Commentary

Colon delivering heavyweight knockout

Bartolo giving Bombers pause with spectacular spring. Has he won the No. 5 job?

Updated: March 21, 2011, 11:58 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- I must confess I have seen an overweight, middle-aged gentleman do something even more remarkable in an athletic event than what Bartolo Colon is trying to do right now with the New York Yankees.

Even if Colon -- at 37 and an admitted 269 pounds, six years removed from his Cy Young Award season with Anaheim and nearly 18 months since he last faced a big-league hitter in a game that counted -- makes the Yankees' starting rotation, it will have to take second-place to the night George Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer to win the heavyweight title 20 years and 50 pounds after he had lost it the first time.

[+] EnlargeBartolo Colon
AP Photo/Charles KrupaYankees starter Bartolo Colon could be making the best middle-aged, overweight athlete comeback since George Foreman in 1994.

But it will be pretty darned close.

If it's OK with Joe DiMaggio, it might be time for Colon to change his number from 40 to 5. As in fifth starter.

Because if performance has anything to do with it, this "competition" between Colon, Freddy Garcia and Sergio Mitre -- ESPNNewYork.com is already projecting Ivan Nova as the No. 4 starter -- is as over as Moorer was after eating Foreman's right hand in that magical 10th round back in 1994.

So far, this comeback by Colon has been almost as miraculous and perhaps even more unexpected.

Six weeks ago, Colon showed up in Yankees camp with the body of Lou Costello. Monday night, he looked as though he had the arm of Roy Halladay. Through six innings of work, Colon, facing a good chunk of the starting lineup of the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays, was in absolute command, staying ahead of nearly every hitter, busting bats and locking up guys with a nasty slider and a baffling cutter that is a relatively new addition to his repertoire.

And for good measure, he consistently hit 93 mph on the radar gun.

Four of his six innings were 1-2-3's, and so easy was his night's work -- he needed only 64 pitches, 52 of them strikes -- that he was sent down to the bullpen to throw 20 more.

The only blemish on his night was a home run by Kelly Shoppach, on an 0-2 fastball, that tied the game at 1 in the sixth. His spring ERA is now lower than his weight, down to a lean and mean 2.40. And get this: He has now struck out 17 batters and walked only one in 15 innings. That's a pretty good ratio in any league, Grapefruit or otherwise.

So good has Colon been this spring you almost expect him to peel off the fat suit and reveal a body of steel and an S emblazoned on his chest.

"They're not really putting good wood on him," catcher Russell Martin said. "For him to be the age he is and come back and throw 94 and be as sharp as he is, it is impressive for anybody to do it. It's even more impressive the fact that he missed a year and a half, but for anybody to throw the ball like he's throwing, I think, is impressive."

So why haven't the Yankees just thrown in the towel on this fight and declared Colon the winner?

For the same reason Colon can't peel off the fat suit, or turn back the clock, or erase the reality that the last time he pitched in a major league game the calendar said July 2009.

"I think you try to look at all the scenarios," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who admitted to wondering: "Is it an illusion? Is [his ball] moving as you think it is?"

Like Charlie Dressen declaring a half-century ago that he'd have to see Willie Mays do it again, Girardi said he was glad the game was on television, so he could watch it again to be sure.

Like a lot of people who laughed, or shook their heads in disbelief when the Yankees signed what everyone assumed was a washed-up, overweight has-been to a minor league deal, the Yankees manager is wary of believing his own eyes.

And who can blame him?

It is not unprecedented for pitchers to come back after long absences and arm surgeries -- Colon had surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow before the 2009 season -- but how many have come back from the quadruple whammy of injury, inactivity, age and obesity that Colon is attempting to overcome now?

And in the Yankees' defense, despite the fact that Garcia has not had a good spring, he was healthy enough to pitch 157 innings and win 12 games for the Chicago White Sox last year.

"Those are things that we have to talk about," Girardi said. "If he does become a starter, how many innings do we project he can give us, and how does that work out for us? This decision is going to be difficult."

And yet, you would think a performance like the one Colon gave Monday night would make things easier. Mitre is pitching on Tuesday but it is hard to imagine him as more than a long reliever/emergency starter.

And Garcia deals in more slop than a pig farmer. He can keep a lineup off-balance for a while, as he did for three innings Saturday against the Toronto Blue Jays, but he will inevitably hang a curveball and watch it sail out of the ballpark.

"You're just going to have to make a bet on a guy and hope it's the right one," GM Brian Cashman said before the game. "I think we all know what Freddy is. He's someone who you put your radar guns down. He's a very crafty guy who knows how to pitch. He knows how to dissect hitters. You just have to trust his competitive side. He finds a way, somehow, some way."

And Colon? "Well, we'll have a lot more information after the game."

All the information the Yankees need appears to be in now. Colon, who speaks little English, said through an interpreter that he was very happy with every one of his pitches Monday night, that although he expected to pitch well after having pitched in winter ball he is even surprising himself a bit, and that he would not be disappointed by whatever decision the Yankees make.

Well, he may not be, but whichever way they go, someone is going to be.

At their respective peaks, Bartolo Colon was a better pitcher than Freddy Garcia. This spring, in their respective middle ages, he has still been the better pitcher.

People laughed the first time he walked into the Yankees' clubhouse back on Feb. 14, but nobody is laughing anymore.

The last time I saw a guy who looked remotely like Colon in a sporting event, he sent everyone home shocked and happy.

Bartolo Colon may never match what George Foreman did back in 1994, but what he's shown so far has been a knockout in its own way.

NOTES: Manny Banuelos gave up single runs in the seventh and eighth, one on a home run by Dan Johnson, and the Rays won, 3-1. The Yankees' Grapefruit League record stands at 9-13-3. ... Once again, Brett Gardner batted leadoff, Derek Jeter second. Jeter (.341) went 1-for-3, Gardner (.270) 0-for-2, but created the Yankees' only run pretty much on his own with a sixth-inning walk, a stolen base, and two ground outs. ... Robinson Cano, Ramiro Pena and Justin Maxwell had the only other Yankees hits. ... Mitre faces Orioles LHP Zach Britton on Tuesday afternoon at Sarasota. First pitch 1:05 p.m. ET (YES/no radio).

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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