Now a game out of first place behind the Rays, these Yankees are not the Yankees that fans have come to expect in 2010. The starting pitching is particularly out of character over the last 11 games, in which the Bombers are 5-6.

Even the best teams in baseball have a period of mediocre play, but the concern is Tampa Bay, which has been on a tear over the same period, posting a stunning 10-1 record.

Stirring this sour cocktail are the struggling starting pitchers. Since A.J. Burnett threw five shutout innings in a 7-1 victory over the Royals on July 23, Yankees starting pitchers have a 5.31 era.

CC Sabathia has reemerged as the Yankees’ ace after a shaky April and May, but even he has not been at his best. He is 1-2 in his last four starts, after winning eight consecutive decisions prior.

“Bad A.J.” threw BP to the Blue Jays in Monday’s 8-6 loss and with a 4.92 lifetime era against his next opponent – the Red Sox on Sunday – confidence in the righty is fading.

There are also problems on the horizon for the rotation. Joe Girardi has been coy about Phil Hughes’ season innings limit, but he has acknowledged there is one. If Hughes is skipped or moved to the bullpen, the void could be an Achilles heel for the rotation, as proven already by the absence of Andy Pettitte.

Dustin Moseley and Sergio Mitre have been Pettitte’s understudies since the lefty landed on the DL on July 20 with a strained groin and their act has been nearly a tragedy. Mitre let up seven runs (five earned) over four and one-third innings pitched in his spot start against the Royals on July 24. Moseley fared better than Mitre, going six innings and giving up one run on July 29.

Last night’s 8-2 loss to the Blue Jays showed Mosley and Mitre at their worst, however. Moseley let up five runs in seven and one-third innings pitched, serving up homers to Travis Snyder and Vernon Wells. Mitre came in to pitch the ninth and gave up Jose Bautista’s major league-leading 33rd homer.

Pettitte said he is a week ahead of schedule and has an upcoming bullpen session, but no date has been marked for his return. How long can the Yankees go without their most consistent pitcher this season? Can the team buy some time with a combination of Moseley and Mitre? And how long is it until the M & M Boys are relied on to fill the gap left by Hughes?

The Yankees are still a heavy favorite to be playing in October (at 26 games over .500, they lead the AL Wild Card by 5.5 games), but the AL Pennant is in jeopardy. The Rays are scorching and the Yankees are stumbling. The rotation will need to regain its balance if the Yankees are to retake the division lead. Whether it’s Sabathia getting more run support, A.J. shedding his erratic alter-ego, Hughes succeeding within his innings limit, Pettitte quickly returning to form or another warm body roster that can throw a few quality starts — someone has got to step up.

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Heck, with the way Tampa Bay is playing, the Yanks may need more than one arm to pitch well if they are to stay in hunt for the division lead.