitched well for the most part. Since Rivera's injury the Yankees are 16-2 when leading after six innings.
Those innings (six through eight) are where the Yankees were going to feel the effect of losing the GOAT and Robertson. Shocking as this may sound, an injury to Rivera is the one injury the Yankees were built to handle.
Keefe: As you were responding the Yankees left the bases loaded with one out and A-Rod and Cano up. Move along, nothing unusual to see here.
Speaking of Logan and Wade, it is shocking that they have pitched well in their increased roles in the bullpen as they were forced to be "A" relievers after being "B" relievers for the team in the past. I hate to give Logan credit, but he has been good. On the other hand, Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada I could do without, but I know it's not worth it to argue about the 24th and 25th guys on the team since you have told me in that past that someone has to have those roles.
The scariest thing is that Girardi is showing confidence in these guys though I guess he doesn't really have a choice since he is just using the players he is given and the talent level isn't the same. The reassuring thing is that David Robertson was throwing off the Yankee Stadium mound on Wednesday, Joba Chamberlain is tweeting about his steps to recovery and David Aardsma threw batting practice recently. What are we looking at for the timetables for these guys to return?
Murti: Wow. I'm just shocked that anything I have said to you in the past has been absorbed and brought back in meaningful and correct context. I'm sorry, what was your question again?
Keefe: Well, enough repetition and it starts to become second nature. But the question was what are we looking at for the timetables for Robertson, Chamberlain and Aardsma to return? And I guess you might as well throw Brett Gardner in there as well.
Murti: Gardner could be back within a matter of days and Robertson sometime next week. Joba's timetable is iffy, just because we don't know how he progresses with the compound nature of two different injuries. Aardsma is progressing at a normal pace for Tommy John Surgery and I would think August is realistic, but there's no need to rush him. I said it when Rivera went down and I think Aardsma could be a big factor now down the stretch.
Keefe: Since we don't have A.J. Burnett to talk about and with Boone Logan pitching well, I don't know how we're supposed to end this. But I have an idea with something that has been bothering me: Chris Stewart as the personal catcher for CC Sabathia.
Stewart is obviously the personal catcher for Sabathia even if Girardi won't admit that he is. We don't need Girardi to admit it, we just need to look at Sabathia's game log to see it's true. Why is this happening? I understand that Stewart has to play sometimes to give Martin a rest, but I also know that the longer this goes, the better the chance of seeing Stewart start Game 1 of the playoffs (yes, I know we're jumping way ahead of ourselves here, but you know this is what I do) and I don't need another John Flaherty-Randy Johnson or Jose Molina-A.J. Burnett situation here. And it's not like Sabathia is pitching so well that the duo can't be broken up.
When will this end, if ever? (And you probably thought we could finish this discussion without me complaining about something, didn't you?)
Murti: Well, actually I'm glad you have something to complain about. It guarantees you return for more therapy.
Girardi doesn't want to call Stewart a "personal catcher" because of the negative connotation that comes with the assumption that the pitcher doesn't want to work with the other catcher. Sabathia hasn't stated that and hasn't demanded to be paired only with Stewart. Girardi simply sees what he likes there, and as you said he has to catch some times. Girardi has also said that Martin would catch Game 1.
I sincerely feel like we've made some progress today. Have a good Subway Series and make sure to make an appointment with my secretary on the way out.
Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe
Follow Sweeny on Twitter @YankeesWFAN
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