How will September impact Yanks in October?
As in 2000, club is limping to the finish line
TORONTO -- The salt-and-pepper flecks hiding under Andy Pettitte's cap suggest that he's seen plenty around the game, and indeed, he has been there to witness a stagger to the finish line that rivals this one.
As the Yankees head for what could be their first losing September since 2000, there has been criticism concerning manager Joe Girardi's perceived preference for healthy players over home-field advantage, which may have hurt the Bombers' chances of securing the American League East.
Girardi insists that he hasn't managed any differently during a stretch that has seen the Yankees compile a 12-14 record in September after Tuesday's 6-1 win over the Blue Jays, but after holding a 2 1/2-game lead in the East on Sept. 22, the Yankees fell into a tailspin that saw them lose five of six.
"I know it's been irritating for me. It's just like, 'What are we doing here?' " Pettitte said. "This game's not easy, we're trying to win. That's all there is to it. It'll be good as soon as we get this thing wrapped up and get in there. But unfortunately, we are not playing good right now."
More often than not, the culprit has been starting pitching. This skid began when A.J. Burnett had a start shortened by rain on Sept. 22 against the Rays, followed by CC Sabathia surrendering a season-high seven runs to Tampa Bay.
Pettitte was then smacked around Yankee Stadium by the Red Sox, and rookie Ivan Nova could not get out of the fifth inning against Boston, creating holes that were too large to dig out of for the Bombers' bats.
"I think when we're playing from behind, it's hard to play with an edge when you're down five or six runs," Alex Rodriguez said. "For us, [we need to] set the tone, get the lead early, defend that lead and go from there."
Things began looking up when Phil Hughes provided six innings of one-run ball on Sunday night, a game the Yankees would claw back to win in 10 innings only after Mariano Rivera had blown a four-out save opportunity in the ninth.
Indeed, the panic button was depressed before that Sunday game against Boston, with the Yankees starting Hughes instead of Dustin Moseley after figuring that the contest would count twice in the magic number category.
"We're not pitching well right now as a staff," Pettitte said. "I've said it a hundred times -- when you don't pitch well as a staff, it makes things look extremely bad. We just haven't thrown the ball real well as a complete staff."
The desired result came about, but a loss on Monday to the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre did little to change the idea that the Yankees are limping toward their playoff destiny -- an idea that concerns catcher Jorge Posada.
"It does matter. You can't turn it on and off," Posada said. "It's just a matter of keep doing what we've been doing, especially [on Sunday] night. Even though we fell, we came back and tied that ballgame. We had some good at-bats. You've just got to keep on building positives and look at the big picture."
It seems appropriate at this time to recall the ghosts of the 2000 Yankees, who were up by as many as nine games in the AL East at the close of play on Sept. 21, only to wrap play for the month with a 13-18 record, plus a loss in the season's final game, on Oct. 1.
In all, Joe Torre's Yankees finished 2000 with a seven-game losing streak and lost 13 of their last 15 games, but they finished 2 1/2 games up on Boston and won the World Series anyway -- beating the Athletics in a five-game Division Series, besting the Mariners in a six-game Championship Series and outplaying the Mets in a five-game Fall Classic.
It might not be the exact formula you'd want to follow, but it does provide reassurance that it can be done.
"I've been playing so long and been to the playoffs so many times, I've kind of seen it from every end of the spectrum," Pettitte said. "You would love to be rolling. You'd like to have a nice record and for your numbers to be good. ... Once you get to the playoffs, it's not really going to matter at all."
Girardi continues to state his goals -- to win the division and lock up home-field advantage -- but he has had to balance his options, handling a banged-up veteran team and covering a starting staff that has given less-than-reliable length.
Still, there have been curious decisions. One glaring example came in a scoreless game at Tropicana Field on Sept. 13, when Girardi turned to both Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre -- the latter of whom gave up a game-winning homer in the 11th to the Rays' Reid Brignac.
"I haven't managed any different at this time of the year than I have during the course of the season," Girardi said. "I know people have brought up the question about rest, but the one thing I said is [that] I'm not going to hurt our guys. That position, for me, is no different in September, July, April. It doesn't change. ... We've got to get in before you ever think about giving people rest, and that's why my philosophy hasn't changed."
Though Girardi has refused to discuss most matters regarding the playoffs, even declining to speculate if Burnett would get a postseason start, clearly the Yankees have been forced to consider the prospect of entering October as the Wild Card team.
But the stress of having a postseason still out there to be claimed after all this time has worn on some of the players, first baseman Mark Teixeira said, and the team is running out of time to get its collective game back to consistent, winning baseball.
"It's probably hanging over us a little too much," Teixeira said. "At the same time, it's like I've said, we're thinking about each at-bat, each pitch, making the plays. We don't think about, 'Oh, I've got to get a hit or we might not clinch tonight.' That's really not in our minds.
"If anyone in here has decided to turn it off, I think it's time to rethink their strategy. I don't think anyone turns it off and turns it on."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.