MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Yanks relying on rotation's return to form

Yanks relying on rotation's return to form

NEW YORK -- The Yankees are about to get their regular starting rotation back. And with 18 games left in the regular season and a playoff spot on the line, it isn't coming a moment too soon.

Ivan Nova is slated to make his first start since Aug. 23 on Saturday at Yankee Stadium against the Rays, and manager Joe Girardi said Andy Pettitte will start and throw about 70 pitches against the Blue Jays at home on Tuesday night.

"Hopefully, they can help us out, because I haven't been," said CC Sabathia, the usually reliable left-hander after allowing four runs on six hits Friday night in a key 6-4 loss to Tampa Bay. "It always feels good to get quality arms back like that."

The group of five that had been humming along with such consistency in June hasn't been together as a unit since Pettitte had his left ankle broken by a shot back to the mound against the Indians on June 27.

Yet, using a patchwork quilt of a starting staff, the Yankees have been able to maintain at least a share of first place in the American League East. They're still tied with the Orioles, who lost to the A 's in Oakland. But their 10-game margin on July 18 is long gone.

"These guys in that room have overcome a lot of things, a lot of injuries that we've had, things we've had to deal with," Girardi said before the game. "They've found a way to overcome things, and that's what I love about this group. We've missed people for substantial periods of time.

"It started with Michael Pineda, somebody we were counting on to give us 200 innings this year. And we haven't seen one inning out of him. You lose [Mariano Rivera} in early May. So these guys have done a good job."

The shadow was cast for a season of injuries when Pineda -- last winter's big acquisition via a trade with Seattle -- tore the labrum in his right shoulder during Spring Training and had to undergo surgery. Before all that happened, Pineda was pegged as the No. 2 starter behind Sabathia. Rivera tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and is out for the season.

Sabathia has been on the DL twice with groin and left elbow injuries and hasn't been the same since he came off the list the last time on Aug. 24. His first injury occurred in the immediate wake of Pettitte's broken ankle. Nova went out with inflammation in his right rotator cuff the day before Sabathia recently returned.

Even before that, Nova had won only once since July 8. Sabathia hasn't won since Aug. 24 against the Indians, the day he returned. Since then, he's allowed 17 runs on 31 hits in his past four starts.

"It's definitely been frustrating," Sabathia said. "One situation, one pitch. It's frustrating not being able to get out of those situations that cost us a game."

Add debilitating injuries to Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Brett Gardner, David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain and it's amazing that the Yankees have lingered so long in first place. There's nothing to be done about it now except hope that the starting pitching stays intact for the season's final 19 days.

"I believe in these guys," longtime general manager Brian Cashman said before the game, echoing exactly the same sentiments mouthed by Girardi about Sabathia after the loss. "I do."

Beforehand, Cashman and Girardi watched the 40-year-old Pettitte throw a bullpen session, take grounders and work on his pickoff move off the stadium mound. It's the second time this season the Yankees hope that the five-time World Series winner in pinstripes will again wave his magic wand.

Pettitte sat out the 2011 season and exited retirement late this past offseason. He missed the season's first month, working himself into shape. No one knew what to expect when he returned to the staff on May 13. But the left-hander with 243 career regular-season victories and 19 more in the playoffs stabilized the staff by winning three times and striking out 59 batters in 58 2/3 innings before the injury.

The Yankees were 27-14 when Pettitte was healthy. No wonder Girardi was so ecstatic after the workout that he almost immediately said Pettitte would be ready to go on Tuesday. With Nova back on the mound on Saturday, stopgaps Freddy Garcia and David Phelps are back in the bullpen.

For the next 18 games -- barring any more physical setbacks -- it will be Nova, Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes and Sabathia, the way the Yankees had mapped it out. Sabathia, of course, is the anchor. He says he is healthy. So does Girardi.

"I feel pretty good," Sabathia said. "My arm feels good. My groin hasn't bothered me since the first time. I just need to go out and pitch better, make better pitches and help this team win."

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.