David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO - When it comes to the recent performance of the Yankees' starting rotation, Andy Pettitte is just as confused as you are. He's watching the same games, and like you, can't understand why this group is not pitching up to its usual standards at the most critical point of the season.
"It's hard to tell exactly what's going on," Pettitte said Wednesday before the Yankees rallied for a 4-3 win over the Blue Jays. "I mean, if guys are putting too much pressure on themselves or what. Obviously, we talk -- we talk all the time -- and make sure guys aren't doing that."
They can chat all they want, but the Yankees are going to need more than clubhouse focus groups to reverse this September swan drive, and the rotation has been like a necklace of cinder blocks. When Joe Girardi sends Phil Hughes to the mound lately -- as he did for Wednesday night's brief cameo -- he does so with no promises and zero faith.
Deservedly so, but Girardi shouldn't have much patience with anyone other than Pettitte, who at 41 has been the only starter to pitch like the Yankees' playoff lives depend on him. Colby Rasmus' two-run homer had barely touched down in the rightfield second deck before Girardi was on his way to the mound to retrieve Hughes, and for good reason. At 2-0, the game already felt as if it were slipping away.
The Yankees' rotation is 1-6 with a 5.46 ERA in September, and over the past calendar month, Hiroki Kuroda has a 7.06 ERA and CC Sabathia is at 5.23. As for Pettitte, he's turning back the clock with a 2.37 ERA in six starts over that same period.
But don't expect a miracle turnaround over the next week. Sabathia is looking spent with the odometer on 204 innings, and Kuroda, who starts Thursday's series finale against the Blue Jays, certainly appears gassed as well at 189 2/3 innings. Problem is, that's way short of the finish line, and Pettitte can't drag the Yankees into the playoffs by himself.
"They've thrown a lot of innings up to this point," Girardi said. "With our staff, we have a couple of young guys, but our staff has some age to it, too. I think that most pitchers are probably feeling something at this point."
But the elite ones, especially with so much at stake, usually figure out a way to stay effective. Pettitte, making his 28th start Tuesday, held the Blue Jays to one run over 62/3 innings but the Yankees still rolled over in a 2-0 loss. Does Pettitte feel perfect physically right now? Of course not. But as an 18-year vet, and one with 44 playoff starts under his belt, he knows how to find what he needs down the stretch.
Be it more video work, correcting his delivery, no fried food, whatever -- Pettitte does what's necessary. He expected that from everyone else, too, but that hasn't happened.
"It's tough to get on the roll you'd like to get on," Pettitte said. "But we have the guys here that have done it, that should feel very comfortable at this time of year and in this situation . . . When you need good things to happen, you got to have it with pitching. Pitching turns everything around."
We saw that earlier this season, when the Yankees' staff covered for a decimated lineup. The rotation had a 3.77 ERA in April and 3.81 in May, but the best month came in July, when it dropped steeply to 3.55. That number has risen steadily since then, and during the past two weeks alone, the Yankees' starters are 1-6 with a 5.75 ERA as the team went 5-7.
As for Wednesday night, Girardi had to rely on David Huff -- basically the manager's safety net for Hughes -- to keep the Yankees within striking distance. Huff flunked his lone audition to take Hughes' spot in the rotation earlier this month, but he's now excelled twice as an emergency backup plan. Unfortunately for Girardi, there's too many holes and not enough Huffs for his rotation at the moment.