If the Yankees win tonight and tomorrow to complete a four-game sweep of the Orioles, they will wake up on Friday in first place in both the AL East and the Wild Card race, and there’s not a damn thing that Boston or Cleveland can do about it. That’s because the half game by which the Yankees currently trail those two clubs is the result of the Bombers having played one less game thus far this season. On Thursday, the Sox and Tribe will be idle while the Yankees finish the current series with the O’s, thus that pesky half game will be gone, for better or worse, come Friday.
As a result, with the exception of the final three games of the season in Boston, each of which counts for a full game the AL East standings, tomorrow night’s game is the most important one on the Yankees remaining schedule, as it is guaranteed to effect a half-game swing in the race for the playoffs. Joe Torre knows this. Prior to last night’s game he made a comment about how much he was looking forward to eliminating that half game come Thursday. Thus his decision to give Mike Mussina his first start since Aug 29 tomorrow night is . . . well, maybe it’s just Joe being Joe.
It’s common knowledge that Mussina struggles on irregular rest, and you can’t get much more irregular than 23 days, even if Moose has been throwing bullpen sessions over the past week to test his arm coming off the elbow inflammation that bounced him from the rotation three weeks ago. I’ve already expressed my concern about starting Mussina coming off an injury in the midst of a pennant race in which there absolutely no room for error. The upside is that a healthy Mussina could be the difference in the postseason, or in the season-ending series against Boston (remember his season-saving appearance out of the pen in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS). The downside is that one tanked start by a rusty Moose could keep this team out of the postseason altogether.
To his credit, Mussina is very aware of the risk involved:
“You don’t want to do anything that hurts our chances. I want to be in the mix, and, obviously, I want to contribute. [But] We’ve done some nice things; I don’t want to mess it up.” (MLB.com) “I don’t know if it’s going to be rusty, if it’s going to be good, if it’s going to be in between. I don’t know what it’s going to be like.” (NYT)
Mussina will be starting coming off a Monday bullpen in which he threw at a maximum of 70 percent of his full velocity and, while he’s reported that his elbow is feeling worlds better, he will not have had a rehab start (as the minor league season is over), and will be limited to 80 pitches tomorrow night. As Mussina would regularly hit 80 pitches in the fourth or fifth inning prior to being shut down, it would seem that tomorrow night’s game will actually be a tandem start between Mussina and Al Leiter (which explains Leiter’s absence from last night’s game).
As to why Torre felt the need to attempt this experiment on Thursday of all days, I suspect that’s a case of Joe misusing statistics once again.
Throughout his Yankee tenure, Joe Torre has had a habit of either ignoring statistics altogether (see Womack, Tony) or over relying on meaninglessly small samples (see Wilson, Enrique v. Pedro Martinez). Thus far this season, Mike Mussina has a 3.18 ERA against the Orioles and a 10.24 ERA against the Blue Jays. I can only imagine this is the reason Torre has decided to start Mussina on Thursday, the final game of the Baltimore series, rather than Friday, the first game of the Toronto series (both games are at home).
But a closer look reveals that the ERAs listed above have come from a grand total of just three starts. Moose had one solid outing against the Orioles back on April 16 (6 2/3, 7 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 4 K), admittedly when the O’s were a much hotter team. Meanwhile, his 10.24 ERA against the Blue Jays is the result of two disparate starts against Toronto. The first was an April 21 win in Toronto that wasn’t a far cry from his previous start against the O’s (5 1/2 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 1 BB, 5 K), the second was a loss in his penultimate start before being removed from the rotation (4 1/3 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 1 HR, 2 BB, 4 K). Yes the later start was both at home and more recent, but it was also very much an indication of the elbow injury from which he’s supposedly recovered.
The one caveat to this is that Shawn Chacon, who will be bumped from Thursday to Friday by Mussina, has dominated the Blue Jays in two starts against them since joining the Yankees (1.20 ERA, .192 BAA in 15 IP). Then again, that means that Toronto has seen him twice and could make adjustments that would reverse that trend on Friday, whereas the Orioles have not seen Chacon at all and could be every bit as susceptible to his stuff as the Jays have been in those two previous starts.
The other effect of Mussina being inserted into the rotation on Thursday is that Torre has decided to go with a six man rotation “for the time being.” According to the New York Times, Torre doesn’t expect the six-man order to last, but the point is somewhat moot as by the time Mussina’s next start comes due there will be just five games left in the entire season.
With that in mind, here’s how the rotation projects over the remainder of the schedule:
Wed 9/21 v Bal: Johnson
Thu 9/22 v Bal: Mussina
Fri 9/23 v Tor: Chacon
Sat 9/24 v Tor: Wright
Sun 9/25 v Tor: Wang
Mon 9/26 @ Bal: Small
Tue 9/27 @ Bal: Johnson
Wed 9/28 @ Bal: Mussina
Thu 9/29 @ Bal: Chacon
Fri 9/30 @ Bos: Wright
Sat 10/1 @ Bos: Wang
Sun 10/2 @ Bos: Small
This actually works out very well for the Yankees. If Wright falters on Saturday, Wang and Small can pitch on regular rest in the first two Boston games, bouncing Wright to the pen and moving Randy Johnson into the starting spot in the season finale on regular rest. If the Yankees need to win that final game to force a one-game playoff, Johnson could similarly step in for Small, with Small moving to the bullpen. Mussina would then be in line to start the playoff game, which would be played on Monday. However, if the Yankees have already clinched a tie entering the final game, they could take their chances with Small, saving Johnson for the potential playoff game and Mussina for Game One of the ALDS, with Johnson and Mussina set up to start the ALDS if Small wins and the playoff game is not needed.
This six-man rotation could also be beneficial given the lack of a single off-day in the remaining schedule and the various aches and pains being suffered by the Yankee starters (Johnson’s calf cramp from his start against Boston and his ongoing back and knee problems, Mussina’s elbow, Wang’s shoulder, Wright’s knack for getting hit with projectiles). The only problem is that it eliminates the opportunity to use the odd-man out to beef up the Yankees’ dreadful middle relief, or to become a tandem starter should one of the Big Six have a disaster outing. Then again, if Torre is truly willing to think out of the box regarding his rotation, the six-man order might increase his willingness to use his starters out of the pen on their throw days, as he did earlier this year with Shawn Chacon and seemed ready to do with Randy Johnson during Aaron Small’s shutout in Oakland.
Speaking of Johnson, he’s the man taking the mound tonight against Rodrigo Lopez and the Orioles. Johnson, of course, is coming off his embarrassing ejection in Toronto on Friday night, which interrupted his best sustained pitching performance of the year (four consecutive quality starts: 28 1/3 IP, 15 H, 4 R, 0 HR, 6 BB, 26 K). Lopez, meanwhile has been all over the map of late (though for the most part he’s been lasting a minimum of five innings, the quality of those innings has varied widely). It’s worth noting that after his spectacular April 10 start against the Yankees in Baltimore (8 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 8 K), the Yankees have battered him something awful in his two other starts against them (9 1/3 IP, 18 H, 15 R, 10 ER, 4 HR, 4 BB, 11 K). Here’s hoping that continues as the Friday morning scenario that began this post can’t occur unless the Yanks win tonight.
(Well, I suppose it could still happen if both Cleveland–throwing Scott Elarton against Jon Garland–and Boston–throwing Wakefield against Scott Kazmir–also lose, but what are the odds of all three of these teams taking a loss on the same night, or shouldn’t I ask?)