- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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TORONTO -- To hear the New York Yankees talk about Bartolo Colon now, you would think they had signed him as a big-ticket free agent in the offseason to be the ace of their rotation, rather than what he is: the caboose.
Throughout spring training, as Colon threw strike after strike and put up scoreless inning after scoreless inning, you heard the same thing: He's old. He hasn't done it in a long time. We have to be sure it's real.
Now, four regular-season appearances and one terrific start into his Yankees career, everybody saw this coming from the first day of spring training. Suddenly, no one is surprised that a 37-year-old man with a history of obesity and arm problems could take the ball for his first big league start in 21 months and subdue one of the better lineups in baseball.
You would think that portly guy wearing No. 40 on his back was actually Cliff Lee, not a non-roster invitee who had signed a minor league deal and was now working for a relative pittance, $900,000 this season -- the kind of short paycheck the big-ticket guys like to refer to as ashtray money.
In fact, the only one on the Yankees not practicing revisionist history in the remarkable resurgence of Bartolo Colon is, in fact, Bartolo Colon.
"I'm very surprised with everything I have been doing, from spring training until now," Colon said after shutting down the Blue Jays for one out shy of seven innings Wednesday night, limiting them to five hits and two runs in the Yankees' 6-2 victory. "I'm surprised because all my pitches are doing what they're supposed to do."
Yes, the baseball is obeying Bartolo Colon, following his every command to dip and dart and cut through the strike zone, or as Alex Rodriguez said, "his ball moves all over the place."
And as a result, what seemed before the game to be a daunting task on paper turned out to be remarkably easy in practice. Colon, 37 years old, probably 75 pounds overweight and six years removed from his transcendent Cy Young Award-winning season with the Los Angeles Angels, looked and pitched as though he had never been away.
"I saw it pretty early on in spring training," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who in reality downplayed Colon's chances throughout the spring and delayed announcing he had actually made the roster until the final day of camp.
"I don't think it's amazing at all," Rodriguez said. "He's just a very, very good pitcher. Just a natural pitcher. He can throw forever, he has a rubber arm. He can probably throw again tomorrow. He just doesn't get tired. Bartolo's a really, really good pickup for us."
"I definitely wasn't surprised because that's what he'd been doing since the beginning of spring training," catcher Russell Martin said. "It's not like he was getting lucky out there. But when you think about it, it's pretty sweet for him to take all that time off from the big leagues and just acting like he hasn't missed a beat. It's good to see that."
It all made you wonder why the Yankees took so long to add him to the roster, why they chose to start him off in the bullpen, and especially, what kind of an agent must Colon have to allow him to sign such a team-friendly contract?
The truth is closer to this: The Yankees saw what Colon was doing in the spring but couldn't -- or wouldn't -- allow themselves to believe it. After all, nobody with a long history of injuries and some mysterious personal problems walks away from the major leagues for 21 months and then comes back big league ready, as Colon seemed to do.
True, he had pitched in the Dominican Winter League for Yankees bench coach Tony Pena, who recommended that Girardi and Brian Cashman give him a look. But Pena, too, had a similar initial reaction upon first seeing Colon.
"I'll give you a shot in the bullpen," he told Colon.
"Give me one shot to start," Colon begged Pena. "Then make your decision."
Colon made his one start -- and never left Pena's rotation.
Girardi, too, admitted, "He kinda forced his way into our rotation."
And a guy that size -- Colon is about 5-foot-9 and an admitted 269 pounds, which is probably a low figure -- is difficult to move out.
I must admit that throughout spring training, I was in love with the whole concept of Bartolo Colon -- a chubby little Buddha-type figure with the golden right arm coming out of mothballs to mow down major league hitters 10 and 15 years his junior. But even after watching him outpitch everyone on the staff, including CC Sabathia, I shared the same reservations the Yankees had.
Could he do something that, if not unprecedented, was certainly extremely rare, and even if he could, how long could he keep it up before he inevitably got injured again?
Certainly, he has answered the first half of that question -- oh, yes he can -- and the second half is impossible to know at this point in the season.
But after the way Colon pitched against the Blue Jays, suddenly it doesn't seem so urgent that Phil Hughes relocate his misplaced fastball or Ivan Nova somehow navigate his way to the exotic land of the sixth inning, and beyond.
Had anyone told Cashman, Girardi or any sane Yankees fan two months ago that on April 20, the rotation would not only contain, but depend upon, both Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, and that each would have more wins than Sabathia or Hughes, they would have considered that person nuts.
Now, Girardi says, "I think we maybe woulda drew it up a little different but we went into spring training with an open mind that these two guys could be in our rotation, we did. And now, these guys have become important to us. If you're gonna throw the ball well, you're going to get the ball."
Wednesday night, Colon threw the ball as well as any Yankees starter has all year -- with the exception of Garcia, who threw six shutout innings in his first start last week against Texas.
Colon started out shakily, perhaps a bit nervous over his long absence, but worked out of a first-inning jam. Then he surrendered a long home run to J.P. Arencibia leading off the second and for a moment, Colon's first start looked like it would be his last.
Then something remarkable happened. Suddenly, he began mowing down Blue Jays, 12 in a row, seven of them on strikes, four of them looking at a two-seam fastball that dove and hugged the edges of the plate. According to Martin, his one adjustment was a simple one: "He didn't make the same mistake twice," meaning the slider that leaked over the plate to be spanked by Arencibia was never to be seen again.
"After that, every breaking ball was either down or out of the zone," Martin said. "That was his adjustment."
In the seventh, he allowed a ringing one-out double to Edwin Encarnacion and Arencibia, drawing Girardi out to the mound. A three-way conversation, with Alex Rodriguez translating for Colon, who speaks little English, established that Colon felt he could remain in the game.
But after Travis Snider singled -- a hit that turned into an out when Arencibia raced to third, apparently not noticing Encarnacion standing on the bag, and was tagged out by Mark Teixeira, who raced across the infield -- Girardi took the ball and gave it to David Robertson, who allowed an RBI single to Jayson Nix before shutting the Jays down.
"I think Joe was happy with what he saw," Rodriguez said. "But I think [Colon] could have thrown another three innings."
Colon said he believes his arm to be up to the rigors of pitching every five days, but wasn't looking for anything more out of this magical night. Oh, just one thing.
"The shoes that I wore today, I'm going to take them home," he said. "I want to keep them as a memory."
Of a night that, to hear the Yankees tell it, surprised no one but him.
• • •
In a possible preview of a future several years hence, Rafael Soriano closed out the game and earned his first save as a Yankee. Girardi said he was not going to use Mariano Rivera, who blew a save Tuesday night, because he had pitched in five of the previous seven games. ... Curtis Granderson, who is looking more and more like a viable successor to Bernie Williams as the Yankees' center fielder, tripled off lefty starter Brett Cecil in the second and homered off righty reliever Frank Francisco in the eighth. Granderson now shares the team, and league, lead with Teixeira with six home runs. ... The Yankees are off Thursday but open a three-game series with the Orioles in Baltimore on Friday night. Sabathia (0-1, 2.52) faces RHP Brad Bergesen (0-2, 3.38).
The only Yankee surprised by Bartolo Colon's first start was Bartolo Colon.