Pitching Still A Sore Spot For Resurgent Yankees

NEW YORK — They don't have the pitching to pull this off. Sorry, Yankees fans.

Hiroki Kuroda has hit the wall. CC Sabathia did pitch somewhat better by his 2013 standards the other night to eek out a win over the White Sox, yet his 2013 standards are embarrassingly modest compared to what he established over the first dozen years of his career.

So when manager Joe Girardi said on WFAN before the Yankees' hard-to-swallow 9-8, 10-inning loss to the Red Sox Thursday night that Sabathia's last start "definitely has got to continue if we're going to make noise," well, it was easy to color him Hopeful Joe.

At 41, Andy Pettitte, who has endured both good and rough patches this season, will dig down for every fiber of his championship guile, of course, but the Yankees finally — mercifully — had to run Phil Hughes out of the rotation after he lost 13 of 17 decisions. That means Girardi will run David Huff out to the mound Saturday against John Lackey in a four-game series that means so much to the Yankees.

Huff has done well out of the bullpen since arriving from Cleveland in May, but it's also his first start since last year and who knows what he can do against a red-hot Boston lineup.

"[The series] means a lot, it probably means more to us because of where we are in the standings,'' Girardi said before the Red Sox methodically took apart Ivan Nova, his best starter in the second half of the season. "They've got a little cushion. If you're in their shoes, you're fighting for home-field advantage [all the way through the World Series]."

And if you're the Yankees, you're fighting for your post-season lives.

Maybe it was because of the Jewish holidays. Maybe it was because it was a school night. Maybe folks stayed home to watch the NFL opener. Whatever the reason, we can't remember seeing so many empty seats at a Red Sox-Yankees game. And while baseball is a game that spins on tomorrow's starting pitching — especially with Girardi's resilient 2013 bunch — the Yankees had an empty feeling after this one.

Especially after Nova, the American League Pitcher of the Month for August, wore himself out in four innings of work that was decidedly Dice-K in nature.

Yes, the Yankees had won 15 of 18 at the Stadium dating to July 28. Yes, despite an ungodly series of injuries that have caused them to use a team record 52 players, Girardi has done a strong job this year mixing in nine third basemen, 10 first basemen and 14 DH until he has filtered in his aging stars back into the lineup.

And, yes, after Boston's Ryan Dempster, selfishly, stupidly, decided he'd play one-man vigilante squad and hit Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees not only found a rallying point, they had won 12 of 17 games.

Dempster isn't pitching in this series and, thankfully, nothing stupid happened in the series opener. Nobody hit David Ortiz in retaliation. Nobody hit A-Rod again for giggles. The teams got down to some serious Yankees-Red Sox rivalry and you know what that means: Yep, a 4 hour, 32-minute game. One that was ultimately decided on a Shane Victorino RBI single off a regrettable failure named Joba Chamberlain — after Mariano Rivera had blown his sixth save of the season [15th of his career against Boston] and after Alfonso Soriano got picked off second base in the bottom of the ninth.

"Tough loss, no doubt about it," said Girardi, who noted that Shawn Kelley wasn't available to pitch instead of Joba because of a triceps issue. "The guys fought back. You continue to play like that you'll win a lot of games."

Girardi had said there are two big reasons for Nova's resurgence. One is that his fastball has been down in the zone with a lot more movement. The second, Girardi said, is that Nova's curve ball, always a weapon, is as good as he has seen it.

Girardi's assertion can be documented. Using the heat maps, David Golebiewski at Baseball Analytics shows Nova's increased control on his fastball in the bottom of the strike zone. Pitching charts show he has dropped the use of his slider and increased his use of curves.

Nova, who allowed a major-league worst 87 extra-base hits last year, had an August to remember, going 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA. And in 10 starts since re-establishing himself in Girardi's rotation, he had 2.06 ERA with opponents hitting .224.

Well, Nova was pulled after only 12 outs after 96 pitches in his shortest non-injury start since last September.

The stats also show that the Red Sox are an outstanding low-fastball hitting team. And when Jacoby Ellsbury golfed a full-count fastball for a ground-rule double in a two-run third inning, we saw why. There was no excuse with Will Middlebrooks in the fourth. Nova left that fastball fat over the plate and Middlebrooks, whose re-emergence since being called up from Pawtucket has been most impressive, crushed it halfway to the GW Bridge.

The Red Sox apparently decided to lay off Nova's curves and make him toil. Even in a 13-pitch first inning, Ellsbury and Victorino drove up full-counts. From there full-counts were the order of Nova's night. Nova threw an incredible 46 pitches in the third and needed 82 to get nine outs. As a stark comparison, Nova needed 104 pitches last Saturday to hold Baltimore to three hits for his career first nine-inning shutout.

While Girardi scrambled before the game to conjure hope for Kuroda, he didn't have to make anything up about his lineup. Kuroda, who had pitched brilliantly for most of the season in holding opponents scoreless nine times, has allowed 36 hits and 23 runs in his past four appearances. Girardi talked about Kuroda's going through a bad stretch last year and how he caught a second wind, but the hard truth right now is he's 38 looking 78.

Here's the other truth. With all the big names, save Mark Teixeira, returning from injuries, and with the acquisition of Soriano, the Yankees are now eminently able to score in bunches. So much pressure is off Robinson Cano.

"Our offense has really changed since we've gotten our pieces back," Girardi said. "We're a different team. We have a lot more firepower."

Enough firepower to erase a 7-2 hole with a six-run seventh but not enough to win an important game. So now the Yankees have to finish 15-7, including six more games against the first-place Red Sox, to win 90 games. If they do, Tampa Bay, which played on the West Coast Thursday night, would have to finish 13-11 to match the Yankees. Tough sledding but doable since the teams will play a three-game series starting Sept. 24.

With 13 of their last 19 games on the road and considering they are 32-36 away from the Bronx, yellow caution lights blink. And with hard questions about the starting rotation, I'm starting to see red lights.

You write these resilient 2013 Yankees off at your own risk. But the baseball mind tells me there isn't enough pitching to pull out a wild card spot. Sorry, Yankee fans.

CHICAGO