Mussina's struggles cause Yanks to juggle staff
NEW YORK -- Mike Mussina is out. Call up another kid.
The New York Yankees dropped a struggling Mussina from their rotation Tuesday, turning to touted prospect Ian Kennedy over a pitcher with 247 major league wins -- in the middle of a pennant race.
Bold move. But not out of character for the Yankees lately.
Kennedy, who spent most of last year playing college ball at USC, will be called up from the minors to start in Mussina's place Saturday against last-place Tampa Bay. He'll join a pitching staff that already features rookies Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Edwar Ramirez in key roles.
Not long ago, the big-budget Yankees always seemed to favor experienced veterans over unproven talent. Now, they're hanging their playoff hopes on a pack of young arms -- and the 38-year-old Mussina has been shoved aside.
"He was disappointed, naturally. This was very difficult for me," manager Joe Torre said. "We have relied on him every year since he's been here."
Following three terrible starts in a row by Mussina, Torre told the five-time All-Star he'll be passed over when his next turn in the rotation comes up. The right-hander declined to comment Tuesday night as he left the clubhouse after a 5-3 victory over Boston that pulled New York closer in the playoff chase.
The Yankees won the series opener behind stopper Andy Pettitte, and 45-year-old Roger Clemens gets the ball Wednesday night against his original team. Josh Beckett, seeking his 17th win, will be on the mound for Boston.
The Yankees are one game behind Seattle, the AL wild-card leader, and seven back of the first-place Red Sox in the AL East. But as the Bronx Bombers get set for the September stretch drive, Chien-Ming Wang is the only pitcher left from last year's rotation.
Because of injuries and ineffectiveness, rookie pitchers have started 41 games for the Yankees this season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that's the most for the club since rookies started 54 times in 1991 on a team that finished 20 games below .500.
Kennedy, a first-round draft pick last year, relies on good control. He will be called up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he was 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in six starts.
"He's got great mound presence," said Chamberlain, the hard-throwing relief sensation who called Kennedy his best friend. "He understands how to pitch and how to get outs. He's going to come up and do a great job. It's going to be exciting to see."
Kennedy, a 22-year-old right-hander who began the season in Class-A, pitched last Saturday for Scranton. How long he stays in the Yankees' rotation will depend on how well he performs.
Torre didn't say whether he would consider using Mussina out of the bullpen. The manager said he told his former ace: "Keep doing what you're doing. Keep doing your work. Keep doing your throwing so you don't lose that, the arm strength part of it."
Cerebral and finicky, Mussina was the team's top starter not long ago, but he has faded fast. After going 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA last season, he is 8-10 with a 5.53 ERA this year. He has a 17.69 ERA in his past three starts, struggling with velocity and control.
Before the game, Torre said he wanted to speak with Mussina about his recent slump before making a decision. He said the pitcher "earned that conversation" because of "who he is and what he's done."
"I just want to hear how he feels, and from there we'll talk about what we're going to do," Torre said before the game.
"Some conversations are difficult to have," he added. "I hope he makes it easy on me."
Mussina's last three starts have been particularly alarming. He has allowed 19 earned runs in 9 2/3 innings spanning two outings against the hard-hitting Detroit Tigers and one against the Los Angeles Angels.
Before this slide, Mussina won four straight starts -- giving up eight runs in all -- and improved to 8-7.
Does he simply need a breather, or is he washed up? The latter is what Yankees fans are afraid of, especially since Mussina has a year remaining on his $23 million, two-year contract.
"I know he's probably looked at some video to see if there's anything with his mechanics," Torre said. "He's obviously at times trying to make more perfect pitches than he's probably capable of making."
Mussina and Torre have both said they think the right-hander has more productivity left, but the Yankees decided they couldn't afford to wait for him to find his form.
His latest flop, three ineffective innings Monday night in a 16-0 loss at Detroit, dropped Mussina to 0-7 following Yankees losses this year. It also left him visibly dejected. Mussina said he would "understand" if Torre went with another pitcher next time through the rotation.
"You like to be loyal to all your players. But loyalty to all 25 comes before loyalty to any individual," Torre said.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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