Critical Stretch Begins Friday Against Orioles

By Ernie Palladino
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The Yankees’ season essentially comes down to a 10-game homestand against the Orioles, White Sox and Red Sox.

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By next Friday, everyone will know if Joe Girardi’s team will continue in a wild-card race that currently has them sitting five games and three teams back for that final spot.

If they’re going to make a push, it had best be now, unless they plan on running the table when they hit the road for Baltimore Sept. 9.

It almost goes without saying that they’ll have to up their game a tad. The days of placing importance on winning a series ended with the 2-4 road trip against the Rays and Blue Jays, the latter a team they might have swept if they had generated any pitching whatsoever. But with Phil Hughes’ inability to avoid losing and Hiroki Kuroda, who may now be regarded as the team’s former ace, continuing a horrible August, the Yanks never had a chance.

They need series sweeps now, and a nice, long winning streak. Putting Baltimore behind them would represent a good first step and leave them two games behind current wild-card leader Tampa Bay. That would make for an interesting final seven games with Chicago and Boston.

Here’s the problem, though. The Yanks aren’t exactly playing like champions, or even wild-card contenders. About the only standout right now is Alfonso Soriano, the perfect example of a great move that just wasn’t enough in a season full of bumps and backfires. With two homers Tuesday in Toronto, he jumped that total to 11 — with 33 RBI — since returning to the pinstripes July 26. His 10 homers in August joins him with Tino Martinez as the only Yankees over age 37 to hit that many in a calendar month.

He was a great pickup. An outstanding one. But there is so much wrong with the lineup that even he can’t spark it consistently. He’s hitting .310 over the last four games, a streak which saw the offense produce exactly 14 runs, seven of which came that two-homer game. They went 2-2.

Getting Robinson Cano and his .305 BA back after a night off with a bruised wrist might help, but even he hasn’t kept the Yanks out of the hitting valleys.

The decline of Kuroda is the most disturbing aspect of this. Hughes has been bad all year, and the only mystery surrounding him now is how long it will take Girardi to stick him in the bullpen. Kuroda, though, was the Yanks’ most effective pitcher from the get-go. He was so good that his name came up as a possible Cy Young Award candidate.

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So to see him fall so precipitously in August was quite shocking. The 1-4 monthly mark and his horrid performances in losing his last three starts only magnifies the 8.10 ERA he’s run up over that period. The Blue Jays bounced him around badly in Wednesday’s 7-2 loss for five earned runs and seven total runs in five innings.

Add in CC Sabathia’s season-long struggles, and it’s no wonder Joe Girardi left the Rogers Centre just a trembling index finger away from hitting the panic button on the season.

If Kuroda and Sabathia are not pitching well at this time of year, Girardi said, “It’s going to make it really, really hard.”

No kidding. Especially since the offense gives its pitchers precious little breathing room.

Sabathia, 11-11 and 4.81, starts it all Friday. The Yanks desperately need him to show more than the five innings of his old self he afforded them before a sixth-inning meltdown against the Rays. A workmanlike start Saturday from Ivan Nova, who is 2-0, 3.98 over his last three, would be fine. And it’s up in the air if Hughes will take the mound Sunday. It could well be long reliever David Huff. And who knows what Girardi will get out of him.

It is too late in the season and the Yanks’ postseason possibilities are fading in the distance. They need a major winning streak, but may not have the guns or the arms to pull it off.

If they don’t, only mild interest in September will involve Alex Rodriguez’s home run chase for Willie Mays at No. 660.

Given all the controversy surrounding him, who cares about that?

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