By Ernie Palladino
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Face it. The Yankees have pitching problems far beyond the healing magic of Jennifer Lopez.
As Jenny from the Block sets up house with guest instructor Alex Rodriguez this week in Tampa, Joe Girardi has to be worried sick about a workhorse that can’t find its tempo. With Opening Day but two weeks away, it would certainly be a bonus if CC Sabathia’s arrow pointed as upward as Masahiro Tanaka’s.
Instead, Girardi had to settle for some guarded optimism over last week.
Sabathia remains a constant concern. As he heads into the last year of his contract, coming off knee cleanout surgery, the left-handed innings-eater hasn’t answered many questions this spring. The change in style from power to finesse that started last year has yet to be completed, and the 13.50 ERA he had before his three-run performance over 3 2/3 innings Saturday against the Orioles’ B squad dropped it to 9.45 was not encouraging.
Of course, nobody expects a creaky 36-year-old to be the ace of any staff. He’s a No. 2 or 3 pitcher now. But the mental battle of getting his body in regular season shape and the limited margin of error he’ll work with in his new reincarnation leaves him walking a dangerous tightrope.
He needs to start off this season like he ended last year. A 2-2 mark with a 2.37 ERA over his last 49 1/3 innings would translate into an ideal jump-off, especially if Masahiro Tanaka holds up. But even Sabathia said after his Saturday start that he’s not ready for the regular season yet.
“For me, it’s a mental battle to stay in it and keep working hard in the weight room, (pitcher’s fielding practice), and in the bullpen and take it one day at a time,” Sabathia told the New York Post after his start.
The problem is how much effort Sabathia must put into just getting into shape after knee rehab kept him out of the first part of spring training. The compressed preparation time could hurt the rotation’s workhorse, who needs to at least duplicate the 179 2/3 innings he chewed up last season.
Two hundred would be even better, but those days are probably behind him.
Saturday did prove encouraging, however. Sabathia held the O’s hitless the first three innings before Pedro Alvarez hit an RBI single and Chris Johnson belted a two-run homer, both with two out in the fourth. He finished with five strikeouts and a walk.
That was a big improvement from the outing before, when Sabathia gave up six runs on six hits in two-thirds of an inning against Atlanta.
So there’s hope.
Same with Michael Pineda, who has allowed but two runs in three starts. He’s 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 10 innings. Quite encouraging, except for the fact that he’s Michael Pineda.
Girardi can only hope this is the year Pineda finds the consistency the Yanks expected when he came over in the Jesus Montero trade in 2012.
He’s five years out from the career-threatening labrum tear of 2012, but several other injuries, including last year’s right shoulder sprain, have impacted his performance.
Mostly, though, his own inconsistency has proved the biggest problem. In his three active years since the tear, he has had just one winning season — 12-10 in 2015.
He allowed two earned runs or fewer 17 times last season, but also allowed five runs or more in 11 other starts. Opponents’ .325 batting average against him with two outs marked a major league high and became a huge reason why he ultimately finished 6-12 with a 4.82 ERA.
Despite this strong Grapefruit League performance, the Yanks can take nothing for granted when it concerns Pineda.
With Sabathia’s gradual, methodical return from surgery, and young fourth-starter candidate Luis Severino’s problems from 2016, Tanaka may stand alone as the Yanks’ only effective veteran pitcher.
Having Sabathia get back to something resembling his old self is a must. The question is whether he has enough left in him to weather this latest comeback.
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