They weathered the storm.
Now, with just 16 games remaining in the regular season and the Yankees still holding the division lead, it appears that the window of opportunity for the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays to overtake them may be closing. The lead may still be just a single game over the Orioles, but the momentum seems to be shifting back toward the Yankees because the Yankees are getting healthier, specifically in the starting rotation.
Ivan Nova was activated from the disabled list on Saturday and threw six solid innings of 2-run ball in a win over the Rays, giving up just four hits and striking out eight. Nova showed no signs of the shoulder inflammation that had lead to a 2-5 record and a 6.41 ERA in July and August. He will immediately replace Freddy Garcia in the starting rotation which is ultimately better for the club, as Garcia is 2-0 with a 1.56 ERA in 10 relief appearances as opposed to 5-6 with a 5.93 ERA in 17 starts. Opponents have just a .481 OPS against Garcia out of the pen while they touch him for a .836 OPS as a starter, where they can sit on his soft repertoire a bit more.
But Nova is not the only bright spot heading to the Yankees rotation. Lefty Andy Pettitte also makes his return to the Yankee rotation this week, slated to start on Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays. While the sample size has been small for Pettitte, who last pitched for New York on June 27th when he broke his ankle after being hit with a Casey Kotchman line drive, his return from retirement helped to stabilize the Yankee rotation earlier this season. Through just nine starts, Pettitte looked as though he had not missed a step, posting a 3-3 record with a 3.22 ERA, a 3.40 FIP, and a strike-out per inning pitched. His return will likely delegate rookie David Phelps back to the set-up role he had excelled in earlier this season.
The return of these two important pieces of the starting rotation will also help to take some of the pressure off of ace C.C. Sabathia. Sabathia has struggled in September, having surrendered 12 runs in his last 20 innings pitched and he has averaged just 5.4 strike-outs per nine innings pitched this month. With two extra arms in the rotation, New York could elect to skip Sabathia for a start in order to give him some extra rest.
It all comes down to options, and with a healthy rotation, not to mention a healthy line-up in place, the Yankees suddenly become a much more dangerous foe to contend with. They will need that flexibility in order to continue fending off the Orioles and now the resurgent Angels should they slip back into the Wild Card picture. But for the vultures that were circling the weaker prey, this is suddenly a much different team to contend with; they’ve gotten that Yankee mystique back.
And for the Yankees, sometimes it is the mystique that wins championships.