Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole throws to first base during...

Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole throws to first base during the sixth inning of the first game of a doubleheader against the Rangers at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

The Yankees could have spent more time and money this offseason upgrading their starting rotation.

And regardless of how that turned out in some alternate reality, it’s very likely that group wouldn’t be pitching any better than the current five wearing pinstripes.

Statistically speaking, the Yankees’ rotation was at or near the top in a number of key categories heading into Tuesday night’s series opener against the Blue Jays. They were first in the American League for ERA (2.65) and K/BB ratio (4.11), second in WHIP (1.08) and opponents batting average (.219), third in HR/9 (0.88).

Most importantly, the Yankees (20-8) had the best record in baseball, and a very big reason for that was the performance of their rotation. Even when someone slips up, as Luis Severino did early Tuesday, he’s able to self-correct in time to salvage the night.

Severino got tagged by George Springer’s leadoff homer, the result of a flat cutter, and Santiago Espinal managed to fight off a 96-mph fastball on his hands for a two-run double in the second inning that put the Yankees in a 3-0 hole. With his pitch count at 65 after two, Severino seemed to be destined for a quick hook.

But Severino dug in from there, retiring 10 of 12 -- including nine straight -- to get the Yankees two outs deep in the fifth inning on a total of 97 pitches. He struck out eight, and after the dust cleared, the Yankees’ rotation still had the AL’s top ERA at 2.75.      

Despite Severino’s blip, the Yankees themselves didn’t envision such a smooth first month to the season. Not after rushing to Tampa for a condensed spring training that affected the rotation more than any other department.

They certainly hoped for the best. But with routines disrupted, and workloads abbreviated, there were obvious health concerns. Seeing what’s transpired so far, however, has given the Yankees reassurance their early-season strategy was a smart one, as well as the confidence it can continue.

“I wouldn’t say surprised because I know the talent level is there,” pitching coach Matt Blake said before Tuesday night’s game. “But obviously, the percent chance of this happening with everything else going on was probably a little bit lower. So I think we got a really high outcome out of maybe a tougher spring training.

“Part of it was just the guys coming in ready to go and taking to this right away. Gerrit [Cole] is the one early on that struggled a little bit, everybody picked him up, and now Gerrit is Gerrit again. And I think right now we’re in a really good spot with the group working together.”

As Blake mentioned, Cole’s troubles now appear behind him. After a 6.35 ERA in his first three starts, Cole strung together a streak of 18 2/3 scoreless innings -- the third longest of his career -- for a 0.47 ERA over his next three, with four walks and 25 strikeouts during that span. He’s now sitting with a very respectable 2.67 ERA overall.

What else can you say about Nestor Cortes? After Monday’s flirtation with a no-hitter, which included 11 strikeouts, Cortes has come out of nowhere to  further establish himself as one of the best pitchers in the sport -- not just this season, but over the last calendar year. The former 36th-round draft pick (from nearly a decade ago) ranks fifth in the majors in both ERA (1.41) and strikeouts per nine innings (11.81).

Also, Cortes has reinforced what Blake has promoted since the staff returned to Tampa back in early March. The importance of strike throwing and generating weak contact. Another important statistic for the Yankees’ rotation: they rank second in the AL in first-strike percentage, jumping ahead in the count 65.4% of the time.

“He’s a great example of being aggressive in the zone,” Blake said. “And once guys have to honor that, then you can get them to swing out of the zone. If we start out of the zone, it’s a lot harder to get them to swing. If you’re aggressive in there, then you have the opportunity to expand late.

“I think overall as a group this year, we’ve probably pitched to contact a little bit more than we’ve preached in the past. But in better areas, where we’re trying to avoid some of the slug and home runs. I think our ground ball rate is up a little bit. The contact quality against us is in a better spot. There’s been a little bit of a trade off, but we’re still getting to two strikes, and when we get to two strikes, knowing how to put a guy away is important.”

The Yankees still do that very well. Their rotation ranks third in the AL with 9.34 strikeouts per nine innings. But it’s early, and the Yankees have significant challenges ahead. They kicked off a 23 games in 22-day stretch with Sunday’s doubleheader -- Luis Gil will be called up as the sixth starter for Thursday against the White Sox -- and pitching staffs will be reduced to 13 pitchers at the end of this month.

Both of those developments will put additional strain on the Yankees' rotation as they try to protect the team’s stellar bullpen moving forward. Cole pitched into the seventh inning in Game 1 of Sunday’s doubleheader and Cortes   made it to the eighth Monday for the first time as a starter.

“Realistically, there’s going to be situations where we need to push the starters a little bit,” Blake said.

The good news? They look more than capable of shouldering the load.    

AL rankings for the Yankees' starting rotation (entering Tuesday):

ERA: 2.65, 1st

WHIP: 1.08, 2nd

OBA: .219, 2nd

 K/BB: 4.11, 1st

HR/9: 0.88, 3rd


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