Commentary

It's officially time to panic, Yankees fans

Pettitte's stinker follows Sabathia's as Yanks fall behind Tampa in AL East race

Updated: September 25, 2010, 12:32 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- This wasn't a full-fledged start as much as a cameo that Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte made Friday night against Boston.

With the playoffs bearing down on the team in 12 days, Pettitte had the kind of night that should make even the most die-hard Yankees optimists -- the ones who scoffed and said there's time for them to straighten out their starting pitching rotation -- reconsider. After watching staff ace CC Sabathia and now Pettitte get rocked on successive nights, it's official: Feel free to worry, Yankees fans. Worry yourself sick.

Limping into the playoffs to face the streaking Minnesota Twins is not a prescription for success for the defending champion New York Yankees.

They began Friday night with a shaky half-game lead in an AL East race they say they're not all that focused on winning (if it costs them a chance to rest some players who are dragging or aching after the long season).

Andy Pettitte
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireAndy Pettitte lasted just 3 1/3 innings on Friday.

Fine. But seven losses in their past 10 games against playoff-bound Texas and Tampa Bay should be disquieting to the Yankees. And the state of their starting pitching should concern them most of all.

When Pettitte took the mound Friday night in just his second start since missing two months with a groin injury, the stage was so familiar: He was hoping to re-establish himself as the Yankees' big-game pitcher, their rock, in meaningful games. He was hoping to give the Yankees a mental lift and the sort of shutdown effort they expected the night before -- but didn't get -- from Sabathia in the Yankees' abysmal 10-3 loss against Tampa Bay.

And Pettitte couldn't deliver.

By the end of the rocky 3 1/3 innings Pettitte lasted, his pitching line was eerily similar to Sabathia's from the night before:

Sabathia: 5 1/3 Innings, 10 Hits, 7 runs, 3 BB.

Pettitte: 3 1/3 innings, 10 Hits, 7 runs.

Pettitte had next to nothing Friday night. The Boston Red Sox slapped around all of his pitches. Cutters, changeups, fastballs, it didn't matter. The Red Sox hit line drives to all fields off him, and after Yankees' right fielder Nick Swisher inexplicably blew a basket catch with one out and one on in the second inning, Boston shortstop Jed Lowrie sent an opposite-field, three-run homer soaring out of the park altogether, over the fence in right-center field.

When Pettitte was finally yanked after coughing up six hits to the first seven batters he faced in the fourth, the Yankees already trailed 7-1.

Despite a home run binge after that, the Yankees still fell 10-8.

Afterward, Pettitte was unsparing about his performance, ticking off how he struggled with his location, mechanics, rhythm, establishing his fastball and cutter -- which pretty much covers everything that can go wrong except walking hitters. He'd also hoped to stretch out to perhaps 100 pitches and ended with only 75.

"I couldn't have felt worse tonight -- just everything," he said. "But I've got one more start [in the regular season]. I want it to be a great one."

The Yankees' booming power display after they fell behind was impressive. So was their fight. Four of the six homers came against Boston starter Josh Beckett, whom they've owned this year. But the Yankees have to get better pitching if they're going anywhere in October. And they know it.

By the time Pettitte headed for the showers, it was fair to wonder if Girardi wished he could take back his pregame announcement the Yankees intended to have 17-game winner Phil Hughes skip a start on Sunday because of the undisclosed innings limit he's working with this season. Now the Yankees have rookie Ivan Nova and then Mosley in line to start the last two games of this series against the Red Sox, knowing Tampa's 5-3 win over Seattle on Friday pushed the Yankees another half game back in the division race.

The Yankees' deficit could easily be 2 games by Monday, and their magic number to clinch a playoff spot would still be stuck at three with six games to play -- the last three in Boston, against these same Red Sox.

So much for taking it easy and recharging before the postseason begins. Just like that, all the fastidious planning that Girardi has done -- winning games and resting tired or injured players before the postseason begins -- goes out the window.

In his postgame news conference, Girardi was asked at least five different times how concerned he is. He didn't sugarcoat it.

"It's somewhat concerning. ... It's not what you want to see, but I believe in Andy," Girardi said.

Then: "I'm not going to panic."

Girardi can say that, but he seems to be getting wound more tightly by the day. He would like to have a better feel for what he'll get from his starting rotation, and right now it looks like a grab bag after Sabathia.

A.J. Burnett, Hughes and Pettitte -- three lynchpins in the Yankees' championship run a year ago -- are all unpredictable. And unless the Yankees can keep smacking three or four home runs a night, you know what that means for the postseason, don't you?

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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