The Yankees got through April relatively unscathed, but hurtin’ time arrived this past week with Nick Johnson (stiff back), Jorge Posada (knee contusion/calf strain), Alex Rodriguez (sore knee/fatigue), and Mariano Rivera (side tightness) all missing games due to aches and pains of varying degrees. Amid all of that, Curtis Granderson suffered a major injury, a Grade 2 groin strain that will have him out until June, but thus far the injuries have only revealed the Yankees’ depth.
Joba Chamberlain saved Monday night’s game in Rivera’s stead. Brett Gardner and Randy Winn delivered unexpected home runs in Granderson’s absence, and Marcus Thames, who has been raking all season, actually made a nifty sliding play in left field with Gardner relocated to center. Francisco Cervelli has played well in Posada’s place, hitting .346 in his limited opportunities and even making his first regular season appearance at third base, adding to the team’s infield depth. Nick Swisher has flipped the switch in his home park, leading the Yankee charge of late by picking up eight hits, including two homers, in his last 12 at-bats, and Phil Hughes has been everything the Yankees had hoped Javy Vazquez would be and more, starting the season 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA.
That’s not to say that these aches and pains won’t start hurting the team as a whole if they keep piling up. Winn and Gardner aren’t likely to go deep again any time soon (after homering on Sunday, Gardner said “That’s my one for the year.”). Thames remains a butcher in left. Cervelli’s bat is cooling. Hughes is due for a big correction given his .158 opponents’ average on balls in play (though I think he’ll survive it). Not every starter is going to hand the ball directly to Joba the way CC Sabathia did last night. The good news is that Johnson and Rodriguez are back in the lineup, Rivera could be back as soon as tonight but more likely tomorrow, and Posada is merely day-to-day.
An encouraging sign regarding Posada, who is expected to return to the lineup for the opener of the Boston series on Friday and can pinch-hit in the meantime, is that outfielder Greg Golson, not a third catcher, is the minor leaguer being called up tonight to restore the “balance” on the roster to four men on the bench and seven in the bullpen. Sadly, Mark Melancon will once again board the Scranton shuttle to make room having made just one appearance in his time with the big club.
Golson is here because he’s on the 40-man roster, is a legitimate center fielder, and has good fifth-outfielder tools (speed and defense). Still, I’m a bit frustrated to see him because the 24-year-old wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire for Scranton (.253/.289/.430 with four steals in four tries), and it was my assumption that the Yankees claimed Golson off waivers as a high-upside fixer-upper. To be fair, his strikeout rate is way down (from one every 3.6 plate appearances in Double-A in 2008 to one every seven PA in the early going this year), which is a good sign, but I wouldn’t consider him ready for the big reveal just yet and there are other Scranton outfielders who are off to better starts and could have been added to the 40-man at the expense of perpetually injured righty Christian Garcia, who just underwent a second Tommy John surgery. David Winfree (.301/.344/.470) and Colin Curtis (.339/.435/.441) aren’t center fielders, but I’d be fine with Randy Winn as an emergency backup to Brett Gardner with Golson a game away should Gardner get hurt.
The other good news is that the Orioles are still in town for two more days. Tonight, O’s rookie Brian Matusz takes on A.J. Burnett. Twenty-three-year-old lefty Matusz, a first-round draft pick in 2008, is off to a solid start in his first full big-league campaign. His last three starts, including a game at Fenway and a loss to the Yankees in Baltimore, were quality starts, and he has struck out 29 men in 30 2/3 innings on the season while allowing just two home runs (one to Robinson Cano).
A.J. Burnett has been superficially better, but on closer examination has only been more dominant in his three quality starts, while posting inferior overall peripherals. Burnett flat-out dominated the O’s in his last start, holding them scoreless on three singles and a walk over eight innings, but he has struck out just seven men in his last 14 1/3 innings and struck out just one in seven frames in his second start of the season. Burnett hasn’t been walking as many men as he usually does either, and hasn’t had a real disaster start yet either, but his perfect 3-0 record and 2.43 ERA imply a consistent dominance that hasn’t really been there.
Of course, I’m always down on Burnett, always expecting his next start to be a disaster. Still, I think if the Orioles are going to pull out a win in this series, tonight’s their best chance, with Matusz on the hill, Posada on the shelf, Rivera’s availability in question, and Burnett (who, according to the two alter kockers in my section last night, “has a lot of jailhouse tats”) taking the ball for the home nine.
Joe Girardi’s lineup against the lefty Matusz has Marcus Thames in left, Derek Jeter at DH, Ramiro Peña at shortstop, and Francisco Cervelli catching, with Nick Swisher batting second and a bottom four behind Robinson Cano of Thames, Brett Gardner, Cervelli, and Peña.