Masahiro Tanaka pitched pretty well on Sunday night at Fenway Park, before so many bad things happened to the Yankees later that you thought the game had lasted long enough that it had landed them back in October 2004. But what is significant about what happened with Tanaka, on a
Masahiro Tanaka pitched pretty well on Sunday night at Fenway Park, before so many bad things happened to the Yankees later that you thought the game had lasted long enough that it had landed them back in October 2004. But what is significant about what happened with Tanaka, on a night when he struck out nine, is that he still didn't make it through the fifth inning. This is the guy who suddenly feels like the Yanks' ace again.
Absolutely it was Albertin Chapman, the closer, who couldn't hold a 4-1 lead in the ninth, before the Red Sox finished off a four-game sweep by winning in the 10th. The Yankees still have issues with starting pitching. If you're a Yankee fan, stop me if you've heard that one before.
If this year's non-waiver Trade Deadline reinforcements -- J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn -- don't pitch well the rest of the way, the Yankees might be flying to the West Coast for the American League Wild Card Game in October. The Yanks have been a sub-.500 team for nearly 40 games now, and they are starting to make last year's run to Game 7 of the AL Championship Series look like it was some kind of fluke.
Going into Monday night's game against the White Sox, the Yankees were 18-20 over their previous 38 games. That is nearly a quarter of a season. On June 21, the Yanks were 50-22 and 13 games ahead of the A's, who were 38-36 on that date. Now New York is 2 1/2 ahead of Oakland.
Obviously, the Yankees miss the injured Aaron Judge. But even with the bullpen they have, starting pitching is an issue. The Red Sox have more of it. You saw what happened this weekend, even with Boston ace Chris Sale missing a start. You see what kind of rotation the Astros have.
It's reached the point with the 2018 Yankees that when Luis Severino, who was the staff ace (at least before giving up 20 earned runs in his past 20 innings), made it to the sixth inning against the Red Sox on Friday night, it was as if he'd pitched himself to Monument Park.
The Yanks have had injuries hit their rotation this season, and they've had to use 10 starting pitchers so far. But the A's, who are chasing New York hard now for the top AL Wild Card spot, have had to use 12.
The Yankees have been brilliant at a lot of things over the past quarter-century. They haven't had a losing season since 1994, they hardly ever miss the playoffs, and they are loaded with young talent again. But they haven't won a World Series in nine years, and they've won one the past 18 seasons.
Starting pitching is always a big part of the story with them, and it is again. They haven't won the AL East since 2012.
Sometimes the Yanks' rotation is good. Sometimes it is even very good. Rarely is it great. When you look back over the acquisitions they've made for starters over the past two decades, the best three are these:
• Roger Clemens, who they got in a trade before the 1999 season, when Clemens was already 36. He had a 77-36 record over the next five years and was the most recent (in 2001) Yankees pitcher to win the AL Cy Young Award..
• Carsten Sabathia, who carried the rotation on his back in 2009 -- the most recent time the Yanks won it all -- and is still around.
• Mike Mussina, who signed a six-year free-agent contract and was so good at the end of it that they signed him for two more seasons, the last of which saw him go 20-6 before retiring.
The last really big play they made for a starter was when they brought Tanaka here from Japan for more than $150 million. It was the smart thing to do, and they could afford him. Tanaka's record with the Yankees has been a pretty snappy 61-30, even with elbow issues and other health issues from time to time. He has also never won more than 14 games in a season for the Yanks. They need Tanaka now as much as they ever have if they are going to somehow make another run at the Red Sox and hold off the A's and Mariners.
Again: This year's reinforcements to their rotation are Happ and Lynn, at least for now. Yankees fans know that in the past, the names have been Denny Neagle, Jeff Weaver, Javy Vazquez (twice), Michael Pineda, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Kevin Brown and even Randy Johnson. The Big Unit was another Big Splash in the big, bad city. His second year with the Yanks, his ERA was 5.00, even if he did win 17 games.
For all of the brilliant organizational work the Yankees have done since Joe Torre first managed the team in 1996 and the Yanks won four World Series in five years, the body of work with starting pitching has so often been less than stellar. They've absolutely had some bad luck. Everybody does. The Yankees went for Nathan Eovaldi in 2015, he was 14-3 that year, got hurt later, got better somewhere else, and he came back and hurt them on Saturday at Fenway with eight shutout innings as the Red Sox were making it three in a row.
Sonny Gray was supposed to be a difference maker when New York got him from Oakland last year. Gray is in the bullpen now, and he was even warming up in the 10th inning early Monday morning. Now he has been replaced by Lynn, whose ERA with the Twins was 5.10.
The New York Times' headline after the Yankees acquired Happ, Lynn and reliever Zach Britton read this way: "With trades, Yankee pitching staff remains a work in progress."
It's been that way for a long time at Yankee Stadium. Now, Yanks fans wait to see if this season's work in progress puts them back in the World Series -- or just back in the AL Wild Card Game. If that.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.