New York Minute

September 25, 2009 12:09 PM

Yankees Will Be Measured by October

The Yankees clinched a spot in Major League Baseball’s postseason tournament earlier this week, but that can only be the beginning for this proud franchise.

For the Yankees, and second-year manager Joe Girardi, it’s all about October. In New York, it is always a pass/fail grade. Despite being the first team to secure a spot in the playoffs, the Yankees’ final report card won’t be distributed until next month.
Going into the playoffs, there are a few reasons to be concerned.

First, the Yankees have to take care of business and secure the AL East division title. They can take a big step toward that direction this weekend with a three-game series against Boston, their closest pursuer in the division chase. After finally winning a series in Anaheim this week, the Yankees need to keep the momentum going and play well this weekend. Boston leads the season series, 9-6, after taking the first eight games against the Yankees this season. Boston enters this weekend 5 ½ games behind the Yankees.

More importantly, however, the Yankees have to sort out their pitching. It is difficult to fathom how the team has won 97 games because 40 percent of its starting rotation has been downright frightful. Joba Chamberlain has looked lost for the past two months and the No. 5 starter has been either Sergio Mitre (3-3, 6.88 ERA) or Chad Gaudin (5-10, 4.78 ERA). Neither of them figures to be important factors in the postseason.

The wild card as the Yankees get ready for October is Chamberlain. The enigmatic right-hander gets a start tonight against the Red Sox, and it is important that Yankees see some progress after a string of poor performances.

His most recent effort was perhaps his most disappointing. Last Sunday against Seattle, Chamberlain pitched three innings and gave up seven earned runs, six hits and three walks. Ouch!

He hasn’t won a game since beating Boston on Aug. 6, and is 8-6 with a 4.72 ERA in 29 starts this season.

The Yankees have mishandled the “Joba Rules” from the outset, trying to cap his innings to protect his valuable right arm. He has only pitched six innings once in the last two months, and has been limited to three innings in four of his last five starts. He pitched four innings in the other one.

Besides Chamberlain, however, there are other concerns as well. A.J. Burnett (12-9, 4.19 ERA) has been nearly as enigmatic as Joba. He can be ridiculously nasty in one start – like he was Wednesday in Anaheim, where he struck out 11 in 5 2/3 innings – or he can be awful. He gave up six runs in seven innings in a Sept. 12 start against Baltimore. If the Yankees are going to do any thing in the postseason, they need the dominating Burnett.

Mariano Rivera anchors the bullpen, but there are questions in the bullpen as well. Phil Hughes has emerged as the eighth inning set-up man, but how will the 23-year-old perform in October? There are questions about the other relievers as well, such as Phil Coke, Alfredo Aceves, David Robertson and Brian Bruney. Can they get big outs in October?

And what happens if Alex Rodriguez has one of his famous October meltdowns? Is the lineup good enough to have an unproductive A-Rod batting in the middle of the order?

Those are some of the key questions that will be resolved. When we get the answers to them, we can the final grade to the Yankees’ season.

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