- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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NEW YORK -- The sharp drop of the split-finger fastball used to be patented in the Bronx by Roger Clemens, who had such a one-on-one relationship with the pitch, he gave it a name (Mr. Splitty) as well as a succinct description of its downward movement:
"Violent" is what Clemens calls it.
Lately, though, Clemens isn't the only Yankee throwing the splitter and that could be important news in October. Mike Mussina is now leaning on the pitch as an emergency weapon, and used it nearly 25 times against the Orioles on Sunday.
The result? A three-hit, nine-strikeout, 8-0 shutout of the O's, fattening the Yankees' lead in the AL East to five games, reminding the Red Sox of Joe Torre's promise that the race will be won by the superior starting rotation. Torre likes to say his Bombers are still "all about pitching" and on a day when Mussina was this unhittable, it's hard to argue.
Still, the Yankees face several challenges in the next three weeks, during which they'll face the Red Sox six times. The issues begin and end with ... you guessed it, pitching, and whether the Bombers have the same advantage in the arms-race as in past years.
After all, in the last three weeks, the Yankees took on the Royals, Red Sox, Mariners and A's -- all potential postseason rivals -- and lost all four series. And looking ahead, aside from three games with the Tigers, every remaining game on the Yankees' schedule is against a team that has outscored its opponents or has a winning record in the East.
So before the Yankees can pronounce themselves October-ready, the following questions await answers:
How badly injured is David Wells?
The Yankees will know late Monday afternoon when he throws in the bullpen. If Wells' back is still bothering him, he'll be placed on the disabled list. That may or not open up a spot for Jose Contreras, although the Cuban right-hander's return from the DL may give the Yankees a replacement for the struggling Jeff Weaver. In that case, Sterling Hitchcock will remain in Wells' slot.
As quickly as the Yankees can shift bodies, however, the concern over Wells is deep-rooted. He's been their biggest big-game pitcher since returning to the Bronx in 2002 and was on his way to another impressive season before lower-back pain sabotaged his fastball.
But as the third-oldest starter in the American League, Wells is particularly vulnerable to injuries such as a bulging disk. The Yankees are confident rest will heal Wells, although doctors took the rather dramatic step of administering an epidural injection to ease his discomfort.
Before the procedure, Wells was having trouble reaching 90-mph, and his curveball was missing its bite, too. He's won just twice since July 1 and has given up 54 hits in the last 33 innings.
What's wrong with Weaver?
The Yankees wish they knew. Coming off one of the ugliest outings in his career Wednesday night against the Royals -- he tied career-worsts in runs (nine) and hits (13) -- Weaver told reporters, "everything that can go wrong is going wrong. If I fall behind, they hit it. If I make a good pitch, they hit it. It's tough to comprehend because I've made those pitches before and they've worked."
Weaver was once a iron-fixture in the Yankees' 2004 rotation, teaming up with Mussina to lead the Bombers in the post-Clemens, post-Wells era. But there's no guarantee Weaver will even make it to September as a starter, given his 8.04 ERA since the All-Star break.
One scout said, "Weaver used to work both sides of the plate, but not anymore. He works away (to right-handed hitters) all the time, so now they look there."
Even Torre wouldn't protect Weaver from the truth of his 11-0 loss to Kansas City. The manager said, "I found no positives in the way he pitched."
Can the Yankees count on Clemens in the postseason?
So far, the Rocket has avoided the hamstring injuries that undermined him in the second half of the 2002 season. In fact, Clemens has continued to pitch effectively since his 300th career victory against the Cardinals on June 13, lowering his ERA from 3.73 to 3.57 while ranking third in the AL in strikeouts.
A good test of Clemens' resilience is just around the corner: he's scheduled to start against the Red Sox in Fenway on the weekend of the 29th, perhaps to make good on a promise to pressure Boston's hitters -- David Ortiz in particular.
After being ambushed by the Sox for seven earned runs in 5.1 innings in a 10-2 loss on July 5, Clemens all but issued a warning to Ortiz, who'd hit a long home run to right and took Yankee pitchers deep four times in a four-game series.
"(Ortiz') plate coverage is too good. I'm going to have to make an adjustment on that," Clemens said. In other words, stay tuned.
Is Jose Contreras ever coming back?
He's getting close. He struck out 15 batters in seven innings in a Class-A game over the weekend, which has to count for something. It's possible Contreras will be ready to come off the disabled list in the next two weeks and thereby become eligible for the postseason.
Still, it's been a long, strange season for the Cuban right-hander, beginning with a mysterious shoulder problem which has kept him on the disabled list since June 5.
Preceding Contreras' injury was the presence of a swollen lymph node under his right armpit, which he noticed before taking the mound against the Red Sox on May 20. The Yankees were concerned enough to have Contreras examined by the Sox' team physician, and although he was given clearance to pitch -- and the swelling soon receded as mysteriously as it appeared -- Contreras made only three more starts, a total of 12 innings, before going on the DL.
What's wrong with Mariano Rivera?
Granted, this isn't a starting-rotation issue, but Rivera's recent slump hangs over the entire franchise. Rivera has blown five of his last 11 save opportunities, a ratio so disturbing Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre are scrambling for an explanation.
Overwork could be one theory: five of Rivera's last 18 appearances have been for four outs or more, and earlier in August he pitched in four straight games for the first time in his career. Against Baltimore this weekend, Rivera gave up leadoff homers in back-to-back appearances.
Rivera worked the first three games of the Orioles series, which Torre may have established as the closer's new ceiling. Rivera was unavailable on Sunday, had Mussina not been so nasty with his new-found weapon, the splitter.
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.
The Yankees have some separation in the AL East, but there are ominous signs with their pitching staff.