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August 30, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

For the third time in four games, the Yankees' pitching got torched, and this time it was at the hands of the Red Sox, which makes it twice as damaging.

But let's not go overboard here. Yes, the Yankees pitching has been awful in this past week, but starting pitching hasn't suddenly become the Achilles’ heel. If you pick up one of the New York papers today, you might think that the Yankees suddenly have a horrible rotation, and nobody they can depend on in the big games against the big teams. Don't believe it.

Mike Mussina has the 5th lowest ERA in the AL, Roger Clemens is 16th, Andy Pettitte is 17th. Mussina has a 2.76 ERA in August, 3.15 since the break. Before Tuesday's disaster, Clemens had a 2.70 ERA in August--3.35 since the break, and Pettitte has a 2.48 ERA in August, 2.78 since the break. With Mark Mulder out for the season, that's the best 1-3 rotation in the American League (Seattle has 3 pitchers in the top 15 in ERA, Moyer (12), Pineiro (14) and Franklin (15), but they also play in Safeco)

The rotation's weaknesses have been Boomer, whose back is ailing him, and might not be in the postseason rotation, and Weaver, who has had a combination of bad luck and bad pitching, and will certainly not be in the rotation. And then there's Contreras. Well, I guess he sucks after all, huh? I mean, you can tell so much from one start, especially one where he's not throwing strikes. Let's totally disregard those previous 21 innings where he gave up 2 runs, because they don't really count.

It was a bad start--a REALLY bad start--and it happened to be the fourth start of his career, and the first against a really good hitting team, and how bad it was is magnified by how important it was. There still isn't enough information, either statistically or visual, to decide that he's not a good pitcher or is a great pitcher. He had a really bad game, and we'll take note of it. There's no reason to drop him from the rotation, or to not consider him for the postseason rotation, where he'll be, at best, the fourth starter.

The fourth starter is, of course, not irrelevant in the postseason. Without Orlando Hernandez, the Yankees wouldn't have gotten to Game 5 of the 2001 ALDS, or Game 7 of the World Series. But the fourth starter will usually start only one game per series, and three in the entire postseason--you can do without a good one, and the Yankees might not have to.

It's been a bad week for the Yankees, and going against Pedro Martinez this afternoon, it might get worse. But bad weeks happen, and I'd rather it happen in August than October. The Yankees' rotation is fine, the press just needs something to write about, and this week gave them something to write. But Derek Jeter, who knows exactly what he's out there to do, and is the last person who would try to rationalize a bad situation (he called 2001 a failure), put things in perfect perspective last night:

"We're in first place. I'm sure Boston would like to be in first place."

And no matter what happens this weekend, on Monday morning, they won't be.