Via Tyler Kepner –
The biggest reason the Yankees faltered in the playoffs in the middle of the last decade was poor starting pitching. The same problem now threatens to keep them from repeating as World Series champions.
This was not an issue late last season. The Yankees knew who they wanted on the mound, and in which order, with reasonable hope that those starters would deliver.
The Yankees did try to make things easier. They added Javier Vazquez to their postseason threesome of C. C. Sabathia, A. J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte, and chose Phil Hughes to replace Joba Chamberlain as the young starter on an innings limit. Then, in July, they nearly traded their best hitting prospect, Jesus Montero, for Cliff Lee.
Privately, the Yankees believed Vazquez could pitch well enough to be a No. 2, not a No. 4. Instead, he is an afterthought, doubtful to even have a place on the postseason roster. Hughes, despite a solid effort on short notice Sunday night, has a 5.61 earned run average in his last six starts and has not reached seven innings since before the All-Star break.
Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte went 8-2 with a 3.42 E.R.A. last postseason, essentially with 13 strong starts and 2 Burnett clunkers. But Burnett also won the pivotal postseason game, beating Philadelphia in Game 2 of the World Series after the Yankees had lost the opener to [Cliff] Lee. It was the only time the Yankees had trailed in any series, and they did not trail again.
Can Burnett dazzle next month? He has been quite good against the Twins and the Rangers this season, with a 2.12 E.R.A. in five starts. But he is inconsistent — he allowed seven hits and seven runs in the Yankees’ 7-5 loss to Toronto on Monday. He is the kind of high risk/high reward pitcher the Yankees did not need to depend on during their run of four championships from 1996 through 2000.
Pettitte was there then, of course, and he was as steely as ever last postseason. But he entered the 2009 playoffs at full strength. This summer, he missed two months with a strained groin muscle and has not thrown 80 pitches in a major league game since July 8.
So much for the magic of giving Brian Cashman total autonomy on Yankees decisions back in October 2005…’cause it’s the same poop, different year, in Yankeeland this season when it comes to starting pitching. And, 2009 is starting to just look like a fluke.