By Ernie Palladino
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At least Joe Girardi doesn’t have to worry about Hiroki Kuroda. He pitched a two-run, two-hit gem over the first eight innings of the 18-inning, 3-2 loss Thursday in Oakland. Great.
CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes the two previous games? Not so much. There’s trouble brewing with those two, and Girardi may be powerless to do much about it. Sabathia’s fading velocity and Hughes’ maddening fluctuations of consistency could present the Yanks with two serious problems as they try to climb back to the top of the AL East.
This is not a problem like the patchwork quilt he put together the first two months to allow an injury-depleted lineup to inhabit first place for most of May. That was a case — albeit a major one — of waiting for stars such as Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis to return from the disabled list.
Sabathia and Hughes are fairly healthy at this point, so there is no biding of time here. In fact, the problems have been hanging around for a while now, though they did become magnified in Oakland.
Sabathia, the powerful left-hander, has passed out homers like Halloween candy this year — 14 in all — and is on pace to surpass his career-high 22 of 2012. He’s tied for third in that category among all AL pitchers.
If it was most anyone but Sabathia, the concern would be minimal. Some pitchers tend to give up homers. The Padres’ Jason Marquis has allowed up 13, for instance, but he’s 8-2, 3.59. Even in his 15-7 season in 2006, he allowed 29 round-trippers.
Marquis hasn’t had the sustained success of Sabathia, of course. But that’s the worry. When an overpowering guy known for keeping the ball in the ballpark starts giving up the long ball, there is reason for concern. And that reason could lie in those lost foot or so on what used to be a 97-mph fastball.
It could be that Sabathia is simply getting old. Not so old at 32 that he can’t be effective, but old enough to expect he is not going to be as consistent going forward as the pitcher who put up a 74-29 mark his first four years in pinstripes. When he’s been good — he has seven starts where he’s held the opposition to three runs or fewer — he’s looked like the old CC. But he’s had his clunkers, too, and is 1-4, 6.69 in five outings where he allowed more than three runs.
Or it could be he’s still wading around, trying to adjust to a fastball that is no longer imposing. He has become hittable, allowing 121 hits in 95 innings. He’s allowed eight or more hits eight times already and, most glaringly, failed to follow up on two well-pitched wins against Boston and Cleveland with a two-homer, six-inning disaster Tuesday night in Oakland.
While Girardi hopes Sunday’s start in Anaheim proves the Oakland start a big blip on Sabathia’s 2013 screen, he also has Hughes to worry about. He’d love to get Hughes straightened out from the inconsistency that has a 3-5, 4.89 start.
Hughes, always near the top in homers allowed, has one less than Sabathia. So that’s nothing new. But the fact that he’s back on the roller coaster, his usual place of residence since the Yanks brought him up in 2007, has the brass pondering whether the free agent-in-waiting is worth re-signing. There is speculation the Yanks could trade him.
His last four starts have been indicative of the roller-coaster ride. Seven innings, one run against the Mets, 4 1/3 and five runs against the Red Sox, seven innings and no runs against the Mariners, three runs and a season-high five walks in 4 1/3 against the As.
He has electric stuff when he’s on. The problem Hughes’ whole career has been that the switch hasn’t been in that position nearly enough. If it hasn’t flipped at age 27, the Yanks have to wonder if it ever will.
Little of this would gain notice if the Yankees’ lineup was knocking down walls like in previous seasons. But it isn’t. An already-slim margin for pitching error has been squeezed over the last seven games by an offense that has provided just 20 runs. At 22nd in the majors with a .244 BA, and 19th with 258 runs scored going into Thursday, Yankees pitchers overall have received fewer than four runs of support per game.
The fact that Sabathia, whose ERA is now 4.07, and Hughes have operated outside those margins so frequently this year is cause enough for concern.
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