Commentary

Bartolo Colon, best pitcher on Yankees?

The 37-year-old continues his improbable comeback, and is becoming indispensable

Updated: April 28, 2011, 10:32 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- There are a lot more people in the stands at Yankee Stadium who look like Bartolo Colon than do Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter.

And so far, that has been a big part of the big fella's appeal -- the fact that on a major league baseball field, he has been doing extraordinary things with an extremely ordinary body.

But the time has come to stop regarding Bartolo Colon as a circus act and recognize him for what he is: the best starting pitcher on the New York Yankees so far this season, without exception.

[+] EnlargeBartolo Colon
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireBartolo Colon has turned back the clock, pitching like the ace he once was.

That doesn't make him the ace of the staff; that honor rightfully belongs to CC Sabathia. And certainly, at nearly 38 years old and with a history of arm problems longer than his belt, he does not have the brightest future on the pitching staff, either. That belongs to Ivan Nova.

But after his performance against the White Sox at the Stadium Wednesday night -- eight innings, seven hits, just one run and six strikeouts -- there is a not a pitcher on the Yankees staff with a 2011 résumé as good as Colon's.

After Colon got a three-run homer in the first inning from Robby Cano, all he needed was the baseball. Throwing the same pitch 99 times -- his fastball -- but in an assortment of baffling styles, Colon worked his way out of a bases-loaded, none-out jam in the second inning, barely missed snagging Adam Dunn's line drive single that drove in the only Chicago run of the game in the sixth, and in a world without Mariano Rivera certainly would have been sent out to pitch the ninth, and probably would have finished.

But what he did was more than good enough. And on a night when the news about Phil Hughes got only more ominous, Colon's presence now looms as something the Yankees simply cannot do without.

When he showed up in spring training, comically obese and chronically injured, out of the game for nearly two years, the question on nearly everyone's lips was the same: What are they going to do with this guy?

Now the question is: What would they do without him?

"I've said all along Bartolo was the biggest surprise of the spring for me, because I didn't know what to expect,'' manager Joe Girardi said. "But he has shown consistency since Day 1. Every time he has taken the ball he has pitched very well and given us a chance to win, even pitching in long relief. His production has been huge for us.''

So huge that the time has come to stop regarding him as a novelty act and begin seeing him as what he is -- a vital member of a threadbare rotation -- and to stop being surprised at how well he is pitching and remember how well he has pitched for much of his 14 big league seasons, including his Cy Young season of 2005.

It's even time to stop making fat jokes at his expense. That is how good he has been. (I'll try, I promise, but I can't guarantee I won't slip back from time to time).

In a season in which far too much time, energy and talk has been devoted to the performance and attitude of Rafael Soriano, the Yankees' big-ticket offseason pitching acquisition, not enough has been made of the professionalism of Bartolo Colon -- who came here with no guarantees and no real hope, just a minor-league deal worth $900,000 if he made the team, which seemed like a remote possibility at best.

A lot is being made of Soriano's surly attitude around the clubhouse; of his remoteness from his teammates and his apparent difficulty in adjusting to the "debasement" of going from closer for the Tampa Bay Rays to setup man for Mariano Rivera; and in going from performing before the small, disinterested crowds at Tropicana Field to the nuthouse that Yankee Stadium can often be.

Meanwhile, here is Bartolo Colon -- former Cy Young Award winner and 21-game ace for the Los Angeles Angels -- being relegated to the purgatory of long relief behind Freddy Garcia despite outpitching him all spring, taking the ball without complaint, mixing happily with his new teammates in the clubhouse and expressing a willingness, even an eagerness, to do whatever his new team needs him to do in order to help it win.

So far, he has been, in every way, the anti-Soriano. And that should be recognized, and applauded.

Never were the differences clearer than in the sixth inning. In the same week in with Soriano impassively watched a popup drop safely behind the pitcher's mound, Colon made a stab at Dunn's whistler and pumped his fist in disgust when the ball got past him.

"He's a good guy," Cano said. "The kind of guy you can joke around with, even during the game. You see him in the dugout even when he's pitching, and he's always laughing and talking to somebody, not taking everything so serious. And when there's two outs, you never see him sitting down. He's always ready to go back out there. He goes out every inning with a fresh mind."

He was throwing 95 mph in the first inning, and 95 mph in the eighth. In between, he even hit 96. And he kept the White Sox off-balance by alternating a tailing four-seam fastball with a diving two-seamer, his go-to pitch in his most critical situations: facing Paul Konerko with a runner on second in the first inning, and facing Gordon Beckham, Omar Vizquel and Juan Pierre in the second, after the Sox loaded the bases with none out on a single, a walk and an infield hit.

Konerko struck out looking, a call that so enraged Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen he got himself ejected just 16 pitches into the game. And Beckham (strikeout looking), Vizquel (fly to left) and Pierre (fly to center) went down without getting a run home.

Cano, who remembers doubling off Colon in his first playoff at-bat in the 2005 American League Division Series, says the 37-year-old version is even better than the one who took the Cy Young that year.

"Back in the day, he could throw 97 but his fastballs were all straight," Cano said. "Now, everything he throws is a strike but nothing is over the middle. He moves the ball outside, inside, up, down. His two-seamer is outstanding."

Cano has also been impressed by Colon's work ethic. "I like to get here early, but whenever I show up, 2:45, 3:00, he's already here," Cano said. "It's good to see a guy who's been in the big leagues so long working hard like that. But he doesn't take anything for granted."

Even Guillen, who before the game had remarked, rather snarkily, that he "could never find" Colon when he pitched for the White Sox in 2009, was forced to give him his due afterward. "Amazing," Guillen said. "I can't remember seeing him like that since he was in Cleveland or with the Angels. I feel proud of him, especially after all the arm issues he's been through."

When Guillen's comments were relayed to Colon, he did what he has done most of the time he has been a Yankee. He smiled. "I was thankful to Ozzie for giving me the chance to pitch for him," he said through an interpreter. "And I don't hold nothing against anybody. I'm just happy we won the game and happy to be here."

Needless to say, the Yankees are happy to have him. And now, it looks very much as though they are going to need him, too.

NOTES: Cano took extra batting practice before the game, working to keep his weight back and not "jump at the ball," a habit he said has been creeping into his at-bats this season. It paid off when he shot Mark Buehrle's first-inning fastball on a line into the right-field seats for what turned out to be the game-winning hit. ... Nick Swisher also took part in the early BP session, but without the same results. He went 0-for-3 with a walk and is now hitless in his last 18 at-bats, dropping his average down to .208. ... Mark Teixeira left the game in the eighth inning suffering from what Girardi said was "soreness" in his right shoulder suffered on a dive Tuesday night and aggravated on another dive Wednesday. Teixeira said he hopes to be well enough to play Thursday. ... Mariano Rivera snapped his two straight blown saves streak with a perfect ninth. ... Sabathia (1-1, 2.73) gets the ball for the series finale Thursday night against RHP Edwin Jackson (2-2, 4.88). First pitch is at 7:05 p.m. ET.

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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