- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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NEW YORK -- Just how precipitous has the Yankees' recent fall been? Their best game this week was the one they didn't play -- Wednesday's rainout against the Blue Jays, which allowed Andy Pettitte to start tonight against the Red Sox in what's turning into a make-or-break weekend in the Bronx.
Crazy, isn't it, that a series in April could have a doomsday vibe. But the Yankees have lost six straight, their rotation is littered with disturbing questions and the bullpen is close to exhaustion.
No one knows whether Joe Torre is feeling the heat from George Steinbrenner, but after a 6-0 loss to the Blue Jays Thursday night, none other than Johnny Damon, the least paranoid man in the clubhouse, said, "there's going to be panic soon if the winning doesn't start. We have to stay close. If we can't start getting victories, I'm sure there's not going to be too many happy people."
Having Pettitte and Chien-Ming Wang (who starts Sunday) will give the Yankees at least two realistic chances in three to reclaim lost ground against Boston. They're 5½ games out of first place, leading the American League in just about every offensive category, but also ranked No. 1 in blown saves (seven) and 13th in strikeouts per nine innings (5.08).
So where does the blame lay? Pick your poison. There's been assembly line of starting pitchers -- nine different ones in 21 games -- none of whom have come close to matching Josh Beckett's 5-0 start. In fact, Yankee starters are averaging just 4.9 innings per appearance, worst in the majors. No wonder the Yankees' bullpen has four relievers on a pace for more than 100 games this year.
No one counted on such a wide gulf between the blueprint and reality. Wang has been hurt, and Pettitte, with just one win to show for his 1.78 ERA, actually has had to pitch out of the bullpen twice, a clear sign of Torre's distress. The manager's decision to use Rivera in the eighth inning last Friday at Fenway also stunned observers.
"Five outs? In April?" one executive asked incredulously. Of course, Torre couldn't have known Rivera would fail so completely. He blew a 5-2 lead and was clocked at just 88 mph, a 5-mph drop-off from his usual velocity. Even more significantly, Rivera's cutter was missing its last-second darting action. That's what really troubles Yankee officials: Rivera's stuff was diminished following three games of inactivity, when the Yankees were sweeping the Indians and the closer was reluctant to take the ball.
"There's going to be panic soon if the winning doesn't start."
-- Yankees CF Johnny Damon
Could Rivera be trying to nurse his arm through an injury? The Yankees don't dare think that way, especially since he threw with more authority last Monday against Tampa Bay. Still, if Rivera can't be counted on to dominate (of the nine swings the Red Sox took last Friday, they missed just once) the Yankee dynasty may be closer to collapse than at any time since the early '90s.
Of course, all of this could change quickly. Wang and Pettitte are both capable of beating the Sox and changing the chemistry in the East in the next three days. And it's also possible rookie Phil Hughes could evolve quickly. But long-range issues linger. No one knows if Mike Mussina will regain the 5-mph on his fastball that's so far been missing. At 85 mph, "he hasn't got enough" said one American League scout. Indeed, Mussina's other pitches, particularly his curveball, are all dramatically compromised unless he's throwing harder. The Yankees will find out on Wednesday, when Mussina is scheduled to come off the disabled list.
Meanwhile, the Yankees have all but given up on Carl Pavano, who continues to insist there's a "grabbing" sensation in his right forearm. Pavano's only remaining ally in the organization is general manager Brian Cashman, who's on the hook for the $40 million he's invested in the pitcher. Otherwise, Pavano is an invisible man in the clubhouse. The hope is that Hughes will replace him in the rotation, and that he can build off the flashes of brilliance he showed against Toronto on Thursday night. The rookie fell behind 12 of the 21 batters he faced, and was knocked out in the fifth inning, charged with four runs, but nevertheless impressed the Jays with his 96 mph fastball.
"That fastball plays a lot better than what you see [on the radar-gun readings] on the scoreboard," said Toronto manager John Gibbons. "He's got a quick arm; he's got everything he needs. That [Yankee] team is going to score a lot of runs, so he's going to be fine."
The same cannot be said of left-hander Kei Igawa, who's officially out of the rotation thanks to his 7.84 ERA. Of all the mistakes the Yankees' hierarchy has made in recent months -- underbidding on Daisuke Matsuzaka, counting on Pavano to return to the rotation, failing to acquire a run-producer at first base -- the $20 million invested in Igawa through 2011 could turn out to be one of the most costly.
That's no small wound, now that Cashman is trying to run the organization with a business plan. The GM is proud to say the payroll has been trimmed by some 10 percent, down to $180 million, and that, "we're just like the 29 other clubs now."
Still, it's hard to believe the Yankees wouldn't nuke that budget for a chance to sign Roger Clemens tomorrow. If one fat check could make the first 21 games disappear, does anyone believe the Yankees wouldn't write it?
"What I don't understand is why [Cashman] isn't spending that money," said one executive. "Tell you what, I wish I had $200 million, because I'd sure as hell spend it. Why not?"
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
The Yankees have lost six straight, their rotation is a wreck and the bullpen is close to exhaustion. Oh, and the Red Sox are in town.