A day after the Yankees clinched another postseason berth, they received a stark reminder of the most significant question they must answer before the playoffs begin.
Bartolo Colon began the day as the most logical candidate to be their third starter in the upcoming American League Division Series, but the 38-year-old righthander gave up seven runs (five earned) in three innings in a 15-8 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays Thursday night at Yankee Stadium.
Colon's shaky performance -- his latest in a string of them -- effectively opened the door for Freddy Garcia, A.J. Burnett or Phil Hughes to make the Yankees' postseason rotation, at least for the first round.
With each pitcher set to make at least one more start, the stage is set for a string of last-minute auditions. At this point the Yankees can only sit back and hope someone takes advantage of the opportunity, something Colon failed to do Thursday night.
He allowed seven hits, including a monstrous two-run home run in the third inning by Ben Zobrist that landed in the rightfield second deck. He walked one, hit a batter and also slipped after throwing an 0-and-2 fastball to the third batter of the game, which brought Joe Girardi and trainer Gene Monahan out of the dugout to check on him.
Colon (8-10, 4.02) has been one of the Yankees' biggest surprises, but his recent struggles have been getting progressively worse, giving the Yankees reason to wonder if they've gotten all they can out of the reclamation project. He hasn't won since July 30, has a 6.18 ERA in his last seven starts and has thrown more innings (159) than he did in the previous three seasons combined.
"When we went into this year, we weren't sure how many innings we could get out of him," Girardi said. "There is some concern there."
Colon's fastball has been losing velocity recently, Girardi said. It averaged 90.42 mph against the Rays, quite a bit slower than he was throwing earlier this season, according to fangraphs.com.
Colon, using bench coach Tony Peña as an interpreter, said he's not fatigued, injured or worried about his velocity.
"The only thing is he's not throwing the way he was throwing before," Peña said.
A second-inning error by Derek Jeter didn't help matters. Colon would have rebounded from a three-run first inning with a 1-2-3 second if Jeter had made a routine throw to first for the third out. But it sailed over the head of first baseman Jorge Posada, and the Rays capitalized with an RBI triple by B.J. Upton and an RBI double by Evan Longoria. It was that kind of night for Colon and the Yankees.
The schedule for the best-of-five ALDS gives the Yankees the option to use only three starters if they throw Sabathia on short rest in a possible Game 4. Girardi said they will consider that plan to avoid using four starters. "I have no problem with that," Sabathia said.
But the options after Sabathia and Nova are far from enticing.
Garcia, who will start Friday night against the Red Sox, has a 10.95 ERA in his last three starts. Burnett, who faces the Red Sox Saturday, has a 5.28 ERA this season and continues to frustrate the Yankees with his inability to limit damage. And Hughes was given an epidural Wednesday to alleviate his back pain.
Girardi hopes Hughes will start a game at Tampa Bay next week as a last chance to prove he's healthy and effective.