For most of the year, the general perception had been that the Rays biggest advantage over the Yankees was in their starting rotation. By the end of this series, that may no longer be the case.
In September, Rays starters have gone 4-6 with a 5.47 ERA as three-fifths of the rotation has struggled mightily coming down the stretch. Ironically, it isn’t the 24-year old duo of David Price and Wade Davis that has wilted, but the veteran trio of Jeff Niemann, Matt Garza and James Shields. That group has gone a combined 1-6 with an 8.36 ERA since the beginning of the month. The late season swoon by the Rays’ starting staff has left only David Price with an ERA+ above league average, so all of a sudden it is Tampa that looks to be short in the rotation.
Last night was Shields chance to right the ship, but the scuffling right hander ran aground from the very start, surrendering five runs in the first inning. Nick Swisher started the uprising by belting his third career homer off Shields, but it was a key two-out, two run double by Lance Berkman that really defined the inning. Despite hitting .362/.455/.404 since returning from the disabled list, Berkman still had not been able to come up with that one defining hit, as evidenced by his one RBI over that span, not to mention the numerous high profile failures that resulted in a -0.209 WPA. By lining Shields’ 2-2 cutter over BJ Upton’s head in center, Berkman not only extended the lead and the inning, but also gave him a moment upon which to build heading into the post season.
By the end of the first inning, the Yankees had built a 5-0 lead, but instead of using the cushion to be more aggressive, Phil Hughes seemed as if he allowed a Matt Joyce homerun in the top of the second to scare him out of the zone. Over the next two innings, Hughes walked four batters, but was able to wiggle out of jams in the third and fourth with only one more run surrendered. When Hughes retired Ben Zobrist with the bases loaded to end the fourth, it seemed as if it might be his last batter of the game, but Girardi ran his young right hander back out there and was rewarded for his confidence. Hughes not only retired the fifth inning in order, but did the same in the sixth before eventually being lifted with one out in the seventh.
Javier Vazquez, the forgotten man of the bullpen, was summoned to not only protect the 5-2 lead, but perhaps audition for a role in the post season. Despite not pitching in 10 days, Vazquez showed little rust by throwing 14 of his 21 pitches for strikes, but did yield three hits in one inning of work. So, while he did help the Yankees get the game to Joba Chamberlain, he may not exactly have helped his cause.
In the bottom of the seventh, the Yankees added two runs on Robin Cano’s two-run bloop double, insurance that would come in handy in the next inning. After Vazquez was lifted with runners on first and second, Chamberlain gave up an infield single to Upton that loaded the bases, bringing pinch hitter Brad Hawpe to the plate as the tying run. Hawpe eventually worked the count to 3-2, but Chamberlain dropped a sharp breaking slider into the zone that induced a swinging third strike. Chamberlain’s elusive slider has been an enigma for the right hander all season, but it finally seems to be coming around at just the right time. Without the pitch, Joba had become susceptible to hitters sitting on his straight fast ball, but if he can continue to command his breaking pitch, he could play a valuable role in October.
Another good sign for the Yankees was the continued improvement in Derek Jeter’s swing. With two more opposite field hits, including a run scoring double in the bottom of the eighth, Jeter extended his hitting streak to 10 games, during which has gone .311/.396/.400. Since being rested, however, Jeter’s numbers are a much more impressive .342/.435/.447 as his rock bottom 1-7 performance against the Rangers is removed from the equation.
So far, the Yankees rematch against the Rays has been filled with a lot more “feel good” stories than the go-round in Tampa last week. With AJ Burnett going tonight, another strong outing could have the Yankees feeling even better about their team heading into the post season. Meanwhile, the Rays have to wonder about how well they are setting up for October. A lot has changed in just one week, and could very well change again over the final 12 games of the season, but for the first time in a while, there seems to be a very positive light at the end of the tunnel.
Rays and Yankees Starting Rotations, September to Date
|Matt Garza||1||2||8.24||4||19 2/3||18||7||11||9|
|CC Sabathia||2||1||2.45||4||29 1/3||8||2||7||23|
|Dustin Moseley||0||1||5.40||1||6 2/3||4||0||2||1|
|Javier Vazquez||0||0||8.38||2||9 2/3||9||2||6||7|