The Yankees will close out their season-opening homestand tonight by trying to salvage a series split against the Rays and thus a winning mark on the homestand. The buzz around the team this first week of games has concerned the poor performance of the offense, which has scored just 2.83 runs per game, the fifth-work mark in baseball at this absurdly early stage. Me, I'm more interested in the excellent performance of the pitching staff.
All three of the Yankees' wins have been close, low-scoring games, the type of games a team has to be able to win in order to advance in October. The Bombers have scored no more than three runs in any of their wins thus far. Last year, they were 5-35 in games in which they scored three runs or fewer and their third win of that kind didn't come until after the All-Star break. This year they're out to a 3-2 start in such games in the season's first week. Call me crazy, but I see that as a positive.
It could be that runs have just been down all over in the cold, windy Bronx this week, but for those worried about the offense, consider what the pitching staff has done. Removing the performances of Ian Kennedy and LaTroy Hawkins, who allowed 13 of the 28 runs given up by the Yankees thus far in Friday's ugly series-opening loss, the remainder of the staff has compiled this line:
Of course, that doesn't include the three inherited runners that were allowed to score in Friday's game by Jonathan Albaladejo (1) and Kyle Farnsworth (2), but were charged to Kennedy and Hawkins, respectively. Still, even if you add those three runs in above, the non-IPK/Hawk staff still has a strong 2.72 ERA.
This is all slightly meaningless, of course, given the small sample (only Chien-Ming Wang has pitched more than six innings thus far), but it's certainly encouraging.
At the same time, one could argue that the concerns about the offense are legitimate. Look at who's hitting and who's struggling. Melky Cabrera, a young player primed for a breakout, is leading the team with a .364/.417/.636 line despite missing two games due to suspension. Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui are both making strong contributions. Bobby Abreu is doing fine. Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, Johnny Damon, and Robinson Cano, however, are full-on struggling, going a combined 10 for 71 (.140) thus far. You can be confident that Cano will get hot, though given his history it might take until after the All-Star break, but both Giambi and Posada are in their late-30s and have already missed games due to aches and pains (Posada's throwing shoulder, Giambi's groin). Neither is in tonight's lineup. Damon, meanwhile, is a very old 34 and struggled mightily for the first half of last season with a variety of aches and pains of his own. As meaningless as the above pitching stats are, however, these first-week hitting slumps are even more so.
Tonight the Yankees face Jason Hammel, who is only in the Rays rotation because Scott Kazmir is on the DL once again with an elbow strain. Hammel hasn't pitched since spring training. He had a 6.23 ERA in the spring, has a 6.70 mark in the majors, and a career 6.41 ERA against the Yankees. That is to say, he's reliably terrible, and is the first pitcher who meets that description that the Yankees will have faced this year (Edwin Jackson isn't much better in terms of results, but has the raw stuff Hammel lacks). All but one of Hammel's confrontations with the Yankees (three of four starts and both relief appearances, the latter totaling just one inning) occurred last year. In the best of them, an early September start at the Stadium, he held the Yanks to one run on five hits, walked none, and struck out seven, but he only lasted five innings as he needed 97 pitches to get that far. It's likely that Joe Maddon was thinking of Hammel yesterday when he used J.P. Howell to eat up three innings, thus saving the rest of his pen for tonight.
Hammel's mound opponent is Mike Mussina, whose 5 2/3-inning/four-run outing in his first start is about all that can be expected of him at this stage of his career. Certainly, Girardi will need more than just Joba and Mo tonight, fortunately they were the only relievers he used yesterday. It could be that we'll have our first high-scoring game of the year tonight. Or maybe the crisp Bronx night will keep the bats of both teams frozen for one more game before the Bombers head out to play 18 of their next 20 games on the road.