The New York Yankees today find themselves tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for the lead in the American League East, both teams sporting identical 35-25 records. It is a spot where the Yankees were expected to be when the 2012 MLB season began, but getting there has been a long, bumpy road for New York.
The first third of the season saw the Yankees play inconsistent, uneven baseball. As recently as May 24 the Yankees were fourth in the AL East, and they were still third a week ago, albeit just a half-game out of first. The Yankees have now won four straight and eight of their last 10, looking more like the team they were supposed to be.
What has keyed the turnaround for New York? The hitting -- especially the run production from the middle of the lineup -- has been better recently. The bullpen has been surprisingly solid despite the absences of Mariano Rivera (for the season) and David Robertson (temporarily). The real reason for the improvement, though, has been the starting pitching.
General manager Brian Cashman spent the offseason trying to upgrade the starting pitching. He traded away enigmatic right-hander A.J. Burnett. He traded for flame-throwing young starter Michael Pineda, dealing away top prospect Jesus Montero in the process. He signed veteran free-agent right-hander Hiroki Kuroda. He re-signed Freddy Garcia. He got lucky when Andy Pettitte decided he did not like retirement and wanted to pitch again.
Despite all of this, however, the starting pitching was consistently letting the Yankees down early in the season.
Pineda got hurt and is out for the season. Garcia was terrible and was dropped from the rotation with a 12.51 ERA. Hughes struggled mightily and there was loud discussion of dropping him from the rotation. Ivan Nova could not find the form that helped him win 16 games a season ago. Kuroda was up and down. Pettitte, who started his comeback late, was toiling away in the minor leagues trying to build arm strength to return.
Then things changed.
Pettitte returned in mid-May and has been spectacular, much better than he or anyone else could have hoped at age 39 and after more than a full season away from the game. He is 3-2 with a 2.81 ERA in six starts, and helped stabilize the rotation.
Hughes has been much better, putting to bed the talk of moving him to the bullpen and finally pitching like he did in 2010 when he went 18-8. Hughes finished the month of April with a 7.88 ERA and was 1-4 at one point this season. He has won five of six decisions, however, and now has a more presentable ERA of 4.76. He has given up just three earned runs over 15.1 innings in his last two starts.
Nova (8-2) has also found the form that helped him go 16-4 a season ago. He has surrendered just one earned run over 15 innings in his last two starts and has seen his ERA shrink from a season-worst 5.69 to 4.64.
Kuroda (5-6) has been spectacular in his last three starts. The 37-year-old right-handers has allowed just two earned runs over his last 22 innings, lowering his ERA from 4.56 to 3.46.
Through all of the ups and down, CC Sabathia has continued to perform like an ace. The big lefty is 7-3, 3.69.
This is much more like what Cashman and the Yankees envisioned when constructing this staff. If this type of pitching continues the Yankees will be tough to beat the rest of the way.