Tuesday September 21st, 2010

The Yankees reaffirmed to the Rays Monday night that they are the best team in baseball, scoring runs as if on demand against a diminished Matt Garza (15 strikeouts in his past six starts). Their 8-6 victory was a reminder that the Rays have an uphill climb if they expect to wrest a home-field advantage in October. But as a playoff team, the might of the Yankees is less certain. Indeed, their postseason chances could well hinge on one player who is the oldest starting pitcher in baseball and who has thrown a total of 8 1/3 innings in the second half.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: the Yankees need Andy Pettitte to be clutch in October. For all their roster machinations and the $28 million they are paying A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez, the Yankees need Pettitte to defy time once again. It might as well be 1996 in the Bronx. Robinson Cano is New York's MVP, but Pettitte is its MNP: Most Needed Player.

The Yankees have one reliable starting pitcher right now, CC Sabathia. Burnett is 1-5 with a 6.33 ERA in his past nine starts and has massive problems pitching out of the windup (.871 OPS with nobody on). Vazquez has devolved into a middle reliever, lacking the arm strength of a top starter. Phil Hughes (4-4, 4.93 since August 1) is searching for a second wind. Ivan Nova could be considered for a playoff spot, but the rookie hit a wall last night in the sixth inning with a 4-0 lead and carries equal parts promise and risk.

And so Pettitte, baseball's Brett Favre in a lower volume, looms large for yet another October. Pettitte is 38 years old, which makes him really old in today's game. There are only nine pitchers in all of baseball as old as 35 who have made at least 19 starts. One of them, Jamie Moyer, 47, broke down with an arm injury and is done for the year. Pettitte, 38, and Derek Lowe, 37, of the Braves are the only 35-and-older pitchers with a shot at starting a playoff game.

What's so unusual about Pettitte defying an industry trend is that he has never pitched better in his American League career. His ERA, WHIP and OPS against have never been better in the AL. And the two months he missed with a groin injury -- not a throwing-related injury -- should have him fresh for October. His first start back from the injury on Saturday was a 79-pitch pain reliever for the Yankees. Pettitte looked sharp against Baltimore, giving up just three hits and one run in six innings of a no-decision. He is 11-2 with a 2.81 ERA on the year.

Just how important is Pettitte to the Yankees? Since the start of last season, including the postseason, they are 40-16 when he starts. He shuts down running games (two stolen bases allowed all year) and has pitched well against prospective playoff teams Minnesota (2-0, 1.26 ERA) and Texas (1-0, 2.25).

Pettitte's playoff reputation tends to be overstated if only because he is about the same pitcher in the postseason (3.90 ERA) as he is in the regular season (3.86). But there is something to be said for having pitched in just about every playoff spot imaginable, including ownership of six clinching wins -- two more than any pitcher in history.

Meanwhile, the Rays' rotation is leaking late-season oil as well. Garza was outpitched by a kid making his sixth major league start last night. "Overall, his pitch-making ability hasn't been the same," manager Joe Maddon said. "I'm not seeing anything different stuff-wise."

Said Garza, "It's just the wear and tear of the season."

Maddon said his starters are healthy, but need to sharpen their games in the next two weeks. "Normally in a short series, pitching gets it done over any kind of offense," he said. "It's important to get our pitching in order."

The Yankees and Rays have less than two weeks to sort out the division title and their rotations. Both situations will have a large say in how far of a run they can make in October, when they might see each other again.

"These guys know when they play us they have their hands full," Garza said. "They have to pull out all the stops. That's good to know."

The instant replay issue remains buried somewhere at the bottom of Bud Selig's in-box and going nowhere. The commissioner said Monday night at Yankee Stadium that the feedback he gets from managers and executives is almost entirely against the expanded use of replay. When asked if he gets any positive feedback about replay from the people he speaks with, Selig first said no, then amended that to "Very little. Very little."

As for an expanded postseason format -- adding a second wild card in each league -- no momentum exists with that issue, either. Selig's on-field matters committee hasn't even talked about it yet. Among the potential problems that concern baseball: owners won't even think about shortening the season (though that shouldn't be necessary with a one-game elimination between the two wild cards), the television networks are not yearning to increase their inventory of postseason games, and a concern that bringing more teams into contention in September could dilute the other races.

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