Vidal Nuño stymies Bosox as current rotation will have to hold the fort

The Yankees' Vidal Nuno, right, hands the ball The Yankees' Vidal Nuno, right, hands the ball to manager Joe Girardi (28) as he is removed in the fourth inning of a game against the Oakland Athletics on Sunday, June 15, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. Photo Credit: AP / Ben Margot

advertisement | advertise on newsday

David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City

Joe Girardi didn't come right out and say he desperately needs rotation help before giving the baseball to Vidal Nuño for Friday night's game against the Red Sox.

But we got the message.

Any time a manager begins to answer a question by saying "I'm not irritated," you can bet he is. And when that same conversation becomes a rant about setting up his pitching schedule for the next 17 games -- the Yankees don't have a day off until the All-Star break -- you can see the needle on Girardi's patience tank tilting toward E.

It all started with his decision to stick with Nuño for the series opener despite a 7.09 ERA this season at Yankee Stadium, where he had allowed 13 home runs in 391/3 innings. The counterargument, posed by a reporter, was to skip Nuño and go with Masahiro Tanaka on his usual four days' rest.

A logical question, right?

Nuño had looked overmatched lately. Tanaka has been one of the best pitchers in the majors. It's the Red Sox. You get the idea.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

So what happened? Nuño pitched 52/3 innings of two-hit ball and struck out five in the Yankees' 6-0 win. We'll call it a pleasant surprise.

And Girardi? Well, he didn't get too carried away, either.

"I've had confidence in him," he said. "But we're in a situation where these are the five guys we have."

As in, do we really have a choice? The answer is no, and that's why Girardi -- to put it nicely -- sounded exasperated before the game.

When the manager launched into an explanation of his thought process behind the pitching schedule, it was more like a detailed list of the rotation's weaknesses.

We'll just give you the highlights.

Tanaka needs rest every chance he gets. Look what happened to Hiroki Kuroda in the previous two seasons.

"I've been asked over, I don't know, the last eight months, a hundred times, do you think Kuroda got tired?" Girardi said. "Hmm."

OK, so no pushing Tanaka. We're on board with that. The Yankees invested $175 million in him, and he happens to be their ace. Better safe than sorry there.

Then Girardi mentioned that Chase Whitley has never thrown more than 95 innings in a season and that David Phelps, usually a swingman, still is adjusting to regular use as a starter. Not a lot of certainty in that group.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"It's about five guys -- it's not about Tanaka," Girardi said. "Question answered."

By going with this plan, the Yankees get the added benefit of having Tanaka start July 13, otherwise known as the Sunday before the All-Star break, which means he won't throw a pitch in the Midsummer Classic. Girardi said Tanaka will not start the first game back, either.

From the moment they signed Tanaka, the Yankees have protected him as much as possible, and there is some evidence that he could be tiring. According to Pitch F/X, Tanaka's average fastball velocity was 90.9 mph (94.9 max) in his last start against the Orioles. That's down from 93.3 (95.2 max) on June 17 vs. the Blue Jays and 92.7 (95.6) on June 11 vs. the Mariners.

It could be just a blip for Tanaka, another part of his transition, and we'll be watching closely again Saturday night when he faces the Red Sox for the second time this season. But Tanaka can't continue to be the only one propping up the Yankees, and despite the recent progress of CC Sabathia, we doubt Girardi is holding his breath on him.

In the meantime, the Yankees are all out of options when it comes to their rotation other than moving Adam Warren from the bullpen, but he's not stretched out to provide help in that role and is valuable as a setup man.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"We don't really have anyone that we feel is ready to be called up as a starter," Girardi said.

A week ago, general manager Brian Cashman said he expected to make a deal before the July 31 deadline. It's no secret the first priority has to be another starting pitcher, maybe the Cubs' Jason Hammel.

Nuño helped ease some of that anxiety Friday night. Can that continue? The Yankees shouldn't wait around to see.

You also may be interested in: