PHILADELPHIA — No doubt, no debate, over where the worry can be found within this Yankees paradise.
Even after committing a record sum to an elite starting pitcher last winter, even as that well-compensated, elite starting pitcher has performed well out of the gate to help the Yankees win nine of their first 12 games as the schedule hit the 20 percent milepost, the Yankees’ Achilles’ heel remains their starting rotation.
The defending AL East champions departed Citizens Bank Park late Thursday night, headed for Tampa Bay to face their top challenger, the Rays, as the losers of a 5-4 nail-biter to Joe Girardi’s Phillies. They lost two of three here in Cheesesteak City, after winning the first game of a doubleheader to open the series, thanks primarily to ineffectiveness from their starters.
And they enjoy this cushion, four games over the Rays (5-7), by and large despite their non-Gerrit Cole starters.
“The way our roster is constructed, it does allow us to have obviously a couple more arms in the bullpen. But … nothing beats several outings from your starters that give you length, that really kind of preserve and set everyone up down there in that ’pen,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Obviously a couple of guys, we’re working back. Masa [Tanaka], building him up. Hoping to get [James] Paxton rolling like he’s capable of.
“On the long haul, we’ve got to do a better job of that.”
Young left-hander Jordan Montgomery assumed the culprit’s position in this finale, following a strong first start (one run in 5²/₃ innings against the Red Sox on July 31) with a pair of 1-2 pitches that bit him badly. J.T. Realmuto smoked a first-inning curveball over the left-field wall for a three-run homer, and Phil Gosselin ripped a third-inning changeup into the left-center field gap for a two-run double. Montgomery exited after four innings and 95 pitches.
“I either had a really good inning or a really bad inning,” Montgomery said, and that adds up to a bad game.
Throw in an effective, four-inning start by the Phils’ Zach Eflin and a serviceable five innings from Eflin’s beleaguered bullpen mates, and the nightly pinstriped conversation centered on the struggles of the guys whose importance grows in October.
The Yankees’ starters have compiled a 5.44 ERA in 46 ¹/₃ innings to date. When you subtract Cole’s three starts, all wins in which he has totaled five earned runs allowed in 17 ²/₃ innings, the ERA climbs to 7.22.
The good news for these guys is they need not subtract Cole, not as long as he’s healthy. Yet they wanted to slot Cole in front of the good group that took them to last year’s AL Championship Series, not see him stand out like Denzel Washington at a bad high school play.
With the Yankees’ bullpen delivering another four innings of shutout work Thursday, that unit boasts a 3.31 ERA in 51 ²/₃ innings. The Yankees’ offense, its relatively quiet night notwithstanding, ranks as one of the best such units in the business.
If they want to round that out, then Tanaka, on his way back from a concussion, must keep working back toward his old self. Paxton, his velocity having dropped precipitously in his first two starts, must figure out what the heck is going on. J.A. Happ must fix whatever ails him. And Montgomery must learn from the good innings, as he put it. Or at least two of these developments.
Otherwise, it’ll be Gerrit Cole and No One Else to Extol. Which can work on occasion, like with Madison Bumgarner and the 2014 Giants, but you wouldn’t recommend it.
“We were battling out there tonight,” Gary Sanchez, who slugged his first homer of the season, said through an interpreter of he and his battery mate Montgomery.
When it comes to their starting rotation, the Yankees would like more peaceful conquests and fewer battles. The opposite might well lead to their paradise being lost.
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