Once a question, Yankees' rotation a comfort
Early results from starting five encouraging as club deals with other uncertainties
NEW YORK -- With all the questions that the Yankees packed onto their charter flight leaving Spring Training -- and there were plenty -- the club headed into its first off-day of the regular season confident about the state of its starting rotation.
CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda all had their own areas of concern heading in, but thus far, manager Joe Girardi has said that he's been pleased with the collective efforts from that diverse group of hurlers.
"It's something where you don't have five guys coming in and you know exactly what they did last year; you don't," Girardi said. "I think there was curiosity."
Working forward from this point in the rotation, the increased spotlight will be back at the center of the diamond on Tuesday, when Tanaka makes his third Major League start, taking the ball against the Cubs in a 7:05 p.m. ET contest at Yankee Stadium.
The 25-year-old phenom has impressed, with his one bugaboo being a shaky beginning in each of his first two starts -- a leadoff Melky Cabrera homer and two second-inning runs on April 4 in Toronto, and then Jonathan Schoop's three-run homer in the second inning five days later.
"Obviously everything is new for me, facing all these batters," Tanaka said through an interpreter. "I'm just trying to make my pitches in the game and just learn and see how those batters react, then go about my pitching on the mound."
At an investment price of $175 million, the Yankees feel that Tanaka's swing-and-miss repertoire is as advertised. Yanks catchers raved about Tanaka's offerings all spring, and his nasty splitter has succeeded in keeping big league hitters off balance. In 14 innings, Tanaka has racked up 18 strikeouts with just one walk.
"That's what you hope, that he can settle down right away," Girardi said. "He seems to get in a pretty good rhythm, which is really important. He's adjusted really well so far, for me. He's handled the situation pretty well."
The Yankees are also thrilled with what they have seen from Pineda, who is healthy and delivering on the promise that convinced New York to trade for him in January 2012. Girardi said that he can tell Pineda is feeling good because of his swift pace on the mound.
"Usually if a guy is not feeling well, you'll see them slow down a little bit," Girardi said. "That was the one thing I noticed early in Spring Training that gave me a clue he was feeling it. His bullpens were quick. He didn't waste any time. I like the way he competes, and he has a high expectation of himself."
Pineda's last start was overshadowed by the fuss created when television cameras spotted gunk on his pitching hand, which distracted from the conversation that the hard-throwing right-hander was quite dominant: in six-plus innings, Pineda held the Red Sox to a run and four hits with seven strikeouts and two walks.
"I'd love to be able to get what we're getting every time out. There's no doubt about that," general manager Brian Cashman said.
Cashman said that the Yanks did not know what to expect this spring from Pineda, coming off right labrum surgery that cost him the last two seasons. Cashman said that he hopes Pineda will get back to his 2011 All-Star form, but noted, "I'll take 80 percent of the pitcher we traded for."
"I'm just glad we have a very productive member contributing to the win column in our starting rotation, because that's what we were trading for when we got him," Cashman said. "A young, under-control starter that would start out pitching at the back of our rotation and maybe over time could move our way up toward the front of our rotation."
At the front of that rotation, the club is focusing on positive signs from Sabathia, who turned in an Opening Day clunker against the Astros in Houston and then permitted four runs in each of his next two starts against the Blue Jays and Red Sox.
After a spring in which Sabathia often bristled at questions about his low-90s fastball velocity, he was excellent through his first five innings against the Red Sox before lapses in concentration set up a big Boston inning.
"I just haven't been able to put a whole game together," Sabathia said. "I'm pitching well at times, but I need to be able to stay even keeled and make pitches in big situations."
Sabathia will line up to take the ball as the Yankees open their second road trip on Thursday against the Rays at Tropicana Field, followed by Kuroda and Nova. Kuroda has been his usual consistent self through three starts, while Nova was off his game in two outings and bounced back by finding a much better curveball on Sunday against the Red Sox.
The strength of the rotation provides a security for Girardi, given great uncertainties elsewhere. The Yanks are weathering injuries to first baseman Mark Teixeira, closer David Robertson and now catcher Francisco Cervelli, who is headed for the disabled list after injuring his right hamstring Sunday.
Lump those developments in with Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts, both of whom have nagging injuries that kept them out of the lineup this past weekend, and it is a comfort that the Yankees can feel good about their rotation situation.
"When you look at the course of a season, it takes more than 25 guys. It does," Girardi said. "You're going to have injuries, and you're going to have people that need to contribute probably more than anyone else expected if you're going to get to where you want to get."