BOSTON – A month into title defense No. 27, the New York Yankees have happened upon the downside of a grounded, veteran roster.
Along with broad wisdom and deep perspective comes occasional bed rest.
In a matter of hours this week their celebrated Core Four had been reduced to their sore four, a fact of late life that meant, in part, Sergio Mitre(notes) pitching instead of Andy Pettitte(notes), Francisco Cervelli(notes) catching instead of Jorge Posada(notes) and Joba Chamberlain(notes) closing instead of Mariano Rivera(notes). Derek Jeter(notes) has avoided structural issues, in spite of the fastball Josh Beckett(notes) delivered to his back here a day earlier, but did sit out a game because of a cold a couple weeks ago.
Manager Joe Girardi delivers bad news in the clubhouse almost daily now, most of it to his players. Pettitte will miss a turn because of a sore elbow, a decision he took rather icily. Posada, who has a sore calf, shows up every day expecting to catch, and every day sighs and finds a suitable place on the bench. (He is expected to serve as designated hitter Sunday in the series finale).
That's just the start of it.
Nick Johnson(notes) came down with a sore wrist Friday night and not a day later was in an MRI tube, taking a Cortisone injection and being transferred to the disabled list, a well-worn route for him. He did hold up for the better part of 28 games, and GM Brian Cashman knew the risk of signing Johnson, whose high on-base percentage is challenged only by his high on-the-DL percentage. Meantime, Johnny Damon(notes) is batting better than .300 for the Detroit Tigers and reaching base at a better rate than Johnson. The decision to snub Damon and sign Johnson – considering the fragility of the rest of the roster – is one the Yankees may regret.
Alfredo Aceves(notes) (back) was escorted from the mound by trainers in the sixth inning Saturday, Curtis Granderson(notes) hasn't played in a week and won't for another three, Chan Ho Park(notes) hasn't pitched in three weeks, and Robinson Cano(notes) only made Saturday's lineup against the Boston Red Sox – the original had Nick Swisher(notes) batting fifth, Marcus Thames(notes) sixth, Randy Winn(notes) seventh, Cervelli eighth and Ramiro Pena(notes) ninth – when he showed up without a limp, proving he was healthy and Beckett's fastball isn't what it once was.
Leaning into such a downpour and slogging through uncharacteristically uneven months by Alex Rodriguez(notes) and Mark Teixeira(notes) (who hit three home runs in Saturday's 14-3 win, the third off Boston outfielder Jonathan Van Every(notes)), the Yankees have lost one time since April 27. While their trainers room has afforded all the shoulder room of the Cask'n Flagon (conveniently located at Brookline and Lansdowne) at game time, they've endured, played all the conservative angles and – by the grace of good scheduling and better starting pitching – kept winning.
Including Javier Vazquez's(notes) five starts, three losses and 9.78 ERA, Yankees starters are 17-4 with an ERA just above 3.00. It is why they are looking for ways to extend the time between Vazquez's starts – it'll have been nine days when he gets the ball Tuesday in Detroit – and why they've dared not mess with Pettitte's tender elbow. The early wins, time of year and bottomless budget allow Girardi to take the long view on the injuries, which might mean disappointing Pettitte and Posada in May and getting more out of them in August and September.
That's the plan, anyway, though all the aging Yankees will be four months older by then. The team they happen to be chasing – the Tampa Bay Rays – are on average 3½ years younger on their pitching staff and three years younger among position players. The Rays fall, they bounce. The Yankees fall, they miss a week.
''Guys are dinged up," Teixeira said. ''It's time for Alex and I to step it up.''
It's also why the Yankees might have been less inclined to get into it with the Red Sox. Beckett hit two Cano and Jeter and buzzed a few others in the first game of the series, clearly rankling the boys on the top step of the third-base dugout. While doubtful Beckett would intentionally put runners on base in a game that was getting away from him anyway, there does come a time when a pitcher forfeits the right to own – or attempt to own – the inside half. For Beckett to be wild was one thing, for him to take opposing hitters out with him was something else, certainly as far as the Yankees were concerned.
''You get irritated, there's no doubt about it,'' said Girardi, whose bench was running as thin as his patience.
Given his choice of Red Sox on Saturday, CC Sabathia(notes) hit Dustin Pedroia(notes) in the leg with none on and two out in the fifth. That seemed tame and civilized enough, other than the fact Sabathia saved his fastest pitch of the afternoon – 98 mph – for the occasion.
''You protect your teammates,'' Girardi had said before the game, ''whether you believe there was an injustice or not.''
For the record, Sabathia called it, ''A fastball that got away.''
Perhaps sensing they had a little something coming, the Red Sox, down a few players (Mike Cameron(notes) and Jacoby Ellsbury(notes) among them) themselves, did not protest. They had other things to think about. The Yankees have beaten them 13 times in 15 games dating to last season, lately with a few players who might be considered organizational depth.
There are, then, two ways to think about this. The Yankees are due for a fall or they will be that much better when they're all on the field again. Either way, and for the moment, there is one certainty – they're a lot better than the Red Sox.