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The Strike Zone

Yankees getting healthy just in time

Ivan Nova picked up his first win since August 11th by beating the Rays on Saturday. (Kathy Kmonicek/AP)

With Mark Teixeira out indefinitely after aggravating his strained calf and Derek Jeter hobbling through at-bats as designated hitter due to a bone bruise in his left ankle, this might seem like an odd thing to say, but the Yankees, hit hard by injuries this season, are finally starting to get well, and not a moment too soon. The big news on that front on Saturday was Ivan Nova’s successful return to the rotation after three-and-a-half weeks on the shelf due to rotator cuff inflammation. On Tuesday, he’ll be joined in the rotation by Andy Pettitte, who has been out since a comebacker broke his ankle on June 27.

Nova was actually activated last Saturday, but spent an inactive week in the bullpen while Freddy Garcia got the start in Baltimore on Sunday. Garcia got a no-decision in that game, a Yankee win, but gave up three runs in just 3 1/3 innings. Over his last four starts, Freddy Garcia has averaged less than 4 2/3 innings pitched and posted a 7.64 ERA. Replacing that performance on Saturday, Nova showed no signs of rust, dominating the Rays for five innings (2 H, 2 BB, 6 K) before Evan Longoria connected for a solo home run off of him in the sixth. Despite being held to a pitch count, Nova was able to turn in six strong innings, striking out eight and allowing only that one run to score on his watch (the single he gave up to start the seventh, prompting manager Joe Girardi’s hook, later came around to score). Nova seemed to have everything working on Saturday, velocity, location, break, and got 14 of his 18 outs via the strikeouts and ground balls, giving the Yankees hope that he can recover his mid-season form (2.62 ERA over ten starts from June 6 to July 25).

Pettitte, whose abbreviated comeback saw him post a 3.22 ERA with strong peripherals in nine starts (one cut short by his injury), will replace rookie David Phelps in the rotation on Tuesday. The 25-year-old Phelps has been a valuable spot-starter and long reliever for the Yankees this season, but since becoming a regular part of the rotation in mid-August, his ERA has been 5.01 over six starts and just one of his nine starts on the season has been quality. Meanwhile, Phelps owns a 2.54 ERA and has struck out more than a man per inning in 39 major league relief innings this season. If Pettitte can recapture his pre-injury form, and reports from his rehabilitation work suggest he can, his return will strengthen both the Yankees’ rotation and, by relocating Phelps, the bullpen.

On the other side of the ball, Alex Rodriguez, who missed the last week of July and all of August with a broken hand, has hit .298/.358/.532 since his return on September 3, including a monster two-run home run in the eighth inning on Friday and two hits, one driving in an insurance run, in the Yankees 5-3 win on Saturday. Rodriguez’s September line comes in a tiny sample, of course, but is a nice improvement on his .276/.358/.449 performance before the injury and his three September home runs have come at a faster pace (one every 17 2/3 plate appearances) than his first 15 (one every 26 2/3 PA). Rodriguez is now 5-for-his-last-12 and has started the last three games in the field as well (in part due to the necessity of keeping Jeter in the lineup). Speaking of Jeter, the Yankees claim his ankle is improving, saying they would have benched him for the final two games of this weekend’s series against the Rays if it wasn’t, though injury reports regarding the notoriously bull-headed Jeter are always difficult to parse, perhaps as much for the team trainers as for the rest of us.

Further good news for the Bombers comes in the form of left fielder Brett Gardner, who was thought to be finished for the season following elbow surgery, but is now expected to be activated this week. Gardner won’t be allowed to swing a bat, but he’s one of the best fielders and base stealers in the game and could make some key contributions down the stretch and possibly even in the postseason as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner, as well as a pinch-hitter who could turn a sacrifice into a base hit (Gardner isn’t a great bunter, but he’s one of the fastest players in the game and has been practicing his bunting). The impact of such a player can certainly be overstated, but the Yankees no longer have a lineup comprised entirely of players you’d be loathe to remove mid-game, and with a tight division race  and the single-game wild-card playoff looming, an extra run scored or saved could be the difference between making or missing the Division Series.

Throw in some signs of life from Nick Swisher, who broke a 0-for-28 slump by going 5-for-10 with three doubles on Tuesday and Wednesday (though he has gone 0-for-8 since and didn’t start on Saturday), and Joba Chamberlain, who struggled in his first month after returning from Tommy John surgery and a badly broken ankle but has looked better of late, and there’s new hope for the Yankees in a season that has been flirting with infamy.

-- Cliff Corcoran
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