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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees’ staff in good shape — for now

Yankees' Luis Cessa pitches during the first inning

Yankees' Luis Cessa pitches during the first inning of a game against the Phillies on Wednesday. Credit: AP / Matt Slocum

PHILADELPHIA — When the Yankees sent out Luis Cessa for Wednesday night’s series finale at Citizens Bank Park, they were closing fast on a somewhat rare pitching accomplishment, previously done by the franchise in 1981.

That was a rotation led by Ron Guidry, Dave Righetti and Tommy John. The bullpen boasted the fearsome duo of Ron Davis and Goose Gossage.

The feat? During August of that season, the Yankees’ pitching staff had a 1.92 ERA over 21 games, which was the last time the team finished a calendar month with a sub-2.50 ERA.

Seems like a while ago, right? And raise your hand if you thought this 2018 staff would be the crew to once again get them below that benchmark (didn’t think so).

After Cessa’s rather brief cameo (3 innings, 3 runs, 74 pitches) in Wednesday night’s 3-0 loss to the Phillies, the Yankees staff had a 2.35 ERA for June, the lowest in the majors for the month, with the Giants’ 2.73 right behind them. While it’s a bit early to make any declarative statements about this Yankees’ staff, we can say they’re an excellent shape, with room for a rotation upgrade.

And for what it’s worth, those ’81 Yankees, as you remember, won the AL pennant before losing the World Series to the Dodgers to six games. These Yankees? Well, the bullpen we already knew would be elite, and in some ways — like the emergence of the suddenly unhittable Jonathan Holder — they’ve outperformed expectations.

As for the rotation, that’s been more of a fluid operation, and yet still a highly-functioning one. Cessa, who came off an extended DL stint last Thursday, was the eighth starter the Yankees have used through the first 78 games, and the least effective to date. He racked up 27 pitches in the first inning alone Wednesday night, and came within a strike of escaping a sluggish second until Rhys Hoskins hammered a 1-2 slider over the rightfield wall for a three-run homer that decided the game.

“I didn’t think it was going to go,” Cessa said. “Then I saw (Giancarlo) Stanton running back.”

Thanks to Cessa, the Yankees’ rotation ERA climbed to 3.79, but still good enough for fifth in the American League. Much of that credit goes to Luis Severino, whose Cy Young campaign looks strong with a 12-2 mark and 2.10 ERA, but replacements Jonathan Loaisiga and Domingo German deserve big assists in patching the significant holes left by the injuries to Masahiro Tanaka and Jordan Montgomery.

“Our bullpen always gets talked about, and for good reason,” Aaron Boone said before Wednesday night’s game. “But our starting rotation doesn’t really get the credit it deserves. When we really got rolling, it was because of the starting pitching.”

Aside from Severino, however, uncertainty abounds. CC Sabathia turns 38 next month, is on surgically repaired knees, and spends his time between starts wearing an igloo’s worth of ice. Sonny Gray is painfully inconsistent, Tanaka still doesn’t have an exact timetable on his return from twin hamstring blowouts and the super rookies — Loaisiga and German — have more to prove, despite showing early promise.

“They’ve stepped up admirably,” said Boone.

Brian Cashman will find an upgrade for the rotation before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, but it’s comforting for the Yankees to know they do have capable insurance. A shutdown bullpen goes a long way toward covering those rotation cracks as well. On Wednesday night, Boone got five scoreless innings from Holder, Giovanny Gallegos and German as the relief corps had their 17th scoreless outing in 23 games, dating to June 4, with a 0.86 ERA during that span. Holder hasn’t allowed an earned run in 23 relief appearances, the longest streak in the AL and tied for second overall. The Yankees’ bullpen also lead the majors with 363 strikeouts.

In the silver lining department, the Yankees were able to give a second day of rest to the bullpen’s most important arms with the Red Sox looming this weekend in the Bronx. Dellin Betances has allowed only one hit with 24 strikeouts over his past 14 appearances (14 innings) and Aroldis Chapman’s 11 saves in June has tied him for the Yankees’ third-most a calendar month, trailing only John Wetteland’s 15 in June 1996 and Sparky Lyle’s 12 in June 1973.

The Yankees have their Guidry in Severino, with the Betances-Chapman combo serving as the updated Davis-Gossage. Success in June doesn’t necessarily translate to October, but it’s a good place to be for now.

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