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Fink Thinks: Better Starting Pitching Critical In Tight AL East Battle

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Phil Hughes (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Phil Hughes (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

By: Zachary Finkelstein

The Major League Baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint.

After 20 straight games of August play, the Yankees finally enjoyed an off-day on Thursday for the first time in three weeks.

In their last series against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Bombers sent Ivan Nova out for his first Big League start. Following the rookie was a similarly inexperienced Dustin Moseley and the innings-restricted Phil Hughes, New York’s No. 2 starter.

For those in Yankee Universe, there is no need to worry. Not when you’re tied with Tampa Bay for Baseball’s best record. Pre-1995, you could justify panic at this point.

But this is the wild card era, folks. Two AL East teams can make the playoffs.

Optimism notwithstanding, the Yanks do have some serious concerns, namely with starting pitching. A.J. Burnett was supposed to be the No. 2 starter. But No. 2’s on playoff-bound teams don’t finish seasons with sub-.500 records. Burnett is currently 9-11 with a 4.80 ERA, the latter a direct result of wild inconsistency.

After pitching lights-out in June and July, Javier Vazquez could finish August with an ERA over 8.00. The underperforming veteran was demoted to bullpen duty on Tuesday in favor of the kid with one Major League start.

Underperformance aside, New York has also missed the presence and production of Andy Pettitte, who was 11-2 with a 2.70 ERA before straining his groin muscle in a start against Tampa Bay on July 18. In the midst of a career year, the 38-year-old lefty gingerly walked off before a tangibly concerned crowd of 47,000.

On the offensive front, the Yankees are currently without Alex Rodriguez and Lance Berkman, two men with over 900 career home runs combined. But with Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and MVP-candidate Robinson Cano, the Yankees have three of Baseball’s top RBI producers this season. Furthermore, the Yankees’ bullpen has been fantastic since the acquisition of Kerry Wood and collectively own a 1.92 August ERA.

However, starting pitching is the most important factor in determining a victor. Over the course of 162 games, David has little chance against Goliath. But with a quality pitcher, David can spear a stronger, more formidable foe on any given night. In 1972, southpaw Steve Carlton, owner of arguably the most vicious slider in Baseball history, earned 27 victories for a 59-win Philadelphia Phillies squad. While no pitcher today could realistically win nearly half his club’s games, the premise remains true.

Shortcomings aside, the Yankees invitation to Baseball’s postseason dance is sealed, stamped and almost ready for postage.

Their archrivals are in a bit more trouble, however.

The Red Sox have been a MASH unit all season, playing sans one star or another. Boston lost Kevin Youkilis on Aug. 2 with a muscle tear in his right thumb. 2008 MVP second baseman Dustin Pedroia has played two games since fracturing his foot in late June and might be unavailable until 2011. Despite it all, the Red Sox have remained in the race.

But guts and guile can only take a team so far. Despite their admirable efforts, Darnell McDonald, Ryan Kalish and Daniel Nava aren’t Youkilis or Pedroia. They’re not even Jacoby Ellsbury or Mike Cameron, who are out indefinitely, as well.

With the Red Sox gasping for playoff air, the Rays and Yankees still lead the pack entering the season’s final stretch.

The Rays have tremendous pitching and recently activated right-handers Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann from the DL. Davis returned to the fold on Tuesday, pitching well with a fastball that topped out at 95 m.p.h.

Niemann returned Wednesday, but allowed a career-high 10 runs in 3 1/3 innings.

Poor performance aside, he is one of five Rays to have won 10 games this year.

No other team can make said claim.

In possession of arguably the league’s best pitcher in David Price, a shutdown stopper in Rafael Soriano, and Baseball’s third-best offense, Tampa expects to go tête-à-tête with New York from now until season’s end.

With September just around the corner, the Yankees have postseason play in sight.

But with an August record of 12-12, a second wind will be needed to avoid running out of gas.

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